" A wildly inventive, consistently engaging, and amusing comic novel, but under its bright exterior lurk darker undertones and truths.... "
" A wildly inventive, consistently engaging, and amusing comic novel, but under its bright exterior lurk darker undertones and truths.... "
" Indicative of the title, the poems in All This range from the conventional lyric/narrative that captures an intense moment of emotion, an epiphany glimpsed briefly out of the corner of the eye, to the more experimental. "
I’ve been reworking Tillie: Portraits of a Canadian Girl in Training, a sequel to my recently released novel Freefall: A DivineComedy as part of a three-book contract from Pen-L Publishing. They wanted me to write more about Tillie, Freefall’s main character, and Portraits shows Tillie’s development from three years on to eighteen.
Meet Sally Whitney, who has spent most of her adult life in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kansas, and New Jersey, thought her imagination lives in the South, the homeland of her childhood. The stories Sally writes have been published in literary magazines and anthologies, including Grow Old Along With Me—The Best Is Yet To Be, the audio version of which was a Grammy Award finalist in the Spoken Word or Nonmusical Album category. Her stories have also been recognized by the Syndicated Fiction Project, the Salem College National Literary Awards competition, the Black Lawrence Press Black River Chapbook Competition, The Ledge Fiction Awards Competition, and the Shenango River Books Prose Chapbook Contest.
She currently lives in Maryland with her cat, Ivy Rowe, and is delighted to be once again residing below the Mason-Dixon Line. When she isn’t writing, reading, watching movies, or attending plays, she likes to poke around in antique shops looking for treasures. “The best things in life are the ones that have been loved, whether by you or somebody else,” she says.
My stories usually start as an idea, an observation, or a question. Surface and Shadow started with observations of small mill towns and an idea about an outsider who wants to learn a mill town’s secrets. Like most of my story beginnings, those elements gestated in my imagination for months while I finished other works in progress. By the time my schedule was clear, the story had grown to include more characters, a particular setting, and a few plot points. I’m a planner by nature, so the next thing I had to do was figure out more plot points and put them into a rough outline of how the story would proceed. The outline changed many times as I wrote the novel, but it gave me a guiding light when I started.
Where do your characters come from?
Most of my characters are mixtures of different people I’ve known, but I also like to throw in quirks and personality traits to create people I wish I’d known.
What feeds your process? Can you listen to music and write or not… can you write late at night or are you a morning person… when the spark happens, do you run for the pen or the screen or do you just hope it is still there tomorrow?
Writing is an occupation (obsession, maybe) you never get away from. Ideas strike all the time, especially in the shower, and then I start composing in my head. I’ve found that if I don’t write down at least a few sentences as soon as possible, the ideas can flitter away into nothingness. Mid-morning to mid-afternoon is my favorite time to write, but I’m getting better at writing later in the afternoon. When I write I need silence so that I’m totally absorbed by the world I’m creating. Almost any sound is distracting.
Do you neglect personal hygiene or housekeeping to write? Or vice versa?
I neglect housework to do anything, especially writing. It’s like the poem about babies: “Quiet down cobwebs/Dust go to sleep/I’m rocking my baby/And babies don’t keep.” Writing doesn’t keep either. You have to strike when the muse is with you and sometimes when it’s not.
How do you come up with book titles?
Titles are really hard to write. A good title should capture the spirit of the novel and intrigue a prospective reader, all in a maximum of about five words. It’s a tall order. My favorite titles come from the text of the novel. For example, To Kill a Mockingbird is a perfect title. It comes from the text; it conveys one of the main themes of the book, but you don’t know that until you read the book, so it’s intriguing, and it’s only four words. Surface and Shadow isn’t lifted directly from the text, but the words are mentioned in the context that the title is meant to convey. I’ve been pleased to see from some of the Amazon reviews that readers picked up on that context.
As people learned about your book, what unexpected things happened along the way?
Largely through Facebook, I received nice notes from people I hadn’t talked to in decades. It was a real blessing because now I’ve reconnected with some of those people.
Tell an anecdote about an interaction between you and one of your more articulate fans.
The most surprising question I’ve gotten at a reading or book signing for Surface and Shadow came from a woman who’s originally from Argentina. She wanted to know why the character Stella talks the way she does. I explained that Stella speaks in a dialect common among some black people in the southern United States at the time. The woman understood, but the question made me realize that I can’t assume readers come to my novels with the same knowledge and experiences.
How would you like to be similar to your protagonist(s)?
My favorite characters in stories I read or write are strong women who, despite adversaries or obstacles, are able to make a difference in their lives or the life of someone else. When readers ask if Lydia in Surface and Shadow is based on me, I tell them I’m not sure I could ever be that brave. When I create a character, I can make her as brave or strong or compassionate as I want to. In real life, developing those characteristics is harder.
If you didn’t write, what would you do with that time? Do you feel compelled to write or choose to?
I often ask myself that question, especially when I get frustrated with the writing process. Having given the subject so much consideration, I can tell you that at this point in my life I would volunteer with a children’s literacy organization. But it never happens because I can’t stay away from the keyboard for very long.
How would you like your books to change the world?
I think a novel has succeeded if it makes readers think about the world in ways they haven’t before. If my novels can encourage readers to see people they know and situations they experience in a more open-minded way, then I’ll be happy. I hope readers of Surface and Shadow will think more carefully about the roles society often forces on people because of their gender, race, occupation, or economic status. I want readers not to be afraid to question the status quo. Surface and Shadow takes place more than 40 years ago, but often it’s easier to talk about harmful attitudes if we view them from a safe distance. I always thought that was the case of To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel was released in 1960, but the events take place in the early 1930s.
