Actor-turned-writer Gina Sorell: How “Method Writing” led to my first novel

 

Long before I called myself a writer, I was an actor. Even though writing had been my first love, it wasn’t how I made my living. I’d attended performing arts schools from the time I was 9 years old all the way through high school, and I went to college at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

Although I’d devoted so much of my life to being an actor, the part that I enjoyed the most were the stories that my characters got to tell. I loved building my characters, writing elaborate histories that explained how they came to be the people they were at the moment the audience met them. A script can only tell you so much about the character, presenting them as they are in the here and now. Maybe there will be clues, or lines about their past, but it’s often up to the actor to decide the rest.

A character breakdown on a casting notice might say, “A divorced, polished, hard as nails lawyer, who clawed her way to the top without anyone’s help, she knows her way around a man’s world.” And I’d wonder: What made her so hard? How did she claw? Intellectually, sexually, ethically, mercilessly? What did that sacrifice cost her? Is she polished in her appearance? Did her Armani pantsuit put her over the top on her credit card, maxing her out after paying student loans and the debt from her deadbeat ex-husband who gambled away all their savings and slept with her best friend?

I write the back story and the front story, not just to know where my characters are, but how they got there, and then I wrestle with how much of their history to reveal.

The script may give insight into her past, but it might not, especially if the role is small, and it would be up to me to imagine the rest. I’d write pages about who my character was and what had gone before the audience met her, a back story so detailed that I knew what music she liked, what her favorite drink was, what her politics were, and what her secrets were, even if I never got to share this information with the audience. These details made the characters real, made them complex and fascinating, and I often wondered what adventures they’d have beyond the time I got to spend with them.

Now, as a writer, I still do all of this work, and much of it never makes it to the page. I write the back story and the front story, not just to know where my characters are, but how they got there, and then I wrestle with how much of their history to reveal. But it’s through this exploration and examination of the people in my work that I can come to really understand who they are and what motivates them.

But as a writer, my time with these characters is no longer limited by shooting schedules of days or weeks. We get to spend hundreds of pages, years together.

In that way, my acting work was no different than my writing work. I strive to make the pages and the people who inhabit them come alive, finding their way into our hearts and minds long after we meet them. But as a writer, my time with these characters is no longer limited by shooting schedules of days or weeks. We get to spend hundreds of pages, years together, and if I’ve really done my work, they will not only reveal themselves to me, but will lead the way I write the story or novel as well.

When I started writing my debut novel Mothers and Other Strangers, I was still working as an actor, but slowly transitioning out of it. On set I had found myself increasingly talking more about the script and the story than about my own particular role in the projects I was cast in, and it was clear to me that I wanted to spend more time creating my stories than acting out someone else’s.

As I began to write, I spent a lot of time thinking and walking and getting inside my characters’ heads, trying to see the world through their eyes. I’d improvise dialogue that they’d say and conversations they’d engage in, and wonder about the people that really lived beneath the exterior they presented. I came to know  intimately the cast of characters that I created, reserving judgment in order to allow them to be flawed and complicated and often broken.

And because of this I think I was able to stay true to them, even in the face of outside concern or criticism. There were times when early readers told me that Elsie, my troubled 39-year-old protagonist, who had endured an unhappy childhood at the hands of her cruel and narcissistic mother, was too depressed, too bitter, her dark humor too biting. Why would anyone want to spend time with her, when she seemed so unlikable?

I fought for Elsie to be the way she was, resisting suggestions to make her happier, simpler, as if difficult and complicated people are not worthy of being liked.

But in my heart I disagreed. I saw her as a survivor, trying to find her way in spite of the scars her childhood had left, her humor a coping mechanism, her struggle with depression understandable and real. I fought for Elsie to be the way she was, resisting suggestions to make her happier, simpler, as if difficult and complicated people are not worthy of being liked. I trusted that by knowing who she really was, I could take the reader inside her head, so that they could understand her, and in doing so, come to love her as I did. I strive to do this for all my characters, so that even the malevolent ones, responsible for the psychological wounds that Elsie carried, would be worthy of some empathy. And I believe that they are.

As an actor, my job was to bring my characters to life off the page, and now as a writer, my challenge is to bring them to life on the page. The medium may have changed, but the goal — creating lives that give us insight into the hearts and minds and world of others — has remained the same.

*****

Born in South Africa and raised in Canada, Gina Sorell now resides in Toronto, and lives in a world of words. Some of those words are: writer, namer, creative director, artist, daughter, sister, wife and mother.

After two decades as a working actor of stage and screen in NYC, LA, and Toronto, Gina decided to return to her first love–writing, and graduated with distinction from UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Gina likes to balance out the long solitary hours of novel writing with her work as Creative Director of Eat My Words, a SF-based branding firm, where she collaborates with innovators and entrepreneurs whose identity she establishes with only one word, their name. 

