How’s this for serendipity? When I met conference keynoter Padma Venkatraman at the James River Writers conference in October 2016, she recognized my book. She’d read it! Turns out her book had also received the NCSS Notable Trade Book Award. We were award-sisters! And right then, I knew I had to interview Padma for my blog.
I’ve just read her multiple-award-winning novel A Time to Dance about a girl who dreams of dancing again after losing a leg in a bus accident. It’s intense, at times funny and sad, soul-touching, heart-warming—all in all, a great read.
A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Padma!
Padma Venkatrama: Hello! Thanks for having me.
ABW: Your keynote address was inspirational, and I’d love for you to repeat a bit of what I heard you say at the James River Writers conference. Would you please talk about “going method”—the way you approached the task of writing about a character who’d lost a leg? It was so interesting. What did you do, and how did it influence your writing process?
PV: I’d like to begin by sharing with your readers the incident that inspired A Time to Dance. On a trip to India in my late teens, I was bitten by a viper, one of the most poisonous Indian snakes.
ABW: Oh, no!
PV: Oh, yes! It’s a miracle I survived without having to have my leg amputated. That experience—of nearly losing life and limb—solidified my sense of spirituality (which isn’t necessarily bound to any religion). Continue reading
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Tagged A Time to Dance, Carolyn Coman, character, Climbing the Stairs, conference, craft, emotional truth, fiction, Island's End, James River Writers, Jody Lisberger, Kristin Prevallet, Marilyn Nelson, Mary Capello, Nancy Paulsen, NCSS, Notable Trade Book, novel in verse, Padma Venkatraman, Peter Covino, process, research, revision, Richard Blanco, Roald Dahl, Rob Weisbach, Scott Hightower, secondary characters, Stephen Roxburgh, story, University of Rhode Island, verse, verse novel, writing, YA
During one of JRW’s twitter-chats (#jrwc12) with upcoming conference speakers, we were posing questions for Kristen-Paige Madonia, author of Fingerprints of You, and she tweeted that she’d spent four years getting to know her characters. Four years? Ouch. I’d hoped to have a second novel under contract before my first appears, but I’m not so sure I’ll meet that goal. I’ve been struggling with my next novel, wondering whether my story works, and fearing I might have to banish it to a drafts-folder.
But Madonia’s comment gave me hope. Rather than lamenting that sometimes it takes as long as four years to write a novel, I’ve felt relieved. It’s okay! I don’t have to beat myself up over the next one not yet working. I’m breathing deeply again. I’m not under contract. I can take my time. Pfew. If it takes my characters four years to reveal themselves to me, well then, that’s what it will take. Implicit in my deep breaths is a new confidence that it will happen. I’d been rushing the writing, and now I’m slowing down and re-learning how to trust the process.
This past week I’ve been reading Getting into Character by Brandilyn Collins, an approach to novel-writing based on techniques in method-acting. I’m trying out her suggestion to interview my protagonist, and the kid is talking up a storm. Few if any of his ramblings will make it into the novel, but in absorbing his world-view, I hope I’ll be able to make his presence on the page authentic. Let’s see if I can do it… Let’s see if it takes me four years…
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Tagged Brandilyn Collins, character, conference, dialogue, Kristen-Paige Madonia, process, protagonist, revision, twitter, VCFA, writing
In mid-March, as I staffed the James River Writers (JRW) table at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, it occurred to me that the JRW Conference differs from the VA Festival in the way an MFA differs from an MA or PhD. The VA Festival is all about books and the JRW Conference, about the craft of writing. Of course, there’s an overlap. But it comes down to the difference between content and process, between analyzing literature and writing it.
I particularly enjoyed hearing Kekla Magoon talk about molding historical facts to heighten her protagonist’s struggle in The Rock and the River. But if Kekla were to speak at the JRW Conference, she might go into more depth about the challenges of the craft. She might note how she picked up the narrative pace in the fourth chapter by manipulating readers’ sympathies (her policemen characters beat up a boy, then charge the boy with resisting arrest). She might tell us how she wove setting into plot. She might talk about scenes added or deleted to enhance the story’s emotional arc.
It’s one thing to have a story to tell, and another to tell it well—to show up at the page every day in order to wrestle with the tense and pace and voice while developing characters and searching for the right structure. It’s one thing to love reading, and another to embrace the art and process of writing.
The VA Festival may not have showered me with tips on craft, but it drenched me in warm fuzzies. I staffed the JRW table with Meg Medina and caught up with writers who have spoken at the JRW Conference over the years—Clifford Garstang, Charles J. Shields, Bill Glose, Michele Young-Stone, Irene Ziegler. JRW members Linda Dini Jenkins, Kristi Austin, Beth Rogers and Judy Witt were there, as were conference-regulars Becky Mushko, Stephanie McPherson and Michelle Ehrich. I saw SCBWI colleagues Ellen Braaf, Kathryn Erskine, Valerie O. Patterson and Anne Marie Pace, and Vermont College alums Kekla Magoon, Tami Lewis Brown, Maha Addasi, Louise Simone and Winifred Conkling. JRW shared a table with Rose Esber, and Lee Knapp sold her fun, grammatically-correct ceramics. I’m already looking forward to VA Festival 2012.
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Tagged arc, books, conference, craft, historical, literature, pace, plot, process, scenes, structure, voice, writing