Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Don't Limit Your Characters – An Author Interview

Pamela Erens's novel, The Understory, was the winner of the Ironweed Press Fiction Prize and is a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction. Erens's fiction, poetry, and essays have been published in a wide variety of literary and mainstream magazines. She has twice been awarded a fellowship in fiction from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.
What role does the Ramble play in the novel?

This interview was conducted by Xujun Eberlein during two weeks of March, 2008.

Interviewer: Is The Understory your first attempt at a novel?

Pamela Erens: Yes. I had written and published short stories, poetry, and essays, but I was afraid that a novel was beyond me. I didn't think I could build that elaborate a structure, hold that many strands of character and plot in my head at once. So the novel was a challenge I set myself. I was daring myself, to see if I could pull it off. Also, I was a mother of young children then, and my time was very fragmented. It felt very reassuring to have this project I could go back to day after day, that just stayed there even as the rest of my life was all about quick shifts of attention.

Interviewer: Many writers start the first novel from their own experience. Apparently this is not the case for you. What triggered the idea for this novel?

Jack takes refuge in a Buddhist monastery
Pamela Erens: From the beginning I've enjoyed writing stories that aren't close to my own. I've always liked writing male characters and from a male point of view. That's partly because when I do so, it's plain to me that the character is a fiction, is not me. My imagination is more free. At the same time I strongly believe that there has to be an autobiographical component to the emotion in a story or novel. With Jack I was writing out of, if exaggerating, my own experiences of isolation and longing. The seed of the story was an idea that came to me, God knows how, of a man who wants to find a spiritual twin, someone with whom he can have a complete emotional and psychological connection. I literally had the guy putting an ad in The Village Voice, advertising for this spiritual twin. That was the Ur-source of the Jack-Patrick storyline. After a while it became clear to me that what I was writing was really a story about a man whose buried longing for human connection begins to come to the surface, in a way that is threatening to his stability.

: Very interesting that you like to write from a male point of view. What are the challenges of writing from the POV of the opposite sex? Do you have brothers who you grew up with? If so, does the experience help in understanding male minds?

Pamela Erens: I honestly didn’t find writing from the point of view of a male character a challenge. I just didn’t think about it. As I mentioned before, I’ve often gravitated to writing from a male p.o.v. I do have brothers but I don’t think that has much to do with that choice. I really do feel that the primary emotions—longing or rage or remorse or whatever—are accessible to you as a writer whether you’re working with a male or a female character. I think at the base level we’re all made up of the same stuff. Maybe I’m naïve.

Interviewer: Why is it so important for you to separate from a character and make it plainly clear that "the character is a fiction, is not me"?

Jack first meets Patrick in a brownstone

Pamela Erens: I meant that it has to be clear to me that the character is a fiction. I’m not thinking about the reader here.

If I merge too much with a character—if I give her (or him) a history or hobbies or a personality that is too much like my own—it limits that character. I might fail to let an aspect of her character bloom because it feels alien or frightening to me. I might not let her take an action I would never take. It hobbles my imagination. At worst, it can also be a species of self-therapy: Oh, let me put this version of myself on the page and then I’ll just grind all my axes and wail about all the stuff I’m still unhappy about and feel a little self-satisfaction or relief that way.

Interviewer: You mentioned the author's emotional truth in fiction, and in the case of The Understory it is related to your own experiences of isolation and longing. Where does your feeling of isolation come from?

Pamela Erens: That’s probably an unanswerable question! In many ways I don’t feel isolated at all. I have a husband and children, and my life is quite full. But I’ve always had a hermit side to my personality. I like being alone for big chunks of the day. I have a pretty busy interior life—I’m not saying a fascinating one, just a busy one—and maybe at times that makes me hyperaware of the boundaries between me and everybody else. And then there were times in my life, when I was younger, when I was much too much alone and felt kind of frighteningly lost. So it doesn’t take that much for me to access the feeling of being alone, different, or isolated.

Interviewer: What made you choose a Buddhist monastery as one of the main settings? Buddhism believes "No desire is strength" and, in a way, embraces isolation and loneliness. Do you find this an interesting contrast to Jack's mindset?

Pamela Erens: Yes, I thought Buddhist practice, with its emphasis on silence and awareness, would be an interesting counterpoint to Jack’s type of solitude and introspection. I could see Jack being instinctively drawn to Buddhism. But Buddhist practice actually requires that you spend a great deal of time not being in your own head--in being attuned, rather, to what’s outside of you. It also requires that you follow external rules and submit to authority. Both of those things are difficult for Jack, who wants to set his own rules and happens to enjoy the world of his thoughts. I don’t think I chose the monastery setting in any rational way. Like most of the bigger decisions I made about the novel, it was kind of intuitive. I just wanted him to go there.

Interviewer: Are you a plant lover? How did this help in portraying Jack's character?

