Tag Archives: prologues

An Interview with Alexandra Burt

9 Mar

Alexandra Burt is the author of the bestselling Remember Mia. Her new novel is The Good Daughter.

Alexandra Burt is the author of the novels Remember Mia and The Good Daughter. She was born in Fulda, Germany, a baroque town in the East Hesse Highlands. Days after her college graduation she boarded a flight to the U.S. She ended up in Texas, married, and explored a career in the student loan industry. After the birth of her daughter she became a freelance translator, determined to acknowledge the voice in the back of her head prompting her to break into literary translations.  The union never panned out and she decided to tell her own stories. She currently lives in Central Texas with her husband, her daughter, and two Chocolate Labrador Retrievers.  One day she wants to live on a farm and offer old arthritic dogs a comfy couch to live out their lives. She wouldn’t mind a few rescue goats, chickens, and cats. The more the merrier. She is a member of Sisters In Crime, a nationwide network of women crime writers.

To read an excerpt from Burt’s new novel The Good Daughter and an exercise on moving between exterior action and interiority, click here.

In this interview, Burt discusses prologues, shifting between time periods in a novel, and the lure and importance of setting.

Michael Noll

I really admire the prologue of The Good Daughter, which does the work that so many prologues do: setting up situation, creating suspense. But it also spends time in Dahlia’s head, building her as a character, which can be difficult to do when you’re focused on hooking readers with story. How did you approach this prologue? Was it written early or late in the process?

Alexandra Burt

Prologues shouldn’t be too elusive, after all we don’t care about the characters, haven’t even met them yet. You can reveal character and move the plot along at the same time, like an opening scene in a movie. In The Good Daughter I wanted to create suspense and arouse curiosity regarding plot as well as characters.

The prologue was written early on as a vignette, it was the moment two characters meet; Dahlia as a child doing what she spent the better part of her life doing, going from place to place without really belonging, wondering what’s in store in the next state, the next city. It is a crossroads of sorts for the main character, a metaphor for her life and the beginning of putting down roots in Aurora, Texas. She has an encyclopedia in her lap and if she can’t figure where she’s going, she can at least look up the meanings of words she encounters along her journey. So in a way she does what she’s going to do for the entire novel: figuring out the meaning of her memories, her mother’s stories. The prologue is also chockfull of symbols: the first few pages of the encyclopedia are missing, the number seven (the seeker of truth), Red Vines turning her lips crimson. I play with symbolism a lot, sometimes on purpose, sometimes it’s just the way my scrabble ends up on the page. It is also very concrete in being a scene at a diner, a suspicious meeting by the side of the road. A prologue can do many things, like the opening scene of a movie.

Michael Noll

The novel moves back and forth between Dahlia’s present and past. Moves like this can be a risk in that readers become so engaged in one story line and moment that the shift in time feels like an interruption. That isn’t the case here. Did you move back and forth as you wrote, or did you focus on one and then the other before breaking them into pieces?

Alexandra Burt

Alexandra Burt’s novel The Good Daughter tells the story of a woman uncovering secrets from her childhood that some people don’t want her to answer.

I immensely enjoy novels that move back and forth between present and past—The Weight of Water by Anta Shreve comes to mind—but moving back and forth can be a tricky structure, I agree. Advantages of a dual timeline are a deeper plot and theme and greater character development. Disadvantages are that readers lose interest or get confused and frustrated. One can lose a reader at the drop of a dime unless both storylines are equally captivating.

The characters in The Good Daughter fed off each other and I jumped back and forth as I wrote. I had a plot in mind but I allowed the present and past to feed off each other. There was a tangible connection that I explored as I went along—the past had never died, its symbol the farmhouse that stood untouched for decades. I had to pay close attention to the transitions and really connect the two plots toward the end of the story. In general, there should be a strong relationship between the two plots, geographically, symbolically, or otherwise, and both stories must be strong in their own right.

Michael Noll

The novel is a mystery, but it’s also in many ways a quiet novel about a particular place. I’m curious which of these elements—the mystery or the sense of place—first drew you to these characters and story?

