Ruta Sepetys on Multiple Points of View

 

 

This month, I caught up with Ruta Sepetys, recently home from a two-month book tour for her latest historical YA, Salt to the Sea. It’s a gripping World War II story of a group of teenagers running for safety while the Russian army marches toward Germany and American bombers fly overhead. Set in 1945 in what is now Poland, the story leads up to the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea, the greatest tragedy in maritime history.

 

 

In this video clip on Ruta’s website, we learn a bit about the family history that inspired Ruta to set her novel during WWII. Watching this clip is well worth four minutes of your time:

Ruta notes that “empathy is one of the greatest and most beautiful contributions that we can achieve through writing.” Empathy. Yes! So necessary when it comes to crafting a character, and especially when writing multiple characters and multiple points of view. I’m thrilled to have Ruta here to tell us how she did it.

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Ruta. So glad you could share your thoughts about craft and process.

Ruta Sepetys: Thank you so much for having me!

ABW: Let’s start with that awful Alfred character—awful and oddly funny. The story is tense and Alfred provides a lot of comic relief in circumstances that are otherwise bleak. Was Alfred part of your early drafts, or did you weave him into the story later when you realized the need to lighten things up? How did you go about crafting him? To what extent is he based on someone you know?

RS: Oh yes, awful Alfred was a main player in my very first draft. I think of Alfred as a study of visibility. What happens to a young man who is isolated, rejected, invisible for much of his life and then suddenly he is given a uniform and becomes visible…if only in his own mind? In my early drafts, Alfred was quite humorous and sad, but during revisions it was suggested that I take a darker route with Alfred, showing him as someone with a perverse sense of superiority, someone who feels entitled to possess beautiful, innocent things like butterflies…and Hannelore. I liked that idea. Readers who may be familiar with Hitler’s teenage years will find many direct parallels in Alfred. Hitler wrote letters to a girl and never mailed them, etc. Alfred is not based on anyone I know (thank goodness), but was partially inspired by John Fante‘s character of Arturo Bandini.

ABW: His creepiness really came through. I hated him, but I also laughed while reading his chapters, and I appreciated those moments of levity.

I found the alternating voices of your four protagonists compelling, and wanted to ask about your process in developing them. Each is unique. Which voice came to you first, and at what point along the way did you settle on alternating between these four?

RS: Alfred’s voice came to me first and Emilia’s voice came to me last. I decided on the alternating structure well before I wrote a single word. As I was researching the sinking, evacuation, and time period, I was fascinated that the same event when described by people from different countries could be so drastically varied. But of course we all see history through our own cultural lens. So I decided well in advance to present the story through the alternating POVs of four cultural lenses: Lithuanian, East Prussian, Polish, and German.

ABW: Nice. The maps in the end pages were great, too. They helped me keep track of the geography and the paths the characters were taking.

In the FAQs on your website, you say that you often write in bits and pieces, jotting dialogue as it comes to you, or recording thoughts during long drives. Can you say more about your process?

RS: I spend a lot of time thinking about a story before I begin writing. I take walks and think. I drive and think. I jog and think. I keep a journal for every novel, and that journal becomes my bible for the book. I write all of my plot ideas, random thoughts, emotions, comments, and dialogue bits in the journal and date each entry. When I’m on a research trip, I capture all of my research notes in a little spiral notebook.

ABW: Once you have all of these bits and pieces, how do you go about organizing them? How do you transition from pieces to a uniform whole?

RS: At the beginning of a project I may create an initial spreadsheet to keep track, but ultimately, I always go back to the journal. History provides a basic framework, but I don’t outline heavily and I never have the whole plot figured out when I begin. That’s true of my earlier works, too—Between Shades of Gray and Out of the Easy. I love the creative process and allowing the story and characters to emerge as I’m writing.

ABW: I assume that at some point while writing Salt to the Sea, you had the story figured out chronologically, then you started in the middle and wove in back-stories as the characters had reason to think about the past. But am I wrong about that?

RS: I wrote Salt to the Sea sequentially, just as the reader reads it, swapping and alternating the voice in each chapter.

ABW: Okay, wow. That amazes me—that you wrote the chapters in the order they’re published. The voice and point of view—the feel and cadence and sound—clearly switches from chapter to chapter, and the back-stories flow seamlessly through the narrative. Really well done.

In the video clip above, you mention the value of having a writing group. You’re fortunate to have met kindred spirits for the journey.

RS: Yes, I have a wonderful writing group and community of author friends who are so generous to brainstorm plot and story with me. I owe a huge debt to Courtney C. Stevens who sat at restaurants and hotels with me on tour, brainstorming details and backstory. Also, my brilliant editor, Liza Kaplan, gave me fantastic revision notes that made the story and characters feel very real. I love working as a team on a book. It makes the whole process much more fun.

