Monday, September 12, 2011

Sandra Novack talks about Everyone But You, titles, short stories vs. novels and more

I first met Sandra Novack because of a blurb request. Her publicist wanted to know if I'd consider reading her debut novel, Precious, and by the first ten pages, I was so enthralled I couldn't do anything but keep reading. With her first novel, she established herself as a writer of prodigious talents. Now, with Everyone But You, she's turned back to the short story form, and the stories here are exquisite chips of lives. I didn't know Sandy when Precious came out, but let me tell you--she's the type of person who not only made it her business to drive an hour out of her way to come to a reading of mine in her native Chicago, she came during a blizzard. Sandy is reading in NYC this Friday at the  Center for Fiction, 17 E 47 St, from 7 to 10. I'll be there, and you should be, too. 

I'm so thrilled to have Sandy here.  Thank you, thank you.
How is writing a short story collection different, especially coming after such a raved-about debut novel? Do you like writing short stories better--or novels?

Short stories are more severe. In essence, too, these stories were mostly written before PRECIOUS, my debut. EVERYONE BUT YOU was part of a two-book deal that my agent brokered for the then-completed collection, along with an 80-page partial of my novel. The novel was published first with the collection to follow. After PRECIOUS came out, I didn’t return to short stories but dove into writing a new ‘big book’. So when it came time to revisit the stories, I had a very difficult time! I quickly realized I was a different writer than the writer I was in 2003-2005. I was a different person, too. I felt like I was ruining things, messing around too much, and lots of times I opted for the original version. It felt more honest that way. 

I’m very hard on myself with writing, either when writing stories or a novel. People tell me the stories are funny and irreverent and moving, but it’s hard to get clarity of vision anymore. Interestingly, I also feel that way about PRECIOUS, despite any praise it received. When I read it now, I cringe. I’m told there are many writers like this, who are always hypercritical of anything they’ve ever done. And my perceived ‘best’ work is always my newest work, the story I’m in right now. 

As for what I like better: I tend to think that writing short stories was prepping me for being able to juggle more threads, bigger worlds and more expansion--a preparation for novel writing. I don’t have plans to go back to short stories, at least for now. But I stand by them, because they are part of me. And they really are much more funny compared to PRECIOUS, which seemed to get everyone thinking I was this very, very serious, intense writer. I am that, but I’m other things, too.

Your characters in this collection are so wonderfully multi-layered-- from a man caring for his sick brother to a boy dealing with issues about faith--that I wanted to ask if you might talk about how you build your characters. 

I’m interested in all sorts of people—old, young, male, female, dense, clueless, impenetrable, sassy, deep, rich, poor, deviant, straight-laced, you name it. There’s always something I find interesting in anyone I speak with on any given day. And I tend to hang out with all these different sorts of people, too. For some reason a lot of people tell me their stories. I’m a magnet for it. When it comes to character building, I often steal a little. I take something about a person that interests me, and then I build fiction around that and amplify/deepen from there. I always try and write from a trait that amuses me, moves me, saddens me, shocks me, or even flat-out offends me. Generally it is an extreme of any given emotion. Why invent from scratch, when so much about people is interesting?

I love the title, Everyone But You, because it seems to expand on one of the themes of the collection, the desire and difficulty of connecting with another person. I know from experience that sometimes the titles we choose are not the ones that end up on the novel! How'd this title come about?

The original title, sold to Random House, was Love and Other Disasters. For me all the stories are really love stories: failed attempts at love, the desire to resurrect love, the oddity and insanity and whimsy of it, the healing power of love, too. But I never loved that title! So I started messing around. I liked the idea that the stories focused so much on characters on the edge. And EVERYONE BUT YOU came from a duality of vision. Readers could correctly say, “These characters are crazy,” or “These characters are fucked up,” or “These characters can’t get their act together.” But I generally find that’s a position of judgment. I always think even the sanest, most ‘together’ person I know could be five steps away from their world falling apart, given the right and crucial sequence of events. You know what I mean. They could lose a great job. Have a love affair end. Suffer a loss that breaks them. When someone like a homeless person tells me a story (and they do, on trains, buses, etc.), I wonder: What would it take for me to land there, where they are? I can’t help but think that. I know a lot of other people who think that way, too, and operate out of a mode of … compassion? Or if not that, at least tolerance. But I know quite a few who run in the opposite direction, the Snookie’s of the world. Like everyone else has a problem but them. In that case, the title spoke to a level of judgment. From me. In part, too, everyone but you has a sense of exclusion, as well, like everyone but you has their shit together, everyone but you can make it work, find love, keep family together, loved ones, hold things down. That attitude, too. Like, geesh, why am I so far behind in the game, when everyone else appears so much better off?

You know what’s funny, though? No one ever questioned me on the title before now. I never understood why, because the title seemed so introspective and personal to me, and not necessarily obvious (to my mind).

What's obsessing you now?

I’ve had a year of bad luck, starting with my dad’s sudden death this spring. I was working, prior to that, on a ‘big, big book’. But when Dad died, I just naturally needed to process, because it was a game changer. I don’t think I ever gave my father credit for holding the family together before that moment, but, with him suddenly gone, the shape of our family changed radically. I’m writing about that (non-fiction, of all things!) to make sense of it all, and it’s been going well. In part, it’s a logical progression, because my sister Carole (whom PRECIOUS was dedicated to) is now once again talking to family, after a thirty-year absence and silence. I still know I will get to that big, big book again, because I’m OCD with it as well. But it will realistically take longer to complete, and I’m trying to stay on a ‘one-book-every-two-years’ schedule. I’m not sure that’s the best way to be, but it’s the only thing that’s working right now.

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

I think I have bored you enough!


katrina said...

Great interview!! Sandy, you are never boring. Caroline, I liked your questions.

Melissa Sarno said...

I loved this interview and I think I would like Sandy's books. I'm going to try and attend that reading on Friday! :)

Caroline Leavitt said...

Melissa, say hi to me, if you come!