Monday, August 3, 2015

Tawnysha Greene talks about A House Made of Stars, writing without a map, endangered children and so much more


I'm always happy to discover  presses that are new to me, like Burlesque Press--and even more delighted to find new writers. I devoured Tawnysha Greene's book, A House Made of Stars, and I'm deliriously happy to host her here. Thank you so much, Tawnysha!

What sparked this story?

When I first started writing this book in graduate school, I was in a writing rut. I was writing all sorts of stories, trying my best to impress my teachers, but nothing I wrote seemed interesting enough to be a dissertation project. Then one of my professors, Margaret Lazarus Dean, assigned a "secret story" in which I had to write a story where I attempted something completely different than anything I had tried before whether it be in content or style. So I decided to become vulnerable. I wrote about a girl like me.
            I was homeschooled and raised in a very religious household. My family often roomed with relatives, and we lived on food stamps. I am hard-of-hearing. A House Made of Stars is a narrative different than my own, but the girl carried pieces of me that I had always been hesitant to talk about before. So while I wasn't necessarily haunted by anything in writing this book, I did have an urge to write about someone who could have these same details in her life. However, I wanted to incorporate the resilience needed to overcome some of these odds, and the girl in my novel became someone stronger, tougher, and braver than I could ever be.

How difficult was it to write this novel through the viewpoint of an endangered child? How did you get into the young girl's head? How did you find the voice?

            Writing a novel from a young child's point of view is actually easier for me than if I were narrating the story through an older character. Children use simpler language, they are more honest, and they often have a sense of innocence that I find endearing. To familiarize myself with how a child can carry a story, I read books with child protagonists. Novels like The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, and Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward were my lifelines.
            Additionally, I read the diaries I used to keep while growing up. While the book is fiction, I looked to my own writings to refresh myself on what a ten-year-old girl would find noteworthy every day. I also studied the syntax of these sentences, so I could mimic them in the novel and make my narrator more convincing.

There's so much terror here—was there ever a moment when you had to stop and say—I can't do this?

            Honestly, I did have a lot of nightmares while writing this book. Even when I'm not at the computer, I still think about the novel in my head when I'm working on a book. I'll go through scenes when I'm washing the dishes, running at the gym, or driving to work. When I'm trying to sleep, the scenes I put off thinking about usually surface, and the weeks in which I wrote some of the most violent chapters in A House Made of Stars were full of nightmares.
            Yet these were the times I had to write through. I had to free my narrator, and in freeing her, I could free myself from these same terrors. As I'm sure you know, stories and their protagonists can take such strong holds on their writers, and as I grew closer to her and her family, I felt the need to bring her to rest, peace, and comfort. It was a relief to get past these scenes, and when I reached the end of the book, I knew it was a safe place to leave her, because my nightmares stopped then, too.
            The last dream I remember while writing the book was of the protagonist in a room with her father. She was hiding from him, because he was angry and breaking everything in sight. Then, he picked up a globe and threw it down and became enraged when it wouldn't break. He tried again, then again, and still it didn't break. As much as he tried, he couldn't break her world. He couldn't break her. When I woke up, I felt a peace that I never felt about any of my other dreams. She was safe now. I could leave her in that forest at the end of A House Made of Stars and know that she was going to make it.

This is your debut, and I know from my own experience, that sometimes in the middle of writing a novel, you discover the next novel you want to write. Did that happen for you?

            It did. A House Made of Stars a bit a of an anomaly in that it doesn't wrap up as neatly as many novels typically do. Some readers pushed for an epilogue at the end of the book to tie up the ending a bit more, but I hesitated to include one, because the rest of my protagonist's story was so much bigger than a short note at the end of a book. So much more had to happen before she truly found closure about her childhood, so I decided to start writing a sequel to better detail this journey.
            This book is untitled, but takes place twenty years after A House Made of Stars has ended. Writing this novel has been very different from my first book—the novel is still in present tense, still has short chapters, but I am still figuring out how to finish my protagonist's story. I have been writing from a young child's point of view for so long that the older voice still feels strange to me, but I am looking forward to learning more about this character as an adult and what she can teach me.

What kind of writer are you? Do you outline? Do you have rituals?

            I wish I outlined and had rituals. I am the sort of person who likes to know the future and have things planned out, but I find that when I do this in my writing, the narrative always turns out stilted and forced. So I just let it happen. I free write a lot and my first drafts are horrible and full of mistakes, but they are the ones that end up surprising me and where I find out things about my characters that I didn't know before. I also write whenever and wherever I can. Ideally, my writing sessions are early in the morning when the house is quiet, but sometimes, especially during the semester when I'm teaching, I'm scratching out notes during office hours, while I'm making dinner, or working on other projects. My phone is full of little phrases and ideas that I've texted into it, so I am grateful for this sort of technology!

What's obsessing you now and why?

            Right now, I am obsessed with writing the sequel of A House Made of Stars, because it is still in the first draft point, and that is always my least favorite writing stage. During this period, I often feel like I am writing blind, because I don't know what will happen next, and that can be very frustrating. But I am still figuring out some of the same things my narrator is—about forgiveness, love, and hope—so maybe it is a good thing that I don't have all the answers yet. Maybe we can learn these things together.

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

            "What is something few people know about you?" (All of your questions were so good, so I was stumped by this one a bit. Luckily, Jeni Wallace, the lovely lady behind Burlesque Press, came to the rescue and suggested this question). My answer: Originally, I didn't plan on being a writer. I had my heart set on becoming a veterinarian, and I volunteered for several years at a veterinary facility, but when I went to college, I favored my English classes and the new world that was opened in me in literature and writing.
            One of my professors, Stephen Gresham, wrote me a note on a graded paper he returned to me and asked if I ever considered taking a course in creative writing. I later took three more courses with him, and he was integral in me choosing to write as part of my career. He is in the acknowledgements page of A House Made of Stars, and I owe so much of my early growth as a writer to him.  

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