Posts Tagged Ann Patchett

Story as metaphor – talking to Ann Napolitano, author of Dear Edward

As you might know, I’m fond of novels that are bold metaphorical concepts and haunting stories. A few months ago I came across an advance copy of Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano, the story of a 12-year-old boy who is the only survivor of a plane crash. He struggles to find a way to live, having lost everything, including his brother, mother and father. The narrative of his present life is intercut with the hours of the flight, the people whose last hours he shared, who will stay with him for ever. It’s a spellbinding read and I’m thrilled to be able to talk to Ann, keyboard to keyboard, today.

Vital statistics for Ann: she’s the author of the novels A Good Hard Look and Within Arm’s Reach. She’s also Associate Editor of One Story magazine, has an MFA from New York University; has taught fiction writing for Brooklyn College’s MFA program, New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and for Gotham Writers’ Workshop.

Ann, how would you classify Dear Edward? At face value, it’s a great contemporary story, but we’re often asked to find more exact definitions.

I’ve seen this kind of fiction classified as metaphysical, because the idea reaches beyond the literal, a poetic environment as much as a story event. I’d also say it’s half-way to magic realism.

I’m terrible with classifying literature—in some ways I wish we could do away with most terms. For instance, I know the label of magical realism turns some people off, and that means they’ll never read Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (to name just one example) and that’s such a shame, as they would probably love the book.

 I see similarities between Dear Edward and Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, which doesn’t have magic events, but creates a kind of weather where emotional magic happens. Real magic realism?

I see what you’re saying about Dear Edward existing in the same kind of universe as Bel Canto, but I would prefer not to have that universe labelled.

I also object to women’s fiction as a term, since there is no equivalent for men.

I so agree! The term ‘women’s fiction’ annoys me intensely. It’s all fiction. For people.

Moving on, what gave you the initial idea?

There was a real plane crash in 2010 in which everyone died except one nine-year-old Dutch boy named Ruben VanAssouw. The flight took off in South Africa and crashed in Libya. The boy’s parents and brother died in the crash, and his aunt and uncle adopted him. The story was big news at the time, and I was immediately obsessed with it. I wanted to know how this little boy could possibly walk away from this level of loss and tragedy. And obviously this obsession became Dear Edward.

How long did it take for you to arrive at the final treatment? I’m just finishing a novel that’s taken me five years and 16 drafts. What’s your process? 

I feel for you – Dear Edward took eight years to finish. I spent the first year taking notes and doing research (I don’t let myself write scenes or even pretty sentences during that period) and then I spend years writing and re-writing the first half of the book. In this novel, the plane sections came fairly easily, but I re-wrote Edward’s storyline countless times.

Your main character, Edward, experiences an extreme trauma. His interior experience is so unique, but also so relatable. How did you create this emotional truth? Did you use sensitivity readers?

No – I only just heard this term this year! I have two writers who I met in graduate school—Hannah Tinti and Helen Ellis—and they are my first readers. My husband read the final draft, too, as did my amazing agent. They operated as my sensitivity readers, I suppose?

Dear Edward also contains many technicalities about air travel and flight, especially in the crash sequences. How did you devise the fatal accident? And how did you approach educating the reader so they would understand it? Did you have expert readers to check it?

Luckily, one of my parents’ best friends is a retired commercial pilot, so I interviewed him extensively, and then he read the plane crash sections when I was done writing, to make sure they were accurate. I also read many transcripts of the National Transportation Safety Board hearings after major crashes. And I ended up choosing to model the reasons for Dear Edward’s crash on a particular Air France crash. There was a wonderful Popular Mechanics article about this crash that included the dialogue between the pilots from the flight’s black box.

Tell me about your other novels – how did they come about? Are there any similarities with Dear Edward? What would you say your literary signatures are – any themes, types of character, types of situation?

Ostensibly, my three novels are very different. My first, Within Arm’s Reach, is based on my mother’s large Irish Catholic family in New Jersey. A Good Hard Look takes place in the state of Georgia in the 1960s and features the short story writer Flannery O’Connor as one of the characters. But all three books share a theme: how to live a meaningful life.

You have an MFA. What did it do for you?

It did two things:

1) It gave me what felt like a legitimate excuse to focus on my fiction writing for two years

2) I met two writers, Helen Ellis and Hannah Tinti, in the programme, and we have been each other’s first readers ever since.

