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Off the Page: Elizabeth Graver

With Elizabeth Graver
Author of The Honey Thief
Thursday, April 8, 2004; 1:00 PM

My copy of The Honey Thief, Elizabeth Graver's previous novel, is well traveled. I borrowed it from a student to read at a writers colony in Scotland, and was so mesmerized I convinced other three people there to read it there--a writer from Ireland, another from South Africa and a third from England.

All of us were engrossed, first by the beauty and rhythm of Graver's language, then by the sneakily engaging story of a feisty teenage girl with a troubled family past she is just beginning to understand.

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Graver's fourth book, Awake, released this month, tells about the discoveries a mother makes about her own life as she seeks help for her sick child. Graver was online Thursday, April 8 at 1 p.m. ET to answer questions about her new novel and other topics. A transcript follows.

Host Carole Burns is a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Carole Burns: Hello booklovers, and welcome to today's Off the Page. Elizabeth Graver, whose new book was just published yesterday, is ready to answer questions from her office at Boston College. Getting right to it...

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Washington, D.C.: Anne Applebaum ran an op-ed in The Post yesterday about the "Literary Divide." In it she referred to an anonymous piece in Salon last month by an author who had published four books and was just despondent about ever breaking through the "mid-list" ghetto and being able to make a living as a writer.
Every writer feels this way sometimes, even the more successful ones. What do you tell yourself when the publishing world seems so bleak and commercial? What keeps you going?

Elizabeth Graver: I read that Salon article. I think the issue is something that many writers of literary fiction, including myself, worry about. When my first book came out, in 1991, the writer Richard Ford told me, in response to my anxiety about the pressures of publishing, reviews, reactions, sales, "You need to make an island apart from all that, where you do the work." Writing, at its essence, makes me happy. It allows me to explore things, move inside them, however dark the subjects themselves. It has become a way I live in the world, a way of trying to ask questions, make meaning, live inside language. I need to do it, and I think I would be doing it whether I was getting published or not. This said, there are these practical considerations. I am lucky to have a very good teaching job and a very supportive editor and literary agent. I earn a living by both teaching and writing, and that helps balance things out a bit and makes my situation feel more secure. The thing that feels in short supply for me right now, as the mother of two small children, a writer, and a professor, is time. I am always trying to find ways to find more time to write without compromising other pieces of my life. When I do find that time, I usually manage to let the real world drop away and inhabit the imaginary world I am creating. I don't fret, then, about whether the book will sell or not; I think I would, for one, be incapable of predicting, and I am also too deep inside a kind of dream world for such questions to feel relevant. Later, when the book comes up, I might fuss about it more, but by then it's out of my hands. On a more positive note, I think the rise of reading groups has been a great thing. There are a lot of thoughtful people out there who are reading literary fiction and looking for stories that are not quick-fixes or page-turners.

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Washington, D.C.: Can you tell us about how you got started as a writer?

Elizabeth Graver: I've been writing stories since I was old enough to form letters, and if you had asked me at the age of six what I wanted to be when I grew up, I'd have said a writer. My parents both taught English, so our house was full of books, but I have also always been a person (like Anna in AWAKE, I suppose) with vivid imaginary life or dream world. As a child, I wrote, drew, played elaborate "pretend games" in the woods with my best friend. When I got older, and it became embarrassing to play with dolls, writing took over. I wrote stories in college; took a few years off from school but kept writing; went to grad school; kept writing . . . I've just always done it. Right out of college, I had a writers group that served as my "audience"; that was incredibly helpful, a way to get feedback and not feel like I was going at it alone. We met on and off for some ten years. The other members of that group (Audrey Schulman, Lauren Slater, Pagan Kennedy) have now all published many books; when we first got together, we were fresh out of college and just knew that this was what we wanted to try to do. We were stubborn, we had grit, we supported each other. It was an amazing time.

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Carole Burns: Do you remembered what first inspired Awake? Elizabeth Graver: I always clip articles out of newspapers and magazines that interest me. I dump them into a big box, and often they just sit there, get covered by other stuff, come to nothing.

In 1990, I read a cover story in People Magazine called "Children of the Dark,' about kids with a very rare genetic disease called xeroderma pigmentosum (or xp), which means they have a flawed DNA repair system and cannot be exposed to daylight without a huge risk of skin cancer. The subject intrigued me. I saved the article. But it wasn't until 1999 that it somehow surfaced again.