ABW: And the process produced a fabulous book. Thank you so much for taking time to answer my questions, Ruta! It’s an honor to feature you and your writing on my blog. While you were doing the book tour, I was following the travels of my good friend and writing colleague, Meg Medina, who met up with you at the Tucson Festival of Books. Here’s to festivals and the book you’re working on next…!

Meg Medina and Ruta Sepetys at the 2016 Tucson Festival of Books

Meg Medina and Ruta Sepetys at the 2016 Tucson Festival of Books

For more about Ruta and her books, check out the author videos and more on Ruta’s website.

Ideas are Overrated

People often ask writers: where do you get the ideas for your stories? And I say: ideas. Blah. So overrated.

I’ve blogged about this before, but still find myself slipping into the idea-trap. Recently while reading slush-pile submissions for a literary magazine, I found that other writers slip, too. It’s a sure recipe for rejection.

On some level, stories will always be filled with ideas, of course, but when an idea is important, the reason it’s important—its value—is that beneath it, there is a deeply-held emotion. The idea matters on some fundamental emotional level, and it’s the emotion that readers connect with. The books we like most are the ones that speak not to our heads, but to our hearts.

When we think about things (ideas), we’re at least one and possibly many steps removed from the things, themselves. When we think about a moment, we’re interpreting it rather than living it, and when we write interpretations of scenes, readers feel the distance.

Keith Urban

Keith Urban

Recently I posted a quote on a pale yellow sticky note above my desk: “Raw is a good place for an artist to be.” On American Idol, I heard judge Keith Urban say those words to a contestant. Raw. His comment spoke to me as a writer: stop thinking about the song (or the character or story) and feel it. Live it. Sing (write) from your soul. Let yourself be vulnerable. Be real. Be raw. Urban and the other Idol judges do a good job of pushing artists to dig deeper, and in the process, they’ve pushed me.

Years back, when I set out to write novels for young readers, I had no idea that I would have to dig so deeply into my soul—into really raw places—to tell stories. As hard as this journey has been, it’s also rewarded me in unexpected ways. I’ve felt alive. Connected. A raw place is an honest place, and when it comes to writing fiction, honesty is everything.

Salivation and Satisfaction

When I was a student in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I heard Jane Kurtz, the author of more than thirty books for young readers, give a fabulous lecture called “Salivation and Satisfaction.” The gist of her talk was that for a novel to work well, the reader must salivate (must care about the protagonist and hunger for more), and must feel satisfied at the end. The sense of satisfaction comes when there’s a match-up between what the writer sets up for the character and what the character gets. The protagonist won’t necessarily get what he or she wanted, but the questions the author has raised at the start need to be answered by the end.

This wisdom was on my mind one morning this past month, a morning when I woke feeling heavy. You know… it’s great when you feel rested first thing in the morning. It’s great to slip into your desk chair, take a sip from a steaming mug of coffee, and start writing, writing, writing. But I didn’t feel rested that morning. I had the whole dang plot of my novel sloshing through my head.

From years spent writing, I’ve learned that when I wake thinking about a particular scene, something is wrong. Maybe it’s a tidbit of dialogue or a character’s motivation for his/her action. Whatever it is—the scene needs fixing, and I end up feeling grateful to my subconscious for finding the problem.

But when I woke mulling over the whole plot…? Ugh.

Jane Kurtz

Jane Kurtz

Then Jane Kurtz came to mind, and I found my notes from her lecture. I asked myself: what questions did I pose at the beginning of this story? Have I answered them? What does my protagonist want most of all, and does the action in the climactic scene have anything at all to do with that desire? How sympathetic (or not) is my main character?

I got back to work.

I did a lot of free writing that morning. I set aside my computer and wrote by hand, stream-of-consciousness. I looked at the structure of the story and asked which parts were necessary and which could go. I pulled two full chapters and slid them into a might-use-later file. I wrote a new scene in which characters laugh at my protagonist, replacing a scene where the protagonist got angry. (Anger doesn’t engender sympathy the way humiliation does.)

Two months ago, I thought this novel was done. This month, it’s getting lots of work. It still needs work. But it’s getting better.

And to Jane Kurtz and Vermont College of Fine Arts, I say: thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you for more than you know!

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley on Craft

Last week, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley won the Newbery Honor Award for her middle grade novel, The War that Saved my Life, and just this week she’s learned that it’s hitting the New York Times bestseller list. The book was also a co-winner of the Schneider Family Book Award, and the audio version won the Odyssey. Wow. Congratulations, Kim!

Kim and I “met” online after she blurbed Brotherhood (her lovely words appear on my book jacket and on the Brotherhood page of my website), and I was thrilled when she agreed to carve out time for this blog interview.

 

 

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Kim! I loved reading The War that Saved my Life, and wanted to ask for your reflections on the craft of writing.

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley: So glad to appear on your blog! Thank you for asking.

