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An Interview with John Pipkin

15 Dec
John Pipkin is the author of the award-winning novel Woodsburner about Henry David Thoreau and the new novel The Blind Astronomer's Daughter.

John Pipkin is the author of the award-winning novel Woodsburner about Henry David Thoreau and the new novel The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter.

John Pipkin is the author of the novels Woodsburner and The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter. Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Pipkin attended Washington & Lee University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and received his Ph.D. in British Literature from Rice University. He was an Assistant Professor of Humanities and Rhetoric at Boston University before moving to Austin, where he served as the Executive Director of the Writers’ League of Texas. Currently, he is the Writer-in-Residence at Southwestern University, where he teaches literature and creative writing, and he also teaches creative writing at the University of Texas, and in the Low-Residency MFA Program at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.  Pipkin has received research and writing fellowships from the Harry Ransom Center,  the Dobie Paisano Fellowship Program, and the MacDowell Colony. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and son.

To read an excerpt from Pipkin’s novel The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter and an exercise on building suspense, click here.

In this interview, Pipkin discusses outlining to prepare for the moment that inspiration strikes, titles, and capturing a historical language and rhythm.

Michael Noll

I loved The Blind Astronomer’s Novel in large part for the same reason I love Andrea Barrett’s work, because it explores the hopes and fears that we attach to scientific discovery, reminding us of how essential these discoveries are to our sense of the world and ourselves. In some ways, the novel is held together by the theme/metaphor/idea of stars and heavenly bodies. In almost every chapter, they play a practical role (a physical element in the story) but also a larger one. All of the characters, in some fashion or another, imbue the stars and other heavenly bodies with meaning. There’s the expected stuff: People calling comets “evidence of a God whose works are as magnificent as they are mysterious” or worrying that they’re harbingers of doom. And there’s the more personal: the question of who gets to name comets, which is important in a novel in which lineage is muddled. And that’s just in one chapter. The characters also use the heavenly bodies to give meaning to the things on Earth, like Finn being described as “pale as the crescent moon.” I could go on and on. How much of the attachments that characters give to the stars did you anticipate, and how much was discovered in writing the characters?

John Pipkin

Thanks for referencing Andrea Barrett, whose work I greatly admire. Her short story, “The English Pupil,” (a truly amazing story) is an outstanding example of how historical fiction can use history as a means of accessing the deeper questions of what it means to be human and to pursue ambitions at the cost of all else, (and it raises the more existential questions of whether or not a life spent in pursuit of noble goals will result in meaningful satisfaction or regret.)

The short answer to your question is that it was always my intention to have astronomical and scientific imagery serve both a structural function and a thematic function (as relates to the characters’ pursuits) from the very first draft of the story. But of course I didn’t think of all of these connections at the beginning, and this is one of the reasons why I outline obsessively (and continue to re-outline as I write), so that I have a framework in place to be ready for the accidental discoveries of thematically connected imagery when it occurs in the writing process. Louis Pasteur is credited with saying that “chance only favors the well-prepared,” (there are several different versions of this) and I think that’s absolutely true when it comes to writing a novel-length narrative. You have to be prepared for spontaneity, or it will slip through your fingers. I think a lot of beginning writers tend to hear the word “outline” and shudder; they immediately think of something restrictive or limiting—something rigid that dictates what will happen at every point in the story—but I think that a good outline is an organic framework that is actually liberating and makes it possible for a writer to be able to take advantage of spontaneous discoveries when they occur. In a day of writing, a dozen different thematic connections might arise (if it’s a good day and I’m lucky), but only the accidental ideas that actually fit the narrative make it into the story. So having a thematic outline helps to keep the narrative focused by weeding out what doesn’t belong, and it also keeps me prepared for the accidental discoveries when they come along.

The same is true of the structural role that the interconnected imagery plays in holding the narrative together; novels are unwieldy things, and a writer needs to be able to find an architecture to support the narrative without suffocating the characters under over-zealous plotting. Here again, having a thematic outline helps identify the scenes and transitions where a thematic connection (when it arises in the writing process) can serve to help bind the scenes together. (Yes, I think of blank spaces in the outline as being just as important a part of the outline as the places that are filled in from the start.) So, when I say that all of the thematic and metaphorical connections throughout the novel were intentional from the start, that’s true, but I didn’t know what all of those connections would be when I started. In that way, writing really is like exploring a thematic continent that you’ve partially mapped in advance; you have a pretty good idea of where you are going and where you want to arrive, but you don’t yet know everything about the terrain you’re planning to traverse.

Michael Noll

Many writers dread coming up with titles, but you invent one for every chapter in the book. I can imagine this starting out easy and then becoming more challenging as you get into the middle of the book. Were the chapter titles difficult to create? Did you write them after the chapter itself was written or earlier in the process, using them as an organizing tool?

John Pipkin

The chapter titles did not appear until the last major revision of the manuscript, four years after I started. The titles were among some of the last things that I wrote, and, in fact, I had not even planned to give titles to the chapters at all. The decision to give the chapters titles has everything to do with what I was describing in the previous answer—that in writing a novel length narrative, you have to be open to make use of a variety of techniques to help tie the story together. There are several different stories, subplots, and interwoven themes in The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter, and even though I am drawn to complexity as an aesthetic, complexity in and of itself doesn’t have half the merit as clarity. So after I completed the early first draft, I rewrote the novel, completely, at least four times, each time trying to greater clarity and focus to the story. When I began my final revision, I wanted to “foreground” the themes, but I didn’t want to over-explain any of the thematic moments in the story. So it just occurred to me that I could give each chapter a title that, in a way, identified what the main thematic focus was of each chapter. The more I thought about this, the more I realized that doing this also had the benefit of tying the whole narrative together, while also mimicking the style of 19th-century novels, many of which use chapter titles for an episodic effect. Coming up with titles was actually fairly easy, since all of the chapters where already fully written and I already knew what I wanted them to convey, so the titles were a way for me to flag what I saw as the central idea in each chapter. And if you look closely, each title is almost an exact quote from a sentence in the chapter itself.

