When I interviewed Meg Waite Clayton I feigned composure (I hope) but was as nervous and excited as a twelve-year-old girl at a Justin Bieber concert. When I’m inspired by an author, I sometimes wish I could climb inside his or her brain for just a few minutes to get the real scoop on how they do what they do. I don’t want to be anyone else but myself. I don’t want to write like anyone else but myself. But the opportunity to understand the genesis of another person’s creativity, and how she works, is really amazing.
To preface this interview, and for the sake of this blog, an ensemble novel is one where there is more than one main character. Where, if you will, a group of characters shares center stage. Think of a play or a musical where the last curtain call is two actors on stage together, holding hands, taking a bow simultaneously and then each stepping aside to honor the other because they were equally important to the story and to the audience. Yep, just like that but in a book.
Thanks to Meg for the many gems below. To aspiring women’s fiction authors, I hope you’ll all take time to read this interview and then read one (or all) of Meg’s books with a newfound insight on how they came to be. And don’t forget to lasso some of these writerly treasures and make them your own.
Women’s Fiction Author Meg Waite Clayton Talks About Ensemble Novels, Being Organized and Writing What No One Expects
ASN: Your novels fall under the women’s fiction umbrella. What do you think of the label “women’s fiction?”
MWC: It troubles me because there is no companion men’s fiction. It’s this whole idea that if it’s about women, it must be only meant for women, whereas if it’s about men then everybody can read it. But fortunately, for those of us who write novels about women, the great bulk of novel readers are women.
ASN: What do you like most about writing a novel with an ensemble of characters?
MWC: My first novel, THE LANGUAGE OF LIGHT, was not an ensemble in the way you think of it, although it does cover four characters in depth. THE LANGUAGE OF LIGHT is very centered around one of the characters as opposed to being evenly balanced between several characters. One of the things I found is that I craved is that balance. That’s why, I took that approach with THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS. It allowed me, as an author, to explore more possibilities. I can’t hang a bunch of problems on one character or that character tends to get weighed down. Whereas, if I have a few different characters then they have something in common they’re exploring and have their personal concerns. It gives me a lot of freedom to explore things I’m interested in. I really like that.
ASN: So when you set out to write THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS you knew it would be an ensemble novel?
MWC: I did. Before I had anything else, I had the title THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS and having the title suggested the book would be centered on more than one person. Since I have only brothers, I understand that sisters are very complicated, so I knew from the start it was going to be about friends — and I knew I wanted the story to be balanced among the friends.
ASN: Do you take the same approach with your newest book, THE FOUR MS. BRADWELLS?
MWC: Yes, THE FOUR MS. BRADWELLS is the same approach. There are four friends who first meet in law school who come together in the present when one of them is a nominee for the Supreme Court. It’s very much an exploration of the decisions they made as young women together and the separate paths each one of them have taken. So, it’s definitely an ensemble novel.
ASN: I find ensemble novels very appealing. You write them – do you also read them?
MWC: I do. I’ve seen it in Ann Hood’s books. J. Courtney Sullivan’s COMMENCEMENT is written that way. Certainly Karen Joy Fowler’s THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB is an ensemble novel as well.
ASN: What do you think is most appealing about ensemble novels?
MWC: From a reader’s standpoint, it gives me a number of people to connect with. So the possibility of finding someone in the novel to identify with and to stay close to as I’m reading the novel is expanded. It allows me to consider characters less like me but in the context of at least one character with whom I can strongly identify. As a reader, I like to strongly identify with one of the characters. I find it a more engaging read that way.
ASN: How do you keep these ensembles of characters organized so that you can write about each of them separately and as a group?
MWC: The answer to that is: every way I can! One of the things I find very helpful for writing an ensemble novel is a character scrapbook. It is, quite literally, like your high school scrapbook or a scrapbook from your childhood. It’s collections of all sorts of bits that help me define that character. It often starts with pictures I’ve torn from magazines. I start with the physical, but it’s not one picture of a person, it tends to be one person’s eyes and another person’s nose and another’s physique and another’s wardrobe choices all put together on the page. For THE FOUR MS. BRADWELLS because one of the characters is a poet, there is a poem that I identify with each of the characters and the poet character identifies with them as well. There are also things nobody needs to know — like what their offices look like or what their cars look like or what their childhood boyfriends look like — but it helps me to flesh out the character in a way that makes them feel real to me. They need to feel real to me for me to make them feel real for the reader. I also add snaps of dialogue and continue adding to the pages of the scrapbook as I go along.
I also use outlines and flow charts. One of the things I find useful about a flow chart is set up by chapter and character, is that you can see if that, perhaps, you haven’t written touched on this character’s story in four or five chapters. It’s a very helpful visual aid. Also, in my office, I surround myself with inspiring, thought provoking pictures
ASN: Do you see benefits to these visual aids beyond helping you stay organized?
