A portrait of grief and loss
ERIC FORBES talks to American novelist PAUL ELWORK about his first novel, The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead, a moving story about people traumatised by death and the grief and sense of loss it engenders
PAUL ELWORK was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he still lives with his wife and their two boys. He works as an editor and report production manager for a company that does archaeological and historic architectural research. “I work as an editor to pay the bills and write to satisfy some compulsion that seems to have a cumulative effect over time, like regret or arsenic. But it’s a lot more fun than that sounds,” he laughs. His short fiction has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Philadelphia Stories, Word Riot, Quiet Feather, Johnny America, and other journals. His first novel, The Tea House, was published by Casperian Books in October 2007. Amy Einhorn Books, a division of Penguin Group, released an expanded version of the novel (retitled The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead) in March 2011.
What made you a writer?
I think it’s impossible to answer that question easily, though of course a lifelong love of stories and reading are major factors. I think it may be easier to answer what made me the kind of writer I am—which I would say largely falls on my fascination with time and mortality, personal identity, perception and reality, and the little details that go to make up a life.
When did you realise you were going to be a writer?
I remember having the clear sense of my desire to be a storyteller while reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit when I was around 10 or 11 years old.
When you decided that you wanted to be a writer, did you imagine what a writer’s life would be like?
For many years, I imagined a writer’s life as something contemplative and focused, as being devoted to the work and free of the distractions of a day job. This is a naïve notion, to say the least, as I have since learned—though I still dream of a career successful enough to allow a focus on writing without other work distractions.
What do you enjoy most about your life as a writer?
The thing I enjoy most about being a writer is the exhilarating feeling of producing pages that seem to be more discovered than conceived, of the story and characters carrying me along rather than the other way around. There’s nothing else like it.
What’s your writing process like?
I usually write after my sons are in bed. When the work is flowing steadily, I like to write for a few hours on most days. I often write in longhand and then transcribe the new text into the working manuscript; there’s something about writing with a pen, and the transcription builds in an immediate, initial redraft. I also tend to redraft as I go, rereading previous sections in preparation for writing new text.
Was it difficult getting your first novel published?
When I was shopping around the original version, The Tea House, I got lots of interest from agents and editors, but no one took the leap. Finally, Casperian Books—an independent press out of Sacramento, California—accepted the book for publication in early 2007.
Tell me a bit about The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead. What are some of the themes you explored in it? Were you conscious of these when you first set out to write the story?
While still in high school, I read Carl Sagan’s Broca’s Brain and encountered the story of the Fox sisters, who in the mid-nineteenth century started the Spiritualist movement by convincing people that Margaret and Kate Fox could contact the dead through ghostly rapping noises in the air (actually the cracking of a joint in their toes, like the cracking of knuckles). These girls went on to become celebrities in and out of America. They toured Europe and performed for adoring crowds, garnering big-time fans like Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Victor Hugo. Even more fascinating for me was the ending of the story (or the ending in my mind, I should say) years later, when Margaret stood on a stage in New York and made a public confession. The true believers apparently rejected this confession and asserted that Margaret had been coerced into it, that she was destitute and desperate for money and would have confessed to anything. All of this said a lot to me about belief and how as believers we consciously and subconsciously make choices based largely on emotional and psychological factors, especially when tied up with powerful forces like grieving and personal identity.
Years later, I volunteered at Glen Foerd On The Delaware, the historic riverfront estate I would base the fictional estate in my novel on. One of the structures on the estate is called the tea house, and at one time it served as the playhouse for the children living there. The notion of a brick-and-mortar playhouse for wealthy kids—really an adapted garden house—struck me with fascination. I thought of the secret confidences that must have been exchanged there, of the childhood discoveries, and this notion got together with the story of the Fox sisters still knocking around in the back of my head. I took the basic arc of the Fox sisters’ story, recast it and fictionalised everything, moved the story to the 1920s to follow World War I, and kept the scope smaller and more intimate, never leaving the neighbourhood where the story begins. With the notions about belief and history mentioned above in mind, I began writing The Tea House in the late 1990s.
What led to the publication of the expanded version of The Tea House?
Less than a year after the Casperian edition came out, suspense writer M.J. Rose took an interest in my work and introduced me to my agent, Daniel Lazar, of Writers House in New York. Within a few months of signing with Dan, Amy Einhorn picked up the book to be published in an expanded version, and The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead was the result.
Was there much research that you had to do?
I didn’t research the Fox sisters beyond that initial discovery, because I knew I wanted to tell a very different story. I did research as needed on nineteenth-century America, World War I, and the first quarter of the twentieth century in American history so that I could put my narrative and its backstories on believable stages.
What did you learn about yourself in the process of writing your book?