Jack attends bonsais

Pamela Erens: I don’t know if I’m a plant lover. I like plants, but I’m not a gardener and I’m not even that knowledgeable about plant life. I learned a fair amount to write the novel, but I’ve forgotten a lot of it now. I do have a fascination with systems, and the taxonomy of plants always seemed a cool thing to me, as it does to Jack. My husband happens to be an avid gardener, and I’ve learned some things from watching him or listening to him talk about our garden. He’s the expert, not me. But when he gets me to focus on, say, our tomatoes, or cajoles me into planting carrot seeds, I can see how people get totally obsessed with this activity. There is something magical about the way plants grow and mature, and if you want them to thrive you have to pay attention to all the little details in the same way that you have to pay attention to all the little details when you’re raising children. I keep telling my husband that if there were twenty extra hours in the day, then, sure, I could see getting pretty absorbed by gardening.

Interviewer: There is a memorable side character, Mrs. Fiore, who wants Jack to address her by first name. Is this interesting detail from any of your own experience?

Pamela Erens: I didn’t base that detail on any one particular experience, but names and how we address people are bound up with questions of intimacy. What do you do when you don’t want to invite further closeness with someone, but you don’t want to insult them, either? This is a classic Jack dilemma. There are other moments having to do with names and naming in the book, such as when Jack sees his name written on an envelope in Patrick’s handwriting, and that connection makes him feel differently about the name, which he’s never liked.

Interviewer: The opening paragraph strikes me as deceptively calm, almost matter of fact, yet it radiates such an ambiance that I was immediately drawn to read more. It turns out to be a great opening in many different respects. What were your considerations in choosing such an opening?

Pamela Erens: For a long time I had a different opening, in which Jack was already at the monastery and was just talking to us about it, its look, its feel, its routines. One day it struck me that the current opening would be more distinctive and dramatic (if you can call pouring a cup of coffee dramatic), and crystallize something about Jack’s character and the kind of interior tensions he lives with.

Interviewer: I'm glad you changed the opening to the current one, because it really works. Did you ever consider ending the novel with the second last chapter? What do you think the book would lose or gain without the last chapter?

Jack hides in a knotweed bush at a climactic point

Pamela Erens: I never did consider that. I think too much would be lost. We need to know, first of all, what happens to Patrick, and we also need to glean what is behind Jack's final attempt to contact him.

Interviewer: The key reversal moment caught me by surprise, however in retrospect it is only logical. Had you planned this moment all along, or did it come to you as a surprise as well?

Pamela Erens: I had that key reversal or climactic scene in mind from very early on. I had an idea of the basic arc of the novel, and wanted that to be the ending. Although many things changed over the course of the writing, that scene was one thing that never changed, that I always knew I was going toward.

Interviewer: What was the most challenging part in writing the novel? What was the most enjoyable part?

Pamela Erens: The most challenging part was moving from an earlier incarnation of the book--which was more intellectualized and involved more of Jack yammering on about various topics—to the version that exists now, in which Jack is hopefully revealed primarily through action and situation. Another way of putting it is that the most challenging part was maturing as a writer! I didn’t realize at first just how much I had failed to dramatize.

But that hard work was also enjoyable. I got excited as I realized I could convey certain emotions and realities through scenes, not just by talking about them. I enjoyed figuring out ways to do that.

One of the other enjoyable parts was working with the structure. Right from the beginning I knew that I wanted to toggle between the present-tense monastery scenes and the past-tense New York scenes. It was an idea I’d stolen from a beautiful novella by William Trevor called Reading Turgenev, which starts in the present tense in a mental institution, describing the life of an older woman there. Then the novella jumps back decades to show you the woman’s youth, jumps to the present again, and so on, until gradually the two timelines converge and you understand how the woman ended up in the institution.

The structure did pose complications, of course. I was always poring over my dual timelines, trying to figure out how to make everything come out right.

Interviewer: When did you submit The Understory to the Ironweed contest? Did you try to find an agent or publisher for the novel before that?

Pamela Erens: When the book was done I sent it around to agents for a while. The comment I most often got was, "This is beautifully written, but...." I told my husband that that was what was going to end up on my tombstone, "She wrote beautifully, but..." When no agent took the novel, I started looking at small presses, and I entered the manuscript in Ironweed Press's fiction contest.

I did a good deal of revision after the book was accepted. My editor had some changes he wanted, and once I started to make those I wanted to rethink everything. I ended up doing far more than I, or my editor, had planned for. But I think those changes eventually solved the "beautifully written, but...." problem. The novel came out leaner and the element of suspense was increased.

Interviewer: Even though you struggled to publish this novel, it has gained significant literary acclaim and press attention. At the same time, many works that get published are not that well received. Do you see anything, beyond luck, at play in this?

Pamela Erens: If the question has to do with number of reviews, it’s been a combination of luck and footwork. I amended the list of reviewers that Ironweed Press planned to send bound galleys to, because I felt it was too all-purpose. I wanted to send to places I thought might actually take a specific interest in the book, either because of the subject matter or because it was a small-press book or because (if I was really lucky) I knew someone – or knew someone who knew someone – who worked there. So I did a lot of research to find those places, and after the galleys went out I wrote lots of followup letters. A large number of galleys still fell into a black hole, but that’s to be expected.

