Saturday, February 14, 2009

Read this book: Precious

Full disclosure.  I blurbed  Precious, falling in love at page one. About a disappearance (how could I not be captivated? one of my favorite themes) and the ripple effect it has on a family, the novels is just gorgeously written.  Novack is truly breathtakingly brilliant.  I cannot wait to read whatever she does next--and she also happens to be this summer sparkler of a person, as well. I asked Sandra if she would let me ask her a million questions and she very graciously obliged, even as she was at the AWP conference.  So thank you, a million times, Sandy!

 Can you tell us how Precious came about? Did it begin with an image, a line, an incident? There were several things that inspired the book.  I began very early on with two images—that of Vicki Anderson riding off on her bike, and that of Sissy atop the lip of the above-ground pool, daring herself to do a pirouette.  Both led to image patterns that were central to the plot and theme: that of disappearances on various levels, and that of water, related to remembered love.  When I wrote the scene where Sissy is on the pool lip, I knew that I had personally committed to the book and to the story itself, that the story would be a sustainable world for me, as I wrote it.  That was a neat moment, too, where not only the characters commit, but also the writer does as well. But, first and foremost, Precious is inspired by an incident from my own life, one that I then greatly fictionalized:  When I was quite young, only seven (for years I thought five), my sister ran away from home. I wrote the book to remember someone I loved very deeply as a child, to also remember someone I never got a chance to know, too, if that makes sense…to reclaim the idea of a sister. 

 Pr  Precious swirls around the vanishing of a little girl, but it really is about one family, and how they are each leaving one another in one way or another—and stories rush in to fill the void. II found this incredibly haunting. What role do you think stories play in our lives today—and why do you think of the new media (blogs, videos, text novels) in terms of stories that can save us?  Well, the latter is an interesting question given the recent article by Lev Grossman on “Books Gone Wild: The Digital Age Reshapes Literature.”  In a way, this great “new media” affirms that everyone can be storytellers—so there’s a great democratization in the process, less gatekeepers to hinder the way.  That said, I do worry about a total lack of gatekeepers, how it will affect a market already inundated with work. And by that, I mean work set to basic standards.   But, I also say, what gets noticed gets noticed.  It’s hard, in this day and age, to argue otherwise.

And, given that I’m a person of place and small towns, I worry about always being “plugged in,” and what that does to the imagination, not for myself so much as the generation of, say, my nieces and nephews.  Sometimes I just want to tell them to unplug, to get outside more, to create worlds there, in the actual world.  But I also know I’m being silly. They have stories, too, stories that aren’t like mine and don’t need to be.  The stories will always be there so long as we’re people and not machines.  At least I hope that. 

I think all our personal stories save us, in a way.  When I was writing Precious, my husband’s ninety-some-year-old grandfather died.  As soon as the news was delivered (for us over the phone), my husband naturally told a story about his granddad, something he remembered from when he was a child.  The telling was not only a way to cope with loss, but it was also a way to make sense and shape life and history, one that is communal as well as individual.  No one exists in isolation, as Martin Buber once said.  Fictional stories are similar if not in factual truth, then in emotional truth.  They are the most fundamental declarations of our collective humanity.  To my mind, a good story always gives us a way to remember what’s important, those truths and lessons we cannot let go of, or afford to forget.  If we forget those truths, those people, those places and events that have shaped us, we not only deny something in ourselves, I think, but we also allow those voices of the past to disappear and be forgotten.   But those voices are always trying to speak to us.

 I a   I’m obsessed with process and how other writers work, so can you tell us something about your writing day? Also, what was it like writing Precious? I screw around a lot!  I’m always up by 7:00 and have a routine I go through where I have coffee with my husband and then we walk the dog and tend to the cats.  I get in and usually check e-mail, Facebook (I am Facebook addicted!), and then I start writing eventually.  If I can get in a few good hours, say from 9-1 or 10-2, I feel pretty happy, and that includes drafting total rubbish, too.  I do try and write every day, and I’m a stickler for routine. 

 I don’t compose in a linear way, writing one line after the next, but generally compose by juxtaposing elements and lines that interest me, without worrying about placement.  So on any given day I might have three things on a page that I know will go in three different chapters. Eventually I start to see patterns in that chaos.  I write like that until I think enough of the ideas are assembled for just one chapter, and then I break out the highlighter to find those “chunks” that belong together, assemble them in their own file, and write long-hand on legal pad to organize the thing.  There are several drafts like this, continual shaping.  It’s fairly tedious and entirely messy and illogical. Writing Precious added some extra constraints to this, since the book was contracted on a partial and I had nine months to complete it.  I didn’t always have the luxury of stopping when I felt tired for the day, so I devised strategies for getting a second wind: extra coffee, extra walks, whatever worked.  Walked around mumbling to myself a lot, too, which is fairly normal for me, anyway.

