Earlier this week I was asked by poet Donna Johnson if I wanted to answer ten questions about my forthcoming novel, The Other Room. It was part of an interview chain known as “The Next Big Thing,” an intriguing new way for fellow writers to connect and spread the word about their future books and projects. Donna asked me to be the next link in this chain. Her own extraordinary new poetry collection, Selvage, was just released by Carnegie Mellon Press. Check it out at http://djohnsonpoet.wordpress.com.
Donna wanted me to be the next link, so below are my answers to the ten questions…
What is your working title of your book?
“The Other Room”
Where did the idea come from for the book?
The book began with a voice, not an idea. It was a middle-of-the-night kind of voice, urgent and compelling; it summoned me to my frigid third-floor office like a siren song. For some period of time that night, wrapped in an enormous Hudson Bay blanket, I wrote a few pages, but I had no idea what they were all about. The words just kind of insisted themselves onto the page. It continued this way for many nights, to the point where I was spinning scenes for which I had no real context. And getting very little sleep in the process. At some point, maybe a month later, maybe two, I looked at what I’d accumulated and realized that I was writing a story in fragments – with no discernible scaffolding – from the voice and POV of what was to become the lead character.
I should mention that up until that point I had almost no experience with creative writing. I was a medical writer. I knew how to put sentences together, and I loved to read, but I’d always been terrified to try my hand at anything creative. I’d never taken a creative writing class. I had no formal training whatsoever.
What genre does your book fall under?
My publicist likes to say it straddles the literary fiction/women’s fiction divide. I can live with that.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I love this! Main parts: Jennifer Connelly for Claudia, Christian Bale for Josef, Amy Adams for Yvonne, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman for Stuart.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
It’s a novel about death’s trickle-down – the complex web of emotions that traps an extended family in the wake of a child’s mysterious death.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It will be published by Owl Canyon Press, a small independent press which focuses on literary fiction and translation.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Maybe two or three years for a first draft, maybe more. I did a fair amount of rewriting before I ever wrote the conclusion. I didn’t really know how to write a novel, so it was a bit of trial and error.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Jane Hamilton’s “A Map of the World.” Maybe David Grossman’s “To the End of the Land.” “We Sinners,” by Hanna Pylväinen, a fabulous new book. Plus a little extra turbo à la “Gone Girl.”
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Inspired may not be the right word, but several things certainly conspired: I had just started reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, which begins with this incredible narrator voice that absolutely seduced me. She had me from word-go. So I have no doubt that that thread was twining in my sleep that night. To this I could add a number of significant events: a frightening episode in my own life, which had occurred a year or two before, and a kind of post-traumatic depression six months later. All these things certainly folded into the mix.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
I am a published poet, and I think I bring a certain poetic sensibility to all of my writing. In fact, I identify myself as poet first, fiction-writer second. I’ve always been deeply aware of the musicality of language, the rhythms, the rhymes and repetitions. I just know when the music is wrong and when it is right, I am acutely sensitive to the power of phrasing. I love being seduced by words, in both my reading and my writing. If it doesn’t “sound” right to my internal ear, it doesn’t stay on the page. I love the sounds of language, and I love the feel of it in my mouth. I have three collections of poetry (both published and forthcoming), and I believe that what you see in my poetry you will see in my fiction-writing and vice verse. They come from one and the same place.