ABW: Let’s get right to the heart of The War that Saved my Life. Set in England at the start of WWII, it’s the story of ten year-old Ada, who was born with a clubfoot and whose abusive mother has tried to keep her hidden. As world events compel Ada out into the world, she must struggle both to understand all that she’s missed and to heal from the trauma of abuse. My first question is: how did you go about crafting Ada’s voice, so British and so real?

KBB: Anne, I’ll be honest, Ada’s voice was far and away the hardest thing for me to get right. I wrote the first few chapters over and over again, sometimes in first person, sometimes in third. Eventually I realized that I needed to be telling her story at a little bit of a time remove, so that she could describe all the things she didn’t know or understand, but have a vocabulary that included those things. You can see that on the third page: “The story I’m telling starts out four years ago, at the beginning of the summer of 1939…” We’re not getting a grownup telling the story, but we’re not getting ten-year-old Ada’s voice, either. As far as the British—I read so many stories published or set in England as a child that my vocabulary still contains words that puzzle Americans.

ABW: The re-writing clearly paid off. Lines like “I was ten years old (though I didn’t know my age at the time),” and later, “It was a pear, though we didn’t know it then,” made me curious. Why wouldn’t she know? (I had to keep turning pages.) And the British vocab was great—words like cheeky, and all that tea! I loved the way the story took me into another world, another time.

In your blog and in a post on School Library Journal’s Teen Librarian Toolbox, you discuss how your own experience of PTSD influenced the way you crafted your protagonist. Clearly, you pulled from your past a sense of resilience and infused Ada with it. For you, how cathartic was the experience of writing Ada’s story? What words of wisdom do you have for writers who’ve survived tough circumstances and are considering tapping into those memories to bring their fiction to life?

KBB: I didn’t think it was going to be cathartic—I went to pretty great lengths to have the specifics of Ada’s situation be very different from mine, and to have her reactions and life dissimilar to mine. But in the end it was more healing that I expected. I don’t think I could have written this book until I’d come pretty well to terms with my past. I had to write it from a place of healing.

Healing from any trauma is a long, drawn-out process, and I couldn’t have written this book when I was still experiencing a lot of personal pain. It’s very tempting to want to use our lives as material, but I wouldn’t have been able to use the material very effectively before this. It may have impeded my own healing. That said, I think every person is unique; I’m not sure I can offer anyone advice on their own journey except to say that the journey is possible, and worth it.

ABW: I really appreciate your honesty in talking about tough personal stuff. I can imagine that some readers will find Ada’s story so empowering that they’ll seek help for their own journeys. Ada’s determination is inspiring.

We’ve all heard the adage, write what you know, and I love how you took what you know well—both PTSD and horses—and used that knowledge to give depth to the story. But I’m also interested in what you didn’t know. Can you talk a bit about the research you did to make Ada’s story come alive? Tell us about your process in doing research.

KBB: In this case, I was enormously helped by Amazon.uk, the British version of Amazon.com. In England a ton of former evacuees have written and published accounts of their experiences; also, because this is taught extensively in British schools, they sell a ton of facsimiles of printed war materials. That was a good start. Eventually, however, I realized I was going to have to see Kent with my own eyes in order to be able to describe it through Ada’s.

In 2012 my family spent our children’s spring break in England. Highlights included the Imperial War Museum, where I could see actual Spitfires, boats that helped with the Dunkirk evacuations, bombs, identity cards, rations books, an Anderson shelter—all the stuff—and then driving around Kent, getting completely lost in back roads, and stumbling across the remains of one of the hundreds of airfields thrown up in England during the war. I also climbed to the top of Ada’s hill and looked out at the sea.

ABW: Sounds like a fabulous trip. While reading, I paused when Ada paused on that hill and looked out at the sea. In my mind, I could see it, too—that’s how caught up I was in the story.

I know you’re super busy, so I’ll wrap this up by asking how long it took you to write The War that Saved my Life? How many revisions did the manuscript go through?

KBB: I’m guessing about 2 1/2 years—I say guessing because I was starting the research while still finishing Jefferson’s Sons. The initial chapters went through about six revisions before I found Ada’s voice; after that, the entire manuscript went through six full revisions before copyediting. It’s the most-revised book I’ve ever written—and worth it.

ABW: Yes, very worth it! Thank you so much for this e-interview, Kim. I look forward to reading all of your books.

KBB; Thanks, Anne! I’m looking forward to your next book, too!

For more information about Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (she’s the author of 16 books for young readers, including the highly acclaimed Jefferson’s Sons, and For Freedom: the Story of a French Spy), check out her website and blog.

Welcome Ambiguity

My brother-in-law emailed me a quote from Richard Rohr, and I printed it on a scrap of paper, taped it above my writing desk, and now read it daily:

Richard Rohr

“…you cannot grow in the great art form, the integration of action and contemplation, without (1) a strong tolerance for ambiguity, (2) an ability to allow, forgive, and contain a certain degree of anxiety, and (3) a willingness to not know and not even need to know. This is how you allow and encounter mystery…”

Ahhhhhhh. Read those words again.

