Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Interview follow-up: Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy, Part 2

Here's Part 2 of a three-part interview with Trent Reedy, VCFA graduate and author of Words in the Dust.

[Uma] You use a sprinkling of Dari words in the book, but you use them without italics and you make the meanings clear in context. This makes the narrative feel more surely grounded. There isn't a sense of the narrator stepping out of her story to explain or translate. Can you talk about those writing choices? Why and how did you come to make them?

My strategy with the inclusion of some Dari words is a clue to a little of my personal bias. For the most part, I tried to limit the inclusion of Dari to those words such as “toshak” or “rubab,” that lacked an accurate English translation. However, I could have just as easily written “good bye” when Zulaikha said “khuda hafiz.” I could have written “thank you” when she said “tashakor.” I wanted to keep those words and a few others in Dari because my fellow soldiers and I used them so often during our time in Afghanistan.

I did my best to provide clues to the meanings of these words within the context of the story without having a character stop and explain what the words meant. The good people at Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic were kind enough to allow the inclusion of a glossary to offer more help.

My editor and I then entered into discussions about italicizing those words that would likely be foreign to most readers. In the end, we simply decided to use italics for Dari words only when they were spoken by English speakers, and for English words when spoken by Dari speakers. In this way, the use of italics could signify the words being spoken with heavy accents.

[Uma] That reminds me of the convention An Na used to convey foreignness in A Step From Heaven, with quotation marks reserved for the English speakers whom Young Ju has to work hard to understand.

This novel was your creative thesis at VCFA, right? So you had to learn to write a novel, the craft of it, even while you were figuring out how to write this novel. What stands out in your memory? Any turning points? What were some big realizations or understandings you took away from working on this project with successive advisors?

[Trent] Words in the Dust was indeed my creative thesis at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I had a lot of doubts about being able to write it. During my first residency at VCFA, I was visiting Katherine Paterson. I asked her if she thought I could possibly write a book like this. She said that she thought I should try.

When seeking out an advisor to work with that first semester, I talked to Rita Williams-Garcia. She has written novels dealing with a wide array of complicated topics. I thought if she was that fearless, she might be willing to try to help a guy like me write a novel about an Afghan girl. I was blessed to get to work with her while I drafted the novel in my first semester. She was kind enough to let me stumble through, gently pointing out problems when I began to stray too far from salvageable material.

I worked with Jane Kurtz and David Gifaldi for my next two semesters, struggling to improve my writing while I worked on some other projects.

In my final semester I worked with Margaret Bechard. She’s a genius for asking all the right questions, and for helping me gain a better understanding of what could really be accomplished in revision.

The most important (and embarrassing) example comes from early drafts, when the character of Meena lived in a cave inside the Citadel wall. One day Margaret asked, “Why does she have to live in a cave?” I tried to explain the circumstances that had brought this woman to this desperate situation. Margaret struggled to make me understand that as the writer, I could simply change the story so that the woman lived in the back of her sewing shop. The ability to make this sort of change may seem obvious, but at the time, it felt like a cheat. If I could change that so arbitrarily, what else in the story could be completely altered, and how did I know if the choices I had made were the right ones?

While working on a new novel manuscript with my editor Cheryl Klein we came upon another of these seemingly arbitrary radical revision ideas. I was happily surprised with this change that solved a lot of problems with the story, but felt that I might have found it much earlier if I’d only been more understanding of what I now call the “Bechard Factor,” the idea that a writer needn’t stick to the original order of events or circumstances in a story, that during revision, the writer can change the entire story world at any time.

Here's a two part interview in which Trent talks to his editor Cheryl Klein:

Tomorrow, the role of compassion and why Words in the Dust is not just another "rescue narrative." Thanks, Trent.

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