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Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight

May 11, 2005

Ginger Strand *92 on writing: ‘Sometimes it happens like magic’

Following are excerpts of an interview with Ginger Strand *92, author of Flight, by Katherine Federici Greenwood, PAW associate editor. An article on Strand and her new book appears in PAW’s May 11 issue.

You’ve said that in addition to writing fiction, you also continue to do freelance corporate-communications writing and consulting?

I do a lot of contract writing and copywriting. You can’t really make a living writing fiction. … I’m currently writing a brochure for a guy who makes large machinery. I wrote a subscription brochure for Jazz at Lincoln Center.

That pays the bills?


I actually found that having to do copywriting is really good for my writing, oddly enough. For a while after coming out of academia, I wrote like an academic. And my boss at the consulting firm [where Strand worked after leaving academia] … made me read the Daily News every day. He wanted to downgrade my style, get me to use shorter words and shorter sentences. I would hand him a draft of something, and he would look over it and say, “Take out every third word.” … It forced me to become really facile with writing, able to just sit down and do it — which is a problem for a lot of writers. Also it helped me to hone the style and make it cleaner. You learn about economy.

How has your academic work influenced your fiction writing?

All writers are readers. Right? Everybody’s own style is a sort of room with everything they’ve ever read echoing in it. It took me all the way through college and graduate school to become a good reader. That helped.

But you have to work very hard not to let the critic in you dictate as you’re writing. That’s been a struggle for me. Every now and then I’ll be writing and I’ll find myself thinking something like “This is picking up on the theme of …” And I go, “Stop! Don’t analyze it as you’re writing it.” You want to work from something more emotional and less planned. Otherwise it sounds too programmatic.

What do you mean by a good reader?

I mean a reader who really pays attention and works her way into what the author is trying to do.

You’ve said that even as you were in academia and publishing scholarly articles, there was something about writing fiction that wouldn’t let you go. What do you mean by that? What wouldn’t let you go?

I think that there are stories everywhere. Writers tend to see the world as crammed from top to bottom with potential stories. … [For example:] Recently I was having dinner with a friend who lives in Argentina. He was visiting. And he said, “Oh, it’s so funny down there. The culture is completely different. I was down at the paint shop or something, and as I left they gave me a calendar.” He pulled out the calendar and showed it to me. It had a pornographic picture on the back. It was like one of these classic 1950s auto-mechanic naked-lady calendars. … He said that he was carrying it around in his wallet, and his daughter, who I think is 9 or 10, saw it and asked, “Who is that?” And he said without thinking, “Oh, that’s mom when she was younger.” And that is like a little stone logged in my head, and I rolled it over and over and over again. Now it’s the germ of a story.

You said that your novel, Flight, started as a collection of short stories, and you showed it to your agent who told you that there was a novel waiting to come out. How did you go about rewriting the stories into a novel?

There wasn’t really a plot in the stories. They didn’t have a forward motion. They were adding up to a kind of portrait of the family, but they didn’t have that breathless forward motion that a novel has, that draws you on. … The characters were so alive for me that it wasn’t hard to give them that. Once you really know your characters, you can do anything with them. You can take them to the circus, you can put them on a lifeboat and send them to a deserted island. … It took four months [to turn it into a novel], which is really fast. That’s because the characters were entirely there, their histories were there. The story I wanted to tell was there.

Like your father, one of the main characters in the novel, Will, is a commercial airline pilot for TWA. What are other similarities between your father and Will?

The sense of a man kind of bewildered by the turns the world has taken, somewhat betrayed by the way his career has gone, but trying to do right. … And I was interested in writing about a man who is trying to do right, who is really trying to do the right thing. Because … we’ve really gotten away from the idea of heroes. We’re very skeptical, cynical. … We like to see a dark, seething heart of evil. I think good is more interesting than evil and more complex.

How do you get into the heads of your characters?

I wish I knew. Sometimes it happens like magic. Sometimes you can research your way into a character’s head. But you can’t really. One of the hardest parts of the novel for me was writing the war sections. I read all these accounts from pilots…. I talked to people who had flown these kinds of airplanes to get a sense of what it feels like … [for example,] when the plane goes upside down and you’re looking up to see the ground. … And then I don’t know. At heart all of that is just the trappings, just the outside. … You have to have a sense of your character’s insides. And honestly I think that’s one of the mysteries of writing. I know that for me, Leanne was the person I struggled with most to get to that point. She was written and rewritten and rewritten, because I could imagine the features, the outlines, the day-to-day experiences of her life really well. She lived in New York. She was a person not unlike me. But figuring out who she was at the heart was the hardest nut to crack. … I’m not answering your question because I can’t.

Is there a quote or passage in Flight that sums up what the book means to you?

The image that is really central to the book is the story that Will tells and gets retold by other members of the family. … The story he tells about when he was young all he would do is look up at the sky and see the airplanes flying over and think, “I wish I were up there.” And now that he’s in the sky, all he does is fly over the earth and think, “I wish I were down there.” That is to me what it is to be human – in some sense, always to be malcontent. … always to be looking at the other side, wondering.