Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Next Big Thing

NOTE: The Next Big Thing is a blog series, winding its way through the internet. I was invited by writer Eric Sasson, whose short story collection MARGINS OF TOLERANCE is published with Livingston Press. Check back next week for the blog addresses of the other writers whom I've invited into the challenge.

What is the title of your book?

Borrowed Horses

Where did the idea come from for the book?

The novel started as my dissertation at the University of Georgia. For a long time, I'd resisted writing about horses or riding. They were my passion, but I felt that few readers would share that passion. I couldn't stand the idea that the thing that I loved might bore other people, so I silenced myself rather than taking that risk. Then one day I stumbled upon Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, which had only recently come out. I knew nothing about her or the book and hesitated to buy it because it was about opera and what did I know or care about opera? But for some reason, I did buy the book. I immediately fell in love with it. She wrote so beautifully about opera that it made me care. I thought, if she can do that for me with opera, then I must try to do the same thing with horses. I realized that the wonderful thing about great language is that it can transcend our prejudices and biases. The root passion is what we respond to, even if that emotion triggered by different objects for the writer than it is for the reader--which is ironic because, to transmit that passion, one must write in images and things. That's the paradox of fiction and what makes Eliot's idea of the objective correlative so sticky. It's what Patchett had realized and I had to learn from her. If the language is right, the writer's feeling for the objects trigger the necessary emotion even if readers do not share the writer's emotional associations with those objects.

Patchett's book gave me permission and, thus, I had a subject to write about, but not a plot. In fact, I was frantically plot-less for quite some time, which is terrifying for any writer but especially one with a self-inflicted deadline. (I was bound and determined to finish my PhD in 2006, come hell or high water.) Aside from journaling and note-taking, I stopped work on the book while I was studying for my comprehensive exams, simply because I was spending nearly every waking moment reading. About midway through that terrible nearly writing-less year of relentless speed reading, I re-read Jane Eyre for my Victorian exam, and as I was reading, I kept thinking about what an amazing book it is. I first read it when I was thirteen, and I've read it over and over since, and every time, it holds up. I kept thinking, I wish I could write this book, and then I started wondering if I could... Would the plot bend to the characters I envisioned? My speaker was no Jane, but she might be a Rochester. I started to wonder if I could tell his story through a female speaker. What would happen if my main character had a mad man who wouldn't stay safely in her past? I worked from that idea forward into the book.

What genre does your book fall under?

I like the word choice "fall under" here. I'm imagining a steam roller called genre about to roll me over. I imagine myself tripping on a curb and being pressed into steaming tarmac.

I call Borrowed Horses a "literary pot boiler." I don't think book stores are using that genre label yet, but wouldn't it be cool if they did?

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I kind of love this question because when I was workshopping early chapters, Jeff Newberry, who is a good friend and an amazing poet, said that he pictured Dave (my madman) as Matthew McConaughy, an actor whom I adore, and it really helped make Dave clear in my mind.

Beyond that, I'm afraid I'm going to run out of answers quickly because I am really bad with celebrity knowledge. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think the characters shouldn't be played by known actors. I often love movies best when I don't recognize any of the actors and can, therefore, utterly buy the idea that they are exactly the people whom they play on the screen. It removes a layer of artificiality for me. In Borrowed Horses, the male and female leads would need to feel authentic. Joannie sees herself as a kind of Clint Eastwood/ Spaghetti Western character, in spite of which--or perhaps because of which--she is extremely attractive to men. She's athletic and smirks a lot and has curling dark hair. Timothy is tall and thin with hazel eyes and a kind of punk-ish vibe, but also exudes a lot of quiet wisdom. The actors who played these two would want to embody those kind of traits.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Borrowed Horses retells the love story of Jane Eyre, inverting the genders and re-setting the story in Idaho with lots of horses and fence-jumping.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Borrowed Horses will be published by New Rivers Press in October 2013.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

This is a tough question because I had been taking notes on the book and letting ideas percolate for about ten years before I started writing the novel in earnest. I'll say though that I wrote the first draft in roughly a year and a half, and then re-drafted for the next six years--including rewriting the entire manuscript from page one. The novel that will be published is a far, far different book from the one I defended as a dissertation in 2006.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

It seems somehow egotistical to compare my book to those that I love, so rather than comparing, I'll just mention a few books that I admire and wished to emulate: Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, everything by Louise Erdrich, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (of course), and Peter Hoeg's Smilla's Sense of Snow. I'll also say that I had Sherman Alexie much on my mind, both because he and I write about a similar region and because my character Timothy is part-Native American, from Spokane like Alexie, and I wrote very much afraid that I would fall into stereotypes or, inversely, that I would fail to capture the culture. It was really important for me that Timothy be a person rather than a caricature. Alexie's poem "How to Write the Great American Indian Novel" was very much on my mind. I don't want to be the writer he parodies there.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I was inspired by two of the great loves of my life: horses and Idaho. I wanted to capture the feeling of flight a rider has when jumping a fence, and I wanted to give the world a glimpse of some of the most beautiful landscape this country has to offer.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

Joannie is an x-ray technologist, so I did a lot of research into bones. I don't know if that actually peaks anyone's interest, but our bones are amazing, fascinating things, and far, far stronger than most people would imagine. I worked a lot of bone research into the language because I found it so beautiful and inspiring.

Also, I know writers are supposed abhor cliches, but I've always loved the old saw "that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger." This book is an exploration of how true that is for my main character, but also of the ways that personal strength, if it becomes cold and removed, can become its own brand of weakness.