Category: marriage of form and content


Stowaway

Stowaway

Our local library, Brooks Memorial, regularly brings lecturers in to speak on a wide range of topics. James Cook scholar David Bisno spoke in the meeting room one evening in late 1998 or so. On a table at the front of the room piles of primary source material beckoned. For me, primary sources are like sweets, I can’t get enough of them. When I started leafing through Beaglehole’s definitive edition of Captain Cook’s journal I felt chills of delight. It took me less than 24 hours to request a copy of this two book collection through Inter Library Loan. Once the books arrived I poured over them…and there I discovered Nicholas Young. At lunch a few days later, I shared with my husband much of what I’d learned so far about the Endeavour’s journey. As I related stories about young Nick, it suddenly occurred to me that I had discovered a perfect narrator. Writing this book was consuming in a way no other had been. I rarely left my desk…just as the men rarely got off  their ship. I slept with my head on my desk, I ate at my desk. I stopped calling (and taking calls) from family and friends. What a journey. But I’d take it again in a heartbeat. It was an extraordinary, singular experience.

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Yes. It is different. The writing process is different. Word choice is different. Literary techniques, also different. Weird as this sounds, even the physical and emotional orientation of the author toward the book is different.

This is an entirely inadequate response to this deceptively simple question. I welcome readers and writers to add their two cents.

There are so many ways to tell a story. Every time I begin a book I consider how best to convey the tale; how I might expand the reader’s access to the emotional arc of the events. More than once I have chosen free verse as my structural vehicle, each time for a different reason.

In the case of WITNESS I envisioned the book as a trial with the speaking characters offering their testimony. I hoped to help the reader form a more balanced opinion of what transpired by presenting various points of view. No one character has all the answers nor knows the entire story. In my mind it was imperative to relate the events that way to avoid a single, prejudicial narrator.

My hope was to deliver the story in a series of rotating depositions. Poetry seemed the most concise and efficient method to invite the reader in, to allow the reader to identify with each speaker, even the ones they might not have wished to identify with, and to eliminate anything extraneous.DSC05673

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This is a very important question. The decision to capitalize “God” was deliberate. I am so delighted that you focused on not only the rare capitalization, but the character speaking at the time it occurs. You’ve come this far. I have complete faith that you have your own answer to this question. I’d be quite interested in learning what you think.

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 I most certainly did. The type of poetry that uses the shape of the poem to illustrate the idea behind the poem is called shape or concrete poetry. Perhaps you’d like to try writing some, too.

DSC03221It’s more a sense of awe and wonder than “pride”. When a book goes to print, something that has lived solely inside my imagination suddenly takes shape in a very real and tangible way. It thrills me. Of course the finished book is never as beautiful as the shining house on the hill I imagined constructing when I first conceived the story, but the monumental task of putting one word after another, of building a novel from the foundation up and fitting it out with all the fixtures that make it habitable for a reader, never ceases to humble me and fill me with gratitude.

546Between research, interviews, writing and revising I dedicated about two and a half years of my life to creating LETTERS FROM RIFKA. The hardest part was finding Rifka’s “voice”. After I’d spoken extensively with my great aunt and read thousands of pages of information detailing the economic, political, religious, and social conditions of the early part of the twentieth century, I could not make the story come alive. It was lost, somehow, in all the facts I’d been steeping in. Not until I decided to write the book as an epistolary novel…as “letters”…was I able to cut through all the dry data and give youth and vigor to the narrative voice.

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Ideas come from so many places. Sometimes, when I’m reading the work of other writers, I feel a finger of inspiration tickle my brain. I’ve transformed magazine and newspaper articles into novels and picture books. Concerts, lectures, documentaries, television and radio interviews can also become story catalysts. Occasionally a fan letter will open up a possible avenue to a story, or an overheard conversation in the doctor’s office, or someone sitting across the aisle from me in the theater. I trawl my own life, both my childhood and my adult years, for story ideas, too. Not every experience leads directly to a book, but every experience holds that potential within it.

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1. When it comes to writing, poetry was my first love. I started writing poems as a very young girl. Often my books begin as poems and evolve over the long writing process into prose.

2. In my attempt to convey to the reader what it might have been like to live under such challenging conditions, I thought poetry might be an ideal way to subtly key the reader into the importance of every word and every action. It felt essential to cut out anything extraneous, to include only what was absolutely necessary to tell this story and give it a lean but credible shape.

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This book tested my emerging skills as a writer. All the research I’d done was dry. My aunt told me her tales from the point of view of a 78 year old. How could I translate everything I’d learned into young Rifka’s voice?

I started LETTERS FROM RIFKA over at least a half dozen times. Each time I read the “new” first chapter to my critique group they would say, “Yes, this is good, keep going.” But reading the chapter aloud, I knew it still wasn’t right.

I felt so frustrated…I’d spent so much time preparing to write this book, learning about the early part of the 20th century in the U.S. and Europe, reading up on the economics,the  politics, the culture of the time…but I couldn’t figure out how to relate all of that material credibly,  in the voice of a twelve year old.

Finally, I put the question to myself before going to bed one night…”How do I write this book?”

When I woke the next morning the answer came to me. Letters! Make it an epistolary novel!

As soon as I wrote, “Dear Tovah…” I knew I had found my way into the book.