Friday, May 29, 2020

Unexpected "Container" in an Award-Winning Novel: An Interview with Ginger Eager

Not just because she's a generous, insightful member of my monthly writer's group.  Not just because her book won the coveted AWP award for the first novel. I fell in love with Ginger Eager's The Nature of Remains for the strong female characters and the unique place she writes about.  

Not unusual for a Southern novelist to be enamored with place.  Ginger Eager comes from Georgia and she set her novel in the fictional Georgia town of Flyshoals, but the larger setting of the book is its geological history.  The soil in that part of Georgia is riddled with amethysts.  The Nature of Remainsis about the people who circle that geological wealth, both the criminals who dig and sell it, and the families affected by their passion.  

I was immediately pulled into the structure of this novel.  Eager alternates timelines--the 1950s, when a chain of tragic events started, and 2009, when the main character, Doreen, is faced with a complex problem she never anticipated.  Her only son, Jonathan, becomes estranged from his family and gets involved with a crazy preacher who digs the amethysts.  For the men in the novel, life spirals downhill fairly quickly.  It's the female characters that pull themselves up and create unexpected lives from the chaos.  

Doreen fascinated me.  She travels through the novel, pulled between three conflicts:  the decline of her only son, Jonathan, as his marriage falls apart; changes in her long-time affair with her boss, Bird, as his wife becomes terminal; and her own realization that she needs to take radical steps and leave both of them to insure her own financial and emotional future.  Eager has character and conflict nailed.

But even more, the container, the culture of the town, with its geology and crystal crime, is what makes the novel superior in my view. 

Container is a term I coined after years of feeling unsatisfied with "setting" to describe atmosphere, culture, the elements beyond scenery.  Video here.  Container is the environment of the story, the vessel where characters and events grow and change, because, as we all know, story doesn't happen in a vacuum.  People try to overcome their backstories while living in the container of their present lives, the place that marks them.  

Eudora Welty describes it well in this article from BrainPickings, the intricacies of writing about place and why it's essential in good literature.  

So how did Eager get interested in this aspect of place, the idea of crystal crime?  How did she get the idea of placing these throughout the book in short intermezzos? 

Here's what she told me:
"We are born 'trailing clouds of Glory,' as Wordsworth wrote, but we are born into a self-hood. We are born into a particular body, in a particular family, in a particular place and time. DNA is affected by trauma. Our lived experiences further train us, like rat labs, to trust or distrust. Certain of our habits are adopted by our children, who may pass them on to theirs.
"It takes so long for change to happen-in a society, in a family line, in a single human life. This is what I hoped to convey through the crystal metaphor. I'm not sure that I believe in actual reincarnation, but I fully believe in the metaphor of it.
"As a structural device, the geology sections divide the novel into thirds: orogeny, crystallization, and weathering. The sections loosely translate to plot development. The novel opens with a period of heat and pressure, there follows a period of cooling, and then all of the secrets are exposed."
One of the main places in the story is an abandoned farmhouse.  Eager had gone with a friend to look at a farmhouse for sale in the "inarguable" heat of August. The owner had told her there were tenants in the process of moving out. But instead they encountered squatters who threatened them.  Evidently the owner had been unable to get the squatters out of the house.
Eager says, "The theory that there should be no homeless because there are enough homes for all feels morally right to me. But what does this look like in practice? What does this look like in a deeply rural area where the social safety net may be only what your friends and family are able and willing to provide? A home--only a home--is never enough.I kept thinking of that woman [the squatter who confronted them], and wondering how she'd ended up in the situation in which we found her.
"The first scene I wrote occurs near the end of the novel. Doreen, the protagonist, goes to help her son who has lost so much he is now squatting in a house much like the one I encountered with my friend. I thought I wrote a short story, but the characters haunted me, and soon I was working backward, writing the story that preceded the event."
If I were going to storyboard this novel, I'd be working with three threads:  the geological information, Bird's youth, and the present time storyline with Doreen, her son, and Bird. Fascinating, but not so unusual, to hear that Eager wrote that first scene with the image, the container, that spoke to her so strongly, then worked backwards.  That first scene, she told me, occurs about three-quarters of the way through Doreen's storyline in the published book.  
"At first," she says, "I tried to fit the events from 1958-1959 into flashbacks. I wrote the novel in close third person, which is similar to first person in terms of the information that a single character can know. There was information I needed to give the reader about Bird's past that Doreen wouldn't possess. Bird would know the information, but he couldn't convey it properly as his present day self. Bird is a Marxton, a member of one of the founding families of Flyshoals, and he has been told since he was a boy to maintain the family name. This can mean many things. For the Marxtons, this has meant maintaining wealth and power even when to do so required hurting others or suppressing information.
"As a teenager, Bird saw this family patterning and questioned it. He was a young man in the small town South at the start of the Civil Rights movement. There was a chance that he could be changed by a world that was changing. But then he suffers a tragedy, and he can either handle this tragedy in a way that alienates him forever from his family, or he can handle it in a way that inextricably links him to his family through shared lies and misdeeds.
"Bird chooses to stay tight in the bosom of his family. By 2009, the time of the present day narrative, he is a man so blinded by a lifetime of privilege and power that there is little hope he could tell a reader of the tragedy his seventeen-year-old self experienced in the way the narrative needs him to. The reader must experience Bird as that terrified boy being asked to choose between the known and the unknown. When we meet Bird in 2009, he's mostly a coward, but for a period of time in his youth he was not. For a period of time, he was brave. Then something scary happened, and he chose cowardice, and it damaged him forever."

