This year Novel Matters is seeking answers to the question Why does the novel matter?
We have hand picked ten novelists who will help us answer than question this year. Once a month from now until November, we will introduce you to a writer we love and hope you love, or will come to love too.
Our first feature author is Joy Jordan-Lake. Joy is the author of five books, including Blue Hole Back Home, winner of the Christy Award for Best First Novel and chosen as Baylor University’s Common Book for 2009.
Joy’s other works include a collection of short stories and reflections, Grit and Grace: Portraits of a Woman’s Life; an academic text, Whitewashing Uncle Tom’s Cabin; and two other nonfiction works, Working Families and Why Jesus Makes Me Nervous: Ten Alarming Words of Faith. Her current project is a novel, Tangled Mercy, set in Charleston, South Carolina.
Joy holds a Ph.D. and masters in English and American Literature, as well as a masters from a theological seminary. She has served as the associate pastor of a multi-ethnic church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was a Baptist chaplain at Harvard.
With her husband and their three children, she lives just south of Nashville, where she continues writing fiction and nonfiction, as well as the blog “Writing in the Midst of Real Life.” In addition to leading seminars and workshops, Joy teaches as an adjunct professor at Belmont University. For more information, please see www.joyjordanlake.com.
You’ve heard us talk about Joy’s novel so many times in our blog, and now we’re so happy to offer you the chance to get to know the author behind the great work. She is as engaging in person as she is on the page. Grab a cuppa, and relax as Bonnie chats with Joy about writing, teaching, being iconoclastic, patience, and Hobbits.
Novel Matters: Joy, as an adjunct professor of creative writing and literature, you see students who are taking a real stab at writing a novel. Give us a peek inside your class.
Joy Jordan-Lake: I see students of all ages, and some of the most dedicated ones seem to be the older students who are returning to education after a time away. I think it’s a combination of determination and life experience, but it is often these students, in their late 20’s, 30’s and even into their 50’s who seem to be able to bring a greater depth to their writing.
Very often, these older students are making their first attempt to write a novel length story. At Belmont I developed a class that we ended up calling Beginning the Novel You Always Wanted to Write. It isn’t realistic to think students will be able to complete a novel within the three months the class runs, so the focus of that class is to write the first three chapters—good chapters, strong, well developed—and then to create the outline for the rest of the novel so when the course ends, they are able to go on with their story and complete it.
NM: Tell us about some of the strong positive trends you have seen with beginner writers you have taught.
JJL: One thing I’ve seen my students bring to writing is the opposite of what I struggle with. When I was very young, I fell in love with 19th-century novels, Austen, the Brontë sisters, all those lush books with lots of description and ambience. That’s not what modern readers seem to be looking for today. Many of my students understand this well and are able to approach their story with a sort of cut-to-the-chase approach that I have trouble producing in my own work. They totally get that part. Today’s novels are so much about movement and action. They are easily able to embrace brevity and the 21st-century pace. Another thing I’ve seen (and I wonder if it’s the influence of TV and film) is that many of my students have a natural affinity for writing good dialogue. I love dialogue, and when it is done well, it can accomplish so much.
NM: Tell us about some of the trends you’ve seen in new writers that may not be the best of habits to fall into.
JJL: I think what I see as the biggest barrier for new writers is impatience. This manifests in a few ways, for example thinking that you should be able to write something compelling, absorbing, and good without the self-discipline of writing every day. Writers who want to continue to write must be consistent with their writing time. It’s a big part of the craft. Also, many new writers fall in love with their first draft. Again, this is impatience at work. Students will think they can quickly write a first draft, tweak it a bit, and believe it should be done. Writing well takes patience and it takes time. There are no short cuts. As much as I, when I’m sitting at my desk late at night or early in the morning before my family awakes, would love there to be one, there isn’t.
NM: You said you fell in love with 19th century novels. Have they informed you as a writer over the years? Are there other novels that have influenced your writing?
JJL: Remember Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses,” the wonderful line “I am a part of all that I have met”? I think every novel I’ve ever finished (emphasis on finished, since I’ve put plenty down on the first page) has informed how I write. Sometimes it’s my thinking, “What an original voice” or “THAT character will be with me all of my days.” Sometimes it’s just “Well, there wasn’t much attention to craftsmanship here, but, geez, how—structurally, specifically how— did this writer’s skill keep me spellbound to the point that I ignored email, phone calls, need for sleep, everything in my life that wasn’t currently bleeding on the carpet or physically, forcefully, yanking my sleeve?” If I’m drawn into a book, then there’s something—or lots of somethings— I want to learn from its author.
