ONLINE EXTRA: More Q&A with Janet Burroway
Published: October 30, 2009
|Janet Burroway, who is widely known as the co-author of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, also has written eight novels, short stories, essays, plays and children's books. Her most recent novel is Bridge of Sand. In an interview in the December issue of The Writer, she talks about her own writing and teaching methods. The conversation continues here.|
One of the themes in Bridge of Sand is the tension between races. This is a common theme in your work. What experiences influenced you to write about race?
When I was a senior in high school and the editor of the high school paper, Arizona high schools were being desegregated. I went to interview student government members at [the black high school], and I was deeply struck that they were not so gung ho for integration as I was. They were worried about what was going to happen to their team and their trophies and their school. At the time I was not sophisticated enough to ask: Why are they disbanding this high school instead of integrating it, too.
That was one of the experiences that started me writing about race.
How do you deal with negative aspects of a character without losing the reader's empathy?
What you've just described is a crucial playwriting technique, which is called emotional recall. The important thing about emotional recall is character A has some attitude toward character B. Character B tells some story about their earlier life. Students of theater are told is that the drama is not in the story; the drama is in what happens between character A and character B while the story is being told. So it's a present tense change.
How do you help your students in using details?
I focus on the manuscript in front of me, and I pick a generalized passage. I ask the student, "What does this smell like? What is this character feeling here? I mean texture. I mean feeling with his or her fingers. What's the eye color? What's the hair color?" Often the answer is, "I don't know." That's a fine answer but you just have to decide. You're god. You need to know. So make it. Do it. What usually comes out of that at first are some bland generalized images that don't focus. So we keep at it. "OK, what is it about that? What do you mean by that?"
Is the last sentence of a novel as important as the first?
A student at the Iowa Writer's Workshop said he had heard that the last word of a novel was always crucial and that the novel will be contained in this last word. I looked back over my last words. My first novel [Descend Again] ended with "pocket," and the heroine was sort of trapped back in Arizona. In Raw Silk, it's "me." And in that ending the [woman has a better sense of herself]. In Bridge of Sand it's "peace." I don't decide the end has to be a certain word. It's not that. I know it when it's the right one.
The epilogue in Bridge of Sand reads:
"But here are two women, lower-middle-class, black and white, chatting on a bench at the edge of a Florida sink on a February Tuesday afternoon. Glory to our hippy mothers. Hosannah to our fathers who loved enterprise. Bless our errors. Shalom, Peace." It was written when I was about two-thirds of the way through the book, and that was the place I caught fire. I felt wonderful about writing it. This is the sense of a place in spring with just a little bit of racial harmony. I love it.
Your writing is rich in detail. How do you get the right balance of enough detail to help define a character or place, but not so much that the reader is distracted?
My tendency is to use too much rather than too little and sometimes I have to cut it out. I think that my way of getting inside the scene is to focus on details. It's my passage into the fictional world or into the memory world if I'm writing a memoir.
To learn more about Janet Burroway, visit www.janetburroway.com.
Elfrieda Abbe is publisher of The Writer. Her many author interviews for the magazine include Gail Godwin, Lee Smith, Ian Frazier, Margaret Drabble, Rick Bragg and Alice Hoffman.
--Posted Oct. 30, 2009