An Evening with Novelists
Barbara DeMarco-Barrett invited novelists Bret Anthony Johnston, Lisa Glatt, and Aline Ohanesian to her Pen on Fire Speaker Series at the SCAPE gallery in Corona Del Mar on September 9th, where they had an intriguing conversation about the process of writing fiction.
Johnston is the author of the novel Remember Me Like This, soon to be made into a feature film. He has also written Corpus Christi: Stories and teaches at Harvard, where he is the director of creative writing. Glatt is the author of A Girl Becomes A Comma Like That and The Nakeds, and she teaches at the California State University, Long Beach. Ohanesian is the author of Orhan’s Inheritance.
DeMarco-Barrett asked the panelists to share their novels’ premises. Glatt’s The Nakeds stems from unique aspects of her childhood, specifically that she was hit by a car, and her mother had an unorthodox lifestyle.
“From six to 14, I was in a cast with crutches,” and, “my mother was a nudist.”
She writes fiction, however, because “when I sit down to write, I’m lying.”
Johnston called the premise for Remember Me Like This “long-winded” and joked he’d only have time to read “half a sentence” after he explained how he came to write the book.
His novel is about a missing boy being found after four years.
“The book is about the summer he returns to his family,” Johnston said. “I had no inclination to write about a kidnapping. It wasn’t on my radar.”
Johnston grew up in south Texas, where in high school he volunteered for an unusual job. Dolphins were washing up onshore, so they moved them to an above-ground pool. There, volunteers would sit for three-hour shifts and write down every move the dolphins made. He was interested in the overnight shifts no one wanted because the afternoons were hot and humid, and he said, “I was a skate punk high school student. I didn’t have a girlfriend. I didn’t have a job. I thought the overnight shifts were a great way to spend a night.”
One other volunteer apparently had the same idea.
“I was obsessed with the person who took all the shifts I wanted.”
He was so obsessed, in fact, that he began developing a character based on this person about whom he knew nothing.
“The character of this person crystallized over 20 years.”
He decided, “She has insomnia and wants privacy. She’s married. She’s signing up for shifts under her maiden name.” The question was, “Why couldn’t she sleep?”
He never thought of her as having a child, so he surmised, “Maybe her kid is missing. That’s what’s keeping her up.”
During his time spent detailing the moves of a dolphin, he noticed someone had brought the dolphin a beach ball, and people without kids don’t have beach balls, he thought. He decided “her son’s breath is inside the beach ball. Her son’s last breath.”
As she sat with the dolphin, she’d think, “I failed to save my son, but I won’t fail to save you,” he thought.
“I wrote the book to figure out what would happen next,” Johnston said. “I will read from the end because you know the whole thing. Is that career suicide?”
“I was working on a PhD in history. I dropped out,” Ohanesian said about her background.
Like Glatt, she “had the compulsion to lie.” But she did “a ton of research” for her novel.
“The book tries to answer the question, ‘Why does what happened to my great-grandparents 100 years ago matter today?’”
“How do you decide what to keep and what to leave out?” in autobiographical fiction, DeMarco-Barrett asked her.
“It’s like weaving smoke,” Ohanesian said. She likened incorporating research into fiction as “taking what you have and weaving it.”
DeMarco-Barrett then asked Johnston about his prologue. “Prologues are controversial,” she said. “At what point did the prologue come?”
“I was so happy we didn’t talk before I wrote the book,” Johnston teased. “I always knew the book would have a prologue because I didn’t know they were bad.”
Johnston’s original prologue, which he pulled, was the scene with the boy being found. He decided the reader shouldn’t know that information up front. The reader should be with the family.
“Spoiler alert: Around page 70, they find the kid. Random House put it right on the cover: ‘missing boy found.’ Turns out we weren’t on the same page after all.”
The book no longer includes a rescue scene.
“We should make a pact,” Johnston said to the audience. “’We’re for prologues.’”
Glatt shared how her accident influenced her love of fiction.
“The accident challenged my mobility so much I was reading big novels as a little, tiny person.”
She tells her students, “Find the material,” and added, “I call it lying, but it’s something else: telling something that’s not factually true.”
DeMarco-Barrett asked the panelists about developing patience as a writer and how they work through self-doubt. “How do you deal with time?” she also inquired.
Glatt explained, “I deal with students who immediately want to see their name in print.”
It doesn’t work that way.
“This [novel] took four years. The first one took about seven. I won’t be someone you hear from a lot.”
When she wrote her first novel back when fax machines were the primary mode of communication, she received “a year of faxes from [her] agent with rejections.”
Although the self-doubt is “always there, write through the hate,” she advised, despite being “100 pages in” and thinking, “I hate myself.”
“I don’t understand quitting,” Johnston said. “It doesn’t compute for me. I’m not saying that with bravado. It doesn’t mean everything I publish is good”—or that he’ll publish everything he writes.
“But once I sign on, I will finish.”
He explained, “I can teach everything technical about writing in about 12 hours.” The rest of the time, he said, “I’m teaching patience, stubbornness, and faith. I’m teaching to outlast everybody.”
“I didn’t have an agent or an MFA. I didn’t know it was a novel,” said Ohanesian. “I didn’t have lofty goals. I just wanted to tell the story. I Googled ‘how to get an agent’ and learned the word ‘query.’”
She followed agents for months and picked the ones who represented the books she loved.
Then, “I wrote agents love letters,” she said.
It paid off. She wrote 10 query letters and received four offers.
“I was too stupid to know [writing a novel] would be hard until I was four or five years into [writing it]. I became a master historian before I started lying. I love the process. I love being lost in the research.”
