Q&A with Susan Tekulve, author of 'In the Garden of Stone'
Susan Tekulve's “In the Garden of Stone,” published by Hub City Press in Spartanburg and released officially this week, won the biennial South Carolina First Novel Competition, administered by Hub City Press and the South Carolina Arts Commission.
The novel recounts the lives of Sicilian immigrants in the mountains of Appalachia, and it is at once a departure for Tekulve and a famaliar condensation of the sort of fiction she loves to write: stories about purposeful people idefined by geography and circumstance.
Tekulve lives in Spartanburg and teaches writing at Converse College. On the occasion of her debut novel, The Post and Courier asked her a few questions about her writing.
Q: Your award-winning novel “In the Garden of Stone” is redolent with a sense of place. At any given moment it seems that both action and character are wholly informed by geography. So place must be high up on your writer's priority list. Is that how you devise your stories? Do you always begin with the setting?
A: When one of my favorite writers, Norman Maclean, first attempted to publish his collection of short stories that contains his now-famous novella, “A River Runs Through It,” one publisher who rejected the manuscript included a note that read, “These stories have trees in them!” Maclean joked about this response in the prologue of his book, calling the “trees” in his writing “my literary handicap.” Fortunately, he was intrepid enough not to let this rejection-letter comment shake his confidence in his book, which is decidedly about so much more than trees. In fact, Maclean uses the geography of his youth to great effect, creating a story about a lost brother, human mortality and the consciousness of beauty. His descriptions of place, especially his details about the natural landscapes that formed his emotional landscape, are fundamental to all aspects of his story telling.
When I wrote “In the Garden of Stone,” I studied the work of writers like Norman Maclean, Willa Cather and Sarah Orne Jewett. These writers all use place as more than just a backdrop for their narratives. Their descriptions of the natural landscapes shape their characters, create conflict, establish rhythm and structure within their stories, and communicate their central themes. My own novel is set in the coal country of West Virginia and Virginia, and my characters are immigrant Sicilian coal miners or people indigenous to the Southern Highlands. This is an area of tremendous natural beauty and harsh economic strife, and so I had to create primary characters who know everything about staying alive on the remote side of a mountain, or in a deep hollow. These characters are formed by this wild, isolated landscape. They have to know how to make moonshine, which would have been the only form of medicine available to them, (other than turpentine), in the early 20th century. They know about snake lore, and they know how to plant by “the signs.” They know how to cook and make nostrums from the herbs and flowers they pick in the woods around their houses.
While writing this book, I had to keep in mind that the emotional identities of these characters are rooted in the natural landscape, and that their lives are shaped by the seasons and the weather, rather than by our modern sense of time. Early in the novel, a lot of the conflict occurs when someone, or something, invades the natural landscape. There is obvious tension caused by the coal and timbering companies that decimate the land. Ultimately, though, I tried to concentrate on the less-obvious, intimate stories about the women, children and immigrants who scratch out a living here, and survive. The novel is, at its heart, about endurance, but the children narrators keep the story balanced and hopeful because they still have such a firm sense of identity and place. Like most kids, they intuit the grim forces acting upon them, but they are still pretty open to the natural beauty of this place, and they are resilient.
Q: You are half Sicilian and half German, a Cincinnati native, and a former Peace Corps volunteer who spent a year in Poland in the early 1990s. How does your own international identity inform your writing?
A: My mother's family is Sicilian, so I grew up listening to the stories of her family's emigration to America. Her grandmother and grandfather, Josephina and Giuseppe Macaluso, met and fell in love on the boat coming over from Palermo. They married when they got to Ellis Island, and somehow settled in the river bottoms of Cincinnati. Then, they had 21 children. My grandfather was one of the middle children, and because he married late and only had one child, his brothers were always called my “uncles,” or just “the uncles.”
These men never spoke Italian to me, and they rarely spoke about their pasts, or about what it was like to grow up in a cold water flat above the Ohio River. I imagine that they didn't consider this part of their lives romantic or interesting at all. They were stoics who probably just wanted to forget about the “miseria” that their parents had escaped in Sicily, which was the poorest country in Europe around the time they emigrated. I know for certain that my grandfather didn't want to speak of how, at 15, he lied about his age so that he could drive a truck for a fruit vendor. At some point, he also went to work as a hired hand at a Catholic rectory. I had to find all of this information out from my mother, who must have been told these stories by an aunt or by her own mother.
