Thursday, May 2, 2013

Q&A with Douglas Trevor

Douglas Trevor is author of the new novel Girls I Know (SixOneSeven Books, 2013) and the story collection The Thin Tear in the Fabric of Space. He is a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award finalist for First Fiction and Iowa Short Fiction Award winner, and an associate professor at the University of Michigan. His short fiction has appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005, The O. Henry Prize Stories 2006 and more than a dozen literary journals, and it is truly a pleasure to welcome him to the blog today.

Walt, the main character of Girls I Know, loves his adopted city of Boston, and this love shines throughout your book. What is your own relationship to the city of Boston - are you a Boston native, or someone who, like Walt, came to adopt Boston as his home? If you had to pick your three very favorite things about the city, what would they be?

I am like Walt. I moved to Boston to attend graduate school and developed a great fondness for the city, although unlike Walt I ended up leaving Boston and writing Girls I Know from afar. My three favorite things about Boston? I would have to say Fenway Park, jogging along the Charles River, and walking in and around the city: from Cambridge up through Beacon Hill and the Back Bay.

In the novel, Walt, Ginger, and Mercedes come from very different backgrounds and have such very different voices. Which of your characters was most challenging to write and why? Which most surprised you?

I struggled the most, somewhat curiously, with Walt's voice. He is introspective but only to a point because, through much of the book, he isn't entirely satisfied with where he is as a person. As a writer I certainly identified the most with Ginger: the desire to get into the heads of other people, to explore a city for one's own creative purposes, all that resonated with me. And I met a lot of girls like her when I lived in Boston, so her voice came to me very naturally. I was most hesitant and nervous about Mercedes's point of view. She is a young (11-year-old) African-American girl who is orphaned after the shootings that take place at her parents' restaurant. When I first began the novel, I had factored in that John and Natalie Bittles would have a child but I didn't see her as having a very significant role to play. Then, after the shootings, I realized that the novel was just as much about her life as those of Walt and Ginger. But her sensibility and perspective on the world felt very natural to me from the very early drafts on, and that was the biggest--and most pleasant--surprise I encountered in writing the book.

Ginger is writing a book, also titled Girls I Know. She ventures to some unusual (and occasionally dangerous) places interviewing girls and women for her book. What kind of research, if any, did you do for your Girls I Know? Did your research take you anywhere unusual?

I went everywhere that Ginger went in the book, and everywhere that Walt went, except I suppose the hospital they visit in chapter 5. I didn't have a car (Ginger explores much of the city in her swank Lexus) so mostly (like Walt) I walked and took the T and bus. I spent several days walking around Watertown, including up around the Lowell Elementary School. The final scene of the book mirrors one of the earliest walks I took for the book (from Watertown into Cambridge and over to the Charles River). I was most hesitant to explore Mattapan, the part of town where the waitress Flora lives, but the day I spent there was actually really quiet and uneventful. To the best of my abilities, I tried to pace the novel according to Walt's various journeys through town, including his final trip out to Jamaica Plain with Mercedes. The less tactile research I did for the book was conducted at the Boston Public Library. That is where I researched MS-13, the street gang connected to the shooting that occurs in the first third of the novel. All the scenes on campus at Harvard took place in buildings I had once been familiar with as a student, but once I started to set scenes in these places I discovered that I couldn't describe them well enough so I went back and visited Widener Library and Dudley House early on in my work on the book.

Your novel tackles violence, good, and evil head-on.  I read it only a week or so after recent terrible events in Boston and found it both very moving and very relevant. I know it’s all very new, and there are still many unanswered questions about what happened, but given so much in common with your characters’ experiences, I was curious about some of the things you’ve been thinking about and observing with regard to the bombing, the community’s response to it, and all that followed?

I felt overwhelmed by the events in Boston, and the loss of life that took place, and incredibly proud of the community's response to the bombings. Much of my novel looks at different parts of the city as distinct from one another, especially the Back Bay, Jamaica Plain, Cambridge, and Watertown, but to see a collective response to the bombings reminded me of how the city is made up and tied together by these different townships and neighborhoods. And to see unity and empathy in the wake of evil and violence is really inspiring. But I was, and I still am, so angry that a day like Patriot's Day (which is so unique and so much fun) could be sullied by that kind of sick lunacy. And I think about the people who lost loved ones. My most immediate and personal response to any loss of life is to think of my sister, Jolee, who died unexpectedly of an aneurysm when I was still living in Boston. I still feel her loss every day, and I hate to think of people who have lost loved ones due to the malevolence of other people having to rebuild their lives in the wake of such horror. Even when there is no one to blame for a loved one's death, the grieving process is such a long and lonely thing to endure. I suppose one thing to take to heart is the importance of keeping people who have lost loved ones or been physically damaged in our thoughts for a long time: not just for days or months but for years, because so many lives were fundamentally changed that day. And I feel a recommitment to the sanctity of places like downtown Boston, which are beautiful because of the way they bring people together. I had never thought of going to watch the end of the marathon as a civic act of some sort but of course it is. It is a form of community-building and it represents a kind of patriotism that I was really proud to see on display following the bombings.

In the afterword of your book, you encourage readers to support (or volunteer with) 826 Boston, a reading, writing and tutoring program for young people. Can you tell us a little about the program and your own experiences there?

I didn't learn of the outreach programs sponsored by 826 until I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I teach at the University. But like 826 Michigan, 826 Boston is about encouraging young people to read and write and express themselves. I think the genius of the enterprise, founded by Dave Eggers, is to make the idea of writing and reading fun and creative and even--at times--silly. I remember the incredible sense of self-worth I accrued just from trying to write stories as a kid, and I think every writer on one level or another knows that he or she can't take readers for granted anymore, or that books will necessarily loom large for future generations. So I really believe in the idea of encouraging young people to think about self-expression and reading because it gives them a chance to feel good about themselves and it is yet another way to promote people from different walks of life to interact with one another.

I understand you are headed for Boston for the release of your book and to participate in Grub Street‘s Muse 2013 – congratulations! Where can Boston-area readers hear you read or speak or sign books next week? What is your Muse 2013 panel topic, and what are you most looking forward to at the conference?

Thanks! I will be teaching a class entitled "The Richness of Place" at 9:45 Sunday morning. The idea is help participants think about strategies to make the settings in which their stories take place come alive. Then that afternoon, at 2:45, I'm on a panel chaired by Erika Dreifus that will offer strategies for up-and-coming writers interested in applying to conferences and submitting their works to contests. I'm really excited to see what people are writing about at this given moment, and to see old friends. I'll be reading from Girls I Know Tuesday, May 7th, at the Harvard Book Store at 7:30 PM.

Many thanks to the author for a wonderful interview and for his moving novel Girls I Know, which debuts May 7, 2013. You can learn more about Douglas Trevor on his website, and read my review of Girls I Know here on Books, Personally.

Happy reading!

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