Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Interview with Ann Weisgarber, one of the judges of the Waterstone's Perfectly Formed Short Story Competition

I "met" the lovely Ann Weisgarber on that earth-shattering day last April when I woke up to discover that The White Road and Other Stories had been commended by the judges of the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. Trembling somewhat, I wrote a blog post about it in which I mentioned the shortlist, which included Ann's book, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree. And up pops Ann in the comment box with a lovely comment! Turns out Ann was going for the Orange "double: her book was in the running not just for the Award for New Writers but for the Orange Prize for Fiction too, not bad going! I was somewhat in awe...

We stayed in touch and finally met in the flesh at the awards ceremony. I blogged about what a disappointing experience the ceremony was, especially for short story writers. But meeting Ann, her husband, and her publisher, Will Atkins from Pan Macmillan New Writing, were the highlights, it's a shame we couldn't spend more time talking in an atmosphere slightly less like a disco!

Ann's novel is so wonderful, the extremely moving story of Rachel, a young black woman who is struggling to keep her family alive in the badlands South Dakota in 1917, that I asked if I could interview her. We have been chatting for a few months about creativity etc... and she is also one of the judges of the Waterstone's Perfectly Formed short story competition - which closes on July 1st! - so running the interview now seemed like ideal timing.

Tania: You said to me in a recent email that "revision is fun for me since I'm not creative.  Coming up with a story line is agony since I just don't know what event should next happen.  Once I have that down, then I can explore emotions.  Dialogue is the most fun for me, and is my flash fiction.  I love short pithy lines.  When one or two pop out on the page, my heart soars." If you don't think you are creative, then how would you define "creative"?

Ann: For me, "creative" belongs to those writers who make up places that don't exist or tell stories about events that never happened.  Your "North Cold" is my idea of creative.  You developed a character and had him give warmth to a cold city by placing a metal ball on a windowsill.  I never would have thought of anything so original.  I had to close your book for a few days to let my mind settle after reading that story as well as others in your The White Road.

I have to start with real places.  I discover small events that actually happened and then try to show those events through the eyes of characters.  That calls for imagination, yes, but I start with an event handed to me.  That applies to my characters as well.  I need photographs of real people.  I need to read diaries or newspaper articles.  I can't spin a story without grounded facts.

There's one other thing behind my inability to describe myself as creative.  When I was a kid, a teacher -- a Catholic nun -- stated with complete certainty that only God was creative.  Humans were not, case closed.  I've not forgotten that.  Every time the creative issue is raised, I hear her thundering voice and see her narrowed eyes.  I don't believe her now, but I'm not taking any chances.  If the nun's purpose was to strike the fear of God in a little kid's heart, she accomplished her mission.  I have a good imagination, but others are creative.

T: thank you for your brilliant answer. Much much food for thought. In Judaism, there is an idea that we are all created in God's image so that means we are all creators, in our own way. I hate what that nun said to you, the ramifications it had. But...what you did so wonderfully in Rachel DuPree is to fully inhabit your characters, imagine and create their voices, their lives. Is that not a creative act, regardless of how it started? I can't use real life, real facts, I wish I could.

Also, another question: it does seem that there are at least two "types" of fiction writer, those how make it all - or most of it - up, and those who write "thinly veiled autobiography" or perhaps, in your case, biography. Do you think these should all fall under the same heading of fiction? Readers seem to get very confused - what is memoir, what's "real", and what is "fiction". Is there a distinction? Does it matter?

A: Now for your question (I'm stalling here).  This is a tough one. The idea of "thinly veiled autobiography" as fiction has me thinking.  I suppose it comes down to balance.  If a story's foundation is autobiographical, but an equal portion is not based on the truth, then it works as fiction.  But if the great majority of the story is true, I don't see it as fiction.  If it's 50/50, well, I really don't know.  Maybe we need a new label such as mixed non-fiction/fiction.  In any case, authors need to be honest about their work.  Come right out and say that it's a mix.  Why do people feel they have to cover their work?

In the case of my novel, the towns actually exist and I did use some real historical figures.  However, most of these figures were seen through the eyes of my characters.  The one exception was the scene where my main character met Ida B. Wells.  I imagined this meeting and it was not based on an actual event.  Was it possible these two could have come together?  I believe so.  Both lived in Chicago at the same time and Wells did speak before groups.  Did it happen?  No.  My main character never existed.  She was inspired by a photograph I found.  I didn't have a name, date, or any information about her.  I took that photograph and gave her a life.  I consider the novel 90% fiction and 10% non-fiction.    

