Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Bridget Foley talks about Hugo & Rose, why outlining is not a dirty word, radical fandom, and so much more

 You know how you meet people in person and you get a vibe and you can just tell that you want to be their best friend? I've never met Bridget Foley, but her emails, her website, and of course her writing, are all so effervescent and honest,  well, Bridget--looks like you're stuck with me. I'm honored to host her on the blog to talk about Hugo & Rose, imaginary lives and outlines (Yay! I'm a story structure outline person myself!)  Thank you, Bridget!

 I always want to know what sparks a book--but you talk about that in the extraordinary acknowledgement pages of your novel. Please can you tell us about the grief, bravery and courage it took for Hugo & Rose to emerge, and how writing the book changed you? Was there anything in it that surprised you?

Shortly after I finished the first draft of HUGO & ROSE, I became pregnant with identical twin girls. I edited the book on bed rest, my belly making the reach to the keyboard a bit more difficult each day. The plan had always been for the book to go to market in September because the girls were due in November, which meant that all book business would have been cleared by then. Best laid plans.

On September 1st, the girls’ placenta abrupted which caused them to be born 10 weeks early. They were small but their prognosis was good. My agent called to see if we should put off the book sale; my husband and I talked about it. We were picturing ourselves trying to deal with two newborns at home while undergoing the stress of the sale… so we decided it would be best to do it on the timeline we had planned.

Right after we pulled the trigger my daughter Giddy took a turn. She was transferred to a different hospital and suddenly we were spending our days talking about blood counts and liver numbers. Our life became shuttling between hospitals, talking to doctors and sitting by the beds of our girls. We got dispatches about the book, but they were like tiny voices in a loud room. I barely noticed.

Giddy passed away when she was 19 days old. HUGO & ROSE sold three days later. My entire journey as a published author has also been that of a grieving parent.

It was not easy.   It still is not easy.  It never will be.

Oddly, HUGO & ROSE uses the premise of an alternate life lived in dreams to explore the ways humans deal with trauma. Without spoiling the ending, I think it is safe to say that Hugo and Rose are characters who got stuck in a moment that helped them deal with a particularly difficult event in their lives. But the thing that was meant to help them, also keeps them from appreciating the lives that they had after their trauma.

For the past year and a half, like Rose, I have also been living an imagined life in parallel to my real one. Mine is one in which my dead daughter is in the bath tub next to her living sister, or on the swings, or at the breakfast table. There is a part of me that will never leave the room in which my daughter died.

And that could absolutely keep me from appreciating my life, from being joyful about the children I still have, or happy about what an incredible privilege it is to have a book published. I have sorrow but it is my daily practice to try to keep it from preventing me from experiencing all the love and joy and happiness this world has to offer.

With the book coming out I had to decide how open I was going to be about my daughter’s death. I decided to share, not because I want pity, or even sympathy, but because I’m not sure I know any another way to be at the moment. I have said elsewhere that while my daughter’s short life is not the book’s story, it is the story of the book. I can’t talk about one without talking about the other.

What does it really mean to be “the dream of yourself”? Can you talk about that please?

There’s this strange little line in the book that I’m kind of obsessed with. It surprised me when it appeared on the screen years ago and years later, it still gets at me:

            She didn’t want to be who she was when she was who she was.

It’s even weirder if you say it aloud, which I would recommend because it’s fun. I love playing with word repetition… but this line is like a little poem in the middle of the chapter about the misery of feeling like you’re performing your life instead of living it. I think everyone has a “dream self” that they can’t shake; the thinner, happier, more productive version of themselves. That person with the better job, bigger house and longer temper who if they just stepped in, everything would be easier. There are entire industries devoted to helping us become the people we dream we could be.

Of course, in the book the fantasy of the better self is literalized. In their dreams Rose and Hugo are thin, beautiful and brave, while in real life they are aging, overweight and deeply fearful of a great many things. Their “other self” is a constant companion through their day, reminding them of all the things they are not.

