Therese here. Today’s returning guest is author Julianna Baggott. Julianna is multi-published with eighteen novels to her credit. Her most recent book, PURE–a dystopian, post-apocalyptic thriller–was released this past week. The reviews have been phenomenal. Said Publisher’s Weekly in their starred review:
Baggott’s highly anticipated postapocalyptic horror novel … is a fascinating mix of stark, oppressive authoritarianism and grotesque anarchy. Baggott mixes brutality, occasional wry humor, and strong dialogue into an exemplar of the subgenre.
And Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler had this to say of PURE:
PURE is not just the most extraordinary coming-of-age novel I’ve ever read, it is also a beautiful and savage metaphorical assessment of how all of us live in this present age. This is an important book by one of our finest writers.
Julianna’s essays have appeared widely in such publications as The New York Times Modern Love column, Washington Post, NPR.org, and Real Simple. Please welcome her back to WU.
The Trick is to Breathe
I’m writing here for the Writer Unboxed and the first thing that came to me was this Harry Houdini quote,
There is no invention to it, there is no trick, there is no fake; you simply lie down in a coffin and breathe quietly.
I like applying this quote to writing. The novel, in particular, is a daunting challenge. I wanted tricks when I was starting out. And there are some bits of advice that do sound like tricks. Just this afternoon, I sat in on a Q and A with Pulitzer-Prize Winner, Jennifer Egan, who happened to be in town. She talked brilliantly about many things and there was one thing that really struck me. She loves the contradictions within characters. There’s often the advice to make characters consistent. The problem is human beings aren’t. She gave the example of a careless person who is hyper attentive in one area of his/her life.
Contradictions. After writing the word on my hand and a few ideas, I realized that I was going to need more paper. I dug through my purse, found a receipt and jotted about the major contradictions inherent in each of my main characters. (I’m presently deep into the revision process for FUSE the second book in THE PURE TRILOGY; the first book PURE published this week.) This new way of getting at my characters was really incredible. I knew immediately what their contradictions were and it was crystallizing for me to have those ideas in mind, in particular right now, as I’m trying to crystallize the entire novel.
But that’s not really a trick. The answers came to me because I’ve been so deeply invested in them for so very long. Years and years and years of — as Houdini put it — breathing in these characters quietly.
I’d also like to confess that it struck me as interesting that this quote come to me at this point. PURE begins in a strange post-apocalyptic world and a sixteen year old girl with a doll-head fused to her fist, hiding in a cabinet in the back of a burnt out barbershop. It’s coffin-like. She’s breathing the ash-choked air, surviving. From there, the entire world took shape around her. The book quite literally begins in a box.
Maybe you’re thinking that, as a magician, Houdini did perform tricks; it’s what magicians do. But they’re only tricks if you don’t think of learning to breathe quietly as hard work, to hold your breath for incredible lengths of time as hard work, to dislocate your shoulders as hard work, to regurgitate keys as hard work, which I happen to do.
There are days when the breathing comes easier to my writerly self. And there are days when I want a damn trick. I want hidden air holes pumping in fresh oxygen! You read novels that are so beautifully structured, so elegantly put together and you think that there must be a trick — or hundreds, perhaps, all closely guarded secrets. But those novels don’t simply pop up structured and elegant, no. Someone breathed quietly for a long, long time.
The in and out of air. One sipped breath and then one more …
One word penned and then the next.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s Daquella manera