A Collective Interview Wherein Writers We Like Discuss Topics Related to the Craft. Including the following:
Lidia Yuknavich, Ron Tanner, Nathan Larson, Jessica Anya Blau, and Marcy Dermansky.
Interview by Cynthia Hawkins
For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 5.3, September 2011
When starting a new work, do you outline everything first, wing it and see what happens, or fall somewhere in between?
Lidia Yuknavitch: The Chronology of Water: A Memoir (Hawthorne Books, 2011), Real to Reel (Fiction Collective 2, 2003), and Liberty’s Excess: Short Fiction (Fiction Collective 2, 2000). I tend to move from image or lyric line — so I wait to “see” or “hear” what images or lines open up a work for me. On the other hand, I’m also one of those women who carries around big ideas inside her head and heart and body for quite a while, turning them over like smoothing stones while I swim or walk or meditate. By the time something has been distilled in my body for a long time, it begins to come out in images and lines. From there, once I have about 25-50 pages out, I can begin to see the larger forms and patterns. Once I have 100 pages out, the work is actually telling me where to go and what to do.
Ron Tanner: Kiss Me, Stranger: An Illustrated Novel (IG Publishing, 2011). I never outline – and maybe I should. I just jump in and see where it takes me. Usually I start with a character in a situation, somebody burdened with a problem or some complication in his or her life. The fun part is that I don’t know what will happen next. The hard part is that, eventually, I have to make sense of what happens. That means being smart enough, and brave enough, to cut some stuff that I really like (all that jamming that I indulged in at the beginning).
Nathan Larson: The Dewey Decimal System (Akashic 2011). Well I just finished my second book, both # 1 + 2 were slightly different. I don’t use outlines or any of that. When I was about 3/4 of the way through The Dewey Decimal System I bought a “book on writing” that I will not name (mistake!) and discovered I’d been doing it all wrong, cos Chapter One was THE OUTLINE. Apparently you had to have all these note cards, you had to spend months working it all out, you had to get a cork bulletin board etc. I was all like oh well, I gave this writing thing a try, guess I fucked it up. Went ahead and wrapped my book up, but I had this nagging feeling like I’d failed.
Subsequently I’ve talked to many writers I admire greatly, and apparently plenty of people work the way I do which is just GO and surprise yourself. I feel like your own confusion and excitement comes through and you can share it with the reader. Another key thing for me was to write as fast as possible, cos you can always go back and fix things but it’s about the moment.
Book one I had nothing, not even a sense of the character, I had only the mandate to go forth and write something “noir-y.”
Book 2, since it’s a continuation of the first book, at least had a jumping-off point. But from there I just winged it. Once I got halfway through I reckoned oh this and that can be happening, and would make notes, just pencil-sketch future scenes that I might or might not use, but that was it.
Jessica Anya Blau: The Summer of Naked Swim Parties (Harper Perennial, 2008), Drinking Closer to Home (Harper Perennial, 2011). No, I don’t really outline anything. So far, my novels have started with a short story I’ve written. The one I’m starting now is from a short story. So, I always know where my novel begins. And there is always a title in my head. When I finish writing at the end of the day I make lists of things I think might happen next. Sometimes I follow that list, but usually I don’t. Still, I make a load of lists. Somehow, eventually, I find my way to the end. But even then, I go back to the beginning, change it all up and flip it around. It’s fun to look back on the lists and see what I had been planning on any particular day. Usually it’s stupid stuff that would have been horrible had I worked it into the book.
Marcy Dermansky: Bad Marie (Harper Perennial, 2010), Twins (Harper Perennial, 2006). I have never written an outline before. I wing it every time. It seems to me that knowing what is going to happen takes the joy out of the process. It also adds to the confusion. I am often amazed how a tidy resolution can come about — completely unplanned for. Somewhere, without my permission, my brain is keeping a secret outline.
What’s your go-to method for getting into the rhythm of your narrative voice or getting into the space of your story as you begin a writing session?
Lidia Yuknavitch: I’m a huge fan of ritual. I have a “writing room,” a “writing desk,” I drink a little right before I write, I listen to jazz. I reread what I’ve written and close my eyes and try to re-enter the world or voice or character or rhythm of language. Like leaving and going to a real place. Does that mean everyone should drink up and listen to Coltrane or Miles? No. But I do think everyone deserves to create their own, intense, mind-altering ritual. The space of writing is of our own making. It’s one of the few things in life we can break every rule to create.
