Originally published at Mountainx.com
Chapel Hill-based author Lindsay Starck took on epic subject matter for her debut novel: The biblical story of Noah. But rather than the ark, it’s his spouse who captured Starck’s imagination. In Noah’s Wife, the author reframes the characters of the Hebrew narrative in the modern day, as a couple relocated to a new town. Stack’s Noah is a minister sent to lead a congregation in a place where weird weather patterns have brought nonstop rain for years. Noah’s wife, initially just a supporter of her husband’s work, finds her own purpose in creating community where faith and hope have been abandoned.
Alli Marshall: Noah’s wife doesn’t have a name in the novel — she’s just referred to by her relationship to others. I’m guessing you did this because she isn’t named in the Bible, but was it hard to develop a character without knowing her name?
Lindsay Starck: Oddly enough, thinking of her as “Noah’s wife” helped me to write about her because it gave me a clear idea of how she understood her position in the world and her relationship to other people. She’s a minor character in the biblical story, which puts her in a supporting role. I imagined that she was comfortable in this role, that she understood it, and that her struggle over the course of the novel would be to redefine herself as an individual — and as a protagonist.
The premise of the novel is the idea that a person’s status as a “major” or “minor” character is merely a matter of perspective; everyone has his or her own storyline, even if there isn’t any record of it. My job, as I saw it, was to provide a record for Noah’s wife. As I wrote, I wondered: What does it mean to play a supporting role to someone else? How much of our identities are defined by other people? How do we understand ourselves outside of those relationships?
What were some of the challenges with adapting (at least in part) a biblical tale to a modern setting?
Because the original story is so minimalist, I felt I had a great deal of creative freedom. There are no descriptions of anyone, not a lot of backstory, very little setting, and so I could imagine my characters and their town in any way I pleased. I never intended for the book to be a direct allegory or a straight retelling of the biblical tale… Instead, in Noah’s Wife I engage with many of the themes (faith, doubt, destruction, renewal) and imagery (animals, rain, boats, doves) of the original story in order to create something new. It’s a story about human relationships, not divine ones; it’s about faith, yes, but it’s about faith in other people, faith in community.
Have you adapted or drawn inspiration from any other bible stories or fables?
Although I haven’t written anything else directly adapted from another story, I like to think that books are always inspired by other books. One of the most interesting short story collections I’ve read over the past year is Kate Bernheimer’s XO Orpheus, an anthology of fiction written by authors who are reworking ancient myths. I love this concept because I’m very interested in how works of literature speak with and through one another. The best adaptations reveal something new, something we hadn’t seen before in the original.
When I began writing this novel, I was in my mid-20s, and my friends and colleagues were beginning to pair off. As I watched people navigate the tumultuous waters of romance and friendship, I wondered over the nature of “pairings” more generally. What makes a marriage work? Why do some friendships fall apart, while others last for decades? What qualities make a good mother, a good daughter, a good neighbor?
The idea of “pairs,” along with my conviction that the flood story was darker and more complex than it often appears to be in popular culture, led me to Noah — and from there, to his wife. What sort of woman, I wondered, would be willing to abandon her community and follow her husband into a giant floating zoo? What if she were afraid of reptiles or allergic to feathers? How could she continue to believe in Noah, if she could not see the signs that he saw? If she were given a voice, what would she say?
The rain that continues through the story feels oppressive. What was it like, as a writer, to immerse yourself in the idea of that gray and soggy place for so long?
As Noah’s wife would say (in her optimistic way), there’s “a certain beauty” to the rain—and of course water imagery comes with a long tradition of symbolism, which I enjoyed thinking over and reworking. So it wasn’t as depressing as one might think! Still, one reason I included the “Dr. Yu” sections was because I did need to get out of the rain every couple of chapters (and I thought my readers might also appreciate the reprieve). It was refreshing to take a break to write about sun and shadows and wind without worrying about water rushing through gutters or pounding against windowpanes.
I’ll probably avoid writing about rain in my next novel. I’ve exhausted every possible way I can think of to describe it!
Did you do anything (watch rainy movies, run water while you were writing, visit Seattle) to cultivate the mood?
Ha! Great question. I thought a lot about the novel while swimming laps, actually — so perhaps that helped. Above my desk, I tacked newspaper clippings about the zoo floodings in Calgary (2013) and Minot, North Dakota (2011). Articles like this one from The New York Times (I love that its title references the ark) illustrated the terrible destruction of modern-day floods while also managing to include some lighthearted descriptions of the animals. That’s what I wanted my animals, to do, too: provide some moments of levity in an otherwise dark story.
What brought you to North Carolina, and are you inspired by the literary history and/or community of N.C.?