If you’re talking more about the positive nature of the response, I’ll have to hope and pray that I’ve actually earned it. It does seem to me a plus that my novel is so short. People don’t have too much time to get bored.

Interviewer: Chicago Tribune calls the writing "understated." Another review mentions the novel’s "minimal plot." Do you agree or disagree with those comments?

Pamela Erens: Yes, phrases like "understated" and "minimal plot" come up over and over in the reviews! I more or less agree with those statements. Certainly I think the novel's narrative approach is to express major emotions through minor occurrences. I'm not sure I'd call the plot genuinely "minimal." A few dramatic things do happen. But it's true that the novel takes place over a fairly short period of time, the cast of characters is small, and there are no wars or shootings or flamboyant love affairs. #


Stefani said...

Thanks for the great interview, Pamela and Xujun! I loved "The Understory," and it was nice to hear more about its creation and the storytelling decisions behind it.

I have a question, too: Right now, I'm intrigued by the mysteries of character development (vs. plotting). It was interesting to read about the novel's development from 'interior monologues' to more scenes and situations. I wonder whether the character of Jack Gorse also went through a transformation while you were writing the novel, or did he stay the same throughout? It's hard to imagine him being any different, he feels so real!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Stefani!
The character of Jack did develope over time, although many things about him stayed the same. In the earliest versions there was more of an overtly angry side to him. I decided the character and plot worked better if that side of him was less active, more buried. I think he may have become a little more bewildered, too, as I forced him into more situations where he had to react to people and things.


Stefani said...

I see. I have to say, these scenes of bewilderment really endeared Jack to me, and were a powerful contrast to his angry side. (I loved the confrontation with the mysterious MetroCard!)

Claire Cameron said...

Great interview. Thank you both.

Donna said...

What a wonderful interview--and fascinating to hear about your process, Pamela. As a mother who started writing when her children were young, I can totally relate to that part of it, and felt I learned a lot from the rest.

Anonymous said...

What a great interview, Xujun! I'm so impressed that this is Pamela's first attempt at a novel. It's truly inspiring and now, "The Understory" is at the top of my "to read" list. Thanks.

Kathy Fish

Julie Ann Shapiro said...

Fascinating interview. There is so much to learn here. I liked hearing the process of coming to know your characters and also about your press.

Pamela said...

Thank you, Claire, Donna, Kathy, and Julie Ann!

Anne said...

Great interview. Good advice too. I'm sure a lot of us get the "well-written but..." comment and you've inspired me to go through my novel in progress and look for ways to turn monologue or discursive passages into dramatic ones.

What I loved about The Understory was how much I identified with someone who is such an outsider. I have SO MUCH in common with Jack--the way he takes comfort in solitude, and how he needs to do his rituals in order to feel "happy" or whatever. Then that big surprise he gets when he sees himself in a photograph, like, "that's me?" I felt that right with him. Because the narration went from internal to external perception of self, it took me awhile to realize Jack was one of "those" people, the crazy and forgotten and invisible who sit in our subways and libraries.

And I realized that externally/demographically I have more in common with Patrick, but internally/emotionally I have more in common with Jack. I (and most of your readers, I imagine) could easily be seen as on the side of the gentrifiers, even if I feel sorry for the "understory" of forgotten people who fall through the cracks of urban renewal. But as I was reading, I was feeling Jack.

I can't tell you how disarming this was. This novel is a huge accomplishment.

I haven't even gone into how crazy I am about the language...

Xujun Eberlein said...

I'm with you, Anne. "Disarming" describes the way I felt as well. I'd love to hear more from you about the language. One thing that amazed me was how pithy the writing was, which made the reading a rare pleasure.

And my sincere thanks to all of you who came, Stefani, Claire, Donna, Kathy, Julie, and Anne. Would be lovely if we can also hear a male reader's take. :-)

Pamela said...

Anne, I love your distinction between the external/demographic and the internal/emotional. And I'm so glad you had that inside/outside experience of the main character. Your comments are so kind; thank you!

Pamela said...

Xujun, it was great working with you on this interview. Thanks for pushing me to think about all these questions!

Mary Akers said...

What a wonderful interview! Very, very interesting, and I loved the pictures you chose, Xujun. I'm going to link to this.

Xujun Eberlein said...

I like the pictures too :-). And I like Pamela's answers even more. Thanks, Mary.

Anonymous said...

Great interview Pamela and Xjun! I love how we're getting this information out on the web for people to see. I think we're going to see readers begin to do a lot more investigation on the web for the books their thinking to buy.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Mary and no-bull-Steve!


Tania said...

Excellent and thoughtful interview - thank you. Definitely makes me want to read Pamela's novel. Loved that quote "Certainly I think the novel's narrative approach is to express major emotions through minor occurrences."

Xujun Eberlein said...

Thanks for coming, Tania. I'm sure you'll enjoy the novel. There's still something in the writing that I haven't quite figured out why works so well. I plan to read the book again.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Tania--I'm glad you liked the interview!


Maryanne Stahl said...

Great interview. I'm ordering the book now!

Anonymous said...

I hope you enjoy it, Maryanne.