Remarkable poetry debut depicts with insight and compassion the world of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded

  

The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded: Poems

By Molly McCully Brown

Persea Books: March 7, 2017

$15.95, 77 pages

 

In this time of national upheaval, people have searched for sources of solace and encouragement, whether it be friends, social media communities, foreign substances, or outright denial of reality. I have found it difficult to concentrate long enough to read many novels and, instead, have turned to poetry for the first time since I was an English major in college.

Novelist/writing teacher Beth Ann Fennelly mentioned on her Facebook page an upcoming poetry debut by Molly McCully Brown, one of her students in the MFA program at the University of Mississippi (where she is the John and Renee Grisham Fellow). Fennelly’s description piqued my interest, so I pre-ordered it on the spot (probably the first time I’ve done that with a book of poetry).

Brown, who is in her mid-20s, has written a haunting and beautiful collection of poems that combine to create a narrative of life in the institution of the title in 1935-36. Brown grew up near the colony and was familiar with its history, particularly in light of her own struggles with cerebral palsy. When she went away to college at Stanford, she began to research the VSCEF and to write poems that gave the patients a voice.

In her poems, Brown inhabits a range of patients, who suffer from various physical and developmental conditions. The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, divided into seven sections corresponding to locations on the colony grounds, depicts a world that was hidden during its more than half-century of existence and for years after. It is a place from which most patients never departed, their worlds narrowly circumscribed by their physical or mental limitations. But, as Brown demonstrates through her remarkable act of literary compassion, their emotional lives were not nearly as stunted.

The most disturbing aspect of the colony’s work – and some of the poems here – is the belief in eugenics that led to the sterilization of many patients, either against their will or without their comprehension.

The effect of reading these 37 poems is to feel as if you have read a densely rendered novel, which is a testament both to Brown’s insight and the masterful compression of ideas and images contained in her poems. The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded is such a mature, confident debut that it feels as if it has always been here, a classic widely shared and taught in every literature class. I am certain I will never forget this book and the people who live and die in its pages.

***

“Where You Are (I)”

Here, every season is too much of itself.

The winter comes through the break

in the windowpane and grows colder.

The snow bears on the dogwood branches

until they clatter to the ground

like felled bodies.

 

The summer is all sweat

and evening thunderstorms

that bring no water.

The heat warps everything wooden:

makes small mountains in the floorboards,

keeps the drawers from closing.

 

The doors are locked.

 

This is where the longest hours pass,

all these rows of narrow bunks, low lights.

One girl after another laughs,

lifts her hair from her neck,

moans in her sleep,

reaches out and brushes

someone else’s shoulder.

***

“Labor”

If you have the body for it, you’re bound for the fields

to pick strawberries and coax the milk from the cows,

or hired out to make baking powder biscuits and gravey,

to sweep floors and wash and fold a stranger’s clothes.

You come back on a truck after sunset, raw and ragged, covered

in flour, tobacco, or clay. You come back bone-tired and bruised,

burned dead out and ready to be shut away. You sleep.

 

I know all this from stories; I do not have the body for it.

I do not go to the fields, or the barns, or the parlors of other folks’ houses.

I wake at sunrise when they wake the rest, lie in bed

til somebody hauls me out and puts me by the window. Lord, I know

to want to work’s a foolish thing to those who’ve got a body built for working.

 

I was as close to born here as you can get, brought twisted and mewling

to the gates and left. Since then, I am one long echo of somebody else’s life.

Every understanding that I have is scrap, is shard, is secondhand.

 

Distance: the space between the porch railing

and the rise of the blue ridge.

 

Water: what comes from a bucket to my body on Sundays;

what I open my mouth for, morning and night.

 

Sex: The days the girls come back smelling of whiskey,

snuff, and sweat, and something sharp.

***

“The Convulsions Choir”

They did not build

the church

for us.

 

I overheard one night nurse

talking to another.

They meant it for the staff

 

as a refuge

from the stench,

the idiot, & the insane.

 

They meant: you will need God

more than ever

in this place.

 

After all,

we are a whole host of reasons

to stop believing in anything.

 

I am the worst thing

the reasoned world

has wrought,

 

an otherwise lovely girl

daily visited by radical disorder

they say spawns somewhere

quiet & foaming

in the wounded matter

of my body & my brain.

….

***

“The Cleaving”

At first,

all hands become

suddenly gentle.

 

More people touch you

in a single day than have touched you

in all the hours of the last, dry year.

 

The doctors tell you all the things

you know about yourself

as if it’s news.

 

“You are unwell.

You are in pain.

Something is wrong.”

 

You think that whatever is happening

after all this time is a solution

being born.

