Tag Archives: historical fiction

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.

An Interview with Ethan Rutherford

26 Sep
Ethan Rutherford's story collection The Peripatetic Coffin was X

Ethan Rutherford’s story collection The Peripatetic Coffin was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize and was called “a revelation” by National Book Critics Circle Award Winner Ben Fountain.

The stories collected in Ethan Rutherford’s debut book The Peripatetic Coffin aren’t afraid to tackle big, novelistic premises.  The title story is about the crew of a Confederate submarine during the Civil War. In “Dirwhals!” a whaling ship in the future sails about the sands of an emptied-out Gulf of Mexico, hunting a new kind of whale. And in “The Santa Anna,” the crew members of a Russian ship trapped in Arctic ice slowly succumbs to the inevitability of their situation. The fact that Rutherford pulls off such ambitious stories is a testament to his talent. It’s no surprise that The Peripatetic Coffin was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize.

In this interview, Rutherford discusses his approach to plot, the horrible allure of whaling, and rock and roll as the antidote to the isolation of being a writer.

(To read Rutherford’s story “Dirwhals!” and an exercise based on plot development, click here.)

Michael Noll

I really admire how you up the major plot elements in “Dirwhals!” For instance, when Capt. Tonker warns the crew about the Firsties, you write this: “So, his order: spot the Firsties, and report them, but under no circumstances were we to engage, even if provoked. They had cameras, they wanted us to fire on them, and they would stop at nothing to manufacture an incident, even if it came at great cost to their organization.” This is the proverbial gun on the wall. We know there will be an encounter with the Firsties, and the crew will not follow orders. Some writers are afraid to be so direct, but when I read that scene above, I got excited. It gave me confidence that there would be a payoff for reading to the end. There’s nothing worse than finishing a story and thinking, “Well, what was that all about?” Were you always so direct in the early drafts (and did you always know about the encounter with the Firsties) or was this was the result of revision?

Ethan Rutherford

That’s a great question. I always knew that there would be a confrontation with the Firsties at the end of the story; things always pulled strong in that direction when I stepped back to think about what should—or had to—happen in order to put pressure on the narrator’s sense of who he was, and what he was supposed to be doing out there in the sand. John Gardner has written that in order for an ending to be successful it ought to be both “surprising and inevitable.” That seems like a straightforward assertion, but I’ve spent many a sleepless night, tossing and turning, thinking: what exactly does that mean? The truth is, I always know where a story is headed—I have to know that, or I cannot write it. And so in a story about people who are trying to hunt an endangered, but commercially lucrative, species and the organization trying to save that species, a confrontation struck me as inevitable, and was always the moment I was writing toward. And that, as you point out, was telegraphed from the beginning of the story (the “gun on the wall”). So then what to do about the surprise? I’ve come to understand “surprise” in a story as having less to do with What Happens than with a character’s emotional response to the role he/she has played in bringing these events about. And the surprising part, to me, is that the narrator of this story—who over the course of their hunting voyage has come to glimpse the full, devastating effect of what they are doing—accepts and even embraces his role in this one-sided confrontation, rather than rejecting it. He’s horrified by what he’s doing, but not horrified enough to stop, an emotional shift that should hit him harder than it does.

You don’t want to telegraph too much, but the “gun on the wall” is a great way to create tension, and plot-tension is one way to keep people reading. In the first paragraph of Lolita, we’re told that you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style, and you go: wait, there’s going to be a murder! And so you keep reading just long enough for that book to cast its complete linguistic spell, and you don’t care how sucker-hooked you were from the start (in fact, that’s one of the pleasures of that book).

So, finally, to your question: I tried to hide the moving pieces in this story a little more in the early drafts, but it wasn’t working. Finally I just said: well, I’m not pulling this off. What happens if the stakes are laid out directly, and then I can get on with the more interesting work in the story? And in this particular case, in this story, that happened to work best. I always forget just how long that story is. And since most of the story is just this futuristic sand-mobile cruising around in a desert, not seeing anything at all, it seemed important to let the reader know that if they hung in there until the end, that patience would be rewarded in a devastating way.

