Author Q&A: Bryn Greenwood

Bryn Greenwood is a fourth-generation Kansan and the daughter of a mostly reformed drug dealer. She earned a MA in Creative Writing and continues to work in academia as an administrator. She is the author All the Ugly and Wonderful Things (August 2016, Thomas Dunne Books) and the small press novels Last Will and Lie Lay Lain. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas.

TBL Author Q&A Series: Bryn Greenwood

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path?

Even as a small, illiterate child, I was obsessed with books and stories, but being a writer is not something that’s much embraced in rural, western America as a viable career path. When I got to college, however, I started meeting writers. As an undergraduate, I was an editorial intern for Kansas Quarterly for several years. I remember answering the office phone one day, and the person on the other end was Bill Stafford. This would have been 1988, when I was all of seventeen, and I realized, I am talking on the phone with a Poet Laureate. That was a revelation to me. Writers were real people, and in some instances, people who came from backwater places in Kansas and later wrote important things. After that, I took my first creative writing class with Ben Nyberg, who was the editor at KQ. He was the first person to suggest to me that writing stories was something I could do. Something I should do.

You’ve published several books, the most recent being All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, which had a unique path to print– what can you tell us about the publication process?

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is the most rejected book in my writing life. Over the course of two years, I queried 122 agents with the project, and they all declined to represent it. In a rather Lana-Turner-in-a-soda-shop development, I didn’t find an agent. My agent found me. She read one of my small press books and contacted me to ask if I had representation. I sent her the manuscript, and three days later I had an agent. It’s a powerful reminder that luck plays a huge role in publishing success, and that publishing itself doesn’t always know what it wants or what will succeed. Otherwise, there’s no way to understand how 122 agents didn’t think my book was saleable, but agent #123 sold the exact same book at auction to a Big 5 publisher.

Recent Man Booker prize winner Paul Beatty said “fiction should not be comfortable.” You have received mixed reviews from readers, some of which you have addressed in your blog. How does your novel make readers “uncomfortable”? And secondly, how do you approach criticism?

Primarily, my book makes readers uncomfortable because it asks them to withhold judgment on a topic that we like to think is very black and white, namely the sexual consent of adolescents. It involves a friendship between a young girl, Wavy, and an adult man, Kellen, that develops into a romantic relationship. Because people often have kneejerk reactions to the issue of adolescent sexuality, they tend to believe that if a story doesn’t condemn that relationship it must be glorifying it. I don’t think my book does either. It’s a pretty raw, unsentimental look at how children in dysfunctional families seek out relationships that may be inappropriate and damaging, but may also be useful and healthy.

As for criticism, my response depends a great deal on the source and the context. From people I know and people who have authority on a subject, I am always open to receive and process criticism. After all, like most writers I know, in the early stages of a project, I actively seek out criticism. From random strangers on the internet, I ignore it. After all, you can’t and shouldn’t try to please everybody.

Can you discuss the themes and topics that entice and inspire you most? In what ways has your writing evolved throughout your career?

As is evidenced by my current book, one of my obsessions is the body. Issues of consent and bodily sovereignty are hugely important to me. Who controls our bodies, how, and why? Also, the question of what “normal” is with regard to the body, its place in our society, and how bodies are policed for normalcy. I’m also caught up in looking at how we process trauma, mentally, emotionally, and physically. Another one of my interests that is often dismissed is romantic love. I often see readers dismiss romantic subplots as filler or “unnecessary,” and yet we expend enormous amounts of emotional energy on pursuing romantic love, processing our feelings, and dealing with the aftermath of romantic relationships. To me, writing sincerely about romantic love is important.

One of the biggest evolutions for me as a writer has been to release my fear that I’m not doing this right. I tend to massively over-write, producing tens of thousands (and sometimes hundreds of thousands) of words more than I need for a novel. I used to think it was a failure. Now I accept that it’s part of my process. That process has always led me to have multiple narrative arcs in my novels. Fifteen years ago, when I sent out novels with three or four narrators, agents and editors would come back to me and say, “You can’t do that. Nobody will buy that.” Now, suddenly, multiple narrators is a “thing”, and the editors who bid on All the Ugly and Wonderful Things didn’t so much as bat an eye at the fact that it has 16 narrators.

What/who are some of your greatest literary influences?