“How did you choose your characters?” DeMarco-Barrett asked.
Glatt “knew the child who was hit by a car had to be a point-of-view character.” One of the other points of view is from the perspective of the person who hit her, but “it’s mostly Hannah’s story.”
With this novel, she “reined in” the points of view because her first novel “kept getting away from [her].”
“I knew there’d be a number of points of view,” Johnston said. “I’m fascinated by two people looking
at the same thing and seeing something different.”
Everyone in the kidnapped boy’s family looks at the boy coming home and sees it “four different ways,” he said.
“The boy,” however, “doesn’t get a point of view,” and the reviewers have speculated why that is with incorrect results, he said.
“The reviews say, ‘He’s doing the Jaws thing.’”
It makes it scarier if you don’t see the shark.
“That is patently wrong,” Johnston said. The boy “is not ready to talk. We can’t imagine anything worse than what these [kidnapped] kids went through.”
In Ohanesian’s book, it was “necessary” for there to be a character who “wants to know the story.”
This character is based on her brother, whom she says is “politically apathetic.” She added, “My brother hates when I say that.”
She also “loves old people who surprise you,” and her favorite character provides comedic relief because the book is “so dark.”
At the beginning, her book had “six characters. The editor only cut one: a nine-year-old boy.”
Having five perspectives in a novel is “ambitious for someone who doesn’t have an MFA,” she said.
DeMarco Barrett then asked about logistics of the novelists’ material: “How do you keep track?” She asked if they use Excel and other programs for organizational purposes during the writing process.
“It’s sheer chaos,” Ohanesian said. “I have piles on the floor. It’s a hot mess.”
But, she said, “I do outline a bit.”
She has a timeline in Excel, uses Word, and even fills out 3 x 5 cards.
“My husband says, ‘What’s next? Stone tablets?’
“Chaos works for me. If I was organized, I’d feel restrained,” she said.
“I work on a sweet Commodore 64,” Johnston joked, adding, “It’s all Word all the time.”
He said he wrote the whole book without rereading any of it until he’d finished a draft. As he reread it afterward, he created a bullet point list of events in each chapter, as if reading the story for the first time.
“I bought the biggest bulletin board you have ever seen in your life.”
On that bulletin board he pinned four colors of Post-It notes, one color for each point of view in the novel.
“I looked at it holistically,” he said. He was then able to realize, “We need more blue over here.”
“How do you create suspense in literary fiction?” DeMarco-Barrett asked.
Ohanesian said she was conscious of making sure the reader would ask, “What happens next?” at the end of every chapter. One way she did this was by changing the viewpoints to “tease” the reader.
“We have so many things vying for our attention,” Johnston explained. “It’s harder to return to a book than to keep reading a book. I feel vulnerable to that. There are so many things that are more instantly gratifying than a 400-page novel. I value suspense. I value plot. It’s a tool. It’s not just for airport mystery novels.”
He said sometimes writers “confuse shock with suspense. Shock stops you. Suspense pulls you forward.”
Glatt tells her students, “Write a good sentence. Then you’ll have a certain amount of mystery and suspense.
“No more dragons!” she joked.
“It’s about world creation,” Ohanesian said. “I’m immersed in the world [of the novel]. I read dry
stuff. I know how many goats died at the Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1776 if anyone wants to know.”
Her research informs every sentence of her work.
An audience member asked, “Why isn’t the prologue chapter one?”
“It doesn’t feel like a tease to me,” Johnston said. “It feels like an invitation. There’s going to be a party next week, and I want you to be there. Chapter one already feels like you’ve accepted the invitation.”
He continued, “The cover of the book is the sole jurisdiction of the marketing department. The prologue is art.”
He said the biggest argument he had with Random House revolved around his cover. They sent him options. He apparently picked the wrong ones.
“It was like they were testing me.”
After a few choices on which they didn’t agree, Johnston told them, “I don’t think I know what a cover is supposed to do.”
He said, “I never look at a cover. If Lisa Glatt has a new book, I go to the Gs. I read the book. I fall in love with the book, and then I think it’s the perfect cover.”
The authors then discussed the importance, or lack of importance, of rules.
“You need a good verb,” said Glatt. “You don’t need an adverb. I don’t think about rules. It’s all in the execution.”
“I didn’t know the rules,” shared Ohanesian. “Now I’m a craft book junkie. I learned the rules through osmosis by reading good fiction. I learned the rules organically. I can smell it when it’s bad.”
“On the first day of class,” Johnston said, “I pass out ‘things you should try to avoid.’ I have this whole list.”
As an example, he said, “If you need an adverb, you have the wrong verb.”
There is a caveat, however. “I trust the rules usually, but not always. No one is a bigger fan of subversion” if it works.
But, “plot comes from Aristotle,” who observed plays and determined what does work. “He didn’t sit at home and think, ‘I need to come up with rules.’”
Instead, he “mapped the journey” after careful observation.
When Johnston first began his writing career, he thought “writers’ workshop” was like his dad’s garage.
“What are we building?” he asked.
“Writing is building word by word, brick by brick,” said Ohanesian. “I don’t call myself an artist. I toil. I continue to toil.”
With that comes “a lot of self-loathing,” but “you get up and do it again,” she said.
Johnston doesn’t attach romantic ideals to writers. “All it is is logging an inordinate amount of time to create something that didn’t exist before.”
If it doesn’t go well, “I still show up the next day. I go to work. There are so few people in the world who will commit to this. It’s so daunting,” he said. “But some can’t find a way to not do it. You don’t have to be fast; you just have to be willing.”
On good days, Glatt said, “I feel like a woman who has worked.”