How do you get a career working with words? We all find our own routes. In this occasional series, I’m interviewing people who’ve made writing the centre of their life and now have a distinguished publishing reputation. Today: Gina Troisi, who has award nominations, writer-in-residence posts and is now about to release a memoir, The Angle of Flickering Light, with Vine Leaves Press.
Roz Tell me how you got here.
Gina I decided I wanted to be a writer in third grade—it sounds cliché, but I clearly remember learning the writing process in the classroom, and becoming fascinated with it. I grew up writing furiously in journals, crafting stories and poems; it was a creative outlet I desperately needed, but I barely showed my work to anyone. I had very little confidence.
As an undergraduate, I majored in English Literature, and after college, there was a stretch of years where I took writing classes out of a local woman’s home. I was going through a very difficult time in my life, but these classes offered me the best kind of solace. It was this fabulous teacher, Nancy Eichhorn, who suggested I apply for an MFA, and encouraged me to submit my work for publication. I began working on my MFA in 2007, and I spent that time focusing on craft and technique; I immersed myself in the act of becoming a better writer. When I completed my MFA in 2009, I began to send my work out for publication.
Roz Your memoir, The Angle of Flickering Light, is about your troubled childhood. Were there many steps before you felt able to show the manuscript?
Gina Oh yes!
Roz How many incarnations did it go through?
Gina In some ways, I’d been writing about the themes my entire life—about my childhood, about recklessness and the act of numbing oneself, and about the search for identity and belonging.
Roz When I’ve worked with memoirists, it’s a long struggle to find the wisdom and insight to give readers a meaningful experience.
Gina I think writing memoir takes a great level of self-awareness. We need to get to a place personally where we understand ourselves—our actions and our decisions, our patterns, and the ways in which we’ve been shaped.
I remember hearing the author Joyce Maynard say that in order to write a memoir you have to “let the ashes cool.”
Roz “Let the ashes cool…” I love this.
Gina It takes time to process the moments that have made up our lives, and to gain an honest perspective. I had to reach a point where the “I” in my book was just another character.
Roz Also, we change.
Gina We encounter so many versions of ourselves throughout our lives.
Roz Yes, and we might not realise unless we write about a time when we were much younger, or under great strain. I see it in my old notebooks, the things that upset or amused me ten years ago, twenty years ago. I recognise where the feelings came from, but I would not react that way now. And then other things are exactly the same, they never change.
The Angle of Flickering Light has been commended in several awards over the years, as far back as 2012. Tell me about its gestation.
Gina The book originated when I was in graduate school. My intent was not to write a book-length work. But I found that I was generating stand-alone essays with recurring themes and characters.
I originally presented the book as a collection of essays back in 2012, and I began sending it to agents and small presses. In 2013, I received interest from a small press, but the editor wanted major structural changes, and to morph it from an essay collection into a memoir. I dove deeply into that revision, but the press decided to pass. So I found myself with two versions of the book, and by this point, I wasn’t sure which was the more structurally sound. I took a break to focus on other projects, but continued to send the original version out to contests. At the end of 2018, I returned to the memoir with fresh eyes, and I spent about seven months reworking it.
A couple of authors from my graduate program, Penny Guisinger and Alexis Paige, had both published books with Vine Leaves Press. I read and loved both of their books, which led me to other VLP titles. The writing was exceptional, and Jessica Bell’s covers are amazing. I decided to submit, and to my great delight, they accepted the memoir.
Roz Inevitably a memoir will involve real people. How did you handle this?
Gina I changed many names and places. I also omitted details and characters, and sometimes merged and compressed events and moments. Every choice I made was to either protect the privacy of others, or for the sake of narrative clarity.
Roz Tell me about that beautiful title.
Gina The original title was Shadows on the Sidewalks, which is a title of one of the chapters. The chapter focuses on the narrator’s relationship with her boyfriend, who is struggling with heroin addiction. But while much of this book is about wandering and restlessness, about movement and motion, I didn’t want the title to indicate that the relationship in that chapter was the focal point of the book. It’s actually about the narrator’s relationship with herself.
The Angle of Flickering Light is a line from an intimate moment in the narrative, and I like that it’s an image, but also speaks to the idea of finding flickers of light in darkness. The book is largely about hope and resilience, and about searching for light within, rather than outside of oneself.
Roz Yes, it works well. As you say, the title is the reader’s lens for the whole book. The Angle of Flickering Light is also mysterious, alluring. It beckons you in.
Let’s talk about the structure you used for The Angle of Flickering Light.
Gina Structuring this memoir was the most challenging part of the process, particularly because it covers such a wide range of years. When I returned to the book in 2018, my main goal was to find and thread the narrative throughline more tightly in order to clarify and highlight the heart of the story.
