I’ve been enjoying the latest issue of Glimmer Train Stories, reading it in small doses each day so I can stretch out the experience. (Full disclosure: one of my stories, “A Little Bit of Everything,” can also be found in these pages.) While many of the stories are outstanding, for me the real centerpiece of the Spring/Summer 2016 issue (#96) is Kevin Rabalais’ interview with Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly, the husband-and-wife team behind The Tilted World. Tom is also the author of the short story collection Poachers and the novels Crooked Letter Crooked Letter, Hell at the Breech, and Smonk; Beth Ann, a poet, is the author of Tender Hooks, Unmentionables, and Open House.
I thought I’d share some of my favorite portions of the interview because they have a lot to say about the writing process—especially doing research for historical novels (The Tilted World, Hell at the Breech, and Smonk are all set in times past). I’m at the very beginning of a writing project which is set here in my adopted hometown of Butte, Montana in the early 20th century, so Tom’s comments really resonated with me.
Here he talks about writing Hell at the Breech, which is set in Alabama in 1897:
When I read the newspapers of those times, I would get both high and low language. Whenever someone wrote an article for the paper, he was generally trying to show off. If they wrote for the paper, they were educated. So instead of writing that the passengers were “spitting” in the rail cars, the writer used the word “expectorating” just to show off a bit.
I think that a certain kind of research would only give you that surface quality. You have to go deeper into it and try to find diaries or letters. That’s where people talk the way they really talk. There, you’re catching people when they’re naked. You can look at old photographs and see the way people are stiff. Compare that with the way they sit on their own front porch. As a novelist, you need to write about your characters not as though they’re posing for that photograph but relaxing on their front porch.
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With Hell at the Breech, I started in the middle and wrote toward the end and then came back to the beginning. I did a first draft of Smonk in ten days, two hundred pages in ten days, and then it took me a year and a half to fix it. I’ve now learned that’s how to write a novel. Start and don’t look back until you get to the end, even if you know it’s all wrong. You can always fix it later, but you have to follow the momentum. You need to be able to judge the whole animal, which you can see and weigh as opposed to just having pieces of it. If you’ve got a whole big quilt, even if it’s missing pieces, you can still see how to fix the corners.
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It’s the narrative impulse—simple, yet essential. That’s why we’re on earth. The world is this flux of events and noise. The writer’s job is to live in the flux but to perceive a shape in it, to find the story and to trace the arc of the human experience. Narrative gives shape and meaning to life.