In the early stages of writing a novel, so much is unclear. The characters’ motivations, the way the plot will unfold, the scenes that are necessary and the ones that aren’t—the writer has to sort out all of the details. The task is massive. The time it takes might stretch from months into years.

This early stage is the place where I find myself today. I’m creating new characters—nudging them, interviewing them, finding out what makes them tick, what they care about, what aspect of their story is worth telling. Little is clear, and I could despair about that. But Rohr reminds me to embrace the unknown. To forgive myself for the messiness and inefficiency of my writing process. To accept and tolerate ambiguity. To believe that somehow, somewhere along the way, a story will emerge.

If you’re embarking upon a new writing project as I am, post Rohr’s words above your writing desk. Hang in there with the ambiguity. No, don’t just hang. Embrace it. Welcome it. The story could go in any number of directions. Let yourself explore possibilities.

Let yourself encounter mystery.

Happy New Year!

Structuring a Story

For months I’ve been trying to find the right opening for the novel I started in 2013, and I think I’ve got it. Finally. For my breakthrough, I owe a huge thank you to screenwriter Michael Arndt.

Last month good friend and author Kristin Swenson met Arndt at the Austin Film Festival & Conference, and afterward sent me the link to a Disney/Pixar animated short that Arndt wrote: “Beginnings: Setting a Story in Motion.” (According to this site, the short originally appeared as a bonus feature on Toy Story 3’s Blue-ray version.) Enthralled, I watched it multiple times. Not only did watching help me write an opening that works, it helped me understand why some stories are good and others blockbuster-great. Only 8 minutes long, this short packs a career’s worth of screenwriting wisdom.

Arndt on Beginning a Story

But there’s a catch. Novel-writing and screenwriting aren’t the same beast. Arndt tells us to begin by establishing the protagonist and his/her defining passion; inotherwords, start with the “ordinary world” beloved by Hollywood’s devotees of mythic structure. For film, this works. For novels, hmmm… not always.

Movie viewers settle into cushy chairs for a two-hour commitment, give or take 30 minutes. Readers commit to much more—hours, days, possibly a week’s worth of time engrossed in a fictional universe. A novelist who opens with the ordinary risks losing readers in backstory before they’ve made a commitment to the long haul, and might do better to begin with a scene that sets up the emotional arc of the story. An inciting incident. Later when the hero has reason to think about the world from which she’s come, writers can always provide backstory. By that time, if we’ve hooked our readers, they’ll be curious for more.

Michael Arndt

Michael Arndt

But despite film vs. fiction differences, storytelling is storytelling and novelists have a lot to learn from screenwriters. Arndt’s little gem purports to be about beginnings, but it’s also about structure and pacing and twists and turns and why some Disney/Pixar movies are insanely successful and… I could go on and on. I’m enormously grateful to Kristin for linking me to this clip. Now I can enjoy the upcoming Thanksgiving and holiday seasons with peace of mind, believing that at least for the moment, I’ve got my manuscript where it needs to be. Pfew.

And over the holidays, I might just settle into a cushy chair with a bowl of popcorn and a little Toy Story 3

Stocking Stuffer for Writers

The Halfway House for Writers is a book I’ll read again. And again. And again. Like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, this new gem by Valley Haggard is all about craft and process and perseverance and not beating yourself up. I found it so affirming, I couldn’t put it down. Well, no, that’s not quite true. I put it down so I could write. It made me want to write!

For two years I’ve had an idea for a personal essay, and half way through Halfway House, the essay came pouring out of me. Then I read some more. Then I wrote free hand, stream of consciousness. Then I read some more. I went back and forth between the book and writing, and it was a glorious, productive morning.

The title is deceiving. I think Halfway House will inspire artists of all kinds, not just writers. It nurtures the creative spirit. Valley’s approach is fresh and honest and real—a new wisdom for a new decade. Here are some excerpts:

Sitting on the Edge of the Pool

Push gently against your comfort zone—feel out the edge and then give the tiniest little push. You do not have to burst that bubble, to reveal all of yourself at once. You don’t have to smear the guts of your insides all over your outsides the very first time you sit down to write.

I think of easing into the writing process as putting one toe into the shallow end of the pool and then getting your ankles wet and then your thighs, rather than belly flopping off the high dive—although you can try that, too. The only goal is to end up in the pool eventually, allowing yourself to be bathed and baptized in the full experience of water.

Experiment

It’s a good practice to experiment with the tools of tense and point of view. They can help change the atmosphere, mood and direction of the story you’re telling. Try telling the story from the perspective of one of the characters you are writing about… Can you write memories from your childhood as if you were once again a child? Even a subtle change in perspective and point of view can create big changes in how you see—and write—your own stories.

Valley Haggard

Valley Haggard

This little book is like a cornucopia—a container so small that the abundance of insight comes spilling out and fills you with gratitude and you whisper, “Thank you.”