Ron Tanner: Two things: a) I try to find a way into the character, usually by focusing on his/her passion – something that drives the character to do or be a certain way. Does my character have a hobby or a compulsion or a mission of some sort? It’s never enough to simply drop the character into a problematic situation. What cues me into the character’s voice is how he/she deals with and reacts to that situation. b) I challenge myself, and my character, by playing against any- and everything that might be predictable. If I think my character is female, I’ll make him male. If I think he’s angry, I’ll make him happy. I turn over every first guess I have about how things should go and then I see what comes up. Somewhere in this mix, I’ll find the voice that sounds right.
Nathan Larson: I have to shut out everything else. This doesn’t mean there can’t be tons of noise. I can do this in a public place; it’s just a mindset. It does help to have some music but it’s not essential. This piece I found very useful: Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. That jam puts me right in there. I start writing automatically when I hear that music now.
Jessica Anya Blau: If I’m writing, I automatically fall into the writing zone. The hard part for me isn’t getting into that space when I’m writing, it’s just sitting down and starting the writing session. Right now I should be writing but I’m going to go the gym and then I’m going to clean out my refrigerator because it hasn’t been cleaned in a year and there’s so much shit in it that you have take things out and move things around just to find the parmesan cheese or the milk. I think I’m afraid of the novel I want to write right now. I’m only one chapter into it and I’m afraid that I’ll make a wrong turn too early and set off a whole series of wrong turns. Also, I was just asked to write a screenplay so I keep thinking that I shouldn’t get too caught up in this novel because as soon as I have the contract for the screenplay I’ll have to drop the novel and start the screenplay. But that’s lame, I know. I need to just write the novel today anyway. And tomorrow. And every day until the day I start the screenplay and then I should work on both. (While also teaching when the semester starts in a couple weeks!)
Marcy Dermansky: I start every writing session revising. Going back into the work, fixing the last paragraph or maybe the last page or an entire scene, sometimes it might be an entire chapter, and somehow, only then, do I keep moving forward. Which means my beginnings are written and rewritten and rewritten, but when I make it to the end, it comes out right. Just about.
What surprising or unusual source has inspired one or some of your best ideas (for a story, a direction, a scene, a narrative structure, etc.) as a writer?
Lidia Yuknavitch: It no longer surprises me since I’ve drawn from it so often, but paintings have been a great source of inspiration for me. There is something about the medium and language of painting that makes more sense to me than language does. I like to sit in a room with a large abstract painting for an hour. Try to be in it. It opens me up. Mightily. I’m also ravaged by chance encounters with, say, a dead baby bird I came across on a walk the other day, or a spider’s web, or a television set under a birch tree…random objects and animals and natural world things remind me what’s what in the world of social media and lattés…heh.
Ron Tanner: It’s helpful to get away from the work for a while. Writing can get really claustrophobic. Actually, I find it most useful to take a break and read something like the newspaper or book reviews or a nonfiction article. Always, when I’m reading other stuff as a break, I find myself going back to my work mentally and then interesting lines or ideas start popping up. I’m doing a kind of indirect composing – my mind is still revving but in a different, more liberating way. A consuming task, like cooking or carpentry, is also a good way to let my mind freewheel. Painting a room can work wonders for your writing.
Nathan Larson: It’s certainly not unusual to have your family be a source of “inspiration” (or incredible pain that must be exorcised), that’s probably the most common source of raw material, I would think. In my case it was my mother’s profession that led to a key element in these books. She’s an epidemiologist, specializing in hand-hygiene, one of the very preeminent people in this field. I’m proud of my mom! Anyhoo, as a result we have crazy amounts of swag Purell lying around the house. Just huge fucking cases of it. And (this is true) right as I was starting this first book, the mailman rang my buzzer with yet another massive box of the stuff. So when I sat back down to write I started thinking about all the germs that are on my laptop. And I thought hmm, and then that became a key character thing for The Dewey Decimal System. Funnily enough since I wrote that book I’ve stopped using Purell. At least not so frequently, only every five minutes or so these days. I wouldn’t want people to get the impression that I had any compulsions.
Jessica Anya Blau: The novel I’m starting now was inspired by something told to me by the husband of one of my best friends. We were having dinner, there had been a lot of wine, it was late at night, and I don’t know what led up to his statement but what he said was this: “If I ever had an affair it would be with a great big beautiful fat girl.” His wife, my friend, is this American beauty, like someone Barry Levinson would cast as the ideal shiksa. She plays tennis, she does yoga. I was fascinated by his desire to pull away from that in his fantasy life.
Marcy Dermansky: French film inspired my second novel Bad Marie. The novel began with a question that wouldn’t leave me: why would Isild le Besco run off with a bank robber in À Tout de Suite? And before I knew it, I was paying homage to a scene from Francois Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses.