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.

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.”

Greyhounds at The Grey Eagle

Originally published at Mountain Xpress.

20141202_211129_LLS_resized-1100x618“As long as you come out to hear us, we’ll keep coming back,” promised guitarist Andrew Trube of Austin-based band Greyhounds. “There are more people than last time we were here.” The crowd numbered optimistically at 30 — a small group inside The Grey Eagle. But Greyhounds, a class act, performed as if it was a sold-out show. Visuals, a lava-lamp backdrop, multiple smoke machines and a dancing spaceman added atmosphere (as did the musicians’ sharp-cut suits following a change from coveralls). But, as much fun as all if that is, Greyhounds provides plenty of ambiance even without props.20141202_211617_LLS_resized-e1417627331959-1100x754

Trube’s bandmate is keyboardist Anthony Farrell. Together, their sound is a bluesy, groove-heavy take on blue-eyed soul. But each musician, a songwriter in his own right, lends a slightly different flavor to that theme. Trube’s songs — from the tartly funky “Amazing” with its creeping background vocals and clunky beat, to the sharp-edged “St. Louis” with its biting guitar parts — are tightly wrought, driving and command feet to tap if not dance outright. Meanwhile, Farrell’s offerings — from the smoothly emotive “You’re Gone” with its vintage organ tone and percussive shimmer, to the spooky, pervasively moody “Lone Rider,” which spans the velvet-to-fiery range of Farrell’s vocal — are laid back and effortlessly cool.

The video for “Lone Rider,” launched in June does a tidy job of contextualizing the song within the band’s dusky, retro-tinged aesthetic, without diminishing any of the considerable mystique. “What’s on Your Mind,” a sweaty, pulse-thick and falsetto-sliced slow-dance, was also set to video earlier this year. “We know a dude who has a video camera,” Trube said from the stage. “He likes to make weird shit, so we’re like, ‘let’s do this.'”

Hopefully the videos get Greyhounds’ tracks to more ears. The band — together since the end of the ’90s — has already attracted plenty of musician fans. Trube and Farrell’s songs have been covered by the likes of Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks; Ruthie Foster sang Greyhounds’ song “Cuz I’m Here” on her album, The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster. The band performed that song at The Grey Eagle, the line “There are times when I can’t stand the thought of talking,” stretched out to give Farrell’s vocal space to unfold. The song pushes the far perimeter of the lanky, loose, emotionally wrung-out soul that Farrell taps into.

20141202_214843_LLS_resized-1100x618It also served as a perfect foil for the band’s material at the other end of the psychic spectrum: The Trube-led, harmonica-driven “Hot Sauce,” for example, or “Soul Navigator,” which could be Greyhounds’ authentic response to “Soul Man.”That song’s got it all — the swagger, the social awareness, the positive outlook and the stomping beat (played by touring member Anthony Cole, a formidable drummer with jazz panache and impeccable taste). Onstage, the spaceman presented Trube with a melodica to play the melody. At the end of the song, Farrell produced his own melodica, ending the song with a harmonized duet set to a bare-bones drumbeat. “We’re thinking of adding a third one for the drummer,” Trube announced. “A melodica three-way.”

Word problems: Peter Turchi’s book A Muse & a Maze explores the puzzles of writing

Originally published by Mountain Xpress.

amuseamaze-cover-finalIt’s been a number of years since Peter Turchi lived in Asheville — he’s now based in Houston — but Western North Carolina still finds its way into his writing. “I tend to write more about places that I’ve left,” says the former director of Warren Wilson College’s MFA program. “The stories that I’m writing now, while they don’t reference Asheville in particular, in my mind they’re all set in or around Asheville. Asheville looms large on my personal map.”

Puzzles are another recent Turchi topic. They’re featured prominently in his new book, A Muse & a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery and Magic, which juxtaposes the author’s essays with a selection of artworks, quotes and inspirations. “The goal is to help people think about writing and reading in different ways,” says the author. “I collect images and ideas and, if it seems to me to make sense, I convey that to the reader.” Some of the puzzles included were composed specially for the book. Turchi will discuss A Muse & a Maze at Malaprop’s on Saturday, Nov. 22. Appropriately, the event involves sudoku cupcakes.

“All of the material in the book began as lectures I gave at Warren Wilson,” says Turchi, who remains on the MFA program faculty. A few of the talks confused his students, who provided helpful feedback through the college’s evaluation system. “Then I got to really dig in, and usually I discovered a lot more by doing that,” Turchi says. “Trying to teach writing has certainly taught me a lot, because people naturally ask questions.” He also credits the faculty’s practice of attending one another’s lectures, because “you’re always talking to your peers.”

Author photo by Dana Kroos

Author photo by Dana Kroos

But inspiration comes from those outside the writer’s wheelhouse, too. A Muse & a Maze quotes the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Bruce Springsteen; it also explores the photography of Charles Ritchie, with whom Turchi has collaborated. “Other narrative forms, like film and plays, offer pretty direct inspiration,” the writer says. “Sometimes it can be an artist whose work doesn’t have any obvious relation to mine. … Just the very notion behind them sometimes can be helpful in making me think of some aspect of fiction in a different way.” For example, the visual art concept of creating a self-portrait using objects rather than a human figure led Turchi to think differently about presentation of character.