The creative process is what it is—a process. And if you’re like me, sometimes you spin your wheels questioning yourself, thinking your work is awful. This book reminds me that my process isn’t stupid or wrong; it’s simply my process, inefficient as it is, and I’m not the only writer with such a messy way of doing things. Thank you, Valley, for giving me permission to belly flop off the high dive and play with tense and point of view and most of all, to stop being so hard on myself.

My children haven’t become writers, but they’re über-creative and this year I’m stuffing their stockings with this book. (Jane—sshhh, I know you’re the only one of the kids who reads my blog; don’t tell the others.)

You can find the book at lifein10minutes.com.

Beta Readers Rock

Over this past summer, friends gave me these comments on the draft of a new YA novel:

Jane Westrick, Untitled (detail), 2007

“I’m confused here. Are the characters sitting? Standing? Walking?”
“What is his motivation for doing this?”
“I don’t understand whether he sees his father as a hard-ass or a nurturing figure.”
“I can’t quite picture this character.”

These and other comments were unbelievably helpful! In some cases, I had quick fixes. A sentence here, a paragraph there. In others, I had to step back and rethink a scene or remind myself of the character’s motivation for doing what he did. But before friends called my attention to these spots, I didn’t perceive the problems.

Beta-reader-feedback is huge because authors totally fail at identifying all the places that aren’t working. Places where we “tell” instead of “show.” Places where we’re too abrupt. Or too wordy. Or use a metaphor that doesn’t work. Or whatever. These are the places that pull readers out of a story, and that need additional time, focus, and polish.

Last year I made the mistake of showing my agent a draft before it was ready, and this year I’m learning to be patient. The very act of circulating a draft requires tons of patience! I have to let go of my manuscript for months at a time, and the letting-go drives me crazy. Of course, I can work on a new story while a draft is out, and I can turn to projects people have paid me to focus on. But I have to admit that when one of my drafts is circulating, it feels as if my heart is circulating, too.

Agent Ted Weinstein

Agent Ted Weinstein

You’ve heard this adage before, and it’s worth hearing again, so here it is in the words of literary agent Ted Weinstein (not my agent, by the way; I just enjoyed reading this article in Writer’s Digest): There are no shortcuts and there is no substitute for doing the hard work of writing and revising and revising again.

Getting and responding to early-reader feedback is essential, and today I want to say, thank you.

Thank you to all of my early readers. Thank you to all the writers who participate in critique groups and take the time to read and encourage friends to polish their manuscripts before submitting to an agent or editor. It takes forever, I know! But the process is essential. And if you’re like me, you’re engaged in this writing gig for the sake of the process, anyway, right? (Okay, so there are other reasons, too, but process is big.) Polishing can make the difference between publication and not. Getting (and giving) beta-reader feedback is worth the time.

 

P.S. – A huge thank you to visual artist (and daughter) Jane Westrick for permission to include her art in this post.

Jane Westrick, Untitled, 37 in x 32 in, oil on canvas, 2007

So This is Voice

 

 

I’m big on beginning novels in media res (in the middle of things), meaning jumping into a scene before explaining who’s who or what’s what, no back-story.

But if you insist on starting with a character who talks to the reader, do it well. Make it fresh. Aspire to do it the way Lamar Giles does in Endangered. He’s mastered this sort of opening. Here are some of the lines in his first chapter:

 

 

      I’ve haunted my school for the last three years.
      I’m not a real ghost; this isn’t one of  those stories. At Portside High I’m a Hall Ghost. A person who’s there, but isn’t…
      Jocks don’t bump into me, and mean girls don’t tease me, and teachers don’t call on me because I don’t want them to. Hiding in plain sight is a skill, one I’ve honed. My best friend, Ocie, calls me a Jedi ninja, which is maybe a mixed metaphor and redundant. But it’s also kind of true…
      We’re all something we don’t know we are…
     

      My target is stationary, in a parked car, one hundred yards away. A quick lens adjustment turns her face from fuzzy to sharp despite the darkness. An easy shot. Which I take.
      Keachin Myer’s head snaps forward, whiplash quick.
      I shoot again.
      Her head snaps back this time, she’s laughing so hard. Odd, I was under the impression the soulless skank had no sense of humor…
      I rub my tired eyes, and switch my Nikon D800 to display mode… Keachin—rendered in stark monochrome thanks to the night-vision adaptor fitted between my lens and my camera’s body—belly-laughing at whatever joke the current guy trying to get in her pants is telling. Basically, Keachin being what everyone in Portside knows she is. Rich, spoiled, and popular. Nothing the world hasn’t already gleaned about this girl. Nothing real.
      I intend to fix that. If she ever gives me something good.
      Keachin Myer is as clueless about what she is as anyone else. And being unfortunately named is not the part she’s unaware of. If you let her tell it, her parents strapped her with such an ugly handle because, well, she couldn’t be perfect, right?

 

Maybe a mixed metaphor and redundant… An ugly handle. This is smart writing—tight, engaging, real. And I’m thrilled that the author is here to share his process in crafting such a compelling voice.

