Q+A with Lindsay Starck, author of ‘Noah’s Wife’

Originally published at Mountainx.com

author photo_Starck_credit Victoria McHugh Photography (2)

Lindsay Starck, photo by Victoria McHugh Photography

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.

NOAH'S WIFE coverfinalWhat was the original idea or event that sparked this book?

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!

Three fiction-writing goals

little-boy-writing-a-letter-1920.jpg!Blog

“Little boy writing a letter” by Norman Rockwell

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.

Flash fiction: Structural soul

Photo from The Blaze

Photo from The Blaze

It took a long time to understand the men who creaked around particular edifices. One drank coffee outside the Flat Iron building, one cleaned the windows of the former Bon Marché, one cuddled a bottle on the curb under the bridge leading out of town.

None of them were young, but they didn’t age. The white of their beards dulled a bit from time and the elements, but they continued with their tasks. One window at a time, one cup of coffee after another. The man with the coffee sat at a café table in his tweed jacket and trilby, looking ready for a chess match or a heated discussion on European politics. No one engaged him, but he kept sitting, kept waiting.

And the man under the bridge. How long could he sit, in and out of seasons and through the years, nursing a malt liquor tall boy and a black eye? It seemed, on alternating days, sad and angering that he sat there, battered and drunk for all to see. But he was resolute in his duty, a troll at the underpass demanding a toll of spare change to buy the next bottle. Even in his soiled jacket, long since stripped of its royal blue color, there was something honorable in his charge. Who among us never takes a sick day or a vacation, or at the very least leaves our post for a long lunch?

The window washer kept at it, too, though he grumbled while he worked. He also took smoke breaks, further yellowing his stubby fingers and his long white beard with nicotine. He might have looked like Santa Clause once. Though he’d gone bald on top, the rest of his hair was snowy white and fell to his shoulders in soft ripples. His cheeks were round, his nose like a cherry, but summer or winter, rain or shine, he faced the day in a white t-shirt and faded jeans. There was no known Santa iteration who washed windows or wore an undershirt from a plastic-wrapped three-pack.

None of the men were what they appeared. Nor did they even necessarily appear at all — not to most people. They blended in or were completely invisible, bottle and dirty jacket just two more pieces of trash left under the bridge. Tweed trilby the perfect camouflage for Autumn’s decent on an outdoor café. White beard just another puff of smoke, a wisp of low-hanging cloud moving through rain-soaked city streets.

The buildings groaned and settled, more than a hundred years already weighed on their foundations. Old bones sang with ache and quieted again, roots of steel and brick sunk deeper below asphalt and concrete to drink from the mineral-rich middle earth. Rooftops were watered and sun-baked and blanketed by snow to sleep another month or six.

The edifices call their souls back from the sidewalks, back into the depths of boiler rooms and basements, back into the dark places where buildings dream the visions collected by their human spirits. Their consciousnesses and pulses embodied in the forms of men who look, upon closer inspection, like the structures they inhabit.

Even the bridge, open on three sides to the wind, has a deep heart where deck meets truss and shadow is never dimmed by daylight. There, the troll waits out the storm, bottle clutched tight to chest, already home while the outside traffic rushes on forever to get there.

Sarah Addison Allen on writing

Photo by Amber S. Wallace

Photo by Amber S. Wallace

“I don’t think Garden Spells would have come about if I’d thought, ‘I’m going to write a romance,’ or ‘I’m going to write chick-lit,’” says Asheville-based author Sarah Addison Allen. “You have to encapsulate your novel into a sellable point, but when you’re writing it, it has to be your story, not the story you think will sell.”

Her new novel, First Frost, revisits the Waverly family from Garden Spells, her initial foray into magical realism. First Frost will be released on Tuesday, Jan. 20. Read the full story here.

Ron Rash on writing

Ron Rash on writing

I recently published an article on the film The World Made Straight, which was adapted from the Ron Rash novel of the same name. The article is about how the film was shot in the areas of Western North Carolina where the book was set. You can read about it here.

In the process of writing the story, I got to interview Rash, who is a literary hero of mine. I’ve curated his quotes that, as a writer, I found inspiring. So, in his own words, Ron Rash on technique, process, inspiration and continuation:

“Whenever I write a novel that’s set in the past, I always order a Sears Roebuck catalog from that year. That’s such an amazing source because if you have a question about what kind of candy would a kid buy in a  store in 1929, or what kind of hat would a woman wear, all sorts of small details — it’s those sorts of small details that make a story feel true.”

