Throughout her book A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice: A memoir in four meditations, Christine Hale recounts penning and reworking a novel. It’s a detail she returns to over and over. “I was a fiction writer [and] weirdly, given this book, I’m quite a private person,” she says. But following the deaths of her parents, Hale’s focus on fiction shifted and she was compelled to write not just about the passing of her mother and father, but their relationship and her own life growing up in Appalachia. “The memoir hijacked me,” she says.
“Working with a lot of memoir projects [over] the past 10 years, it’s not unusual for it to just come out and insist,” says Hale. She teaches writing in the Antioch University Los Angeles low-residency MFA program and the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNC Asheville.
“The thing about writing historic fiction is it’s easy to see the character’s flaws,” says Anton DiSclafani, author of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls and The After Party.“It give you automatic tension. The reader understands what the characters don’t: that their world is coming to an end.”
Story originally published at mountainx.com.
Anton DiSclafani, the New York Times best-selling author of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, sets all of her books in the past. Her debut novel took place in 1920s Appalachia; her work-in-progress is set in 1940s Alabama, and The After Party, her just-published follow-up to Yonahlossee, gives readers a window into Houston in the 1950s. But “I’m a big believer in not letting the research get in the way of writing,” says DiSclafani. “I’m not somebody who wants to spends days and days in the library.”
The After Party was inspired by the River Oaks community, a wealthy neighborhood in Houston. Both sets of the author’s grandparents are from that city, and when she’d visit as a child, DiSclafani loved to drive past the sprawling homes of River Oaks. While many of those grand domiciles are now being demolished to make way for larger, newer houses (“Houston is all about the future,” the writer says), The After Party’s narrator, Cece Buchanan, can’t imagine living anywhere else.
“When you write about mental health, you want to start conversations [that are] helpful in the community,” Matthew Quick says. “But where does your responsibility as a writer end?” Known for Silver Linings Playbook, among other novels, Quick has recently published a new YA book, Every Exquisite Thing.
This story was originally published at mountainx.com.
There’s a hint of The Catcher in the Rye to Matthew Quick’s new YA novel, Every Exquisite Thing. Main character Nanette is a star soccer player, but when she reads The Bubblegum Reaper, she finds she has a lot in common with that novel’s anti-hero. In a Holden Caulfield move, Nanette develops an aversion to doing what’s expected and in interest in what Wrigley calls “quitting.”
But the story wasn’t inspired by J.D. Salinger’s 1951 work. Instead, the idea came from Quick’s own experiences as an author. While known for Silver Linings Playbook, which became a film starring Bradley Cooper, it was Quick’s previous YA novel, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, that struck a chord with readers. In that 2013 book, a teenager plans to shoot the high school bully before ending his own life. “I get really intense fan mail from teens who connect with Leonard [and] feel like he represents things that they think,” says Quick. “They read symbolism into it and want me to confirm that their view is right.” While Quick is flattered by his readers’ investment, he’s also conflicted.
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.
What 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!
Oklahoma-based author Elizabeth Tyree is a fantasy writer who pens short stories, picture books and chapter books for children of a wide range of ages. Her characters range from fantastical dragons to real-life lemurs and from Spanish pirates to human kids seeking adventure. Here she talks about developing ideas, getting inspiration from her real-life students, and publishing as a family affair.
What inspired your interest in writing fantasy novels?
I think it was probably a combination of many things from my childhood. I loved to watch those wonderful ’80s cartoons (OK, I still do!) and read fantasy and fairy tales. According to my mother, I first mentioned my “dragon friends” around the age of 2 or 3. I was playing with my toys and when she told me to clean up, I tried to tell her that it was Al and his brothers and sister that had messed up my room so she needed to get on to the dragons. (Didn’t work, she told me they were my guests and a good hostess cleans up after her guests.)
In third grade I read Anne of Avonlea and The Hobbit, both for the first time, and they had a huge impact as well. Happily, my family encouraged my creativity and allowed me to be the nerdy weird kid in the corner!
How much time do you spend on research for each of your books, and what are some of your favorite resources for research?
Does the time I spend in the classroom count as research? Haha, but no, seriously? You see, as an author of mainly picture books to upper YA books, the time I spent in my own classroom teaching writing and science, the time I spent tutoring, and the time I spend substituting adds up to about eight years of research for me now! Research that I absolutely love! Students enjoy talking about themselves, their hobbies, their classes — it all adds up to great backstory and understanding for the audience, as well as for some of my new characters. Some of [the students] even enjoy bantering back and forth about histories or alternate sciences, searching for answers on the internet or in books, and helping me by listening to things I’ve written and telling me if it sounds authentic to the generation.
Outside of that, I’ve really been researching mythologies and fantasy my entire life. However, one of my current works in progress relies heavily on the use of a salvage ship and equipment, a mini-yacht, and an ancient Spanish galleon. I did read a few articles on those items, but the most helpful research was done on the internet and the telephone. I was able to contact colleges who have marine archaeology sections, read their articles and descriptions of the ships, equipment, and personnel online, and get a few first-hand details from their wonderful pictures and emails. That was almost two years ago, and I still return to their sites or send minor questions to their emails as I try to finish the novel.
You’ve written a number of books — are there characters and/or themes that return from one project to the next?
