Welcome back, campers! How was your week? Mine was, as predicted, hectic, but the niece is married, the dishes washed (no mean feat, considering the family produced a five-course sit-down dinner for the wedding reception), and we are now living on leftovers.
How stressful was it all? Well, let me put it this way: my doctor offered to write me a note to excuse me from all of this ostensible frivolity.
But off with the shackles of the past — on to a monumental new development in the ever-evolving Author! Author! community offerings. Today, I am delighted to bring you the first in what I hope will be may in-depth conversations with wonderful recently-published authors about not only their books, but also the art and craft of writing itself.
You know, the kind of chat that writers find fascinating, but disillusions non-writers and those who would prefer to believe that good writing simply falls from the heavens into the author’s mind, with no actual work involved.
In this series, I’m going to be talking with these authors about the actual work of writing. I’m very excited about this, not only because I suspect that these conversations will prove inspirational and educational to members of the Author! Author! community — and to that end, please feel free to post questions and comments; I shall forward them to the authors — but also because, frankly, when a book comes out, 99% of interviewers will ask precisely the same set of questions.
All of us who read author interviews are familiar with the standards, right? So how did you get the idea for this book? Is this novel autobiographical? How did you get started writing in the first place? Did you always want to be a writer — as opposed to, say, a fireman? Are any of the characters based upon real people? What’s your next book about? No, really, what part of this novel is based upon real life?
It’s all fun and interesting for the author the first dozen or so times, but after that, one begins to feel that one’s part in the interview process could very adequately be played by a tape recorder. Nor is this phenomenon new: I spent a large part of my childhood and adolescence helping science fiction author Philip K. Dick prepare for interviews — oh, you thought that established authors didn’t rehearse? In what sense is an author interview not a public performance? — and believe me, in any given year, we could count the original questions interviewers asked on the fingers of two hands.
Believe me, we longed to be able to start counting on our toes.
So part of my goal in this interview series is to allow good authors more latitude than they are generally allowed in literary interviews — because, let’s face it, what is likely to interest other writers about a book is not necessarily what will fascinate other readers. These interviews will be by writers, for writers.
Are you picturing yourselves chatting with me when your first book comes out? Excellent — you’re in the perfect mindset to enjoy my January 11, 2011 conversation with the exceptionally talented Heidi Durrow, author of the recent literary fiction debut, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, now available in paperback.
If Heidi’s name sounds familiar, you’ve probably either been perusing Best Books of 2010 lists or were hanging out here at Author! Author! in recent months. For those of you who missed my glowing tribute to what I consider the best debut of last year, allow me to introduce you to a writer I believe is going to be remembered as one of the greats. Take a peek at the publisher’s blurb:
Take a gander at the publisher’s blurb:
Rachel, the daughter of a Danish mother and a black G.I., becomes the sole survivor of a family tragedy after a fateful morning on their Chicago rooftop.
Forced to move to a new city, with her strict African-American grandmother as her guardian, Rachel is thrust for the first time into a mostly black community, where her light brown skin, blue eyes, and beauty bring a constant stream of attention her way. It’s there, as she grows up and tries to swallow her grief, that she comes to understand how the mystery and tragedy of her mother might be connected to her own uncertain identity.
This searing and heartwrenching portrait of a young biracial girl dealing with society’s ideas of race and class is the winner of the Bellwether Prize for best fiction manuscript addressing issues of social justice. In the tradition of Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John,Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, here is a portrait of a young girl—and society’s ideas of race, class, and beauty.
The book has developed something of a cult following amongst lovers of serious literary fiction. How much do its fans respect it? Well, let me put it this way: when I first discovered the novel in a wee bookstore in Lexington, Kentucky, the clerk nearly knocked me over, so eager was she to rush to my side to recommend the book.
Apparently, that enthusiasm was catching, for by the time my plane was over the Rockies, heading home to Seattle, was already raving about the book to everyone in the seats near me. Flight attendants will remember that as the time two of them sidled down the aisle to ask, “Um, why are all of you talking about falling from the sky? Flying is perfectly safe, you know.”
The intriguing mystery of just how and why an entire family fell from a Chicago apartment building’s roof — yes, veteran interviewers, based upon a real-life incident — may be the unusual premise of the story, but the core of the writing is centered upon the growth and development of incredibly real-feeling characters.
As I mentioned before, Heidi pursued character in a completely original manner, calculated to delight those intrigued by the interesting use of language: via punctuation in dialogue. THE GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY depicts social class and intellectual development through such subtle nuances in the characters’ speech patterns that at first, I kept having to re-read lines to make sure I was not imagining it.
I wasn’t; it’s one of the most brilliant uses of dialogue I’ve seen in years. (And trust me, I read a lot of dialogue in any given year.) Join me, please, for a discussion of it, conducted at the ever-fabulous Third Place Books, just north of Seattle.
