One of the best things about my job is that it’s not only about connecting readers and writers – it’s also about connecting writers with other writers. And that’s all the more fun if eavesdropping is allowed…
We’ve paired some of the most interesting writers working today for our occasional conversation series that runs here and in the Barnes & Noble Review: Anthony Marra and NoViolet Bulawayo; Maria Semple and Ayad Akhtar; Junot Diaz and Francisco Goldman; Ben Fountain and Alan Heathcock.
Like David Abrams’ Fobbit and Alex Gilvarry’s From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, Dennis Mahoney’s and Kate Southwood’s debut novels, Fellow Mortals and Falling to Earth, would make a perfect box set: gorgeously written, similar in theme and tone, thoughtful and provocative.
In a wide-ranging and highly entertaining conversation Dennis and Kate talked about the distinction between the tragic and tragedy, giving their characters privacy, and which comes first: the story itself or the emotions behind it. What follows is an edited transcript of their exchange.
Kate Southwood: When I was planning Falling to Earth, I used a factual tornado as the backdrop for a fictional tragedy. The crucial thing for me was the distinction between the tragic and tragedy: the tornado was tragic; an unavoidable natural disaster, but the human tragedy that follows in the book is the result of people’s behavior, and therefore entirely preventable.
Later, reading Fellow Mortals, I was struck immediately by the ways our very different novels seemed to converge: your novel also begins with a disaster—in this case a fire sparked by a careless accident—and I think both novels deal with questions of accountability and atonement. I’m curious to hear whether you were struck in a similar way, and whether you found yourself comparing and contrasting our storylines?
Dennis Mahoney: There’s definitely a strong similarity between our books, not only in their disaster premises, but in their protagonists, both of whom survive the opening crisis and bear the community crosshairs: survivor’s guilt and unearned blame. And the disasters themselves are elemental — a tornado and a fire — and lend a touch of fate, of forces larger than everyone affected. How can a tornado destroy a town and leave a single family unscathed? How can a good man cause so much damage with a tiny accident…the tossing down of a partly lit cigar?
A lot of novelists write aftermath stories. It can make for good drama: an opening catastrophe, followed by the aftermath’s unexpected challenges and conflicts. Everybody’s lives are built on such events. Maybe it’s the death of a parent or spouse, or a crime, or an act of nature that hits with awful randomness. The way people respond to those events defines them, at least for a while, and sometimes permanently. So these stories carry meaning for readers, even if they haven’t suffered that particular calamity.
I’m fresh from reading Falling to Earth and suddenly there’s this horrible tornado outbreak occurring in the southern U.S., and I’ve been struck by how powerful fiction can be in illuminating such an event. Tornadoes and fires happen all the time, and even if you follow the news reports, the story recedes, like all news, once the victims get on with their lives. What will the people in Moore, OK experience a month from now? What are parents in Newtown, CT experiencing today? That’s where novels can be so affecting, letting us into the bedrooms and private thoughts of people who have to live with these tragedies forever. Is that part of what drew you to such a story?
KS: Absolutely. As you say, each disaster we read about in the news ultimately fades, or, sadly, is shoved out of view by the next disaster. I think there’s a universal aspect to human suffering, though, and that’s what makes reading about disasters or tragedies so gripping. I’ve never suffered because of a tornado or house fire, fortunately, but I have experienced loss and heartbreak in other forms, and so I feel great compassion and empathy for the people in Oklahoma who lost homes and family members. Similarly, the bombing at the Boston marathon took me right back to what it was like to be in Oslo during the July 22nd attacks. I didn’t lose anyone that day, but I’ll never forget the feeling of reading online that a lone gunman was shooting children at summer camp on an island, knowing that my eldest daughter was out of reach at a different camp on a different island.
It’s all grist for the mill, of course, and the convenient-if-uncomfortable fact is that I can summon up those emotions in my writing and apply them to fairly different situations. It can seem mercenary at times, but ultimately I’m just using my own life experience—meaning things I’ve gone through personally and things I’ve observed in others—to figure out exactly what goes on in the private rooms and private thoughts of my characters.
This brings me to the subject of psychology. It seems that I hear people talk a lot about character development, voice, and plot, for example, but I don’t hear a lot of specific discussion of psychology: things characters say and things they leave unsaid; things a character can’t or won’t admit to him or herself; hidden agendas, ambiguity, and camouflage. I particularly admired the psychology of your characters in Fellow Mortals. Each was very distinctly drawn, which is not to say there was anything easy about their psychologies. There was some deciphering for me to do as reader, and I enjoyed that. Was this conscious on your part, or did it happen organically as you wrote?
DM: I used to over-explain what was happening in my characters’ heads. That kind of writing can stifle a reader, unless you’re a mad genius like Proust. A wise writer I know encouraged me to give my characters a little more privacy, a few more secrets. It allows the readers to be co-creators, interpreting words and actions, and finding their own meaning in a scene.
I write characters largely by feel. I knew my protagonist Henry Cooper really well and rarely wondered, “What would he say or do now”? I never base a character directly on someone I actually know. At the deepest level, they’re all me. This has been comically uncomfortable to admit at readings, because there’s a character named Billy in my story who’s the epitome of Creepy Neighbor. The way I explain it is this: I find the core emotions in a character, something primal and universal. With Henry, it was hope. With Billy, it was fear or despair. I’ve never done the horrible things that Billy does in the book, or had all of his exact thoughts, but I’ve known fear. I’ve known depression. So I can understand why a man like Billy might make certain decisions.