 

I will remember this day as the day

                                                            I came back to my body.

                                                            This time, I will anchor myself

 

                                                            to my bones more firmly.

                                                            You pull a boat far off the water

                                                            when you know it will storm.

 ….

2 A.M. AT THE CAT’S PAJAMAS charms with 3-pronged narrative and Philly setting

marie_helene_bertino

2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas

By Marie-Helene Bertino

Crown Publishers, Aug. 2014 (hardcover)

Broadway Books, Oct. 2015 (softcover)

288 pages, $15.00

 

Marie-Helene Bertino’s debut novel, 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, was a real sleeper. I’d purchased a copy when it was published in August 2014 but somehow never got around to reading it (too many books means some of them occasionally get lost in the crowd). That’s a shame because it is a terrific book that I enjoyed from start to finish.

As with classics like James Joyce’s Ulysses and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and recent novels like Anne Korkeakivi’s An Unexpected Guest and Maya Lang’s The Sixteenth of June, Bertino’s story takes place in a single day, this time Christmas Eve eve. (And like Lang’s book, it is also set in Philadelphia.) It is primarily the story of nine-year-old Madeleine Altimari, whose mother has recently succumbed to cancer and whose father is so depressed he can’t get out of bed.

But feisty little Madeleine has not been left entirely to her own devices; neighbors in her inner-city neighborhood who loved her mother are keeping an eye on her in various ways. Elderly Rose Santiago of Santiago’s Cafe feeds and fusses over her, a surrogate grandmother. Vince Sherry, owner of Beauty Land salon, and his hair stylists are an alternate family of cool characters (and cut Madeleine’s hair). And Sarina Greene, her young teacher at Saint Anthony of the Immaculate Heart, has taken a special interest in her “orphaned” charge.

Madeleine has been raised on the record collection of her jazz-obsessed father and deeply influenced by her mother’s local singing career. She is an old soul who listens to and sings the songs of Billie Holiday and Blossom Dearie and wants more than anything to be a jazz singer herself.

Bertino’s story also follows the recently divorced Miss Greene, who has returned to Philly and been invited to join some old school friends for a dinner party by an old friend she bumps into that morning at Santiago’s Cafe. Her old boyfriend, Ben, will be there. And over in gritty Fishtown, Jack Francis Lorca is in danger of losing his legendary but seedy jazz club, The Cat’s Pajamas, unless he can come up with $30,000 to pay off a mountain of city fines for every violation one can imagine.

The narrative bounces among these three characters through short, vibrant chapters filled with humor and heart. The dialogue is snappy and distinctly “Philly,” the characters are rough-edged but endearing (but not caricatures), and the plotting cleverly weaves everyone and everything together, leading up to a memorable late night finale at the Cat’s Pajamas.

Bertino manages to both pull on your heartstrings and make you laugh your head off. Cat’s Pajamas was the perfect follow-up to the intensity and heartbreak of Nayomi Munaweera’s brilliant What Lies Beneath, a palate cleanser of the best kind. I genuinely liked and cared about these characters, and I find myself still wondering what they are up to and how they are doing.

I wouldn’t be upset if Bertino decided to write a sequel. She has a winning combination of characters and setting here, with a compelling narrative voice that brings it all to life.

Wendy J. Fox: Reconciling book sales as a debut author

Wendy_J_Fox  The_Seven_Stages_of_Anger_cover

When I found out my first book had been accepted for publication, I did not have dreams of a bestseller or fame; I mostly experienced relief. While I’d published in magazines and anthologies, suddenly there was a book of my own.

There was the sheer, beginning thrill of finally feeling like an author, and then there was the reality of how other folks, people who are not writers, ask about it.

“So, how many books have you sold?” a typical conversation might start.

It’s a hard question to answer. It’s tempting to tell the truth (south of a thousand), and it’s tempting to dodge, oh, it’s not so much about sales, and it’s also tempting to outright lie and say something about how the publisher handles all that, how you’re not really involved, how you only think about it when you get a royalty check.

I don’t blame anyone for the question.

In the current culture, where books are understood as content, where consumers believe that “information wants to be free” and forget that information also has value and wants to be expensive, people understand success in terms of compensation. The paradigm of cheap/costly, rather than an argument for open-source, in the way that it is used today, was actually a continuum proposed by the writer Stewart Brand in the 1980s.

Yet, since 2009, according to Author’s Guild, there has been a 30% decrease in the income of writers, with more than half of the 2015 respondents earning less than $11,670 annually (the set point of for the US federal poverty level). Even those who are up for big awards, like the Man Booker, might sell fewer than a thousand copies of their books annually.

Depressing as it is, within this context, my own numbers don’t look so bad.