The mix of fiction and non-fiction is confusing for readers.  So often authors say their fiction is based on their grandmothers' or distant relatives' real lives.  Such claims lead readers to believe the entire story is true.  Memoir claims to be true and yet, who can remember all the details such as the color of a bedspread or every word of a conversation?  Perhaps we are coming to a point where books require Author's Notes to explain away the confusion.  It's never good when readers feel manipulated or cheated.  Authors, regardless of genre, have a responsibility to readers.  Honesty about one's work is one of those responsibilities. 
T: thank you, very interesting! Even more proof, to me, of how creative you are! For me, I don't care about "truth", it's subjective. I am more interested in the quality of the writing and the telling of the story. I do tend to read books that are labelled "fiction", but don't question beyond that how much is true. As a reader, I don't care.

Your book is, to me, a great counter-argument to the old "write what you know" adage. Did you ever consider that readers might question how you, a white woman, could write from the point of view of a black woman? Did you worry about this? Your book has been very well received, especially by the Orange Prize judges! But what feedback have you had from readers?

A:I'm so enjoying our conversations... It's interesting that you don't worry about the truth behind fiction.  I had guessed the opposite since you have a science background.  It's great that you let go of labels and read for the joy of reading.  I just finished Mantel's Wolf Hall and believed every word of it.  I also marveled at the sheer size of it.

Now for your last question.  I did worry about assuming the voice of a black woman and for a long time I didn't tell anyone about this project.  When I finally gathered the courage to take an creative writing workshop, the instructor told me I had no business writing this story.  I ignored that since publication was not my goal.  I simply wanted to see if I could write a beginning, a middle, and an ending.  I didn't want to write about my life (boring), and I wanted to learn about someone else's point of view.  It was hard work, but fun. 

I worried equally about my Indian characters.  Indians are often misunderstood even today, and some resent the old-fashioned portrayals of being warriors with tomahawks.  Also, the word "squaw" is derogatory.  I worried about using it but had to keep with the times.  Based on my research, I tried to present one of the characters as a modern Indian who dreamed of going to California and did not want to be a nurse. 

For the most part, black readers have accepted Rachel DuPree and tell me they appreciate a different story about black Americans.  Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, graciously wrote a lovely quote for the upcoming U.S. edition.  This validated the book, and I'm most grateful to her.  My U.S. editor asked several Native Americans authors for quotes but we didn't hear from them.  I'm trying to not read anything into that.  
T: what's the book you are working on now? Just a few hints!

A:The next novel takes place in 1900 in Galveston, Texas, an island about a mile from the mainland.  The story revolves around a college-educated woman who marries a dairy farmer.  The story begins two months before the 1900 Storm, a historical hurricane that killed over 6,000 people.    
T: With the announcement of the recent Orange shortlists etc... there's this discussion again about the merits of women-only prizes. Do you have any response to this? What did your Orange short- and long-listings do for you?

A:To better answer this question, I looked at today’s New York Times Book Review.  Twelve novels or short story collections were reviewed in this May 16, 2010 edition.  Eight of those books were written by men.  I looked at today’s book review section of The Houston Chronicle.  Two novels were reviewed and both were written by men.  I understand this is not a fair sample but it does give pause.  Until books written by women receive the acknowledgment they deserve, the Orange Prize is the one competition that celebrates women writers and their books. 

The short- and long-listings resulted in reviews for The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, something that hadn’t happened before.  I’m convinced the publication deal with Viking in the U.S. happened only because of the listings.  Best of all, Will Atkins, my editor, and his remarkable team at Macmillan New Writing received well-earned international praise and recognition for daring to publish an unagented debut author. 
T: And finally, I wanted to tie this in with you being one of the judges of the Waterstone's Perfectly Formed short story competition. What does your "perfectly formed short story" look like?

A: I don’t write short stories, but I’m a reader and admirer of the form.  I particularly like short stories that are narrow in topic but rich in character development.  Short story writers must get to the heart of the matter quickly.  Once into the conflict, they can take the reader deeper into the psychology of their characters.  I love that moment when I think "the mood has shifted, something has changed."  Since the beginning of the story is often fresh in the minds of readers, I admire writers who end their stories with a nod, subtle or overt, to the beginning.      

I think you'll agree that there is so much food for thought here, about fiction and biography, about women-only prizes, about writing "what you know"...and when you read The Personal History of Rachel DuPree you will be in no doubt about Ann's astonishing creative talents. I can't wait to read her second book. Don't forget to enter the Waterstone's Perfectly Formed short story competition!


SueG said...

A great interview. I hadn't known Rachel's work -- a terrible omission. I'm glad I know about her now. Thanks.

Rachel Fenton said...

Ann, your book sounds fascinating and I'll definitely be reading it. I've been working on a novel which merges fact and fiction and I have plonked two historical characters together who might have met but likely never did, and so I am reassured that you have done this and it worked!

Tania, I love your never ending enthusiasm for short stories.

Thoroughly enjoyed this interview :) Thanks.