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Contact: Elena Hartwell - elenahartwell@gmail.com and visit me on the web at www.elenahartwell.com

The Interview: Part I

Part I

You've been working professionally as a writer for a long time, but this is your first novel. Tell us about that transition.
When I was in my mid-twenties I wrote a strange novel imitating Alain Robbe-Grillet (using only surfaces as though the text were a combination of camera eye and detached flaneur) and sent it out to ten agents, nine in NY. I had a friend in NY at that time.  While visiting her, I called on nine agents after giving them time to peruse my manuscript. Each of them had read at least a chapter or so, enough to form the impression that I needed to search out the university or small press market and forget about trying to sell this experimental piece to a NY big house. 

I knew nothing of small presses and simply threw the manuscript into a box. But, later I received a call from an agent in LA (the least likely to respond, I had thought) who said, “You seem to know how to write and you seem to take this very seriously but I can tell you have no idea what the market will bear.” His advice: write short stories, get a few published in literary journals, and try a novel when you have a better idea of an audience and what will work. I took that advice. After publishing short stories and making no money, that coupled with being divorced and caring for my young daughter and quarreling with her mother, I had to take a break from fiction (stories are hard to write) and write nonfiction for magazines that pay.  I liked the pressure of deadlines, the byline, interviewing people invested in interesting passions, the assurance of a readership (honestly, no one reads lit journals except aspiring writers and maybe agents now and then), and the paycheck. And the stress was off. 

But writing a novel was the grain of sand in my oyster and sooner or later I knew I would have to turn it into a pearl (whether anyone else saw it that way or not). When I finally leapt past reading and researching and traveling to the Czech Republic and actually set out to write chapters, my wife (we’d just recently married) suggested I stop writing short stories (because they take so much work) and just put my time into the novel.  Of course, I was not about to give up writing for the magazine editors I’d formed relations with so there is still that. But, we joked about me having my novel finished by the time our son was born.  He is now nine. He was eight when I finally was given a contract for publication of Better You Go Home

My wife was ready to give up on me. She would never have said as much, but I suspect she believed I had no intention of ever finishing it.  There might be some truth to that.  Once “finished” you have to own it and sell it and that is a scary proposition. In the end, I think I have taken that friendly agent’s advice to heart. No more writing like Robbe-Grillet. But, writing a novel is a bit like embarking on a long journey that includes feast and famine and adventure and danger and doldrums and that keeps you up at night, but that adds an urgency to life that isn’t there with any other kind of writing, at least, this has been my experience.

You gave your protagonist a life threatening medical condition in addition to other challenging aspects of his life and family history, how did you come to choose that as part of your character's obstacles? And why did you choose that particular medical condition?
My protagonist is diabetic.  Type I: requires shots. I have two family members with this condition, including my sister, who currently has no usable kidney because of diabetes complications and who is being kept alive only by dialysis while waiting for a kidney. It’s not a life I’d wish on anyone and it comes as a burden not provoked by any volition on her part.  While researching the terrain for Better You Go Home, which as you know is set primarily in the Czech Republic shortly after the Velvet Revolution freed Czechs from the Eastern bloc Warsaw pact powers, it occurred to me that my protagonist needed some issue to grapple with aside from searching for his left-behind half-sister.  

My sister’s diabetes complications seemed to provide an analogous experience (though I hesitate to go too far down this analogy road): she suffered/suffers life changing pressures that carry with them enormous risk and she didn’t ask for any of it and her life is indelibly marked because of it but somehow her spirit must find a way to persist against this force of opposition that submits only to its own logic, and still to somehow find meaning and needfulness, like anyone else. Thinking about her situation helped me understand, a bit, the situation of Anezka (the half-sister behind the Iron Curtain) and offered a way for my protagonist to have a parallel in his own life that would naturally set him up to empathize with his sister’s situation.

How has teaching creative writing impacted your own writing?

Enormously. If I hope to be an effective creative writing teacher, I have to not only examine minutely every possible aspect of craft, I also have to apply it in my own writing, or, I have to know the reason why not. The best way to learn is to teach. Here’s an example. I learned about situation set-up by studying stories published in literary magazines. I read and read and read some more until I began to see patterns and based on these patterns I figured out approximately what a story should accomplish in the set-up phase. One aspect was missing for me, though.  The notion of planting an “inciting incident.” 

I well knew that an opening had to establish a problem to solve and had to have sufficient instability to force the protagonist to venture away from his or her familiar world, despite the inevitable opposition waiting to pounce, but what I lacked, aside from an intuitive sense that there needed to be a provocation sufficiently disturbing to cause the character to actually take an action, was the clearness of a term to describe this element: inciting incident.   I encountered this term by reading Story by Robert McKee.  It wasn’t anything new or that hadn’t been said before, but the term, “inciting incident,” which he uses, so aptly describes what is actually needed for any story that includes plot, I decided I would start applying this term, both in my own writing (no more vague trouble to solve) and in my classes.  And it has proven useful to say the least. 

Would I have made this connection if I weren’t teaching?  Maybe. Would I have given it as much attention as I have? Very probably not. I love teaching this stuff.  It keeps me honest and helps me not become sloppy with my own writing, and in the end, I thoroughly enjoy seeing others master elements of craft that, if they persevere, will place them in a distinctly advantaged position when they compete with others for publishing opportunities (not to mention that they will write stories that have a good shot at finding an audience, better anyway than imitating Robbe-Grillet).

Check back December 15th for Part II

Author Interviews...

...return December 1st. With exciting new voices in fiction for December and January.