Q&A with Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Winner Franny Billingsley

Working with the late, legendary editor Jean Karl at Athenuem, Franny Billingsley has penned two well-received novels, Well Wished and The Folk Keeper, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award-winner for fiction.

The Horn Book”s review of The Folk Keeper says, “The intricate plot, vibrant characters, dangerous intrigue, and fantastical elements combine into a truly remarkable novel steeped in atmosphere.” Billingsley took a break from working on her third fantasy novel to talk about her process of weaving those elements into a cohesive web. “A novel is not linear,” she says, “but a weave of interconnected filaments.”

You”ve said it took a great deal of time and several drafts for you to come up with the elements that would become the cruxes of your novels: the well and the folk. I”d like to hear about your process.

My process is very messy. I start with the idea. Ideas for my novels have presented themselves as the idea for the complication for the novel. I had the idea of two kids switching bodies for Well Wished. I started The Folk Keeper with the idea of a half-selkie girl looking for her skin. But I don”t know how I”m going to get them into the complication; I dont know how I”m going to get them out of the complication. That”s the journey my process takes me through.

I jump into it and I swim around in it, and I write way too much. In my new novel, I have so many pages that Im never going to use. Then I may write it again. I do this in a right-brained way, in an intuitive, just-float-through-it way. Two or three drafts in, I may sit down and try to look at it in a left-brained way, and say, “Okay, what do I have here? What elements, if any, am I excited about? What elements work? Is there any narrative force here?”

I tend to make a messy outline, often on note cards that I place on a bulletin board in my office, and try to get a conscious idea for how I might revise it. Then I dive into it again. And I do look at those note cards, but usually they”re pretty different from my idea. I”m not an organizer. I know some people organize like crazy, and they do fewer drafts because they”re able to do more thinking. Somehow my thinking comes to me as the ink is leaking out the tip of my pen. I can”t think in the abstract very cleary.

It sounds like an exhaustive task.

It is really a huge thing. And at the beginning of a novel, I think it”s going to be easy, because I really see it clearly, then I just flail around like crazy. When I was writing The Folk Keeper, I thought, “Oh my God, I”ll never write a book that”s as good as Well Wished.” Now I”m saying that with this one—”The Folk Keeper is the best novel I”ll ever write.” In some place in my brain, I hope it”s not true, and believe it”s not true; but in another place, I think it is true. Because it”s so hard. Because I have no real control—the only control I have over the process is just doing it. I can”t sit there and make the story come, but it is only by sitting there that the story will come. I can bring myself to the process; that”s all I can do.

I”ve recently been re-reading David Copperfield, and have been struck by the brilliance of Dickens” characterizations, trying to figure out what he does to make his characters spring to life in such an extraordinary way. I”ve been typing out pages from David Copperfield for myself, trying to analyze them, and saying. “Okay, he gives the person these adjectives, and these physical attributes, and these things that he cares about, and they all connect in an interesting way. “I”m trying to do that with my new book-seeing if I can give my characters something that can really define them, in a way that”s organic to the book, not just pasted on. That”s left-brained, so I do that then I dive back into the book and forget about it, but maybe it”s waiting there for me and it will surface when I need it.

Do you feel any added pressure to write a really wonderful novel after winning The Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for The Folk Keeper?

I really do. The book I”m working on has been hard. I have asked myself if it”s so hard because now the bar has been raised. I find myself wanting to imitate The Folk Keeper, and I really have to struggle against that. I want that same kind of voice. I want that same kind of clipped format. I started out writing it in the third person, and then I decided I really love first person. I rewrote it in the first person. Then I thought, hmmm, maybe I”ll write it in a document, the way Corinna”s folk record is a document, and I find I”m getting perilously close to imitating myself. I need to do the thing that works, but it”s not clear to me what”s going to work.

You”re working with Richard Jackson on your current novel. In your acceptance speech for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, you talked about working with Jean Karl on the revisions for your first two novels. Can you comment on working with Jean?

I think I was very, very lucky to find Jean. When she found my manuscript, it was pretty far from being the manuscript for Well Wished which is now published. It was clunky and it was at least 50 pages longer. But she saw the glimmering in it. And she was willing to take a book that had a glimmer and was not necessarily particularly marketable. Now, in these post-Harry Potter days, it would be more marketable as a first novel, but then it didn”t have a clear market niche. It”s a book with sophisticated literary language, complicated plot, and it”s dense in a way.

She was willing to take that and guide me in making it the best book I could make it. Maybe the market pressures are such that a lot of editors can”t do that. If an editor has a working relationship with someone who has already successfully published, then he or she will invest a lot of time and energy into a manuscript. Editors spend a huge amount of time editing people”s manuscripts. Other novelists I know love their editors, and their editors put a tremendous amount of time into their work. I”m lucky I found Jean insofar as maybe she had the luxury that not every editor does.

What advice can you share with aspiring novelist?

In one of his books, John Gardner said something that I found really useful. He said, in a way, you can”t really learn to write-you can just catch on. I found that consoling. Writing a novel is huge thing and it”s so visceral. But I think if you keep at it, you can catch on. Don”t give up. Just don”t give up. Just keep writing. It”s really 99.9 percent determination. If you read a book that”s great, try to figure out what makes it great, in the same way I”m trying to figure out how Charles Dickens creates fabulous characters. I really, truly believe that almost anyone can write a good novel if they stick to it.

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