I love hearing people speak richly about their own writing, about writers whose influence has been great in their lives, and about their own writing process. So you know I love this interview with Elizabeth Bruce today. I think you’ll find goodness here, too.
1.Tell us about your book.
Set in South Texas, my debut novel, And Silent Left the Place, takes place one night in April of 1963. The protagonist, Thomas Riley, is a traumatized 81-year-old veteran who came back from the Great War middle-aged and silent. He can speak but he doesn’t speak–not to people anyway–and the mystery of the novel is why Thomas Riley doesn’t speak. He dug himself a secret hole years ago out behind his gas station north of Laredo, and there he speaks to his beloved wife Dolores, who tried for years to get him to talk again before she finally left. On this night in ‘63 , a young couple passing through trespasses on the vast Calder Ranch and sets into motion a cascade of strange events through which the burden of silences passes from old to young. The young man is arrested and the young woman runs off into the desert. A search for her ensues, led by old John Hopper, the body hunter, who combs the desert “looking for the dead, bodies felled by heat or thirst or the hands of man that strung them up on scrawny trees, the bizarre brown fruit of a barren land.” Drawn from a tall Texas tale filled with what writer Dick Bausch calls “characters that leap of the page at you; that have vividness and substance,” And Silent Left the Place is a lyric novel of violence, redemption, and love reclaimed in the cruel, dry land of Texas.
Originally published in 2007 as the Fiction Winner for Washington Writers’ Publishing House, And Silent Left the Place was re-released as an e-book in 2015 by WWPH. It was one of two finalists for the Texas Institute of Letters’ Steven Turner Award for Best Work of First Fiction in 2007, and won the Bronze Prize in General Fiction in ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year Award. The novel was also recommended by Small Press Distributors and was amongThe Montserrat Review’s Best Books for Summer Reading. Texas Institute of Letters’ award-winning novelist Lisa Schamess says the novel has “an exquisite ear for language and a vivid sense of character….[that includes] the broader sweep of history and culture.”
2. What stories, themes, motivations do you find yourself drawn to in your work and in the works you read?
As an American Southerner, I’m defined in perpetuity by the great moral wounds of place and time, and the journey of truth and reconciliation. And as a native Texan, the landscape of those wounds is both mythic and real; the journey, one for redemption and renewal, penance and reprieve. Certainly, I’m drawn to work that surfaces these deeper, more Jungian narratives. The writer John McNally, from whom I took a writing course, quotes his professor Allan Gurganus in calling this “the third element,” a layer of meaning and symbol that the writer cannot intentionally insert but that rises up from the groundwater of a deeper cultural referent.
As a character actor, I always played people in the margins; as a writer, I am drawn as well to those in the margins, those who find meaning and sustenance and strength in the barest of encouragements. As a reader, I take tremendous solace in the resilience and stamina of such characters—the father and son in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road finding shelter and warmth and food in an underground bunker, Ivan Denisovich relishing his candied fruit, Moll Flanders counting her linens. I lean toward the minimal, the spare, the definitive, which is interesting because in life I’m immersed in minutia–““taking care of business,” aka “TCB,” in the immortal words of Elvis Presley–the relentless tide of paperwork required to maintain one’s membership in the mainstream. By now “TCB” is my video game, I play it in my sleep. So I look to stories that jettison that, where the stakes are pure and simple.
3. What made you believe you could write a book? How did you dispel doubt as you wrote?
Great question! After my theatre career went into deep storage, I started writing feature articles for a small publication but found it too structured, so I switched to personal essays but that was too burdened by reality, so I switched to fiction and started cranking out disjointed character studies of a first version of my debut novel. That went on for a year or two, with me scribbling away while my kids were in ballet or gymnastics. I used to stop in Rock Creek Park and write for a while after dropping the kids off at elementary school across town in NW DC. But I realized the first draft was too autobiographical and way too convoluted, and I didn’t have the writer craft to pull off the symphonic vision of what I was trying to do. So I dropped those first 300 pages or so and started over with my old man, Thomas Riley, who was a minor character in the first draft and about as unlike me as I could get. And I narrowed the focus of the work to one 24-hour period in April of 1963, and, as I mentioned before, imposed a very spare aesthetic on the work so I couldn’t get lost in my own verbiage and tangents.
But what really gave me the confidence to keep writing and dispel doubt were my writing groups. I had participated in Dick Bausch’s inaugural Heritage Writers Workshop at George Mason University, and a writing group emerged from that workshop–and later merged with a similar group that came out of John McNally’s Fiction Workshop at the Jenny McKean Moore Workshop at George Washington University–that would last over 10 years. We first meet weekly, then monthly, then more irregularly, first at different writer’s homes, before settling in to meeting at the home of the late writer and photographer Jim Munford and his late wife, Isolde Chapin (who was President of Washington Independent Writers for many years). This was an amazing and vital part of my early writing experience. Incredibly skilled and generous writers supported each other’s novels or stories over the long haul. I once told a psychotherapist friend of mine about my writing group. “Oh,” she said, “It’s like staffing,” which apparently is what therapists who share a practice do to bring each other up to speed on their clients so they can cover for each other whenever a clinician is out of town. I thought that was a great analogy. Sharing a long work in progress with a writing group is like “staffing,” when everyone is almost as invested in your characters and their stories as you are, and you can’t let either your characters or your fellow writers down, so you have to finish telling their stories. Period.
