Women’s Fiction Author Amy Stolls Talks About Point of View (POV) and Chronology In Fiction

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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!  

Amy xo

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.

Author Amy Stolls Says, “Write What Excites You, Not What You Think Will Sell”

If you’ve been reading this blog awhile you know two things. Number one, I wander the internet looking for women’s fiction authors I’ve not yet read or heard of, and number two, I get a megawatt charge out of finding and meeting authors named Amy. (Truly, it does not take much to make to make me happy.) Not only did I hit the double jackpot with Amy Stolls — but we both had grandmothers who called us by the same nickname (it’s kind of an “Amy secret”, you understand).  And if that wasn’t enough  for me — the premise of The Ninth Wife is intriguing and Amy is generous and encouraging and super funny (which is not always easy to be six-weeks after having a baby). 

Please welcome Amy Stolls to Women’s Fiction Writers — leave a comment, buy the book, tell a friend! You know the drill…

Author Amy Stolls Says, “Write What Excites You, Not What You Think Will Sell”

ASN: Can you tell us a little bit about The Ninth Wife?

AS: Sure.  It’s about a single woman in her mid-30s who meets a great guy, falls in love, and just when he asks her to marry him, confesses that he’s been married eight times before.  Crazy, huh?  She fights the urge to run away FAST because, well you know, love is hard to find.  Instead, she journeys out across the country in part to interview the other eight wives and figure out what to do.  It’s her story, but it’s also his, as every other chapter is from his point of view, so you get a glimpse into how a man could say I DO that many times and still be a pretty good catch.  You’re probably saying, “A good catch?  My tuchas!”  But he kinda is, if you ask me.  That was the big challenge — to make him likeable and believable enough that she would seriously consider his proposal.

ASN: You published a YA novel (to much acclaim) in 2005.  How and why did you “make the genre leap” to women’s fiction?

AS: You know, I don’t think I was ever actually aware during the writing process that I was leaping.  With both books, I just set out to tell a story.  I didn’t actually think about the target audience.  All of that happened once I sold the novels.  In other words, I didn’t write Palms to the Ground as a young adult novel, but I can see why it was bought, edited, and marketed that way.  Likewise, I didn’t think of The Ninth Wife as women’s fiction, but of course I can see why it appeals more to women.  My husband, by the way, didn’t read it until the galleys were out, despite my threats that the book exposes all his embarrassing guy habits (untrue, of course, but hey … I’m a spinner of untruths.  Unfortunately, my husband knows that.)  When he finally read it, he really liked it and thought some other men might, too (so he says, a decent spinner himself).

ASN: How would you define “women’s fiction”?

AS: Hm.  I don’t know that I can.  My quick response is that it’s fiction by and about women.  I’m inclined to stop there.  One might go on and say that it often deals with things like love and relationships and gets into not just the thoughts and actions but the feelings of its characters.  But that’s too shallow.  Women – especially women authors and readers – are way more complex than that.  We tote guns sometimes and start bar fights and fart.   Okay maybe we don’t fart, but the point I’m trying to make is that the genre, I don’t think, should be defined by plot.  Maybe I’ll say this: it’s fiction about women from a woman’s perspective (which, by the way, could be effectively executed by a skilled male writer).

ASN: What are some of your favorite books of women’s fiction?

AS: I just looked at my bookshelves to try and answer this question and was amazed (appalled?) to find very few books about love and male/female relationships.  I admit … I write from my own experiences, but I like to read books that take me very far from my own life.  I’ll come clean and say I just finished Max Brooks’s World War Z about zombies and totally devoured it, so to speak.  But okay, women’s fiction.  Let me see.  I’m a sucker for some of the grand dames like Isabel Allende, Margaret Atwood, and Toni Morrison.  Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping is about atypical women and I loved it.  The short stories – often about relationships — of such writers as Lorrie Moore, Mary Gaitskill, and Jhumpa Lahiri are great and often edgy (I like that).  On my nightstand at the moment?   Wingshooters, by Nina Revoyr.  Nina’s a writer of lovely prose.  Shall I stop there?  (I know I’m going to think of others later and pinch myself for not mentioning them.)

ASN: Are you working on another novel?

AS: Not yet.  I have an idea and a writers group to spur me on, but I also have a toddler and a six-week-old, so the best I’d be able to come up with these days would probably be a story about poopie and peepee and I think we can all agree there’s just way too much of that in American literature.  PoopiePeepee Fiction, I think they call it.

ASN: What is your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction – specifically in today’s tough and changing publishing climate?

AS: I know, it is hard.  I think you have to write what excites and motivates you and not what you think will sell, because second-guessing what will sell now and in the future is a fool’s game.  That said there are a few lessons I’ve learned as to what might help get your book noticed by agents, publishers, and readers.  Beyond really good, fresh writing and complex characters there should be a good story, one that you can sum up in a minute or two.  Which is to say, it helps to have a hook, something that sparks interest.  I really thought of this with my second book, as it was a criticism of my first (not enough narrative drive).  How does someone get to be married eight times?  Can a marriage with someone like that work?  Would you marry someone like that?   See?  You don’t even have to read the book to have a book group discussion.  Finally, this: when the whole arduous, hair-pulling process of writing a book is over for you, pat yourself on the back for a job well done, whether or not it gets published.  Simply endeavoring to create art is laudable; don’t forget to enjoy it along the way.

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, two-year-old and newborn sons.