That was the early fear, you know—when the novel form was just being born in Western literature—that good, dutiful citizens, especially women, would neglect their children and household duties and just sit reading all day. There are some priceless late 18th-century cartoons warning against the evils of novel-reading by showing a woman engrossed in a novel while naked children wail at her feet and the roof caves in around her. She’s oblivious to it all. Which is, of course, what every novelist wants to achieve.
The 19th-century British novelists were my first love: Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Dickens…. That’s where I fell in love with the novel: how it can make us laugh or muse at ourselves and our culture, how it can move us to want to change the way things are in an unfair world. Perhaps the first character I remember jumping off the page and walking around in m head was Anne (with an “e”!) from L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. And not insignificantly, Anne wanted to be a writer (who later struggled in her adult life, if you read the last of the sequels, with how to keep writing when faced with the demands of motherhood—but that’s another conversation.)
The Great Gatsby and Peace Like a River are two of many novels I go back to frequently just to admire the originality of the language and images. Ken Follett’s The Man from St. Petersburg is one I examine for multiple points of view beautifully woven into a page-turning plot that integrates intricate historical detail without feeling bogged down or pedantic. There’s so much to learn from other writers every, single day. I’m feeling exhausted right now just thinking about it.
NM: I can see people’s to-be-read list of books growing by the second, Joy. I know I’ll be looking up Follett’s work. With such a rich reading history, if you could sit down with any writer alive or dead, who would it be and why?
JJL: Could I pick a small group? I’d love to sit down with Harriet Beecher Stowe, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Flannery O’Connor and talk about the novel, faith and social reform. If you’re forcing me to choose only one, then I’d have to pick O’Connor, since she’s so utterly unapologetic about her vision as a novelist, but always stops short of preachiness. I’d be intimidated by her extraordinary confidence in her calling as a writer. (One of my favorite writer stories is her “Why, because I’m good at it!” answer to being asked why she writes). But I’d soak up her sense of humor and feistiness. And maybe some of the confidence would be contagious, you think…?
NM: O’Connor always sounded like she knew exactly what she was doing every second of the day. But we know it’s not always so easy to be sure of where a story is going. Do you outline your novels before you write, or are you a feel your way through writer?
JJL: I’ve done it both ways. And if you’ll allow me to generalize, literary writers tend to feel compelled by a scene or a character and then just launch in, following that character through his or her journey. J.R.R. Tolkien spoke of this when he first envisioned a hobbit—and had no clue what a hobbit was.
By contrast, writers of suspense novels, thrillers, mysteries, etc. rely on outlines early on, since the plot must be carefully constructed in order for the suspense to work.
My first novel, Blue Hole Back Home, grew out of personal experience, so it wasn’t difficult to begin fictionalizing from there. The plot grew organically and gradually, with little outlining. (Although my beloved editor would likely tell you I might have avoided the early plot sags—hammocks, I call them—that slowed down the plot in early drafts.)
In the novel I’m currently completing, (working title, A Tangled Mercy), there’s a who-done-it murder mystery element, a love story, and the intertwining of an historical story involving slave revolt, escapes, a hanging, a curse…. So outlining in lots of detail, and being willing to move things around many times, has been essential. At the same time, I’ve often had to go ahead and write scenes even when I didn’t know just where they’d end up in the chronology, but just needed to get more of the story down.
I admire novelists who have one set way of, say, outlining meticulously and then writing, but my experience to this point is that every book, like every child in my own family (I have three kids), will demand different things from you, will have different needs, different ways you need to shape and guide and bop into line, and areas you need to let go some control and step back.
NM: I like the analogy of different books being like different children. They’re similar, but not the same. You need to stay limber. So, what is the one non-writing thing you do that helps you stay limber, to be a better writer?
JJL: Reading. Voracious and obsessive and wide-ranging reading would be Number One in making us better writers. But everyone says that, of course.
So let me also add as Number Two: NOT reading. How’s that for iconoclastic? For periods, at least, and in a life of prolific reading, we writers need times to pause and let our own voices form apart from the voices we’re “hearing.”
Here’s the thing: those of us who love to write tend to adore words and stories and images, right? So we’re easily pulled into Story and kept there. If you appreciate the artistry of a great novelist in the way you ought, you may also become paralyzed with the thought that you’ll never, ever, ever be that good. So why bother? Which, of course, is self-defeating—total death to a good, productive day of writing.
