Monday, August 3, 2015

Val Brelinski talks about The Girl Who Slept With God, growing up Evangelistic, migrant workers, and so much more

Val Brelinski writes the kinds of books I love-they push to acknowledge what you do or don't believe in--and what ramifications that can have on your life and the lives of others. I'm thrilled to host her here because the Girl Who Slept with God is one of my favorite books of the year (And Amazon thinks to so!) Val Brelinski was born and raised in Nampa, Idaho, the daughter of devout evangelical Christians. From 2003 to 2005, she was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, where she was also a Jones Lecturer in fiction writing. She received an MFA from the University of Virginia, and her recent writing has been featured in VQR and The Rumpus. She received prizes for her fiction from the San Francisco Chronicle, The Charlottesville Weekly, and The Boise Weekly, and was also a finalist for the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award. Val lives in Northern California and currently teaches creative writing at Stanford's Continuing Studies Program.Val, thank you so, so much for being here!

I always want to know what sparks a book? What was haunting or obsessing you at the time that made you feel that this was the book you absolutely had to write?

My family’s strict evangelicalism has colored absolutely every part of my life, so it was very natural that when I finally began to write at age 40 (!), thoughts about my unusual upbringing poured out of me and onto the page in a nearly effortless stream. My novel is a fictional account of one girl’s adolescence that very closely resembles my own. I felt so very strongly about this female and her family and their agonized interactions because they are essentially me and my sisters and my parents, only slightly rearranged.

Your novel is so soulful and so spiritual, as it tackles big questions of faith and family--both of which can help us and offer comfort, or they can destroy us. Can you talk about that, please?

I know that my parents believed utterly that their faith and the choices they made because of it were in their daughters’ best interests. They genuinely worried that my sisters and I might go to hell if we didn’t follow their fundamentalist dictates—a problematic situation because I was a curious and stubborn kid and a fun-loving adolescent. I strained mightily against the endless and picayune rules that our church imposed, and my attitude became a bone of contention between my parents and me. My father loved me utterly, but in many ways he placed his own personal beliefs above the long-term welfare of his children, sometimes to each of his daughters’ detriment. I have nothing but admiration for sincere believers whose personal lives reflect their religious faith on a daily basis, but I don’t agree with those who force their friends and family members to do the same. Proselytizing and enforced belief never bring anything but misery. Faith should be an individual choice that does not infringe on the rights of others to believe differently.

What kind of writer are you? Do you have rituals, do you outline, do you have to have a pound of chocolate before you begin? I’m curious what you learned from writing this novel and if you think you’ll take it into your next novel? I mean both in terms of writing techniques and the issues and themes you were working with.

I only wish I had a writing routine! I write when I have something to say, when something has been percolating in my head for a bit. I have to feel a particular desire in order to really begin, otherwise whatever I write tends to be a bit scattershot. When I first began writing (a decade ago), I wrote daily as a sort of exercise, but now I tend to work with more firm direction because I’m the type of writer who could write endlessly about everything and have reams of stories that head off into outer space. I still have a box full of old legal pads filled with my early scratchings.

I don’t usually outline, but I will definitely have a pretty good idea of where I am headed before I even begin writing a story. My agent had me outline my novel after I had written it, and this was an excellent tool for seeing where I needed to fill things in further and where I had devoted too much space to a certain event or character. I am sadly not very organized, but I usually do have a story’s plotline (even certain sentences and images) figured out in my head before I sit down at my laptop. However, this doesn’t mean that I am not often surprised about what comes out once I begin!

I walk and run out in the country every night, and this is often when I do my best thinking and imagining. My dog and I trot along, and I conjure up storylines and dialogue in my head. I think I have done this since I was a child as a form of escape from the actual world I was living in. Back then I was a horse and a Native American and occasionally Helen Keller or Johnny Quest (does anyone remember him now?).

What’s obsessing you now and why? What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

I am currently working on a novel about some migrant workers in Idaho during and after the Depression (sounds exciting, doesn’t it?), and a memoir about my own rather traumatic early twenties. My first (and teenaged) husband robbed a federal bank and ended up going to jail when we were first married—a strange situation that I still find scary and fascinating.

You very tactfully didn’t ask me why on earth it took me so long to begin my writing career. On the day of my first writing workshop at Stanford, my professor, John L’Heureux, took me aside and sweetly said, “Harriet Doerr didn’t publish Stones for Ibarra until she was 73, so you’ve got a little time left.” I laughed, but he wasn’t that far off. Thanks to my evangelical background which told me that writing novels was a frivolous, sinful and “worldly” occupation, I didn’t start writing until my fourth decade of life. And even then, I had difficulty taking myself seriously. I was raised to be a dutiful wife and mother and nothing more. When I got the news that I had received a Stegner Fellowship, I called my parents and told them that I was going to go to Stanford to be paid to write stories. There was a long moment’s silence on the other end of the phone and then my mother said, “Why would you want to do that?” This sums up my family’s notions about fiction writing.

Since then however, my younger sister has also become a writer and my son is now getting his own MFA. The world keeps right on changing, no matter what!

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