Before I met author Amy Stolls in early March we’d emailed about a gazillion (or a dozen) times and had bonded over being Amy-authors. We also bonded because I simply adored her book, THE NINTH WIFE, so much so that I invited Amy back to Women’s Fiction Writers to talk about POV and the non-linear structure of her book. Amy Stolls is insightful and funny — and even more so in person. We could have talked all day, I’m sure of it, and I can’t wait for her next trip to Chicago, where luckily she has family (and now me)!
Please welcome back, my friend, Amy Stolls, to Women’s Fiction Writers!
Women’s Fiction Author Amy Stolls Talks About Point of View (POV) and Chronology In Fiction
Amy: Welcome back to Women’s Fiction Writers, Amy! You know how I feel about The Ninth Wife. I was intrigued by the premise and when I read it I was really captivated by Bess and Rory’s story together — and their separate stories. Certainly I could remind the readers here about it — but you’re a great storyteller (on paper and in person). So would you do the honors?
Amy Stolls: Thanks, Amy One. (I’ll be Amy Two.) And thanks for having me back. It’s great to be here. (I always wanted to say those lines. Makes me feel all TV-talk-showy.) I love your blog.
The Ninth Wife is the story of Bess — a single woman in DC, folklorist, amateur martial artist –and Rory, an Irish fiddler and storyteller in his own right. They fall in love and he asks her to marry him (cue violins). Minutes later, he confesses he’s been married eight times before (smash violins, cue loud warning siren.) She then takes off across the country in a minivan in part to find the ex-wives and figure out what to do. Along for the ride are her bickering grandparents who’ve been married 65 years, her secretive friend Cricket, a Shar Pei named Stella, and a mannequin named Peace (intermingle siren with cuckoo clock, maniacal laughter and Yiddish insults).
Amy: Now that everyone is reacquainted with The Ninth Wife, I’ll share that I am a very linear thinker. I’m convinced it comes from being bad at math and puzzles. (FYI, Amy Two is short for Amy 2.64 minus the square root of negative 43.) I like things in straight lines. But, when I read or write – and something is not chronological (not linear) and the points of view are what I’d think of as asymmetrical (not all the same all the time), I’m challenged and interested – and I like that. Without giving away too much, part of your novel works on two timelines simultaneously – and the points of view shift throughout the book. Was this how the story came to you or did it evolve over time?
Amy Stolls: It evolved, absolutely. Let me tackle the point-of-view question first. I almost always start in 3rd person. It’s how we frame our stories in real life (unless we’re actors) so that seems most natural to me. But the nice thing about a novel is there’s room to experiment. So I put in a few emails and a drunken voicemail, and I also dabbled in 1st person, which I kind of enjoyed so I kept doing it. The thing with 1st person, though, is that I had to think hard about which characters should speak directly to the reader and why. Which is to say, which ones should speak and help clarify things (Bess; Cricket; Bess’s grandmother), which ones should speak and muddle things by speaking (Rory often), and which ones should remain silent and muddle things with their silence (Bess’s grandfather; Stella, the dog). The question keeps coming up in the book: what can we truly know about what’s happened in the past? So Point of View is important. The mannequin Peace is a young African American beauty whose silent presence can say a lot given what Bess discovers about her grandparents.
With regard to the shape and chronology of the story, I did begin with a linear telling of Bess and Rory’s courtship. But then things got messy, as they often do. I don’t work with an outline, more like a general idea of the story and where it might go, knowing it probably will take me in surprising directions. I think it was E.L. Doctorow who explained it once like driving on a country road at night. You can see most clearly right in front of you, then it gets a little hazier at the edge of the headlights and then it’s dark beyond that but you have faith that all that darkness will come into the light eventually. That’s what it was like for me with this book.
By the time I reached the proposal scene, however, I came to a screeching halt. I knew I needed to explain how a 46-year-old man got to be married so many times. And I had to make his story believable. So I switched to 1st person and let him tell it. Fifty pages later I stepped back and thought, yikes! What have I done? I can’t take the reader out of the present for this long! That’s when someone in my writer’s group suggested I alternate the current-day courtship chapters with chapters that go back in time and bring the ex-wives to life so that by the time Rory proposes, the reader has the back story and is well aware of what’s at stake. Part two of the novel stays in the present but alternates Bess and Rory’s points of view, which helps with the book’s symmetry and the near misses and miscommunications that unfold.