I find I need sometimes to step away from the fabulous classics, or even the latest dazzling book club sensation, and give myself the freedom simply to do what I can do the best way I know how. And then try to do better than that.
Oh, let me add a Third thing that helps immeasurably: exercise. I’m not the world’s most fit specimen of a human being for sure, but I do find that my creative mind kicks in more fully during or just after I’ve taken a long walk or hike or jog—or even just trotted from my upstairs office down to the pantry to scarf some chocolate.
Ah, and there would be the Number Four thing that helps: chocolate. Lots of it.
In other words, always take your writer’s notebook and chocolate along on that hike.
NM: Perfect! Nothing can stop a well appointed writer. Okay, you’ve got me thinking about agility. It’s rough out there in publishingland. How are you navigating the changing tides of publishing?
JJL: I live in Nashville, among music industry people who’ve lost their jobs or had to re-create what they do in order to adjust to the new world of technology. Book publishing is now facing the same sorts of challenges, and publishing houses that aren’t thinking creatively and innovatively about how to embrace the changes will go under. And lots of us as writers along with them.
That said, I’m trying to think as I finish up this current novel about what might accompany this story in e-book form. What music do I hear as the soundtrack? What links could be provided to give historical background, more information on the region, photos of specific places in certain scenes, recipes of cuisine that appears in the story…. What in this novel would be enriched by the new world of multi-platform technology?
And—confession time—since I tend to be a really verbose, love-those-excessive-descriptions kind of writer, it’s an important challenge for me to try to picture each scene as it would play out in film format. Most readers don’t share my taste for the 50 pages telling us how a tree looks—and the truth is, my own tastes have changed on this. So I’ve had to learn to speed things up, be ruthless in cutting.
I listen closely and well to agents and editors and writer friends whom I trust when they tell me if my writing drags in places. Modern readers, most of whom watch 100 or more movies for every book they read, won’t put up with that. Novels can obviously give us these holy moments of clarity and insight and interior monologue that films can’t, but we as novelists had better learn to make our scenes count just as if a producer were deciding whether to spend, say, $30,000 a piece to film them, or else cut.
NM: I love the soundtrack idea. And it’s important to listen to our advance readers, keep an eye on what’s popular, but remain true to the vision of what we’re writing. With all those plates spinning, what keeps you writing despite setbacks?
JJL: Obsession and self-delusion. Truly. Why else wouldn’t we writers devote our energies to pursuits that would offer better odds of fame and fortune?
There’s also the sense of where you feel “called” or “gifted,” what you feel most passionate about, what you feel God set you down in this world to do. If that involves writing, well, then, you have to write. That may be just a few minutes a day before your paying job. It may be in a corner of your attic, or at the kitchen table after the kids are in bed. But you have to write.
The truth is that I’m just not a very nice person when I’m not writing. I feel neurotic and angry at the whole world. Oh, and sorry for myself.
So it’s in everyone’s best interest that I’m writing at least five days a week for whatever time I can beg, borrow or steal. If that’s only a few minutes snatched early in the morning or late at night, that’s still helpful in keeping at bay all those voices that try to tell us writers that we’re kidding ourselves, that this work will never see the light of day, that we’re wasting our time….
NM: Every single writer reading this is nodding in silent agreement. We write because we must write. I’ve been thinking about what you said a minute ago about listening to lots of voices while working on a novel, and how helpful it is. But have you ever gotten bad writing advice?
JJL: How about the best and worst advice together? P.J. O’Rourke has said that we should not rest until every writing instructor who has ever insisted that students “write what you know” be rounded up and beaten soundly about the head and neck—which cracks me up. And there’s truth to this, you know.
Of course we should write what we know in terms of how we’ve experienced the human condition: forgiveness, betrayal, mercy, rage…. But also, part of the fun of being a novelist is getting to enter other people’s worlds and experiences, writing we sure as heck don’t know, but want to.
I don’t “know,” for example, what it feels like to be a conspirator in an 1822 slave revolt in South Carolina, or a white twenty-something single guy in 2012, a fairly self-centered musician who’s promised to care for his best friend’s child if anything befalls the friend. But I can imagine these things based on my own selfishness and compassion and anger and fear. I can research the details. And, potentially, at least, I could weave these into a journey the reader and I get to take together.
So we need to write out of what we know into what we don’t.
NM: I love how your brain works, Joy. That really is the worst and best writing advice. If you could sit down with each aspiring writer who is reading this today, what one piece of writing advice would you offer?