I often tell young writers that they don’t need an MFA, but if they can get one without going into any debt, it can be a great way to find your tribe and invest in their own work.

[Side note: if you’re seriously considering whether to do a creative writing degree, read my interview series with creative writing professor Garry Craig Powell. Should you take a creative writing degree? How to choose a creative writing degree. Are creative writing degrees relevant today? ]

Ann, you teach creative writing. How did that come about?

I started teaching intentionally, when my youngest son was about one years old. I hoped, as many writers do, to teach in order to make some income while writing novels.

How does your students’ work feed back into or nurture your own? Personally I find mentoring and coaching is a surprising learning experience of my own. The work in progress is a privileged place.

I love teaching—as you said, I find I learn at least as much as I teach in any classroom. And it feels wonderful to be in a space where writing, and therefore the stuff of life, is discussed seriously.

You also edit a literary magazine. How did it come about?

One of my best friends, the aforementioned Hannah Tinti, co-founded One Story magazine shortly after we finished graduate school. About five years ago I moved to Brooklyn, and around the corner from the magazine’s office, and almost as a matter of course started working there one day per week. I love working there for much the same reason I love teaching—it feels very nourishing to sit and argue the merits of short stories all day with likeminded writer-editors.

Do you have any advice for writers who would like to submit?

My best advice for submitting to any magazine is to make sure you follow the magazine’s guidelines, and don’t submit a story until it’s truly done. Finish the story and put it in a drawer for two weeks, then read it again and if you still feel like it’s everything you want it to be, then submit.

Thank you! It’s been great to talk to you.

No, thank you for your thoughtful questions.

Thanks for the plane pic, David Spinks on Flickr.

Find Ann’s website here, with all her novels. Find her on Twitter @NapolitanoAnn One Story Magazine is @OneStoryMag  Helen Ellis is @WhatIDoAllDay and Hannah Tinti is @HannahTinti

And if you’re curious about how my own slow-growing novel is going, here’s my latest newsletter

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My kind of weird, my kind of wonderful – interview at Davida Chazan’s blog

Where would you most like to go? Underground, overground, back in time, out of this world? I’ll have all of them, please. (That’s the mysterious Down St Tube station in the picture, abandoned and dark since 1932.)

Book blogger Davida Chazan (who you might remember was incredibly nice about Not Quite Lost) has devised this quirky questionnaire for authors she’s reviewed and today it’s my turn. As well as preposterous travel, expect brightest of times, darkest of times. and a book I wish I’d written. She’s also known as The Chocolate Lady, so one of her questions is, of course, answered by this.

Do hurry over, before they’re all gone.

And if you’re curious to know more about my weird and wonderful, here’s my latest newsletter.

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The end of exploration – on writing a book where you can’t make things up

If you get my newsletter or follow me on Facebook or Google+ you’ll have seen dancing and jubilation as Not Quite Lost is finally ready for general parading and pre-order.

It’s certainly been a new kind of writing experience, because, of course, I didn’t have the freedom to invent. (Why? It’s non-fiction. More here.) This set some interesting boundaries for revision.

The pieces that were easiest to edit were the amusing mishaps  – mostly involving idiotic use of cars. Also easy were the fragments about people and places that were intriguing and mysterious. But other pieces gave me more difficulty, refused to spring into shape for a long time. They fell flat for my wise and ruthless beta-readers. ‘You lost my attention here,’ said one of them. But… but….. but… I thought.  There’s something in that story.

When a piece in a novel isn’t working but my gut tells me I want it in the book, I change the circumstances, add pressures in the characters’ lives or give the event to another set of people. Clearly I couldn’t do that in Not Quite Lost. It must stick to the truth. You can change details of people to prevent them being identified, but you can’t change events. You’re stuck with them.

So what do you do?

I’ve edited memoirs and I recognised the situation. If an incident seemed to lack significance but the writer insisted on keeping it, we dug deeper. Why did it matter? There was a subsurface process, a thing that had to be uncovered and examined. These rewritten rejects often became the most surprising and beguiling parts of the story. In short-form memoir, they go by another name – the personal essay. I had failed to recognise that some of the pieces in Not Quite Lost were personal essays as well as travel tales.

Full circle

This week I heard Ann Patchett being interviewed on Radio 4’s Book Club about her novel Bel Canto. One of the points discussed is how each character is like an onion, losing a layer each day until they’re down to the core.

And in the good tradition of ending explorations and arriving where we started, knowing it for the first time, we come full circle to fiction.

