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

Author, Playwright ... Geologist!

You wrote a series of short books for Adults learning English. How did you get started with the series? What was the process of working with Arleen Williams? 
I wrote The Old House on South Sixteenth Street because my friend, Arleen, couldn’t find the texts she wanted for her ESL classes. The Old House …  features adult characters with adult problems in picture-book-easy English. It was really fun to write with the constraint of keeping the language simple, so I wrote two sequels and a second series. Meanwhile, Arleen wrote a series of stories centered on American holidays, explaining many of their oddities. We each wrote six stories. We wrote the drafts independently, then read and edited them aloud, together, so they became joint-efforts. Our process involved lots of cups of tea, dozens of brownies, and pounds of walnuts and almonds. In 2015 we published them under the imprint NoTalking Dogs Press.

How does working as a playwright differ from working as a novelist?
I am finding I do a few of the same things whether writing plays or my current novel. I plunk down some stuff, then I sort out actions on index cards and churn out scene lists and diagrams—a repeating cycle of seat-of-the-pants generating of stuff followed by organizing stints. I think of what a drawing teacher in college told me, “Don’t erase the wrong line until you’ve drawn the right line.” I like to have material on the page which I can erase or embellish.
I shuffle the material a lot. My current novel has had a slew of different openings and I haven’t even roughed in a first draft yet.

When I’m writing a script, I hear voices. But they’re useful, so please don’t call in the white coats yet. I read aloud if I’m not hearing them. Before writing their speeches I prepare the script by alternating, or otherwise intermixing, my characters’ names. Sometimes I have to delete these, but sometimes having the character’s name waiting ahead of me makes me come up with how that figment of my imagination would respond to the last remark.

I am lucky to have a wonderful playwriting critique group. We read each other’s scripts aloud so the playwright can listen, and we discuss. I depend on their suggestions to rewrite. I am extra lucky if a group of actors reads my script and I get feedback from them and any audience. From one “mean” reading by an excellent actor, I realized I needed to rewrite her character. I gave her character a softer lexicon so she could not be interpreted as a mean character in the future. Plays become group projects. When my plays have been produced, I’ve been fascinated to see how the director and actors make something new, which may not resemble what I initially imagined.

I broke off from the novel I’m working on to write a one-act comedy last fall. The playwriting buzzed along in a way that the novel-writing had not. The form of a play, as speech-and-response, action-reaction-reaction …, feels natural to me. Now that I’m writing a novel, I have all those other aspects of scene-writing, such as descriptions of person, action, location, thought, and emotion to contend with. Readers of my first section urge me to flesh these out more than I have. Most of all, I have the greater length to contend with. I need bigger stretches of time and longer focus.

So, the biggest difference may involve pace. I’m finding it’s okay to move slowly in writing the novel. I’m learning to take my time and not rush. A novel is big. It’s a lot to figure out and make sense of, but the schedule is wholly my own. This novel will take much longer than a play!

How does your training as a geologist impact your approach to writing?

I am a scientist at heart. My training in geology gives me an experimental approach. If something doesn’t fly, I change it, and send it off again. I love collecting and tracking data, as in, how many times I submit in a year, how many of those are rejections, and so forth. (Last year a poem I had submitted twenty times was published.) I’ve written plays with science content—one thought experiment for Infinity Box Theatre Project about robots, The Robot Decision, and two featuring the endangered parrot, the kakapo. Geological content crops up in a few of my poems.

Check Back Feb 15th for Part II!

4 comments:

  1. Lucky you, Elena, getting interview this important and talented writer. Good work there.

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    1. I totally agree, Jack. Even better - I got to direct one of her short plays!

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  3. I love hearing about the one, play-writing, informing the other, novel-writing. Nice interview.

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