- Originally from Vermont, I now live in North Carolina. My work can be found in recent issues of REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters, The Jabberwock Review, The Emerson Review, Storyglossia, The MacGuffin, Confrontation, Passages North, SmokeLong Quarterly, elimae, wigleaf, Pank, and Gargoyle #57, among others. One of my stories has been translated into Farsi by Asadollah Amraee, and many others by Jalil Jafari, two of which have been published in the Iranian journal, Golestaneh Magazine. Currently, I'm an assistant editor for Narrative Magazine. I'm also working on two novels and a short story collection. In 2011, I was awarded the Carol Houck Smith Contributor Scholarship for the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.
Monday, July 02, 2012
A Conversation with Susan Woodring
"Goliath" by Susan Woodring, is an elegant, character-driven novel, about the impending death of a small-town and the characters' large-hearted attempts to revive it. "Goliath" is successful both in scope and depth and I was moved to ask Ms. Woodring for her insights on writing it.
Katrina: You handle the omniscient point of view expertly. I can understand why you chose it; it’s the best point of view in which to capture the spirit of “Goliath.” Is this a point of view you usually use? What are the advantages? What are the challenges?
Susan: I think I’ve used omniscience only once before Goliath, in a short story that ultimately failed. However, I’ve long been fascinated with it. . Some years ago, I read the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of Anna Karenina and loved it. Not only did it feel authentically and wonderfully Russian (I spent some time teaching English there many years ago), but it also used omniscience in this sweeping, beautiful way. I also read The River King by Alice Hoffman, and the opening pages are magical and fairytale-like in the novel’s use of omniscience and I ached to try it myself.
I like the flexibility in distance I have with omniscience. I can pull way, way back—speaking from the sky in many scenes—but then come zapping down, into my characters’ heads, and especially that of Rosamond, the main character. This allowed me to “see” the characters and their town from so many different angles.
I like how omniscience can create the sense that the reader and the narrator are very close—we’re in this together—while the story becomes something they observe from a distance, like a play on a stage. With Goliath, I really wanted, too, to create a sense of isolation for the town of Goliath. I wanted the reader to feel like he/she is peeking into Goliath—a sort of existence unto itself.
Omniscience is, of course, a pretty complicated point of view, one that isn’t used that much in contemporary fiction. It’s a bit of a risk; many readers simply don’t like it. When I was working on Goliath, though, it felt very freeing—daring in a foolish way—and I remember feeling like I was always holding my breath. I was all the time thinking, “This will never work, this will never work,” and “I’ll never get away with this,” but also, “What the heck.” It was such fun; I couldn’t talk myself out of it.
Also, I feel like taking this sort of risk with point of view allowed me to give myself permission to take risks in other areas. For example, I used a few supernatural elements. These—which included a ghost—were edited out later, but still, I feel like experimenting with them stretched the story (and the writer) in ways that wouldn’t have otherwise happened.
Katrina: I’m always interested in process. What is your office like? Do you write by hand or type? Do the drafts come to you in a linear way or do the scenes arrive and you arrange them later?
Susan: Oh, my office is a disaster. We painted it this odd reddish-pinkish color (play-doughish, if that makes sense) because the color looked good in the can—not so much in real life. I have a bookcase with a writing ledge and there are a few more bulging bookcases and piles of papers around me. My knitting basket is at my feet. Also, my kids’ homeschooling stuff is slowly taking over the room—computers and art supplies and so forth.
But, my laptop is tiny—it’s actually a netbook—and so I’m pretty transportable. I often head over to my in-laws’ with my kids—they play and I write in the spare bedroom. I hit coffee shops on Saturdays, when my husband is home to keep the kids.
I begin jotting down ideas and snatches of dialogue or characters’ thoughts in an unlined notebook and move onto my laptop when I feel like the story or the scene I’m working on are firm enough to start drafting. I usually don’t know exactly where the story is going, but I do have a vague sense of where things will end. I often have a visual image of the last scene. (I had the epilogue to Goliath in mind from the very beginning.) I do a lot of revising, but it’s usually in chunks and while I’m still drafting—it takes me so long to figure out what the story is really about. Especially with longer works, I really like using a lot of characters, so often in drafting, what I’m doing is figuring out why they all belong in the same book.