4. Describe the first 2-3 steps of your process in writing your book.
I came to writing from acting. I’d been an actor and theatre artist for about 12 years before turned to writing as an artistic discipline that was more compatible with what my life circumstances had become. So the first steps in my writing process had to do with stepping inside a character the way an actor steps inside a role—summoning up the sense memory of the character–what the air feels like in the place he or she is–is it hot, windy, humid, dusty, foul-smelling, etc.? What does the character’s body feel like in response to the action–is she in red alert, is she relaxed, terrified, breathless, titillated, etc.? What does the place where the character is sound like–is there background noise, is he outside, is it dark, are there streetlights, stars, crickets, coyotes, etc.? What just happened before the scene and how can the actor/character show that with his/her actions? How does the character move, hold her body, what are her gestures, mannerisms, ticks, tells, etc.? There’s an actor technique, for example, called “psychological gesture” with which actors assume an exaggerated gesture in rehearsal that embodies the character, and then, during performance, a suggestion of that gesture pulls the actor deeply back into character. I tried to create such psychological gestures for some of my characters.
The second step in my process of writing my book was to impose a very spare, rhythmic style on my work–simple words only, and mostly simpler sentence structures without a lot of dependent or independent clauses and such. While many of my sentences are still long, their structure is more oral than cerebral and the words and images are tangible and concrete, and there is a cadence there.
Finally, as an actor turned writer, I absolutely write out loud. Every word, every sentence is composed aloud in the character’s voice and carriage, and even the authorial voice echoes the focal character’s syntax and voice. Lee K. Abbott, with whom I studied at the Rappahannock Fiction Writers Workshop, told me that my POV was Third Person Limited Central Consciousness. I was delighted to know that there was a term for what I was doing. I told Lee I was going to make a POV Identification Card with his signature that I could laminate and carry in my wallet at all times for when I get questioned by the POV police.
5. Which is more difficult—drafting or revising?
Gosh, for me they are both challenging, though revising and polishing and finally finishing a work takes me a long, long time. I’m working on a collection of flash fiction on a common theme and find that my first impulse for a story comes quickly enough. What comes slowly is the crafting of that impulse and first burst of the writing into a structurally sound, engaging, and meaningful story. Dick Bausch says that a writer can do anything except bore or confuse the reader. And indeed, I struggle most to make sure my work doesn’t confuse the reader (I’m less worried about being boring), and that’s a function of revising.
6. What is your favorite part about being a writer?
I have to say it’s presenting the work aloud to an audience. I love doing readings and sharing work in process aloud in writing groups and workshops to see how it works orally. A couple of years ago, several of my flash fiction pieces were even produced at the Capital Fringe Festival as “prose-in-performance.” Entitled Legal Tender, these were 9 short works that each began with the words “One dollar.” We had a company of five actors, and my husband, Robert Michael Oliver, and I had divided the prose–exactly as written—in various parts—the focal character, the subjective narrator(s) who provided the focal character’s inner voice, the various backstory characters in their own voices, and the objective narrator who stood apart from the action and provided exposition and authorial stage directions and sometimes sound effects. It was fascinating to see how all the layers of fictional storytelling parsed out and came alive onstage through the actors and the stage pictures, tableaux, and movements that the director crystalized in the production’s crisp and stylized form. The audience response was overwhelmingly positive–particularly from other writers and playwrights. Performing the prose, as written with even dialogue tags intact, made the work incredibly accessible and often very funny. A real marriage of two art forms that went even farther than reading the work out loud. It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had as a writer, though we totally didn’t know if it would work.
7. How did you learn to write?
Oh, great question as well. Like most writers, I was an avid reader as a child and internalized early the grammar and syntax of the written English language. In my little Texas town, we had a tiny, tiny public library, but there was also a bookmobile that traveled around the neighborhoods in the summer, and it was the most glorious experience to go into the bookmobile and load up on a stack of new books to read. Certainly, I also remember a number of writing assignments and projects that I did in elementary or secondary school or college; I was an English major in college so I wrote a lot of papers. The college I went to—The Colorado College—has something called the Block Plan where one takes one course at a time for 3 ½ weeks. This leaves no time for procrastination; one must do all the reading and writing for a semester in that 3-week window. Hence, one learns to write quickly.