My diversion into narrative non-fiction has, at times, felt like writing pieces of a novel. It’s also given me a sharper view of a quality I value in literary fiction. ‘Literary’ is a slippery thing to define, and I enjoy playing with fresh interpretations. So my current favourite definition is that a literary novel is, in some ways, like a personal essay for the characters, peeling away a skin at a time.

Anyway, Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction is now on pre-order. And it looks like this.

Save

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Self-editing masterclass snapshots – do you have a plot or a premise?

guardThis is part of an ongoing series of the smartest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass for novelists. Previous posts have discussed how much extra material we might write that never ends up in the book, or handling the disappearance of a key character. The full list is here.

Today I’m looking at another interesting problem, one that might be especially useful if you’re gearing up for NaNoWriMo this year.

Is it a premise or a plot?

plot or premiseA writer in my class told us she’d had a literary agent, who had said: ‘Your problem is that you have a premise but not a plot.’

So what might that mean?

A premise is a situation that seems full of promise. (Like these little clay fellas in the picture here.) But many writers think a premise is enough. It’s not. A premise is static. It’s a still life. (Like these little clay fellas in the picture here.)

Here’s an example, using Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. A bunch of gentle people are taken hostage in an embassy in a south American country, and the siege lasts many months. That’s the premise. The story or plot (I’m using the terms interchangeably, though they have slightly different meanings) is the sequence of events that spring from that idea.

So you need to convert your premise into events. And what’s more, those events need a sense of change, of development. These events must matter to the characters, be irrevocable, present them with dilemmas and push them out of their comfort zone.

Now what might those changes be? Perhaps they might be events on a grand scale – a character dies, another character falls in love, the food supply is cut off, which makes everyone argue. Or the changes might be more subtle – the characters form allegiances and rivalries according to their personalities or political persuasion. They re-evaluate their life choices. You’ll want a mix of both, adjusted for the flavour of book you’re writing. If it’s a thriller or a crime novel, the events might be more extraordinary than the events in the character study novel.

Whichever it is, you need change to hold the reader’s curiosity. You need to treat the premise as an environment, a terrain that creates interesting challenges. The terrain isn’t usually enough in itself. You need an exciting route too.

Still life
I’ve seen many writers get stuck in this still-life phase. They create the characters and the world, and describe it all in imaginative and vivid detail. But they are lacking this sense of increasing pressure. Their scenes have a stuck quality. They write a lot of stuff that seems to examine a whacky idea, or maybe a theme, but there’s no sense of urgency and complication. Instead of advancing the situation, they simply study it.

And even if your purpose is to create a zoo to study humanity, the reader still looks for a sense of change – usually in their understanding. Your plot will come from this sense of increment, the sequence in which you present these observations of the human soul.

So you can deliver change in endless subtle ways – but it must be designed in.

The static character
A variation of this problem is writers who create vivid and thoughtful character dossiers and then present the characters in an unchanging state throughout the book. If a story is worth telling, it should contain events that challenge the characters in uncomfortable ways – and make them reveal their natures. Instead of presenting the character as an already complete image on a fixed canvas, we should think of allowing the plot to unpeel their layers.

So we could say a plot is a premise…. which you have quarried and shaped to show a sequence of change. Or how would you describe it? Have you had to confront this question? Are you still grappling with it? Some examples would be great – the floor is yours.

More to chew on…
Here’s a post about storytelling in literary fiction, and finding drama in events.
ebookcovernyn3In my plot book I describe four Cs necessary for a good plot – curiosity, crescendo, coherence and change. Elsewhere in the book I talk a lot about conflict, another important C.
And if you’re doing Nanowrimo, here are other posts to help you prep.

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Storytelling in literary fiction: let’s discuss

New_dress_DSC09958There’s a tendency among many writers of literary fiction to opt for emotional coolness and ironic detachment, as though fearing that any hint of excitement in their storytelling would undermine the serious intent of the work.

That’s Husband Dave last week, reviewing Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel The Buried Giant on his blog and discussing why it failed to grab him .

An anonymous commenter took him to task, asserting: To have a “sudden fight scene” would be cheesy and make the book more like YA or genre fiction (i.e. cheaply gratifying).

Oh dear. Furrowed brows chez Morris. Setting aside the disrespect that shows of our skilful YA or genre writers, how did we come to this?

