Monday, September 6, 2010
Q&A with Sarah Blake
A few weeks ago I posted a review of The Postmistress by Sarah Blake. Now it's my honor to introduce Sarah Blake to our What Women Write friends.
From Publisher's Weekly: Weaving together the stories of three very different women loosely tied to each other, debut novelist Blake takes readers back and forth between small town America and war-torn Europe in 1940. Single, 40-year-old postmistress Iris James and young newlywed Emma Trask are both new arrivals to Franklin, Mass., on Cape Cod. While Iris and Emma go about their daily lives, they follow American reporter Frankie Bard on the radio as she delivers powerful and personal accounts from the London Blitz and elsewhere in Europe. While Trask waits for the return of her husband—a volunteer doctor stationed in England—James comes across a letter with valuable information that she chooses to hide. Blake captures two different worlds—a naïve nation in denial and, across the ocean, a continent wracked with terror—with a deft sense of character and plot, and a perfect willingness to take on big, complex questions, such as the merits of truth and truth-telling in wartime.
Joan: You mentioned it took ten years to craft the story of The Postmistress. As writers looking to be published, we often hear that we should not spend years rewriting a story, but to move on to something new. Thank goodness you didn’t leave this one behind! What do you think of this advice? Does the answer lie in the difference between crafting a literary vs. commercial novel (even though your novel is both)?
Sarah: Well, it’s a great question and one that I think probably has as many answers as there are stories! Honestly, I tried to move on to something new--especially as one year folded into the next. And the next. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t keep from returning to Franklin and to these three women, and to trying to get at how their three lives intertwined. It was a puzzle I was too enmeshed in to leave. So I stayed, often to my despair. I think that’s the thing always to pay attention to when it comes to the question of when to move on: if the story is still urgent for you, even inchoately, then it’s probably worth staying with.
Joan: Good advice, thank you! Readers who are also writers can learn so much about character development from reading The Postmistress. Without giving anything away, I was struck by the choices Iris and Frankie had to make, how those choices challenged their belief systems. At the climax of their plot lines, it became apparent what it means for a character to grow and change and, most of all, learn what they are capable of. How did you pull that off?
Sarah: Oh, thank you! That means a great deal since character movement is so difficult, I think. The novel’s interest really began for me with Iris’s completely uncharacteristic gesture. I had the picture of her doing what she does on page 230 as the very first thing in my head. It started the novel for me. Everything lodged in the question, why would this woman who believes so firmly in doing things by the book do what she does? And it was that question that led me deeper into thinking about war and its effects on ordinary life--war, that is, off the battlefield. Frankie’s gesture is an extension of that same question. So, in some ways these characters develop, to the extent that they do, as I was drawn deeper into the question of responsibility in a time of war.
Joan: You did a tremendous amount of research for this book, yet it never feels dumped into the narrative. As readers, we are next to your characters—in shelters hiding from bombs, on the train with Frankie as she records the voices of the war, on top of the lighthouse as Harry searches for U-boats. What’s the secret of weaving research into narrative?
Sarah: The novelist, Susannah Moore, passed on this gem of advice that Joan Didion had given her: when you look up from your computer, or your desk, stay in the eyes of your character and what does she/he see? This is deceptively simple, but it asks the writer to be inside the world that she is trying to create in a very fundamental way. For me, all research has to work that way, too. It has to disappear. The time I spent researching was time I spent trying to get at the world in which Frankie and Iris and Emma were living from the inside out so that when I lifted my eyes up, I saw the color and tint of the 1940s, and heard the sounds they would (I hoped). And then this way, I could imagine what they felt, or what they might say.
Joan: What a great explanation--thank you. The cover is stunning! What did you think when you first saw it?
Sarah: I wanted to take a bite out of it! It really is so incredibly luscious.
Joan: It certainly is! Now that I’ve found you, I want to read more of your work! I just noticed Grange House: A Novel, and can’t wait to read it. Victorian era, coast of Maine, ghosts—a perfect combination! When can we expect your next novel? Selfishly, I hope it’s not ten years from now!
Sarah: My next novel returns to Maine, but centers in a summer house owned by an old money family whose money, but not whose sense of itself, has run out. It goes back and forth between the summer of 1959 and the summer of 2009, between the stories of two sisters and then their daughters, and the ways in which their lives repeat and echo each other’s without their knowing. And there’s a big secret at the center of the house, of course, since I am always drawn to the stories about characters who don’t see, or don’t know, how their lives intertwine. This is where I’ll always be a Victorian.
Joan: Me too! I am struck by how generous authors are with their time—just look at our list of interviewees (yourself included!). Who were your mentors along the way and did anyone in particular inspire you?
Sarah: I never went through an MFA program, and I’m old enough so that there weren’t creative writing courses in my undergraduate curriculum, so I have to say that my mentors were mostly those on the page: the writers I would turn to to generate ideas or sentences, the writers I wanted to imitate. As a growing writer, it was Virginia Woolf, first and foremost, and then the Brontes--all of them, and George Eliot. But then, too--I learned so much from going to readings, lots and lots of readings by poets and fiction writers and listening to them talk about how they wrote. How they thought of what they had written was tremendously inspiring. I love hearing artists--painters, sculptors and photographers--give artist’s talks for this reason as well. Often, listening to someone else describe their process is pivotal as I try and work out some knot in my own work.
Joan: Your book trailer incorporates some very moving pictures from the WWII era. How far things have changed since letter writing days! Do you still send hand-written letters?
Sarah: I do. And I love getting them, for just the reason that Emma loves Will’s letters. The personality of the letter-writer is captured twice: both in their words and in their hand-writing. I love that.
Thank you, Sarah, for sharing your time with us today. And thank you, readers, so much for stopping by! If you’ve read this one, let me know if you loved it as much as I did. If you haven’t, head to the bookstore!