Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Q&A with Ann Putnam




Ann Putnam is the author of the new novel I Will Leave You Never. Her other books include Cuban Quartermoon. Also a Hemingway scholar, she lives in Gig Harbor, Washington.


Q: In your new book’s Author’s Note, you write, “I must confess that although it [the story] is indeed true, it is also completely made up.” Can you say more about that?


A: I’d be delighted. It’s one of the most interesting questions I get asked, so thank you. But it’s a conundrum even to myself. It’s a mystery. It’s magic. It’s damned hard work. It’s crazy making. It’s miraculous.


I began with people I knew, or had met, or had dreamed, and then set them free so they could be reborn through the filter of my imagination. That moment when I can let go of the autobiographical and watch the story take off completely on its own always feels surprising and breathtaking. That’s when memory and imagination meet completely outside words.


Q: The writer and editor Ladette Randolph said of the book, “Ann Putnam’s ironically titled I Will Leave You Never is a novel full of leave-takings that even Zoe—the appointed family worrier—could not anticipate over the course of a year that will strain but not break the bonds of her loving family.” What do you think of that description, and how was the book's title chosen?


A: I love that description. Ladette Randolph has centered on a key character arc of the book: that Zoe Penney, my main character, is much like Henny Penny, the chicken in the children’s book of the same name, who rushes around shouting, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling!” because an acorn fell out of the sky onto her head.


And like Henny Penny, for Zoe, the sky is both falling and staying right where it belongs. It’s an acorn to be sure, but it’s also an arsonist and it’s also cancer. Still, something that falls on one’s head out of the sky is something to be reckoned with. All the characters have been hit by something out of the blue. And she must worry about them all.


Zoe worries over life’s potential leave-takings—pets, children, lovers, friends. All things most loved and lost. So yes, Ladette Randolph centers on the metaphor of leave-taking, and how one survives it. The characters learn that ultimately love binds what life has broken. And that’s really the central theme.


Though “I Will Leave You Never” seems now to be the best and only title for this book, it was not the first or the second or even the third title. First it was “The Bear,” then it became “Safe as Houses,” then “Incantation,” before, finally, it became “I Will Leave You Never”—a promise that my characters are always making to each other, even when they fear it can’t be kept.


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

A: Truth to tell, I didn’t know what the next step would be, let alone the next chapter, and certainly not the ending. I believe I changed the ending almost seismically, at least three times. And of course, with the changes in the ending, came changes in the beginning and changes in between.


For example, when I was beginning my second draft, I suddenly knew that the story I was trying to tell had an arsonist in it. That changed the ending, but it also changed the beginning and everything else along the way.


I wove a new strand of yarn into the existing piece—up and down, round and round, from one end to the other (I have never knitted anything, so this metaphor is pretty much falling apart.) And when I held it up, I could see that the new strand of yarn was a color I had never seen before, and that color changed the tint and hue of the whole piece in some sudden and miraculous way.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: My protagonist asks of her husband: How can I love you if I am to lose you? But she learns that you can learn to love anything, even terrible things, if you can love them for what they are teaching you.


I want the reader to fall in love with this book’s characters, worry over them, laugh with them, root for them, and then cry for them. I want the reader to feel wrenched apart, then surprised into joy, and ultimately transformed.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: How I love this question. Thank you!


Georgia, 1939: A drowning, a mysterious healing, a cottonmouth snake, and Virginia Woolf. This book has all of them. At the heart of the book is an inexplicable boating accident—three went into the water and only one survived.


Lily O’Connor, the survivor and the main character, experiences both the terror and ecstasy of love. Yet all characters suffer loss of one kind or the other. There is a villain to be sure, with auburn hair and ice-blue eyes, but he too, has loss in his benighted, damaged heart.


In the end, this book takes the reader from ordinary life to a place as far from the ordinary as one could get, only to find that it is as profoundly familiar as it is strange. The book asks: what can I believe in if everything I have loved is lost? It’s called The World in Woe and Splendor.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’ve been busy being the writer of two novels, one published in the summer called Cuban Quartermoon, which came out of my six trips to Cuba. I fell in love with Cuba and then it broke my heart, so what else was I to do but write a novel about it?


And then the finishing touches on the novel I Will Leave You Never. And somewhere in between, as I was hiding out from Covid, I wrote a working draft of a third novel, The World in Woe and Splendor.


On the other hand, I’m also an author. An author is someone who sits at a table in a bookstore, waiting for her audience to appear so she can read her beloved work to someone, pretty much anyone. And one person shows up looking confused, and leaves after a few minutes. Or as other writers have reported, someone pauses, then asks for the location of the bathroom or the scotch tape.


As one media consultant said, “As an author, your goal is to make money by selling books.” And there you go.


But being a writer is existential. It goes to the bone. If I’m not writing, things aren’t right with me or with the world. It’s something I can’t stop doing. Though some days I’d give pretty much anything for one revelatory word. Okay, for one serviceable word. And even that sometimes doesn’t come.


Still, the next day I’m at it again. And the day after that, and after that. And somewhere in there a word, or a phrase, maybe a whole line, is so lovely and so original I can’t believe it came from me.


The writer Marge Piercy wrote: “The real writer is one who really writes. Talent is an invention like phlogiston after the fact of fire. Work is its own cure. You have to like it better than being loved.”


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Ann Putnam.

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