Wednesday, September 14, 2011

5 (or so) Questions with Naomi Williams

It's time for another installment of 5 (or so) Questions! This time I had the pleasure of talking to Naomi Williams via email about her story from the current issue, "Folie à Plusieurs." The story, which is part of a linked story collection about the La Perouse expedition, demonstrates the hardships and disappointments of mapping the world. During our conversation, as you'll see below, we discussed the process of putting together a linked collection, ghostly narrators, and discovery. Hope you enjoy it!

9L: One of the things that really interested me about the story was the voice. The narrator is part of the crew, yet knows things about what becomes of the places they visit. How did you go about constructing a voice that can speak from beyond the grave? Any unexpected challenges in using this particular voice to tell this story?

Naomi Williams: I guess I'd say the narrator isn't just part of the crew, but is the crew speaking in a ghostly, omniscient collective voice. I've always been interested in experimenting with point of view, but I didn't sit down and say, Ok, now I'm going to write a first-person plural story. The POV was suggested by what I wanted to explore in the story, which was this idea of a voyage of discovery that ended up "un-discovering" more than it discovered. That seemed to require a retrospective view. And the disappointment around that failure to find new places felt corporate rather than individual, hence the collective voice. The biggest challenge, voice-wise, was to keep it believably 18th-century-ish (whatever that means) while allowing for that after-the-fact knowledge. The original draft had the crew sounding much more contemporary in places. Several of my readers balked at the unevenness in tone, so I worked to smooth it out in subsequent drafts.

9L: Do you consider this to be a ghost story?

NW: I guess you could call it a ghost story, seeing as the narrators are dead. But I feel like the traditional ghost story has the ghost or ghosts interacting with the living, and these folks just talk among themselves. Although I suppose they're talking to the reader, and that's a kind of interaction. So sure--yes, let's call it a ghost story.

9L: Do you consider how a reader might interact with a story when planning or writing a piece?

NW: The short answer is no. Obviously I hope readers--some readers, at least--will find my work engaging or interesting, and in putting together the collection of which this story is part, I've worked in elements--recurring motifs or connected plot threads--that I hope an alert reader will pick up on and appreciate. But while I'm writing, I just do my thing. I show my drafts to a small group of people whose feedback I take very seriously; otherwise I don't have expectations or preconceived notions about how people might interact with a piece once it's out there. Once it's out there, it's out there, you know, and except in a narrowly conceived, legal sense, it's no longer mine.

9L: Can you talk a little about the process of putting together a linked collection? Did you have a certain number of stories in mind when starting out or was it more about exploring different aspects of the expedition to see what stories could hang together to form a larger picture? What has surprised you most, if anything, about working on the collection?

NW: The basic idea for this project came to me quite suddenly almost ten years ago, when I first learned about the expedition, but the overall shape of the collection, the total number of stories, and the kind of stories I've ended up writing have all changed a lot over time. I've thought a lot about both variety and balance as I've worked on it. I've tried, for instance, to tell stories from various points of view--first person, third person, omniscient, limited, etc.--and to cover the expedition's "highlights," if you will, so that readers of the complete manuscript will, hopefully, feel like they've gotten some sense of the voyage as a whole. Perhaps the biggest surprise has been how rich the material continues to be after all these years. Every time I dip back into the primary sources or the research available about the expedition, I come up with a new story idea. Right now I'm planning 14 or 15 stories, but I feel like there could be twice that many.

9L: Okay, last question: is there anything you wish you had discovered or would still like to discover?

NW: Sure. There are still several stories in the collection that I either have yet to draft or remain dissatisfied with, and the obstacles usually have to do with not knowing what it is I'm trying to discover. Right now, for instance, I'm wrestling with a story I want told from the point of view of a truly rank-and-file member of the crew, someone who didn't leave letters or journals behind, someone who was, perhaps, illiterate, and about whom I know nothing besides a name and job title. But I can't decide which of the 200-plus members of the crew I might pick as my point-of-view character, much less what his issues might be on the expedition or what might happen to him in the story. I have a lot of faith in the power of mulling stuff over, however. Something will eventually come to me. I just wish it would hurry up and do it already.

Thank you very much to Naomi Williams for taking the time to answer my questions and for such a great conversation. To read "Folie à Plusieurs," visit our webstore to pick up a copy of vol. 8, no. 1.

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