Graduate school! I’m finishing up a degree in comparative literature at UNC-Chapel Hill. And yes, the renowned literary community in the state was a huge draw for me. I admire the strong tradition of storytelling in the region, and I’ve found fellow writers in North Carolina to be generous, warm, and genuinely invested in each other’s work. Daniel Wallace in particular has provided a great deal of encouragement and support. As Georgann Eubanks (author of Literary Trails in the North Carolina Mountains) points out in this interview with UNC Press, the state offers a wonderful fusion of natural beauty, local community, and a commitment to education and the arts.
My favorite anthology of North Carolina writers is Long Story Short, a collection of flash fiction edited by Marianne Gingher. I’ve also had the fantastic opportunity to work as an editor of The Carolina Quarterly, where I’ve been inspired by the talented new voices we publish as well as my fellow editors’ commitment to contemporary literature—for all of us, it’s a labor of love.
Are you teaching writing in Chapel Hill?
Yes. I teach writing (both composition and creative writing) as well as literature and film—and sometimes Italian, which is a lot of fun. What I like about teaching writing is how much I learn about my students’ experiences and perspectives on the world through their fiction. By reading and by writing, I believe, we become more empathetic. We practice getting into others’ minds and we try to see situations through others’ eyes. For me, that’s the whole point of literature.
What are you currently working on?
I’m finishing up a dissertation on modernist literature, social networks, and gossip. After that, it will be on to the next novel!
1. Spend extra time line editing
I’m starting with the most boring goal first because I believe in getting the most-dreaded task out of the way. And, between you and me, I’m not a good typist. I’m creative, and I get the work done, but I use about four fingers to type. I need to learn to type for real — I even started an online course before Christmas. But you know how it goes: Life is busy, we all have to make tough choices, and while proper typing would be a great skill to have, it’s not at the top of my to-do list.
Admission No. 2: I’m not a great speller. I peaked in third grade with “monotonous” during a spelling contest. Because I’m a Francophile, I can usually pull off “hors d’oeuvres.” But in editing my own work, I find TOOs that should be TWOs, and more than once I’ve signed off an email with “Brest” instead of “Best.” I really don’t want to wish any future potential literary agents All My Brest.
2. Spend less time worrying about if it’s done or not.
I was at an Elizabeth Gilbert talk once when someone in the audience asked how she knew a project was finished. Her answer: “When it’s 84 percent done.”(She might have said 79 percent or 92 percent, but you get the picture.) I like that because stories (and novels) can be endlessly tweaked. If you hang onto one long enough, you’ll find all sorts of things that could be changed, honed, improved. This is what I believe: I’ll be a different writer in two years from the writer I am today. Hell, I’ll be a different writer in two weeks. But that doesn’t mean the writer I am today isn’t creating worthwhile work. If I keep waiting for my knowledge and skill to catch up with the ultimate potential of today’s story, I could be working on the same 3,000 words until I’m 95. I hope I’m still writing when I’m 95. I hope I live long enough to be utterly embarrassed by what I wrote in my 40s. But for that to happen, 1) I need to live at least 50 more years and, 2) I need to finish some stuff and move on.
3. Find ideas in the strangest of places
I used to think — as many of us do — that I needed to wait for an idea to hit me over the head. It’s the romantic ideal of writing, that inspiration comes in lightning strikes. Luckily (because who really wants to be struck by lightning? And also, theoretically, it doesn’t strike the same place twice), I realized I could seek out ideas. Eavesdropping, people-watching, morning TV shows, parades, the mall — all of these places/things/bad habits have inspired plots or characters. Family can be a rich source of material. Riding a bus while on vacation in another country is hard to beat. I recently got a story from the gym locker room (that sounds weird, I know). As I type this, I’m listening to my co-worker read from a press release about a food tour in eastern Tennessee during which there’s a stop to sample Dolly Parton’s favorite hamburger. Fiction is often just the truth with the names changed to prevent the guilty from Goggling themselves.
My point is that hunting for stories should be less like standing outside, in a rainstorm, holding a metal rod, and more like going to the weirdest, most colorful jumble sale and seeing what treasures you can score for $20.
Last night I attended the inaugural Writers Coffeehouse in Asheville. It’s a great idea (originated by New York Times best-selling author Jonathan Maberry and now popping up all over the country) in which writers help other writers with information about publishing, promoting, networking, etc. It’s all about the business of writing and not at all about the craft.
The meetup began with host Jake Bible and his guests, Beth Revis and Nathan Ballingrud, both talked about their paths to becoming published authors. And while I enjoyed the whole event, I felt like the biggest takeaways for me came from those introductions because two of the writers admitted to writer-path experiences that I identify with — and have long been embarrassed by. Continue reading
Romance author Deanna Dee celebrates the launch of her latest book, Finish Him, on Tuesday, Nov. 17. But while that project is keeping her busy this year, Deanna is no stranger to National Novel Writing Month. Here, she shares her experiences and some very helpful tips.
