Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Interview: Nancy Werlin and her Impossible talent

I've read quite a number of books since I reviewed Nancy Werlin's Impossible, but (not impossibly) it still remains one of my favorites of the year. A curse, a legend, and a family make up a story I think few writers outside of Nancy could handle really well. With the book coming out in the not too distant future, the time has come for me to post an interview Nancy graciously did with me. Books! Writing! Song lyrics! Read on!

Carlie Webber: With its elements of legend and fantasy, Impossible is a big departure from your previous works. What inspired you to write it?

Nancy Werlin: I first began thinking about this book well over ten years ago. At the time I didn't think of it as having fantasy elements, but as a technological puzzle novel. I'd been listening to the Simon & Garfunkel version of the song "Scarborough Fair," and it struck me that the singing lover was making impossible demands. I thought, "He's angry at her; he won't ever forgive her," and I wondered why. What had she done? Later I discovered that this was only one version of an old ballad with many versions, none of which answered my questions but some of which -- the Elfin Knight branch of the song --
specified an unearthly rather than a human lover making the demands. Now, that was interesting!

Over the years, from time to time, I'd idly go back to think about possible solutions to the riddles in the song, because I always knew that one day, I'd write "The Scarborough Fair novel." But I believed I needed the answers to the riddles before I could start work.

Not so, however. In 2006, the plot involving Lucy and Zach and the Elfin Knight suddenly came to me, and that was what got me started writing, and rather obsessively, too. So that was the inspirational jumping-off point, though not the initial point of inspiration.

Now, after the fact, I believe I was really inspired to begin writing by the novel's central question: What is true love? That interested me even more deeply than the puzzles. I've grown used to the fact that all my books dwell on questions or themes that I'm trying to figure out for myself. Normally I don't come to conscious realization of the central question or theme is until the book is done.

This book may be a departure for me, but really, it's not such a big departure. I've always loved fantasy as a reader, and many of my books are difficult to classify once you take a good look: contemporary YA mixed with mystery, suspense, and psychological issues; I've thrown in ghosts, I've used science fiction elements. So, using a bit of fantasy felt like a natural thing for me to do -- the story demanded it; as its writer, I simply responded.

One point I often like to make about writing novels is that there's never a single inspiration; it's always a series, some of which only come during the actual writing of the book . . . and you have to trust that they will indeed come. "Trust the process."

CW: Are the characters based on anyone you know?

NW:They're all me! Which is another way, perhaps, of saying no. I don't normally take inspiration from outside; I go inside myself for the core of my characters, and then spin off from there, adding what the story requires and watching what the developing characters have to say for themselves and making adjustments and changes as I work.

That said, I'm clear that Sarah Hebert is an homage to the wonderful women friends I've been fortunate enough to have. I ended up giving her a bigger role than I had at first intended, because as I worked on the scenes with Lucy and Sarah, I began thinking about the importance of women's friendships. Also, Soledad and Miranda, in their different ways, are homage to my own mother, while their relationship also reflects back on the theme of women's friendships.

Hm. I guess these were topics I was thinking about also. "True love" doesn't just cover romantic love, does it? It also covers friendship, and, of course, parental love.

CW: Where did the words to Miranda's song come from? Are they simply an older version of the Simon and Garfunkel lyrics, or did you make them up?

NW: The lyrics are original to IMPOSSIBLE, but closely patterned on both the Simon & Garfunkel version (which I expected readers would be most likely to know) of "Scarborough Fair' and also on a line of
versions called "The Elfin Knight," from the book of ballads collected by Francis Child (known as "Child ballads.") There are many different versions of this song, and it's likely that many more have been lost to time, so I felt very comfortable inventing a branch of my own for the novel.

I didn't write the lyrics by myself, though. I worked on them with my friend, fantasy writer Franny Billingsley, who has a much better sense of music and meter than I do.

CW: The puzzle presented by the song is fascinating. How did you figure out what the answers would be?

NW: I figured the puzzles out during the course of writing the novel, and it was a long and painful process over multiple drafts. Solution #1 got solved during the first draft, but #2 and #3 three weren't finally and completely solved until later drafts. For a time, in frustration, I even wondered if I could get
away with not solving all three puzzles . . . because I didn't see how I was going to do it. Or rather, how Lucy would.

In the end, I have to credit 1) my own big mouth and 2) friends. I talked about the problem with many people. My friend Kathleen Sweeney had just begun doing felting, so she had the solution to the "shirt without needle or seam." The acre of land "between the salt water and the sea strand" -- my fiance, Jim McCoy, took me to the Bay of Fundy on vacation, and as I watched the tide race in, I had that answer. And then, the plowing and sowing -- it was Franny Billingsley who thought of grinding up the kernel of corn and mixing it with sand. Carrot seed, which is tiny, is apparently planted in this way.

All the goats' horn innovations were my own. Yes, I invented that little wheelbarrow! In my own mind, anyway.

CW: Complete this sentence: No one knows I'm really good at...

NW: The problem is that I am not secretive about the things I'm good at, because there are so many more things at which I am extremely bad! So if I may make a little adjustment: The thing I'm most proud of being good at is being a friend.

CW: My favorite question to ask authors: What's one book, written by someone else, that you wish you had written?

NW: Another very difficult question, because the books that most knock me out, as a reader, are books that I know I could never, never have written, for various reasons. So I'm just grateful on my knees that somebody did.

My favorite book in all the world (and in that position since I was 14) is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

Recently, The Post-Birthday World and We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver have awed me completely. I'm glad I didn't write them, because I wouldn't want to live in those worlds (and also, I doubt I'd have the skills), but oh, they were good. Convincing and unforgettable; the kind of fiction
that changes you.

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by Gerald Edwards -- another recent read, and one that leapt instantly into my top five of all time. No kidding. I wish more people knew about this novel.

Recent YA reads that I thought fantastic: The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean, The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson, and Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner. (YA fiction has never been better than it is right now.)

Oh, wait! I've got an answer to your question after all. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. How I wish I'd been able to write that.

CW: What do you have planned for your next book?

NW: I'm going to continue working with fantasy elements and Elves, and I'm still interested in thinking about love and friendship, and of course I always work with contemporary YA and with suspense -- and that's really all I can say at this point.

Nancy, thanks so much for your fabulous answers. Everyone, go out and read Impossible the day it's released, if you haven't already read it. You won't be disappointed.

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