Friday, May 22, 2009
April & Oliver Has Made My “Best of 2009″ List!
This FANTASTIC debut novel was written by an artistic mom-of-twins who I just had to ask… “How Did You Do It?”
I am pleased to present you with my conversation with Tess Callahan!
1. Before I delve into your WONDERFUL novel, I must ask… from one mother of twins to another… HOW DID YOU MANAGE WRITING WITH SUCH EXCELLENCE WITH TWINS IN TOW?”
Fortunately, I finished a rough draft of April & Oliver just before my children were born. For me, however, a first draft is a baby step in the process. I had miles to go. As parents, my husband and I tried to maintain continuity with our pre-kid lives. We strapped the babies to our backs, went to museum openings, and took hikes in the woods. I worked on my book while the babies napped, when possible. As a mother of twins yourself, you know how it is ̶ they don’t always sleep simultaneously, and by the time you nurse, change diapers, and take a stroll around the block, it’s time to nurse again. Once they were weaned and running around, writing time became even scarcer. Little by little, the book fell to the wayside. For a time, I hired babysitters to give me an hour or two to write, but often I fell asleep at my desk. Nevertheless, I kept a thread of momentum going long enough for a second draft. Eventually, I found myself putting the manuscript aside for weeks at a time, and then years. I completely lost touch with the book. I continued to write in my journal, however, and occasionally characters would appear in my dreams, as if to say, “Wake up! You’re not through with us yet.” Also, members of my writing group pushed me to return to the manuscript.
Through a stroke of luck, my husband won a raffle prize ̶ a trip for two to a spa in California. Through the kindness of my mother and sister, who watched the kids, we were able to go. In the last minute of frantic packing, I reached into the back of my closet for the dusty manuscript and stuffed it into my carry-on. On the plane, I read the book with a blend of satisfaction and horror. Because so much time had passed, and because I myself had changed, (the stretching effect of parenthood), I could clearly see what rang true and what did not. It was as if I was reading someone else’s manuscript, and knew precisely what to advise her. We landed. The spa sat right on the ocean. My husband took off for a massage and I opened my laptop. Between walks on the beach and meals I did not have to prepare myself, I wrote for hours each day. There was no need for deliberation; I knew exactly what to do. By the end of the five days, the book was finally where it needed to be.
In short, how did I find time to write a book and raise twins? I could not have done it without the help of my husband, mother, sister, writing group, a bit of luck, and lots of stubborn persistence.
2. What, or who, was your inspiration for April’s character?
My sister used to live in Nahant, Massachusetts, in the apartment complex on the ocean described in the book. One day, a nor’easter struck the peninsula so hard that the apartment below my sister’s was completely gutted, all of the furniture taken out to sea. As with many storms, there were reports of those who stayed in their homes. I started wondering about people who would weather a storm in a rented apartment when evacuation teams were there to take them to safety. Might someone stay not because she wanted to protect her belongings, but because she had nothing to lose? Perhaps someone who had already lost a loved one? I started writing a scene about the mounting storm, and a woman materialized with long dark hair, calmly watching her apartment fill with water. Flashbacks revealed that the woman was thinking about her little brother, who she helped to raise, and who had died in an accident. Where this came from I don’t know; writing is mysterious that way.
The next day on the subway, a woman sat down across from me. It was her, the character in my story. I have never had that experience before or since. The woman looked and carried herself exactly as I had described the character in my scene. It gave me a jolt. She stood, got off the subway car, and I never saw her again. She was to become April. I shared the short story at the Squaw Valley Writer’s Conference, where I had the good fortune of being assigned to a critique group led by the late Ted Solotaroff. He said, “This story wants to be a novel.” And so it began. As I wrote, however, I found that the woman’s bereft state of mind in the story was only the entry point into the novel. The dramatic storm scene that I was so proud of was the first thing to fall away. Writing is like that; you constantly have to sacrifice your little gems for the sake of the story’s true trajectory.
3. Does April & Oliver reflect your personal experiences or is it strictly fictional?
The story is strictly fictional. However, like Oliver and his music, I had an affinity early in life. For me, it was art. By no means was I as good at drawing or painting as Oliver is at piano, but the aptitude was there. I had wonderful high school art teachers who encouraged me, but it never crossed my mind to apply to art schools. For one thing, it was impractical. For another, I didn’t believe in myself enough. Like Oliver, I made a pragmatic decision. I got a master’s degree in education so I could teach English abroad and stoke my passion for travel. It wasn’t a bad choice, but my hunger for artistic expression crept back. I kept journals during my travels, and the satisfaction of writing grew in me. If I didn’t have that outlet, I would have shriveled up. In that way, my path was different from that of Oliver, who cuts himself off completely from his creative energy, thus making himself into a walking time bomb.
4. Who is your “favorite” character in April & Oliver?
Favorite character? This feels like Sophie’s choice! I can say that I admire April’s perseverance, T.J.’s simpleminded complexity, Nana’s wit and nerve, Al’s no nonsense honesty, and Oliver’s longing to regain his soul even though he doesn’t realize he’s lost it.
