Tuesday, July 26, 2005

A greeting to NCCAT from Ingrid Hill

Hi, everyone. I'm another e-buddy of Marly's dropping in with my shillingsworth. (That's inflation for you: it used to be two cents.) I'm a first-time novelist and I've just returned from my dozen-city book tour, which was a lot like being on a carnival ride that decides to go backward. Dizzying, at the very least.

I thought I'd pick up on a thread from Marjorie's post about the question of how much reality (fact, info) is required in the writing of fiction. I had an interesting question from the audience the other day, at McIntyre's bookstore in Fearrington Village, NC.

A man who happened to be the father of my editor at Penguin showed up, having read my novel (Ursula, Under) and having especially loved the sense of detail in it. Now this has been true with each audience, that SOMEONE will ask about the research, but the particular scene to which he was referring brought up a whole new question.

Earlier audiences asked about historical chapters of the novel, especially one ("The Alchemist's Last Concubine") that introduces a Taoist alchemist in the third century B.C. in what is today Sichuan province, the People's Republic of China. For that chapter I had some background, having studied two years of Chinese in grad school and been three times to China itself. But when I began researching, knowing only that I wanted to use a character who was an alchemist, I really got my socks knocked off. Turned out TAOIST alchemy was not, unlike western alchemy, seeking to produce gold from base metals, but to find the recipe for the elixir of immortality. That was perfect for me, since the novel is about family, in a longitudinal sense: heredity and offspring, another form of "immortality." In the course of that research, when I found that Taoist practice involved, um, eye-rollingly wonderfully named sexual positions that to my western mind sound hilarious and of course un-pictur!e-able, I couldn't pass that up. So that had to be included too, offstage, referred-to but undescribed so that the reader's imagination must kick in. Not like a romance novel, more like comedy at an odd angle.

But my editor's father's question was about a present-day scene that no one else has mentioned. In this scene, a Wal-Mart truck driver, Joe Cimmer, who has left his wife and son when the child was two years old-- doesn't know why, never did, has been anguishing about it and fantasizing that he'll go home but never quite getting up the courage-- is in a Super Wal-Mart in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in the middle of the night, dropping a load. He walks around the store in a daze picking up this item, then that, berating himself about his failed life, and suddenly sees on two dozen screens, an upper and lower bank of televisions, a rescue attempt. A little girl-- who is Joe's grandchild, though he has no idea he HAS a grandchild-- has fallen down a mine shaft in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, just a few hours away. My editor's father went absolutely ecstatic over the detail in that scene, and he asked how I'd researched that. I told him I'd tried to do it straightforwardly, by phoning Wal-Mart and asking to interview someone. Well, duh: who answers the phone, no matter where you call, but someone who is nineteen and afraid to say anything but also unwilling to pass you along to someone who DOES know something, because the phone person thinks he/she might get fired for not knowing. Oh, grief. So nobody, at several different levels, would help me, because there is no "box" for the category "novelist seeking info about Wal-Mart truckers' procedures and lifestyles." Finally (I'm pathologically persistent) I got to a person higher-up-- who got there by NOT being a creative thinker-- who said, "You know, since September eleventh we have to be very careful about terrorists. They could use any information we gave them." Oh, my. So I gave up.

But not really. I asked my muse to arrange something, and so one day when I was driving out Highway Onein Iowa City, passing the Wal-Mart where I shop, a Wal-Mart freight truck was heading in my direction. I felt it calling out to me, like, "Your muse sent me." So I did a quick u-turn and followed the truck to the loading dock. I stood like a nice little schoolgirl smiling up at the trucker, told him my situation, and asked if he'd have a little time to talk with me. Yuuup, he did. I got so much EXCELLENT information that then allowed me to build scene and plot and character development on it that I gave my muse a promotion. Bottom line, the rule is: whatever it takes to get what you need to write what you want, take it to the limit. Just do it.

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About Ingrid Hill

Ingrid is another one of those people I met through words--she read one of my stories in the Raleigh paper and contacted me through an editor there. Something like that is always wonderful, because it means that one writer finds something "kindred" in another. We've been in touch by email for years now.

Her new book is doing well and will continue to do so, I think. Here's a quote from a recent feature/interview with her at bookslut.com: "Author Ingrid Hill speaks in a thoughtful, graceful way that manages to be cerebral yet refreshingly open. One has only to read a few pages of her splendidly complex book, Ursula, Under, to see those qualities at work. The book, about culture, bloodlines, and sometimes surprising connections, is also about poetically precise writing. It was included on the longlist for the Orange Prize, a finalist for Virginia Commonwealth University’s First Novel Prize, a winner of the Great Lakes Book Award for Fiction, on a Washington Post list of Best Books, and is a Christian Century pick, along with Ha Jin’s War Trash and Philip Roth’s Plot Against America." For the rest, jump to http://www.bookslut.com/features/2005_07_005950.php.

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