Of course, the danger of using something like chapter titles early on is that if the chapters don’t already cohere on their own and flow one into the next based solely on their content, then having cute titles won’t help, and even worse, the device can seem like a structural gimmick if you’re relying on them too heavily. So, from the beginning, I try to focus only on the writing itself—just the writing—and any kind of structural devices—like chapter titles, illustrations, italics, inter-chapters, etc.—all of these extra-narrative devices come later.

Michael Noll

The diction and phrasing of the novel sounds, at least to my ear, like something written in the time of the novel. I’m curious whether that’s because it actually is how people wrote at the time or if it simply sounds like I imagine people wrote. I remember hearing Denis Johnson once say that when he was writing Train Dreams, he used a dictionary from the time of the novella and did not use a word that could not be found in it. Were you that scrupulous with your language as you wrote?

John Pipkin

John Pipkin's second novel, The Blind Astronomer's Daughter, "captures our own awe and sense of puniness as we look at the skies," according to a New York Times review.

John Pipkin’s second novel, The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter, “captures our own awe and sense of puniness as we look at the skies,” according to a New York Times review.

Well, yeah, I’m obsessively scrupulous when it comes to historical diction. I kept an 1828 edition of Webster’s nearby, but actually I consulted the Oxford English Dictionary much more frequently to make sure that the terms I was using actually existed at the time period about which I’m writing. I am not as concerned with making sure that I use a wide range of archaic vocabulary or idioms from the period—since too much of this sort of thing can make a novel feel more like a lesson in linguistics—but I’m absolutely conscientious about making sure that no modern anachronisms sneak into the story. And this is harder than you might think.

Many words that sound old-fashioned are often not that old. When I was writing Woodsburner, for example, I had planned to have a character call Henry David Thoreau a “layabout”—many people at the time were suspicious of him and thought him lazy and an idler. But when I checked, I found that “layabout,” even though it sounds old, is actually a Depression-era word and didn’t appear in the language until 1932. One of the big concerns I had in writing The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter is that many of our scientific terms did not yet exist. For example, the word “scientist” didn’t even exist yet during the period in which the novel is set. Science was such a new pursuit, there was no word to describe someone who did nothing but pursue scientific investigations full time. They called such people “sciencers” or “men of science.” The word “scientist” was not coined until 1834, after Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested that there should be a word for people who do science, just as people who make art are called “artists.” (William Whewell is credited with coming up with the term.) So I checked and doubled-checked any word that I suspected might have originated later than the story.

And it wasn’t only dictionaries that helped establish the feel of the language. I read a large number of old letters and diaries from the period to get a feel for the language, not just in terms of vocabulary, but also for syntax, how people put nouns and adjectives together, and for how they used prepositions. Something as simple as inserting a prepositional phrase where we would ordinary elide the preposition—since it is implied and understood—goes a long way to making the language sound like it came from any period. But you really have to be careful. The goal, I think, is to make the language sound like the language of the time, without actually being so true to the diction and syntax that it becomes inaccessible or obfuscating to the modern reader. I could write a novel in a style that is absolutely true to the 18th-century, but that would be an unproductive exercise because I’ll never have a single 18th-century reader. So in this, as in all things, it’s important to keep your reader in mind. The narrative has to remain clear and accessible, while conveying a sense of the rhythm and feel of the language of the period.

Michael Noll

We talked about your novel at a NaNoWriMo panel at the Austin Public Library, and you mentioned (or you did in my recollection) that you’re drawn to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because it’s how you make sense of the present day, not necessarily in a one-to-one sense but more generally as a way to see precursors to the concerns we have now. I wonder if you could elaborate on this. Your last novel was set in the mid-1800s. This one is set about a hundred years earlier. What about these time periods draws your imagination?

John Pipkin

I’ve talked a lot so far about the structural and thematic structure of narrative, and the necessities of historical accuracy in language and detail, and all of these things are crucial, but really what is most important to me in writing a story are the characters and the potential of those characters to help us come to a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. So, first and foremost, I always want to make sure that I am writing about characters, and not about a historical period. It doesn’t matter how interesting or important a historical period is, there have to be characters (real or fictional) that I am drawn to writing about. That said, I’m drawn to those historical moments that can serve as a lens through which to view our own experience of the contemporary world and our own place in the sweep of time. In writing fiction, I am much more interested in conveying a sense of the human experience, the emotional and psychological dimension of inhabiting a specific time and place than with trying to convey a catalogue of facts about the period. When I’m researching, I’m not just looking for information but for blank spaces and gaps in the historical record; this is where fiction is able to explore the motivations and yearnings of characters. Writing about the past gives you the point of view of the outsider—even if you are writing about your own community—since the time elapsed creates the kind of distance that makes it possible to look at people and events with fresh eyes.

One of the reasons why I am drawn to the late 18th and early 19th centuries in particular is that the Romantic Period (and in America the Transcendentalist Movement) were pivotal in setting in motion the historical forces that shaped the modern world. Art, music, literature, politics, science, medicine, philosophy, psychology–all of these disciplines undergo radical transformations in this historical period, which saw a re-centering of the human subject, and we are the inheritors of this re-centering. Right now, I’m working on a new manuscript based in the 20th century, so I’m getting closer to the present, but still there is a temporal distance between my narratives and my subject matter. But regardless of the historical period or the narrative context, I think it’s crucial that the novel is always centered on the fundamental experiences of being human.

December 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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