When did you last participate in NaNoWriMo and what did you set out to write?
Deanna Dee: I last participated in 2013, and I set out to write the rough draft of my first novel, Critical Hit-On, a college gamer romance.
What sort of word count did you set for yourself, and how much time each day did you dedicate to the project?
I aimed for the full 50,000. In terms of time per day, I didn’t really keep track by hours. More important was word count. I packed heavy writing into the beginning of the month so I’d be ahead of the curve. I’d say it’s best to aim for 2,000 words a day the first week, however long it takes each day.
At the end of the month did you have a completed novel? How did you feel about the work you’d done?
I had a nearly completed novel. It turned out the book needed another 5,000 or so words, but that was easy to finish up. How did I feel? Empowered, awesome, like I’d done something.
Probably, if the timing worked out. I’m not doing it this year because I’m releasing my third book this month, and something had to give. For me, Nano is a great way to get motivated. I’m very competitive, and if I’m not where the site says I should be, I have to catch up.
What advice would you offer to someone participating in Nano this year?
Keep writing! Any amount of words is more than zero. Also, if you’ve been staying on target up until now and then suddenly have a day where you can’t write, don’t panic. And don’t try to put in double the words the next day. You’ll intimidate yourself out of writing anything. Recalculate. Figure out how many words you need to write to get back on task and shoot for that. It’s a lot less daunting.
What are you currently working on, and where can we learn more about your writing?
I’m currently working on a Christmas short story to go along with my published series. To find out more about me and what I write, you can check out my website/blog.
Asheville-based musician, composer, filmmaker and producer Ben Lovett (not the Mumford & Sons band member of the same name) recently launched the four-EP series, Lovers & Friends. It came about when he was introduced to 12 songwriters in Los Angeles, and during a series of blind-date-type meet-ups, composed songs with each of those strangers-turned-collaborators. Follow the series at youtube.com/user/LoversLabel.
Here, Lovett talks about creating art, where ideas come from, and how to not be held back by fear or uncertainty.
A fundamental part of my philosophy is to never let the fear of not know what I’m doing prevent me from trying.
The first thing I really ever did was make music for these guys’ movie in college, when I was a freshman or sophomore. I had no idea what I was doing. I was like, “I don’t know anything about writing music for a movie,” and they were like, “Well, we don’t know anything about making one.” I was like, “OK, awesome.”
That whole experience was so encouraging and rewarding that it multiplied into all these other things I’ve done. If you were to find a common thread, it’s [that] I charged into them inexperienced and without any idea of what I was doing. But if you’re too preoccupied with looking cool, you’re going to miss out on a lot of stuff. If you’re trapped in the fear of coming across looking stupid or untalented, you’re really not even allowing access to all the other parts of yourself … that you need to create art.
You’ve got to learn that even your most embarrassing moments are not going to kill you. In fact, sometimes they give you a really good story. On a long time line, that’s all you’re looking for — as many good stories as you can find.
If you knew were [ideas] came from, you’d go there more often and just stand at the door. It’s almost like you accidentally tune into that frequency. You have these moments where it’s coming in, but it’s coming in a little hazy you’re just off the dial of it. You’re constantly trying to figure out which way you need to lean or turn to get it to come in clearer.
Every songwriter and writer and artist has had these moments where it’s just, bam! Bolt of lightning. All of a sudden this whole thing comes through you in one spell. You don’t know why or where, but it’s so profound and it’s so real. You only ever feel the slightest bit, if any, responsible for it. You become addicted and you’re waiting around, trying to do anything you can to get it to come back.
There’s no more sort of religious experience, for me, when you go from nothing to a song that now exists. It will outlive you and it’s a companion for the rest of your life. It makes you feel lucky to be alive and to be in touch with that, [as if] you were tapped [to] have that luck that day.
I feel more like I’m just waving around my butterfly net most of the time. Every now and then you’re like, “A butterfly! Oh my god!” You can only really ever get better at building your net or waving it around. You don’t really know how to make the butterfly fly into any better.
From a 2009 interview of Asheville-based painter Barbara Fisher by Constance Humphries:
What advice would you give to an artist just starting out?
• Experiment a lot, follow your instincts.
• Start over again (if you’re just out of school).
• Set regular studio hours and show up.
• Work hard and listen to your inner voice.
• Don’t compare yourself to other artists.
• Talk to artists you admire.
• Don’t whine, it’s not an easy career path.
Author Lisa Wingate, currently based in Arkansas, has published 25 books in 14 years — a staggering number. Her series include the Texas Hill Country books, the Moses Lake books, the Daily Texas books, the Blue Sky Hill books, the Tending Roses books and the Carolina Heirloom novels and novellas. It’s from the last group that Wingate’s most recent novel comes: The Sea Keeper’s Daughters is part history and part mystery. It follows the stories of three characters: present day restaurant owner Whitney; her grandmother Ruby, who lived in the Excelsior hotel on the Outer Banks; and Ruby’s twin sister Alice, a member of the Depression-era Federal Writer’s Project, stationed in Western North Carolina.
