Monday, March 12, 2012

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

Lauren Groff's new novel, Arcadia, is a hypnotic, addicting book. Although this is not a plot-driven page-turner in the traditional sense, I found it hard to tear myself away. Two things impressed me enormously here: 

1. Unfiltered Point of View: Groff tells the story of Bit, a child born in a hippie commune, in three stages. In the first section he's a very young child, in the second a teenager, and in the third approaching middle age. Writing from a child's point of view is so dangerous -- it's so easy to send it into sentiment or to clunk it up with asides to the reader all the time. Sometimes you feel the author speaking through the child, trying to push through a meaning at you, and the character disappears. 

Not here. It was immediately obvious that the narration here, while in third person, would have no filter -- there's no "looking back on those days" or "now that he was older." In fact, there is no intrusion between the reader and the child's authentic consciousness. What he sees we see. What he feels we feel. And the things that we as adult readers can piece together from his experience are our own to interpret. That was awesome. 

The part where Bit goes silent, the description of what that was like for him -- really masterful writing.

2. Cast of Thousands: Groff has a huge cast in a fairly short novel yet they never bleed into each other and become muddy. Somehow she deftly maintains the uniqueness of a lot of characters that are very similar in context. And while these hippies are so close to ridiculous -- the nakedness, the soy everything, the language of love revolution -- they never become cartoons. Many of these images, many of these phrases now make us roll our eyes. The outfits sound like Halloween costumes. Yet these people are so real on the page, so specific to themselves, it's impossible to dismiss them as caricatures or deny them as wholly rounded, interesting characters with their own lives, their own identities within the demographic they typify. 

photo: Sarah McKune
One of my favorite things about feeling like I have "backstage access" is that I'm emboldened to ask authors questions about their novels. Because I'm me, and quite fixated on the actual structure and construction of books, I am focusing my questions as I have been focusing my reviews: on craft. This time, I was able to ask Lauren Groff a question about her methodology in handling such a mass of characters. Here's what she said:

LN: As I was reading, I kept trying to figure out how you were managing to seamlessly keep all these balls in the air with all these different characters -- I mean SO many! And to my eye, you never resorted to the easy route of just categorizing them and referencing that. Can you talk about how you approached this -- did you originally have more or fewer characters, did you take out anyone in revisions, did you consciously bring back references to characters if we had been too long without hearing of them (like in the middle section)? For example, there were several times when Sweetie was mentioned that I thought, I wonder if this is a nudge to my brain so I don't forget who Sweetie is?
LG: This is a marvelous question because it made me go all the way back to the very long drafting process and try to noodle through what I had done. In the end, I think I'd made a kind of character palimpsest: I made very long profiles of about forty of the important characters, I made a physical map of the way the characters related to one another, and I tried to see how they would pop up in the later sections. I hope I didn't try to nudge your brain to keep in mind who a character was--that's taking you out of the story, which I'd hate to do!--but the very short answer is: oh my gosh, that was a very long time ago, so maybe? If the character is useful later, maybe it's good to nudge your brain once in a while to keep in mind who they are. 
(Aside: I think I was really looking hard for the scaffolding here, and I don't think these references were heavy-handed or noticeable at all. I actually think it was gracefully invisible and impressed the hell out of me.) 
LN: I have one tiny extra bonus question, because I was really curious, while reading the last section especially -- do you see this as Bit's story really, or is it ultimately Hannah's story?

LG: Oh, I love you for saying that. I think that, though Bit is the point-of-view character, it's really the story of both mother and son. I probably meant to make it Bit's story, but because I'm a mother, like Hannah, and because my eldest son really shares a lot of Bit's soul, I couldn't help but make it also Hannah's story.
Confession: Hannah is my favorite character. Her experiences really illustrate, to my eye, the agony and the ecstasy of the Arcadian experience in ways that Bit, who doesn't know any better, can't possibly show. Yet she is never in the foreground, never takes up the full screen -- the restraint that Groff demonstrates in allowing this character to exist so completely through the lens of another is really majestic. 

To sum up. At one point in the book, someone articulates the priorities of the Arcadia commune: hard work, poverty, simple food, and community. Somehow, it all goes awry. Yet it is not only in the beginning that it is beautiful and in the end that it's terrible. In the small ways, in the real ways, it's beautiful and terrible all the way through.

Arcadia launches tomorrow. Find Lauren Groff on Twitter and tell her happy launch day. 

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Lost Saints of Tennessee by Amy Franklin-Willis

Lost Saints of Tennessee is the story of Ezekiel Cooper, a man in his forties, driven to the brink of suicide by the death of his twin brother, ten years ago. It's a book that surprised me with its heart and its raw emotion. You must not miss the suicide scene that comes early in the book. I don't want to give too much away but it's in no way what you expect.