Of the six books currently available, three are part of a continuing series that follows a band of dragons and fairies who have managed to get stuck in our world. The dragon family consists of the only known dragon fairy in either of our worlds, his normal-sized dragon sibling, and Grandmother (still searching for his parents), the kind of the fairies, some fairy guard members, and a few lucky humans who discovered them. Their fight is against the formerly beloved (and now straight mad) Fairy Queen, King Ferdinand’s wife, and Franme the Sorcerer.
As for themes, my children’s books all have a theme (however subverted it may be) of getting out and away from the television/computer (ironic, isn’t it?), helping, learning, and being a good friend. Which also tracks for my older books.
You write both short story collections and full-length novels. Do you know from the beginning if an idea will be one or the other? What’s that process like?
My first novel began as a short story contest entry. I just didn’t want to stop, I had to know more about what happened because it was like rediscovering an old friend! Some of the ideas, like another of my works in progress (Paulonious Punk) are definitely going to be chapter books or novels. On the other hand, some are definitely short stories and some could go either way. So the short answer here is, no I haven’t got a clue!
The process is always the same for me, whether it be short story or full-length I always get a notebook or pad of paper and start jotting down notes and ideas. Typically I get a few lines out about the back story or overall idea, and then it morphs itself into the actual beginning of the story and I write from there. I tend to outline in reverse, writing character and setting outlines after they’ve arrived in my story. This helps me to discover things about my novels and sometimes even helps push me along if I’ve gotten stuck.
How do you know an idea is a good one and that it can be sustained for the length of a book?
You write it out. Sometimes you may have an idea you love but no one else thinks will work. You still need to write it out or it will haunt you. You may have an idea everyone loves and you aren’t that sure about — write it anyway! It can be changed, morphed, and tweaked until it works. If you abandon the idea then it will poke at you. Sometimes you have ideas you don’t even tell anyone about — write those out, too. WRITE WRITE WRITE WRITE WRITE … am I obnoxious yet? The truth is, there are some amazing novels out there that I would never have believed could be written into a full-length book out of the idea they center around.
How do you publish your work (mainstream press, small press, independently), and what has your experience been with that format?
My father and I both publish with CreateSpace. I enjoy being able to maintain control over my “babies,” but am still struggling to learn the ins and outs of everything else that goes into publishing a book. The advertising, however, kicks my rear! I am still new enough that I’m not making the money to spend the money to make the money — But I’m going to get there someday! We created TyreeTomes as a family-run editing and publishing company for our own works (so still very much an Indie!) and have helped a few others, including my fifth graders last year, edit, format, and publish through CreateSpace and Amazon. That part, I’m pretty good at.
Do you grow attached to your characters? Tell us about one that really sticks with you.
I am very attached to most of my novel characters. Of course, I have “friends” with my dragons for my entire life so I won’t expound on them anymore. One non-dragon character that really sticks with me is Sylvester, a main character from a novel I have set aside at the moment. I dreamed of him before beginning to write the story, and I still do every once in a while. The story itself, a fantasy of magical mirror world proportions, is a new adult adventure: danger-romance-type. Sly is the dark, handsome, and deeply sarcastic hero you would hope appeared. Don’t worry, I haven’t abandoned his story completely! I hope to use what I have as an outline for betterment in the NaNoWriMo events for this year — though it will probably have to wait until NaNo 2016 the way my other works in progress are progressing.
Are you working on anything right now that you can tell us a little bit about?
I am actually working on five things right now, but I’ll just give you the bare bones of a couple:
First, I’m working on book No. 4 in The Stone Dragon Saga. As I mentioned earlier, this one involves a lot of hijinks on the the high seas, including a Spanish pirate ship and a kraken (named Sergio — he has a short story in one of my compilations as well, incidentally).
Then there’s Paulonious Punk and the Search for An Adventure — a children’s chapter book following two 9-year-old boys who, with a lot of help from their families (especially Pauly’s grandpa), attempt to search out an adventure before it’s too late.
The other book I’m really excited about right now is a picture book that my talented mother is illustrating for me (she will illustrate all of my books as well as do the new covers for The Stone Dragon Saga). This will be the first in a series focusing on animals. A picture book meant for K-2: The pictures and stories will appeal to all ages as we follow Leonard the Lemur’s adventures and learn about the animals he meets along the way. Leonard is living at Tanganyika Wildlife Park (in Goddard, KS) a real park, with a real lemur named Leonard, and we are excited that the park has allowed us the honor of including them in our work. Since they are a privately owned and funded institute whose goal is to educate people about animals, this book will not only help children learn interesting facts about animals and habitats, but will help spread the word about an amazing place that needs our help to survive.
It’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
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.”
There have been cinematic albums before, but EDJ, the solo project of Eric D. Johnson, is “a literal byproduct of all the film things I’ve been doing.” Johnson, formerly the front man of Fruit Bats, continues, “it’s informed by film work. Film work is so collaborative and unusual, but instead of making your own music it’s functioning as an interpreter for a director. You’re the mouthpiece for someone else.”
Four years had passed since he’d made the last Fruit Bats record (Johnson announced last year that the group would disband), and in that time he’s scored films like Ceremony, starring Uma Thurman, and the Paul Rudd vehicle, Our Idiot Brother. “Going back to writing songs was a completely different experience this time,” he says. “It’s so much easier than doing movies.” And, while EDJ is informed by “film-y stuff,” Johnson — who returns to Asheville as part of Harvest Records’ Transfigurations II festival — says what’s most important about the 11 song collection is “what isn’t movie-like about it.” Continue reading →