Laura Kalpakian, Part II

laura-kToday, we’re continuing the interview with Laura Kalpakian, a multi-awarding-winning novelist from Northwest Washington.

Laura, You’ve used an interesting technique in interspersing a recipe and a “snapshot” vignette between each chapter. Can you explain why you used the snapshots? Is this a way of dealing with backstory?

This book was the most difficult novel I’ve ever written. I was frustrated beyond endurance with the magnitude of what I’d undertaken, what I wanted to achieve, and the sheer impossibility of bringing all these lives and stories under one canopy, the pages of one novel. The whole point was to tell a broad, wide-screen story with well-developed characters. A difficult task in any event, but the book kept getting too long. (As is, it’s 200 pages longer than the editor had hoped for, hence the small print.)

In the course of three years, I cut and re-arranged. Started in different places. Tried different narrative voices. Finally, quite late in the process, I stumbled on the notion of the “snapshot,” the vignette that would pull a character out of the larger story and illuminate him or her, with an accompanying recipe. Even though some of these characters didn’t show up throughout the novel, the “Snapshot” allowed the reader to know them better, and for their story to be plowed back into the whole of the reader’s understanding of the American experience in the West. (It is truly a novel of the West.) Of these, my favorite is Ginny Brothers, the cowgirl and stuntwoman. Researching Ginny was tons of fun.

Late in the book the function of these “snapshots” changes. They allow me to give the reader enough info that I could move the story forward swiftly, that I could develop characters and situations, but not linger. So, for instance, Liza’s “college essay,” that snapshot tells you more about Liza, yes, but it also gives you story, setting, and tension.

Toward the end of the book, when the March family is in Italy, with Liza’s “snapshots,” the narrative can american-cookery-cover1dwell on the important events, and not spend a lot of time saying how they got to Italy, or why. Too, these snapshots show Liza’s adoration of her father, and how that would cast sad, lifelong shadows over her relationship with Eden, her mother. I always intended to end each chapter with a recipe, but once I discovered the “snapshot,” the book came into focus for me. I still cut a lot of material.

What genre would you say your books fit into? Do you consider your writing character-driven or story-driven or a combination?

My books don’t fit into any genre. More’s the pity. I consider myself a character writer. For my work, character, landscape and language are the truly important elements. I like to think that if you put a handful of character into a potful of circumstance, story will assuredly be the result.

Do you have a schedule for your books, for example, months set aside for research, writing and promotion?

I usually do the research while I’m doing the writing. Since my practice is return and revise interminably, usually over the course of some years, this process works. The book grows and expands, and it also keeps the research (sort of ) focused, though I’ve been known to go off on tangents so compelling I sometimes have thought about dropping one book and writing another. I end up knowing a lot more than ever makes it into the book. But my research deepens the book and the characters. I write every day.

When did you start writing?

Seriously when I was in grad school. I’d always wanted to write fiction, but I used to laugh and tell my friends, Oh when I get an electric typewriter, I’ll write the Great American Novel. When I got one, I wrote lots of letters, and a friend wrote back and said: you’ve got the typewriter, now the novel! Too, I was of an age when it was clear to me that if I did not try to write—face the terror of the blank page—I’d never know if I was any good. So I picked up the pen, so to speak, but I wrote for years, testing, learning, expanding, discarding before I published anything. Grad school, needless to say came to take a back seat in my life. I published my first novel rather taking exams for the PhD. in literature.

Did you study writing formally?

In the sense that I read voraciously, wrote, revised, tore things up, sulked and fumed, laughed and wept at the typewriter, yes. That is to say, the way that all writers up until about 1970 when you find the early MFA programs, learned to write. My only formal writing class was high school journalism, and I thank that teacher immensely for giving me a tidy set of rules I still live by: stay away from the passive voice, always look for the active verb, never start a sentence with “It.” I break these rules on occasion, naturally, but they still serve as marks of good prose.

You now teach a memoir writing class through Western Washington University. Did that evolved from your novel, The Memoir Club?

The novel evolved from the class which I originally taught at University of Washington in 2001. They are all faux memoirs, the characters’ stories uniting as the book progresses.

You once said you were inspired by Dickens and how his early life experiences shaped his fiction. Can you elaborate a little on that?

I admire in Dickens the tremendous verve and unbridled energy in his prose, leavened always with an undercurrent of mortality, outrage at injustice, and a wicked sense of mockery. That many of his central figures (Little Nell, Oliver Twist) are not especially interesting goes without saying. They are lightening rods for a cast of lively, even immortal secondary characters. Nell, Oliver and the like stand for attributes of innocence which cannot be sullied, or it isn’t innocence anymore. (Hence Nell dies. Oliver Twist ends, leaving Oliver rewarded for his innocence, which remains unsullied.)

But as Dickens’ work matured his characters grew more interesting, layered, less innocent. (As with Great Expectations.) Still the vibrant cast of lesser characters never diminished. He drew extensively on his childhood and youth and created from them a huge swath of fiction. He never wrote a memoir. As a novelist, he could re-visit his past from many different perspectives as he grew older. To me, that is one of the charms of writing fiction.

Published in: on January 30, 2009 at 7:50 am  Comments (5)  
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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great review. It’s always wonderful to learn about another writer, especially when their work is in a genre outside of your usual experience.

  2. Enjoyed the interview, you two. What an interesting concept!

  3. Great interview. Sounds like an interesting book. I’ll add it to my ‘to read’ list/

    Jane Kennedy Sutton

  4. Food as family history! What a good idea. You’ve given me a new way to look at my own past. This also helps me cope with never knowing what will confront me at a family meal offered by my far flung family.

  5. I read this novel as I prepared to return to California, the land of my childhood. I loved its recreation of California, the novel’s complexity, and it’s use of food as a metaphor for the intertwining of many cultural strands in a family’s history. On a personal note, I’ve tried several of the recipes–they’re great.

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