That Moment When the Project Comes Alive

Author Joan Wickersham Presents First in Writers' Workshop Series
Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh
Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh

In her talk at the Grubbs Gallery on September 23, author Joan Wickersham offered to break down the minutiae of two of her books, about suicide and love, respectively.

“If you’re a writer, that’s what you want to know: How did a book get written?” she said, adding that, “both were messy subjects and very structured books.”

The first of the two, The Suicide Index, took Ms. Wickersham 11 years to write in part, she said, because the initial finished version was a novel, a “very polite, dead book.” So when she began to edit the material, Ms. Wickersham found herself throwing out every chapter.

“I was trying to treat suicide as a conventional story,” she said, shaking her head.

What emerged instead—once she had disposed of the idea that she could take her father’s suicide and turn it into a novel—was a series of fragments that the author then arranged alphabetically, imposing a form of order on a chaotic experience.

Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh
Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh

“As a writer, when you finally find the right way to write a book, it’s exhilarating,” she said. “I just love that moment when a project comes alive; I feel like I’m sitting on a live animal, a large, live animal.”

Her next project happened almost in reverse: Ms. Wickersham came up with a great idea for a story one morning—but forgot to write it down. All she could remember later was the title, The News From Spain. So, she decided to treat the title as a writing exercise, crafting a series of stories, all with the same title, but with different meanings and interpretations for it. The result was a book of short stories of the same name.

“The book started to tell me what it was about,” she said, adding that the stories “All turned out to be about love in different ways.”

As to the final story, part of which Ms. Wickersham read to her audience, she said she crafted that to be in a different tone like “a symphony’s last movement.”

Sometimes stories might come to a writer as whole cloth, Ms. Wickersham noted, and sometimes they might come as fragments—the writer’s job was to interpret the different pieces and figure out how they fit together.

“The project I’m working on now, I don’t quite know yet what it wants to be,” she said. “So I’m just trying to give it its head and let it run.”

See the full set of photos from the event on Flickr.

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