When did enthralling the reader become ‘cheap’? Tell that to Hemingway, DH Lawrence, Jane Austen, William Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Charles Dickens, Steinbeck and the Brontes, who wrote perceptively and deeply of the human condition – through page-turning stories. Tell it also to Ann Patchett, Donna Tartt, Iain Banks, Jose Saramago, William Boyd.

Dave wasn’t alone in his uneasiness with The Buried Giant:

Adam Mars-Jones … in his LRB review of The Buried Giant, particularly takes Ishiguro to task for throwing away what ought to be a Fairbanks-style set-piece in a burning tower by allowing “nothing as vulgar as direct narration to give it the vitality of something that might be happening in front of our eyes”.

Of course, there’s more than one way to find drama in events, and Dave also considers why the sotto voce, indirect approach might have been deliberate.

But even allowing for this, he also found: there are other bits of the story that do not work at all, and make me think that Ishiguro either scorns, or is not craftsman enough to manage, the control of the reader’s expectations that is needed for a novelist to hold and enthral.

And: The taste for anticlimax that Mars-Jones notes, and the unfolding of telegraphed events that bored me, are common traits among writers of literary fiction who perhaps feel that manipulating the reader is a tad ill-mannered.

The conflagration spread to Twitter

And I’m still bristling about the forum where, years ago, I saw literary fiction described as ‘dusty navel-gazing where a character stands in the middle of a room for 500 pages while bog-all happens.’

Stop, please

It’s time this madness stopped. Are we looking at a requirement of literary fiction – or at a failing in certain literary writers?

It’s true that literary and genre fiction use plot events to different purpose. But engaging the reader, provoking curiosity, empathy, anxiety and other strong feelings are not ‘cheap tricks’. They are for everyone.

Dave’s blogpost commenter is typical of a certain strain of thinking about literary fiction, and I’m trying to puzzle out what the real objection is. Did they simply disapprove of a Booker winner being discussed in such terms? Are they afraid to use their critical faculties?

This is something, as writers, we must avoid.

I have a theory. I’ve noticed that, in some quarters, to query a novel by a hallowed author is considered beyond temerity. These folks start from the position that the book must be flawless, and so they search for the way in which it works.

Now of course we must read with open minds; strive to meet the author on their own terms; engage with their intentions. But honestly, chaps, you and I know that authors are not infallible.

We, as writers (and editors), know we have blind spots. Otherwise we wouldn’t need editors and critique partners to rescue us. Indeed – and this is probably one for the literary writers – how much are we consciously aware of what we’re doing? How much of our book’s effect is revealed to us when readers give us feedback? This writing lark is as much a matter of accident as design, isn’t it?

Brideshead Re-revisited

Going further, sometimes our books aren’t as perfect as we’d like. Evelyn Waugh published Brideshead Revisited in 1945, then reissued it with light revisions in 1959 plus a preface about all the other things he’d change if he could.

Writing is self-taught, and this critical scrutiny is one of our most powerful learning tools. Whenever we read, we should ask ‘does this work’.

Now it’s a tricky business to comment on what a writer should have done. Also we’re reflecting our personal values. Yes, caveats everywhere. But certain breeds of commenter regard a work by an author of reputation as automatically perfect.

So is this where we get these curious notions that page-turning stories don’t belong in literary fiction? Because nobody dares to say the emperor is wearing no clothes?

Again, I’ll let Dave speak:

In Ishiguro’s case, I don’t think it was deliberate. I felt that he was flailing about with that sequence, trying to figure out a way to add the tension he knew was lacking. But he might say, no, I wanted it to be predictable and tedious, that’s the whole point.

Shakespeare didn’t think it was infra dig to throw in an audience shocker: ‘Macduff was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped.’

So, er, what?

I usually aim to be useful on this blog. Is this a useful post? To be honest, I’m not sure. Just occasionally it’s nice get something off your chest.

Now I’m wondering what question I should end with. I could ask us to discuss literary writers of great reputation who seem to duck away from excitement and emotion. But one person’s tepid is another’s scorching. And I don’t think it get us far to explore everyone’s pet examples of overrated writers. But I’d certainly like to put an end to this idea that story techniques, or any technique intended to stir the emotions are cheap tricks that dumb a book down.

So I guess I’ll end with this. If you like a novel that grips your heart as well as your intellect, say aye.

Thanks for the pic “New dress DSC09958” by Владимир Шеляпин – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Anyway, the floor is yours.

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