Lamar Giles burst onto the YA fiction scene last year with Fake ID, a finalist for the Edgar Award. He’s a founding member of the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and now has multiple contracts with HarperCollins and Scholastic for forthcoming books. The guy is so busy writing, he couldn’t do this interview when I first asked. I had to wait a few months.

A.B. Westrick: Lamar, welcome! And thank you for taking time away from fiction-writing to tell us a little about your process. I read Endangered in two days—it’s the classic can’t-put-it-down.

Lamar Giles: Thank you for having me! I’m glad you found ENDANGERED unputdownable.

ABW: So let’s start with that voice. Would you talk a little about where it came from? What was your inspiration for this character, who goes by Lauren… or Panda… or Gray, depending on circumstances?

LG: I had a couple of things in mind as I refined her voice. As we know, writing is re-writing, and some of the best, most-nuanced stuff tends to come out in the 2nd or 3rd drafts for me. While doing those drafts, I reminded myself that Panda/Gray believes she is doing good, and she does not know that she’s wrong. That helped me craft a more haughty voice that is at times indignant. That mindset allowed for some very specific things in the passages you quoted. I wanted to romanticize what is, essentially, an extremely creepy peeping tom/stalker exercise. I wanted the reader to co-sign on this massive invasion of privacy. By alluding to popular supernatural tales (“I’ve haunted my school…”) and revered pop culture imagery (Jedi Ninja), I’m working to get readers on board, so they too are romanticizing with her. But I couldn’t have gotten there without that simple thesis…SHE doesn’t know better.

In terms of inspiration, Panda came from another story I was working on (and may return to in the near future). It was an urban fantasy, and she was a supporting character. The story wasn’t working, and when my agent (who is an awesome friend and collaborator) read it, she immediately keyed on Panda because of the backstory of her nickname, and asked “Can you do anything with her?”

It was an interesting challenge because her character probably took up a total of only 10 pages in a 300+ page manuscript. She was a yearbook photographer, so I decided photography should remain a part of the story, but how? The breakthrough came when I recalled an experience I had with a photographer years ago. I was getting some head shots for my website. During the shoot, the photographer mentioned his former occupation: Army Sniper. I asked what made him go into photography after such a career, and he said, “The skills are transferrable.”

Whoa!

I can’t always explain how I get to my final writing product, but Panda’s one I can summarize neatly: she’s a sniper without a rifle.

ABW: Whoa is right. I could feel the sniper element in her scenes, and now I get where it comes from. Excellent.

Now tell me about confidence. On page 85, Panda says, “Really, the key is confidence… Be bold. Belong.” Nice. On every page in Endangered, not only do I feel Panda’s confidence, but I feel your confidence as a writer, which is another way of saying that as a reader, I sense I’m in the hands of a master storyteller. So tell me—where does that confidence come from? Tentative writing doesn’t hook readers, but yours does. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers who need a bit of that confidence?

LG:  You wanna know the truth? I rarely feel confident when I’m writing a first draft.

ABW: No way! You totally fooled me.

LG: Yes, really. There inevitably comes a point—usually in the middle—where I’m like, “THIS. IS. STUPID!” Or boring, or trite. I gain confidence from knowing the world will never see that draft. More confidence comes when my trusted readers tell me what parts are actually stupid, boring, and trite (not in those terms, my reader/colleagues are much more tactful) so I know what to fix.

Each subsequent draft builds confidence. So my message is revise your ass off. You should feel fairly confident once you’re sick of reading your own story. Notice I said fairly, though. If you don’t feel totally confident at the end of your revision process, it’s not necessarily a bad sign. As Panda alludes to, you must at least act like you belong. And if you can persevere through multiple drafts, then allow your work into the world, you’re not really acting at all.

ABW: Yes, persevering. That is huge.

Now, a recurring sentence in Endangered is this: “We’re all something we don’t know we are.” Oooohhh—I love that line. At what point in drafting Endangered did that line emerge as significant? I guess I’m assuming it emerged, but maybe it was there from the very beginning. Tell us about it, and about your decision to have the character repeat it a few times.

LG: Actually, that line was there from the start. In an early draft it was the FIRST line of the novel. I always knew I was dealing with a character who was not as observant as she wanted to believe. I repeated the line to press home the irony of Panda’s situation; this person, who’s made a sport of observing deplorable behavior from a distance, can not see the flaws in herself.  Each time it comes up, Panda’s inching closer to valuable (albeit painful) introspection, culminating with ultimate introspection when the story concludes. That line is my thesis statement, so to speak, and it guided character, story, and voice the entire time I was working on Endangered.

ABW: Well done. Panda’s voice is genuine (perhaps that’s the essence of voice—the honesty) and she’s funny precisely at times when the reader needs a break from the tension. For example, on page 108, Panda narrates: “I wonder if the Portside PD is made up entirely of men who look like fire hydrants. The new cop has two shades of walrus whiskers—gray and grayer.” Hahaha, So tell us—is there a little bit of Lamar inside this character named Panda? Is this your sense of humor? Where do you get your laugh lines?

