It probably won't be frequent around here that I'll post up things entirely done by guests, but I'm a big Lori Ostlund fan, a fan of Black Lawrence Press, and when Caitlin Hamilton, my absolute favorite publicist of all-time (there are many others I love but she was the FIRST to believe the EWN was worthy of galleys and introductions to her authors), asks me if I'd be interested in an interview---and I enjoy it as much as I did this one---they just might pop up here:
Genanne Walsh is the author of the debut novel Twister (December 2015), which won the Big Moose Prize for the Novel, awarded by Black Lawrence Press. Twister is set in a small Midwestern town during the height of the Iraq war, and at its core is the grief being experienced by Rose, who is figuring out how to hold onto her farm in the wake of her son’s death in the war. However, in the way of most small towns, no event, certainly not grief, happens in a vacuum, and as the novel unfolds, we are introduced to other members of the community who, in some way, have their own stake in this loss.
Particularly impressive is Genanne’s structure. The novel is divided into three parts: the pre-twister hours, in which we are introduced to the perspective of each character in this small town during the lead up to the twister; the past, in which we learn the back stories about the tensions among them; and the post-twister ending, in which we see both the devastation of the twister and the potential for reconnection.
I met Genanne in 2008 through a mutual friend. Over the course of seven years, I have learned a great deal about how she views the world, about her sense of humor, her intelligence and compassion. While we are both writers, we don’t discuss writing much, so it was a pleasure for me to sit down with Twister and learn about Genanne as a writer, and an even greater pleasure to have the opportunity to ask her questions about Twister and how it came to be.
LO: We’ve known each other for several years, and though we talk about writing on occasion, we don’t talk much about process, so I recall being both surprised and intrigued not long ago when you told me that you never draw upon your own life in writing fiction. As someone who draws heavily on my past and present, I would like to begin at the beginning: how did Twister come about?
GW: Well, perhaps I should backpedal that declarative. I don’t tend to write autobiographical fiction that draws a lot of facts from my life. Though I do think fiction comes from a personal place and worries over personal obsessions—so in that respect it’s from my life. Twister started with an image: a woman haphazardly pruning roses in her yard. The voice that came through her head felt very alive to me, very compelling, but also chaotic and troubled. Rose, the central character, was in distress; there was something elemental that she couldn't face.
Rose first appeared on the page in 2002, during the excruciating build up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Looking back, it was a way to grapple with what was happening, and with what was to come. I knew very early in drafting those first pages that her son, Lance, had died in the war. And I think there was something important about her being at the midpoint, the heart of the continent.
People who prefer fact-based fiction might find this suspicious, but Rose just appeared in her yard, in twister country—my mythic version of twister country. Though the book’s setting isn’t “real,” and I’ve never lived in the Midwest myself, I lived there in a sense while I was writing it.
LO: Let’s talk a bit more about setting. As a Midwesterner, I know a good bit about the way that Midwesterners talk and think, and I was struck repeatedly by the way that you captured emotional restraint in your dialogue. For me, much of the tension in the book came from knowing a character’s story or feelings, and then watching the careful restraint with which the character spoke to others, how much got left out. It felt incredibly accurate to me. Can you talk about how you developed such a feel for Midwestern communication? Are there books or films that influenced you?
GW: I’m happy to hear that you think that! I didn’t study how Midwesterners talk and think, though I love the idea of going at it almost anthropologically. For me, that restraint—communication and its misfires and limitations and repressions—came out of the characters and their situation. As I wrote Twister, it became in some ways an exploration of how big events can be both galvanizing to a community, bringing people together, and also extremely isolating.
It comes out of point of view, really. Subjectivity—which I find so mystifying and maddening. The fact that two people can experience the same event and have vastly different interpretations; or know the same person and have wildly dissimilar impressions and feelings about that person. We are stuck in our own singular heads, like it or lump it—the fact that we can live together and build community at all sometimes feels miraculous to me. And needless to say, I don’t think this condition is just a Midwestern thing.
I’m not sure if I have Midwest influences per se, but I think everyone should read William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow (a perfect novel, to my mind) and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Willa Cather, Toni Morrison, and Marilynne Robinson are writers who will, I hope, be studied and read forever.
LO: Given what you say above, about the way that big events both galvanize a community and isolate the members of it, I understand even better your three-part structure: the before and after of the twister, with the backstory of these characters and their community sandwiched in the middle. Can you talk a little more about the structure: did you know all along that you wanted to structure it in three parts, or did the structure reveal itself later?
GW: That structure was thrilling to me, when I found it. Because it gave the baggy thing I had constructed a shape, even a purpose. It definitely didn’t arrive at the outset. The opening Rose chapter was a stand-alone story for a long time. I just loved her voice and wasn’t ready to let her go, so I kept turning back to her world and the people around her. I wanted to understand more about Rose and the nature of her loss—was this elemental crisis she was facing her own doing, or was she a helpless cog in the machine? Would she come through it? What could other people reveal about the things she couldn’t face or didn’t see?
When I started to write sections from other points of view, they roamed all over the map in terms of time and space. I had the Sylvie chapter (Lance’s high school sweetheart) in first person; and where and when the characters were in relation to the storm and to Rose varied widely from one voice to another. All very engaging to me personally, but also a complete mess.