So you see, I start out easy and then I just keep making things more difficult for myself. Story of my life.
Amy: I know this story was born out of some old family secrets. How did you decide it was ok to mine your own life for fiction? And where did you draw the line? Or didn’t you?
Amy Stolls: That’s a tough one. As a writer, I think it’s a good idea to get to that place where you feel raw and exposed. Discoveries bubble up, creativity flows, all that. Characters will have depth if you dig under the many surfaces, including your own, and expose secrets. But to me it’s important to balance that with the effect that can have on loved ones. Some writers don’t think that should stand in your way, and I get that, but I don’t just write in the here and now, I live in the here and now. If it’s not my secret to tell, I won’t tell it (without permission). But thankfully, I have enough issues and neuroses of my own to explore. I was single a long time and it wasn’t easy, thus a novel asking questions about marriage. (My grandparents were married 65 years and fought a lot, too, but they’re both gone.) I had trouble getting pregnant and wouldn’t be surprised if that seeps into my next novel. At some point I’ll probably feel the need to write about my addiction to scented chapstick. It’s not normal, I know that.
Amy: You’re married, you work full-time and you have two sons – ages three and under. Did you just hear a collective gasp? How do you do it all? Do you have a writing schedule/routine/extensive system of locks on an office door?
Amy Stolls: Locks! Why didn’t I think of that?! I sold my novel before my first son was born, so the truth is I really don’t have time to work on my next novel just yet (though I have an idea and am jotting down notes). So … no schedule, no routine. Just a dream and the occasional one-liner on Facebook and Twitter. Unlike working on a novel – hairy beast that it is – FB and Twitter are great because I can write something silly and get an immediate response. May I share with you one of my favorite exchanges? I tweeted this: “You know how it’s cool to read Seventeen Magazine when you’re 12? I’m going to start subscribing to AARP Magazine.” And AARP wrote me back: “We’d love to have you!” Of course they would, but still … how cool is that?
Amy: You’ve been to a few festivals and conferences lately, how did you find those experiences? I know they were family trips, but I also know you had time to yourself and with other writers. On the whole was it a good combination?
Amy Stolls: Of course! I met you, didn’t I? Months ago you asked me how I might define women’s fiction. It stumped me at the time. But I’ve had the pleasure recently of meeting up and/or sharing the stage with awesome women writers at festivals and conferences around the country and now I get it (even though I can’t articulate it any better). Writers like Eleanor Brown, Joshilyn Jackson, Tayari Jones, Eugenia Kim, Tiffany Baker. They’re all smart and insightful and funny and honest. Their voices are as varied as the American landscape, and yet I felt from them a real sense of community. I did travel with my family, but they’re all boys. What do they know.
Amy: What’s your favorite thing about The Ninth Wife? Don’t be shy (oh, right, I forgot who I’m talking to) because we all love something about our own work, even when we’re in the dregs of it. Or hopefully we do!
Amy Stolls: I love that it’s finished. There, I said it. I can’t obsess anymore about this change or that. When Bess meets Rory he’s wearing Tevas. What’s wrong with Tevas? It takes place in 2005! My editor would have none of it. “I can’t be attracted to a man in Tevas,” she wrote in the margin. (Oh yes, it got down to that level. She didn’t like his Velcro watch, either.) For days I obsessed about what shoes he’d be wearing. I can’t even remember what I ended up with, I’ll have to go look.
But okay, I’ll say this, too: a reader wrote me to say she loved that the novel was both funny and tender. THAT made me smile. It’s often my favorite thing about good books, how they can make me laugh, but also make me think and feel (good or bad). I worked hard to try and do that with The Ninth Wife.
Amy: I can’t wait until it’s time for you to come back to Chicago. I felt like we could’ve talked and walked all day — and maybe next time we will!
Amy Stolls: Indeed! I would love that. Along with the new lock on my office door I need to put up a sign that says, “Gone talkin’.”
Amy Stolls is the author of the novel The Ninth Wife, published by HarperCollins in May 2011, and the young adult novel Palms to the Ground (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), published in 2005 to critical acclaim and a Parents’ Choice Gold Award. She spent years as a journalist covering the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska before she received an MFA in creative writing from American University. Currently, she is the literature program officer for the National Endowment for the Arts, where she has worked since 1998, collaborating with thousands of writers, translators, editors, booksellers, publishers, educators, and presenters nationwide to keep literature a vital part of American society. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and their two sons.