Alice LaPlante is an author of fiction and non-fiction. She teaches creative writing at Stanford University and recently won the Wellcome trust Book Prize for 2011 for her debut novel Turn of Mind. Here she talks to Elen Lewis about how her business writing informs her fiction and what all first-time novelists should know.
Which fictional character do you most identify with?
“Identify” is a tough word for me. A character I admire, and who I have enormous sympathy for, is Margaret in E.M. Forster’s Howard End. She’s tough, smart, fair, politically progressive, and assumes responsibility for the emotional and physical well-being of not one, but two families. She almost pulls it off. But I’m not sure she doesn’t sacrifice something essential in herself doing so. For that reason, my heart breaks as I contemplate her fate every time I read that book.
As I was fumbling over this question, my 16-year-old daughter asked what I was doing. When I told her, she ran into her room and brought out her favorite book from when she was seven or eight. I’m not sure your UK readers would know it: Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli. We read it together—at the time we were still at the stage where we read books together at bedtime–so I know this book pretty well, and was therefore rather overwhelmed when my daughter said the main character reminded her of me. Given that the main character was a lovely, whimsical, non-conforming young woman who mysteriously appears in a community and causes magical things to happen before disappearing…..well, let’s say I’m very, very flattered. This young woman ends up being, as you might suspect from the title, a star that has fallen to earth. The most delightful aspect of Stargirl is that she doesn’t give a flying f*** what anyone thinks of her, but manages to be herself under trying circumstance in such a generous and kind way that she ultimately wins everyone over.
My daughter gets a gold star, and perhaps some extra allowance this month.
What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?
Worry less about a career, or finding a place in the world. Play more. Give yourself the gift of time. Write fiction every day. Don’t marry until your forties.
How did your non-fiction inform your fiction writing? And vica versa?
The non-fiction pays the bills. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t have to. I’d write fiction all day long. That said, being a journalist, and writing for business has certainly taught me to be direct, concise, and accurate. My early work contained quite a bit of purple prose. No more.
My business clients say they love the fact that I have this “other side. “They tell me that my love of language, and my obsession with making every word count, my understanding of nuances in vocabulary and syntax, and my agenda of always making sure there’s some “music” in the text, no matter how dry the subject, makes me a valuable asset to their organizations.
Why did you write a novel?
I’d only written and published short stories until about five years ago. Then I decided to try my hand at a novel. It failed miserably—I toiled at it for three years before performing a long-deserved mercy killing. Looking back, I think I just wasn’t emotionally engaged with it on the level you must be to sustain a longer work. I started with more of an idea than an emotion, and for me that’s deadly. I found that I loved the more expansive canvas a novel provides, however, and the freedom to move the narrative in different directions without worrying about the word count. I have no doubt I learned a lot of valuable lessons from that novel that helped me write Turn of Mind.
What do people get wrong about you?
This is something a lot of women my age (53) say, so I’m by no means unique. But I do know that on the outside I appear like a rather frumpy conventional middle-aged woman. Invisible in a crowd. Past the point of being interesting to men or young people. Plus, I can be quite shy socially. So people are always surprised when they realize how strong my opinions are, how out of sync they are with current society, and how powerfully I feel about the people and matters that are important to me.
What should all first-time novelists know?
Not to over-think the narrative. Not to over-plot. Certainly, you’re always going to be wondering what on earth can happen next, and that’s an aspect of plotting. But the more intuitively writers can approach their material and their characters, the fresher and more interesting their work will be. I keep going back to something Flannery O’Connor said in one of her lectures. You could say it’s my mantra when writing: “Our job as writers is not to solve, but to render our mysteries.” Smart woman.
In terms of inspirations.. What is your favourite word? Book? Film? Writer? Place? Piece of music?
My family laughs at me for this, but when I am writing fiction I listen obsessively to Bach choral music. To me, it has exactly the right balance of passion, precision, pain, and joy that I require to get myself in the right state of mind. Especially St. Matthews’ Passion, especially when played on original instruments. Completely sublime.