I was in a writing group at the time and in that group was a man who didn’t like my work very much. As writers, I think it’s important to seek out readers who get us—who have simpatico styles and sensibilities, or who understand what we are trying to do on a gut level. But it’s also not a bad idea to find a few people who may not be swept away by your prose stylings or your take on the world. There is a real limit to how much they’ll be able to help you. I mean, seek out critics in moderation, protect your creative spirit and don’t be a masochist—but don’t entirely shy away from contrarians. This fellow leaned over one night after we’d discussed my pages and said, “What’s the point here, other than pretty sentences?”
That stung, of course. You can unpack plenty of sexist condescension in the “pretty” adjective alone—and believe me, I did. But at times this sort of jab can be creatively useful. After running through a color wheel of emotions, I decided I could use his question, at least part of it; it was a question that needed posing. A question that maybe even the work itself was posing: what was the point? What was the story trying to be?
Not long after that I was sitting at my desk one morning and the three-part structure came to me. The gathering and build-up; the storm’s eye that can see things beyond the limits of each individual character and move back and forth in time; and the aftermath, when they pick up whatever pieces are left and move on. A structure that was shaped like a storm, in a sense. A storm that came out of Rose’s perspective but could hold the other perspectives as well.
Though the book did not come quickly or easily after that by any means, the structure gave me a way to work into the action and questions. I don’t think the contrarian’s question to me was the catalyst for finding the structure, exactly, but it galvanized the process. It moved me further down the road. To be clear, it moved me toward what I knew the work was trying to be—it didn’t change the way I write sentences.
LO: I’d like to go back to what you said about seeking out critics. I know that you did an MFA at Warren Wilson. Can you talk about this experience a little bit, maybe starting with your main reasons for wanting to do an MFA and whether you came away from the experience with different ideas about the value of doing an MFA.
GW: I’ve read a little bit about the debates, to MFA or not. I think good writers can learn anywhere, mostly from reading, and a writing program definitely isn’t a guarantee of anything. It’s a problem of access for some people, too. Even with fellowships and scholarships, it’s an investment. Not everyone feels comfortable in school. But for me, I wanted to start to take myself seriously as a writer, and that was the way I chose to do it. I'd wanted to write for more years than I’d actually written—and getting an MFA was a way to make it real to myself, to commit to myself as an artist.
Some of my most necessary readers—people I trust to understand what I’m trying to do and tell me constructively what they think is and isn’t working in a draft—are people I know because of Warren Wilson. You can meet great readers and comrades outside of academia—absolutely!—but you really need to expose yourself to communities of writers so you can find them. And then never let them go.
LO: So where do you go from here? Are you already working on the next project? Can you also discuss the biggest lesson that you (writer Genanne or human being Genanne) learned from Twister that you will take with you into the next project.
GW: I’m working on a project that I think will probably be a novel. I am a superstitious person and believe you can talk the mystery away, so I generally don’t chat about what I’m working on. Have you noticed that writers fall into two distinct camps? Tight-lipped people like me, and the people who are happy to share lots of details about a work-in-progress. There’s no correct approach. I think it’s like being right- or left-handed.
That said, I’ll say that it’s set in San Francisco. I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere, more than half of my life. But this is a first. Writing about the city in depth has always felt sort of like writing about a lover; I experience it too intimately to see it quite clearly. But there are issues in San Francisco now that I find fascinating and worrisome and they’ve worked their way in. Boom and bust cycles, issues of transience, income stratification, and the ways city dwellers coexist—with each other and with the natural world—in evolving and sometimes fractious ways.
What lesson have I learned? Some days I have no idea. Other days, I think it must be related to my process. That I really have to write toward understanding who a character is or what a story wants to be. I am never going to be one of those people who outlines or works it all out in my head in advance. Lots of smart people have said that you must learn how to write the next book as you write it—the last one won’t help you. Gnashing my teeth, I concur.
LO: You have the best dogs. How did this come about? Are they aware that you are a writer?
GW: They ARE the best! I have no sense of moderation when it comes to dogs. I just love them. Walking with them is my favorite part of the day. [My wife] Lauren and I have a theory that if you live your life to make your dog happy, you will have a really good life—lots of nature walks and trips to the beach, you get to know your neighbors at the dog park, and many lessons in living in the moment.
Bugsy, our 12-year-old charmer, was at my side for 99.9% of the writing of Twister. So he doesn’t merely know I’m a writer, he is my Muse. A few friends joked (or maybe they were serious?) that they were surprised the book isn’t dedicated to him.
As you know, we’ve recently adopted a new dog named Maggie. She has a traumatic history and some quirky phobias, but she’s coming along really well and is so clearly trying to live in harmony with us, her new pack. We’re taking Maggie to a basic training class at the SPCA. It had been years since we had a new pup and we wanted to brush up on communication techniques. The teacher has a great attitude about progress. Think about it: you’re trying to convey what you want to another species. Dogs study us so closely, but we are still alien brains making weird, confounding demands like “stay” and “leave it.” Why in the world would they want to do that?
So the SPCA approach is: patience. If you are working on “down,” for example, and she just isn’t getting it, don’t say “No!” or even “unh-unh.” Keep your voice and physical cues very relaxed and say, “Try again.” Then you try again. And maybe you need to take a break and go back tomorrow because today just isn’t the day she’ll get it. Frustration and impatience will never bring you closer to your goal. Even when she gets it, it’s never a given or a static thing. You’re never done—you have to keep trying, keep practicing. That’s what I want to keep in mind, in living with dogs and in writing.