Wednesday, July 15, 2015
Leah Stewart talks about THE NEW NEIGHBOR, Tana French, the plus and minus of community, TV actors and so much more
Leah Stewart is one amazing novelist. She gets at the heart of what goes on between people--what draws them asunder and what brings them together. She's the author of History of Us, The Mystery of You and Me, Husband and Wife, Body of a Girl, and her latest, The New Neighbor, is truly magnificent. Thank you so much, Leah for being here!
I always want to know what sparks a book? What question was haunting you that propelled you into this particular story?
I had a few different things I was thinking about, and I remember an ah-ha moment when it occurred to me that I could bring them all together. One piece was that I had a failed historical novel based on my grandmother's experience as an army nurse in World War II. I'd put it aside for several years but it nagged at me that I'd never finished it, and then it struck me that perhaps I could write a contemporary novel about a character who had that back story. That led me to Margaret. I knew I'd have to add drama to the back story, because the original novel was very episodic and didn't lead to any kind of reveal. So I started thinking about stories in the form of a confession in which the reader learns at the end what exactly the character has done. I remember looking at Stephen King's Dolores Claiborne and rereading Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace, which is definitely a big influence on this novel. And yet another piece came from thinking about the classic character of the beautiful, damaged teenage boy—think Rebel Without a Cause or Tim Riggins from Friday Night Lights. I was idly wondering what it would be like to actually marry and raise children with a guy like that. I don't know that I'd formulated a central question when I started, though since then I've come to think the crucial questions are: how do we live with the worst things we've done, and do we have to define ourselves by those things? And of course there's a preoccupation with the tug-of-war between the desire for connection and the fear of it. For these characters, connection is tangled up with guilt, because the worst things they've done emerged from their greatest loves.
What do we give up for community--and what do you think we should? How do secrets protect us--and tear us apart? Can you talk about this please?
We give up the ability to do and say whatever we want. To belong to any community, we have to be willing to place the good of the group above our own desires at least some of the time. Sometimes that means keeping secrets, our own or somebody else's. In my third novel, Husband and Wife, a husband confesses a one-night stand about a year after it happened because he can't live with his own guilt anymore. Doing so, he throws his wife into turmoil and his family into chaos. I wanted that novel to ask whether he should have just kept it to himself. Was it a selfless act to tell her or a selfish one? I don't know the answer, but I find the question really interesting.
I was really interested in the structure--Margaret tells one part, revealing her stories from the War, while Jennifer slowly unfolds her story. As you got deeply into both characters, did you ever reach that point when you felt they were pushing you in directions you might not want to go towards? Did you map this all out and if so, how? (I like index cards and Scriviner!
I knew from the beginning I was going to use that structure. For a while I just wrote, then once I got stuck, which usually happens in every first draft somewhere around 100 pages, I started trying to outline. In the case of this book, I inserted a bunch of page breaks and titles that said Jennifer or Margaret, and then started making notes about what could happen in each chapter. At some point I realized that the first part would be dominated by Margaret's curiosity about Jennifer, and the second part by Margaret's own story, and the third part would return to Jennifer's story. I always knew what I was doing with Margaret, but Jennifer was harder to figure out, and she was the character whose story sometimes led in directions I didn't really want to go. (At one point, she had an affair, but I took that out.) After my editor, Sally Kim, read the manuscript, I made substantive changes inspired by her suggestions, and that led to the third point-of-view character entering the book in the last section. Also, in my original draft, Margaret didn't tell her story to Jennifer but just to the reader. Which seems crazy to me now! The book is much better for Sally's input.
I love the way Margaret threads books into her own life, how she compares her actions with those of the authors or their works. All of this has to do with story and how we make a story of our own life, as well. Can you talk about this please?
It made sense to me that Margaret would be motivated to action by the books she's read, all those mysteries making her think she can be a detective. At the same time, she's constructing her own experience into a story, which we all do, I think, as an effort to explain ourselves to ourselves, whether that explanation is justification or confession or self-delusion or some combination. It's a feedback loop—story to experience to story. Since writers are hyper aware of that, maybe all fiction is on some level about the construction of narrative. Or at least all first-person fiction, because those characters are actively engaged in making a story of their lives.
What kind of writer are you? What’s your daily writing life like?
I've never been the kind of writer who wrote for great lengths of time, or even every day. Even before children and a full-time teaching job I wrote in two- or three-hour bursts every few days. Now that's all that's possible, at least during the school year. But I've learned in the last couple of years that I'm capable of writing until I drop, through going to a writers' colony in Sewanee called Rivendell. While I'm there I look at the draft first thing in the morning, eat while reading, write until I run out of steam, eat while reading, go for a walk with a notebook and a pen in my pocket, come back and write, and so on. Then I look at the draft again right before I go to sleep, and turn out the light thinking about what to write the next day. It's bliss, probably because I only get to live like that for a couple weeks a year.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I'm writing a novel about television actors, one of whom gets kidnapped, and I've been doing enormous amounts of research, including reading a great many books about acting technique. So I've definitely been obsessed with everything about acting—the different ideas about how it's done, the thrill of doing it well, the psychological toll it takes. Marlon Brando wrote that there's no difference between professional actors and everyone else. He said, "It is hard to imagine that we could survive in this world without being actors." I agree with him on the latter point, but I don't think I agree on the former.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
What mysteries I like myself? I love Tana French. I've read all five of her books and am desperately awaiting a sixth.