In a Schlock first, author Anna Tambour and the magazine’s co-editor Teodor Reljic talk shop about their latest novels: in Tambour’s case, the sophomore release Crandolin, and Reljic’s debut novel, Two.
Teodor Reljic: There is a mad energy to Crandolin which almost makes one feel as though it may have been written in one – frenzied, extended – sitting. How would you say you sustained the energy that is evident in the pace of the novel, and how did you ensure that it’s all coherent in the end?
Anna Tambour: On what sustained me, it might sound corny but it’s true: the energies of passion and love.
J.H. Fabre wrote: “There are for each one of us, according to his turn of mind, certain books that open up horizons hitherto undreamed of and mark an epoch in our mental life. They fling wide the gates of a new world wherein our intellectual powers are henceforth to be employed; they are the spark which lights the fuel on a hearth doomed, without its aid, to remain indefinitely bleak and cold. And it is often chance that places in our hands those books which mark the beginning of a new era in the evolution of our ideas. The most casual circumstances, a few lines that happen somehow to come before our eyes, decide our future and plant us in the appointed groove.”
Every book seeks to take up a reader’s time and mind. So it’s theft if this isn’t an honest trade.
The world is overfilled with the infuriating, confusing, ridiculous, irritating, and maddeningly lovable. These stories, the people in them and not just the people–they captivate me, but what is revealed in Crandolin is only glimpses of them.
There is so much that I didn’t tell, or did and cut out. As for coherence, I am pleased that you think it is coherent. The further from the mundane something is, the more complex the scene, the more crucial it is that things are expressed understandably. Otherwise, I don’t know if you have had this happen to you, but I have: in reading something I wrote years ago, thinking: What the hell is going on?
Do you feel, as I do, that what people finally see is like acrobatics, not the muscled jerk and grunt type but the netless high-swing leap-catch-leap? It looks so fluidly smooth and effortless. How do you write? I ask this having just finished reading your excellent first novel, Two, which must have been much harder to write than Crandolin.
Two reads as if it is very personal, and not only that, but has to do with people who are still living and close to you. Whether that is true or not, it must have been emotionally wrenching, even if you were able to enjoy the distance of age – the protagonist being a 9-year-old boy. In some respects it reminds me of another novel I love, Jeffrey Ford’s The Shadow Year. In both novels, parents – especially mothers – with problems loom large, and the children must cope by living in worlds of their making. So how did you approach Two in concept, and how did you keep going with it?
TR: First of all, thank you for your kind comments about Two, as well as the comparison – however tangential it may be – to The Shadow Year (though I haven’t read this particular novel, I know Jeffrey Ford to be an excellent writer, judging by the work of his I did in fact read).
This being my first novel, it’s difficult to determine at this stage whether the way I worked on it will end up being some kind of writing habit in the future.
But I definitely agree with your acrobatics metaphor (particularly since the ensuing novel ended up being a very slim affair). The concept and narrative actually grew out of a piece of flash fiction I had written some years back, which I think made the process of writing it bumpier than it would have been had a planned it over a ‘long stretch’ from the word go.
And given that it was a parallel narrative with two distinct voices (an exercise which I initially thought would help sustain my interest and cater to my short attention span, but which ended up being a bit of a structural headache in the long run!), the trial-and-error writing period was effectively ‘doubled’ as I had to make sure everything fits in smoothly.
Which leads me to the second part of your question – that autobiographical details are painful to write about. It’s a bit funny, actually: a lot of people seem to assume this, and to certain degree it is, of course, true. Writing about painful experiences in your life necessarily requires you to vividly recall at least some of them, which can be psychologically taxing.
But I found the difficulties on that count to be temporary… and if anything, it helped me to ensure that I have a personal stake in the story, which helped me to both a) maintain a direct interest in the process and b) deal with some of that pain creatively. In the long run what was more “wrenching” were the necessary rewrites that needed to be done. And, of course, the looming fear that a hidden and hitherto unnoticed plot hole somewhere will threaten to pull the entire edifice down… a feeling which, I found, doesn’t really go away until after you’re finally finished, and your editor gives you the go-ahead. And even then…
AT: Two is one of the most sensuous books I’ve ever read. You talk about ‘looming fear’ of plot holes you mightn’t have filled, but what about your fear of possibly filling all to well, our senses – and not with commercially popular scents but with ‘stinks’ of great importance, and unexpected value – and you don’t stop smells sanctioned by society as repellent but you add things judged by the status quo as revolting to touch and see. In Two, they all take on an allure and deeply attractive hominess that is both unique and in no way ephemeral. Did you feel adventurous or what, when you took these gambles?
TR: Honestly, they didn’t particularly feel like gambles, so it’s a nice “bonus” to hear that you saw them that way! The thing is that the voice of the young boy, William – who is the primary narrator for half of the book – became practically second nature to me. After a certain point of writing in that mode, it felt like I had hit a stride and could just keep going.
I hate to imply anything mystical or do to with ‘spontaneous’ inspiration, but I think that after a while – owing in no small part to my growing familiarity and/or comfort with the stylistic choice I went for – William’s perceptions began to slide into place, then it just became a matter of deciding which of them to keep, and which of them to discard.
But I valued these “sensuous” details above all because I knew that they would be a priority for the novel. Malta as a problematic – and often insecure – social landscape has been “covered” by local literature before, and though I appreciate the efforts of many local writers on this front, that kind of thing is not what spurs me to write. So I wanted to address the island in a way which I hoped was unique – and, perhaps, more universal? – and amassing evocative details and weaving them into the overall narrative was my way of trying to do that.
Anna Tambour’s latest published story is ‘The Walking-Stick Forest’ (with a beautiful cover by Karla Ortiz), free online at Tor.com. Her next collection, The Finest Ass in the Universe, will be published in 2015 by Twelfth Planet Press. She lives in Australia. You can track Tambour’s progress on www.annatambour.net and http://medlarcomfits.blogspot.com/. She will also be contributing a story to our July issue, so stay tuned.