I can't say why exactly, except that I was a stage in my life where I was thinking about having a baby and mulling over all the questions of safety and danger, identity and love, sacrifice and connection, that parenting brings up. The article was the seed for the book. I then did quite a lot of research and also, of course, invented a great deal, focusing primarily on the identity of Anna, the mother of a child with XP, and what happens to her when she goes with her family to a camp for kids with the disease. I was drawn to the idea of a world turned upside down, where everything took place at night, and I was very moved by the situation of these children, who were fine in they lived in the dark but could not join the daylit world.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Do you have a target audience in mind when you write, and, if so, who are you writing for? Or, are you writing for yourself, and you hope those interested will find your work?

Elizabeth Graver: I don't have a "target" audience in mind in any specific way. I have a few trusted readers who see the book in pieces, at various stages: my friend, the writer Lauren Slater sees it first, then other close friends, some of them writers, others not; then my parents, my sister and my husband.

It then slowly makes its way out into wider circles. My editor, Jennifer Barth, is an amazing editor, and I think of her as an audience as I write in that I trust her taste and also trust her to help me shape my novels. If I had to try to define who my ideal wider, audience would be, it would be readers who admire the work of contemporary writers I deeply admire. That list might contain (among many other names), the following: Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Howard Norman, Julia Glass, Margot Livesey, Michael Ondaatje, Grace Paley, Gish Jen, William Trevor... If people who loved those books were also to love to my own, I would be thrilled.

During the actual writing, though, I suppose I'm writing for myself, in that I'm inside the world I'm creating, not thinking about being read so much as getting words down, one by one, on the page, until they form into sentences, then paragraphs, then chapters.

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Williamstown, Mass.: One of the major themes of AWAKENING is the nature and challenges of parenting. This theme also appears in the first two novels. Could you comment on the differences in the way you treated the subject in UNRAVELLING, THE HONEY THIEF and AWAKENING?

Carole Burns: I'm also interested in how now being a mother affected your writing about parenting.

Elizabeth Graver: One small correction: while I would have loved to have written THE AWAKENING, Kate Chopin already did so; my book is called AWAKE. Parenting is a subject in all my novels, but you're right that it is foregrounded here. Both THE HONEY THIEF and UNRAVELLING have, at their hearts, children, though they move into adult life as well. I wanted, as someone approaching my fortieth birthday, to write about a book about an adult--about adult desire, adult ambivalence, about the huge, complicated project of trying to raise and nurture and care for children and also keep prior parts of one's self intact. When I began AWAKE, I was not yet pregnant with my first child. When I finished it, I had two little girls, the first now almost four, the second almost two. My novel is about the mother of two boys, ages 9 and 12, and I've not yet reached that stage, nor do I have boys, so I was still imagining that process. But the issues raised by parenting feel very urgent and central to me at the moment, since I am now a parent myself. How do you let your child explore the world, see it as an adventurous place full of wonder, and still keep her safe? How do you keep your own inner life going? How does a marriage or partnership change when children are added in? My little girls are teaching me a great deal; much of it, I imagine, will make its way into future works, in ways I can't imagine yet. Having kids has also taught me to slow down, look at the tiny details of life, in ways that have been very good for my writing. You watch a one-year-old examine a patch of grass for ten minutes, and you start to see it differently too.

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Albany, N.Y.: I'm a long-time admirer of your short stories as well as your novels. How do you balance story writing and novel writing? If the marketplace were different, would you write more stories, or would your career have taken the same shape it has?

Elizabeth Graver: It's interesting; when I started out, I thought I was essentially a short story writer who would "try" a novel, partly because that seemed the thing to do after you'd done a book of short stories (more publishable, etc.), and partly because I was drawn to the challenge of the form. I thought that my attention to inner life and image, along with the fact that I am not, as a writer, particularly plot-driven, would make the novel an awkward form for me, a real stretch.

But it turns out that I love writing novels--I love the way they are always there, for years and years; how the characters stay with you; how they deepen and grow as the book gets more layered. I love how you don't have to reinvent the world each time, how your mind can drift back to the novel at any moment; how, when I am in deep work on a novel, EVERYTHING seems to mean according to it. I love, too, how novels can follow their people over time and thus have a wider, deeper scope (though some stories manage to do this too--the way, for example, Alice Munro leapfrogs through time). I love writing stories too, but they often arrive as unexpected little gifts, written fast and without a lot of revision, and their characters don't stay with me as long. I will always do both, I think, and am in fact working on a short story collection now and having a wonderful time. So while I may have initially been prodded toward stories partly because of marketplace concerns, I ended up finding the novel to be a form I genuinely loved.