Before the manuscript was complete, even after Doreen and Bird's stories satisfied her and the places were strong on the page, Eager added a third point-of-view character, Jonathan's wife Lexie.  "My writing group insisted upon these chapters," she says, "and I'm glad they did. The novel needed them, but they were the hardest for me to write. Between the ages of fourteen and twenty I was in an abusive relationship, and it was this relationship that I used as a model for the relationship between Jonathan and Lexie. I don't like thinking about that part of my life, and when I began to write the Lexie chapters, I realized there was a lot I didn't understand about my experience. I went to therapy for the first time, and I came to understand the long-term impact of sustained terror upon the body. I hope whatever wisdom I gained in doing the self-work required to write the Lexie chapters comes through in the work."

Often writers who are skilled at writing place, or container, as Eager is, fall down on plot or character.  Eager aces all three.  I'm not surprised this novel won the AWP award last year.  It was released this spring and can be purchased online at Charis Books.  You can also visit Eager's website to see more.  

As to what she hopes from the novel, Eager added, "I hope readers question societal structures as they read the book. I hope they think about gender and class and race. I hope they consider the ways they are bound and the ways they are free. I hope they think about whom they help to liberate and whom they help to oppress. I hope they translate the micro to the macro."

Friday, May 22, 2020

Using the Enneagram's 9 Personality Types to Create Vivid Characters in Fiction and Memoir

No one likes to be categorized or typecast, but when it comes to creating vivid characters on the page, I find the personality system of the Enneagram a life saver.

Twenty-some years ago, when I first began studying this system, not many people knew about it.  It had no huge institutes or psychologists tooting it, as it does now.  It was Greek and new age, a little odd.  My introduction was through Eli Jaxon-Bear, whose book, From Fixation to Freedompromoted an Eastern approach that appealed to me.  Later I discovered the more Western approach  used like Myers-Briggs typing and promoted by Don Riso and Russ Hudson in their Enneagram Institute.  

Friday, May 15, 2020

Unexpected Blessings of Writing by Hand: What Other Writers Find in Their Handwriting That's Not on Their Computer

Do you know "BrainPickings," the online newsletter/digest put together by Maria Popova?  (If you don't, it's worth a look.)  Popova recently wrote about her favorite books from 2019 and one was by the poet Ross Gay, called The Book of Delights.  In this article, Popova discusses Ross Gay's enjoyment of writing by hand, something not usual to writers in this super-fast electronic era.  

Writing by hand is slow, thoughts can come faster than they can be scribed.  But I read about more and more writers who swear by the practice.  Either for early drafts, sketching out ideas, even revision.

A colleague in this club tells me her handwritten scenes always contain unexpected blessings--ideas she would never have encountered otherwise.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Creative Resistance to Hard Times--Guest Blog by Author Ellen Prentiss Campbell

Ellen Prentiss Campbell's Known By Heart: Collected Stories, appeared May 1 (Apprentice House Press). In 2016 her debut novel The Bowl with Gold Seams(Indy Excellence Award for Historical Fiction) and her story collection Contents Under Pressure (National Book Award nominee) were published. Ellen's home in Washington D.C., hosting an online book group for children, writing essays, reading War and Peace and mysteries, and making soup. 

I've invited her to share her view on creativity and Covid times, as her new book launches.  

Looking back, we see the signs. It was coming for us, not reserved for others, not restricted to Over There. But denial is a powerful force. The pandemic arrived stealthily, catching most of us absorbed in routine. Startling us, kidnapping us, blowing away our routine, our assumptions, our plans. The lights went out on Broadway; the stay-at-home mandates swept across the land. Even if we were lucky and healthy, we were hostages, grieving lost expectations, fearful, and uncertain.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Refining Your Writing Space for Sheltering at Home

One of my favorite writing treats when life seemed normal was an afternoon at our local coffee shop. Surrounded by a dozen others, all plugged into their laptops and earbuds, we wrote.  Sun came in the big windows, I sank into my leather chair, and I sipped a new choice of tea in the coffee shop's huge mugs.   
I wrote at home too, when my family was out of the house.  But mostly at the coffee shop.  I was insanely productive there, even with the music and crowd and cramped space.

Then my coffee shop went to take-out only. For the first month of Covid life, my writing stalled completely, so I didn't even miss the coffee shop.  After a month, I began missing my story. But where to write?