But what really taught me how to manipulate language was working as a secretary on an IBM Selectric Electric typewriter back in the 70s. After college my first real job was as the Administrative Assistant for a sociology professor in Boulder, Colorado, who ran an action research nonprofit that was federally funded. The support staff—who were all incredibly smart women without advanced degrees–had to edit and re-type proposals manually over and over again, compressing twenty-five pages into twenty, and such like. So, in order not to have to retype all of these hard copy pages—remember there were no memory chips or computers–we got really good at physically whiting out and cutting and pasting paragraphs and nudging the typewriter ball half a space to compress a word and save a line, and otherwise finding ways to say the same thing in fewer and fewer words. We debated constantly where to put the commas, and subsequently developed our own style manual of sorts, all of which taught me more about grammar than all my years of schooling.
8. What are some things that get in the way of your writing? How do you move them out of the way?
I feel like I am a more distracted and reluctant writer than most; hence, my literary output is terribly slow, although like most “knowledge workers,” I wordsmith constantly for other, less literary pursuits. I am both blessed and burdened with a livelihood, a day job, another profession that’s deeply creative in its own right. Creating and leading my Science-Themed Theatrical Journey Project for Young Children both thrills and exhausts me, and draws upon much of the same narrative impulse as writing fiction, but it’s immediate and interactive, performative and collective in a way that solitary writing is not. I’m also much more comfortable with tactile creative processes–part of my job is assemblage and curation of children’s artwork; I find working tactilely with texture and color and composition and form incredibly renewing and can stay at it for hours and hours. In many ways, I think I’m in the wrong discipline: I struggle to corral my focus on the page and usually have to get away from my day to day world to really get any writing done. I have a quote from Thomas Mann in my office–“A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” That summarizes my relationship to words.
To combat this resistance, I usually have to get away, as I said. My husband and I get away as much as we can for writing retreats, where there’s limited connectivity to the rest of the world and all we’re really striving to do is get some writing done. We almost never take “fun” vacations like normal people. I also try to counteract my reticence by nibbling around the edges of a scene bit by bit–holding the intensity of it at bay until it starts to come together and I can begin to see the whole. I also rely a lot on structural feedback early in the process from trusted fellow writers–as a theatre director and playwright, my husband has great structural x-ray vision–so that I can undergird the structural integrity before I get too attached to the decor of a piece.
9. What’s the best writing advice you ever received?
Writer Robert Olmstead once said in a panel discussion I attended that a fiction writer should make every sentence do at least three things–they can be any combination of things, but one needs to make every sentence work as hard as it can. For example, a sentence can advance the plot, deepen character, provide dialogue, fill in backstory, establish a sense of place or time, deepen the voice or rhythm of the work, etc. Pick any three and go for it.
10. If you could inhabit the setting of one book, where would you live and why?
Gosh, most of my favorite books are about characters deep in the margins of society, in times and places of great deprivation or suffering, so I don’t really want to go there myself, riveted though I am by their endurance. In fact, when my life has been especially stressed, I’ve sometimes taken solace in the barrenness of fictional worlds. But thinking of books I’ve loved, I think where and when I’d like to be is in the company of these break-through literary imaginations. Many favorite books capture a dissident view of the social order. While that consciousness doubtless thrusts the writer deeper into alienation and melancholy, such insights also allow for the dropping of scales from one’s eyes. Generally, that’s not a happy place, but at least it’s a place where reality prevails.
Years ago, Derek Walcott came down to see a production we did of his play Ti-Jean and His Brothers, and he spoke of those pivot points in literary history when an author first brings an oral culture onto the page, and the epic narratives of that human condition emerge. Walcott spoke of those who first give voice to generations of suffering and endurance, that the density of such lived experience is equal to or greater than the density of the intellectual traditions and abstractions that inform the literature of the academy. I was awestruck with Walcott’s analysis, and while I am clearly not destined to ever be such a breakthrough writer, being present to bear witness such crossover moments in literature would be thrilling and profoundly moving—to be part of the “public sphere” of such eras.
DC-based Texan writer/actor Elizabeth Bruce’s debut novel, And Silent Left the Place, won Washington Writers’ Publishing House Prize, with distinctions from Texas Institute of Letters, ForeWord Magazine, SPD. Her work has been included in Gargoyle-64, Firewords Quarterly, ‘Merica Magazine, Lines & Stars, Inklette, and nmanay others. She has received grants from DCCAH, Poets & Writers, and the McCarthey Dressman Educational Foundation. She co-founded Sanctuary Theatre with Michael Oliver & Jill Navarre; won Carpetbag Theatre’s Lucas Award; produced at Capital Fringe, Adventure & Sanctuary Theatres, and Playwrights Forum. At CentroNía, she leads a STEM Theatrical Journey Project for Young Children. You can connect with Elizabeth on her website – http://www.elizabethbrucedc.com/index.html.