Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Four girls in a convent, tension-filled group dynamics and more in Sarah Domet's amazing debut, The Guineveres

“Sarah Domet has brought forth some kind of wonderful miracle with The Guineveres.” —Kevin Wilson, New York Times bestselling author of The Family Fang

Sarah Domet's debut novel, The Guineveres, is getting stunning reviews. She’s also the author of 90 Days to Your Novel (Writers Digest Books, 2010). She holds a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing from the University of Cincinnati where she once served as the associate editor of The Cincinnati Review. Her short work has appeared in numerous journals, including Burrow Press Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Potomac Review, Blue Stem, New Delta Review, Juked, Hobart, Talking Writing, and other places. In addition, her work has been anthologized in Sundress Publications Best of the Net 2015, New Delta Review Best of the Net 2010-2013, and Main Street Rag’s forthcoming Suspense Anthology. Originally from Ohio and still a Midwesterner at heart, she now lives in Savannah, Georgia.

Thank you so much for talking with me, Sarah!

Your premise, four girls all with the same name, abandoned at the same time, is genius. So what was haunting you in your life when you thought about this? Was there a question that you were wrestling with?

At the time I wrote The Guineveres, I was thinking about how much the stories of young women matter, but also how frequently our culture downplays their experiences, often as a way to elevate "more important"--or what I see as "more public"--stories. At the same time I was writing this novel, I was also reading Lives of the Saints, which only confirmed my suspicions. While stories of the male saints often described the valiant public deeds of these men, stories of female saints quite frequently highlighted the ways these women were left to privately suffer in their bodies. For female saints, their bodies became their best tools and weapons of faith, and so we see them refusing sex and marriage, marring their beauty with lye, starving themselves, sleeping on beds of stone and glass, and otherwise inflicting bodily pain. I was interested in exploring female embodiment as both limitation and possibility, and where better to investigate these questions than in girls on the cusp of womanhood? 
I began writing The Guineveres shortly after I had taken a job that landed me in a town far away from family and friends. The novel seemed to spring, too, out of this personal experience of alienation and loneliness. As the draft progressed, it drifted further and further toward a meditation on the concept of home: the homes we leave and yearn for and create.  

I also loved that this is a novel about and groups--the group of the convent, and the group of the girls--one which seems to imprison, the other which is freedom. Can you talk about this please?

I've long been fascinated with the group dynamics, particularly of women. Women have the impulse, or maybe just the willingness, to open themselves up to emotional intimacy that cements their group connection. At the same time, and because of this willingness, they also expose their individual vulnerabilities and, thus, become susceptible to attack. Certainly, there are risks and rewards to belonging to a group. On one hand, a group offers security and comfort; on the other hand, group-think makes finding one's own sense of identity infinitely more difficult.

I was one of maybe seven or so Sarah’s in my high school class, by the way, so I experienced this first-hand. How does one carve out an identity within a group? Or within a group that’s embedded within a group, the position in which The Guineveres find themselves? I choose to set this novel in a cloistered environment in order to bear down on the scrutiny—and the difficulty—of The Guineveres’ coming of age. I wanted to create a kind of modern fable, a world out of time that is simultaneously strange and universal.       

The sequestered convent life was so rich and alive. What was your research like? Did anything surprise you?
I attended Catholic schools for twelve years, so much of my research involved shuffling through the file folders of my memories. My old high school was attached to a convent, and in my Junior year, or so, the convent opened up to provide additional classrooms. I was always a little in awe of the space, in part because of its beauty. But also because I felt like I was given a glimpse into the private lives of these sisters who, to me, seemed otherworldly.   

This is just an astonishing debut. Did you have other novels tucked away in a drawer? What has it been like for you to publish and be so instantly lauded? Does it make writing the next book easier at all?

While The Guineveres is my first novel, I've had very healthy doses of rejection in my writing life (and in my life-life!) so the success hardly feels "instant" to me! However, writing a book without the expectation of an audience--without really considering if the novel would or wouldn't be read--was a gift. My hope is that I'll be able to replicate this headspace, which, I think, might require high doses of Buddhist mindfulness.

What kind of writer are you? Do you outline or wait for the elusive muse? Do you have rituals and talismans?

For me, each project is different. I do find outlines useful. When the logistics of plot are buttoned up, I can then free up my mental space for the more nuanced aspects of fiction, where I think the real beauty of a book lies. I've always loved Octavia Butler's suggestion: "First, forget Inspiration. Habit is more dependable.” If the elusive muse wants to find me, she knows I’ll be at my writing desk a certain hours each day.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m fascinated with moments in history when we’ve been on the cusp of a cultural shift, often coinciding with particular technological advancements. Usually, we can only see such shifts in hindsight, so I find it peculiar when I hear people say: “We’re in the midst of a historical moment.” I wonder if we as a culture have become wise to history and the power of narrative—or if historical shifts will happen (or not happen) regardless of our desires. What can and cannot be predicted? My current project explores some of these ideas.

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

Let me ask my Magic 8 Ball…It says you asked them all!

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