1. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I routinely finish chapters in a state of panic without any idea how to start the next one or even a concept of what’s going to happen. So I’m not the best person to give advice about the mechanics of writing. But I have a few suggestions about being a writer:
First, it helps to think of writing as an exercise in craftsmanship, not a romantic undertaking. This puts the work in perspective and gives you patience. Also, you’ll need to weigh criticism with an open mind and revise with impunity, tossing out words, scenes, and characters in the same way you would empty a sinking boat of too much ballast. Learn how to manage the gloom of watching all those loved items sink, while feeling the boat rise. Ask yourself at every turn: do I need this line? This backstory? Do I need this character? Overboard, if the answer is no.
As for characters—assuming they’re human characters—ask yourself: Are they behaving like real people? Are they saying and doing what real people would naturally say and do if they were in the situation I’ve put these characters in? Make them true to their time and place—whenever, wherever that might be. This means resisting the temptation to judge them by your own values. Let them be prejudiced, ignorant, foolish—they cannot all be you—or as you imagine yourself to be. They shouldn’t exist on the page to teach a lesson or march along some pre-determined plot line in order to deliver a message to your readers. Your messages and your meanings will percolate up through the story.
Ignore the ubiquitous counsel to write what you know—where is the fun in that? If writers only write from our own experience and perspective things might get pretty boring. Learn what you don’t know and write about that. But be sure to know what you’re talking about. Don’t skimp on your research.
Also, read aloud what you’ve written to hear what it sounds like. Cadence is important. And jot ideas down as they come to you, or you’ll probably forget them.
2. What were your favorite books growing up?
My mother read to my brother and sister and me every night for hours, all three of us listening in on each other’s books. It wasn’t a quiet reading time—there was a lot of discussion and often cantankerous arguing about characters and how they were behaving. This nightly routine continued into the years after we were old enough to read for ourselves, because we never volunteered to give it up. She read stories that dropped us into times and lives very different from ours, and I especially loved those set in the past: The Faraway Lurs, The Bronze Bow, Black Beauty, everything by Frances Hodgson Burnett, A Certain Small Shepherd, A Penny’s Worth of Character, A Hundred Dresses, Old Yeller and Savage Sam by Fred Gipson, Charlotte’s Web and The Trumpet of the Swan, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Blue Willow, Little Women, The Colt from Moon Mountain, and Thee, Hannah. These come to me off the top of my head but there were so many more. I was fascinated by some of the books my brother loved, which often involved more fanciful worlds, but I always felt a deep sense of unease in these made-up places. I could make it through the sorrow of The Little Match Girl freezing to death, or Charlotte growing weaker as she spoke to Wilber from her web: this was real-world sorrow and I felt that I should deal with it and try to understand it. But the unbearable, tortured death of Aslan on the Stone Table in The Chronicles of Narnia? The unnerving, if brilliant, world of Tolkein? I listened to these books but never loved them with the same credulity and devotion. I felt out of place in those make-believe worlds.
3. What are you working on now?
That’s precisely the question I ask myself every day.
4. Who was your favorite character from THE WHICH WAY TREE to write?
Benjamin, my young storyteller, without a doubt. I love his temperament, his voice, his honesty, his earnest desire to please. I admire his absense of self pity and his basic decency. I adore the fact that he can be funny in spite of (and often because of) not having much of a sense of humor himself. I appreciate that he knows his sister intimately and loves her deeply and yet has absolute clarity as to her flaws.
I’ve never written a book in first person before and don’t usually enjoy first-person stories: the narrators can come across as unattractively self-absorbed, always talking about their thoughts and actions and their place in the tale. I did my best to spare Benjamin by having him tell a story that’s not about himself. Instead, he’s telling it for a good reason, under court order, and he doesn’t try to inflate his role. I’m pretty sure he escapes the first-person pitfall of coming across as annoyingly self-important.
5. Did you have actors and actresses in mind when you were writing THE WHICH WAY TREE? Are any of those making it into the film adaptation?
I didn’t—no. My characters, for me, were so much their own people. Actually, it didn’t occur to me the book would be optioned for film; it was an unexpected turn of events that landed an early draft of the manuscript with Robert Duvall. He’s been one of my favorite actors ever since the mini-series of Lonesome Dove, and I’m having a great time working with him.