Joyce Carol Oates: Fantasized into Being

By Flora Stadler

I was a runner for half my life. I loved the clarity it gave me. I could outrun the thoughts reeling through my head and clear a space for my mind to wander.

In my 40s, my knees decided they’d had enough. So I felt a knowing pang when I read that Joyce Carol Oates relied on running to clear her mind and think about her writing. She once said that “the runner who’s a writer is running through the land- and cityscapes of her fiction, like a ghost in a real setting.” Yes, I thought when I read this.

The first of her novels I ever read was The Accursed, and I couldn’t get over the immensity of it. That a mind could contain all of that was overwhelming to me as a reader and a writer. Even though it feels like dark magic, I know it’s mostly work—hours of research, running, planning, building, revising. Something else she’d said, about “the writing itself being the biggest challenge,” made me wonder what that process must be like for someone so skilled at taking giant subjects and building a universe to contain them. So I asked her:

How do you overcome that writing challenge, especially when you’re working on a dense novel with historical contexts and big themes? Where do you start and how do you keep your momentum?

“Writing begins with inspiration, a sudden thrilling ‘idea’—which then must be contemplated, meditated, fantasized into being.

I spend much of my ‘creative’ time running/walking—I never write until I have imagined the prose that I will write, as a sort of film evoked in my head when I am away from my desk.

My day-dreaming/meditation—focuses upon characters engaged in dialogue, scenes.

I don’t, however, think of them as ‘characters’—rather as people.

If I try to write directly—before I have ‘imagined’ the scene—it is much, much more difficult.

Beyond this, I try to outline as much as possible. I amass a folder of notes, scenes, sketches, etc. that can be as bulky as 200 pages, before I actually begin the first chapter.

‘Pre-production’ is everything in a novel, as it is in the making of feature films.

After this initial work, writing is a matter of increments. Weeks, days, hours, minutes—attentiveness to the sentence, that builds the paragraph, eventually the scene, & eventually the chapter, & beyond.”

I loved that her written response to me looked and read something like a poem. I’d expect nothing less from a great runner. As for me, I’ll take her advice and walk through my stories first from now on.

Joyce Carol Oates is a playwright, poet, essayist, and the author of dozens of novels and short stories. She has been a writing professor at Princeton for more than 40 years, has won the National Book Award and two O. Henrys, and truly is a National Treasure. You can follow her on Twitter and check out her latest novel, a dystopian thriller titled Hazards of Time Travel.

Author Interview: Jessie Chaffee and Brendan Kiely

by Ruta Rimas

The Get Lit Salon on January 13 — the first one of 2019 — will feature not one, but two guest authors, Jessie Chaffee and Brendan Kiely. They are both highly acclaimed, award-winning novelists with a special distinction: They’re married.

Two authors, one roof.

Florence+in+Ecstasy
Jessie Chaffee’s debut novel, Florence in Ecstasy

Jessie Chaffee’s debut novel, Florence in Ecstasy, was published by The Unnamed Press in 2017, and translated into five languages. She was awarded a Fulbright Grant in Creative Writing to Italy to complete the novel, during which time she was the Writer-in-Residence at Florence University of the Arts. Her writing has been published in Literary Hub, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, The Florentine, and Global City Review, among others.

Brendan Kiely is The New York Times bestselling author of All American Boys (with Jason Reynolds), Tradition, The Last True Love Story, and The Gospel of Winter. His work has been published in more than ten languages, received a Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award, the Walter Dean Myers Award, and the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award.

Brendan-Kiely-Book-Tradition
Brendan Kiely’s most recent novel, Tradition

His work has been selected twice as one of the American Library Association’s Best Fiction for Young Adults and was a Chicago Public Library Best of the Best. Originally from the Boston area, he now lives with Jessie in New York City.

This couple’s literary credit rolls deep and we’re excited to speak to them in person. In advance of the salon, I asked these two writers the same question.

Why write?