As adults, “the uncles” were trainmen and printers who were more concerned with playing poker and “passing” as Americans. Whenever I asked my grandfather about what it was like for his parents in Sicily, or what it was like to grow up in the river bottoms, he'd say, “C'era una volta. Una volta. Una volta.” I always thought he was saying, “I don't wanna. I don't wanna.” When I started taking Italian language classes as an adult, I discovered that he'd actually been saying, “Once upon a time.” This was his favorite joke. However, as an adult fiction writer I began to see these words as part of my family's mythos. There is a pattern of basic cultural and generational values and attitudes my grandfather implied when he told this joke: You don't talk about your hardscrabble past to your grandchildren, and if you do you, you tell the stories as if they were distant fairy tales.
When I began to use these family stories as the basis for the novel, my most challenging task was finding out what stories were left unspoken. I had to find a way to flesh out the more realistic details behind my family's mythology so that I could turn those archetypal stories of immigration and life in the early 20th century America into realistic fiction. Fortunately, the women in my family are much more effusive storytellers. I had one great aunt who sent to me a series of audio- taped family stories. I believe I received one tape a month, for an entire year. They were finely detailed stories that began with the family's emigration to America in 1904 and ended with my mother's birth in 1940. She labeled all of these taped anecdotes “stuff your mother never knew about your grandparents.” So the descriptions of the Sicilians in the novel ended up being a distillation of my family's almost mythic tales of immigration, my own memories of what these people were like, and the detailed stories that this one great aunt told me about what “really happened.”
Q: Mostly you have produced short stories, right? “In the Garden of Stone” is your first novel. Was the writing process different? How do you approach the task of creating short fiction versus long fiction?
A: Yes, before this novel I wrote mostly short stories, essays, book reviews, news and feature stories. I would say that writing a novel is decidedly different from any of these shorter forms because the novel requires a longer amount of time, and enormous amounts of emotional energy. When I sit down to write a short story, I think, “Who is my character? What does she want? What does she do to get what she wants?” I am very detail oriented, so I repeat these questions like a mantra as I write a short story. This keeps me from straying too far away from the story's central action. It helps to keep a story's plot a little more streamlined.
Sometimes I'll work on a single story for three months, expanding it and carving it back down, until I get it to a point where I feel that I have a draft that is ready to show. And then there are those rare moments when a story will come to me very quickly, in two or three days. These stories are blessings because they come out whole, and fairly unified. There's a kind of energy to them that I can't replicate consciously. A friend of mine calls this kind of quickly-composed story “the sneeze story.” Perhaps this is not the most literary term, but it is a fitting description of a story that comes suddenly and reflexively, typically when I am working on something else entirely.
Novels, on the other hand, require longer spaces of time, peace and quiet. You have to know where your novel begins, and you need to have a general idea of where that novel will end. You may not know exactly how your characters arrive at their final destination, but you must have a destination in mind. Otherwise, you'll get completely lost inside your novel and never come out. You need to have a firmer sense of your novel's setting; if you are writing about a place and a people who are seemingly different from your own experience, you have to memorize the researched details of that setting until they become a part of who you already are so that you aren't just “information dumping” into your novel, and so that the researched details remain in service to the story that you are telling.
Q: Back to the novel: It's a multi-generational saga that spans 44 years in a little over 300 pages. And yet you are very specific in your descriptions and dialogue. How do you cover so much time present so many characters without compromising the narrative?
A: Originally, I wrote an extremely long and anecdotal short story set in Virginia and West Virginia. This story was set later in the lives of most of the characters who inhabit the published version of In the Garden of Stone. As you may guess, in this early draft each character had a rather large back story, so the short story was rather loose and baggy. One of my reading-partners read this draft and said, “You know, I really like this material, but it is too long to be a short story.” So I put this piece away for a while because I didn't know what to do with it. About a year later, I wrote another short story that expanded upon a single incident involving one of the primary characters from that early short story. At this point, I knew that I had enough material for a novel, so I used this story as the opening chapter of the book. Then I started culling the rest of the chapters of the novel from the anecdotes in that original long short story.
