Saturday, August 29, 2015

Q&A with Melanie Sumner

Melanie Sumner, photo by Michael Lionstar
Melanie Sumner is the author of the new novel How to Write a Novel. She also has written the novels The Ghost of Milagro Creek and The School of Beauty and Charm, and the short story collection Polite Society. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's and Seventeen, and she teaches at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

Q: How did you come up with your main character, Aris?

A: I won a National Endowment for The Arts award to research and write a novel set in Alaska. After my research trip, I rented a dusty little office, previously occupied by some pigeons, and sat down to write the novel.  

To work through the writer’s block I was experiencing, I accessed the voice of this precocious tween, Aris, who was bubbling over with confidence. She had no qualms about writing a novel.
Q: You're writing from the perspective of a 12-year-old girl. How did you capture her voice?  

A: Her voice just came to me, so it must be a part of my psyche. She reminded me somewhat of my daughter, who is now 17, so I looked through old journals to find some things Zoe had said and done at that age.  

My children always reminded [me] of their half-birthdays, so it seemed right to put Aris in that shadowy age of 12.5. As the prologue suggests, she might not really be 12.5 years old. The novel is somewhat Proustian in its approach to time and space, exploring the ways we simultaneously inhabit multiple dimensions of this world.
Q: How did you decide on the premise of writing a novel about someone writing a novel, and did you know how the book would end before you started writing?  

A: I didn’t consciously set up the premise that Aris was writing a novel, but that’s what she was doing, and what she wanted to talk about, so that became a big part of the story. In revisions, I decided to structure the novel around her outline for a novel.  

I did not know how the book would end. Originally, I had a different ending, but when I asked my daughter what she thought about it, she suggested the one I have now.

Q: Which authors have inspired you?

A: I was deeply affected by the books I read as a teenager and a young adult. I read a lot of literary classics: Flannery O’Connor for character, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway for style (they aren’t as different as they seem), and Dostoyevsky for plot.  

On a recent reading binge, I devoured some of the novels and short stories of William Trevor, who inspired one of my favorite writers, Marisa Silver.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: At the moment, publicity work and teaching are filling my days, but I have started the novel set in Alaska, which explores the dynamics of a small, isolated community visited by a pathological liar.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Max is one of my favorite characters in How To Write A Novel. He is the small, persistent voice of truth. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 29

Aug. 29, 1632: John Locke born.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Q&A with Tracy Daugherty

Tracy Daugherty is the author of the new book The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion. His many other books include biographies of Joseph Heller and Donald Barthelme, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. He is Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at Oregon State University.

Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Joan Didion? 

A: I first read Joan Didion in 1978. I was 23, and wanted to be a writer, though I had no ambition then of becoming a biographer. 

I was a Beatles fan and probably bought Didion's essay collection, The White Album, because of its Beatle-esque title and the promise on the jacket flap that this book perfectly captured the spirit of the 1960s. 

And sure enough, the title essay seemed to me to embody the spirit of the decade that had shaped my young sensibilities. 

Its fragmented, collage-like structure was a revelation--not only because I didn't know you could write like that (all those white spaces! all those silences!) but because it showed me how style and prose rhythm were just as essential in conveying a subject as declarative statements were. 

From then on, I snapped up every new Didion book as soon as it hit the shelves. 

A few years ago, when Michael Homler, my editor at St. Martin's Press, suggested I write a third biography (following my books on Donald Barthelme and Joseph Heller), Didion was the natural choice. 

I consider the three biographies a kind of trilogy about late 20th century American literature: Barthelme an innovative short story writer, Heller an innovative novelist, and Didion one of the pioneers of New Journalism and personal nonfiction. 

Q: How did you research the book, and was there anything in particular that surprised you in the course of your research? 

A: The research was a combination of interviews, archival digging, and travel to Didion's stomping grounds.  

Some of Didion's old classmates, friends, and colleagues offered generous glimpses of her early career, and the archives--most notably her rough drafts, notebooks, and a few letters at Berkeley--rounded out the portrait of her life, in combination with hundreds of articles, reviews, interviews, and profiles published about Didion over the decades.

Q: You note that Didion is a fifth-generation Californian. How did her upbringing influence her writing? 

A: Didion remained a Westerner throughout her career, even when she was writing about New York or American domestic politics. 

Her sensibility and her voice were fashioned by what she once termed the "nihilism" of the West--the sparseness of Western deserts, the vastness of Western landscapes (dwarfing human ambitions), and the feeling that nothing much really matters in life, a feeling reinforced by time's marks in layered rock formations, Pacific ocean waves and the like: demonstrations of eons passing and the relative insignificance of human life.

Didion felt these colliding time-scales, and their consequences, in her bones.

Q: Has Joan Didion seen this book, and if so, what does she think about it? 

A: Didion chose not to cooperate with the book. To the best of my knowledge she has not seen it yet. I was not surprised that she wouldn't welcome a biography. She once said that writers are always selling somebody out. 

As one of our period's pre-eminent writers, she has always been healthily wary of other scribes. (Though I hope she'll feel that, far from selling her out, I've honored and respected her.)   

Q: How was the book’s title chosen? 