What kind of writer are you? Do you outline or just follow your pen?

I love outlines. I adore outlines. I preach outlines to any and every person who asks me for advice. This is because every work of fiction that I have ever failed to complete, or had to put through a brutal, traumatic reworking was written without an outline.

I have read beautiful books that were ‘discovered along the way’ and I have many friends that write that way… it just doesn’t work for me. The gift of an outline is that it gives you something to hand to your most trusted reader before you have invested months and months on it. It is much easier to fix structural problems, or gaping plot holes when they are only a few sentences on a twenty page document rather than threaded through an entire 400 page manuscript.

The outline also eliminates the dread that accompanies every morning of opening up your computer and asking yourself, “what next?” When you work from an outline, the question isn’t the “what” it’s the “how.” How do I tell this part of the story? This keeps your fingers moving, which is great because, at least for me, stagnation is death. If I wait for “inspiration” I could be waiting a really long time… Instead if I wake up and make myself write a scene because that is what is needed I’ve found that inspiration has a way of walking in the door.

I think outlining gets a bad rap because people think doesn’t allow for discovery, that it leads to a rigid, unimaginative result. But I believe if that’s the case it says more about the writer than the process.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

The thing that’s obsessing me right now is the idea of radical fandom, which is my term for a kind of cultural discipline I’m trying to apply to my own life. Charles Murray wrote a great book called, “Coming Apart” a few years ago in which he compared America in 1960 to 2010. He argued that in the past fifty years the gap between the haves and the have-nots has widened not just for economic reasons but because we have stratified our culture. In 1960 people from every level of the social strata consumed the same things. They shopped at the same grocery stores, saw the same television shows, read the same books.

That just isn’t what is happening today. White collar and blue collar people shop differently, watch differently, read differently. We’re talking the audience for Mad Men versus the people who watch Two and A Half Men. And we use social signaling to tell everyone in our tribe that we belong. It’s “Did you see Girls last night?” or “Twilight…ugh.” We have become a very critical culture. There are a lot of people today who are defined by the things they hate.

(By the way, Murray says the sole remaining unifier of the classes is that they both still root for the same sports teams. I would argue that they are also probably consuming the same pornography. Sex and Violence… Kumbaya!)

Whenever people express these hard line opinions there’s often something about it that demotes the people who do enjoy that particular bit of culture. I’m talking Kim Kardashian, NASCAR, the Bachelorette. Case in point, a few months ago when commenting on their feud, Jonathan Franzen stated that he had never read the books of Jennifer Weiner nor did he know anyone who had. If we leave out what this may or may not be saying about the ghettoization of women who write “domestic fiction” versus men who do the same, this is just incredibly sad. It speaks to a lack of diversity in his life. 

As a writer, I just don’t think these attitudes are particularly useful. If something is a phenomenon, it’s more helpful for me to seek to figure out what people are responding to about something than to dismiss it out of hand.  Hence “radical fandom.” If something is having a ‘moment’ and I have the urge to dismiss it, I compel myself to lean into it; to see it, hear it or read it from the view of its fans not it detractors. I think it’s possible to be “smart” person and open to all forms of culture. Roxane Gay is a master of radical fandom. So is Camille Paglia.

Thinking like this has gotten me on board with Flo Rida, Miranda Lambert, Owl City, EL James and Kim Kardashian. Emojis used to drive me crazy, then it occurred to me that I was cutting myself off from a whole different mode of communication. Now I embrace them so fully I’m actually irritated I don’t have them on my computer keyboard.  Why limit yourself? Life’s too short to be defined by the things you hate.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

Well, it’s difficult to translate from the emoji… it’s something like depressed face, ice cream cone, lightning bolt, epiphany face, happy face. Of course that doesn’t capture the nuance, but you get the gist.   And the answer is, all the time, my friend, all the time. (winky face)

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