Jessie Chaffee:

Jessie+Chaffee_credit+Heather+Waraksa
Author photo by Heather Waraksa

I write because it is my way of making meaning and of understanding the world and my place within it. Whenever there is an issue that I’m grappling with, whether personal or global, the solution is always writing, because it is in putting words on the page that my understanding takes form and shape. Sometimes that process provides answers, but more often it just clarifies the right questions—and then those questions keep me writing! I write because I’m a reader and, like reading, writing is a path to empathy and connectedness. It takes me further into myself but it also takes me far outside of myself. It gives me access to an entirely new existence and to characters who are vastly different from me, who surprise me, who stretch me and challenge my sense of what it means to be a person in the world. Florence in Ecstasy took almost a decade, and while the writing process was at times maddening and there were plenty of dead-ends, I got to spend those ten years with a city that I love but that is not my own, with art and rowing and history, with Italian women and men and American expats and ecstatic saints. I’m grateful for every one of those years. I write because I’ve always felt most at home in books, in those moments when I glimpse truths that I might understand deeply—being lost, being at war with oneself, being in love—but that I haven’t seen captured in the (exact right way) that my favorite writers have managed to articulate them. And I write because I hope that my books might provide similar moments of connectedness for other readers.

Brendan Kiely:

Brendan-Kiely-Author
Author photo by Gary Joseph Cohen

I take inspiration from Toni Cade Bambara’s line, “the role of the artist is to make revolution irresistible.” I write as an act of social engagement. Whether it is the scandal of abuse in the Catholic Church (The Gospel of Winter), racism and police brutality (All American Boys), or the violent repercussions of misogyny (Tradition, May 2018), I write novels examining the motivations of people grappling with the complex social issues of our day to try to inspire action for social change. I write to move the heart and the feet: I write in search of hope.

Join us on Sunday, January 13th at 5 pm, at Oak Vino, to continue the discussion with Jessie and Brendan.

A Year of Reading Like a Writer: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

by Kristen Holt Browning

When Julie first asked me to blog for the Get Lit website, I had no idea what to write about. Every week, Julie or Flora give their insightful exchanges with authors both local and far-flung, or Ruta provides great behind-the-scenes peeks into the book publishing world. What could I offer? Well, I read (a lot). And I write (a little). And so, from that banal observation, Reading Like a Writer was born.

This year, I committed to reading beyond pleasure—that is, while I still read for story and character and language, I also read to answer these questions: why did the author choose to write this poem/chapter in this way? What does it mean that the author chose to use this word, this image? Does it work? Why not, if it doesn’t?

Perhaps surprisingly, this didn’t turn reading into homework. I never felt like I was forcing a novel or book of poems under a literary telescope, or dissecting text merely for the sake of exposing its linguistic or structural innards. Rather, it felt like a deeper, fuller mode of reading: when a narrative kept me engaged, I thought about why. When a poem made my heart beat a little faster, I considered how the poet’s choices created that effect in me.

I also committed to keeping a book log (Logging Books, Logging Memories). As I glance through it, there are two or three novels there that have already disappeared from my mind. But others remain: for example, I am still thinking about, and deeply affected by, Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers (Empathy for the Reader).

In addition to keeping a book log, I’m also still reading a poem a day (Poetry Every Day). A daily practice of reading at least a couple poems has inspired my own writing in notable ways: for one thing, I often use compelling lines or phrases from a poem I read in the evening as the basis for some free-writing the following morning.

So, if you’re looking to adopt some new literary practices for your New Year’s resolution, might I suggest: write down what you read, and read a poem every day.

Finally, a word about the future direction of this series:  I’m obviously not the only reading writer here in Beacon. Going forward into the next year of Get Lit, I’d love to add more voices to this column. What are you reading? What have you read recently that inspired or influenced your own writing? Comment on our Facebook page or tell me at any of our upcoming Get Lit events this year, and I’ll share your recommendations and thoughts in upcoming columns and posts!

George Saunders: Under Pressure

By Flora Stadler

UPDATE: When I received George Sauders’ response to my question, I reached out again to ask him if he could tell me about a new pressure-relief method he’d learned for his novel. I didn’t expect to hear back, so I wasn’t disappointed when I didn’t. But then a holiday miracle happened and he responded! Scroll down to his original response and see what else he had to say. 

In a piece for The Guardian last year, author George Saunders described the obsessive grind of his writing process: “My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (‘without hope and without despair’). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the ‘P’ zone.”

I’ve been a Saunders fan-girl ever since I read his short story collection, In Persuasion Nation. So when his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, came out, I was excited to walk around inside a novel-sized version of his brain.

