Posts Tagged Bel Canto

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 writer’s persona in the narrative, MFA courses and Englishness – interview at Rain Taxi

How much should a writer’s personality show in a book? Some authors keep themselves out of the narrative voice, even in a personal book such as a memoir. Others colour every page with their sensibilities and personality, even if they’re writing fiction. This is just one of the questions I’m discussing today in the literary magazine Rain Taxi.

You might recognise my interviewer – Garry Craig Powell, who has been a guest on The Undercover Soundtrack (he put Phil Collins songs to unforgettable and cheeky use). Garry has also taught creative writing at university level, so that’s another discussion we have – are these courses useful, necessary, a hindrance, something else? What about journalism – when is that a good start for a fiction author?

And then there’s Englishness. What is that? Well, it could be a quality of restraint – when saying less means more. It might also be a sense of Elysian yearning for an emblematically romantic world, including the tradition of stories about remarkable houses. We’re trying to thrash it out. Do come over, and bring tea.

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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 available. And it looks like this.

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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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