Hey, I blurbed Douglas Trevor's astonishing new book Girls I know, and called it "Deeply moving and ebulliently funny" and it is. He's also the author of a short story collection, The Thin Tear in the Fabric of Space, which won the 2005 Iowa Short Fiction Award and was a finalist for the 2006 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for First Fiction. He lives in one of my favorite cities on earth, Ann Arbor, where he is an Associate Professor of Renaissance Literature and Creative Writing. I couldn't wait to have Douglas on the blog so I could ask him more about the book and I'm so honored to have him here. Thank you, thank you so much!
Can you talk about what sparked the idea for this book? Do you prefer one form or the other?
Girls I know began with a few sparks, but also with a lot of deliberateness on my part. For instance, I was determined early on to come up with a story idea for a novel that was eventful. Most of the short stories that make up my collection, The Thin Tear in the Fabric of Space, are about people in the throes of grief, but the losses that shape their grief all occur before the stories themselves. I was a little self-conscious, I guess, about being typecast as the kind of writer who thinks a lot about sentences and characters but less about plot, so I invested quite a bit of time thinking about plot, and reading novels for their plots, which I hadn't really done before.
The idea of writing about a restaurant shooting specifically came to me in the midst of all this. I was sitting in a crowded diner in New York City where I was supposed to meet with an editor and there was an argument at the front between the cashier and a customer. I remember thinking, My God, what if this guy pulled out a gun and started shooting people? And then, almost immediately, I started to think about a novel based on the aftermath of such an event, and I knew right away that I was going to stick with the premise, both because I had never tried to write anything like that before, and also because a restaurant or café seemed like a great vehicle by which to enter a city.
Even before I knew exactly what this novel was going to be about, I was determined to write about Boston. I had been a student there through much of the nineties, and my final year there I had spent a lot of time walking around in its different neighborhoods. I spent one afternoon, for example, out in Mattapan (where the character Flora lives with her sisters and grandmother), simply because I rode the Red Line until it ended. And I discovered Watertown (where Mercedes's grandmother lives) by virtue of taking a bus one day from Copley Plaza that happened to be going there. Of course, I had no way of knowing that these enclaves would be the focus of so much attention right before Girls I Know came out, due to the horrific bombings that occurred during the Boston Marathon. Growing up in Denver, which is a city whose neighborhoods drift into one another, I was always struck by the distinctness of Boston neighborhoods, so I wanted to explore that in my fiction. I wanted very much to write about characters from different ethnic and racial backgrounds as well: both to challenge myself as a writer and also because writing about America today means, inescapably it seems to me, writing about diversity.
Girls I Know grew out of a short story, but were there surprises in making it into a novel?
Oh, there were endless surprises. I think the surprises are what makes writing fun. I had formulated the characters Walt Steadman and Ginger Newton very early in the process of thinking about the novel. The story "Girls I Know" was a trial run to see how they would work. So from the beginning I imagined the story as a stand-alone chapter in the book.
I was really encouraged to dive into the novel based on the tremendous feedback I was fortunate to receive on the story. It came out in the journal Epoch and was subsequently anthologized by Laura Furman in The O. Henry Prize Stories and Dave Eggers in The Best American Nonrequired Reading. I had never had a short story of mine so widely distributed before, and I had never received emails from so many different readers of my work. A young man from Iran emailed, for example, and dozens of young, American women who claimed affinities with Ginger. But when I tried to write the opening chapter of the book, I immediately found that the first-person voice I had used in the story wasn't working. The book really had to be in the third-person if I wanted to inhabit all the different neighborhoods and perspectives in which I was interested. But third-person also required me to rethink the characters, or how they would feel from this slightly over-the-shoulder perspective, and this took time.
Another huge surprise: wanting to write about Boston to the degree that I did created some problems with regards to plot. In the earliest version of the book, Ginger and Walt circle in and around the city to an enormous degree, and this created a "wandering" narrative.