Roz I love that moment – when I finally grasp the emotional purpose of the book I’m writing. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, I’m always looking for it. That’s when I understand what to do with my material.
Gina Once I found the prominent thread, I attempted to tailor each chapter to illuminate it, and it enabled me to veer off into the past or the future as I saw fit—to move around in time more freely.
Roz Moving on, you’ve been widely published in literary magazines. Was it all leading towards this memoir?
Gina I think a lot of it was, yes. But there are also themes and subjects that tend to enter my work often, no matter what genre I am working in. Some of these are addiction and perseverance and mortality.
Much of my work explores the ways in which we survive. And I’ve always been interested in the relationships between people—in the way we connect with one another in raw and authentic ways.
Roz Who do you like to read? Who are your influences?
Gina Oh gosh, there are so many. Joan Didion, Andre Dubus II, and Alice Munro are a few of my heroes. Jeanette Winterson. Lynda Hull, Sylvia Plath, Mary Oliver for poetry. How about you?
Roz Many, many many. From your list, Joan Didion is a favourite. Also Hilary Mantel for the way she explores the humanity of historical moments. Ann Patchett for her sweeping sense of romance, even though she does not write romances, if you see what I mean. Taylor Jenkins-Reid for sass. Janet Fitch for rawness – read her and she seems to take your skin off. Meg Wolitzer too. I’ve just read Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, very slowly. Not because it was difficult, but because I wanted to savour every moment.
You’ve studied for an MFA and also taken a writer in residence post. What did these experiences give you? Methods, routines, anything else?
Gina My MFA was a low-residency program, so I attended seminars and workshops two times a year for ten days at a time, while the rest of the year I worked one-on-one with mentors, and met monthly deadlines. This schedule taught me how to incorporate writing into my real life—to prioritize it over almost everything else, and to integrate it into my world despite my work schedule or personal relationships.
Roz This is so wise! I remember when that happened to me. I found myself among people who always had a book on the go, or maybe more than one. I had tried various creative pursuits, but had missed the essential lesson – how to make an art the centre of my life, which was what I needed. I suddenly felt at home.
Gina The writer-in-residence post gave me the beautiful gift of time, and also allowed me to work with some wonderful creative writing students. Both experiences offered me inspiration, stimulation, and purpose.
Roz You’re a writing coach as well as an author. How do you protect your creative energy while also giving your best to students?
Gina I love working with students, and I find it feeds and nurtures me creatively. It’s such meaningful work. I am doing it less and less since I started my day job at an educational assessment company a few years back because in order to protect my writing time, I often have to say no when I’d like to say yes.
Roz You wrote a terrific post about this on Ian Rogers’s blog, But I Also Have A Day Job In it you describe so well the artistic lifestyle – the freedom to wander, the patchwork of randomly acquired jobs that let you make writing the centre of your life. But you found it all had a price.
Gina For many years, I resisted the idea of a full-time job because I was terrified it wouldn’t allow me enough time to write. So I juggled part-time jobs with various schedules: I tended bar, I ran a writing center at a community college, I taught and tutored. I ate meals in the car while driving from job to job. I had no health insurance, barely any savings, and no money put aside for retirement. One day I added up how many hours I was working, and I found that I was working at least 40 hours a week, but without any of the benefits, like paid days off and holidays. And I thought, how did this happen? I decided it was time to reassess what I was actually resisting, and to try a new approach.
Roz How do you unwind?
Gina Hiking in the woods, visiting the ocean, listening to live music. And of course, reading. There are also times when I collapse on the couch and give in to Netflix.
Roz What are you working on now?
Gina I am working on two novels-in-stories. One of the collections revolves around a particular restaurant in a small New Hampshire mill town. It explores economic and class issues, and consists of a cast of characters who thread a larger narrative about the way it’s possible to find and form surrogate families.
The other collection takes place in a coastal Massachusetts town, and is focused on the lives of a married couple who lose their only child in a tragic car accident just after he turns eighteen. It poses questions about parenthood and loss and perseverance, and it sifts through what ultimately sustains us during times when it seems that nothing will.
Roz Profound questions. Do they have working titles?
Gina The working title for the restaurant collection is called Then You Were Gone, and the other collection is called What Remains.
Roz Give me some amazing final words!
Gina I find that most of what I have learned about writing aligns with what I have learned about living. That being said, I think the most important trait for a writer is perseverance. Discipline is a close second, but it is essential that we are able to handle rejection. I tell my students that the difference between those who publish and those who don’t is the refusal to give up, and I deeply believe that.
You can tweet Gina @Troisi_Gina, find her on Facebook, Instagram and her website. The Angle of Flickering Light is published by Vine Leaves Press. Find it here.
If you’d like more writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.