Weirdly, it’s the characters most resembling myself that I struggle with. The last character who really came to life in Fellow Mortals was Sam Bailey, a young, artistic white guy. He isn’t me, but he’s more like me than everyone else in the story. The more a character differs from me, the less I’m able to take for granted. I love writing women, because I’m not one. Exploring a female character’s thoughts and emotions is an act of discovery. It’s like meeting a fascinating stranger, or falling in love.
What about you? What’s your most reliable way into a familiar character? What about a character who’s nothing like you?
KS: You’ve hit upon the biggest problem I had in writing my novel: hitting a brick wall when I had to write a character who hit too close to home. I had fun thinking and writing from most of the characters’ perspectives. I’m a very visual thinker, so all I had to do was get a clear picture in my head of a character and their setting, and the rest mostly fell into place. It was challenging in a really engaging way, for example, to write Paul’s character, but I was pulling my hair out when it came to writing Paul’s wife, Mae.
It took a while to understand what was happening, because writing Paul’s mother, Lavinia, wasn’t posing any real problems for me, so it wasn’t anything as simple as finding it easy to write men, but hard to write women. I finally realized that writing Lavinia, who is an older woman—a widow and a grandmother—was all right because I’m at a different stage of life and I haven’t yet experienced those things, but writing Mae was another thing altogether. Mae is younger than I am, of course, but like me she has young children, and most uncomfortably, she is dealing with depression.
So you can say that you’re obviously nothing like your “creepy” character Billy, although you can allow yourself to identify with his core emotions—the things that drive his behavior—in writing that character. Similarly, when I realized I was stuck writing Mae, I had to admit that my difficulty lay in plumbing my own emotions and past experience of depression. I am not Mae, and Mae is not me, but I had to be fully, painfully open to her character and be willing to use my past pain to make her as real as possible.
DM: That’s brave of you to delve so deeply. It seems as if you didn’t set out to write a personal story, per se, but rather approached the story so honestly that your own emotions bled through, almost unexpectedly. That tends to be the way with my own fiction. I’m drawn to a character or story for reasons I don’t understand. It’s interesting, or I can’t stop thinking about it. And in the process of making the story believable, I discover why it matters. I might be figuring something out in my own life, and the book is what eventually clarifies my beliefs. I didn’t write Fellow Mortals to make statements about mortality and community. It worked the other way around: I left the book with new perspectives, as if someone else had written it.
That sounds highfalutin and arty. What I’m saying is that I never begin a book to express myself or teach a lesson. More and more, I try to entertain. (Now I sound low-brow!) Here’s the thing: a good story does it all. It’s immersive, emotional, and as escapist or meaningful as the reader wants it to be. I began my novel-in-progress by listing everything I love about my favorite stories. All of those stories have things in common: Heroes who are more active than reactive, who drive the story instead of just having interesting things happen to them. Unique settings I want to revisit, like the HMS Surprise in Patrick O’Brian’s novels, or Hogwarts. A strong, well-rounded antagonist. I wound up with a checklist and came up with characters, a setting, and a story I wanted to write more than anything else. And even with such a seemingly clinical approach, even though I’m merely trying to entertain myself, I love it all so much that it’s become meaningful, very organically. I adore these characters. I want to live in this place. So back to you, Kate: Do you start with a theme or emotion and find a story to express it, or do you start with a story and figure out, along the way, why you care?
KS: I’d always written by the seat of my pants before—and wondered why it wasn’t working. It sounds like you were way ahead of me in understanding the importance of planning. Looking back at my process in writing Falling to Earth, I’d have to say that all of the elements you mention fell into place more or less simultaneously, and I was able to plan and write more effectively as a result. I say this wistfully, because I’m not sure how many times in a writer’s life one can reasonably count on that happening.
One of the most important things I need to know when I begin writing is where the story will end. I need to know where I’m going before I can begin to find my way there. (This is very individual, and other writers would naturally claim that the opposite is true) Nothing is written in stone, and the ending can change if I discover that it needs to along the way, but I do need to know where I’m going. The ending of Falling to Earth never changed—the climax was actually one of the very earliest chapters I wrote—although the reasons leading to that ending became more complex over the two years I spent writing it.
Similarly, I can be a bit of a cheat when I read. When I’m reading a book that really grabs me, when I’m reading slowly and studying because I’m learning from it, I will often read the last page or two early on before I’ve finished the book. This tends to infuriate people when I admit to it, until I explain that I want to know the ending so that I can see how the author got there. People tend to understand that, if they also understand that, as a novelist, I often read for reasons other than sheer enjoyment or enrichment.
Ultimately, though, I love your idea of the checklist, because if you’re going to be spending a year or more writing a novel, you’d better be damned sure you want to spend time in that place and with those characters. Your enthusiasm for the specific elements you’ve chosen—regardless of whether the story is happy or sad, redemptive or moralizing, etc.—will carry you through the writing and, later, they’ll grab the reader by the throat and not let go. In my case, setting my novel in Illinois was an act of love: a way to spend time in the Midwest with Midwesterners, if only in my head.
Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.