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Literary Circle

Q&A
Edwidge Danticat's latest novel.

Writers, more than most creative souls, have to face the blank page daily. For some, a great editor provides the kind of support, perspective, and focus necessary to produce a unique story—a story so compelling that the reader would never know what kind of literary collaboration contributed to it’s success. Award winning author Edwidge Danticat and Knopf editorial director Robin Desser have such a collaboration. On the occasion of the publication of Dandicat’s most recent novel, Claire of the Sea Light, the author and her editor talk about what it takes to bring a story to literary life.

Kate Betts:
Where did the idea for this novel come from?
Edwidge Danticat: I started writing Claire of the Sea Light in 2005. I had seen a documentary about children who are in orphanages in Haiti, children whose parents had placed them there, even though they were obviously not orphans, and while watching that documentary, Claire’s character suddenly came to me. I had the first chapter, in which Claire, age, seven, goes missing, then I put it away for a while. It was during that period that my father died of pulmonary fibrosis; my uncle died in immigration custody; and my daughter Mira was born. I wrote a memoir about all that called Brother, I’m Dying, which Robin also edited. I went back to Claire after the memoir was published and was able to see it with fresh eyes. After working on it for some time, I showed Robin a draft. (I only show her finished manuscripts, not pieces).

KB:
What is the difference between writing fiction and writing non-fiction?
ED:
There is a lot more freedom in fiction. You get to make things up. With nonfiction, you have to be a lot more careful. The facts exist, but people remember them differently. You also might alienate your loved ones, people who've gone through an experience with you but have a different read on it.

KB:
As an editor, Robin, do you recognize a fiction writer immediately? Or is it easy for some writers to cross over between non-fiction and fiction?
RD:
Fiction can be as much about voice as story. A number of my writers can, like Edwidge, traverse the two with equal power and grace. I published a memoir called My Own Country by Abraham Verghese in paperback when I worked at Vintage and went on to edit and publish his extraordinary novel, Cutting for Stone at Knopf. These books shared a beauty of voice and story, and honesty; they both read with great emotional and moral suspense. I published Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, which grabbed me with its voice, wisdom and humor right from page one. Before Wild, Cheryl had written a terrific and well-regarded novel that we have subsequently reissued at Vintage. Cheryl’s next book might be either novel or memoir, but either way I’m sure it will be as uniquely and genuinely hers, and a fabulous and exciting project to work on with her, and to publish.

KB:
Where do ideas come from--both as a writer and an editor?
ED:
Ideas come from everywhere: from life, from dreams, from the morning paper, from everything that you react to in some way when you see it or feel it or remember it. Ideas come from everything that moves you, or haunts you, or that you feel passionate about.

KB:
What do you read for inspiration as a writer, and as an editor (I know you have to read a lot of manuscripts, but what else)?
ED:
I read pretty much everything, including cereal boxes. I read more for pleasure than inspiration, and as much reading as I can manage with two small children at home.
RD:
When I’m on vacation I mostly want to read, which my family doesn’t quite understand, considering it’s what I do so constantly for work. But it’s my joy, and I also think it’s important you remind yourself of what first drew you to the profession in the first place—not just the business of publishing, but really that you just love to read, that you love books.

KB:
So what are you both working on now?
ED:
I am working on a young adult novel called Stun Me about twin sisters living in Miami.
RD:
I long for Edwidge’s next book. I know that when she’s ready, I am in for a marvelous adventure, a surprise and a beauty. In the meantime, there are a number of great books I am working on now. One that comes to mind is a novel by Cristina Henríquez, called The Book of Unknown Americans, which is a beautiful and important book coming out in June of this year. Told in a seamless mix of different characters’ voices, it’s at once a powerful story about what it means to come to this country from somewhere else, and a deeply affecting love story, told without an ounce of sentimentality. It’s one of those books that gets so much of its force and beauty and truth from its voices—from the people who seem not just to inhabit it but who come alive on its pages.

KB:
As an editor, how do you inspire a writer who might be feeling blocked?
RD:
Sometimes it’s simply about offering your confidence in what she or he is doing. Sometimes it takes months or even years. And then inspiration can come in an instant. My guess is that most of the time, it cannot be willed. It’s mysterious and wonderful to me, always, how writers do what they do. My hope is that somehow expressing belief in the writer, that you love and respect and admire the work they are doing and will do, even if you’re not sure exactly what it’s going to be, will help a writer get past the block and believe in what’s ahead.

 

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