I came to fiction writing as a poet. I never had any formal training in prose. After earning an MFA in Poetry from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I began publishing poems, and a couple of stories, in literary magazines including Ploughshares, Iowa Review, and Fiction. I kept writing for over a decade after that, but I stopped sending work out. I was defeated. Even though nearly all the poems in my manuscript made it to top-tier journals, I couldn’t get the collection itself published. I broke up with poetry and wrote exclusively in prose.
Craft and Voice
I learned how to write novels by writing novels, and I came to see I borrowed from what I learned as a poet. Language and music came easily, but I struggled with puzzling the past in with the present, seaming together action and conflict, building emotion, stacking suspense, and enticing a reader with plot even when lulled by lyric. I discovered at the end of my third manuscript, that the book had fourteen chapters, and that I had structured the plot like a sonnet. The story turns and moves forward every four chapters and resolves in the final couplet. Chapters do the work of lines, but also the chapters themselves do the work of poems. They are both an integral part of the whole, and also episodic. At the end of each, I attempt to lift off the page, which is a blatant poetry move.
For my first three novels, it was essential to write a third-person, single-mind POV. My voice of choice is a narrator who dissolves into the mind of the protagonist. Mind-meld with a character compelling enough for me to spend years with is the juice. Up until this year, sustaining a narrative from the perspective of a single protagonist was the first rule of novel club. Now I’ve added a second mind. I’ve amended my rule to allow for two protagonists but only in service of the single narrative.
I grew up poor. My parents were teenagers when I was born. I was the first person in my family to earn a BA. My upbringing influenced my writing. My poetry, while not always narrative, is rigorously accessible. Accessibility, musicality and freshness of language is critical, but so is invitation and engagement. Readers want to be taken, driven to know what happens. Language can make the trip satisfying, but story is the prize.
One recent development about voice: I used to struggle with the idea that my work sounded chick-lit and not literary. I went about scrubbing the girlie out of my prose. I felt more confident writing men characters because their sound kept me in line. Now I’m writing more female characters. I found a woman-centric voice that also sounds literary. My sound comes from the heart of who I am, a mix of common, and flavored white roots, with woman-fun, and attention to lyric.
Plot and Theme
Story is the prize. Things happen in my novels: over the top things and quiet things. I write love stories. When I broke up poetry, I also broke up with my girlfriend and wrote a novel about us. I got married and divorced and moved to Spain and wrote a second novel there about that marriage. Of course I associated being with poetry with being with women. I still do. Since then I’ve never gone back to either. Loving women goes with poetry; loving men goes with novels.
When I came back to the states, I met a man who ultimately became the model for the protagonist of a novel I began after we broke up. Apparently I’m inspired by troubled love. Last year, I completed that novel, the first novel I’ve written that I think is worthy of publication. CAMBRIDGE ROYALTY, is a story about race, love, addiction, and urban renewal that takes place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a Rabbit Run meets The Wire. I’m a white woman with a graduate degree, writing about an African American male who dropped out of high school, but CAMBRIDGE ROYALTY is my story: a fictional interpretation on the secret life of a wonderful addict and criminal I loved and lived with most of the nine years we were together. I wrote the book in less than two years, in the mornings before my day job, and on weekends, driven by the characters, and by the logistical and ethical complexity of the project. It soothed my anxiety to put down answers to questions that owned me. My ex, a clean recovering addict now, was a fact checker for this book. He listened to every chapter as I completed each. He helped with terms and verified possibility. We sat at my kitchen table, the kitchen in the house where he used to live, and I read. He interrupted saying things like, “Don’t say heroin, say boy.” He corrected my best effort on how to weld steel, how to sell stolen goods, and how unions get around city contracts. He helped me with details that normalized the horrors of trading sex for drugs and being locked up. His help was an act of amends that went both ways.
This year I began a second novel manuscript with the working title ENOUGH SUGAR, the first novel I’ve written that was not a result of a breakup. This novel explores themes of fidelity, race, parenting, woman friendships, and a 150 year old house. I’m calling it a Bridges of Madison County meets Sex in the City meets Loving meets The Group meets This Old House. Like my earlier projects, ENOUGH SUGAR is crammed with characters and events—quieter, though equally impactful events, emotional events rather than big-screen action events. In this project, I’m interested in telling insider truths between women, content I used to considered not worthy and off-bounds.
Aesthetic and Readability
As a reader of novels, as a poet, as an avid TV series watcher, and as a child raised by Sicilian women fluent in storytelling, I developed an intention for the novels I want to write. I want to tell big stories, crowded with characters, and rooted in a strong sense of place. I want to uncover individuals who win my heart, in communities all around me, but largely invisible in fiction. I wanted to tell the truth through character, not message. I want emotion to fuel story, empathy to be messy, and character to be flawed. As a reader I love when I keep changing my mind about a character. I want to enrich narrative with layers of themes that never stray too far from plot. I want to treat readers well, hand them regular pay-offs, keep them wanting to know what will happen next, and trusting that something satisfying will.
In the last two years, I started sending work out again. I’ve pulled a few short stories from my novel manuscripts and repurposed them to stand alone. The first of those, a story that closely borrows from the beginning chapter of CAMBRIDGE ROYALTY, is published in a recent issue of New England Review.