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Read chapter 9, "Beginnings," from The Glimmer Train Guide to Writing Fiction, Volume 1: Building Blocks
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interviewed by Susan McInnis

For those who aren’t familiar with it, Kotzebue is stark and wind-riven. It lies on a spit of Alaska’s northwest coast, just across the Bering Strait from Siberia, and is home to about three thousand people. Inupiat people have lived on and around the same land for over six centuries. How did you happen to visit Kotzebue? Were you researching or writing, or both?

I was living in Utah in the eighties, working for arts councils in Idaho, Utah, and Alaska, and the work took me north twice. I went out to Aniak—which is quite a bit south and inland from Kotzebue and Nome, but still in western Alaska—and once for two weeks to Kotzebue. I was teaching in the local schools in both towns, and spent my free time just tramping about. People took care of me in both places. They took me out for plane rides and showed me their world. Both towns struck me as being very serious ventures, both having serious elements of the frontier about them. That atmosphere and the unforgiving nature of weather there marked me.

I suppose, without knowing it, I was gathering data. It certainly came back for me later. It’s interesting to consider what rains back down on you from your life—the things that come get you and haunt you and bother you, things that may or may not end up in the writing.

That’s where “Blazo” got its start: I actually did hear dogs barking in an airplane once. I was flying from Anchorage to Kotzebue, and the flight out was terrifying. Somehow the dogs were a comfort. Later, when I was in Kotzebue, there were dogs loose around town. Two or three were rogues, and they were raising hell with the sled dogs, very valuable working dogs. The sheriff was out hunting them. From time to time I’d hear gunfire, and it lent an edge to my sense of life there. I wasn’t used to any of it—the barking, the rogue dogs, the gunfire. It all stayed with me, and then it came back in “Blazo.”

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

interviewed by Sarah Anne Johnson

How do your story ideas come to you?

They come in many different ways. Sometimes I’ll overhear something. As you know, writers are great eavesdroppers. Whenever I’m at a gathering, I’m participating, but a lot of times I’m just being quiet and listening. I get ideas from things I see in newspapers and magazines, from other writers, from things that happen in my life, in the lives of other people I know. But ultimately the source of all writing is mysterious. It comes from some deep place. We call it the imagination, or we could call it the creative mind. The ability to transform these nuggets from life into art comes from the creative mind.

What is your process like for writing a short story?

A lot of times I’ll start with an image. I’m a very visual person, and in some ways I have to see the character doing something before I start the story. It’s the same way for my novels. For example, in The Mistress of Spices I got a series of strong visual images of an old woman in a little Indian grocery. It was a sensory experience: I could smell the spices, I could see the place, and I could feel it. That began the writing process. With many of my stories, it works in the same way. The image I get won’t necessarily be the beginning image of the story when the story is complete. It could be the ending image. Sometimes I have to figure my way out backwards.

Siri Hustvedt

interviewed by Jennifer Levasseur and Kevin Rabalais

How did the ideas for your novels begin?

Ideas usually begin as a single image, feeling, or a real event. The Enchantment of Lily Dahl began with a real suicide. There is a café in Northfield, Minnesota, where I grew up, called The Ideal Café. The real suicide did not take place there, but I used it in the novel to bring together the book’s characters. That novel is written almost as a stage piece. It unfolds visually, a fact that reverberates with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the play inside the book. The café was a convenient place for characters to enter and exit. The real Ideal Café was like that. People dropped in and out, even when they weren’t eating. Two of my sisters, Liv and Astrid, and my best friend, Heather Clark, worked there, and I heard lots of stories. There were stories I thought I had invented, which turned out to have their origins in real life. For example, Boomer Wee, a minor character, is an Elvis fanatic. After Heather read the book, she pointed out to me that the café’s owner had a bust of Elvis in the restaurant. Obviously, I knew it, but couldn’t remember it. Something similar occurred in relation to The Blindfold. When I was in Germany, a journalist pointed out the wit of using the name Klaus as the hero of Der Brutale Junge, because Klaus is the name of one of Thomas Mann’s sons. I thought of Mann when I wrote the story, but hadn’t made that connection consciously. The unconscious does a lot of work for you in a book.

interviewed by Sarah Anne Johnson

How does your research kindle your imagination and get you writing?

Oh, in all sorts of ways. Sometimes things really do grow from the reading and the research, but it’s always in such odd ways. Often it’s a picture, a visual image; sometimes it’s an image in words, a sense of somebody on a dock or in a room holding a bandage. Sometimes a whole area of subject matter will seem interesting to me. That’s what happened with “The Cure” in Servants of the Map. I used to drive through Saranac Lake a lot on my way to someplace else. I never stopped to look around, but it imprinted itself on me. I got curious about the porches, and then curious about the people who would’ve been on the porches, and then curious about the state of society that would’ve led everybody to be clumped in one place on the porches.

interviewed by Michael Upchurch

I’d been wanting to write a version of the changeling story for a long time. You know: The fairy people put one of their babies in a human cradle. I had it on my agenda to write for some time. And then I read some casual remarks by a scientist saying that it was impossible that the Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons did not mate, and that meant that their genes must be in us. So I thought, if Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons, why not one of the little people?

Because every culture has the myth of the little people, and I personally think it’s quite possible there were little people that vanished. There are little people! They’re the Pygmies and they’re a good yard shorter than those extremely tall people on the East Coast, the ones who are doormen in New York. So I thought, Okay, we’ll have a dwarf fall into a human cradle—or a goblin or something—and see what would happen.

Pam Durban,
interviewed by Cheryl Reid

How does a story start for you?

Sometimes it’s an image. Sometimes it’s a thought. It’s been a while since I’ve written stories. I’ve been working on this book.

So you don’t write novels and stories at the same time?

It depends. When I was writing The Laughing Place, I would get so tired of what seemed like the endless process of writing it. I would take a break and write a story, just to be able to finish something.

What about the story “Soon”?

I have a friend in town who’s a collector of folk art and Southern memorabilia. He bought this huge collection of family possessions from a woman who was a descendent of a major plantation owner. People have said it is one of the most important collections
of Southern artifacts. It’s got everything: diaries, plantation ledgers, slave-sewn shirts. He made me a copy of the diary and gave it to me and also told me about the old woman whom he’d bought this stuff from. He basically courted her for a year in the nursing home. She was a mean woman who had disowned her children. I started looking at her diary and her diary literally opens with that scene of being blinded by the doctor. And that started “Soon,” along with that woman’s character. I think all of my stories start from character. Something about a character will catch my attention or my imagination.

Find out more about The Glimmer Train Guide to Writing Fiction, Volume 1: Building Blocks.

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