Here are the facts: Patry Francis is a three time nominee for the Pushcart Prize, and has twice been the recipient of a fellowship from Massachusetts Cultural Council. Her first novel, , has been translated into seven languages and was recently optioned for film. Now here is why you really need to know: Patry Francis is a genius writer who also happens to be one of the warmest, kindest people around. The only thing I'd like better than hosting her on my blog is having the chance to sit down with her over tea. Her book, which I blurbed, is truly haunting (Haunting being my litmus test) and I urge everyone to buy several copies. Thank you, Patry, for being here on the blog!
What sparked this book?
The Orphans of Race Point which I began in 2001, has been a part of me for so long I really had to ponder that question! Was it the spectacular landscape of the lower Cape? The close-knit Portuguese community I admired, and into which my son had recently married? Or was it some element of the long and twisting plot that came first?
However, I didn’t have to think long before I saw the face and heard the voice that haunted me from the start. It was Gus, the wounded, impulsive soul who transforms a tormented childhood into a fierce compassion for others. Though I didn’t know where his story would lead me, I saw him as both a child, hiding in the closet where he was found nearly catatonic after his mother’s murder, and as the man he became.
What surprised you in the writing and research?
What surprised me was that Gus, my spark, my obsession, wasn’t my main character. In the early drafts, the story began in what is now the middle, when Ava, a victim of domestic abuse comes to him for help, triggering visceral memories and bringing up the unresolved guilt from his past. Everything that preceded the visit, including his complex relationship with Hallie, the girl he’d loved since childhood, was revealed through backstory and it had the murky quality that flashbacks sometimes have.
But Hallie refused to play a secondary role. She knocked forcefully on the door of the novel, just as she had when she first showed at nine years old, demanding admittance to the house where Gus was staying. Six months had passed since his mother’s violent death and he hadn’t spoken a word. In town and on the playground, a rumor was circulating that he had become the victim of a feitiço, a kind of Portuguese spell. Following in the footsteps of her father, the town doctor, Hallie attempts her own cure by presenting him with two fish in a leaky plastic bag, and a challenge to keep them alive. Then, she returns daily to read aloud to him about an orphan who becomes the hero of his own story.
Once Hallie assumed center stage, much of Gus’s story was filtered through her, first as a precocious child and later, as a brilliant woman who felt it as strongly as he did, and often understood it more clearly. I also discovered that she had her own secrets to reveal.
This novel, for me, hooked me so emotionally. Did you feel that hook while you were writing?
Yes, definitely. Just this morning, I read a quote in a piece about censorship which was printed in The Guardian. Jenn Doll wrote:
“(Art) is not meant to shield us from pain so much as offer a vessel through which we can cope, grow and even move past tragedy.”
I believe that one of the most sacred tasks of the writer is to inspire the reader to feel, and we can only do that by experiencing the emotions ourselves.
Perhaps because Hallie and Gus first appear as motherless children, I had a particularly powerful connection with them. And then, as I say, we spent a lot of time together. This is a long, twisty novel, spanning thirty years, and stretching to include a large cast of characters. Over the years, I developed empathy for all of them, even the most hopelessly devious.
What's obsessing you now and why?
What’s obsessing me is trying not to obsess--which is really the challenge post-publication; don’t you think? Though it’s something like telling yourself not to think about the color red,’m attempting not to look at numbers, or seek daily validation that the book is doing “okay,” or to peek at too many on-line reviews. Though I’m eager to get the word out in any way I can, I also know I have very limited control over the novel’s fate. It’s time for the story and the characters to speak for themselves now, to enter the hearts and minds of readers and engage with them on their own terms.
I remember debating a friend and early reader about what Gus looked like. Was he short and muscular or a lean runner type? “Listen he’s my character. I know what he looks like,” I finally insisted, thinking that settled it.
But of course, I was wrong. If characters are to become real in a meaningful way, they can only do it by interacting with a reader, one on one, and by being imagined again as if for the first time. My job at this stage is to let go, trust them, and move on to a new story.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
You should have asked how we “met,” though you may not remember yourself! It was many years ago on the wonderful, though now sadly defunct, writer’s forum, Readerville. I was in awe to be talking with one of my favorite authors on-line. Then, as now, your generosity to all who asked for advice or help, was an inspiration and a great, great gift.
What's your writing life like?
Slow and laborious! I wish I worked from an outline like many of my author friends do, or that I had a clear sense where a novel is going before I began. But I tend to be a radically organic writer. I only find out where I’m going by sitting down to write. The surprises I encounter along the way are part of the fun, but they also throw off any timetable I might set for myself. In the end, it takes many drafts before the heart of the story emerges. And then it’s time to begin revisions...sigh.