In my last post, a review of Alyson Richman’s latest novel, The Garden of Letters, I mentioned that I had the privilege of meeting her when she recently came to Dallas. She graciously allowed me to record the interview part of our conversation. Below is a transcription of what she said, with minor adjustments made to remove the inevitable tangents in the discussion.
Alyson had no prior knowledge of what my questions would be, and her answers are completely and refreshingly candid.
This interview took place at the Hilton at Lincoln Center in Dallas on October 14th, 2014. Thank you again, Alyson!
KB: You have set a couple of your novels during WWII. What draws you to this era?
AR: I think one of the reasons why I love writing about WWII is because when you undertake the research for that period you can still find people who were living at the time and obtain their oral histories. Being able to use them as a resource for the fine details for the story-line is really a gift and so I love that. I love being able to travel to the different countries and interview people. With The Lost Wife I interviewed several holocaust survivors who were at Terezin. In The Garden of Letters I was able to interview 90- year-old partisans who lived in the mountains storing ammunition, fighting against the Germans. I was able to meet 85-year-old female messengers who worked for the Italian resistance, who hid grenades in their fruit baskets as they walked to market every day, and musicians and composers who were alive during that time period. So, all of those people gave me another layer of research and that’s transferred into the writing of the story.
|Photo by Deborah Downes|
AR: Well, I always aspired to be a painter. My mother is an abstract painter and from very early on in my life my mother taught me to see the world through an artistic lens. She was the person who took my painting and turned it upside down and said, “How does it change when I move the direction of your composition?” She was the one who taught me about negative and positive space, how everything that you look at has its own palette, has its own color and texture. When you grow up with a mother like that, you see the world from a unique perspective than your peers. I think that’s transferred in the way I write, the way I craft my sentences. I always tell people that I imagine my sentences are like brush strokes that move you through a canvas, but they move you in this case through a story. Every chapter I imagine as a composition, so even if I’m writing about a painter or if I’m writing about a musician, I’m using my artistic background to make the scene as vivid as possible.
Having a character who is rooted in the arts is especially thrilling for me. I love describing the character involved in their own artistic process. That said, The Garden of Letters was my first book that actually involved a musician. I played the piano for ten years, but I had very little talent. Luckily, my husband is a violinist, so he was a great resource when I was writing the novel. At first, I was nervous about accurately capturing the mindset of a musician, but I was relieved when I started interviewing musicians and composers and they described how they heard music in similar ways that a painter sees color. For them, notes have color and texture, as well as light and shadow. And a musical score has positive and negative space, just like a painted canvas. When I knew that they spoke the same language and it was just something with music rather than with paint, I felt I was able to undertake the story.
|Photo by Deborah Downes|
AR: No one’s ever asked me that before. Great question! It’s very, very difficult. I think that at some point in every book I have to stop and say, “not everything can be as beautiful as you want it to be.” I get very wrapped up in describing the beauty of nature, or the emotions that are more attractive than the ones that are going to make a reader uncomfortable. In order to write realistic fiction, especially with a historical backdrop, you have to be show the tragedy in life, how there are conflicts where people have inner turmoil and have to make choices and sacrifices, when terrible things happen to good people. I definitely did this in The Lost Wife, where I felt like it’s not all about love and protecting the people that you love, or creating artwork from stolen supplies, but showing how brutal war is. In The Garden of Letters, there’s a scene that really encapsulates how tragic and difficult things got for people who undertook dangerous missions for the Resistance. I created that particular scene from a diary that I found about someone, a messenger whom this happened to, a woman who had particularly beautiful eyes and how her most beautiful feature was destroyed when she was discovered to be working for the Resistance. It had to be in the book because otherwise it doesn’t seem like a very realistic portrayal of what was happening at that time period.
KB: Your love stories are achingly beautiful and often doomed. Is this an intentional theme, or just something that falls into place as you flesh out your novels?
AR: I don’t think that it’s intentional, but in order to create a story that has emotional resonance you have to show contrast. It’s like a painting. I’m consciously always thinking about how to show beauty and sadness, how to show redemption after a great loss, how to show the resilience of the human spirit after great tragedy. Those two dialectics—I’m always playing one against the other, so there’s typically one love story which is going to be tragic, but then there’s a second love story which isn't maybe as pure and naïve as the first love story, but it reflects what happens to us in the arc of a life. We build from those early experiences, and we are more layered when we come to love a second time than we were with our first love. I’m kind of fascinated with that. To me it seems very naïve to believe there is only one great love in a lifetime. In The Lost Wife what I really wanted to explore was the different shades of love, how we love our parent, our children, the fraternal love between siblings, the second love after a great loss. All those things that really make up a full life. With The Garden of Letters, again, there is the story of Elodie’s first beautiful love in the beginning of the war, but she experiences another form of love later on in the novel. I wanted to explore how many things in life- often events outside of our control- bring us together with the most unlikely people and that there can be beauty and healing even after great loss.
|Photo by Deborah Downes|
AR: My favorite part is travelling to the countries I write about. I make more than one trip. For me, the first trip is always about seeing the country, seeing what the landscape looks like, so I have a very strong visual of what I’m going to be describing. I look at the bone structure of the people from that particular place to see if there’s a particular symmetry to their faces, is there a certain look to the eyes or their coloring or how do they interact with each other. What food do they eat? How do they display affection? In the second I really try to locate people who were alive during the time period who might be able to provide me with first-account details.
KB: Do you have a least favorite part?
AR: (Laughing) My least favorite is the first draft because I always go through this sense of wondering if I can pull this off. I always feel I come up with a great idea and then midway through I think there’s no way I’m going to be able to do this. I get panicked that I’m going to fail. I have a great fear of failure, which I think propels me to work harder. It’s probably something you see in a lot of people who end up achieving what they want to do. I never rest on my laurels thinking that I’ve achieved success. I always think that no one is going to read my book, so I’m always quietly relieved when I meet someone who says they love reading my novels. This doesn't ever get easier. I always feel that I’m writing my last book.
KB: To me your stories read as though you write in layers almost as a painter paints. Do you power through your first draft and then go back and edit, or edit as you go?
|Photo by Deborah Downes|
KB: I don’t either.
AR: That’s interesting. I know we're one of the few who work this way and possibly because we both come from a background in the arts. For me, writing is very much an organic process of adding and subtracting. What happened in The Garden of Letters when the room full of letters is created – I didn’t plan that! I was writing it and I was like “what is she going to do with Angelo's letters?” and then something beautiful came to mind, something I hadn't expected. For me, that spontaneity is part of the magic of the process.
KB: How long does it generally take you to write a novel?
AR: Typically it took me three years. Now I’m under contract for two years, but my children are older and so I feel like I’m going to be able to do that. Ideally, it would still be three years.
KB: When you start a new novel, what is fleshed out first for you – the characters or the plot?
AR: The characters – 100%. To be quite honest, the plot isn't so interesting to me. It’s the development of the characters and what happens with them against the historic backdrop. I can see their faces. I can see where they live and imagine their childhoods. I can see those details quite vividly and when I start writing them it is almost like I’m giving them life. They become the seeds for the novel, and from them the story begins to grow.
In addition to The Garden of Letters, Alyson Richman is the author of The Mask Carver’s Son, The Rhythm of Memory, The Last Van Gogh and The Lost Wife.