Saturday, September 26, 2009

Read This Book: Life Without Summer

PW, in a starred review called Lynne Griffin's Life Without Summer "a spellbinding tale of loss and hard-won redemption." As someone who is always grappling with writing about the darker side of life, I was instantly intrigued. Lynne's been kind enough to answer my questions here about her novel.

You take the unimaginable idea—a mother struggling with the loss of her four-year-old daughter in a hit and run accident—and turn it into fiction. As someone who routinely goes down those dark roads in my writing—and often suffers during the writing--I’d like to ask you if writing about this was difficult or healing—and why?

It was both, really. I was working on another novel when the story came to me. I imagined two women struggling with different grief stories, each personal loss echoing the other’s. From the beginning, I knew the first and last lines, and how the two families would come to be forever connected. Writing this novel was deeply cathartic, because of losses I’ve suffered in my own life. Though I’ve never lost a child, I’ve had my share of grief experiences. To me the book is more of a hopeful, redemptive story. Certainly it was emotional to write, but I think authentic storytelling should touch writer and reader alike.

Can you talk about the structure of your novel and how that came to be? What particularly interested me is that you’ve said that early readers advised you against your structure and your theme. How hard is it to stay true to your own vision in the light of other’s concerns and comments?

I’m a determined person, so not hard at all really. I chose first person accounts, by both Tessa and Celia, since this is the most intimate point of view for storytelling. I didn’t want to leave any distance between the characters and my readers. I also chose epistolary, or journal format, because I felt it would be quite personal to glimpse inside these women’s diaries. My point of view choice and the novel’s structure mean that at times the story is raw, yet it’s very important to me to show an honest look at the process of moving into and out of the grief experience. I want to give readers a true sense of what it feels like to embrace or reject healing.

Writing this close to grief and having the story involve a child was challenging. Other writers, and some in the publishing industry, were wary of the subject matter, but I never wavered in my commitment to tell this story. With something as deeply personal as losing a child, I felt compelled to write my way to the heart of the experience.

Another question about process: Because the novel really enters the lives of these two women, I was wondering how mapped out the novel was before you began writing . Did anything surprise you as you progressed?

When I’m beginning a novel, I do a lot of “writing in my head”. I contemplate structure, formulate the plot, listen to my characters. Once I’m ready to tackle the first draft, I write scene-to-scene, rarely if ever out of sequence. I’m a methodical writer, in that my process is exactly the same every day. I do my best writing in the morning, starting my day by re-reading and editing the pages from the previous day. Once in a groove, I write anywhere from 3 to 6 pages a day. When I’m actively working on a manuscript, I write six days a week.

For Life Without Summer, I had the benefit of an internal structure. Written in journal format, there was the need to adhere to the calendar. The story plays out over one year, so at certain times I would have to write entries that corresponded with the time of year, which did a lot to propel the story forward. Tessa writes about her first Halloween without Abby. Celia describes the first Christmas trying to juggle her new husband with her ex, her son’s father.

With my second novel, I wrote without an outline until I came to the middle of the novel, and then I plotted my way to the end. So I guess I’d say I do a bit of both. Regardless, I’m often surprised along the way with what my characters reveal to me, and with the choices they make; how those choices move the plot forward. Those moments of clarity—when I’m in flow, writing—are the very reason I love to write fiction.

Both Tessa, the mother, and Celia, the grief counselor cope with grief differently. As a social worker, do you feel there is a right way to grieve, or are all paths different?

I’ve been a family life expert for over twenty years, and always been struck by the healthy and not so healthy ways grief work gets done. There are many right ways to grieve a loss. Some parents take comfort in talking out their feelings, while others prefer solitude. Many lean on pre-established communities, faith-based and civic, while some choose to stick with close knit groups of family and friends for support. There are many healthy things parents can do to celebrate their child’s life, like honor their child with a memorial or some type of commemorative activity. So yes, there are right ways to handle loss. Yet there are some wrong ways too. Any time someone turns to substances like alcohol or drugs to cope, as one character does in Life Without Summer, it’s a recipe for disaster. The pain may be numbed in the short run, but substance abuse creates so many more issues in the long run. Personal relationships suffer and depression is more likely to occur with the frequent and excessive use of alcohol and drugs.

You talk about the importance of liability, rather than likability , in creating characters, which I thought was wonderful. Characters don’t have to be nice, and can, in fact be downright evil, if we understand why they did what they did. Can you talk a little more about this?

I have over twenty years professional experience with specific expertise in the impact of individual differences—or temperament—on human behavior. In writing fiction, I work to craft characters from the inside out. Ones who are more than the sum of their physical traits. I am driven to get to the heart of character motivation. As I write, I try to answer questions like, “What would this character really do?” & “How would my character react to that situation or this person?” I’m committed to crafting three-dimensional, compelling major as well as minor characters. And I revise until I’m satisfied.

I connected quite easily with Tessa. I really get her fierce edgy way of coping. I’m a bit intense myself, so I understand why at times she goes for shock value. As for Celia, I have a lot of compassion for her. I can see how easily a woman torn apart by loss might make a few missteps, suddenly finding herself on a road she wouldn’t be on if grief hadn’t toyed with her sensibilities. I have great empathy for her inability to take her own advice. It’s one thing to know the right thing to do; it’s another entirely to do the right thing, especially in a situation like hers. In terms of who gave me the most trouble, it was Celia. She was buttoned up, as characters go, and that made it hard to get to the bottom of her situation. I spent a lot of time writing to find her story. It was in the revision process that her real grief experience revealed itself.

Can you talk about your next novel?

My second novel, Sea Escape (Simon & Schuster, summer 2010) is also about family life. In it I explore the impact secrets have on the closeness family members can share.

1 comment:

Jessica Brilliant Keener said...

CL--Wonderful interview (as always).
Lynne-I admire your commitment to your story and your characters.