Michael Noll

I’ve read stories about the experience of sailing across the ocean and feeling hopelessly lost, but while reading “DIRWHALS!” it was as if I finally understood what it must have been like for the crew of a whaling ship to see a whale leap out of the water. Perhaps it’s an effect of the strangeness of ocean being replaced with sand—that’s what science fiction is all about, right? The defamiliarizing of the familiar? I’m curious if you started out with the premise intact (the futuristic world) or if you wanted to write about whaling but needed a fresh entry to the story.

Ethan Rutherford

I’d wanted to write about “actual” whaling, originally. I spent a summer doing nothing but research on the American whaling industry, and I had two Great Ideas for my Big Novel. The first was that it would be Moby Dick II, picking up where that book stopped, an historical novel that continued the story of the whaling industry, and followed it through to its death-rattle at the end of the 19th century. The second idea was that I’d write a Moby Dick-ish story, but replace the great white whale with a huge giant squid, who was opposed to the laying of the Trans-Atlantic telegraph cable (1854-58) and made his displeasure known. I have a poster depicting such a scenario, and I thought: Ding! Both of those ideas bottomed out on the shoals for one reason or another—mostly, though, because I re-read Moby Dick and thought: well, there’s no topping this.

If you've never read Moby Dick, you can check out the entire text online at The Literature Network. The book's known for its length and lengthy discourses about knot tying, but the first chapter is an old-fashioned adventure yarn.

If you’ve never read Moby Dick, you can check out the entire text online at The Literature Network. The book’s known for its length and lengthy discourses about knot tying, but the first chapter is an old-fashioned adventure yarn.

But what had always interested/horrified me about whaling, though, was the ruthlessness of the enterprise, the shortsightedness of it: that people either didn’t see or didn’t care that what they were doing—or, more specifically, the way they were doing it—all of it only moves one way, and that’s toward extinction. Add to that, near the end of the nineteenth century, if you are a whaler, you are going on expeditions that begin to take years at a time, push you into some seriously forbidding territory—and somewhere in your head you begin to realize your only purpose on the water is the depletion of an increasingly devalued (commercially speaking) natural resource, for which you won’t even be compensated fairly, since all of the money that is to be made is done so by the wealthy people ashore who have financed the expedition. And then, you know, petroleum enters the picture, and renders the entire industry obsolete. Meanwhile, the ocean is just awash in blood, and for what?

Whaling, drilling, fracking, etc. It’s not all the same, but there’s some thematic rhyming going on there, and things are getting much worse, as far as what we are willing to put up with in order to keep things running in a way we find convenient. And science fiction isn’t only about rendering the familiar less so (as you so nicely say above), it’s also about taking the social/economic/theoretical problems inherent in the way we live now and running them, logically—with a little extra juice added, a little exaggeration—to the end of the line. So, long and drifting answer to your question: yes, I wanted to write about whaling, and I think, in the end, I did (the basics of the hunt are the same, the terminology is largely the same). But shifting the story into the future allowed me skew the setting, and allowed me to wrap the story around the themes I found interesting, rather than the other way around. Lighter note? Writing science fiction, the world building that occurs, is just really, really fun. And you are right, this was, at least at first, just a way to write about whaling without having to get too far into the ring with Melville.

Michael Noll

The story is written as a journal-in-letters–a form that is nearly extinct in our social media age. We have personal blogs, of course, but they are written with the knowledge that each post will be read immediately. But the letters in this story won’t be read for months, if ever. As a result, the narrator’s voice sounds almost pre-modern. The sentences are long and carefully phrased, as if the narrator has plenty of time to think before putting the words to paper. For instance, here’s a description of the first Dirwhal sighing: “This creature was enormousness itself, more viscerally alive and mobile than I’d thought possible. We watched as it surfaced again: a dark stain against the sand, winding its rounded bulk across the basin floor, rolling sideways rather than cutting in a straight line as I had always imagined it would move.” This is not a description that was scribbled quickly. It’s deliberative. Did you think consciously about the voice–about how someone in this situation might sound in a letter? Or did the voice simply occur to you?

