It’s not news to anyone who follows Deborah Kalb Books that Deborah has one of the most erudite–and beautiful–book blogs out there. Here’s just one of Deborah’s Qs & my corresponding A. The full interview is here.
Q: The idea of a family curse is central to the novel. What intrigued you about that, and how did you create your three “cursed” sisters, Lady, Vee, and Delph?
A: Often in fiction you want your characters to be a bit larger than life. For example, I’ve corresponded a bit with a great-granddaughter of Fritz Haber, and she seems to be a kind, thoughtful, and rational person who is curious about her ancestors, yes, but isn’t obsessed with them. This is a good thing. No one wants to live a life that’s fodder for a novel!
But Lady, Vee, and Delph Alter are novel fodder. They were created for the express purpose of propelling the novel along. If I’d written them as three ordinary women with nothing more than a hobbyist’s interest in genealogy, they would not sustain 400 pages of narrative.
To make my points, I needed my characters to feel personally implicated in the mass killings their great-grandfather both wittingly and unwittingly caused. I needed them to feel personally endangered by the pattern of suicide that began with their great-grandmother.
Their interest in their lineage had to emerge not from reasonable and rational curiosity, but from a terrible and somewhat irrational sense that they carried an inherited burden of guilt and shame.
The weight of our pasts, how difficult it is to break free: that’s something the book explores. And to write about that weight in a compelling and dramatic way, I needed it to hobble my characters.
A mere genetic proclivity toward depression or even suicidal ideation, possibly treatable by some Zoloft and talk therapy, was not going to do the trick, not if I wanted the novel to be compelling and to address complex and intractable issues. There needed to be something cosmic about the sisters’ burdens.
When I did the math and realized they were the fourth generation of my Alter family, that’s when I remembered the Biblical injunction—the curse!—and that’s when I wrote the first paragraph.
As to how I created Lady, Vee, and Delph, I need to confess that while I’ve been making it sound as if every step of my process is carefully thought-out, a series of realizations and understandings, that’s really just a convenient way of talking about the process.
The more complicated truth is that my intellectual understanding of what I’ve done on the page almost always comes after I’ve done it—sometimes long after. Sometimes I don’t think it through until I’m asked questions like these!
In short, while I’m perfectly aware that I created Lady, Vee, and Delph for the purposes I’ve been describing, I’m not sure at all how I did it. It honestly feels as though they just showed up one day, pushed me out of my chair, sat down at my computer, and took over.
Or to put it another way, I believe that much of my work takes place in my unconscious. While I’m consciously struggling with point of view and doing research and writing bad sentences, my unconscious is doing a lot of the more difficult work.
In the case of Lady, Vee, and Delph, by the time they made their way to my conscious mind, they were pretty much fully formed. My job then was to get them to come to life on the page via the most difficult and important part of writing a novel—the part Hemingway called “getting the words right.”
Read the entire interview here.