LG: Yes, there’s a bit of humor in me that comes from a combination of being shy/awkward growing up, and discovering that if I said something funny when I felt most awkward, it made socializing a bit easier. There was some painful trial and error involved here, particularly during high school, when I hadn’t quite learned to filter, and wasn’t great at judging the most appropriate times to crack a joke. Frankly, I learned that too many jokes, or badly timed jokes, rubbed people the wrong way. No one wants to go to a 24/7 Kevin Hart show.

However, the humor reflex is extremely useful when I’m in a room by myself staring at a blank page. I can take months to consider the value of a setup and punchline, then get a ton of feedback on what works and what doesn’t. I feel like there’s a recurring theme in all of my answers now. Revise. Revise. Revise. Make every line fight for its life. If doesn’t do what was intended, it’s gotta go. It’s not dissimilar to what stand up comedians do when trying new material: test it with a small crowd and make sure everyone’s laughing before selling tickets to the arena.

ABW: Making every line fight for its life—that is key. No wonder your books read so well.

While I’ve wanted to focus on voice in this interview, I just have to ask about Panda driving into that hurricane. How much of that scene was your imagination, and how much did you have to research in order to nail that scene? In general, how much research did this novel require?

LG: For the hurricane scene I didn’t do any research. Growing up in Virginia, and living in Hampton Roads for nearly 20 years, I’ve seen some rough storms come through. Mostly, there’s warning, and we’ve ridden the worst ones out at home. But I’ve been caught driving when a sudden, powerful storm hit, and know all too well how scary it is to pull over and wait because your wipers can’t keep up with intense downpour, and the wind’s bouncing your car’s suspension. So, Panda and Ocie’s excursion is probably more an amalgam memory than fiction.

Other parts of the book did require research: the photography stuff (special thanks to one of the best wildlife photographers in the world, C.S. Ling, for being so generous with her time and answering my questions there), and Panda’s use of social engineering and infiltration to get close to people and inside buildings.

There’s a book called Access all Areas: A User’s Guide to the Art of Urban Exploration by a writer/urban explorer named Ninjalicious (this is not a joke) that I found particularly helpful. For those who don’t know about urban explorers, they are people who explore cities the way a spelunker might explore caves. It involves going inside deserted buildings, or, in some cases, buildings that are in use, and exploring the lesser known areas. Basements. Ventilation. I’ve heard mention of explorers finding rooms with no doors or windows that can only be accessed through a vent, which is weird, and makes me want to write a story just about THAT. Most urban explorers do this with the intent of never disturbing the sites. They’re not vandals, and they don’t steal (though this hobby is still illegal for obvious reasons, not to mention dangerous…think of stumbling around in the dark and not noticing the empty elevator shaft you’re walking toward).

Anyhow, it occurred to me that Panda would find such skills useful, so I brushed up. I guess the next question would be: have I ever tried any of the urban explore stuff I wrote about? I’ll never tell.

ABW: Hahaha. I think we could go on for hours, but we should wrap this up. Do you have any other thoughts for writers who want to nail that sense of voice in their manuscripts?

LG: Consider the direction in which your character’s moral compass is pointing, and decide if they’re being honest with themselves and others about it. That will guide much of the decision-making about how they speak and interact with the world around them.

Also, if it comes down to over- or under-explaining something, go under. You’ll be amazed how powerful a few key lines can be in distinguishing your character’s voice from all the others out there.

ABW: Well said. Thank you so much, Lamar, for your insights here, for taking time away from writing fiction in order to do this interview, and for writing such great books. I’m looking forward to reading your next release!

Don’t Shy Away from Conflict

If you read only one book this summer, make it Something Must Be Done about Prince Edward County. Part memoir, part journalistic exposé, this sensitive and compelling book explores the history of a Southern town where local history wasn’t taught even though a suit filed on behalf of black students in the county was one of the five consolidated into Brown vs. Board of Education. Author Kristen Green alternates between memories of growing up there, enjoying time with her family’s black housekeeper, extensive research and interviews, and dreams for her own children, who are multi-racial.

I couldn’t put it down.

It struck me that in terms of craft, journalists can teach novelists a lot. So I caught up with Kristen (she lives in Richmond, VA—lucky me!) to get her insights into writing about tough topics.

 

A.B. Westrick: Kristen, welcome! And thank you for doing this blog interview. Your book has so many layers—such complexity distilled down to about 300 pages—that we can’t do it justice here. But we sure can talk craft…

You tell us how University of Mary Washington professor Steve Watkins (who happens to be a novelist now, just sayin’) helped you hone your journalistic grit. After you got “worked over” by a “nice” administrator, “‘The hell with nice!’ Watkins snapped. ‘Nice doesn’t mean good!’” (pg. 90). In another anecdote, you tell us that your former history teacher shut down your interview with the message “loud and clear: She’s done talking about this, and she thinks [you] should stop, too” (pg. 198).