In that same Guardian article, Saunders wrote about his transition to novel-writing, which he thought would require lots of hidden meanings and more complicated plans than his short stories. He eventually realized that wasn’t the case.

But I could see his point. The two kinds of writing seem to exercise different muscles. A short story is a sprint through an idea, but to hold onto that idea for hundreds of pages can feel like a marathon. If a short story is the work of a quick mind, a novel is an expression of its stamina. So when I somehow got George Saunders to agree to sprint through a question with me, I asked:

Was there something in the writing process for Lincoln in the Bardo that your previous work hadn’t prepared you for? And if so, how did you overcome it (if you feel you did)?

“I suppose it was the earnestness of the narration. In my stories (and because of the contemporary voice I use) I can narrate serious stuff with a constant option to toggle momentarily over into the comic. This functions as a sort of pressure relief valve. The subject matter of this book (the 19th century death of a child and his father’s grief) complicated that — I found myself needing to do longer stretches of narrative the purpose of which was not overtly comedic. So this was a good thing—it taught me other ways to do that pressure-relief work.

Essentially what happened was that, by bearing down on what ‘the comic’ meant, I found out that it is more than just ‘being funny’ but can also include ‘paying closer attention to what you’ve already said.’ In this case, there was a moment when, in the midst of some earnest expositional stuff, I recalled: ‘Hey, that one ghost — you’ve said he has a huge and permanent erection. And that other one — he’s supposed to have thousands of eyes and ears.’ So then, without any change of tone, just by ‘recalling’ those things and writing them calmly into the text, the tone shifted — it wasn’t ‘funny’ exactly, but it wasn’t boring historical exposition, either.”

George Saunders is a professor, author and essayist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and everywhere. His writing has won countless awards, including the National Magazine Award for fiction (1994, 1996, 2000, and 2004), a MacArthur Fellowship in 2006, the PEN/Malamud Award in 2013, and most recently, the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Lincoln in the Bardo. His many books can be purchased or ordered at Binnacle Books in Beacon.

Burning Questions About Book Publishing: What’s the deal with children’s books?

By Ruta Rimas

When people think of children’s books, the first type that usually pops into mind is picture books, the often large-trimmed delights of young childhood, sometimes (but not always) read at bedtime. Most adult readers can fondly look back upon their youth and recall a few favorites books, the ones that transformed them into the readers they are today.

There are the classics: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, anything by Dr. Seuss, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (which has countless spinoffs!) by Laura Numeroff. But if you don’t have a toddler, an elementary-aged kid or teenager, you may not know that the children’s book industry is so much more than picture books, and so much more expansive than the classics. For instance, my employer produces over six hundred new children’s books every year.

WildThings
A classic picture book.

Children’s books often get lumped into one giant box, but this segment of the publishing industry is robust, diverse, innovative, and vast. The books published in this category span 0-18 years of age, and that includes:

A board book is short and simple, made from thick cardboard for little hands that like to pull and little mouths that like to bite. Generally, children’s publishers either repurpose content for board books or write board books in-house.

Picture books are usually geared for readers aged four to eight, and contain both a text-based narrative and a visual one. Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin and The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt are modern picture book successes.

For young readers who are eager to begin exploring stories on their own (or perhaps with a reading partner) there are chapter books. These tend to run between 10-12,000 words, sometimes have spot art, and are gobbled up by kids six to nine years old. A great example of a chapter book is the Clementine Series by Sara Pennypacker

There are also middle-grade novels, usually for readers who are eight to twelve. These tend to be longer and offer more complex and sophisticated stories. Diary of Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney is middle grade, as is Wonder by RJ Palacio.

Finally, children’s publishing also encompasses the thriving young adult category. These are books published for teenagers, though there is a significant adult readership, too. Recent YA successes include To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.

THUG
A modern YA bestseller

The business wasn’t always this way: The world of children’s publishing fundamentally shifted about twenty years ago and we have a young wizard to thank for that. The Harry Potter series changed everything for this part of the publishing business, and created a shift from a primarily back-list driven industry (i.e., books that have been published many years prior) to a front-list driven one (i.e., new books). This type of model is much more in line with how the traditional adult book market functions. The Harry Potter series is also responsible for the invention of a children’s New York Times Bestseller list, too, because when those books published, they ate up the slots on the regular bestseller list.

Children’s books. It’s where it’s at.