Can you tell us a little about your new novel, Getting Right, which is based on true stories surrounding your sister’s battle with cancer, and what made you want to turn this into a fiction book?
While my new novel is partially based on “real” events and people, it is solely intended as a work of fiction. Rather than recounting that raw life material with the fidelity to external reality that a memoirist must adhere to, I set about to create an esthetic and emotional distance between myself as writer and the material I was dealing with. The three main characters in the book have prototypes from “real” life—my sister, my brother and myself. Connie, Len, and Me. Simply renaming the characters created some distance for me as writer, and settling on Me as the narrator of the story added to that distance. Another technique I employed was to structure the narrative into three acts, each named for one of the three principal characters. A third device I created was to eliminate direct dialogue throughout the book. All speech is recalled, reported, and perhaps fabricated by the Me narrator—something I’ve gotten nearly universal affirmation for, since it reads and sounds like people talking. Lastly, I needed to develop a narrative voice strong enough to unify the story and make it ultimately, as one reader called Getting Right, a story about how to tell a story.
Using such fiction techniques gave me the artifact I needed to allow me to explore the fusion of memory and imagination, which, as the novel evolved, became my main focus of attention. And in order to more fully carry out that exploration, I had to free myself of any “truth” or “fact” external to the narrative I was writing. My only obligation came to be to follow the internal logic of the story that was taking shape as I wrote. I believe that by creating a work of fiction rather than a memoir I was able to mine the material at hand more profitably and arrive at a better understanding of the lives I had created than I might have otherwise.
Your character development is especially beautiful. How do you shape them, and are they always inspired by someone you know?
In answer to your second question, yes and no. I can’t imagine any writer who doesn’t shape her/his characters on someone she/he knows. It might be that the writer recalls only a single gesture or eye droop or speech pattern, but that can be enough to get started creating a fully realized character.
When I write, I try to let characters become themselves after my initial efforts to launch them. I want them to look, feel, sound, and act in ways consistent with their emerging personalities. This process sometimes surprises me, which is always fun and may affect the direction of the story. But you have to allow for that and go with the flow. Forcing a character’s development is a disaster in the making. It just won’t work. It would be better, as Mark Twain said, to throw them down the well in the back yard. I suppose I know that I have successfully created a character when I inhabit that person, become that person.
How was your writing process for your previous book, Sing, Ronnie Blue, different from your latest, Getting Right?
I don’t know that the writing process, per se, was any different for the two books. I basically keep “office hours,” in that after a light breakfast, coffee, and newspaper perusing, I go to my desk and try to write until lunch time, when I read the funnies while I eat. I then run errands or shop for dinner and eventually come back to my desk to take care of “business” and maybe a bit more writing if I’m really hot onto something. But generally, if I’m working on a book-length piece, I try to pace myself for the long haul. Toward the end of Sing, Ronnie Blue I was going great guns 12 or more hours straight, but only for a month maybe. I had bursts with Getting Right, but until the ending, which I struggled with, it was a fairly smooth process. I knew at the end of each writing day pretty much where I was going the next time I sat down to write.
I used to write long-hand and then type everything. I now compose, with a few exceptions, entirely on the computer. It allows far more efficient editing, for one thing, and, for me at least, a more free flow of language.
I do have to admit that writing Getting Right was a far more emotional undertaking than Sing, Ronnie Blue. I probably took more emotional breaks while writing it.
You taught writing for years at the University of Chicago. What is some of the top advice you have for writers?
There are a couple of things I’ve tried to emphasize to writers. First, stay true to yourself and your vision. Don’t write with someone standing behind you and looking over your shoulder. Second, learn to become your own best critic but be careful not to rewrite the life out of your prose. Third, be serious about what you’re doing. Try to tell stories that truly need to be told and aren’t merely something you think will be popular.
Which authors have influenced your writing career?
Ernest Hemingway, W, B. Yeats, Stephen Dixon, Wright Morris, Richard Yates, Marilynne Robinson, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Margaret Atwood. The list goes on. More contemporary writers like Juno Diaz, Benjamin Lytal, Bayo Ojikutu, Achy Obejas, to name only a few.
Are you working on anything new?
I’ve just returned to the novel I left off writing when Getting Right hit. It’s titled The Narrow Window, and I’m about two-thirds of the way finished with it. I also have a couple of collections of short fiction I want to shop around.
How did you decide on the title Getting Right?
In my view, titles play an important role in creating expectations in a reader’s mind. Consequently, titles are generally hard for me to come by. Getting Right was no exception. I can’t remember any longer what working titles I had, but the one I ended up with came one evening when I was reading a section of the novel to my wife—something to do with when Connie is asking Me if he’s right with Jesus—and my wife said, “That’s it! Getting Right!”
What I like about the title is that, to my mind, it’s nicely nuanced. There’s the whole religious thing on the surface, but that really has nothing to do with what needs getting right, which is straightening out things between Me and his family and, in the end, within Me himself.