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

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