Wednesday, June 16, 2010

At Home in Story World

I've been on an Elizabeth Berg binge of late, reading one Berg novel after the other, right down the line, according to year of publication. Almost every time I check one out at the library, no matter which library I use, the clerk helping me makes a comment about Elizabeth's books, how much they enjoy her writing, how popular she is, etc. And I always agree. I love her writing. I can step into most any of her story worlds and feel right at home. Is this a result of Elizabeth "writing what she knows," as Marybeth discussed on Monday? For example, does Ms. Berg know what it's like to have a mother walk out on her (What We Keep)? ... have a husband who dies after depleting their life savings (Home Safe)? ... run a boarding house after a costly divorce (Open House)?
If we had an opportunity to sit down for a cup of tea with Elizabeth -- isn't she lovely? and wouldn't it be nice to be so familiar with her? -- and ask her about the stories she's written, she probably would say she doesn't know the specifics of each scenario, but what she does know is the relationships contained within the stories she writes. She knows what it is to be a wife, a mother, a friend. And after all, it's the relationships that I love about her writing. And it's relationships I love to write about. Like mothers and daughters, and daughters and mothers. There's no end to the story possibilities there!
How much, exactly, do you have to know about a topic to create a story world your readers would want to inhabit all the way to the last page? Is it enough, as in Marybeth's case, to just know about the mailbox, and use it as the central "What if ..." of a story? I say, "Absolutely!" That's where all my stories (published and unpublished) begin. "What if ..."
... a young boy makes a decision that leads to his sister's death, then struggles to deal with his guilt (Hub of a Daisy)?
... a woman's world is forever altered when she loses a lifelong friend to catastrophic illness (Every Good & Perfect Gift)?
... a woman's world is rocked and rocked again with news of her husband's death, then of his infidelity (Lying on Sunday)?
... a woman experiences a crisis of faith when the unthinkable happens (Unraveled)?
I don't know what it is to cause someone's death, but I do know how it feels to lose a sibling. And I do know how it feels to carry guilt for decisions I've made.
I don't know what it is to experience infertility, but I do know what it is to lose a close friend to Early Onset Alzheimer's. I've lost two in fact to EOA.
I don't know what it's like to be a widow, but I do know what it is to have a comfortable life interrupted by devastating news.
I've never had a crisis of faith, but I've experienced things that have made me ask the hard questions of God.
So maybe it's a blend of what we know, taking us into what we don't know, because of who we know. Convoluted? Perhaps. But a lot goes into the writing of a novel. We can't know everything about everything. That's where research comes in (and the Internet has put a world of facts at our fingertips -- so much easier than in the old days), but we're not writing term papers, so we have to be expert weavers, seamlessly inserting our research as threads that blend with the whole. And beyond that, we have to give our imagination permission to run free.
When you open a novel, what are your expectations when you read the first page? Do you read as an interested observer, or as a participant in the story? Whose voice do you hear word by word? Do you read a novel to learn something, or to experience something? Or both? What are some story worlds you've found easy to inhabit, and why?


Wendy Paine Miller said...

How do I limit all I want to comment on? First, all of your books sound intriguing. My type.

Second, love Berg. Escaping into the Open is a wonderful writing guide. She nails women's fiction and I like how I identify with her every time I read an interview with her.

Third, your questions are thought-provoking--whether I read as a participant or an observer. Whether I want to learn or experience. Probably would have to say on both counts...both.

The Book Thief, b/c of the beautiful descriptions and gripping characters, had me on the first page. Peace Like a River the same. Almost every book Berg has written.

My imagination thanks me that I let it off the leash.

Clearly...this was another post I loved.
~ Wendy

Terri Tiffany said...

I really love your examples of how we can take our life experiences and use them in our writing.
I also used the "What if" when writing my recent book.
As to reading, I want to be drawn into an emotional experience and take the journey with the character as though it is mine.

Jan Cline said...

That is such an encouragement to know we don't' have to be experts to write the story. I pick up a book to see or read something that catches my imagination, then I love when writers carry me away - involving me in the lives of the characters. It's like taking a trip without ever leaving your home.

B.K. Jackson said...

