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How could an intelligent woman stay in a marriage like this?
Narrative Poetics   Most of my writing starts with a puzzle. Often a personal one. How in the world did this happen and what does it mean? My first novel, SINS OF THE MOTHERS began when a New Yorker editor scrawled on the margin of a story I'd submitted. "But how could such an intelligent woman stay in a marriage like this for twenty years?  Since, in slightly disguised form, I was the woman, answering the editor's question seemed vital, not only to my fiction but to my life.     My first draft of SINS was a chronicle of the end of a marriage and was as honest as I could make it. My style was transparent: it let you see through to what my heroine, Connie was thinking and feeling as she tried to care for her children and keep her marriage going while being  bullied by a tyrannical husband and an imperious mother. In the first draft, Connie's self©distrust was palpable, her weaknesses mercilessly displayed. But when it came time to send the book out, editors, particularly young women,couldn't accept it. "I can't stand behind the life choices of this woman," one wrote. Others said they couldn't empathize, Women weren't like this any more. I knew that this wasn't true. Many women still had problems with masochism though it had become unpopular to write about it, with a resultant narrowness of characterization in much  recent fiction. But I saw that in my effort to tell the truth about an unpalatable experience, I had unwittingly emphasized my heroine's weaknesses. If I wanted people to see her dark underside of my‹ heroine I had to include more of her strengths. To show her complexity, I had to re©structure the book and speed up a process that in real life would take years: Connie might start out as a passive masochistic person but by the end she would have learned to confront the people who put her down, her husband and her mother, and take control of her own life. I developed a technique of dramatic encounters between Connie and other characters at key points in the story  so that readers might see the changes taking place in her. Re©writing not only improved the novel but it enlarged my notion of what was possible not just for me but for other women in abusive relationships. Though I hadn't intended Connie to serve as a model for other women, I was deeply touched when a woman told me how my book had changed her daughter©in©law's life by giving her the courage to break with a tormenting mother. The puzzle that set off my second novel, Paradise Farm, was what made my mother the person she was. I had accepted my own earlier self. Maybe re©constructing my mother's early life as a young artist would enable me to understand and forgive her. To show the family history of self©hatred (my grandmother ran off with a con©man, my uncle went mad),I devised a symphonic structure where important figures from my mother's past were given their own voices so readers could empathize with them too. The rise of anti©semitism in the late twenties gives the character's struggles with their own self©doubts and hatreds a wider resonance. One character dies, another©©his sister,the young artist©© survives.  To do so, she has to struggle with a  male centered art world. What interests me is the way people  find what they need in their cultural context. All the characters  are deeply involved in the intellectual currents of their time.  Psychoanalysis, surrealism, eclectic religions. A byproduct of my fictional exploration was a continuing commitment to exploring the  darker side of experience along with an increased respect for the  multitude of ways we invent to heal ourselves.
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Hello Brenda, I think a good book has to be honest, warts and all.  When events and concepts are up in the clouds, readers tune out because they don't make sense in the real world.  But when ideas and characters show they are close to the ground, they somehow connect with the reader.  "Yeah, I can see what she's going through there."  Once you as author can lay out and achieve that connection, we're hooked!

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Not being afraid to show the warts

I agree with you Thomas. But I think probably I didn't have the skill or technique to pull it off in my first novel. After that I think I was honest. It led to some amusing reviews like the one where the reviewer wondered whether he was supposed to like the heroine--because she had such a blend of good and bad traits. And my last novel, The Beheading Game has a gay hero who managed to offend even my publicist but he's what I would be if I were a gay  man who likes to cross dress. 

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The difficulty of Passivity as a subject

But what if  your heroine lets a pro-Nazi doctor give her gynaecological exams when she is in a German hospital for possible appendicitis?Aren't there some subjects that are extremely hard to depict without losing your reader. Becket was able to depict utter passivity, most people aren't. I am tempted to try and show a young woman who has such a low sense of herself that she accepts abusive behavior without even questioning it. Would you read that?

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I loved reading here about your process: how, in creating a more well rounded character, you unearthed a heroine - not only for your novel, but also, for your life! And what better role model to discover than yourself? You could probably write a whole book about the process of writing your books.

Katie Burke

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Writing Process

Katie, you understood.When I kept tapes of my process when I was re-writing my first novel with the help of a very gifted younger novelist, Sarah. The first thing she told me was to cut my novel by half (It was 600 pages of mostly monologues). After I did that she started questioning my character's weakness. "What's the matter with this woman, she'd ask, "her husband reads her diary and she doesn't get mad, instead she apologizes to him for thinking about another man."That was the first time I had thought there was anything odd about it. Next she took on the overpowering mother in the story. She set a timer and told me to choose if I wanted to be mother or daughter.I took daughter and she proceeded to provoke me, telling me she coulldn't come out to California because her cat was sick and anyway I didn't keep the house up etc. until I finally cried out.."Oh, damn you I don't care if you never come to visit. I hate you."That," said Sarah" is what is missing in your novel." We went on this way for over a year. I've written a story about it ("Learning to Write Leah's Way" for Women's Studies..don't know if they have an archive. It was a particularly haunting experience because after building up my character giving her a job and new confidence and finally reaching the last chapterwhere she stands up to her mother...Sarah, my guide committed suicide. Literally drank herself to death.