Friday, July 24, 2015

Interview with (and by) Co-Authors of A 52-HERTZ WHALE, Natalie TIlghman and Bill Sommer

Nat Interviews Bill

Nat: So Bill, how did the process of collaboration on A 52-Hertz Whale start and then evolve? What was it like to work with someone else (um, me) to write a novel? 

Bill: Well, I was nearing the end of Writing School, where I had met Natalie (henceforth “you”), and I became worried that I'd stop doing my homework, i.e. writing. I was slogging through a long, serious novel, and I thought it'd be good to have some “fun” writing to work on as well. There was this voice that I was dying to write in, and it simply had no place in the novel I was already working on. 

So I thought, “You know what would be fun? To write emails back and forth with a great writer, and to do so in character.” Naturally, I thought of you. I figured of course, that we would be collaborating for more or less selfish purposes, each of us taking chances and learning about the characters we were writing as so we could then take all that information back with us and work on solo projects. As far as I knew, “solo” was how one wrote fiction. Little did I know, that almost as soon as we started—I'd guess about ten emails into Darren and James's exchange—the communication between these characters would take on a life of its own. I remember both of us saying things like, “I don't know what we've got here, but it seems cool, and it's a lot of fun.” The story was taking shape with no outside discussion of what could or should happen next. We just went with it until almost the very end, when the circumstances of the plot demanded we coordinate our efforts a little more deliberately. 

Nat:  Is there any part of Darren, as a character, that you can relate to from when you were a twenty-something?  

Bill: An easier thing would be to answer the the parts of Darren that I don't relate to. But I'll say this: the qualities I see in Darren that most closely mirror my experience of my own life in my early twenties are thus: a hugely inflated sense of self-importance, a certain amount of awareness of that sense of self-importance (not that the awareness decreased the self-importance in an way), a screaming desire to skip ahead to the part of life where I was really good at everything and loved by all, and a deep fear that that time might not ever come.

Nat: How did your background in screen writing influence your writing in the novel, if at all? How are the two forms different or similar?

Bill: Well, the time I've spent on set informed Darren's forays into the television world in small ways, but in terms of the approach to writing, the things I tried to bring from screenwriting are external conflict and complication. Those are vague terms, and of course all good fiction has these things, but screenwriting is so distilled. For the most part, a script is filled with characters talking and doing. That being the case, they better say and do interesting things. This is helpful for me when writing fiction as it counterbalances my inclinations to write lyrical descriptions of trees in a meadow and of characters pondering the first time they saw their father cry. 

Nat: Technology plays a huge role in A 52-Hertz Whale. In your opinion, is technology good or bad for writers and writing? 

Bill: Here's how I see it. As a person in modern society, my computer is awesome. In terms of writing, I actually try to refer to it as if it were an entirely different object: I just call it the Distraction Machine. Because for me personally, that's what it is more than anything. I used to write a lot on the computer, but I'm back to the ol' notebook for first drafts.

Nat: How did you find Darren’s voice and what role did revision play in refining it?

Bill: I found Darren's voice in the writing of Dave Eggers and Tom Robbins. Those were the writers I loved when I was in and just out of college, just around Darren's age. The revision process just helped me find places where Darren could be even more Darren because I knew him better, knew more about the specifics of his upbringing and life experience.

Nat: What advice would you give to young writers or those who want to write YA?

Bill: Read and write often (duh, but must be said). But more specifically regarding the writing, write most of the time in the way that feels most natural to you, but also try to carve out time to write in ways that seem too hard for you, or are a direct attempt to copy of the style of a writer you admire, or that combine two styles of writing that don't normally go together.

Nat: You’re not a one trick pony. Besides being a writer, you’re a drummer, too.  Does drumming ever infiltrate your writing? If so, how?

Bill: I'd like to think it helps the rhythm of my prose, but I have no way of telling if it does directly. Also, drumming, like writing, is most interesting when it moves fluidly between being soft and LOUD, restrained and insane.

Nat: What are you reading right now?

Bill: I'm reading The Making of Second Life about the virtual world called 2nd Life. I've never spent time in it (on it?), but I'm going to soon because I have characters in a new project that “meet” digitally long before they meet in person. As research, I'll be spending a lot of time on the Distraction Machine.

Bill Interviews Nat

Bill: Were there any novels or short stories that you feel influenced your writing in A 52-Hertz Whale, either directly or indirectly?

Nat: Yes! I am inspired by writers who manage to incorporate the natural world (especially the ocean and its inhabitants) into their fiction.  I like to learn interesting creature facts while I am reading—I guess I am similar to James in that way (chuckle).  James Lynch’s novel The Highest Tide and Anthony Doerr’s short story “The Shell Collector” are two works that influenced me.  Also, Moby Dick.

Bill: What sort of mental work did you do to transport yourself back to high school?

Nat: I joke that my alter-ego is a 14-year-old boy, especially my taste in music. But honestly, I did a lot of reading that immersed me in the world of high school—books like Sex and Violence, Sin Eater’s Confession, Punkzilla, Eleanor and Park, Cures for Heartbreak, and Saving Francesca.   Every person’s experience of high school is so unique and I love that there are so many different voices represented in today’s YA literature. 

Bill: How much of your characters’ backstories do you know? Do you know how long, say, Sophia and Sara have been friends?  Whatever you do know, do you tend to discover it as you go?

Nat: I tend to discover my character’s backstories as I go, which makes the writing process fun and interesting and sometimes even surprising.  Often, I THINK I know a character’s backstory, but the character or the story directs me somewhere else entirely.   For instance, in A 52-Hertz Whale, Peter’s failed marriage was not something I planned for. I thought originally that he would be married and that he would be struggling with an addicted child, not an addicted sister with whom he had a significant and troubled history. 

Oh, and yes, I know how long Sophia and Sara have been friends—since they met in their first ballet class all the way back when they were kindergarteners.

Bill: James, or some version of him, was a character in a previous short story of yours. What about his role in the other story informed the current version of him? 

Nat: As you said, the story that first gave life to James was “Whale Boy.”  While “Whale Boy” provided the inspiration for the character of James as he appears in the novel, I was writing in close third person—not first person—in the short story.  So I did not know James’s voice and that was something that I had to really learn in the process of writing the novel.  Also, James did not grow in the short story in the way he does in the novel because there is no Darren in “Whale Boy” and Darren is essential to James’s transformation. Additionally, there were so many minor characters in the short story, who I didn’t know as well as I do now.  Charlie, Sam, and Sophia each have much more significant roles and story lines in A 52-Hertz Whale.  

Bill: Did you already love whales, or did you learn to love them as the book progressed?

Nat: I already loved them. When I was in fourth grade, I organized a group of neighborhood kids to go Christmas caroling. Any change that listeners donated in appreciation of our terrible singing was used to “adopt” a humpback whale. I’ve also gone whale watching a couple of times and there is nothing more amazing than seeing an animal larger than the boat itself emerging from the waves. I learned more about whales for the novel by reading The Birth of a Humpback Whale by Robert Matero and The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea by Phillip Hoare.  

Bill: What do you most like or dislike about the epistolary style in which we wrote?


Like: The many angles and character perspectives that you can introduce in order to better understand and deepen a particular plot point.
Dislike: Writing scenes and making character interactions and dialogue sound natural within the context of correspondence.