Thursday, March 17, 2011

Dick Davidson Interviews Zoe Zolbrod

1. Q: In your novel, Currency, you used a Thai male narrator because you had spent enough time in Thailand to become familiar with the culture and language. How would you go about building sufficient expertise to use a narrator from a country you had never visited?
A: Well, the first thing I would probably do would be to plan a visit to that country. Although I know writers have successfully done it and taken similar leaps, I can't imagine being moved to create a narrator from a country with which I'm not personally familiar. I did have characters in my book who were from places—Kenya, Russia—I've never been to, and even for these characters, I steeped myself in both fiction and nonfiction from those countries.

2. Q: How do you feel your day job as a textbook editor affects your fiction writing?

A: I work on books and instructional materials for middle and high school literature and language arts classes, and at its best, my job requires me to attend very closely to some good and great literature. I've learned a lot about story construction and language by having to deconstruct selections for students and write and edit questions about the works. Even as a writer who reads with an eye toward craft, it's hard for me to slow down and concentrate as fully as I need to when reading on my own time. On the other hand, having a full-time job while raising a family starves me for writing time. Better that than actually starving, though.

3. Q: In Currency you had the Thai narrator from a culture other than your own. If you had several other-culture characters with different backgrounds, would it be worth juggling cultural details, languages, and idioms? We tolerated a lot of films in the past where all the other-culture characters had British accents.

A: Because my novel is a lot about the dynamics of cross-cultural relationships and about the way nationality affects how we move through the world, it seemed important to me not to flatten those aspects of even minor characters. I tried to give a different cadence to the speech of my Kenyan and Russian characters; I tried to take into account their backgrounds as I created them, so they'd be fully fleshed people. To me, that's an author's job. However, in my book, I took license with everyone's syntax and so forth. I wanted to give the flavor of their idiosyncratic English without making it too difficult for the reader to engage with.

4. Q: What are the primary characteristics that make a character’s voice believable?

A: A distinctive voice, and sense of depth or back story. A character should rarely say everything he or she thinks or feels--most of us are not even consciously aware of everything we think or feel. So the author should know more about the character than is revealed.
5. Q: How do you avoid distractions of unusual voices in multi-character dialog?

A: One thing I kept tinkering with in revision were the dialogue tags and bits of description interspersed in conversation. If there are too few, the dialogue becomes ungrounded, but if there are too many, they can impede a conversation's flow. I didn't worry about the idiosyncratic voices per se, though. To me, it's more distracting--or difficult, anyway--to follow and care about a conversation when characters' speech patterns are so similar that it's hard to tell who's who.

6. Q: What is the role of the reader’s imagination in capturing a character’s voice? How subtle can the cues be to trigger that imagination?

A: The reader's imagination is very important, of course, but a character should not be a blank slate. Like most readers, I've been in conversations with others who have read the same book and found myself disagreeing with their opinions of certain characters. That's fun and interesting, and the conversation usually reveals that our opinions say more about us and our own experiences than about the characters. But in such a conversation readers should be able to support their opinions with many specific details from the text.

7. Q: On your website, , you describe the enjoyment your book tour gave you. Your novel also has a travel dimension. Please share the relative values to you of travel itself and the purposes of your travel.

A: From childhood, I've had a curiosity about other places. Seeing new things sparks my imagination, and when I travel, I’m more fully present in the moment, I live through all my senses, and I’m more open to the world; I'm a better observer, which makes me a better writer.  Traveling helps me take the focus outside of myself, which increases my empathy and compassion, and in the process, it helps me know myself in a different way. I've traveled to broaden my own horizons, and now I hope to spark a similar openness and curiosity in my children.

8. Q: You have said that Currency emerged from a daylong exercise of conjuring up your Thai narrator and having him converse with you. What were your other motivations for writing this novel?

A: I wanted to explore questions that were raised for me as an American traveler visiting much poorer countries, as well as to reflect on my experience growing up as a townie in a college town and working as a waitress in the tourist mecca of Santa Fe, New Mexico. I wanted to better understand the ways of the world and to investigate how an issue can appear differently to different people depending on a variety of factors.

9. Q: You indicated that the total Currency process from first writing efforts to publication spanned approximately ten years. Are you an exceptionally patient person? Describe the highs and lows of this process.

A: There were many highs--writing and revising the novel was an extremely exciting and satisfying period of my life, and that period lasted a long time; about three years or four years. It was easy to be patient then, because I could sense that I was on the right track and that I was refining the book in meaningful ways. I could feel myself getting stronger as a writer, and there was such a thrill of discovery as I continued to realize new things about the characters and their situations. I expected it to be difficult to find an agent and a publisher, and so I remained fairly patient during the two years it took me to find my first agent. The lows came after that agent collected her first batch of rejections from publishers and started pulling away from me. I eventually found another enthusiastic agent, but when the same pattern repeated itself, I became extremely demoralized. I had a child by this time and a more demanding job, and I couldn't drown my sorrows in immersing myself in a new project; I just didn't have the time to throw myself into something. I pursued publication with small presses, but half-heatedly. When the novel finally found a home with Other Voices Books, my feeling was initially one more of disbelief than excitement or joy. It took awhile to realize that Currency was finally going to be made into a real book, and that other people cared enough about it to help me with the process.

10. Q: What are you planning to do differently in bringing out your second novel?

A: I'm not working on a novel currently. I'm working on what I think will be an extended work of nonfiction. At the rate I'm going, it's likely to be many years before it's ready to be considered for publication. This time around, I hope to maintain the writing community I've reconnected with upon Currency's publication and not to give up hope. I'm also going to try to publish excerpts of it online and in journals in order to generate some interest and keep my own momentum. And I'm going to start trying now to make connections with the communities I think will be interested in my current topic. That's really invaluable, both for building a platform for my work and for learning things that will enrich it.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Susan Bearman Interviews Laura Munson

Follow this link to an interesting interview with Laura Munson about her family crisis memoir. The full interview is posted on Susan's blog, "2 Kinds of People."

Friday, March 4, 2011

Three-Dimensional Novels

One of the ways you can make your novel stand out is to make it three-dimensional. The same principles can be applied to shorter written works, but you have better opportunities to do it within the length of a novel. The width dimension of a novel is enhanced by intertwining and layering plots. Instead of a single start-to-finish plot, use two or three main plots interwoven and coming together as each strand meshes with the others before the climax. Sub-plots add further layering and change-of-pace interests for the reader. The depth dimension of a novel concerns its message or messages. A good novel will convey a message or philosophy to the reader which must be consistent with the nature of the story. The length dimension of a novel is obviously its numbers of words and pages, but it should contain enough twists, turns, and character developments to give the reader the feeling that he or she has undergone an experience by its completion. Generally, the novel length should range from 75,000 to 100,000 words. Most readers won't tackle a work much longer than that unless the author is well-known and respected. If your novel has well-developed width, depth, and length, your reader is very likely to get immersed in it.