These quotes were gleaned from an interview I did for a story in Mountain Xpress. You can read at article on the launch of Sara Gruen‘s new novel, By the Water’s Edge, here. Gruen is also the author of the bestseller Water for Elephants.
• It’s an extremely intense process for me, writing a book. It takes a lot, emotionally and physically. I get almost obsessive about the characters. I can’t sleep at night, [or] I dream about them. Sometimes I wake up and I’ve been working all night on a problem in the book; sometimes I’ll wake up and I’ve solved it.
• One of the things I love about the job is I get to find something that interests me and then spend a couple of years living it, researching it and finding out more.
• If it’s possible, I’ll go and immerse myself completely [in a place]. I like to approach my research sort of like a language immersion class. When I was in the [Scottish] Highlands, after I was finished for the day I’d park in the corner of the pub with my laptop. …I would eavesdrop. I’d pick up phrases. I’d be listening, absorbing the accent and the the turns of phrase because it’s a very distinctive dialect and I really wanted to capture that.
• Obviously I can’t live in WWII, but I did extensive research. The newspaper archives were helpful but equally helpful were the pamphlets that told women how to create new patterns for reusing the material from old dresses, or what to use if you can’t find shampoo. I got copies of the [Ministry of Food] cook books. I knew the rations so [my husband] and I tried to live on rations for a month. I think we lasted two weeks.
• I try not to let anything affect how I’m writing. Then I would be writing to please an audience and if you’re doing that, you’re second-guessing everything.
• I have to lock the door of my office and close the curtains. Everyone in the family knows that unless the house is on fire, don’t knock on the door. It takes me about an hour and half to get through my creative portal. That sounds weird. But to [get to] a point where I actually feel like I’m there, as opposed to here. Then I feel like I’m recording it rather creating it. I feel like I’m not watching a movie, but in a movie. That’s when I know it’s working.
• Starting the book, I have a vague notion of who I want to characters to be and what sort of roles I want my characters to play. Then I write them, and eventually they come to life. And then they take over. Any idea I had for them, they throw away. They change the plot, they turn out to be different people, they have different backgrounds, they fall in love with other people. Invariably I have to go back and throw out the first third of a book. That’s absolutely a given.
• I hate when I have to throw 30,000 bleeding, screaming words on the floor. I have a leftovers file, because if I had to delete things, I would never do it. The theory is I could recycle. I’ve never recycled anything, but it allows me the freedom to get rid of things.
• When I’ve finished a book, I have what I call a springboard book. It’s my second-drawer book. I start working on that book again and eventually, so far, and idea will hit me from the blue. Clearly [the springboard book] doesn’t have the same pull on me, because I’ve never finished it.
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.”