Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Process Talk: Conversation With Joanne Rocklin, Part 1

Joanne Rocklin and I are talking about our writing, our systems (or lack thereof) and our middle grade novels, One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street and The Grand Plan to Fix Everything.

[Uma] What came first for you in this story?

[Joanne] I would have to say that the tree came first, the beautiful, generous orange tree in my Los Angeles backyard, which so captured my imagination, and provided so much solace, to my surprise, the summer after my mother died.  I'd stopped writing for a long while and spent my time gardening, reading, playing with my dog, spending time with friends and family, and generally living in the moment.  I'd always been ambitious and striving, and this was a "new me." And I wanted to write about a city block in L.A., that complicated, beautiful, orangey city I knew I'd be leaving soon. And I wanted to write about the kids on it, present, past and future, and their relationship to this tree. ALL the kids--which meant many viewpoints, and a somewhat omniscient voice, as well. It seemed the only way to write it! So I would say that place and voice came first, no matter who tried to talk me out of it! (crit group, editors I submitted to, etc.) My agent believed in my format, confirming my joy in writing this story.  Telling the story over 24 hours came early, too--a long, summer day.

[Uma] That sounds similar to my experience with The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. I'd had a character and a premise knocking around in my mind for a while, and going nowhere, but it wasn't until the place came into the story that things began to click for me. My shift from single viewpoint came when my character wrote a letter, and on impulse, I followed it instead of staying with her. I returned to her, of course, but by that time all the other players on two continents had begun to do their little dances. It was exciting and energizing to find the plot growing in this very intuitive way. And you? Talk about how your plot evolved.

[Joanne] As for the plot, I knew that I would have a mysterious stranger, but I didn't know why he was mysterious, at first. I knew I wanted an adult who held the street's past in her memory. I knew that each child would have his or her own problem, and that one of the children would be recovering from an illness. I knew that the ending would culminate with some resolution to their issues, and all having to do with the tree. I trusted that these big holes would be filled in as I wrote my drafts, and they were.  Writing is wonderful that way, isn't it?

The amazing thing that happened, for me, was the discovery of my theme, which arrived as a gift during my later drafts: appreciating the ordinary, beautiful moments of the Magic Now, so important for my healing during my mourning period.  

[Uma] That's extraordinary. I should tell you that my big surprise in The Grand Plan... came with all the adult characters who showed up to play comic counterpoints to the kids' serious roles. I had no idea when I started out that this was going to happen, and I think it's all due to the omniscient voice that slid in and began telling me about all the things going on in different places while the girls were trying to cope with being separated. 

So I want to ask you something related to this. There were so many of those magical moments in your book--all the things and people appearing and disappearing and causing the story to shift and change. Can you talk about the surprises you had as you wrote successive drafts?

[Joanne] Yes! Isn't that omniscient voice kind of magical itself, sort of like a master puppeteer, leading the writer to interesting interpretations and layers!  It really opened things up for me. (and I loved the way your adult characters' mirrored a Bollywood movie, and the kids' were often the sensible ones...only by using the O.V. could that have been so apparent!)

I didn't actually think of my characters appearing and disappearing; more like "having their turn."

[Uma] Okay, that makes sense. And yes, those shifting viewpoints only became possible when I moved away from the conventional single viewpoint narrative. But you were saying...surprises? Realizations?

[Joanne] Yes. When it came to Ruff the dog's turn, I began to contemplate memory and feeling and perception as it relates to an animal, and I think that led me to think of memory in general.  And so, a turning point in a second draft-- I realized that Ms. Snoops' memory is failing in the short-term, but not in the long-term, which changed the tenor, and added to the poignancy of the book, I think. (and a friend's husband was declining in that respect, too, at the time...)

Gertrude's Great Depression story came in later drafts, too, quite late, actually.  The orange tree was "telling" me to add another story about its past life.

Certain physical details of the plot: the wishing stone, Larry's poem, the hummingbird, surprised me (in later drafts) with their symbolic relevance to the needs of the kids: the poem shows Larry's growing understanding about what it means to be a man, or a human being; the hummingbird shows Leandra's capacity for love...

And the surprise of the ending was how very easy it was to write--all the disparate elements coming together naturally, like the parts of an orange.  All the flaws, fears and desires of my characters are transformed to strengths.  And also, in that space of time they suddenly understand what is important in life--the beauty of the ordinary present moment, best when experienced with others, and which makes life worth living.

[Uma] I found that to be true in The Grand Plan... as well.  The ending was inevitable. In part it was dictated by my intentional spoofing of Bollywood tropes (so there had to be a dance, in some odd location!) but in part it was the point of connection for which all the characters' trajectories were headed. Many roads in this case to a single intersection.

More of this conversation to come. As in the writing of both our books, we're letting this exchange pace itself, take its own time and wander in whatever direction seems likely. I can't predict when the next post will happen, but stay linked.


  1. Please keep on with your discussion, ladies, because I am loving every minute. I'm so intrigued by the magic you found in the omniscient voice. I feel like an eager student, sitting in the front row, waiting for the next lecture. Thank you for this. It hit the spot!

    (And Uma, I'm sure you don't remember this, but in a response to a guest post months ago, you suggested I read a couple of Edward Gorey books, and I'm very glad I listened. Thank you for that.)

  2. We're talking, we're talking, literaryfriendships. There will be more. And I'm so glad you liked the Edward Gorey books.