You think you know this story, but have you heard these voices?
The Discover selection committee readers were completely taken with the mix of voices – American college student Lily Hayes, her father, Andrew, Argentinean prosecutor Eduardo Campos, and Lily’s boyfriend-not-boyfriend, Sebastien — that pulse through Jennifer duBois’s sophomore novel and Holiday 2013 selection Cartwheel, and compel the reader through an emotionally-fraught, psychologically complex story.
We’re not the only fans of Cartwheel:
“Psychologically astute . . . Dubois hits [the] larger sadness just right and dispenses with all the salacious details you can readily find elsewhere. . . . The writing in Cartwheel is a pleasure—electric, fine-tuned, intelligent, conflicted. The novel is engrossing, and its portraiture hits delightfully and necessarily close to home.”—The New York Times Book Review (Editor’s Choice)
“[A] gripping, gorgeously written novel . . . The emotional intelligence in Cartwheel is so sharp it’s almost ruthless—a tabloid tragedy elevated to high art. [Grade:] A-”—Entertainment Weekly
We’re still carrying Jennifer’s characters around with us weeks after we finished the Holiday 2014 reading period, so I couldn’t resist shooting Jennifer an email asking her to riff on how she gives voice to her characters (and how she teaches her students to do the same), and this is what she said:
More Than One Story
A Guest Post by Jennifer duBois
Just as readers are often tempted to presume connections between authors’ novels and their lives, students of creative writing are often advised to write what they know. Evaluating fiction in terms of its relationship to fact always strikes me as limiting, as well as nonsensical—a little like evaluating red in terms of blue, though not quite as benign. It’s a framework that can lead young writers to think that they have only one story to tell: the plot is their life, and the characters—over and over—are themselves. For some students, the first challenge of writing fiction is truly believing that it exists—that they can, if they want to, just start making things up.
It’s helpful, I think, for creative writing students to try to view their lives as possibility, not parameter—to begin to regard personal experience as an artistic resource that is significant, yet vastly secondary to their imaginations. One concept that can be useful in this is the idea of shadow selves. Shadow selves are the versions of yourself that might have been; they are those dubious characters with whom you parted ways at the most important crossroads of your life. Considering them can be a good first exercise for new writers, partly because a shadow self is only one step away from us—not a different character, exactly, more like the same character in a different story. Shadow selves tend to occupy the same nebulous sphere in our brains that may someday be populated by wholly fictional characters, and their haunting of us can be similarly artistically useful—a phenomenon that many writers have observed over the years. According to Ben Lerner, “you can write autobiographically from experience you didn’t have because the experiences you don’t have are experienced negatively in the experiences you do.” Roberto Unger remarked that learning “to feel the movement of the limbs we cut off” is “the first major work of the imagination.” And Geoff Dwyer advised young writers to “have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.”
I often find hints of shadow selves—shadow shadow selves, perhaps—in my own writing, especially within characters that are least like me. In my case, shadow self thinking tends toward the apocalyptic: what if a horrible mistake was committed, and what if a cherished belief was revealed to be false, and what if a worst nightmare came true? Cartwheel is full of characters who are, in ways large and small, living out the answers to those shadow-self thought experiments (as well as a lot of other kinds). In Lily Hayes, the American foreign exchange student accused of murdering her roommate, I found myself considering the terrifying question of how my (or anyone’s) life might look were it retroactively scoured for evidence of guilt by someone already convinced of it. How, for example, might my own behavior as a study abroad student—well-intentioned and basically innocuous, but also culturally inept and sometimes, assuredly, obnoxious—appear through such a prism? (The answer: probably not good.) In the character Sebastien LeCompte, a rich orphan who compulsively obscures his vulnerability through semi-irony, I entertained the idea of a person whose default inner reaction to social discomfort is a sort of skittish sardonicism not totally dissimilar to my own—but who, unlike myself, actually articulates those thoughts, and almost nothing else. What kinds of things might such a person say, I wondered, and what kinds of consequences might befall him as a result? (The answer is, again: not good ones.) The most advisable choices in the real world are usually not, after all, the most interesting choices we might imagine—and lucky for us, they don’t have to be. Lucky for us, there is fiction, which can contain anything—even the alternate drafts of our own lives. There are some shadowy and intriguing characters there if we look, and they usually have some pretty good stories.—Jennifer DuBois
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.