As a writer, it’s impossible for me to read other authors’ works without examining how they create their best effects. For some time, I had wanted to read one of Ha Lin’s novels. I knew that English wasn’t his native language, but he seems to have mastered it well enough to receive the National Book Award, two PEN/Faulkner Awards, the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award, the Asian American Literary Award, and the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Native speakers would have a very difficult time being chosen for all of these prizes, so I assume that Lin has something special to offer.
I chose The Boat Rocker as my introduction to Lin because it was available as an audiobook, and I was able to download it through my library and Overdrive. I’ve found that listening to a novel can be a valuable way for me to quickly tell if a writer can claim my full attention when I’m also either driving, working out at the gym, or working in my kitchen. Lin didn’t disappoint me.
Though The Boat Rocker is a quiet book in that its cadences are low-key and the author isn’t showing off with flowery language or metaphors, its narrative pace keeps the reader engaged in the subtle way it feeds information about the point-of-view character Feng Danlin and his attempts to pursue the truth as a reporter, even if it could come at enormous cost. We soon learn that for someone originally from China, as is true of both the author and Feng Danlin, this quest can be both dangerous and difficult. But Lin leans heavily on subtlety to convey Danlin’s story, and that is a great lesson for me as I work on my own fiction, long and short.
And while I can’t describe how The Boat Rocker ends because of spoilers, again, the understated, surprising conclusion gives a more powerful emotional punch than if the author had pumped it up and gone for the reader’s throat. So if you both want a good read and a model for your own writing, I recommend reading Lin. I don’t think he’ll disappoint you.
When I began reading Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman for my reading group, I was sorry we had selected this book. I had read his previous novel, The Hakawati, expecting to love it because it resembled The Arabian Nights in some ways, a work I had absorbed as a young girl. But I ended up hating it for reasons I won’t go into here. When I finally gave up because the narrative was so frustrating, I knew I wouldn’t read anything by this author again.
Luckily, while I had remembered the novel’s name, The Hakawati, I had forgotten the author’s. Otherwise, when one of the women from my reading group chose An Unnecessary Woman, I didn’t demur. And by the time I realized who the author was, I had already purchased book and felt bound to read it.
My resistance to the writer initially colored my reaction to the story’s main character, Aaliya Sohbia, a 72 year-old Lebanese woman who lives an isolated life in Beirut. Books are her primary companions. Though I was pleased to see a contemporary work that featured an older person, I continued to resist this author and the idea of a male portraying a woman in the first person. I thought he would falter. Yet I ended up being amazed at how he inhabited Aaliya’s personality and created an eccentric type who has a wonderful wit and perspective on life in a war-town city I haven’t visited.
While Beirut has not been part of my travel plans, I have visited many of the authors and their works that Alameddine weaves into the narrative: Pessoa, Sebald, Bolano, Anne Enright, and so many more. I realized I could have deep, invigorating conversations with Aaliya if we were to meet. She also is a kind of writer herself. One of her yearly rituals is to translate some major works into Arabic, and she handwrites the manuscripts. Yet she never tried to publish these translations. Instead, she stored them in an extra room in her apartment, a secret “vice” that neither family nor friends knew about.
I’ve learned something important from this experience. Just as one shouldn’t judge a book (or a person) by its cover, so, too, one shouldn’t negate an author because s/he may have written an unappealing work. In An Unnecessary Woman, Alameddine demonstrates not only skill at creating a believable, engaging female character, but his own humor, metaphors, and phrasing makes for a satisfying read.
I’ve completed another novel. It didn’t come fully formed like Athena from Zeus’ forehead. I’ve been working on parts of it for years, but in the past few months it has solidified and taken its final shape. As is often the case for me, it took awhile for the main character’s voice to fully emerge. It’s a little like a partial birth, if there is such a thing. Legs and arms came first. Eventually the rest followed.
The central character Tillie is the younger version of the main actor in Freefall, a work that I hope to see published soon. Freefall’s Tillie is 60 with the heart of someone much younger. Like her older self, the young Tillie is quirky and precocious and loves to wander. The working title for the new novel is Tillie: Portrait of a Canadian Girl in Training. For those who don’t know about the organization, Canadian Girls in Training actually exists, and I joined it for a while when I was young.
Of course, attending meetings was an excuse to get out of the house at night. But the real training happened on my way to and from the church where we gathered. We smoked all the way there and back. We played white rabbit, a “game” that involved ringing doorbells over and over and then disappearing. We raided gardens. And we also visited the local park where the boys were hanging out. I learned many useful things during those excursions.
And I’ve learned a lot from writing this novel. It can take years for a character and a story to emerge. It’s not unlike raising a child: there are developmental stages, and each one is important. So though at times I despaired that the work would ever cohere, it did. And it was worth waiting for.
I recently finished a novel that had me questioning why I read fiction. The book was engaging enough. The writer was competent and had created characters that seemed believable (though that isn’t necessarily a criterion for me). There was enough tension to keep me reading in order to discover more about these lives I had immersed myself in. But the experience felt flat, and I wondered why I had spent several precious hours on something that wasn’t more satisfying.
So why do I read? For me, reading isn’t necessarily to escape my daily life. I read to deepen it. If a book doesn’t take me somewhere new emotionally and intellectually, I feel cheated. Why would I go on this literary journey if I remain the same person at the end?
I also want my knowledge of the world broadened and intensified. I love many naturalistic novels—ones that recreate everyday life and give me new glimpses (novel=make it new) of familiar settings and things. Often that happens through the writer’s expert use of metaphor and symbol, devices that automatically expand our perceptions. Or s/he has a masterful way with manipulating sentences and images.
But I also love works that employ magical realism, as many of my fictions do, because they point to something other, something not quite articulable. They lift the lid on ordinary experience and suggest other possibilities.
I hope I’ll hear from others on why they read. That too will expand my horizons!