Sunday, July 5, 2015

Q&A with Marian Palaia

Marian Palaia is the author of the new novel The Given World. Her work has appeared in a publications including TriQuarterly and The Virginia Quarterly Review. She lives in San Francisco.

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

A: Riley was originally a sort of version of me, for what was meant to be a stand-alone short story. It was never meant to be a novel (then, about 15 years ago), and Riley was simply a girl with a missing brother, working in a gas station and driving a beat-up Mustang convertible.

It wasn’t until I started working on my MFA at Madison that she began to show up in other places, and began to become more and more her own person. The more she became that, the better the story got. 

Q: Why did you decide to include the Vietnam War and its legacy as one of the main themes in the book? 

A: I grew up during that war, and its aftermath. I also lived in Vietnam for a time in the ‘90s, and have read dozens of books about it, in all its stages of existence.

It’s a fascinating place, and it was a fascinating time. I think my generation may have set the bar for ruffian behavior, and no generation has come along yet to match it. Whether or not that’s a good thing, I don’t know. 

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

A: I had no idea how the book would end until I was about two-thirds of the way through it. I didn’t even know what the second chapter would be. I don’t write like that. I set out with a character and a situation, and just let it roll. 

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you? 

A: My agent and I searched for a long time for a title. She really saw the book as one of redemption and hope (and I agree with her) and wanted the title to reflect that.

Poems are always a good place to look for sets of words that resonate and are beautiful, and when I found the Jane Hirshfield poem that opens the book, I said, “Oh, that’s it.”

“The given world, flaming precisely out of its frame.” Wow. The significance to me is this: we are each given “a world,” our own world, and then we have to learn how to live in it. It took me a long time to learn that, and it may have taken Riley even longer. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I’m working on another novel, called “The Hello Kitty Justice League.” It has several story lines, but the Justice League is two women in western Montana burning down/blowing up math labs. It’s sort of “Thelma and Louise” meet “Walt White,” but not really, but, yeah, kind of. 

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: A reiteration of sorts. It is a book about redemption. Yes, it does take Riley a very long time to get it together, but it isn’t as if she isn’t trying, and isn’t making progress all along (in fits and starts). That is the way it is for many people, and if you can’t scrounge up some empathy for the deeply wounded, this probably isn’t the book for you. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on

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