I found in myself a deeper sympathy for belief as something that operates heavily in the lives of all human beings, even those who consider themselves flinty sceptics like me. Though I already had some idea that we all approach our lives through belief and supposition rather than hard facts and reasoning (necessarily, because how much can we really be sure of between birth and death?), I found a more mature and nuanced understanding in writing this novel and living with these characters.
What were the books you grew up with, and how much influence did they have on your life?
I loved Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and read lots of fantasy and horror, along with some science fiction. In high school, I couldn’t get enough horror fiction, and read all of the Stephen King and Clive Barker [novels] I could get my hands on. I think these books left me with a strong sense of pacing and an increased fascination with fiction that explores dark places, real and imagined.
Who are some of your favourite contemporary novelists? What are some of your favourite contemporary novels?
I love the writing of James Salter; I’ve read all of his novels and many of his short stories. I also admire the work of Jim Harrison, Michael Ondaatje, Jhumpa Lahiri, Alan Lightman, Scott Smith, Dan Simmons, and many others.
Do you have an all-time favourite book?
This is a tough one. I’m going to have to say Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, as a book that touched me deeply and that I have reread more than any other.
Do you reread books you enjoyed the first time round?
Yes, I try to reread the books I love most every several years, to better know them in rereading and in bringing my increased wisdom back with me.
Suggest a couple of good reads that you think haven’t received as much attention as they should.
Anything by James Salter (but especially his novel Light Years); Salter is revered by writers but not well known among general readers. Alan Lightman’s Ghost, Dan Pope’s In the Cherry Tree, and Maureen F. McHugh’s Nekropolis are some other novels I think deserve to be more widely read.
What are you reading at the moment?
Dan Simmons’s Carrion Comfort, a novel about psychic “vampires”—basically ordinary humans except for their ability to control other people’s minds and the life-extending effects that result. It’s an epic novel that incorporates the Holocaust and shows, from that time and the more recent past, how scary human beings can be. It features unsupernatural characters alongside the novel’s “monsters” who remind us that the real horror is what people are capable of doing to each other. Great, psychologically layered stuff.
As a writer and reader, what are the elements you look for when you read a piece of fiction? What differentiates the great novels from the merely good?
I think psychological complexity and the ability in a few lines to strike deep notes in the reader’s consciousness distinguishes great storytelling. I also think the great stuff has a confessional quality and honest things to say about the human condition, as big and open-ended as that sounds.
Who are some of your favourite short-story writers?
I love the short fiction of Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, James Salter, Alice Munro, Grace Paley, Tobias Wolff, and many others.
Do you think there are differences between writing short stories and full-length novels? Which form do you personally prefer as a writer?
Different kinds of thinking go into writing short stories and novels, and for me this difference is a conceptual sense of ideas rather than specific approaches. From the time I hold an idea in my head, I begin to sense whether there’s a short story there or an entire novel. The novel ideas seem to stretch out to the horizon, with lots of opportunities for discovery; the short story ideas feel more whole right away, even if I don’t know how they’ll end, and even though discovery along the way is still a big reason to write these stories in the first place.
Any truth to the suggestion that writing short stories is good training for novelists?
I think the only way to learn to write novels is to write novels—to start that first one with no real sense of how much you have to learn along the way, to have the audacity to think you can pull it off. Writing short stories can become a sort of safe haven for a writer, if that writer can never make the leap into a larger work, one that stretches off to the horizon.
Readers often say how literary novels (compared to popular fiction) lack plots. Do you think literary novelists should put more emphasis on plot and less on stylistics? Why do you think there’s a perceived divide between popular and literary fiction?
I have less patience for plot-driven novels featuring cardboard characters than plotless (plotlight?) novels with complex, compelling characters, though I certainly feel at times that a novel can wander around aimlessly and leave me with no strong sense of itself when I’ve finished reading. I love a great plot when it’s matched with psychologically complex characterisations. I read once somewhere—and I can’t remember who said it—that the term “literary” should be expanded to include any fiction that features such depth of character, so that we would think of literary science fiction, literary suspense, and so on. I think this issue of characterisation is more of a dividing line (assuming, for the sake of argument, that a discrete dividing line can be drawn) than the presence or absence of a driving plot.
Do you agree that writing is a moral act: what authors write has a real effect on readers, often to a surprising extent?
I think that writing of value has a moral psychology to it, in that it explores such issues, but I stop short of calling it a moral act or of suggesting a moral responsibility on the writer’s part in influencing readers. That said, I do find writing that depicts people with anything less than the complexity of the human condition—that deals in cartoons of humanity—devoid of any real moral value. I also take “moral” here in relation to how people treat one another, not in its limited sense as expressed in arbitrary cultural rules.
Have you a preference for stories set in the past (historical) or present (contemporary)? What about fantasy and science fiction?
I’m up for anything, pretty much, if it’s well written. And I am an old fan of science fiction and fantasy, though I don’t read widely in either genre.
What are the things that inspire you in life?
My sons, music, passion, great writing, films, angles of light, autumn, the immensity of all I don’t know.