“I never outline, I never plot. I just kind of go with it. If  surprise myself, I think the reader is probably going to be surprised.”

“The more I write, the more mysterious it is. I don’t know where the stories come from. Obviously, sometimes I’ve done research in a particular area, or I’m interested in something. But ultimately the characters and the voices — I don’t know how it happens, I’m just glad when it does.”

“I do think I come to care about [my characters]. The World Made Straight is a novel where a lot of bad things happen, but I also think it’s a book about redemption.”

“I usually do 14 to 16 drafts of every book. Those drafts are very intense. I’m finishing up one now, and I’m looking purely at the language, to the point where one syllable or vowel or consonant rubs up against another. When the book reads well, and people [say] it’s really smooth, that’s when the writer’s spent a lot of time making sure there aren’t those jarring moment. Those sentences that go too long or [too many] hard syllables in a row. Those things, to me, are where there magic comes from.”

“When you write fiction, you’re doing your best to make it as accurate as possible, but you’re not going to get everything right. I can’t know about everything. So you do your best. The other thing that happens occasionally is I’ll very deliberately change something geographically because I need it to be truer to the book. Ultimately it is fiction.”

“I’m not a cynical writer. I put my characters in tough situations, but very often they’re admirable and they do the best they can.”

“It will always be about sitting down and getting the next sentence right.”

Holter monitor

Holter monitor

From an unfinished fiction project

People talk about hitting the bottom like its a major accomplishment. A milestone. But as long as there’s still breath in your body, you can always sink lower. I know this, because I’m sitting through the inter-departmental meeting wearing a Holter monitor. It sounds like halter — a fun, ’70s-retro top. Instead it’s more like a bomb, strapped to my chest with all sorts of wires running out the bottom of my blouse, connecting to a box that looks like a pager and fits in my pocket. Sort of.

I can’t focus on the meeting because I’m having a panic attack over how ridiculous I look. Or maybe no one can tell. The thing is to remember at everyone else is too busy worrying about how they look to care about how other people look. Except of course that’s a lie because the all-time-number-one-pastime of everyone everywhere is people watching. Okay, the all-time-number-one-pastime of everyone everywhere is drinking. But then people watching.

I’m wearing the monitor because I have this thing where my heart flutters. Just now and then. But what if? That’s what I keep thinking. What if I have an undetected heart murmur and it’s getting worse and soon the blood will be gushing. Either in or out, I’m not sure. Or maybe I’m having a heart attack.

What I have is anxiety, but the symptoms are the same as a heart attack, which makes me more anxious, which makes my heart flutter more. And I can’t catch my breath, and my chest hurts and so does my left arm. My right arm, too, but especially my left.

Maybe this time I’m hitting bottom. That’s what I thought in the doctor’s office. Not the regular doctor, but a specialist. A woman younger than me with a sleek ponytail and a lab coat. Those Dansko clogs in patent leather.

She hands me a gown. Tells me, as if we’re best friends, “These are so horrible, right? But everyone has to wear them.” And then she apologizes for the office being chilly.

In a gown and running shoes, with electrodes taped all over my chest, I jog on a treadmill. It’s called a stress test, I assume, because running in a thin cotton gown with not nearly enough snaps, is awkward and embarrassing, and therefor really stressful. The specialist in the Dansko clogs chews the tip of her pen and makes a few notes on her chart. “You don’t seem tired,” she says cheerfully.

“I ran five miles this morning,” I tell her, trying to adjust the gaping gown.

“Oh cool!” she says. “So you’re a runner.”

“Yes,” I pant.

After a few more minutes, the doctor slows the treadmill and I’m allowed to change back into my work clothes. Of course she doesn’t find anything, but she also can’t send me home empty-handed, can she? So she tapes me into the Holter monitor with its wire tentacles. I’m supposed to tuck the monitor into my pocket like, oh yeah, I just have this thing. No biggie.

As soon as it’s attached to my chest I’m very, very sorry. I’m sorry I came here. I’m sorry I let the fear take me this far. I’m sorry that I haven’t beaten the anxiety and now I’m covered in wires. I’m turning into Seven of Nine (only shorter and much less threatening). Mostly, I’m embarrassed of being healthy.

I am healthy. I know this. The only thing wrong with me is my head, but not in a tragic way. I just have to get through the inter-departmental meeting without anyone noticing my Borg hardware, and then it’ll all be fine.

Unless the monitor finds something.

Unless this is actually a bomb.

Unless a meteor hits the Earth, which could happen at any minute. Think of that and tell me your heart doesn’t flutter.