Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Gwendolen Gross talks about When She Was Gone, music, horses, and so much more

The disappearance of a teen and the secrets of suburbia?  I am so there. But her latest novel, When She Was Gone isn't the greatest thing about Gwendolen Gross. I first met  her after she had written Field Guild and we became friends. We talked about everything from motherhood to writing nonstop, and she quickly became one of my favorite people in the world. And one of my favorite writers. She's the author of  Field Guild, Getting Out, The Other Mother, The Orphan Sister, and I am so deliriously happy to have her here. Thanks, Wendy!

Tell me what sparked this particular novel?
The short answer is that I wanted to explore what happens to a neighborhood when there is a single dramatic event that affects more than one person living there. I wanted to see what happens in each house when a single family is struggling, and to explore exposure, judgment, animosity, support, and acceptance within a neighborhood. Also, Mr. Leonard, the musician who lives alone, is one of my favorite characters.

When I wrote The Other Mother, I had two first person narrators tell much of the same story—neighbors who could see each other out their windows. I wasn’t done with the idea of how we see each other in small frames in a neighborhood, with how people judge each other, speak only briefly to each other, know only certain dramatic things that happen and the quotidian of how we collect our mail and whether we get dressed before we drive our kids to school. Both the idea of support and the idea of judgment are fascinating to me. In a suburban community, rumor travels fast, but friendship can also sustain people so entirely. Sometimes I care deeply what people think, but only the people I respect. I decided to respect my characters whether I found them good or lacking. I suppose there are people in my own life I admire for what they would do for a neighbor.
Why do you think disappearances engage our imagination so much?

I think perhaps our greatest fears involve the things we can’t control---and what the people we love choose to do is one of those things. I also think many of us live in a comfortable frame, and we like to be able to predict what the floor will look like when the elevator doors open, but our job as writers is to ask what if? What if the doors open and there’s a lake on the twenty-seventh floor?

The storyworld--suburbia--is so vivid and important here.  Can you talk a bit about that please?
May I quote Ben Folds here, pretty please? “We’re rockin’ the suburbs/Just like Michael Jackson did./We’re rockin’ the suburbs/Except that he was talented.” I’ve lived in cities and in rural places, but most of my life has been in the suburbs, so I’m writing my world. I also think there’s something deeply evocative about the outsides and insides of suburban houses—there’s what we see, and the whole convoluted world of relationships inside the houses. Sometimes sounds leak out that give us clues; sometimes we don’t want to know. Sometimes you see terrifically fascinating things in other people’s recycling. In this book, I was exploring how a neighborhood responds to a crisis, but also how we each live in our own picture, only seeing our surroundings—and the people who live feet away from us--when there’s something new there or when we’re called to attention.

What's your writing life like? Do you outline or just sort of follow your characters? And can you talk about the moment when you knew you were a writer...a real writer?
Yes. That is, I write outlines, and then I just sort of follow my characters, and then I throw all the papers up in the air to see where they land. Each book has been very different. With When She Was Gone, I was quite disciplined, because in order to fit each character into the story, I needed to have some reason they belonged there. I also really wanted to build a sense of suspense, without imposing any artificial notes. With the newest book, I find the thinking is taking longer than usual—and it’s just a single, first-person narrator. Perhaps I’m more caught up that usual in my actual days.

A real writer? I honestly don’t know. I suppose I felt like a real author a few books in, when people asked when the next one was coming, when I had a shelf of things with my name on them. But honestly, I always have something else I want to write, to try, to learn, so the books on the shelf are like photographs.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?
Oh, Caroline, you ask the best questions!
I suppose I could answer this: is there anything you think you would never write?
I’ve been thinking about genre, about how people who write, say, young adult books might try writing adult books and how if you’re famous, you have less freedom to write whatever you think is important, whatever you think you might have to say in a way that is unique. I love having my books out in the world, and I love having people read them, but the creative need to make things, try things, be a beginner, fail and try again will always be there. I think I probably wouldn’t write historical fiction, because I’m probably not disciplined enough to get it all right. But then, I never say never.

What’s obsessing you now and why?
Music and horses. I sound like a teenager. The new novel I’m writing has a composer as a first person narrator—I’m thinking in music some of the time because of her. I went to conservatory at Oberlin, and always felt as though I was living out someone else’s life when I was there. I think in order to be a writer, a musician, a composer, a painter etc. as your primary identity (not necessarily to be a commercial success), you have to have a confluence of things, including talent, passion, and a drive that moves you beyond all the self-doubt and lack of external validation. Then the work itself has to give you a kind of transcendent mode, a pain, a joy, that makes you more alive.
So I relish thinking in music for my character.

And horses, the riding kind, not the racing kind, because my daughter and I went horse crazy a few years ago, and now we are owned by a large pony named Archer, whose moods and well-being and velvet nose magnify our joy. Hitting the dust when we’re riding him, well, it gives us bruises.

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