I am so excited to tell you about a truly wonderful book - Grub by author Elise Blackwell (Toby Press, 2007). In a funny and heartwarming way, Blackwell relates the story of a group of writer friends traversing the difficulties faced by artists in the world of publishing. Based on the book New Grub Street by George Gissing, this well-written character filled book will keep you up all night finishing and keep you talking about it for some time to come. Honestly, this is one of the best books I have read in quite some time both in its honesty, humor and storytelling. Literature Chick puts Grub on the top of our must read novels...lucky for us the author took some time out to answer our questions.
An Interview with Elise Blackwell
LC: Your book, Grub, focuses on a group of writers struggling with their art and the marketplace. Further it is based upon New Grub Street. Tell us a bit about the decision to write a book on this topic.
EB: When I read New Grub Street, I was struck by how timely its critique of the literary marketplace remains. I wanted all writers to read it immediately—to learn from it and take refuge and pleasure in its company. Yet despite its ongoing currency, the Gissing novel is dated in several ways (including in its plotting of the fortunes of its female characters) and is quite dense in places. So I thought: wouldn’t it be fun to update it with a focus on the today’s marketplace for literary fiction? It’s also the case that I was feeling a tad bitter about that marketplace, some for myself (I was struggling with reactions to The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, a novel I wrote before Hurricane Katrina and was compelled by circumstances to revise) but more so for several of my friends who are wonderful writers either going unpublished or being roughed up by their publishing experiences. I wanted to bite back a little, to write a fun novel while also offering a real critique of some of the publishing industry’s business practices and the way some writers allow those practices to harm their work and even their lives. Writing Grub permitted me to vent my frustration without becoming like one of its characters. It also provided a venue to make fun of my own novels, both the published ones and the unfinished.
LC: Each chapter is told from a different character's perspective. Why did you decide to execute the book in this way?
EB: The novel’s structure follows the original fairly closely. While Gissing’s point-of-view system is more omniscient than my closer third-person, New Grub Street does rotate its attention among the primary characters. I don’t follow Gissing’s sequence to the letter, but I’m not far off. This decision wasn’t blind retelling, though; I wanted the novel to trace a variety of writers’ trials and fortunes, to present a spectrum of writers’ approaches and outcomes. Each character has a different relationship to the literary marketplace.
LC: You have a wonderful sense of character and plot. Tell us about your writing process.
EB: Thank you for saying that. For so many of us, writing begins with an interest in people—who they are, how they’re different, and how those differences (combined with luck) play out across time. Yet plot is sometimes a challenge for me because my real joy in writing happens at the level of word and image. With Grub, the initial drafting was made easier because I was working from a blueprint. While the specifics of my characters and their fates vary from those of New Grub Street, I kept the basic types. The character of Jackson Miller is my vision of who Gissing’s Jasper Milvain would be if he were writing novels in the twenty-first century, and so forth. But I wanted my characters to be more than types, and I hope that they are. And of course I had to update the plot to account for the availability of divorce, the fact that women’s lives are no longer dominated by inheritance, etc., but I try to at least nod to each of the plot turns in New Grub Street. I didn’t want Eddie Renfros to die literally, but he does die as a novelist. The joke for me is that writing from an outline (sort of)—something some of my characters champion while others sneer at it—did indeed make for a quicker write. Grub is the longest of my three published novels, while it took the shortest time to write. In months, anyway, though not necessarily hours; I found that I was able to work on it many more hours per day than much of my other work, in part because it was just plain fun.
LC: What do you see as the most difficult part of being a writer?
EB: For me, there are several difficulties. When I was younger, discipline was hard, and I had to train myself to sit alone in a room for enough hours and days to write an entire book and to find enough pleasure in it to do it knowing that it might never be read by others. On top of that, most writers work day jobs; I have had a job (often more than one) since I was a kid. That’s part of the territory, though, and we (excepting a few characters in Grub) know it going in. And so I believe the most difficult part of being a writer is producing what we hope is “art” in a culture that isn’t particularly interested. My greatest heroes are those who work in art forms with even smaller audiences than most novelists, including the poets that some of my more sinister characters are so hard on. I feel sad to imagine what it would be like to be born with the talent and inclination to compose classical music. Or to be Henry Baffler, the committed experimental novelist in Grub.
LC: Who are your greatest influences and why?
EB: I have always read widely, both fiction and poetry, both old and new. Michael Ondaatje has been a major influence. I have enjoyed moving through his novels in the order he wrote them, as he moved from more impressionistic, collage-type novels to his more recent novels, which are equally brilliant and beautifully drawn yet are more conventional in plot and structure. My favorite writer lately is W. G. Sebald—for his language, his ideas, his structural daring, his blending of fact and fiction, and, ultimately, his worldview. Obviously George Gissing is the major influence on Grub, which is very different from my first two novels.
LC: If you weren't a writer, you would be....
EB: A small farmer and orchard keeper. When I was fresh out of graduate school, I had the opportunity to live on about twenty acres and began to raise fruits and vegetables, including some fairly exotic ones. I miss that life, right down to the huge compost pile. I love the idea of playing music or painting, but I lack the talent. I’m also attracted to any occupation that offers international travel; I love to spend time in other countries.
It's summer - time to take a breather, enjoy the weather, check out the hotties at the beach and enjoy some fun books. For the next couple of weeks, Lit Chick is going to focus on some great summer reads. The first of these is Zoey Dean's (of The A-List Series fame) new novel for adults, How to Teach Filthy Rich Girls (Warner Books, July 2007).
Our heroine, Yale graduate and wanna-be-journalist Meghan Smith, slaves away at a tabloid magazine dreaming of grander pastures. After a terrible day at the office, Meghan finds herself being fired at the same time her boss (think Anna Wintour meets Bonnie Fuller) offers her a new job opportunity - as the tutor of the Baker heiresses of Palm Beach, Florida. Without any other job prospects on the horizon, Meghan leaves the city and her boyfriend, James, for the grandeur that is Les Anges, an estate owned by Laurel Limoges, grandmother to Sage and Rose Baker. Laurel, unhappy with the way her granddaughters have turned out, wants Meghan to help them graduate from prep school, pass the SATs and get into college; if Meghan succeeds, Laurel will pay her a sum large enough to cover all her debts.From the beginning, Meghan is a fish out of water and perfect fodder for the cruelty of the twins. With the help of some fairy godmothers, Meghan soon discovers that the only way she'll survive and succeed is by becoming just like her pupils - knowledgeable about Dior and fluent in the ways of the rich. Along the way Meghan learns more from her students than she ever imagined, discovers the man of her dreams and finds the career she always wanted (don't worry I am not giving anything away here).
Dean manages to deliver a story that is both contemporary and moral - don't judge a book by its cover for you're sure to be fooled every time. Although the journey that Meghan makes in the book is unique, the tale is not. Each one of us have been challenged, each one of us have had a dream that seems difficult to obtain, each one of us have made rash judgments that prove to be misplaced. This is ultimately a story about transformation. This is a book that is shear, unadulterated fun!
Get prepared for our upcoming Welsh Book Fest Online...check out some of these amazing books by Welsh poets:The Blue Book - Owen Sheers (Seren Books)Skirrid Hill - Owen Sheers (Seren Books)Arab York - Landeg White (Parthian Books/DuFour Editions)Imperium - Hilary Davies (Enitharmon/DuFour Editions)Misappropriations - Jasmine Donahaye (Parthian/DuFour Editions)These are some of the authors we will be discussing come September.Books are the bomb!