My debut collection of short stories owes its existence to a prize, and then it was shortlisted for another prize. More than one reviewer said something nice about it. Still, stories add another layer of sales challenge. In January of this year, Megan Lynch, editorial director at Ecco Press in New York said “There have always been a few collections that have taken off, but most don’t succeed commercially.”

So, how many books have you sold?

At press time, BookScan (the Neilson rating agency, the same group who compiles TV ratings) says I have just 105 reported sales from bookstores. They gather this through POS (point of sale) data. If my book, or another book, was purchased at a retailer, including Amazon.com, it’s going to be reflected in this number.

Fox BookScan

My POS high point is 34. Those are sales reflected from two readings—readings I traveled for, on my own dime, and readings at which I had a great time, but readings that were certainly not covered in cost from selling 34 copies at $14.95.

There are also the 79 books my publisher sold in presale. There are the 90 (as of my last royalty report in June of 2015) that have been sold since. There are the 89 books I have sold myself. There are also the 76 I have given away to reviewers, to friends, to friendlies, to prizes entries and other longshots. There are the 18 copies that are out in consignment.

So, how many books have you sold?

457.

Well, maybe, if the consignments move.

439 if they do not.

363 if I subtract the giveaways (which I should, because those were not actually sales, they were only books that left my possession).

I could add in here another 3, for Kindle—remember how ebooks are supposed to be such a thing?—getting me to 366.

Even I’m shocked by the low numbers. When people have asked me, I’ve estimated, not having done the actual addition for a year. Recently, a long-time friend who has his first book coming out asked about sales, and I told him what I thought was the truth, giving him the “just shy of a grand” number, and I didn’t even realize how off I was. (Mostly, I over-reported what I personally have sold and under-reported what I have given away.)

In October, on the anniversary of my first book’s publication date, I was at a corporate event for my day job, and writing came up. My coworkers looked me up on Amazon, and they were interested, in the way we are interested when we find out new dimensions to our colleague’s lives, but they didn’t add the book to their shopping carts, and I doubt either of them have purchased it since.

A month prior, in September, the least-selling of the Man Booker dozen short-list clocked in at 604 copies. This title, Sleeping on Jupiter, belongs to Anuradha Roy, whose first book, An Atlas of Impossible Longing was reviewed by everyone from Ms. to Publishers Weekly and translated into 15 languages—an impressive debut by any measure. (Sleeping on Jupiter just won the DSC prize for South Asian literature, which will net Roy $50K and likely—hopefully—bolster her sales numbers.)

So, how many books have you sold?

75.3% as many as a short-list for one of the most prestigious English-language prizes.

0.0000806667% as many as the Harry Potter franchise.

With 840 million English speakers worldwide, by volume second only to Mandarin, breaking a thousand in sales should not be so hard—but just like my coworkers, zillions of lookers never get the book into their cart. And to be frank, zillions aren’t even required. The best-selling English-language book of all time, A Tale of Two Cities, has had since 1859 to reach 200 million copies. Modern titles like The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades of Grey that have topped bestseller lists have only approached (or in the case of Harry Potter, exceeded) Dickens’ numbers as an aggregate of a series; single titles, like The Fault in Our Stars which has done remarkably well at 18.5M approximate sales, still only represents 5.52% of the native-speaking population and 2.20% of the total English-speaking population overall.

Of course, a true creative life is not about selling, and readers certainly do not have to purchase literature to engage in it. Indeed—in the United States, there are more public libraries than there are McDonalds [PDF], Americans check out an average of 8 books a year, and well over half of U.S. adults hold a library card.

Given that books sales are slumpy even on major publishers, it’s worth thanking those fewer than 500 who have welcomed The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories to their shelves.

So, how many books have you sold?

Honestly, not so many as I would like.

Yet, I don’t think I would trade an ebook bestseller for being able to hold my own, bound words in my hands, for the experience of writing something kind to a friend on the front pages of it, for finding a typo on the back cover and then just having to accept this, because, well, it’s print. I can absolutely say I would not trade my little (short, poorly selling) book that I am very proud of for a big (long, blockbuster) book that I didn’t care about.

So, how many books have you sold?

Not as many as I would like. And also, enough.

But P.S., you should buy my book.

Wendy J. Fox received her MFA from the Inland Northwest Center for Writers, and her work has been published or is forthcoming in many literary reviews.

Her essay “Coming Clean in Kayseri” was included in the best-selling Tales from the Expat Harem, and one of her manuscripts was a top five finalist for the Minnesota State University at Mankato’s Rooster Hill Press short fiction competition. Her story “Ten Penny” was  selected as part of a series by The Emerging Writer’s Network for National Short Story Month, and her story “Maps of the Americas” was chosen as a semi-finalist for the Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards competition.

Her debut collection, The Seven Stages of Anger & Other Stories is the winner of the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction and was published in October 2014.