 I I  I know you also have a short story collection coming out.  How does writing short stories differ for you than writing a novel (and can you talk a bit about what the collection is about?) Are you working on another novel and do you find that it is harder or easier now that you have Precious under your belt? You know for years I resisted writing a novel because I considered myself a short story writer at heart.  I published, but I had a bugger of a time pitching the completed collection, which is about everything from mentally ill brothers who kidnap dogs and steal leaf blowers, to old men who get their houses toilet-papered, to mahogany legs showing up in the mail as a gift from a dead relative.  But people kept telling me I needed to write a novel.  I don’t know why it should have surprised me, but I found that the novel afforded me enough expansion to really juggle a lot of elements and juxtapose things, which is my natural inclination.  So the form suited me.  I also wasn’t used to living with characters for so long, either, but found that a wonderful experience, like I had friends to talk to each day, ones who happened to live in my head.  It made me a little crazy—isn’t that schizophrenia, technically?—but it was a happy crazy.  Like the world made sense (finally!).

 Now that I’m looking on the contracted collection, I feel as though it’s old work and needs to be better.  So I plan on writing some new stories for it.  But I was so bummed after leaving one novel world that I was already dreaming up a new one to sustain me.  I did a lot of drafting during the summer and am now into the fourth chapter of Resurrection Fern, a new novel.  It’s set in the rural south and is about an old man who has died three times and come back to life, a boy who sustains him in his loneliness and who might have the ability to discern truths and heal, and a man who comes back to town with a secret, a crime he committed thirty years before.  The boy gets tangled up in all that.  And the book has ghosts and taxidermy, which seems odd and is odd, but in hopefully good ways. 

 I don’t know if it gets easier.  Each novel has its own set of problems, and challenges. In one way, I feel freer and more playful, but in another, I worry more that my new novel will be ‘good enough.’  There is always a push to get better, always expectations from both others and even more so myself.

 I read on your blog, that you are living, unhappily, in the South. How does that inform your writing, do you think? (I ask because I wrote my first novel in Pittsburgh, where I was miserable every nanosecond.)  I am fairly isolated here, some of it a self-imposed exile.  The town I currently live in has a population of only a few hundred, and when you enter it, you might question whether it’s 2009 or 1899.  That interests me, though, these places that seem to exist as they always have, without much change.  It’s a place that so values its past and the people who have always been here, family after family.  Even though that means I don’t feel I belong here, that idea of family and belonging is a really beautiful thing.  Living here made me, for the first time in my life, really miss my family, my “tribe.”  I have this profound happiness when I’m home in PA and am flicked the bird on the turnpike.  And the potholes on PA22.  I miss those roads.

 Which leads me to say everyone’s idea and knowledge of place is different, and finding the right place usually only means finally finding what makes the most sense to you, as a person.  My sense is always someone else’s nonsense, and vice versa.  But I couldn’t write about GA now, in a new book, if I didn’t spend some time figuring out what I’ve loved about it, too.  I hope I’m rendering this place affectionately in the new book, because I feel affectionate toward it these days.  Of course did I also mention I am moving to Chicago?  Was it Twain who said, “Distance lends enchantment?”


5.    What question didn’t I ask you that I should have?I can’t think of any, other than the one I always ask myself on a day writing isn’t going well:  What would I be if not a writer?  My answers are usually circus performer, baker, ghost detective, or cat trainer.  I keep them around as my back up plans.



Jessica Keener said...

Your book sounds intriguing and if Caroline's endorsing it, then I know it must be. Did you stop by the Agni magazine table at AWP? I was there. Great conference, wasn't it?


Sandra Novack said...

Hi Jessica!

Caroline is the BEST. So wonderful.

I walked through the book fair only once! Didn't stop much this time around (but Agni is one of my favorite journals!). It was a great conference, but I split the time between the conference and looking for homes in the area so I didn't catch as many talks as I normally do. :(

Michele said...

Sounds like a great book. Thanks Caroline for the recommendation. I am putting on my tbr now.

Clea Simon said...

It does sound wonderful. That said, you can be a writer AND a cat trainer. As long as your cat agrees.