Nancy Au: You wrote the wonderful craft book Deepening Fiction: A Practical Guide for Intermediate and Advanced Writers. How did the experience of writing a craft book differ from teaching in a classroom setting?
Sarah Stone: Thank you for your kind words. Ron and I worked on the book for a couple of years – we’d start at breakfast and keep going, every surface in the house covered with collections of stories, plot diagrams, draft POV charts. We’d talk about a chapter, one of us would draft a section, the other would read it and suggest revisions or take it away and rewrite it, then the other would revise the revisions. Then we’d submit versions to our editor and outside readers, revise again, repeat. In teaching, on the other hand, we walk into our classrooms with elaborate notes and plans – we’ve read, reread, and critiqued workshop pieces; gone through piles of stories to work out readings; developed questions that might open up different ideas about craft and process; made up or found writing exercises that build on the readings or questions of the day; and thought about the sequencing of it all. The difference is that, once you get in the room, all the preparation becomes background. Depending on the conversation and the needs and interests of the writers in the room, you switch up the order, bring in new elements, concentrate on one aspect or another, even throw things out. If it’s a workshop class, of course, it’s crucial to make sure everyone gets their full time. Other than that, it’s all improv. Writing about writing is more like giving a lecture – you can reach quite a few people at a time, but you don’t have the immediate joy of the face-to-face conversation with students. But you still have the same issues to work out, plot or alternative structures, language and imagery, and the enormous challenge of creating believable, surprising human beings out of words on the page.
NA: In The True Sources of the Nile: A Novel the protagonist Anne, an American who works in a human rights organization, and Jean-Pierre, a Tutsi government minister, have an emotionally and sexually intense relationship. I admire the way you created Jean-Pierre—how he speaks, his facial expressions, how he moves read authentically and make me believe that you have spent a lot of time in Africa. If not, how you were able to capture such realism of a culture so different from our own?
SS: I did live in Burundi for a couple of years. One of the things I did there was to collect data on human rights, which meant interacting with some delightful people who appear to have been deeply involved in the revenge cycles of genocide. I’m Jewish through my mother’s side of the family, and her grandfather, grandmother, and most of their children died in Auschwitz-Birkenau, so I’d been reading and thinking for years about how different character aspects show up in different historical circumstances, the qualities in us that make genocide possible. The most difficult character for me to invent was actually Anne, the narrator, so stubbornly naïve, so ferociously in love that, although she’s always looking at Jean-Pierre, at Burundi, she doesn’t see them, any more than she sees her own family. In that way she’s an unreliable narrator – not that she lies to the reader, except insofar as she’s lying to herself. Still, I was asking the reader to see around her, to see what she doesn’t. And though a few characters call her on her illusions, they’re not exactly fully trustworthy themselves.
NA: Your novel is set in a time and place torn apart by war and genocide (Burundi, 1993). What advice would you give to writers who want to approach subject matter as difficult as violence, death, and illness?
SS: Sometimes, for those of us obsessed with human cruelty and other dark subject matters, it’s all about finding the richness, the fascination, even the pleasures in the world we’re inventing or describing. I often focus on this in my teaching, as well as in my own writing. It’s very difficult to have a book that’s entirely dark, with no humor, light, surprises. Every work that takes on these subjects will have something to offer in return, sometimes in the events or characters, sometimes in the poetry of the language, the unexpected images. Writers like Andrea Barrett, Toni Morrison, Doris Lessing, Hilary Mantel, Wole Soyinka, J. M. Coetzee, Manuel Puig, Edward P. Jones, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, George Saunders, Haruki Murakami, and Iris Murdoch have wonderful – and very different – strategies for writing political, wild, unexpected, iconoclastic books, for tackling the hard subjects: death, war, physical and emotional violence, power imbalances, deception, self-deception, and betrayal. These are all writers who work with strong tonal contrasts, making fiction that can be both very dark and yet also brightly colored.
NA: Your use of colors in your writing is so powerful. What is your philosophy behind how and why you use color?
SS: Like you, I’m both a visual artist and a writer. My undergraduate degree is in painting, and I’m still fascinated by color and shape. My paintings were primarily huge and full of animals: peacocks, aardvarks, poison arrow frogs, wild pigs who’d thought they were rocks until they woke up. They became more and more narrative as I went on. Finally I just began to write. My early drafts aren’t visual at all though. And they don’t have any plot worth mentioning. It’s all people eating, having sex, and talking about politics. Worse, agreeing about politics. Full of exposition and explanation. I’m doing it again in my new book. This very morning, the characters were in a giant industrial kitchen, ostensibly working to solve the problems of world hunger, actually setting the scene for sexual intrigue and betrayal and braising vegetables. Sooner or later, these people are going to have to stop cooking and talking and do something. If this were someone else’s draft, I might say, “These characters are in a situation, but they’re not yet in a predicament.” When I was a brand-new writer, I wrote gleefully; now I see all the problems as I work. Nonetheless, my early drafts are intractable. I have to follow them through anyway. Maybe in the third or eighth draft, something will happen. Meanwhile, no clock is ticking. My characters are making ratatouille.
NA: In your novel you described “Nile perch lapped in palm oil and surrounded by green bananas baked until they were soft, fat, sticky with oil.” This sounds delicious! Have you eaten some of the foods that you’ve described? Do you have a favorite dish? A favorite cookbook (or website) that you’d recommend for authentic African recipes?
SS: The meal I ate most often when I lived in Burundi was boiled beans, fried plaintains, and soambe (manioc leaves pounded with peanuts). Authentic Burundian cooking does tend to use a lot of oil, since it’s a cheap way to get calories: during the time period of the novel, the average pay for a Burundian agricultural worker was just under eighty cents a day. Getting enough calories is definitely not a problem for those of us who live in an area that grassroots food activist and chef Bryant Terry has described as a “food paradise.” His website links to his books, which include affordable, sustainable recipes from the African diaspora, like Spicy Mafé Tempeh in Vegan Soul Kitchen and Funmilayo Fritters with Harissa in The Inspired Vegan. Robin Robertson has a whole section on African recipes in Vegan Fire & Spice: 200 Sultry and Savory Global Recipes, including West African Yam and Groundnut Stew, as well as a website with recipes: Global Vegan Kitchen. In Appetite for Reduction, Isa Chandra Moskowitz of Post Punk Kitchen fame, includes global and fusion recipes, including healthy African-inspired dishes like Ethiopian Millet and Mushroom Tibs. Making food, and feeding people, is a nice counterbalance for those of us who spend most of our time in our own – or other people’s – imaginations.