Thanks, Sarah Layden, for inviting me to come along on this blog tour about creative process. For sure, read her forthcoming novel Trip Through Your Wires, which will be released by Engine Books in 2015. It’s good. Check out her post at sarahlayden.com
So here goes.
What are you working on?
At the moment, I’m spending a lot of time to get the word out about my new YA novel, Looking for Jack Kerouac, which will be published by Lacewing Books on August 12. During the winter and spring, redrafted a short novel called The Green Heart of Lucy Cole, which I’ve been working on since 2007. It’s had various incarnations, but I think (hope) I’ve hit upon the right focus this time. When it’s polished up and ready to send out, I’ll go back to When It Happened Here, another novel I’ve struggled with over a number of years—and about which, I think (hope) I’ve hit upon the right focus. We’ll see.
How does your work differ from others of its genre?
I think my adult novels fall pretty squarely into mid-list fiction and my YA novels into realistic YA fiction. Honestly, though, I never think about this question. Each good book is its own universe and to try to figure out how it’s different from other fictional universes in any useful way seems fruitless to me. That said, I often study novels I love that are in some way or another similar to something I’m working on—hoping to trigger insights into the particular problems I’m trying to solve.
Why do you write what you do?
I’m fascinated by how chance, choice and opportunity affect (or don’t affect) how people live their lives. I like “turning point” novels, books that introduce some kind of change in a character’s life that plays out over the course of the story.
The things that shaped me as a young person were my dad’s drinking; an absurdly idyllic view of family life based on 50’s TV shows like "Father knows Best"; the longing to get away, to travel, to live in a larger world; the longing to have beautiful things in my life; and an awkward, unhappy adolescence. One or more of those things come into play in everything I write. Sometimes, as in An American Tune, I address them directly, as I did with the main character’s girlhood. Sometimes, as in Vermeer’s Daughter, set in 17th Century Holland, I’m physically very far afield from my own life and the world I know. But my heart is still there.
For me, it’s all about being able to recognize not just a good idea, but my good idea—an idea that allows me to explore one or more of the set of issues it seems I’ve been set on earth to ponder.
For example, friend and fellow writer told me about his idea for a screenplay called "Beat," about a kid who goes to look for Jack Kerouac. I thought it sounded like a terrific idea for a young adult novel and said, joking, “If you ever decide you don’t want to do the screenplay, could I have the idea?” A few years later, he said, “Remember that Kerouac idea? I’m not going to do it, so you can have it if you want it.” “Cool,” I said. “Thanks!” But it was just an idea and I had a hard time finding a way to make it my own.
Then, sadly, one of my sisters died of brain cancer. Not long after her death, an image of her behind the counter of a diner floated into my mind’s eye. White blond hair in a pixie cut, freckles, turquoise eyes. There was Ginny! One of the most painful things about my sister’s illness and death was watching her two teenage sons go through it and, after I found Ginny (and the idea that I could, in a way, bring my sister back to life through her), it occurred to me that Paul might have had the same experience as my oldest nephew. At which point Looking for Jack Kerouac became about a whole lot more than a road trip for me. It was a way of processing my own grief about my sister and trying to better understand what losing their mother had been like for her boys.
For me, writing fiction is a way of looking sideways at something that I can’t see or can’t bear to see when I try to look at it directly. In the process of finding the story, coming up close to the emotions fueling it, I come to better understand my own life.
How does your writing process work?
It takes me a long time to write a novel. Years. Usually an image or phrase will pop up and I’ll write what almost always turns out to be a first chapter, but sometimes it takes a while to figure out exactly what the chapter is about and how to proceed. Getting the first draft of the novel down is the hardest part for me.
I almost always work chronologically through a novel from beginning to end, revising when I feel like I can’t keep going unless I assess and adjust what I have. Revision is less cutting, more expanding. Fleshing out scenes, adding new scenes, building better transitions. Then lots and lots of tinkering, polishing, which is my favorite part.
I rarely show my work to anyone before I’ve done everything I can figure out to do to make the novel on the page match the one in my head. When I get to that point, I will ask for reader feedback. I’m lucky to have several people (some writers, some readers) whose critiques are always spot on. Their questions and observations about the manuscript help me see the gaps between what I want the novel to be and what I’ve actually managed to get on the page. (Good book clubs are fabulous for feedback, too!) I do a lot of drafts, so I don’t use all of my readers at once. That way, there's always someone out there to give a fresh look. I often put a novel away for months or, in some cases, years—especially when there are structural and/or point of view issues that I just can’t get my head around.
It’s a crazy thing to do, writing novels.
I love what Jack Kerouac said about it. “And this is the way a novel gets written, in ignorance, fear, sorrow, madness, and a kind of psychotic happiness that serves as an incubation for the wonders being born.”