Sarah Stonich’s first novel, These Granite Islands, became a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection, a Book Sense 76 Top Ten Pick, and a “2001 Friends of American Writers” Best Novel. Her second book, The Ice Chorus, is one of my favorites. Maybe it’s the alternating backdrop of a scorching Mexican beach and the cool, stony cliffs of Ireland. Perhaps it’s the tragic love story shot through a lens shrouded in misinterpretation and family secrets. More likely it’s the tightly-woven plot and multi-layered characters.
Just in time for the paperback release, Sarah Stonich joins us for Q&A.
JOAN: The Ice Chorus enthralled me when I first read it three years ago, and now upon second read, even more so. What do you think makes a book both timeless and memorable?
SARAH: Compelling characters – more than the story, I remember the voices that touched me, upset me, amused, shocked, or in some way pulled enough emotion up to make me think of them a month later, or ten years later. I still think of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn and Francie Nolan, the character that inspired me to become a writer, or, the thief in The English Patient, etc. I think for any story to be timeless it needs to be evocative of place and time without being set down too hard with details such as street names or dates or factual references. It’s the story and people, and the sense of place.
JOAN: In addition to a strong sense of place, your books often feature themes of secrets and women conflicted between desire and responsibility. Do you think we all imagine our family to be full of secrets?
SARAH: Perhaps it is the nature of women to be conflicted between desire and responsibility – at least for many of my generation and those before us, raised to conduct our lives the way we should, not necessarily the way we would choose. I imagine most families do have secrets – some better kept than others (how would we know?!) If not secrets – at least stories that simply don’t get told. After a beloved aunt died recently, I discovered that as a field nurse in WWII, she’d been one of the first to staff a German hospital after liberation, treating freed Jewish prisoners right alongside injured German soldiers – all the while working closely with the surgeon she was falling in love with and would later marry. There’s a story – alas, no one thought to tell it…
JOAN: That’s definitely a book I’d read! I fell in love with Ireland through Maeve Binchy, captivated with its selkie lore through Regina McBride, and disheartened through Frank McCourt. How do you reconcile these different Irelands? Do you have plans to write another book set in Ireland? (Please say yes!)
SARAH: I miss Ireland, and I miss the characters I wrote in The Ice Chorus, particularly Remy and Siobhan, who very much represent the different Irelands I know. Ireland isn’t an easy place to be, but I feel more at home there than anywhere else. Like family, it has good and bad all mixed in. Will I write another book set there? Perhaps, yes…maybe… We all miss Frank McCourt – he was a tireless advocate for young writers, a real teacher, and avuncular in the best way. In a pub in the Aran Islands he told me that the title for These Granite Islands was a mistake. “It’s awful”, he said, “a dirge of a title” – he, of Angela’s Ashes. We had a good laugh over that.
JOAN: Any plans for either The Ice Chorus or These Granite Islands to be filmed? They both seem perfect for the big screen. Who would play Liselle in the movie if you got to choose?
SARAH: My first novel was considered, and then abandoned (twice) during bad times for the film industry. But now, The Ice Chorus will circulate to production houses, and These Granite Islands may again. Who to play Liselle? If Hollywood were my oyster I’d pick any of these three: Laura Linney, Marcia Gay Harden, or Emily Watson. I feel any of these women have depth, are authentic and easy to relate to. Rather than ooze sensuality, they seem to harbor theirs, carrying it more naturally, privately, as Liselle does - as a thing to be uncovered.
JOAN: Great choices. (Readers: Coincidentally, Emily Watson was in Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes.) I was encouraged to see you agree with the motto, “Write what you don’t know.” What advice can you give on making sure a story is authentic? Do you research before or during the actual writing?
SARAH: I research constantly, it’s one of the joys of being a writer, getting to delve into what subjects most interest me. I’m learning things now that I might use in a year or two, or maybe never. I researched hat-making and iron mining while writing These Granite Islands, and film-making for The Ice Chorus. I think a story reads authentically when the writer knows a lot about the subject, but only writes what is essential for the reader to build upon and construe in their own minds. The more you research, the more confidence you have in your subject, allowing you to say less. It’s always obvious when a writer has gone too far, making the reader feel lectured on a topic or bored by the minutia.
JOAN: Art plays a strong role in The Ice Chorus, and you weaved Charlie’s paintings of Liselle brilliantly with the climax. Did you research the craft of painting as you did with hat-making and film-making?
