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Joy Castro: On Ambitious Characters in Literary Fiction

Multi-award-winning author Joy Castro discusses the confluence of events and genres that led to writing her new literary thriller, Flight Risk.

Joy Castro is the award-winning author of the post-Katrina New Orleans literary thrillers Hell or High Water, which received the Nebraska Book Award, and Nearer Home, and the story collection How Winter Began, as well as the memoir The Truth Book and the essay collection Island of Bones, which received the International Latino Book Award. She is also editor of the anthology Family Trouble and served as the guest judge of CRAFT‘s first Creative Nonfiction Award.

Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Salon, Ploughshares, Gulf Coast, Brevity, Afro-Hispanic Review, and elsewhere. A former Writer-in-Residence at Vanderbilt University, she is currently the Willa Cather Professor of English and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Find her on Twitter.

Joy Castro: On Ambitious Characters in Literary Fiction

Joy Castro

In this post, Joy discusses the confluence of events and genres that led to writing her new literary thriller, Flight Risk, how the novel changed throughout the writing process, and more!

Name: Joy Castro
Literary agent: Steven Salpeter
Book title: Flight Risk
Publisher: Lake Union
Release date: Nov. 2, 2021
Genre/category: Literary thriller
Previous titles: The Truth Book, Hell or High Water, Island of Bones, Nearer Home, How Winter Began
Elevator pitch for the book: Isabel Morales is a successful Chicago sculptor hiding a brutal family history—one not even her husband knows. When her mother dies in prison, she returns to Appalachia to reckon with her past.

Joy Castro: On Ambitious Characters in Literary Fiction

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What prompted you to write this book?

I was intrigued by the trajectories of women artists in Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs (2013) and Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World (2014), and I wondered what those kinds of struggles would look like for ambitious women without whiteness or class privilege to ease their paths. Isabel, as a character, really grew from my own observations of and questions about those differences. I’m also interested in fertility choices during a time of climate crisis, as well as what’s politically possible for those of us who deeply object to the predations of the fossil fuel industry but feel that our own impacts are quite small. How do we balance our commitment to our art with political activism with the daily work necessary to survive? I’m also really interested—as someone who grew up in Miami, London, and rural West Virginia, about the intensity of the urban-rural divide in this country—and how we misrepresent and misunderstand experiences we haven’t had ourselves.

Ultimately, too, though, Flight Risk is a novel that interrogates the marriage plot. Isabel’s husband is a wealthy white physician from a patrician Chicago family, and there’s a lot about her background he doesn’t know. They have assumptions about each other, suspect each other, and keep secrets from each other. The novel asks, Can we love across difference?

Those were the questions that were swirling in my mind, but the impetus to actually begin writing Flight Risk was sparked by an odd confluence of events: watching Morena Baccarin in Homeland and receiving letters from my foster daughter’s imprisoned mother—a particular crossing of wires that I’ve written about elsewhere.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?

I think I began the novel in 2013, and the idea did change. Initially I wrote Isabel as a YA author, thinking that making her a writer would be closer to home for me but different enough to be interesting, and I wrote several stand-alone chapters from her various YA novels that were woven throughout the action of the book. But they weren’t really working in that gorgeous way that, for example, happens in A.S. Byatt’s Possession or Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, both of which I admire tremendously, and I realized I really did want to write about a visual artist, and then as soon as Isabel revealed herself as a found-object sculptor—someone who expresses these strange, mute visions with what she’s able to find, the detritus of other people’s lives—it all came together.

The final version is very much influenced by fairy tale structure. I’m wild for fairy tales and the brilliant things that Angela Carter, Helen Oyeyemi, and Carmen Maria Machado, among others, have done with them in their literary work. Flight Risk engages the Grimm’s fairy tale “The Six Swans” fairly extensively, and the first section of the book is called “Happily Ever After.” Things rapidly devolve from there.

Joy Castro: On Ambitious Characters in Literary Fiction

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

Well, that one—and just on a daily basis, drafting and revising, there were always surprises. The late Mike Steinberg, a co-founder of Fourth Genre and just an entirely lovely man, used to say that, for him, a piece did not really begin until he surprised himself on the page.

I aim for that every time I sit down to write.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

I was honestly surprised by how much I loved getting to work with my editor Jodi Warshaw! She studied with Gordon Lish (who famously edited Raymond Carver), and she was just a really fantastic, thoughtful, helpful reader at every step of the way. I also loved getting to work with the book cover designer Micaela Alcaino, who does completely dreamy work. I’m a huge fan now.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

Pleasure.

Although I’m obsessed with big, abstract ideas and political issues, I definitely write to entertain. Someone once described my books as “beach reads for smart people,” and that does seem to be my sweet spot.

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

Spend as much time as possible alone in silence doing boring things. Iron clothes. Wash dishes. Drive long distances with the stereo off.

Then you’ll start hearing the voices. That’s it. That’s the magic.

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