These are killer questions! Obviously you’re a pro!
In response to this question, I asked my son if he feels I have significantly changed in his lifetime. He said, “Yes, you’ve gotten meaner.” (Translation: math homework must be finished before playmates can come over). Almost in the same breath, my husband said, “Yes, you’ve become more patient,” and my daughter said, “Nah, you never change.”
I have changed, though. I am less tentative than I was in my twenties and early thirties, when even my drawings were light and faint. As a parent, wife, teacher, and traveler, my life has required more independence and grit than I believed I possessed. Circumstances have forced me to own the authority I preferred to abdicate. Thank God for that, because disowning your power leads to catastrophe, as demonstrated by Oliver. Temperamentally, I would have been well suited to life in a hermitage, but for me, that life would not have challenged me the way my current life does. I still struggle to balance my need for wilderness and solitude with the reality of soccer games and home repairs. But it is all good. There is a Buddhist teaching that suggests the very troubles you wrestle with at any instant in your life hold the precise lessons you need at that particular moment. That has been true for me, although I can’t say I always access the lesson. I am very blockheaded in some ways. But I am where I need to be.
6. This is your debut novel and I am certain it will be met with rave reviews! I’ve read that you’ve obtained your MFA in fiction. I’m just getting started on similar education goals. Although I realize you’ve done considerable writing in other formats, can you share with my readers and me what it is like to accomplish that personal goal of publishing your first novel? Also, was the education that you obtained highly instrumental in your ability to write the novel?
I’ve heard stories of MFA programs churning out technique-oriented writers who sound too much alike, but that was not my experience at Bennington. My teachers, Douglas Bauer, Susan Dodd, Amy Hempel, and Jill McCorkle, encouraged learning from the masters, but blazing one’s own trail. Each taught me something distinct and valuable. For instance, Amy Hempel would cross out a number of lines on the first page of a manuscript, and then write something like, “And so on…,” leaving me to edit the rest. I learned a tremendous amount by noticing what she elected to omit. I did not need the MFA program to write a novel; I was already disciplined and motivated, but it did help me to become a better writer. My main advice to MFA students is to work on a different manuscript with each teacher since they will have wildly different advice; short stories are ideal.
What does it feel like to publish my first novel? Surreal. I had completely given up hope of publishing, but continued writing because I couldn’t help it. The characters had their hooks in me. Although I would not call myself religious in the conventional sense, there are sacred stories that hold great resonance for me. There is one gospel tale in which the disheartened apostles fish all night without a single catch. Finally, Jesus suggests they trying putting their net on the other side of the boat. When they do so, the net fills with so many fish they can barely drag it to shore. I have thought about this passage for years, feeling the nearness of the fish, the emptiness of my net. I spent a long time on the quiet lake without a single catch, which was exactly what I needed. Now, for the moment, the net is full, and I am grateful for that, too.
7. Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer or was this something that came to you later in life?
I had a third grade teacher, Miss Madonia, who encouraged creative writing. I still remember the thrill of feeling a full blown story emerge from me without knowing where it came from. I kept journals throughout my adolescence as a navigation tool, and continue to do so today. For years I wrote solely because I enjoyed it. I was in my thirties before I dared to think I could publish.
8. I hear that you are into art. What medium(s) do you practice? Which is more fulfilling, writing or your art?
I paint in oil and draw in charcoal and graphite. It is purely a creative release, free of the pressure of having to garner money. It’s impossible to say which is more fulfilling, my art or my writing, except that I enjoy the physical aspect of painting, moving in front of the canvas, stepping away occasionally to gain perspective. Writing is more sedentary, but I compensate by taking breaks to think over a scene while walking our dogs. What I love about both art forms is the sense of timelessness that envelops you, the extreme presence of the Now.
Painting has made me a better writer. For years I attended a class with painter Roy Kinzer, who paints sublime aerial landscapes using altered topographical maps and satellite images. He encouraged us to see our subject freshly, without preconception, to notice the negative space as well as the positive, and to work on all sections of the canvas at once, without getting mired down in any one area. These lessons apply to writing, as well. Grass is not always green, clouds are rarely white, and any one flesh tone has dozens of colors within it. He challenged us to not merely look, but to see. Most of all, he constantly pushed us beyond our comfort zones, encouraging us to take risks. And when we failed miserably, he congratulated us on our willingness to blunder. I’ve learned to take risks with my writing, as well, allowing characters to reveal themselves through action without fettering them with my preconceptions.
9. What are your future writing goals? Is there a sequel to April & Oliver (oh, please say “yes!”)?
10. What are your recommendations for those aspiring writers out there?
At the Squaw Valley Writer’s Conference some years ago, I had the privilege of working with the late Ted Solotaroff. He said in a lecture there that during his tenure as founder and editor of The New American Review, he saw many gifted writers come and go. The ones who went on to become accomplished authors were not necessarily those who showed the greatest natural talent, but those who simply did not give up.
You can check out my review of this wonderful novel HERE!
There is a contest in which I’m giving away 3 copies of April & Oliver to my readers HERE. You only have until May 28th to enter.