“I’ve grown to trust that I have the answers to story problems somewhere in my head or at least in some brainstorming activity I can employ. Trusting that I will solve the problem allows me to let go of the problem and once I let go, answers start bubbling up. This comes from the act of working at craft over a period of time, failing, and then eventually succeeding. It works for writing, it works for life.” ~Gay Degani
Gay Degani is a writer and friend whom I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for many years. We first “met” on the Zoetrope Virtual Studios site where we were both writing flash fiction. She is well-known and respected in the lit community and manages to do so many things I suspect she has cloned herself. I was eager to get Gay here on my blog to talk about her new novel, What Came Before, and just to chat in general about the craft of writing. Life kept interrupting us both, but we enjoyed a fun email exchange over the course of a few weeks.
Get the book!
If you aren’t familiar with the book here is a synopsis from the jacket copy: “A literary suspense novel sparked by racial tensions and family history. Fed up with being tied down by twenty-five years of domestic bliss and everyone’s expectations, Abbie Palmer is struggling to assert some independence from her husband Craig and find her creative self. When he tells her, “No man is an island,” she flings back, “That’s exactly what I want to be, an island. I’m sick of being a whole continent.” But breaking away from her mainland isn’t so easy, what with cops, Molotov cocktails and Hollywood starlets, lost memories – and maybe an unknown half-sister…”
KF: Gay, my first question comes from having read a blog post of yours about an incident from your young life that I’ll quote here:
“I stood in front of two water fountains. I’d never had a choice like this before. Not in California.
One was labeled “white” and one was labeled “colored.” What would most little kids choose? I chose “colored,” of course, because to my mind that meant the water would come out like a rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple. When it didn’t, I was disappointed. I tried the white one. The two sprays of water were exactly the same. I was confused and angry.
I ran back to my grandpa. He said one was for white people, the other was for “colored” people. When I asked why, he just shrugged. I don’t remember for sure, but I think it was my father who explained it to me, that this kind of thing existed in the world.
And I wish I could say I knew instinctively at that young age the wrongness of it, but I didn’t. It’s something I have learned as I’ve grown into myself, through reading, through the experiences of the growing up in the fifties and sixties, through watching the news filled with civil rights marches, the Watts riots, and assassinations (MLK, Medgar Evers, Malcom X), how human beings tend to exist in a real world. “What Came Before” springs from a desire to show that people are more alike than different and that our differences enrich us.”
So could you talk a little about what went into your decision to have the character of Makenna be African-American?
GD: Originally, my concept for this story was simple: write a fast and funny story about a woman whose life goes awry when a sister she didn’t know existed is murdered and she’s stuck with her “niece,” me thinking “Ruthless People,” “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” “Beverly Hills Cop,” something reminiscent of an 80’s comedy.
I’d been writing screenplays and had turned one of them into a novel when I realized how hard it is to negotiate around in the movie business and I was totally inhibited by pitching stories and selling myself. Novels felt safer and more clear-cut with less schmoozing. Little did I know…
At first, the “niece” character was white and the whole thing felt flat to me. There was no surprise. I’d been interning at Chaffey College to teach English and the woman in charge of the program was African-American and did a class on some of the things she felt white people didn’t understand about racism, addressing the subtle cues people send out even though they think of themselves as open-minded liberals, but often say or do things that are offensive to people of color. It was an eye-opening for me. I decided to make the niece African-American, though for me, a timid soul who steers clear of controversy, it was a somewhat frightening idea. What if I unintentionally wrote something that would anger people? But I wanted to do it, needed to do it for my own growth, and suddenly, a whole new, deeper story began to emerge.
KF: What happened that made you move away from the original fast and funny idea to something deeper, Gay? (take this question any direction you want).
GD: The simple and most accurate answer is that the story became deeper through my own growing love for my two main characters and wanting to tell their story in a way that would make readers love them too. And I wasn’t sure how to do that.
Honestly, it’s taken me a long long time to understand what elements a story must have to be “good,” and like so many writers who just start writing without the benefit of a structured program, I didn’t “get” that there are common elements in most successful stories, including a need for tension between the two main characters. Lesson: Two characters who get along from the get-go are boring, therefore if you have two protagonists, they cannot get along. And it was from seeing the world from my two characters different viewpoints that made me care about them.
I figured this out by taking screenwriting guru Robert McKee’s advice. (He wrote a terrific book on structure called Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting). He suggests that by studying movies to learn how story and structure work, you will begin to understand that the audience (or readers) have certain expectations and how good movies (and good books) meet those expectations. “Outrageous Fortune” and “Trading Places” were perfect illustrations for me to figure out how the main relationship in a piece of fiction should work. Once I realized the story needed to have tension between the two main characters, I knew I wanted to find ways to cause friction between Abbie and Makenna.
I wanted to create characters–especially Makenna–who would be believable and not trite. The only way I could do that was to write about her as a person, a teenager, as I understand teenagers. My emphasis had to be on her humanity, flaws and assets, not on her race so I made her middle-class. I know the middle class. I am in the middle class. She became real to me, like a daughter, just as she became real to Abbie.