SARAH: I research most things, but I had first hand experience with painting - as a failed painter. There are two strong visual artists present in my work – Charlie, in The Ice Chorus and now Meg, in Vacationland. Through them, I have succeeded as a painter, albeit vicariously! Most of my characters are compelled to create in one way or another, and often their art or craft is essential to their character – in my unpublished novel, Love’s Tender Loins, the troubled protagonist, a Chicago housewife, emerges from her stasis by penning a rather bad romance novel. We need art.
JOAN: I enjoyed your book trailer. What’s involved in making one? Is that your voice?
SARAH: Thank You! I’ve turned to the Internet to market and promote, since traditional publicists do less these days, given shrinking budgets, and book tours are practically a thing of the past (and for good reason - they are mostly ineffective). A book trailer is a way to introduce a book to readers and to booksellers in a way they might not hear at a sales conference or in an ad or review. My computer-savvy husband put the thing together, and even wrote and played the music. The voice was supposed to be that of an Irish friend, but we couldn’t schedule, so yes, alas, that is my voice (doesn’t everyone hate their own?). We watched a lot of bad trailers on YouTube to learn what not to do – some were 5 minutes or longer, most didn’t describe the story in any compelling way. Surely they will evolve into a tool to sell a manuscript to an agent, a book to bookseller, or the story to a reader.
JOAN: When can we expect Vacationland and Shelter to hit the shelves? You’ve written mostly fiction. What inspired you to write Shelter, your memoir?
SARAH: I’ve just placed Vacationland with an agent, and since it’s short fiction it could take a bit, though I have renewed hope, since a similar book of stories, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, just won a Pulitzer. Shelter should be on the shelves in late autumn of ’10 by Borealis Books. Writing a memoir wouldn’t have occurred to me until I was inspired by my own questionable decision to hew out a writing retreat in raw wilderness. My grandparents immigrated to a small town near the Canadian border, and their experience is fictionalized in These Granite Islands, but now the name Stonich is fading from memory there, and so I returned. I was inspired by them, and by the ups and downs taking on this project, and how the ensuing experiences (and pratfalls) have provided endless, colourful, painful, hilarious material. In Shelter I wanted to emphasize the importance of “place” and how we often romanticize the concept. I also wanted to examine how we are affected or imprinted by our places, whether drawn to them, conflicted by them, or trapped in them.
JOAN: Fantastic news. We’ll look forward to reading both when they come out. What advice can you give an aspiring author in this strange and uncertain publishing market?
SARAH: Keep writing, keep your expectations of traditional publishing low and think outside the book – at least the book as we know it. Consider alternative publishing – zine, online, on-demand, writing cooperatives, etc... Consider publishing as much a creative process as the writing. That said, don’t lose sight that it’s the writing that matters, not the potential audience your writing might one day have – that will come, if the work is good enough.
JOAN: Do you have favorite books on writing?
SARAH: I’m a dyslexic high school drop-out – which more or less defines me as a writer who works intuitively and organically, and I’ve never read a book on writing. I learned to write by reading, paying close attention to the methods and techniques of authors I admire, then promptly endeavoring to forget their techniques so that I’m not over-influenced. I have a healthy fear of such books – afraid they might mess me up, or suggest that everything I’ve done so far is wrong.
JOAN: Tell me about your writing schedule now that summer is over. How do you manage the intrusion of the Internet?
SARAH: Since I work at home and my son is grown, the seasons and weekends all blur into one lump called time. My husband’s schedule actually structures mine – I work all day while he’s gone and when he comes home at 4pm it’s dismount! for both of us. Up until recently, I’ve made my living as a writer, but have found myself essentially unemployed. I’ve started a writing and editing service (wordstalkers.com). So, now I write fiction from 7am 11am. Then I do the business-business of writing. I rely on the Internet – but do not turn it on until my “real” writing is finished for the day. That one non-act (not pressing the Firefox button) takes much more discipline than sticking to a writing schedule.
JOAN: I noticed you’re writing in a new genre. As someone who is currently writing in two genres, how do you suggest approaching agents with two completed manuscripts?
SARAH: If the two manuscripts are both fiction, I would press forward with the one you want published first while making the agent aware you have another. My agent has more traction with publishers knowing he has two works of fiction to sell, Vacationland, and the next novel I’m planning, Fishing With RayAnne, for which I supply a synopsis and sample. Many publishers want a two-book deal (in case the first takes off) so it’s always good to show you have a follow-up book. As far as genres, nonfiction doesn’t always require an agent. After researching potential publishers I sold my memoir myself by submitting a chapter and a synopsis to the one house I thought was most suited to the work.
Thank you, Sarah, for sharing a bit of an author’s life with us.