For readers living in or near Asheville, Wingate presents The Sea Keeper’s Daughters at Malaprop’s on Tuesday, Sept. 22. For everyone else, here is some writing wisdom that Wingate shared during a recent interview (read the full story at mountainx.com):
I pretty much write linear, from first to last. There are parts that are harder to write, parts where I really have to stop and think, “If this does happen here, what will it create in the future of the book?”
There are days when I quit for the day thinking I know what will happen the next day, in the story. [Then] I may see something, hear something, overhear some conversation in a restaurant and I’ll think, “Oh, that’s the perfect thing. That’s what needs to happen next.” [The writing] may end up the next day being completely different than I thought it would be. Ideas come from everywhere.
So much of it comes from just living life with those characters in the story. That’s what makes it an adventure — really not knowing. What makes it magical, too, is when life intercepts with it. You think, “This real life experience or this person’s story will be perfect for this character.”
I’m very regimented. I set a word count every day and I write seven double-spaced, Times Roman 12 pages per day, and I pretty much don’t shirk on that unless I’m traveling or whatever. There are days when I think, “This is junk. This is going to have to be completely rewritten.” And there are days when it just flows right out. Sometimes I go back to the stuff I thought was junk and it’s not so bad. Sometimes it’s even good. Sometimes those things end up on the cutting room floor. But I know that when I stick to that schedule, I’ll have the rough draft of a novel done in three months, and then the real writing begins.
The rough draft is the hard part because you’re discovering the story — you’re telling the story to yourself. You’ve never heard that story before that point. The first edit is when you begin telling the story to other people, so you look for the threads that didn’t get wrapped up or didn’t go anywhere. Then you do a little more fine-tuning to make it a story that makes sense to the rest of the world.
This is my second post this year of quotes from Ron Rash. He’s one of my all-time favorite writers, and that he lives in the Southeast (and claims Western North Carolina as his region) makes me love his work that much more.
Find my story for Mountain Xpress about Rash’s sublime new novel, Above the Waterfall, here. And below, his words of wisdom to writers:
On his schedule:
I write everyday. Sometimes I’ll take Sundays off, but usually at least six days a week I’m at it.
On going to school for writing:
I have a straight master’s in literature. That’s what was best for me. I needed to be reading really good writers.
Ultimately, whether you go through an MFA program or straight MA, it’s what you do afterwords [that matters]. The only way you’re really going to get good is just not giving up, putting the hours in to learn your craft and going though the process where slowly but surely you improve. The other thing is that you continue to read. I don’t know a single good writer who’s not a voracious reader. That’s how you learn and that’s how you challenge yourself. You read the best.
I just read a book by a Norwegian writer, Per Petterson, called I Refuse. It’s one of those very quiet, beautiful books. He’s one of my favorite living writers.
Rash didn’t publish his first collection of short stories until 1994, when he was in his 40s; his first book of poetry followed two years later, and his first novel came out in 2002.
I’d written two novels and destroyed them because they weren’t good. Story after story, I’d write them and they’d be dead on the page. But I didn’t give up. Sometimes I wondered why I didn’t. But as I got into my 30s I started getting published in some small journals and then some slightly bigger journals.
But I really believe it’s the best thing that could have happened to me as far as my writing, because I was able to concentrate solely on the writing. There were no distraction because no one was interested. I just went slowly and surely about my craft. What interest in my craft has come has been very slowly building. Someone recently said, ‘You’ve really broken through.’ I said, ‘It only took 17 books.’ I’m not an overnight sensation.
Some writers hit their stride quicker than others. Some writers can write their great books in their 20s or 30s. I just wasn’t one of those. You’re not making McDonald’s hamburgers. You’re doing something, if you’re any good, that’s unique. I certainly don’t believe you’ve got to have it done in your 30s — that’s absurd. I do feel like what happens is a lot of people, when they hit their 30s, just give up. And maybe they shouldn’t.
The work itself is what matters. That’s where the focus needs to be, not on self-promotion. You hope — an I do believe this — that if the work is good enough, eventually somebody will notice.
It might take 15 or 20 years to really get it. I know that sounds daunting, but if it’s really important to you, you’re willing to do that. I kind of made a choice in my late 20s. It was a serious choice. I’d been dabbling in it, and I said, “Do I want to live my life wondering if I could have really committed to it, or do I want to risk spending hours and years” — which I did — “and maybe finding out at the end I didn’t have the talent.” I would rather have failed and at least known. There were years when I was in my 30s when I couldn’t get a book published. I had manuscripts and story collections and nobody was interested. But I kept writing.