Basically, I used that long short story as “an exploratory” draft for the whole novel. That draft allowed me to “test” the original material to see if it had enough heft for a novel, but since the story also spanned 44 years and had the arc of a novel, I used it as a general outline for the whole book as I concentrated on writing the individual chapters. So that I wouldn't feel intimidated by this novel's girth, I didn't call it a “multi-generational novel,” though I knew that it was, in fact, a novel. I just called it “a book-length work of fiction that I was writing one piece at a time.” That is probably the biggest reason why the dialogue and descriptions remain specific; I literally wrote one chapter at a time, focusing solely on the single chapters as I wrote them. I wrote the novel slowly, over a course of eight years. Often, while I was working on one chapter, another character with another too-long back story would appear on the periphery of the chapter I was concentrating on at the moment. I would cut and paste that periphery character and her/his story into a separate file, save it, and eventually that anecdote would give rise to another chapter. It was a pretty organic process. When I'd finished all the chapters and put them together, I saw that I had a 360-page manuscript. That was a revelation.
Q: You teach writing at Converse College in Spartanburg. What do you tell a student who wants to write a novel? And what is the best advice you have received from your teachers and mentors?
A: Aside from teaching the basic elements of narrative, I have some very simple rules about composition that I try to communicate to my students. 1) Keep the plot simple, but allow your characters' motivations to become complex. 2) Always give your protagonist a “job.” In other words, if you know what your character does for a living, you'll know how that character thinks, and how she typically behaves. You'll also know when she is acting in ways that are out of character. If your protagonist is a Sicilian woman baker who lived on the island in the early 20th century, this woman most likely will remember being hungry all the time as a child, and therefore food will be her central preoccupation. This woman will work without a measuring cup, using her hands or fists to measure ingredients. She'll most likely have all of her basic recipes memorized, and, if she takes a liking to you, she'll want to show you how to make something, rather than simply giving you the written recipe. Even if she is widowed and living on a fixed income, she'll miraculously produce a bowl of pistachios, or a couple of blood oranges that she's managed to grow on the sunny side of her back yard, in the middle of winter. There's a whole history that you can learn about this woman if you let her boss you, gently, around her kitchen. If you listen to how she makes sweets you'll gain an understanding of how she perceives the people and places she encounters. 3) Never turn away from your story. As I said earlier, I tend to be detail oriented, and I love to linger over the sounds of words, so when I work on a story, or a novel, I continually force myself to follow these simple rules so that the plot doesn't become too bogged down with details.
Q: Describe your writing routine. Are you a morning person or a late-night writer? Do you insist on producing a minimum number of words or pages each day, or do you go with the flow?
A: When I have a longer stretch of time to write, I try to create a work regime by repeating certain habits. Usually, I wake up before the sun rises, and go downstairs to make a pot of coffee. I return to my office and read something, usually poetry, until I feel like writing. I'll write for 4-6 uninterrupted hours, knowing that one of those hours will be spent immersing myself into whatever project I'm working on, and one of those hours will be spent coming back out of that project. When I've finished writing for the day, I'll take notes about where I'll begin the next day. I think it's really important to know what your next day's work will be at the time you quit working for the day. Then, I'll take a long walk or lift weights, eat lunch, nap, read. By about 2 or 3 in the afternoon, I'll take more notes with a pencil on a lined legal pad. I'll read some more before I fall asleep. Then, I wake up and start all over again.
Like most people, I can't always abide by that ideal schedule because I work full time, and I have a family. When I don't have a long stretch of time for my writing, the main thing I try to do is read a lot, take a lot of notes, and carve out smaller moments to write. I have learned to defend those moments pretty fiercely. Most of the year, I am carving out time and space in my daily life to write, and I try to go to it as regularly as possible. I am always reading, which is an essential part of the writing process. If you establish what Flannery O'Connor calls “the habit of art,” then the very act of writing every day will get you through times when you have a heavy load at your day job, when it is next to impossible to concentrate on writing fiction. If you are writing something, anything, on a regular basis you'll remain in practice and ready for when the idea for the next big book project occurs to you.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am wading into a novel project set entirely in Sicily, in the early part of the 20th century. The story centers on one of the periphery characters who appears throughout “In the Garden of Stone.” This character is an elderly aunt named Maria. The new project is about Maria's younger life, when, at the age of 12, she's given to a convent in her village and trained by the nuns to make the abbey sweets. (Traditionally, nuns made and sold most of the fancy pastries in Sicily. They made these abbey sweets for the hundreds of religious holidays celebrated on the island, but this was also how they sustained their way of life in the convents.) I'm still in the research phase of this novel, so that's all I'm able to say about the book at this moment. Suffice it to say that I am reading a lot of Sicilian history books and cookbooks. I'm learning how to make Sicilian pastries. I took a trip through all the bakeries of Little Italy in Boston about a month ago. My poor family and friends have to eat a lot of cannoli and almond pastries whenever they see me these days.
Editor's Note: A shortened version of this interview appeared in print.