Saturday, September 13, 2008

Shauna Seliy, and the Structure of the Novel

I had a wonderful opportunity this week--my old friend Shauna Seliy came to town to give a reading, and we got caught up on the Writers At Cornell podcast. We mostly talked about her new novel, her first, When We Get There, which I believe I plumped for last year here on the blog (and which I enthusiastically blurbed on the back cover). I don't think it's just my affection for Shauna that makes me think this book is wonderful, but I was surprised to hear how it had been written.

The book had originally consisted, Shauna told me (and told the audience at Cornell Thursday afternoon), of a series of linked stories. But she decided that they ought to be a novel, ripped them apart, and put them back together again, with a new narrative line (a missing mother) that ran through the whole. The process of writing and editing had taken ten years.

The surprising part is that the result appears seamless to me--I assumed Shauna had been writing unrelated stories all this time, and then wrote the novel whole-cloth in the recent past. A theme of our conversations this week was just how different novels are from one another--even within the conventions of the genre, you can do almost anything.

Those of you who are writers, how do you structure your stuff? Is the structure dictated by the material, or do you envision a structure into which the material can be poured, like wax into a mold? I've let the former happen (Mailman), and I've imposed the latter on my work (my first two books), and while both methods can do the trick, I think the former is where most of the potential is.

It's hard, though, to have the confidence to let the material take over the process--to allow the chips to fall where they may. And sometimes the instinct to do so is, in fact, wrong, and the book must be taken apart and put back together again, as Shauna's was. Her book goes to show, however, that the artificiality of that process needn't create a work that feels artificial--indeed, When We Get There unfolds very naturally, as if it had always been intended that way.

All of narrative is illusion--the creation of coherence from abstraction, compulsion, and arbitrary whim. Sometimes I think I ought to be thinking about this process more. At other times I think I shouldn't think about it at all.


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