But the biggest surprise had to do with the character Mercedes. Early on I knew that the owners of the restaurant where the shootings occur, John and Natalie Bittles, would logically have a child, since they were invested in building a life and a community in Jamaica Plain. So in the first draft of the book I mentioned their young daughter, Mercedes. Then I more or less forgot all about her. I drafted the book up through the shooting, at which point the story was supposed to pivot and become more about Ginger and Walt. But something was troubling me about this arrangement and I realized it was Mercedes. Following her parents' deaths, she had been left behind in the story. When I went back to retrieve her, the book really took its current shape.
What's your daily writing life like? Do you outline or do you just "follow your pen"?
I do detailed outlines that I usually depart from very quickly, but I find the outlines useful nonetheless. As a writer, regardless of whether the form in which I'm working is long or short, I need to have some sense of where I'm starting and where I'm ending. So, for example, I can't work on a story or a longer piece without having a title in hand, and some sense of a final scene or a concluding moment. But then, and this is just crucial for me, the characters weigh in. They refuse to do the things I want them to do. They do something else. They introduce another character, and so on. For me, that's writing fiction. If I've predetermined the path of the story then I've also, I fear, undercut the realness of the characters about which I'm writing. So the process can be quite messy, but even as the narrative slips out of my hands, I try to anticipate or have some idea of where we are headed. Which is just to say, I rewrite my outlines a lot.
And I rewrite my sentences a lot too. I prefer to work with something, anything, other than a blank computer screen, so I try to get stuff on the page as quickly as I can. And then I move things around and rewrite and rewrite—often by pen. The best work days for me are the ones in which I write early in the day and then return to what I've written—to fiddle—hours later. But I'm the kind of writer who tries a lot of different approaches to a given scene or story, which can feel laborious at times. I'm hesitant to dismiss something without first trying it out because I'm always curious what I might pick up along the way.
Boston (my hometown) is a character itself in your novel. At one point, a character says, "You can't leave your hometown behind." Do you personally think that's true? Why or why not?
I think it's certainly true for John Bittles, who says the line you quote above. And I think it's true for Walt, even though he denies it. I think it's true for me too. But I don't think it's the same for everyone. Ginger, for example, claims her background as a New Yorker repeatedly in the story, but I don't think a place of origin matters to her, really. She's all about where she's going. For me, origins matter for sentimental reasons. My relation to my own hometown changed after my sister died unexpectedly fifteen years ago. I'm not able to build new memories with her now, so revisiting Denver really matters to me because I'm reminded of when we were kids and I can see the parks and the streets we played in and walked alongside. And there is an intuitive understanding about where you grew up that I think is really valuable as a writer: a sense of detail and familiarity and intimacy. How you feel about where you grew up can't be corrected by someone else, or altered even if the buildings you knew as a child are gone. But, in a way, I feel that you have to lose or leave your hometown in order to understand its contours. Which leads me to your next question…
What's obsessing you now and why?
I'm working now on a novel set in Denver—about a guy in his twenties who learns that everything he thought was true about his family growing up was in fact a fabrication. This debunking of his past is juxtaposed with the novel's re-telling of the history of Colorado and the West, which has so often been fashioned so as to emphasize rugged individualism, which is only part of the story. I'm imagining the book as largely constituted by interlinked but nonetheless freestanding stories, the first of which—chapter three—is coming out in New Letters this fall.
What question didn't I ask that I should have asked?
I thought you might have asked me more about the structure of Girls I Know. Sometimes as writers we do things that seem, to the reader, to be very deliberately done but weren't necessarily. In Girls I Know, for example, the three central characters are all "coming of age" in different ways: Mercedes is at the cusp of her teenage years, Ginger is twenty, Walt is about to turn thirty. So how self-conscious was I of this design of the book?
I really wasn't very conscious of it at all. I remember thinking very overtly that Walt would need to feel justifiably—even if in a "young" sort of way—that he was getting older and needed to start to make some sense of his life. But Ginger and Mercedes, and even Flora, who waitresses at the Early Bird Café and is nineteen, are all about to embark on distinctly new phases of their lives. The same is true for Mrs. Bittles, Mercedes's grandmother, who is left to take care of Mercedes after her parents are killed. I think yet another thing that novels can teach us is how we are always growing, always becoming, regardless of age. There really is no such thing as stasis.
Thank you, Caroline, for the chance to talk with you about my work!!