Amy Franklin-Willis has set herself the daunting task of drawing out a good old boy from Tennessee, divorced, working at a factory, taciturn, connected only to his old dog and his truck, into the lovable and believable narrator of his own story. It's a story of loss, betrayal, and bitterness in the past, despair in the present, and the possibility of a new chance at life in the future. She does it majestically -- portraying love without sentimentality, grief without mawkishness, hope without artifice. I can't remember when I have connected on such an emotional level to a male character written by a female author.

Maybe not since Water for Elephants has a male character been so moving. Lost Saints in Tennessee is authentic, deep, and true. A heartbreaking story of the realities of loneliness and the power of brotherly love.

I got the chance to ask Amy a few questions about the craft choices she made in her novel. I loved learning about how the novel came about -- some early narrators that dropped away and the process of opening up her main character in a way that would be true to his personality and still support narrating an entire novel. Here are her answers:

LN: You wrote from the point of view of a narrator who is not really a talker, by his own confession and as evidenced by his behavior in the novel. How did you go about finding a speaking/writing/narrating voice for this character who is so taciturn and so guarded?

AFW: Zeke's voice was a real challenge for me in the first year or two of writing the book. He is so shut down when the story begins that in writing his story, I really had to go back to his childhood and meet him then to get to know the man he became. Earlier versions of the story included a lot more of the "past storyline" which allowed me to see Zeke as a happy young boy, full of promise and connected to his twin brother, to understand the devastation he feels as an adult when Carter drowns. 

For me, some of the best lines Zeke utters are the two times he uses the f-word in the novel. In both cases, he is at a break-point, a place where he must either stay in the Loserville he's been hanging out in for 10 years or DO something. Zeke's primary companion in the early sections of the book is the dog Tucker. He was not originally in the book but he provides much needed humor and connection for Zeke in the story. You can see the goodness in Zeke through how he interacts with Tucker. What people say can be so far from what they actually do or who they are. With Zeke, you almost only have his actions to take the measure of his character. But it took me years to find the right balance of insight into Zeke and action on the page because I'm not a big fan of books that are only in the character's head. 

LN: One thing I really loved was how this prickly, locked-up character took a whole novel to warm up to telling us the question that haunts the novel from the beginning, and it takes another character's prodding to drag it out of him. So instead of feeling like you as the author were keeping a secret, it genuinely felt like the narrator was developing the ability to talk about it more as the book went on. Can you talk a bit about the decision to put that final reveal in dialogue? 

AFW: In Lost Saints, I think one of the things I was trying to explore was the notion of how a person can be pulled back from the edge of disaster or despair by another person or being. The guilt Zeke's been toting around for ten years finally gets let loose through his confession of what he regards as his own unspeakable sin. But he has to tell someone, the secret has to be shared in order to lift the burden from his shoulders. 

LN: The book is told in three sections -- the first and third from Ezekiel's point of view, and the second from his mother's. Did you always know that you would give Lillian her own voice in the novel? At what point did you decide to include a section where she could tell her story? 

AFW: I originally wrote Lost Saints with three narrators--Zeke, Lillian & Moses Washington. After a draft or two, I realized Moses had to go as a narrator--though I think he's got enough in him for his own novel. The primary writing challenges I had with this book were structural. Once I narrowed the narrators down to Zeke and Lillian, I had to figure out how their voices should be heard. 

I experimented with going back and forth between chapters, or having the time shift change from past to "current" in each chapter, and none of it felt right. I was aiming for this seamless world for the reader, where you stepped in on page one and none of the writing work showed--it was just a story told as compellingly as I could make it. With all the shifting around of voice and time, it felt choppy to me. And as a reader, I can get annoyed when I start feeling close to a character and then the author takes me into another character. I finally settled on the three-part structure for the book because it honestly seemed like the only way to tell the story. By putting Zeke's voice first, I felt like the reader was on a blind date with Zeke. You get introduced in Part One, you learn some of his history, you meet some of his family. Part Two is when things start getting serious. You meet his mother. You hear her side of Zeke's childhood story, which offers perspective Zeke can't give you. Part Three brings back Zeke's voice and now you know enough about him to understand some of the choices he's made and to be just a bit annoyed, perhaps, by his stubborn refusal to forgive his mother. 

Lillian's voice was one of those "taking dictation from God" kind of characters for me. Some of the scenes in her chapters are almost as I wrote them in first draft form. And I certainly can't say that about the rest of the book. I'm not sure where her voice came from but as I moved through the book, I began to think about my maternal grandmother. She, like Lillian, got pregnant when she was 15, married at 15, and had seven children by her mid-twenties. My grandmother had her fair share of tragedy as well. Through writing Lillian's story, I gained some empathy for my grandmother, whom I recall as an odd and distant person. My mother, who turns 70 this year, told me recently that her mother never told her that she loved her. Not once. And she lived into her early 80's. Hard to fathom.

My recommendation: go get Lost Saints of Tennessee and see how it all comes together.