I open a book intending to be a participant. I'm looking for stories that not only entertain but set the tone so that I know I can expect to learn something about myself or be given cause to examine myself or a life issue in some way. Time is precious, including reading time, so I want my books to do double duty. 8-)

Bonnie Grove said...

I've never read Berg, but, because my dear friends on this blog have been raving about her, I figured it was time for me to catch up with the cool crowd. I recently picked up three of her titles and I'm looking forward to starting one this week (after I finished the stunning, difficult, brilliant, edgy, BRILLIANT novel LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN - watch for a post from me on Friday inspired by this novel).

At the bookstore, I picked up one of Berg's books and read the first line. I had an "Oh yeah" moment, that feeling that while I don't know this writer, I know this writer. I haven't read this book, but I'm familiar with this book. It's her voice, her way of plopping the reader into the moment right away. As if you had been in interrupted conversation and you open the book and Berg is saying, "So, anyway, like I was saying. . . "

At home. Lovely. Susan Isaacs does that for me, too.

Michael Ondaatje's books always begin, for me, with a soft blowing, a gentle breeze that blows the cobwebs away. He always says, "Look here. Closer, look - something will change."

I'm more convinced than ever that finding that special book that draws a reader in is part writing skill/voice, and part spiritual attraction. Something larger than the author and writer, something larger than the story pulls us together.

Nikole Hahn said...

Emotion, too, is key. I had to rewrite the first portion of my novel because I realized I was not inserting emotion. While I knew what it was like in the situations I was creating, the emotions had to be put in to make a more cohesive bond between reader and my character, Rose.

Kathleen Popa said...

Wendy, yes, all of Sharon's books are beautiful. I wish you could read them all, but you can read Lying on Sunday and Every Good and Perfect Gift. You will love them.

Bonnie, I too loved Let the Great World Spin. Can't wait to read what you have to say about it. Corrigan is one of the best character's ever. He takes my breath away.

When I open a book, I love to fall in love with a character - sooner rather than later. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss is like that. I doubt anyone could stop reading once they'd met Leo Gursky on the first page.

Anonymous said...

Wendy, I'll have to get Escaping into the Open. The Book Thief is an amazing story.

Terri & Jan, that's exactly what I want in a novel, too. To be drawn into an emotional experience.

BK, I love your observation, that you want to learn something about yourself when you read a novel. I feel that way too, and also when I write one. I put myself in a position where I have to follow an issue all the way through to the end. In the process I discover a lot of things about myself.

Bonnie, you've given me more titles and authors for my tbr pile. And I really think you'll like Berg. What We Keep is my favorite so far.

Nikole, I love that you realized what was missing, and that you're able to insert that all important element that draws the reader deep into the story world.

Katy, MWAH! As you know, I'm reading To Dance in the Desert (for the 3rd time) for our book club this month. I get something new out of it every time. It's a fabulous story. For those who haven't read it, I suggest you do.

As always, I appreciate all your comments. Appreciate you spending time with us. We're growing quite a community.

Latayne C Scott said...

Actually, the whole point of the accounts of the people in the Bible is to see authentic (and often unspeakably painful) situations played out, with consequences. God asks us to look at what happens when sin reigns or when obedience does --- so that we ourselves don't have to directly experience something to "learn" from it.

Sharon, I loved how you did that in Lying on Sunday. A woman has to make hard decisions about whether to satisfy her own desires to justify herself in the eyes of people she loves, or just let God heal wounds. You did a superb job (even though I was wanting Abby to get immediate satisfaction, her difficult choices were godly ones that paid off in the end -- as all godly choices eventually do.)

Great post.

Laura S. said...

Writer's Digest Magazine had Elizabeth Berg on the cover a couple months ago. The interview was so delightful and interesting! I've added her novels to my library list, and now you're making me think I ought to bump them higher on the list. :)

Anonymous said...

Latayne, You're absolutely right about the Bible being there to teach us from the difficult experience of others. Thank you for the comments about Lying on Sunday.

Laura, thanks for the information about Elizabeth Berg's interview. I'll try to locate that magazine. By all means, read her. Thank you for commenting!

Anonymous said...

Here's the link to the interview with Elizabeth Berg that Laura told us about. Thank you, Laura.