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Carole Burns: I'm curious about the Emily Dickinson poem you use as an epigraph. At what point in writing the novel did you discover that, and did it affect your understanding of your own book? Do you think it's a good thing to "grow accustomed to the Dark?" Elizabeth Graver: My close friend, the poet and novelist Suzanne Matson, actually supplied me with the epigraph after she had read a portion of the book in draft. I remember being astonished that the poem fit so well, though perhaps I shouldn't have been, as I'd used Emily Dickinson as my high school yearbook quote, and again as an epigraph for THE HONEY THIEF.

I think AWAKE is partly about learning to alter your vision and try to see in a new way, to see lightness in dark, to risk sounding cliche; to be able to imagine a world that while, it looks claustrophobic from the outside, contains its own gifts. Life brings you challenges you don't expect, and then, if you can, you try to live gracefully and with courage inside them. Anna is neither particularly graceful nor particularly courageous in the novel. I think she is thorny, complicated, flawed. But that interested me; I wanted to write about someone who did NOT grow easily accustomed to the dark, but who was nevertheless asking important questions, flailing about, making mistakes and then trying to make sense of what she had done. I don't think she arrives at a clarity of vision by the end of the book, but she is struggling toward that, figuring out if and how she can accept the "darkness" in both a metaphorical and a literal way. For her, that means accepting that her son could die; it means accepting the limitations and gifts of her family life and looking hard at the repercussions of her own actions. It also, though, means, I think, finding ways to "see" anew in the dark, to find her way back to her art, to rediscover pieces of herself she had set aside and find a kind of "night vision".

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Washington, DC: _The Honey Thief_ has the enviable quality of being moving without being sentimental--or, as my 12-year-old writing students would say, "cheesy." How do you think you struck this balance? And a devil's advocate question: As a successful writer, how do you handle the idea that books which are not sentimental enough don't reach the public at large, and those which are too sentimental are brushed aside by writers and critics?

Elizabeth Graver: I could go on and on about this question, which I think about a lot, but I guess the bottom line would be that in all my writing, I'm trying to portray characters who are complicated, flawed, trying to find their way. I am not interested in easy divides between good and evil, any more than I am interested in easy happy endings, trying things up with a bow. I AM interested in inner life, and in strong emotions; my characters tend to feel a lot--they are not the reticent, held-back, wordless characters of minimalism. In this way, I perhaps tip toward the danger of being sentimental, in that I am inside "sentiment" a lot, or perhaps we might be allowed to call it "emotion". That's what interests me--what people think and feel, and how those thoughts and feelings are at once private and, at times, able to be communicated. I just taught MRS DALLOWAY to my students. At one point, Woolf writes that Clarissa Dalloway could "never say of someone that they were this or they were that." It's that kind of complexity I am after. I don't want to shy away from emotion, any more than I want to close things down by offering too much resolution or paint a rosy picture.

At the end of THE HONEY THIEF, Eva and Miriam understand each other and their pasts better. Some readers have said they wished Miriam had gotten involved with Burl, but that would have closed down the story in ways that felt wrong to me, and, in fact, sentimental. Burl is Eva's--her friend, her confidant. Miriam might be more able to move toward a new relationship at the end, but it does not happen within the pages of the book. She's got to figure it out on her own, in whatever world fictional characters wander off to once the last page of the novel is written.

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Lyme, Conn.: Did you study writing in college? If so, what aspects of collegiate level writing instruction assisted you, if any?

Elizabeth Graver: I did study writing in college, at Wesleyan University, and was lucky enough to work with the writer Annie Dillard. Annie asked us to memorize poems; I still remember the ones I memorized in her class. She steeped us in language, and she had no tolerance for sentimentality. She was forthright and brilliant and took her students utterly seriously, even as she was quite hilarious herself. In addition to giving me feedback, writing classes also gave me something very simple: deadlines. I think that when you're starting out, it's sometimes hard to keep producing, and even harder to revise and revise and revise. The workshops I took in college gave me a structure, as well as a little community of readers, and that was helpful. I think I would have fumbled along and made my own way without it, but it would have taken longer. I also took many literature courses, and those--along with the reading I did on my own--were as important to my development as a writer as any teacher I've had.

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Carole Burns: Thanks so much for talking online today, Elizabeth. Good luck with AWAKE! And thanks, as always, to the readers in the audience for their questions.

In two weeks, "Off the Page" is thrilled to have online A.S. Byatt, winner of the Booker Prize for POSSESSION, who will talk about her new book, LITTLE BLACK BOOK OF STORIES.

Get announcements about upcoming authors on "Off the Page" by signing up for our e-mail list. Email me at offthepage2004@yahoo.com.

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