A: Didion's early essay, "John Wayne: A Love Song" described the world of her youthful dreams. The phrase "The Last Love Song" echoed that early piece and suggested an examination of her late work. 

Also, her last two books, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, about the deaths of her husband and daughter, respectively, are powerful late-life valentines to the people she loved. 

In general, Didion's work is a long love song--not without criticism--of America.
Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I'm writing fiction--short stories and novellas (recently, I published a story collection with Johns Hopkins University Press called The Empire of the Dead) as well as nonfiction about a Texas writer named Billy Lee Brammer, whose life bridged D.C. politics as well as the ‘60s counterculture, and a study of a Victorian-era astronomer and Dante scholar named Mary Evershed.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 28

Aug. 28, 1913: Robertson Davies born.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Q&A with Margaret Verble

Margaret Verble is the author of the new novel Maud's Line. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including The Saturday Evening Post and the Arkansas Review. She also has worked as a consultant and small business owner for several decades. An enrolled and voting citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, she lives in Lexington, Kentucky, and Old Windsor, England.

Q: How did you come up with your main character, Maud, and with the idea for this book?

A: I came up with Maud because I had been told by several people that in order to get a first novel published, it was best to have a single story character.

I knew I wanted to write about Cherokees; I wanted to set the novel earlier than when I set it, but if I did that, I would have to write about a group because it was still such a tribal setting. I had to set it at the time period where a sense of individuality was arising—that was around the 1920s.

Q: So did you come up with the time period first or the story first?

A: The time period first. I wanted to write about the land. It’s my family’s land; it has sustained me through my life. I started reading and thinking about the time period…

Steinbeck had written about the Depression. I went to the 1920s. 1927 and 1929 had been written about a great deal. I settled on the year 1928. Then I settled on what kind of life the character would be living and the character just appeared!

Q: What kind of research did you do to recreate the 1920s in Oklahoma?

A: I did background reading on the 1920s. I read a couple of books on the great flood of 1927. Other than that, I didn’t read a lot of books; I knew what that life was like.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I had no idea how the novel would end. I never know. I finished the first draft of another one--I get 30-40,000 words in, and I think these are dreadful people! It’s always good to get to the conclusion!

Q: Family is one of the key themes in the novel. Is the depiction of Maud’s family dynamics somewhat typical of life in this part of Oklahoma during the 1920s among members of the Cherokee tribe?

A: It’s typical of my family. It’s ultimately my own family I’m writing about. Since I finished the novel, I’ve read a book on the structure of the Cherokee family—it’s a good scholarly piece of work—and evidently that’s what they all were like.

Q: How did you pick the book’s title?

A: The book was originally titled "Maud’s Allotment." I sent it off to New York, and it was bought by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt with that title. They…decided “allotment” sounded heavy, and people who were not Indians would not know what it meant. My editor came up with “Maud’s Line”…I capitulated.

Q: Which authors have inspired you?

A: I guess my favorite author was Flannery O’Connor. My favorite living author is Hilary Mantel. I don’t know—I wouldn’t say Hilary Mantel inspired me, except to be better! Flannery O’Connor got into my bones early on, when I was a young woman…her picture of the world is hilarious and sad all at the same time.

Q: What does the character Maud represent about women in that time period?

A: Cherokee women have always had a lot more independence than their white counterparts. Up until the 1820s they owned all the property and children. Men came and went. Women controlled everything. Into the next century, you see that going on.

They’re all with each other, holding the family together too. [In the book] the matriarch was dead, the grandfather’s wife, but all the aunts were around.

That was a time demographically, when you look at the 1920 census, the first time in the history of America where more people were living in cities. In the 1930 census [you can see that] people fled from the farms. That was going on [including] among Cherokees.

Q: So were the characters based on your actual family members?

A: Maud’s entirely fictional. Booker’s entirely fictional. The other characters are based loosely or very closely on members of my own family.

Q: Were they people you knew as you were growing up?

A: Maud’s Aunt Nan and Uncle Ryde were my grandparents. All of them except Booker and Maud are literally my aunts and uncles. Maud’s little female cousin Renee is my mother.

Q: Is Maud’s brother Lovely a real person?

A: Only vaguely real. My mother had a first cousin I didn’t hear about until I was a grown woman. He was a gorgeous-looking Indian man, Mark—he spent his entire life in an insane asylum.

Mark always haunted me. When I created Lovely, what I wanted to do was give life to people who are dead and never had a real chance. They had to put [Mark] away when he was 16 or 17. I based [Lovely] loosely on Mark.

[The characters] Lucy and Viola—the woman Viola is based on was still alive when I was a little girl; she lived to be 103. They all liked her. She was their aunt by marriage and also a cousin by blood.

Q: You said you’re working on another novel—can you say more about it?

A: It’s set in Tulsa in 1930.

Q: With the same characters?

A: I’ve just done a first draft—we’ll have to see!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: That cow [in the book’s first chapter] really was axed in the back. It was a problem we were having with our neighbors. When a cow was axed, you have to kill [it]. I knew…the neighbors were axing our cows, and that haunted me.

Once I got that scene over with, I didn’t know what to do with the novel! I knew I had a great character in Maud, and then I brought a bright blue wagon along, and Maud was in control of the story. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 27

Aug. 27, 1871: Theodore Dreiser born.