This is such a tricky question, because we often imagine that literary influences will be evident in a writer’s work, but I don’t find that’s true. As an example, I would identify Anthony Trollope as a writer who has had enormous influence on me, but in reading my work, I don’t think anyone is going to say, “Oh, hey, you can really tell that she was influenced by Trollope.” This is primarily because I’m not necessarily writing the kinds of things that he wrote. I’m a woman, writing from western America in the twenty-first century, so the books I produce don’t look much like those of an English gentleman novelist writing in the nineteenth century. What influenced me was the way Trollope looked so unflinchingly at his characters. Not without compassion, but without sentimentality. He has no perfect lovers, and even the noblest of his characters have weaknesses and selfish motivations, as do we all.

With that notion of influence established, I feel that Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, and Ursula K. LeGuin are some of my other literary influences. They are writers who affected the way I view the world.

What would you say is the most important element for crafting a novel?

For me, the most important element is character. I have to know my characters intimately before anything remotely resembling a novel can be produced. I don’t have the gift of outlining, and plots and premises don’t come to me with any ease. What do come to me are characters. My brain is a bit like a laundromat. People come in and out with their dirty laundry and, as I get to know them, I start to understand the things that have happened to them, are happening to them, and will happen to them. For me, that’s how plots develop. If you have a person who wants something–and everybody wants something–they will produce their own story in their attempts to get the thing that they want.

In his novel The Desert of Love, Francois Mauriac writes “we are, all of us, molded and remolded by those who have loved us, and though that love may pass, we remain none the less their work—a work that very likely they do not recognize, and which is never exactly what they intended.” Do you think Wavy, the main character of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, has been molded and remolded by those that love her?

I think that’s an apt description, regardless of how we interpret the idea of love. As little as we may like to believe it, Wavy’s mother loves her. That maternal love happens to be incredibly destructive, layering cicatrix upon cicatrix in Wavy’s life and within her self. There’s a photograph I’ve seen of a sea turtle whose shell has been narrowed to an hourglass by the introduction of a simple ring of plastic when the turtle was young. The love Wavy receives from her mother has done something similar to her, through the development of all these narrow rules intended to keep her safe.

Conversely, Kellen’s love is an open and opening thing. What he offers Wavy can’t undo the stricture of her mother’s love, but it allows Wavy to expand in other ways. Of course, there’s a high cost to unconditional love, both for the giver and the receiver, and Kellen’s love gives Wavy room to remold herself in ways that other adults in her life do not approve of.

Is there a particular achievement or experience that has opened up the most opportunity for your writing?

To be quite blunt, the most important opportunity I’ve had for my writing was getting an agent with substantial contacts within publishing. I have always been something of an outsider in the literary community. I’ve been writing and publishing for almost two decades. I’ve never won awards for my writing. I don’t get invited to writing conferences or workshops. With few exceptions, I’m not much asked to weigh in on craft. I just write, and thankfully, my agent is in the business of getting my work published.

What guidance might you give to fledgling writers and artists?

Study the art and artists that you find compelling. Commit to the work you feel passionately about. You don’t need to follow trends or study up on schools of thought. If you’re serious about the art you want to pursue, put your whole self into it, but don’t expect to make a living at it. I don’t think it damages art when you start worrying about paying the bills with your art. I think it’s simply depressing and overwhelming to put that kind of pressure on yourself. In my day job, I’m a secretary, and although the money I’ve earned from my novel has been a marvel to my household economy, I would hate to find myself depending on being able to sell the next book. I’d rather type 85 words per minute to pay the mortgage, and write the thing I want to write.

What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?

Of course, I hope to sell the next book, and have readers connect with it to the degree that they’ve connected to All the Ugly and Wonderful Things.

As for craft considerations, what I’m confronting with my two current projects is the effect of new technologies on the stories we tell. I want to do justice to this cultural shift on multiple levels. For example, we live in a world where reality is easily manipulated through technology. If I compare my levels of skepticism about photographs, films, and news stories now to my levels even ten years ago, there has been a huge shift. I simply don’t trust what I see unless I see it with my own eyes. I believe this has serious implications within storytelling for a modern audience.

In even smaller ways, changes in technology have altered the way we communicate, and the way we report communication as writers. In novels, we’ve come to accept said as a nearly invisible dialogue referent for face-to-face and telephonic conversations, but does it work as well when we’re using it to report text and online chat conversations? Similarly, the ellipsis in spoken dialogue tells us that a sentence or thought is left unfinished. It implies hesitation, even uncertainty. In text conversations, that flashing ellipsis gives us the tantalizing suggestion that the person on the other end is typing a response, but because we can’t see the person, it’s freighted with all kinds of other implications. When the ellipsis abruptly disappears and no new text appears, this is a profoundly different communication experience than when a face-to-face conversation trails into silence. How do we convey these sorts of things to readers in meaningful ways?

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