I owed both of them a good, strong story where their weaknesses are acknowledged, but also where their humanity triumphs. The original text is the skeleton to final work with many, many changes. I left in the original yoga scene with its slapstick elements, though I felt I’d eventually have to take it out, but then it occurred to me that the books and movies also need surprise, and that perhaps that scene should stay. Writing is, after all, a process of creating, filtering, excising, and adding, and by mindfully allowing that process to do its job, a piece of work you love may result.
KF: Fantastic, Gay! I’ve heard so much about the McKee book…do you recommend it? Even if I’m not interested in writing a screenplay? I’ve heard from others it’s a great book.
GD: Kathy, I found him a revelation. Because I have a knack for words (or thought I did), I used language to drive story which is okay, but you still need to know how to go back and create purpose and sense out of the language. I really didn’t know how to do that. I ended up with convoluted stories to save all those paragraphs and details I loved. Reading McKee helped me to understand how structure is really the thing that should drive the piece. Not like an outline and not like a formula, but more as a guideline to what expectations the reader has when he or she picks up a book.
KF: I think that’s very apt what McKee says about “expectations” and that it may be the reason why a reader or a movie goer might not enjoy a book or film, saying well, everything was great (like the prose, or the acting, cinematography, etc.), yet they just didn’t end up liking it. Those ingrained expectations of how story works have not been met.
Once you read McKee’s book and felt like you “got it” regarding necessary elements of structure, did you find yourself going back to unpublished work or other works in progress to “fix” them?
GD: You say, after I “got it!” This made me shake my head because there is no way I can pinpoint this. The process has been so slow. Maybe it’s because I haven’t been in a structured program focused on learning the craft in a given time frame within a community of writers. For me, everything has been stretched out and amorphous, a kind of made-up-as I-go-along MFA, so going back to fix both works in-progress and published pieces is woven into my learning curve. Very little that I’ve published has been left untouched. Understanding structure is key to my writing and without that ability to question my text with structure in mind, I don’t know if I would still be writing. It’s what allows me to layer in meaning, and without meaning, without some emotional resonance, at least for me, lovely words just aren’t enough.
KF: Did it change your reading of other people’s stories or your experience watching films?
GD: Understanding structure has made me a smart-aleck. When a conversation about the strengths or weaknesses of a movie is going on, I can’t help myself. I pipe up with all the structural reasons it did or didn’t work. “Die Hard” works because it has such a solid structure. “Iron Man 2” doesn’t because it has no structure. Structure isn’t linear. It’s not the same thing as a string of events. It has set-ups and pay-offs which need to be employed to reveal character and meaning. It fulfills the expectations we have when we read, watch, or listen to a story.
It’s made it very difficult for me to finish reading a book that rambles on and on without telling me what the character wants or needs. I don’t need to be hit over the head with it, but I have to have a sense of inner conflict. The art on the part of the writer is letting me know this is happening on some level and then showing me why the character can or cannot change.
KF: Also, you said: “Writing is, after all, a process of creating, filtering, excising, and adding, and by mindfully allowing that process to do its job, a piece of work you love may result.”
This is excellent. I love “mindfully allowing that process to do its job.” And how you mindfully approached this novel. My next question is, this sounds so lovely, and so natural and smart. I envision you calmly and mindfully writing, revising this novel and loving every aspect of the process. Is that the experience you had?
GD: Ha! I hope you mean you envision me “calmly and mindfully writing” over a twelve-year period because that’s how long it’s taken me to get this novel right. And I’ve been “writing” one way or another since the fifth grade, most of that time scribbling pretty sentences, nice images, in stories that were convoluted and unsatisfying.
I was a mess of self-doubt for most of the last 40+ years, and it’s only been these twenty years or so that I’ve made real progress, when I cobbled together my self-propelled “MFA,” and began to understand structure. I’ve grown to trust that I have the answers to story problems somewhere in my head or at least in some brainstorming activity I can employ. Trusting that I will solve the problem allows me to let go of the problem and once I let go, answers start bubbling up. This comes from the act of working at craft over a period of time, failing, and then eventually succeeding. It works for writing, it works for life.
KF: Thanks so much, Gay!
Readers, What Came Before is published by Every Day Novels, an imprint of Every Day Publishing, Ltd., and has been serialized on its site. The book may be purchased from Amazon or Barnes & Noble and I highly, highly recommend it!
Gay Degani lives in Southern California with her husband in an old Victorian house where parrots congregate at dusk in the oaks and camphors around her neighborhood.
She has published fiction online and in print including her collection, Pomegranate Stories. She is founder and editor-emeritus of EDF’s Flash Fiction Chronicles, a staff editor at Smokelong Quarterly, and blogs at Words in Place where a complete list of her work can be found as well as her social media links.
Three times nominated for Pushcart consideration and winner of the 11th Annual Glass Woman Prize, Gay has won or been a finalist in contests sponsored by Women On Writing, Glimmer Train, Writer’s Digest’s Short Short Competition, and Bosque (The Magazine). Her novella, The Old Road, has been unfolding in Pure Slush’s 2014-A Year in Stories project. She blogs at: Words in Place.