Katrina: “Goliath” is rich with details and complexity. Did this richness come with revision? How long did Goliath take to write? How many revisions did it go through? Did the first draft differ greatly from the end result? If so, in what ways?
Susan: Goliath began in 2006 as a NaNoWriMo novel set in the wake of the JFK assassination. It was initially centered on Hatley, a door-to-door salesman who ultimately took on a secondary role in the book, and it was only in later drafts that it became a story about a factory town. I didn’t really have a good sense of it at all until I discovered Rosamond, and even then I didn’t really know what the story was going to feel like until I wrote the first scene, with Vincent Bailey discovering Percy Harding’s body.
I believe that from that moment—when I had the first scene and my main character—it took about two years to write. My editor at St. Martin’s, Elizabeth Beier, was so, so brilliant with the changes she suggested—I feel like the process of taking her recommendations and re-working the book taught me so much about fiction-writing, particularly about novel-writing. For example, Elizabeth really pushed me to get the book, with so many, many characters, to really focus on Rosamond. In her editor’s notes, she said, “I firmly believe that the best and most successful novels not only have terrific writing and great characters, but (even if it’s subtle, barely seen) an imagined outcome in the reader’s mind that they either long for or dread.”
Katrina: I know you are the mother of two children and that you home-school. How do you find the time to write? Do you have any advice for stay-at-home mothers who want to work writing into their lives? Any nifty tricks?
Susan: I don’t sleep!
Well, not really, though that’s been part of my equation for far too long. I’m starting to feel the effects of this, though, and it ain’t pretty.
I used to say I get up every morning at 4 a.m. to write. I no longer do that—I just can’t. But, I have found I can get up really, really early—sometimes even like two-thirty or three—and write for several hours once or twice a week. Otherwise, I cobble together time when I can get it. My in-laws also local and retired and WONDERFUL. They keep my kids for two afternoons a week, plus they take in my whole family, husband included, when I go out of town for book events and conferences. It’s an amazing blessing. I come home from a trip with only my own laundry to get caught up on—my mother-in-law has done the rest.
Also, my husband really gets how important this is to me. I take off most Saturdays for three-to-four hours’ of writing time. And, during the school year, I have a babysitter (also wonderful!!) who comes in one morning a week.
I have no nifty tricks. Sometimes, I’ll get asked about this at a post-reading Q and A, and I say that I throw handfuls of Froot Loops to my kids, like breadcrumbs to pigeons, rather than stop writing to feed them. I had to quit saying this, though; I had a group that looked completely horrified until I explained I was joking.
Katrina: Your teens, Vincent and Cassie, are fascinating. I find teenagers difficult to get right, but you make it look easy. Did you find these two characters difficult to embody?
Susan: Oh, Katrina, thank you so much! I think I identify with teenagers—especially the kind who live on the fringe of things--because in my heart of hearts, that’s who I still am. I am horrendously self-conscious. It took me years to get up the guts to wear open-toe shoes—toes are so vulnerable-looking, don’t you think?—and I still lie awake every night, cringing over the things I said to different people during the day.
Also, I’ve always been drawn to adolescents. I used to teach middle school and found my students so adorably neurotic. This attitude helped a lot with Vincent, I think: I really identified with his mother who tries so, so hard to help him. Who tries to understand him but really, just can’t. As far as Cassie goes, I always picture a former student of mine when I think of her. I knew the student when she was much younger than Cassie, and her situation is different, but her plucky defiance, with such an unreachable sadness underneath—I totally got that from my old student.
Katrina: Vincent is challenged to swallow things. It seems, symbolically, not in any conscious way, he chooses to swallow living things in order to forget about death. What was the inspiration for this?
Susan: Ooh, Katrina! That’s great! I honestly never thought of it like that. Yay!! (It REALLY helps to have smart readers….)
I thought of him more as his trying to become something else. I think he really feels overcome by what he witnesses at the first of the book and by the growing distance between him and his father. He craves a different mode of existence, maybe.
The actual inspiration for this is pretty gross. One morning, I killed a cricket in my living room, and, picking its squashed body up with a paper towel, I really looked at the thing, saw how meaty (forgive me!) this little creatures was. I don’t know how I went from that to deciding Vincent was going to try swallowing it. I suppose we sometimes write about the things that frighten us, don’t we?
