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
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.