Sunday, February 10, 2008

One Writer's Process: Gloria Whelan

Gloria Whelan is the kind of writer who doesn't merely write stories, she inhabits them, creating imaginary worlds in places as far-away as Russia, China, India, Turkey, and Mali, as well as closer to her home in northern Michigan.

"When I find the world I want to ... live in," writes Whelan, "I have no trouble sitting down each day to the computer. My only worry is if I can communicate what I have learned and what I feel."

A gifted stylist whose observations about foreign landscapes and insights into her characters have earned her a myriad of awards for her work, Whelan says that as a child she "made up stories before she could write," and admits that writing is difficult work, especially those first tentative steps that a writer must make in order to find his or her story.

Yet over the years Whelan has persevered to create an impressive and critically acclaimed body of work that includes more than two dozen titles, such as Homeless Bird, a National Book Award winner, Listening for Lions (starred review in Booklist), and Summer of the War (starred review in Kirkus).

Whelan was kind enough to interrupt her work to share her thoughts on writing with Wordswimmer:

Susan Sontag in her novel, In America, wrote, "What is the point of telling stories if not to stir up the longing everyone harbors for an alternative life?" I have traveled far and experienced much in my novels. I have had so many alternative lives. That's the exciting thing about writing.

I've traveled through the West, to Africa, Russia, China, India. Some of these places I have actually visited. All of them I have researched. What draws me to these stories is not exotic differences but the amazing similarity I find to my own life.

I get cookbooks and bird books and travel books and history books, and all of that information is interesting. But once you get past the birds and the food and begin to experience what people experience, it is all the same: love, hunger, fear, hate, and friendship.

Though the politically correct would censor what authors can write about, I am convinced we can write about other cultures--not because of our differences, which are relatively small, but because of all we share.

It's the excitement of these alternatives that I try to pass on.

Susan Sontag takes us to the Poland and California of the 19th century. Isabel Colegate writes about England on the brink of World War I. Penelope Fitzgerald takes us to the Germany of Goethe. Such books succeed because their authors inhabit them so completely, and what fun they must have had doing it.

When I find the world I want to explore, want to live in, I have no trouble sitting down each day to the computer. My only worry is: can I communicate what I have learned and what I feel?

The most difficult part is beginning a story. You have an idea in your head and that idea is vivid and fascinating and will make the best novel in the world, and after you have written it down you are appalled. It's not at all like the idea in your head--in fact, it's boring.

The putting down of the first draft is the process I find most difficult. There is a bird who makes its nest by pulling the feathers from its own bloody breast. That is what a first draft is like. The rooms aren't furnished. The characters have no faces and no clothes. The countryside has no trees or flowers or weather. The characters themselves are cardboard with no likes or dislikes. You would not want to spend five minutes with them.

E. L. Doctorow says that writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird, my favorite book on writing, says you must develop a quiet doggedness. On the other hand, she says, perfectionism will only drive you mad.

It is only in the process of revision that we hopefully and gradually get our vision back, or at least approach it.

Tobias Wolff, in explaining why he never kept his first drafts, said, "They're not interesting to me but they might be interesting to somebody who wanted to see just how dramatic a difference revision can make to a hopeless writer, to give everyone else hope."

You have only to read the first drafts of novels like The Great Gatsby to learn how right Wolff is.

Though we may be writing about a place we have not been or people we have not known, here is the paradox: we do at last write what we know, for we can't write anything else.

Eudora Welty says, "any writer is in part all of his characters. How otherwise would they be known to him, occur to him, become what they are?"

That's what makes our writing so unique. If we write honestly, no one in the world can write the book that we write. That book will be unique.

Flannery O'Conner says that anyone who has survived childhood has enough to write about for the rest of their lives. Eudora Welty says, "I suspect it is when you can write most entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page."

But she also says something else.

In discussing one of her characters, Miss Eckhart in "June Recital," she writes, "As I looked longer and longer for the origins of this passionate and strange character, at last I realized that Miss Eckhart came from me.... she derived from what I already knew for myself, even felt I had always known. What I have put into her is my passion for my work, my own art."

And maybe that is what writing must be: passion for living a story and then telling that story as well as you can tell it. So they are not alternative lives after all, just aspects of our own.

For more information about Gloria Whelan and her work, visit her website:

For additional interviews with Whelan, visit:


Barbara O'Connor said...

This was wonderful - so much food for thought and great wisdom.

Bruce Black said...

And Gloria's comment on first drafts... like a bird "pulling the feathers from its own bloody breast"...wasn't that just amazing?