A re-run of my interview with Carol Rifka Brunt, author of ‘Tell the Wolves I’m Home’.
GCH: I heard this novel started as a short story but then the voices (sorry characters) kept talking to you. How did you develop a short story into a full novel?
CRB: I started out with just a tiny snippet of an idea. I had the image of a dying uncle painting a final portrait of his niece as a way of leaving a last connection behind in the world. That turned into a 700-word short story, which was very similar to the first chapter as it stands now. In fact, the first paragraph remains virtually the same to this day, which is quite unusual.
The characters continued to interest me, so I followed them. As I wrote I discovered that the disease the uncle was dying from was AIDS. That led me to create Toby, his partner, and it led me to the setting of New York in the late 80s. And on and on. It was a very organic process. It was only after writing about 100 pages that I really started asking myself questions about the bigger story and focusing the book to tell that story. Having only written short stories up to that point, I was very concerned with making sure the reader had a reason to turn 400 pages. I really had to up the narrative drive and keep in mind the sense of telling a larger story.
GCH: And what will be your next project?
CRB: The process that I just described–the organic, feeling my way along way of doing things–is how I tend to work. So, I’m working on several short stories at the moment, with one or two starting to grow into bigger things. A novel-length project really needs to hold my interest on a pretty deep level to warrant the years it will take to bring it to fruition. By working on a few shorter pieces I’m able to find the ones that strike that deeper chord.
GCH: What’s your favourite writing music?
CRB: I don’t like to listen to anything while I’m actually writing. I am so very easily distracted and I love music, so if I have music playing I find all I’m doing is listening or singing along and no writing is getting done at all. I do use music to get in the right mood and frame of mind to write. For this novel there was a lot of quite beautiful melancholy stuff. I just did a Book Notes piece for Largehearted Boy.
GCH: Tell me about your writing process. Do you plan out your novel or let the characters loose?
CRB: I talked about the organic side of the process above and I think this is critical. There has to be a playful period when you just let your subconscious fall onto the page. For me, this usually isn’t a big spilling out of pages. My first drafts tend to be very spare. I’m feeling for the bones of the story. Who the players are and why they’re there. I’m feeling for morally complex situations. There’s a quote by somebody (I wish I knew who) that says ‘the first draft is the writer telling herself the story. The second draft is the writer telling the reader the story.’ This is so true for me. The editing process is where so much of the best stuff comes out. I’ve started to really understand the story I want to tell, both thematically and plot-wise, which means I write scenes and work with the material to make the whole piece sing the same song.
GCH: You’re originally from the US. What do you think about the food in the UK and do the Brits talk about the weather as much as they are portrayed?
CRB: I think the food here has gotten so good. There’s still a bit more individuality in restaurants in the US, but I have no complaints over quality and availability of the very best ingredients here.
GCH: If you could be a character in any movie or TV show, who would it be and why?
CRB: I just wrote a piece for Electric Sheep magazine on this very topic:
GCH: Favourite food?
CRB: Depends on the day. Very dense moist chocolate cake would always be up there, though.
GCH: Who’s the most important person in your life and why?
CRB: My family
GCH: I’ve heard writers are a funny bunch. Do you have any superstitions or rituals to help you write?
CRB: Not really. I do find it easiest to write at home. The less distractions, the better. And deadlines. They always help!
GCH: If you could edit your past, what would you change?
CRB: I suppose I might have chosen to become a doctor or a chef or something that would have given me a specific useful skill.
GCH: Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
CRB: ‘just’ and ‘basically’
GCH: What is your guiltiest pleasure?
CRB: A box set of some fabulous slow-evolving HBO series
GCH: I’ve heard your a member of four different writers groups. What do you think makes a good writers group?
CRB: That makes me sound like a bit of a writing group whore! Let me explain. I’m only really in three at the moment and they’re each very different and fill a different role. One is a women’s salon type group, which is more discussion than actual writing. One is an intense online critique group with three American writers. We met via an online short story writing workshop and admired each others’ work and wanted to stay in touch., They are excellent readers and I always pass my work by them. The third is Resident Writers, which is great for getting words down on the page during the group session. Unfortunately, due to timing I can only attend occasionally.
I think writing can be such an isolating thing and getting together with other writers is one way to alleviate that a bit. Plus, who else but other writers will understand the joys of scribbled encouragement at the bottom of a rejection letter!
GCH: Tell us a secret.