Ethan Rutherford

I did think about the voice, a lot. In the first draft of the story, it was written more traditionally: linear narrative, first person, present tense. But those choices eventually presented a huge problem for the story I wanted to tell, which was a story that spans a number of years. Time management in short stories can be really difficult—or, I should say, I find it difficult—and I found that each paragraph would open with something like “Five weeks later…”. You can do that once, or twice, three times in a story, perhaps. But in “Dirwhals!” it was getting repetitive, and it became clear that the narrative choices I’d made—the way I was telling the story—was getting in the way of the story I wanted to tell. It wasn’t coming out right at all. Form was determining content, in a bad, bad way.

I’d read a lot of ship’s logs while researching the afore-mentioned Moby Dick II, and it seemed, in many ways, like the perfect way to solve the time issues in the story. I don’t know how many ship’s logs you’ve read, but they’re really wonderful and harrowing in the way they compress time, and lay the mundane next to the extraordinary. You know, one entry will read: “August 14: Good wind today. Corrected course. Everyone in high spirits.” And two entries later it’s something like: “October 2: Ship now fully encased in ice. Four men lost overboard in rough crossing. Polar bears becoming a problem. Cabin lamps performing well.” So I took a week, and put the whole thing into a ship’s log of sorts, and was thrilled by that. It solved all of my time problems, and also moved a lot of drama that was necessary to the story off-stage, and into exposition (another way to compress your story). The story still wasn’t working, though.

Then my editor at Ecco, Libby Edelson, read the story and said: you know, it’s a fine ship’s log, but who cares? His relationship with his sister is the emotional heart of the thing for me, and you’re ignoring it. Why don’t you see if you can make this log, somehow, into letters for her? And that snapped the entire story into shape for me. I’ll never be able to thank her enough. That suggestion also gave the voice a chance to stretch out a little: to formalize, to set scenes, to become baroque and self-conscious. A ship’s log is exclusively detail. When you are writing a letter—to someone you miss, and feel, perhaps, you’ve wronged—you try, a little harder, to bring scenes to life, you chose your words a little more carefully; you try to explain your actions—to yourself, to another person—and ask for love and forgiveness in return.

Michael Noll

Every writer I know secretly wishes they were a musician. I guess the experience of playing music live, of watching the audience absorb and react to your art, sounds good when you’re locked away by yourself, writing. There’s no comparable experience for a writer. At live readings, you have to pay attention to the words that you’re reading. You can’t look up and watch the audience for more than a few seconds. But you get to do both! (I’ll include a link to Pennyroyal’s website.) How does the life of a writer mesh with the writing life? Do they feed each other? Compete?

Ethan Rutherford

Ethan Rutherford is a member of Pennyroyal, a 4-piece rock band based in Minneapolis. The band's latest album is Baby I'm Against It.

Ethan Rutherford is a member of Pennyroyal, a 4-piece rock band based in Minneapolis. The band’s latest album is Baby I’m Against It.

Ha! Right. And when you do look up at a reading, it’s not like you’re not making anyone dance, no matter how much they might be enjoying your version of a “radio voice” (unless, of course, they’ve put the podium directly in front of the bathroom, which I have seen with my own eyes). To a certain degree, though, performance is performance, you’re trying to get something across, and it’s wonderful and thrilling and scary to get up in front of any size crowd and share something you’ve worked hard on. I get the flop-sweats to exactly the same degree before readings and concerts. The difference for me comes, I suppose, in the composition. When you’re writing a song, or ironing out the kinks, you are doing it with three other people, in real time, and you just know if it’s working or not. You know the sour notes as you hit them. When writing, I’ve found that it can take me years to figure out where the sour notes are. What I like about the process of creating music is exactly the opposite of what I like about writing. Being in a band, for me, is about camaraderie, compromise (in a good way! Perhaps teamwork is a better way to put it), and immediacy. Writing requires a great deal of patience, determination, and the weird desire to project a world of your own making. Writing also requires a particular and pleasurable kind of solitude that can veer, quickly, into loneliness. So you can see how the writing/music split is, in some ways, self-medication. When I’ve spent too much time alone, music can pull me out of that. And when I’ve had enough of being around other people, I know it’s time to go back to the writing desk. I’m a recent father, though, so this last year has really put that creative theory to the test, in the best way possible. My time isn’t my own anymore, not the way it once was. So I’m getting better at doing a little bit here, and a little bit there, and seeing where it all lands at the end of the week.

September 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

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