MWC: When you need choices and you need details, I think — or hope — it comes more easily because you have a real sense of the character. You can describe something about her the way you would about your best friend. Your characters, in a way, become your best friends, at least for the time you’re writing about them.
ASN: You are so organized, it’s a little overwhelming for someone like me, who’s not. (Meg was very gracious when I admitted to not being nearly as organized as she is. She believes it is very important to be organized. I’m working on it.)
MWC: I don’t even think of it as being organized as just being in the game. The more ways I have into a manuscript each day, the easier it is to get into the manuscript. And this has evolved over time. For my first novel I outlined and my husband did a flow chart for me because there were pacing issues and it helped me with that. That’s where I got the idea to use flow charts. But I didn’t do character scrapbooks for that one, although I did do character sketches. THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS was the first novel where I used a scrapbook.
ASN: You were a lawyer before you became a novelist – what prompted you to write fiction?
MWC: The better question is, what prompted me to go to law school? I always wanted to write fiction. I was a huge reader growing up and it was my dream to become a novelist but nobody I ever knew in my life growing up was any kind of artist. Becoming a novelist would have been like being able to leap tall literary buildings in a single bound — something I didn’t think I was capable of doing. I went to law school because I didn’t know what else to do, and I practiced law because I thought I would be good at it and it would give me a nice paycheck and it was something to do. But it was really a conversation I had with my husband where I confessed that if I could do anything in my life, my dream would be to write novels. And he said, “How will you know if you don’t give it a try?” His vote of confidence and support has meant a tremendous amount to me. And it’s very much what THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS is about — how much we all need that kind of support in our lives.
ASN: Many of the readers of this blog are writing their first novel or trying to get their first novel published. What’s a lesson you learned from your first novel?
MWC: One of the things I learned writing my first book, THE LANGUAGE OF LIGHT, is that it makes sense to go forward in the draft and not reread what I’ve written as much as possible until I get to the end of the first draft. With the first novel I spent months revising the first one hundred fifty pages and then in the end I deleted about one hundred of those. So, there was all this finely honed prose that ended up on the cutting room floor. Because it wasn’t until I got to the end of the novel — and this is still true to a large extent — that I knew what it was really about and what the important things in it really were. Once I had a sense of that, it was much easier to revise with an eye toward bringing out the things that are important and discarding the things that are not.
ASN: Do you make notes for yourself as you write about things you want to change when you go back to page one?
MWC: I put notes to myself in square brackets to remind myself of things I want to change. Then I can do a search for a square bracket in order to make those changes. I learned when I was practicing law that if I don’t have a list of things to do, I forget to do them.
ASN: Can you share with us what you’re working on now?
MWC: I signed a contract with Random House last fall for a new novel to be published in 2013. It’s also an ensemble novel — a follow up the THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS. It follows three of the daughters of the characters from that book. I’m having a lot of fun with it. It’s interesting to explore how some of the issues that the Wednesday Sisters faced in their lives are echoed in their daughters’ lives. It allows me further exploration of the Wednesday Sisters themselves without having a story that focuses on them having another transformative moment at the same time, which seems pretty improbable to me. But it is really nice to revisit those old friends and it has been fun to take their children into adulthood.
ASN: Did you ever consider writing an actual sequel to THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS?
MWC: I have had so many requests from readers for a sequel but it was not something I’d ever contemplated. The epilogue to THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS brings the reader into the present, so it doesn’t leave a lot of room for flexibility for other stories in the interim. I think I did that in some ways to shut off the possibility of a sequel. I think that most characters do not have multiple stories that will keep the reader interested in the same way the first story does. But I like the idea of having a whole new cast of characters to explore in the comfort of their familiar mothers.
ASN: What’s your best advice for aspiring women’s fiction authors?
MWC: The best piece of writing advice I’ve ever gotten – and it’s not just for writers of women’s fiction at all – comes from the author Tim O’Brien whom I was fortunate enough to study with. To paraphrase, he said, “use extraordinary actions by your characters to illuminate ordinary emotions.” When he said that, a scene from his novel, JULY, JULY, leapt into my head. It gave me the permission to go beyond the things we would expect people to do and explore the possibility of things people might do even though those things are a little more out there. Doing that allows readers to have a catharsis they wouldn’t otherwise have. It was a liberating piece of advice for me.
Meg Waite Clayton is the author of the national bestseller, THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS, THE LANGUAGE OF LIGHT, which was a Bellwether Prize finalist, and the THE FOUR MS. BRADWELLS (Ballantine, March 2011). She’s also hosts the blog, 1st Books: Stories of How Writers Get Started, which features award-winning and bestselling authors sharing stories about their paths to writing and publishing. Her short stories and essays have been read on public radio and have appeared in commercial and literary magazines. She’s a graduate of the University of Michigan and Michigan Law School, and lives with her family in Palo Alto, California. Visit her on the web at www.megwaiteclayton.com.