So let’s discuss the born-to-be-nice problem. How do you handle tough moments like that? When an interview gets uncomfortable, what do you do?

Kristen Green: I think it’s like writing. Don’t give up too quickly. It’s tempting, when things start getting interesting, to pack up and say you’ve got enough information. But that is the time to push a little bit harder. I’ve been a journalist for a long time and confrontation is just part of who I am. I do not shy away from conflict.

I tend to keep asking questions, to follow a natural succession, to want to go deeper with each question. People expect writers to ask the hard questions, so my advice is just go for it. Assume that whomever you’re interviewing wants to talk about the tough stuff or is at least expecting you to ask about it. If you do it respectfully, and if you’re patient, you can get really good information you never expected to get. But don’t be in a hurry. And keep going back to the person over and over to ask follow up questions. New information will be revealed. One really great trick is to just be quiet at various points in the interview. Leave some space for the person you’re interviewing to fill—sometimes the interviewee will be so uncomfortable that they just talk to avoid silence.

ABW: Oh, yes—those uncomfortable silences. Been there. And as for going deeper and not hurrying—fiction-writers need to remember that, too. Great points.

While we’re on the topic of tough stuff, let’s talk about shame. On page 70, you recount the moment you realized your grandfather had been a key player in the decision to close the schools. Your sense of shame permeates the book, bringing authenticity to the page. Can you reflect a little bit about shame as a motivating force in writing?

KG: I think shame is what kept this book idea alive for me. When I got to college, I was ashamed to realize that I didn’t know what had happened in my hometown before I was born, and I felt like that was a story I needed to learn. As I began telling other people’s and other communities’ stories as a journalist, shame popped up again. I was confronting my white privilege. And then, when I met my future husband Jason, a multiracial man, I knew I wanted to marry him and have kids, and I was ashamed to be from a place that might reject our love—and that historically had done everything in its power to prevent white and black kids from going to school together.

When the book project became more serious and I realized my grandfather had played a bigger role in the school closures than I had imagined, the sense of shame became more pervasive. I couldn’t just blame my town—my family was at fault, too. I was wrestling with what to do about this information because I loved my grandfather desperately, and I wanted to be a loyal granddaughter. In the world I grew up in, talking about these topics—shame and privilege and oppression and intermarriage—was a big no-no. It was something swept under the rug. And I was confronting not just my own shame, but this sort of community shame that was so deeply ingrained that some people, both black and white, couldn’t access it. Confronting shame—and sitting with it—was an important part of writing this book for me.

Read Glenn Frankel's July 1, 2015, article on SOMETHING MUST BE DONE

Read Glenn Frankel’s July 1, 2015, article on SOMETHING MUST BE DONE

ABW: I appreciate your honesty, and I can definitely relate to the challenge of confronting white privilege. (In 2014 I did a guest-post on racism, privilege, and shame at School Library Journal’s Teen Librarian Toolbox.”) Before we wrap this up, I want to ask about your writing process. In your Acknowledgments, you thank your husband for “his constant faith that I could write this book, even when I lost my way…” I’d love to hear more about losing your way, and particularly how you found your way again, once you’d lost it.

KG: I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just feeling around in the dark, trying to figure out how to build a book. I had all the information I needed—and if I didn’t have it I could easily get it—but I hadn’t the foggiest idea how to stitch it all together. I knew how to interview people and how to write up those interviews in lovely little scenes. I knew how to write snippets of my own life. But doing deep historical research and then boiling down what I learned for readers, to create something that explained my hometown’s complicated history? I had no idea how to do that. And how to weave reportage and history and memoir all together into a cohesive book? I didn’t have the first clue. There were many days, weeks even, when I was consumed by self-doubt, and it felt like I would never be able to pull a book out of the disparate material I had amassed.

I have always worked in a newsroom with layers upon layers of managers. This was the first time in my writing life where no one else had the final say about a piece I wrote. I would have to remind myself daily that no one else could solve my writing problems. It was up to me. And sometimes that pressure was too heavy.

But I just kept showing up. I took my husband and close friend’s advice and got up at 5:00 a.m. to write before I looked at email or social media or dealt with my kids. I kept trying different ways to structure the book, mapping it out on notecards on my dining room table. I sought feedback from my editor and from writers I trusted and admired. When I got really frustrated, I took a break or did another book task. I made sure to read at night, so that good writing—and the structure of really great books—would sink into my brain. But mostly I just showed up each day and wrote the pieces that, when combined with other pieces, would come together to create a book.

ABW: Just showing up at the page—so true. I’ve learned a lot here, not only from your answers, but from reading Something Must Be Done about Prince Edward County. Long after turning the final page, I’m still thinking about your book. Thank you again for a great interview, Kristen, and for writing such a heartfelt book.