Alexandra Burt

It began as a mystery in a Texas setting: a body in the woods, an olfactory disorder, and a possible serial killer. The original title was Scent of a Crime. At some point I realized that I wanted to add another layer to the novel; I may have constructed a plot-driven mystery but something was amiss. I wanted the setting to be a character in itself and in many ways the story required a kind of Texas that was deeper than tacos and football and rodeos—forgive me for stereotyping—a Texas that could seep into the reader’s pores. I imagined a small town forgotten by time but also a place where secrets don’t die, where buildings sit untouched for decades, where the ghosts of the past remain. Once Aurora came alive, the story changed from plot-driven to a more character-driven novel. There is history wherever you go all over this country, some well-known and documented, but there need not be a historical marker or tourist attraction in order to tell a story about the place and the people. Aurora, though fictional, was such a place; once I imagined it, there was no going back and it took on a life of its own.

Michael Noll

You’re a member of Sisters in Crime, the national network of women crime writers–and I know there’s an active group here in Austin. A lot of writers are familiar with MFA programs and don’t necessarily know about groups like Sisters in Crime. What role has the group played in your development as a writer?

Alexandra Burt

I live about an hour north of Austin and I can’t participate in meetings as much as I want to, unfortunately. As a writer—and writing is a solitary profession—we need to belong and network and support each other. There still is a gender bias when it comes to women writing crime, even though women seem to dominate the headlines ever since Gone Girl hit he shelves. But the numbers speak to a deeper truth: only one third of published authors across all genres are women and therefore, by default, books written by men will be disproportionately reviewed more in the media and consequently men win more awards than women. It is important for women to support each other.

There are local chapters all over the country, even a special chapter, The GUPPIES, with beginning writers who share publishing information and offer critique groups. The organization has been around since 1986 and has been thriving ever since. We are here to stay.

“You write alone, but you are not alone with Sisters,” as they say.

March 2017

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

An Interview with Ru Freeman

4 May
Ru Freeman's novel On Sal Mal Lane was called, by Cheryl Strayed,

Ru Freeman’s novel On Sal Mal Lane was called, by Cheryl Strayed, “Piercingly intelligent and shatter-your-heart profound.”

Ru Freeman was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and is the author of the novels Disobedient Girl and On Sal Mal Lane. She is also the editor of the forthcoming anthology, Extraordinary Rendition, a collection of the voices of American poets and writers speaking about America’s dis/engagement with Palestine. She has worked in the field of American and international humanitarian assistance and workers’ rights, and her political writing has appeared in English and in translation. Her creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in VQR, Guernica, World Literature Today and elsewhere. She is a contributing editorial board member of the Asian American Literary Review and a fellow of the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Freeman won the 2014 Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for Fiction by an American Woman. She calls both Sri Lanka and America home.

To read an exercise on using an omniscient narrator and an excerpt from Freeman’s novel, On Sal Mal Laneclick here.

In this interview, Freeman discusses the challenges of explaining historical context in a novel and creating an omniscient narrator and the politics of Sri Lanka and On Sal Mal Lane.

Michael Noll

On Sal Mal Lane begins with a prologue that functions very much like the infamous prologue to Star Wars. It sets up the politics, geography, and history of the place—and also indicates that, in the story’s beginning at least, the major conflict is some miles away from the main characters. What was your approach to this prologue? Do you think it would have been written the same if you could assume that your readers knew a lot about Sri Lanka and its civil war?

Ru Freeman

I like the way you use that to discuss the book. The prologue in this form was added after I had written the first draft. The original prologue, several pages longer, focused mainly on the characters, and all of it eventually got whittled down to that last paragraph. When I finished writing the book, I felt that there was a sense of longer-term history that couldn’t be contained within the main text of the book without burdening it with those kinds of explanatory treatises on history that can kill momentum. It was necessary that people understood that there was this regional and international context, this history of colonization and brutality, but also that, in the end, none of those things were relevant to the daily lives of ordinary people like those who lived on Sal Mal Lane. As a way of tracing immediate history to a pivotal moment, I included the murder of Alfred Duraiappah and the call to war by Prabhakaran. Whether people knew this history or not, setting it down with those few brushstrokes helped to establish the voice of the narrator who is, to continue with your image, a Yoda like character who knew all that came before and all that was to come to pass and could maintain both warmth and distance from every composite part of the story—the human and the inanimate.