He adds, “It was fun to get artists to talk to me and hear how they thought about objects, and then to think about how writers can or should give that kind of attention to the world around them.”

Not every writer thrills at the chance to put their craft under a microscope, though. To write about writing is like pondering the mechanics of sleep — there’s no surer way to stay awake. According to Turchi, short story writer Deborah Eisenberg “prefers not to think too much about how she does what she does. It’s not that she doesn’t think about the work intently, but she doesn’t think about how she creates it,” he says.

Turchi does see a correlation between magic and writing, however. “A magician isn’t simply awed by magic: It’s a very mechanical kind of thinking,” he says. “I can read a novel and my readerly response is, ‘That’s beautiful.’ Pretty quickly after that, as a writer, I think, ‘How did that lead me there?’” Curiosity about how literary effects are created is part of what drives the author to write about the tricks and processes of prose.

But as much as A Muse & a Maze seeks to explore the inner workings of the craft of writing, the book isn’t interested in pulling aside the curtain on the art form’s intrinsic wondrousness. If anything, Turchi’s collection of citations, motivations, riddles and games yields as many questions as it answers. As a teacher, he believes that while parts of the craft (such as greatness or sensitivity) can’t be taught, there are plenty of tools that can be shared. That’s where the book comes in: “Here are things you can think about and work on. But then there is something that is much harder to identify,” says Turchi. “I really did want to try to honor and respect the aspect of writing that is mysterious.”

The good loser

The good loser

My greatest fear is looking like an idiot. I’m more afraid of that than getting cancer, being hit by a bus or losing my job. It’s not a worthwhile fear to have, and yet most days are negotiations of whether or not my clothes are okay, whether or not there’s a typo hidden in one of my articles, how to say what I want to say without pissing anyone off and how to wear a hat without making my hair do something stupid.

Most people struggle with insecurity at some point in their lives. I do battle with it often enough to call it a frenemy. I tell myself that it started in third grade when my then-best friend Anna Morales told me, on the playground (that hotbed of pre-teen drama), that she no longer wanted to be best friends. Or any kind of friends. I couldn’t have pulled the word “loser” from a thesaurus lineup at that point, and yet I knew for certain that:
1) I didn’t want to be one, and
2) I probably was one.

Over the years I’ve come to believe that some of us are born with a propensity for insecurity. Some people can cook well, some people can run fast, some people can doubt their every word/thought/move. It’s a talent, really. Just not one that will win any talent competition.

Lately I’ve been wondering why failure is such a bad thing, though. We live in a time of anti-failure sentiment. Teenagers in reality TV shows regularly bellow, “Failure’s not an option!” But of course it is. Because when success is your only option, it’s not, by definition, an option. Failure is what makes success sweet. It’s also what makes success a thing at all. Trial and error without error is just doing stuff. You win some, you lose some without losing some is just playing a game who’s outcome is predetermined — like tic-tac-toe once you know to claim the middle spot. Failure is probably more valuable than success — it’s a better teacher, a better motivator, a better whetstone. Failure teaches us not just how to do something right, but how to be humble, compassionate, interested, focused and hungry. Being human is way more about failing that it is about succeeding: Truly interesting people come with scars, battle stories, broken hearts and a capacity to self-heal and soldier on.

Losers make far better fictional characters than winners.

So what if I actually try to fail? That’s what I’ve been asking myself for the last few months. What if I say things that people won’t like, write stuff that won’t get published, wear weird dresses and sing along to Taylor Swift songs? What if I set up challenges that I know I can’t accomplish? What if I’m the only one who wears a Halloween costume to work? What I go our for a drink alone and read a book in a crowded bar? What I take French lessons or dance lessons or singing lessons and suck royally in front of a room full of strangers?

What if, whenever failure is an option, I opt for it?

Last weekend I went to a concert and wrote a review. I’ve done this hundreds of times — this is not the part where I look like an idiot. I took my time with the review, did a little research, added in some quotes, wrote something meaningful. In one of the quotes, the musician said that after his tour he was going to retire that set of songs. I included that because it underscored the rare beauty of the show. That’s important to know because, after I posted it online, it got a zillion hits by fans who were either freaked out about the songs being retired, or eager to point out that the quote was made in jest.

1) By a zillion hits I mean more like two.
2) The comment didn’t sound like jest and it’s my job to report on what I hear.
3) I can only imagine the musician at his next show telling the story of the idiot reviewer who claimed he was retiring his setlist. “The press gets everything wrong,” he’ll say. People say that.
4) I wanted, desperately, to take the post down. To not risk being wrong. To not have strangers on social media make fun of me.
5) Strangers on social media: You are the worst. (Except for when you’re not.)

All of the above. Yes. But I’m going to let this failure play out. If I fail, it was with the best of intentions — with some lovely turns of phrase, with the desire to lift up a musician whose show inspired me. If I look like an idiot for any of those reasons, I think I can live with it.

I know I can live with it. No one has ever died from looking like an idiot. I don’t even have to research that fact, I’m just going to say it right here and now and deal with the consequences.