Sunday, June 14, 2015

Q&A with Leslie Parry

Leslie Parry is the author of the new novel Church of Marvels. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Virginia Quarterly Review and The Missouri Review. She lives in Chicago.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Church of Marvels?

A: I actually began with the characters, and the story really grew from there. Initially I was writing sketches and vignettes about old New York, imagining people who might have lived in the city at the same time as my own ancestors. Perhaps, in a way, I was trying to recreate a family history for myself. 

But then the project became something longer and farther-reaching; it took on a life of its own. I was reading a lot about the Gilded Age at the time, as well as various niche subjects: the history of bareknuckle boxing, the history of opium, the history of traveling carnivals and medicine shows.  

So all of that began to feed into these sketches, and before long, what had begun as a series of finely spun threads was now growing into a web. For a while I think I was reluctant to commit myself to the idea (and practice) of a novel – I kept hiding behind less daunting tasks: a series of short stories! a novella! But ultimately it could only work one way.

Q: How much research did you feel you needed to do on the time period?

A: At the beginning, before I even knew I was writing a book, I was reading just out of curiosity – about the Gilded Age and its subcultures, the immigrant life and the underground – pretty much any topic that interested me.

Most of the historical color was informed by those early reading jags – it helped to build the imaginative world of the novel (whether I was conscious of it nor not). Later, after I had a loose draft, I went back and researched a few more specific details.

The hardest part of researching a historical novel, I’ve found, is deciding what to incorporate and what to jettison. It’s easy to get carried away by the sheer volume of information; it’s tempting to include everything, and often I felt overwhelmed or hidebound by the strictures of the documented past.

Eventually, though, I realized that research would only take me so far. It could influence the story and give it context, but ultimately a novel is a work of fiction, and I had to be nimble and creative enough to imagine it.

In the end I put the narrative power in the hearts and minds of the characters: What do they want, and what’s standing in their way? Whom do they trust? And what will they do anything to protect?

Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing, and how difficult was the process of connecting the various characters’ stories?

A: I had a general sense of the ending – not before I started writing, exactly, but once I realized that this was going to be a novel.

I actually wrote the final paragraphs at the same time that I wrote the prologue. It really gave me a sense of purpose. I could see the faintly shimmering arc of the story – and, in a way, the emotional heart.

Even if I wasn’t sure how everything was going to resolve itself, or what new characters I’d meet along the way, I knew where I was going to land. And that was very encouraging.

The most difficult aspect of connecting the stories, I think, came down to basic architecture – when is certain information revealed? How should the chapters be sequenced? How do I balance momentum and clarity? Thankfully I had excellent editors, who were ready to offer advice whenever I felt discombobulated.

Q: Which authors have influenced you?

A: As a kid I was really into this 19th century German storybook called Struwwelpeter – about children who get their thumbs cut off, or burn themselves up with matches – which I’m sure caused my mother no small amount of concern.

Growing up I loved many of the classics (Peter Pan, The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables) and was also particularly enamored of a novel called Toliver’s Secret, about a girl who disguises herself as a boy during the Revolutionary War.

As an adult, I was drawn to the worlds of Robertson Davies, Raymond Chandler, Charles Dickens, Tennessee Williams, the Brontes. I reveled in the sublime sentences of Truman Capote, Toni Morrison and Budd Schulberg.

Although it may not be readily apparent in Church of Marvels, Carson McCullers was always an inspiration, particularly the way she wrote about loneliness and desire.

But probably the greatest influence of all was my aunt, Florence Parry Heide, a prolific writer of children’s books. My favorite is The Shrinking of Treehorn (illustrated by Edward Gorey) – it’s just so droll and deliciously strange: a perfect marriage of wit and whimsy.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a few projects underway – some short stories, the rumblings of another novel. I’ve always wanted to write a play. We’ll see what gains steam in the coming year.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Because this book had such a long gestation period, it was essentially written across America: in the wing of a Victorian house in Iowa City; in a sunny walk-up in Astoria, Queens; by the tar pits in Los Angeles; along a river in Johnson, Vermont; looking out at the woods of Saratoga Springs and hoping to see an owl; in Jack Kerouac’s old room in Orlando, Florida.

But most of it was written in a very small study in Chicago, with one barred window and a blue hanging lamp and a photograph of my skydiving grandfather in freefall. It was the least scenic, but also the most inspiring. Every time I looked up at that photograph I was reminded – I had to be brave enough to jump. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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