JJL: Make sure you have emotionally stable people in your life. Daphne Du Maurier said that writers as a rule should be read, but neither seen nor heard. The more I hang around writers, the more I chuckle, and think of this quote.
As a group of people, we certainly tend toward the extremes of life: lots of alcoholism, relationship disasters, depression…maybe because so much of producing a novel is just flat out a hideously lonely process—and not one in which there’s much guarantee of the end sales results, even for established writers. In some other professions, there’s a high correlation between hard work and success. In novel writing, well, you’d better be doing it because you love it, and have no other choice but to write.
Writers need steady, even-tempered, non-artistically inclined people in our lives, I’m convinced. We need to pay attention to international news and other people’s problems to keep perspective outside these insulated little worlds we build (and, by the way, to give us story ideas).
We have to be able to laugh at ourselves and hear criticism from well-meaning, well-read and trusted sorts (ignore the petty, the small-minded and the jealous) as a way of making us stronger and better at what we do. The many writer friends I’ve had along the way who were abundantly gifted but very thin-skinned simply haven’t continued to write. The rejection tore them to shreds, and they gave up. Limped away. Never came back.
Which suggests the last piece of advice: among the writer friends you do have—and you need these—be able to exchange war stories. Knowing that other writers doing excellent work are often struggling, too, helps keep you sane.
Try to find these writer friends in far-flung places, by the way, so you can’t waste time over coffee bemoaning how little time you have to write. Two of my favorite writer friends are in Texas and Canada. Just a two-line email or text from these people lets me know I’m not alone in the daily slog.
NM: Aw, shucks. Ahem. Let’s talk specifically about what you’re working on right now. Your story in this next novel, A Tangled Mercy, is set in Charleston, South Carolina. What role does setting play in your story?
JJL: This next novel is set primarily in modern-day Charleston, South Carolina, though to a lesser extent in 1822 Charleston, and in modern-day Boston, Massachusetts. The Low Country Carolina setting—exotic, haunting, gorgeous, a bit gothic, full of potential for horror and humor-- is enormously important for the kind of past-bleeding-into present story that this has become.
NM: What was the seed of your story idea for this novel?
JJL: Strangely enough, my research for my doctoral work. I kept stealing time from working on the dissertation and began writing an historical novel. The historical (which turned out to be pretty over-the-top dull) morphed over the years into a contemporary novel interweaving bits of the history as part of the suspense and mystery.
NM: I can’t imagine the historical falling flat like that. You were so successful at weaving a historical spell in your first novel. Let’s talk about that for a moment. What do you want your readers to carry away from reading your first novel Blue Hole Back Home, and what did you gain from writing it?
JJL: I want readers of Blue Hole Back Home to come away not only still thinking about the characters and conflicts from this story, but also musing back over the pivotal, coming-of-age moments in their own lives. One of the best rewards of writing a novel, particularly one like this that touches on racial violence and reconciliation, American culture, etc., is that readers give back their own stories from their own lives. I treasure getting to go to book clubs or conferences and hear readers begin with talking about my novel, and then launch into memories they have that have come back to the surface, stories of the moments that changed them forever.
A good story begets a good story, you know? It’s a gift we give each other.
NM: Changed forever. Okay, that gives me an idea of how you’re going to answer the last question. On the blog this year we’re exploring the basic yet somehow elusive question: why does the novel matter. Obviously, writers still believe that the novel is an important art form. From your perspective, why does the novel matter?
JJL: Oh, the novel matters more than ever in our fast-paced world. It’s that chance to slow down and step away and look deep into what makes us tick as human beings, what really matters, what really doesn’t--to allow ourselves to be transported to a different world, to see things from someone else’s perspective, to allow ourselves to be moved and frightened and inspired and entertained---and changed.
In our world of access to so many art forms available to us—often bombarding us—the best song lyrics, the best YouTube features, the best films all hook into our basic human craving for Story. As novelists, we have to figure out how to spin our stories for the modern, harried, distracted reader so that the old-fashioned words-on-page print form makes sense, is worth the time and trouble because the reader comes away changed—becomes a part of the Story, and the Story, a part of them.
NM: Joy, thank you for being our guest today. I’ve personally enjoyed this time and I’ve learned so much from you. A bit like sitting in your class and taking it all in. You’re so generous with your time and ideas. We’re very grateful.
Dear reader, do you have a comment or question for Joy? There’s so much here to talk about!