The Possible World

Following the release of Liese O’Halloran Schwarz’s second novel, The Possible World, last summer, Elena Bowes caught up with the doctor-turned-author to get an insight into her process, her inspiration, and her love of a good cuppa.

How would you describe the theme of your poignant novel in 26 words?

It’s a simple concept at heart: the world is more complex than we know, and even the most difficult circumstances may contain a measure of hope.

How did you structure the three interweaving stories? Did you plan it all out before actually writing the story?

I wish! Sadly, I am not an outliner. I have to feel my way along when telling a story, and there was a great deal of invention and excision and rearrangement right up to the very last draft of this book. In the final stages for me, when reading through it with as objective a mind as possible, to see if the story is good from a reader’s perspective — does it rise and fall in a satisfying way and carry the reader forward? — a lot of changes can still happen. It’s actually so nice for me when a manuscript gets to that stage, leaving behind the long incoherent floundering phase of creation.

I listened to a radio interview where you said you knew at age three that you wanted to be a writer. Your first novel Near Canaan came out in 1990. Your second novel The Possible World came out this past summer. Can readers hope that your third will come out a lot sooner? We can’t wait another 18 years for your lovely prose and characters!

Thank you! How nice to think that someone is waiting for the next book! Well, I took a bunch of decades off to finish my medical training and practice for a while, and now that I have left medicine and am focusing only on writing — which is wonderful! — I do hope to be more productive. I do have the next manuscript well underway, although it’s not quite to the point where I have released it to my agent.

Each of your characters is so perfectly depicted. I really believed that Ben is a very shy, loving six-year-old boy, Lucy, an over-worked, hardened but not totally, heart-broken doctor and Clare a somewhat crotchety, smart as a whip 100-year-old woman. How did you get into their heads and do you have any tips on character building for aspiring writers?

They feel like real people to me — I mean I know that they are not real, but…[she whispers] I do believe in them. When I write, I “enter into” the characters and into the scene; it’s like a very specific kind of psychosis. I don’t know if other writers do this, but it’s the most fundamental aspect of my writing process. It is quite fun (when it is going well), almost like Virtual Reality. Wow, I sound like a lunatic. But honestly, it is like VR. I envision it all, every bit of everything, every movement and physical space and sensation. During this part of the writing process, I will over-write — put a lot of detail in — and then near the end of the drafting process try to remove every bit that isn’t necessary. That part is challenging. The most fun thing ever is how the characters emerge and move toward wholeness, through the revision process. At the beginning, I can barely see them, and they’re insanely inconsistent, and some scenes are just like awkward puppetry, and then as I go along revising, a character will become more distinct, until in the end s/he kind of lifts away from me, like a soap-bubble detaching itself from a wand. That’s a terrific moment, when I realize that has happened.

Your opening scene is a gripping page-turner. You write in a restrained way, avoiding too many horrific, violent details. What was your goal with this opening chapter?

I didn’t intend to start the book with that chapter. But after I wrote it, I realized that it solved a major question, one that is critical to all stories: why is/are the narrator(s) breaking the silence now? In other words, what is the trigger, what starts the main action? In this case, the trigger is what happens in the first chapter— the sudden emotional trauma that Ben experiences. It starts everything off. I like how it shocks the reader the way it shocks Ben. I also liked the surprising event being folded into what starts as an ordinary day. And also, this opening —the way the first chapter starts and then where it ends up— might signal to the reader that the book as a whole might not be exactly what you expect.

Building suspense. What advice would you give to writers on how to let it build slowly, but not too slowly, how to keep the reader turning the page?

That’s such a challenge; it is so difficult to know, as the writer, how a story unfolds to the eyes of a fresh reader. Suspense is not just whodunit, of course! It can be super subtle. It’s the element that keeps the reader interested and engaged, wanting to know what happens next. I remember something I heard from an NPR interview with a TV writer: the writer said, when discussing how to write a successful pilot:  “Don’t explain ANYTHING at first” and after hearing that, I reviewed some stories that I considered to be very engaging (written and film/TV), and realized that they did that: in the beginning they explained almost nothing, opened up a lot of questions and answered very few. It was really useful advice. My own corollary would be: “When you answer the questions you have raised: answer some soon, some slowly, and some in surprising ways—and always raise new questions as you go.” The “questions” can be tiny or big, some can be answered in the same paragraph in which they are raised, or on the same page, or not be answered until the very end of the story; they all work to keep the reader caring about what’s coming and wanting to read on.