Katrina: “Goliath” has a lot of symbolism. Were you aware of the symbolism as you wrote or was it all a surprise?
Susan: Yes and no on both counts. I had the name of the town before I realized it was going to be, in some shape or other, a kind of David-and-Goliath story. And, the cardinal paper knife just seemed like the kind of thing Rosamond would pick up at the drug store as a gift for Percy’s family. From there, I suppose I picked up on birds in the story when I could, and they became symbolic. The best kind of analogy or symbol, of course, is the kind that is a surprise. That feels unplanned and serendipitous. I believe our subconscious minds work very hard--both in our ordinary lives, and in the stories we tell ourselves—to construct meaning and to form ties between seemingly disconnected entities. Our job, then, is to more or less get out of the way, and to clean up the excess afterward.
Katrina: Goliath is a character itself. Did you intend this? What were the challenges in creating the essence of a town?
Susan: I think that, for me at least, point of view and character and setting develop at the same time, in tandem. They are linked in messy and intricate ways from the very first. The events of the story and its shape flow from these first three. So, I can’t tell you which came first: Goliath as a character or the omniscient point of view. I do believe that if I had begun with a different point of view, Goliath would have ended up being a very different entity. Maybe it would have been “only” the setting of the book. I don’t know if I would have been able to see the town as a whole if the point of view had been focused only on, say Rosamond.
The greatest challenge in creating Goliath was in portraying a sort of quintessential small town that is recognizable as such, but at the same time, making Goliath unique and believable. I wanted to capture the feel of a small town—the good, the bad, and the ugly—without making it feel like a cliché.
I liken it to creating a character of a particular age, especially child characters. You want your made-up seven-year-old to think, act, and talk like a seven-year-old, but you also want your character to be an individual. Your aim is to create a unique being and not an every-seven-year-old. I had the same thoughts when creating Goliath.
Katrina: Which character was the easiest to write? The most difficult?
Susan: Hatley, the prodigal husband and father, was by far the hardest character for me to write. I needed for him to say certain things, though he also didn’t seem like that character that would just come out and say things. Every Hatley scene was about me making him say, “hello,” and “I stole a spoon,” and my editor pressing me to make him say and do more. I really had to push that man.
The easiest character to write? I really don’t know. I enjoyed different aspects of different characters. I enjoyed writing about the encyclopedia salesman because he was cute and young and unsuspecting. I liked writing Agnes because she reminds me, in many ways, of myself, all that early-twenties angst I think so many of us face during that period of our lives. I liked Rosamond’s courage and her determination as well as her awkwardness and her inability to see what she really needed/wanted. Oh, and Clyde! I loved working through the Clyde and Rosamond scenes, and the Clyde and Ray scenes.
Katrina: There’s this part in the book in which Ray is preaching about Jericho and Vincent is in
the garage with his father and the focus switches back and forth between both scenes. It’s an interesting technique that added tension. Was this an intentional choice?
Susan: I think this goes back to what I was saying about taking risks. I trusted the story to carry the omniscient point of view, and when the story wanted to do something like this—there are actually a few scenes with these kinds of cut-takes—I let it. I hate it when writers talk like that—about what the story “wants to do—but I don’t know how else to explain it. One very important thing I learned (or think I learned) while writing Goliath: trust the story. Follow it.
Katrina: The end is beautiful and transcending. How did you come to that particular end?
Susan: I knew the epilogue from the beginning. I don’t know how else to say that. I saw it almost as soon as I saw the factory or the woods behind the high school or Rosamond herself. Before Vincent found the body, the end had already been written, or at least imagined.
Katrina: What's next?
Susan: My agent is reading a new manuscript at this very moment! I'm very excited about it; I hope he likes it. Like Goliath, it's set in North Carolina, but with this story, the setting is a little farther west, in the mountains. I'd say that Goliath focuses on community with marriage and family being secondary, but I think this new one is just the opposite. It's really about marriage and love. Something that was really fun about it for me was that there are two concurrent stories taking place, one in the present and one in the past.
Katrina: Sounds wonderful. I can't wait!