Michael Noll

The prologue also has this remarkable pair of sentences:

“And who, you might ask, am I? I am nothing more than the air that passes through these homes, lingering in the verandas where husbands and wives revisited their days and examined their prospects in comparison to those of their neighbors.”

In essence, you have created an omniscient narrator and then embodied it in something of the novel’s world. Was this a conscious decision—in response, perhaps, to readers or yourself wondering who was speaking? Or did these sentences arise spontaneously in an early draft?

Ru Freeman

Ru Freeman's novel On Sal Mal Lane

Ru Freeman’s novel On Sal Mal Lane “soars [with] its sensory beauty, language and humor,” according to a New York Times review.

It was an asking of myself as I tried to wrap my head around this voice that had come into being while writing the earlier version of the prologue, and the novel itself. It occurred to me that the narrator here was someone (or in this case perhaps something, the road), who was intimately familiar with the this place, with compassion for everyone, but a particularly keen fondness for two of the characters, Mr. Niles, and Nihil. In the scheme of things there is no one main character here, but the ties that bind these two are elevated above all the other bonds that form—and are broken— between the people of Sal Mal Lane. Why this voice lingered over those two characters got me thinking about the entity to whom the voice belonged. So, it was spontaneous, in one sense, but also deliberate.

Michael Noll

Each chapter gets a title. Obviously this is something that some books do and some don’t. What made you choose to title them?

Ru Freeman

In my first novel, I alternated the story between Biso (an older woman leaving an abusive husband, taking her three children with her on a journey that lasts just about 36 hours, all related in the first person), and Latha (a little girl who comes to live in a house as a companion to a girl her own age who lives there, and whose story covers about three decades and is told in the third person). When I began this book, I imagined that I’d write it by alternating the voices of the children, staying close to each in turn, sort of like what Barbara Kingsolver did with Poisonwood Bible. I must have written about a third of the book when I began to feel oppressed by this framework. I abandoned it as a strict guideline and began to simply write the story, though, as you can perhaps tell, I do concentrate on one or the other of the children as I go along, at least in certain parts. I decided to break the book up by year into sections, and then title the chapters. I enjoyed coming up with those titles. It’s not something people do too often, as you point out, but it is a lot of fun and if I’m having fun then the writing tends to be better than when I’m straining.

Michael Noll

At the risk of veering into politics, I was reading this novel when Sri Lanka held its presidential election in January, and so I couldn’t help holding the two events (the events of the novel and the election) side by side. In the novel, animosity is rising between Tamils and Sinhalese. Now, the war is over, and the minority groups (including the Tamils) who suffered during it have managed to vote out the president who claimed credit for ending the war. Do you imagine Sal Mal Lane today? Do the current events cause you to think about the years of the novel in a different light or way?

Ru Freeman

Freeman's website contains what is, perhaps, the most comprehensive list in existence of Sri Lankan writers.

Freeman’s website contains what is, perhaps, the most comprehensive list in existence of Sri Lankan writers.

There is never a veering into, I think. We are always situated quite firmly and centrally in the middle of politics. As far as the election goes, while it is true that many ordinary citizens came together to vote out the former president, there were machinations that went beyond Sri Lanka, including the United States, to bring the current one into power. When I hear the rhetoric from the new leadership, I don’t feel optimistic; the alignment of the new president is with the United National Party, which in its time of power reigned over the massacre of more than 60,000 youth. The language used is old, it panders to American interests, and it is, frankly, disorderly. That combination can be deadly in a country like Sri Lanka, with a highly educated, enfranchised, and engaged civil populace.

Be that as it may, the Sal Mal Lanes of my country never disappeared. They went on through another quarter century of war, they mended fences, came apart, celebrated and mourned. There was a weight felt by everybody as they did these things, that was only lifted in May 2009, when the war officially ended, when the walls and barricades and checkpoints were dismantled, and the soldiers went to work on reconstruction and other support work. Devi, therefore, was a symbol to me of a fragile beauty that underlined all life in Sri Lanka, as well as a stand-on for the country itself. How people dealt with her presence and absence was and is similar to how they dealt with what happened during those decades of war.

May 2015

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

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