As a former Emergency Room doctor, how do you think we move on from trauma?  In the first chapter, you write “Maybe it’s better if those memories don’t ever come back?” In a later chapter you write “If you remember, then you remember. If not, then you just go forward.”

I think it varies between individuals, of course. Sometimes a fuzzy memory of a traumatic event is actually a blessing. My character Lucy (who makes both of those statements you quoted) is speaking from her own struggle at that time in her life, deciding that she wants to soldier forward somehow, past her losses. She tells the second statement to Ben, who is coping with his loss (of memory). I don’t think Lucy thinks it will be easy to go forward. And neither do I. Recovery from trauma is not simple and I doubt it is ever a straight line, and probably never ends in an unblemished, untraumatized place. I believe that since we can’t make terrible things un-happen, whatever therapeutic modality is chosen, the hoped-for, eventual endpoint should include some degree of acceptance of the loss.

Setting – Can you tell us why you set the book in Rhode Island? How much does Rhode Island’s distinct character play into your plot and theme?

I lived in Rhode Island for a pretty long time. I feel a huge affection for it, and for its particular quirks. The Rhode Islanders I met were deeply resilient people with a strong sense of self. I really enjoy variety and surprise (any Emergency Medicine doctor really has to like those things), and one gets a ton of both in Rhode Island. It is a tiny landmass with a huge number of immigrant populations, a lot of different traditions and languages cheek-by-jowl. The characters in The Possible World (even the minor ones) represent the variety that you would encounter in any random group of Rhode Islanders. That includes Lucy, who is not from Rhode Island — she is a student-import, training at the University-affiliated hospital. There are a lot of schools (art and culinary as well as liberal arts colleges) in Rhode Island, and the students bring a lot of vivacity to the place.

“Don’t grieve, anything you lose comes around in another forum” Rumi

Your novel seems to suggest this. Do you believe that?

I don’t believe it, but I also don’t NOT believe it. I have no idea how the world works! The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. It is a comforting thought, though — and how lovely if it were true.

Can you tell us about the editing process? What did you learn from the process?

My editors (Nan Graham and Kara Watson at Scribner) first made some overall big-picture comments that forced me to ask myself questions about what I wanted the novel to do, and then as I revised, provided course-corrections. There was an enormous attention to detail, which I very much appreciated, and they forced me to keep my standards high. It was a very interesting (and for me, very effective) process: a little question mark by a paragraph or squiggly underline under a word would tell me something had snagged or had struck a false note, and that I would need to revisit that part. One tiny mark like that could lead me to make a lot of interconnected changes throughout the whole manuscript. It felt like extremely efficient communication, and as though we were on the same wavelength. I feel very good about how the book came out, so that specific editing process worked well for me!

And finally, can you tell us a bit about yourself? What do you do for fun?

Oh my God, I am so boring. I read and write and walk my dog. I bake. I am a technophile and an early adopter. After so long in the world of medicine, I enjoy being able to read without guilt. It still feels a little illicit! I actually consume a pretty ridiculous volume of story, in terms of print and podcasts and audiobooks and video. I think some of the best stories today are being told visually on the small screen, and aurally via podcast like This American Life and The Moth and Criminal, and even ephemerally in things like Instagram Stories, which can be so creative. 

And can you tell us something about yourself that would surprise people?

I don’t drink alcohol at all! It goes against the stereotype of the boozy author, doesn’t it? It’s not for any serious reason —it’s just that it makes me sleepy. My preferred beverage is tea — nothing fancy, just good strong black tea with milk. I drink an amazing quantity of that. 

– Elena Bowes

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