A quick technical note before you click on the video: my apologies for the background noise; the Author! Author! staff did not realize that the microphone would pick it up so well, or that it should have been placed a trifle closer to Heidi. Turning up the volume on your computer before you start watching might prove helpful.
The conference mentioned in that clip, by the way, was New Orleans’ Words and Music conference, held every November. We were both speaking there in 2010, and I hope that I, at least, will be teaching there again next year. (Hint, hint, calendar-markers.)
As you may see, I was — and remain — awfully excited about Heidi’s fresh approach to dialogue. Even in the relatively innovation-friendly literary fiction market, genuinely experimental writing has a hard time getting published. Dialogue as fresh as Heidi’s is as rare as a yeti sighting in downtown Manhattan.
And that’s odd, considering that one of the standard definitions of literary fiction is a narrative that deliberately deviates from mainstream storytelling norms in order to illuminate character while stretching the language in new and lovely ways. (A few other defining features of the breed: typically, its vocabulary and sentence structure assumes a college-educated readership, and characterization, rather than plot, provides the driving force of the narrative.)
Oh, quite a few new offerings are labeled as experimental, but that’s usually because the works in question resemble other, earlier books that were experimental in their day. The moniker has become as often an indicator of a certain school of literary writing as a neon sign flashing FIND SOMETHING NEW HERE.
So why was it so difficult to find a publisher brave enough to take on THE GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY? Why, in fact, was this brilliant debut novel not published until after it won the prestigious the Bellwether Prize, a competition that includes a publishing contract as a prize?
Search me. If I ran the universe — or even the literary portion of it — this would not be the case; genuinely innovative writing that stretches the definitions of its book category would be recognized, rewarded, and published far more easily than it is today. But then, if I ran the universe, good books actually would always find a home, libraries and bookstores would be as common as Starbucks franchises, and Dorothy Parker, Truman Capote, and Madame de Staël’s birthdays would be national holidays.
Nay, international holidays. But let’s get back to talking about craft. Specifically, let’s hear about how dialogue can be used as a tool to develop character.
Nice to hear an author speaking of craft, character, and plot choices as inextricably linked, isn’t it? That’s never truer than in good literary fiction: literary fiction is not, as so many aspiring writers tend to assume, simply a non-genre story told in beautiful language. In theory, really good literary fiction adds something new to the reader’s understanding of the inherent possibilities of the language, rather than adapting an already-successful author’s approach (and bag of narrative tricks) to a new story.
The too-common expectation that a plot must follow established themes and storylines can be painfully constricting for an imaginative writer. What happens, though, when a writer resists easy plot resolution, choosing instead to follow her characters’ individual development arcs where they lead her?
Since the first mention of literary fiction in this post — and debut literary fiction at that — I could feel the hearts of all of you who write it palpitating with excitement. “But Anne,” you ask, descending with a bump from the heights of abstract discussion, “I could talk craft all day, but I’m faced with a practical dilemma. I’ve been having a really hard time finding an agent who both represents literary fiction and is open to new writers. Any advice about how to go about finding one?”
Glad you asked, palpitators. Heidi and I had a little chat on that very subject.
My, that was a lot of specific references, wasn’t it? To lead you to the one that probably made your ears prick up most, the grant-giving organization Heidi mentioned was the his website. Heidi is represented by the Wendy Weil Agency, who also represents Alice Walker. The favorite memoirist I mentioned was Barbara Robinette Moss, author of Change Me into Zeus’ Daughter and Fierce.
Since every good writer receives quite a few rave rejections — those infamous I love your writing/this story/everything about this manuscript, but I’m going to have to pass statements that leave aspiring writers so nonplused — I cannot overemphasize the importance of continuing to query and submit even if the agent currently reading your requested materials has already praised the book. All too often, submitters relax at this point (if a writer with an agent considering a manuscript can ever be considered relaxed), thinking that their querying days are over, but remember, a nice conversation with an agent is just a nice conversation with an agent; don’t stop seeking the right representation for your book until you have received an actual offer from an agent.
It’s also a good idea, as Heidi mentioned, to keep working any connections you may have, in order to garner recommendations to agents; for a few tips on how to ask for such a recommendation without being a pest, please see the posts under the REFERRALS TO AGENTS category on the archive list conveniently located at the lower right-hand corner of this page.
Done bookmarking those links? Good. Let’s move on to just how much winning the Bellwether Prize changed Heidi’s writing life.
As promised, I did look up the deadline for the next Bellwether Prize. Entries are accepted in the Septembers of odd-numbered years — which means, for those of you playing along at home, you can apply this coming September. Mark your calendars!
You also might want to drop by the prize’s website, just to see what interesting things are being written on social justice issues lately. Barbara Kingsolver, author of such bestselling novels as The Lacuna established the prize, and the winning books tend to be fascinating. Algonquin Books publishes the top honorees; 2006 winner Hillary Jordan’s lovely debut, Mudbound, is already out.
Please join me in thanking Heidi for being generous enough to share her insights and experience with everyone in the Author! Author! community. And, as always, keep up the good work!