Judith Kirscht is a fellow novelist and a good friend. She and I met in Ann Arbor in the 70s. We have a long history as fellow writers.
To mark the publication of the print edition of my novel, One Who Loves (New Libri Press, 2017), Judy recently reprinted her “Interview with Toni Fuhrman.” In the interview, I talk about my writing background, style of writing, and sources of inspiration. Here’s the (slightly revised and updated) interview.
Tell us about your writing background. When did you begin to write?
I always liked writing, including the act of writing, which involves handling pencils, pens, and paper. I still like touching the page with a writing instrument—that closeness, that physicality. I once took a calligraphy course so that I could indulge my love of writing by hand. I also write the first draft of my novels by hand. This may seem labor intensive but it’s not, if one is working on a few pages at a time. The pages just pile up and, some months later, there are several hundred pages and that wonderful thing—a novel manuscript. Once the first draft is complete, it’s much easier to edit and rewrite on a mechanical device. Over the years, I’ve transitioned, without too much difficulty, from manual typewriter to electric typewriter to word processor to desktop to laptop.
I didn’t write extensively while studying English literature during my undergraduate and graduate years. I didn’t write a novel until a few years after that, when I took myself off to England and wrote a very bad first novel, sitting in front of a rented typewriter at a gigantic claw-foot desk, in a bed-sitting room on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea—across the street from the Thames, just down the street from the former residences of Thomas Carlyle and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
I took my first writing course—and got my first rejection (from The New Yorker)—as an undergraduate. Following graduate school, I took two other writing courses, one at Windsor University (with Joyce Carol Oates) and one at the University of Michigan (with Robert Haugh). That was the extent of my formal training. I was accepted at the Iowa Writers Workshop but did not attend. One of my few regrets. I was in love, and Iowa seemed much too far away. I still have (filed away somewhere) the letter of acceptance from Vance Bourjaily, at that time a writer and teacher at the Workshop.
Where do you get your story ideas?
Story ideas. Where do they come from? They are often a momentary thought, realization, or insight, during which I visualize the story, or the key elements of the story, sometimes from beginning to end. It might simply be a title—at this point nothing more than a place marker. More often than not, the title, and its accompanying note, land on a stray piece of paper. I try to remember to put the idea in some more permanent place, like a journal, before the idea is lost and gone forever. Inspiration is ephemeral. It needs to be captured and pinned down before it dissipates. There’s a Chinese proverb that goes something like this: “The faintest ink is better than the best memory.”
An idea for a novel is not much more complicated than an idea for a short story—at least in the beginning, at least for me. I know the main character or characters. I know what the thrust of the story is. I know how it ends. The rest is process. The story unfolds as I write it.
I often write plot outlines, but only after I’ve drafted the entire manuscript, and only to assist me in recalling the sequence of events, or because a potential publisher has requested it. I don’t map out novels or stories before I write them, or as I write them, because, for me, the story and the characters have lives of their own. My job is to get the story down on the page and allow the characters to progress in their own way and at their own speed. They’re often fated, as I may already have determined the ending, but they have a lot of freedom within that boundary. Yes, sometimes they force me to rethink my endings. That’s when I know I’ve created strong characters.
In several of my novels, including One Who Loves, I’ve written in the ending, or some portion of the ending, at the very beginning of the story. Even though some might consider this a “spoiler,” I’ve found it an effective way to launch a story. Most readers, I believe, will become too involved in the story to put down the book because they know the ending. The stories I tell are not about plot but about character development.
How would you describe your style of writing?
It’s probably easier for someone else to describe my writing style than for me to attempt it. My primary stylistic model and ongoing inspiration is Jane Austen. I am almost always reading Jane Austen. I read her six major novels over and over because I admire her stylistic clarity, her utter lack of sentimentality, her smooth, effortless narration, her satire, her witty and engaging dialogue, and her timeless stories of family conflict and romantic mishap. She is a realist in the best sense; that is, she portrays her flawed characters with wit, humor, and compassion. As she said in one of her letters, “Three or four Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on.” Modestly, she refers to her literary output as “the little bit (two Inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour”—a reference to the miniaturist art (watercolor on ivory) that was popular at the time. I’ve always believed, however, that she knew how good she was. After all, at his invitation, she dedicated Emma to the Prince Regent, later King George IV, who was an admirer of her novels.
What other authors have inspired you?
Lined up behind Jane Austen are many other novelists and philosophers whose works have inspired me.
For its narrative drive: Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (a favorite from age 12). For style: Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the short stories of Anton Chekhov, James Joyce’s Dubliners, and Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. For imagination and originality: Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. For majestic storytelling: Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure; Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; George Eliot’s Middlemarch.
For language and subtlety: Henry James’ Washington Square and The Portrait of a Lady. For brilliantly capturing a particular period and social class: Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and her New York stories. For enlightened discipline: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (another early favorite, from age 18), Anthony Trollope’s An Autobiography, and B. K. S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga. For voice: W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge and Of Human Bondage. For compelling story: John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. For its iconic character: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
For fearlessness: D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. For empathy: E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. For combining mystery with narrative mastery: Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors. For narrative style and personal warmth: Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. For shattering impact: Paul Bowle’s The Sheltering Sky and Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories. For their clear, inviting style and stories of ordinary people: the novels of Anne Tyler and Sue Miller.
What inspired One Who Loves?
One Who Loves had several layers of inspiration, all of which came together at one point, and became the story it is. One layer is the title itself, which comes from a line in W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, Of Human Bondage: “There’s always one who loves and one who lets himself be loved.” I’m drawn to what I can only call Maugham’s “voice”—and I found that line, which is very thematic to his novel, and to mine, most intriguing. Do we ever love equally? Does the balance always tilt one way or the other?
Another novel that inspired me was Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. Stegner is a great favorite of mine, and this is a novel I like particularly well, and have read and reread. It’s about two young married couples who meet at the University of Wisconsin and form a deep bond of friendship, which continues throughout their lives. It’s one of those novels in which nothing extraordinary happens, but which sweeps the reader into the adventure of living one’s life and enjoying one’s closest relationships.
The third layer of inspiration was not so much inspiration as observation. My son, David, lived in a co-op while attending the University of Michigan, and I was an occasional visitor on the premises. I kept a picture in my head of several of the co-op houses, and imagined one that had its own look and personality. Co-op life is a source of close and lasting friendships, as the residents share not only space but responsibilities and a special kind of interconnectedness. It seemed to suit the story I was writing, so I used it to launch my two couples—who are a generation older than my son—on their life journeys.
Can you describe, in a few sentences, what One Who Loves is about?
One Who Loves is a story of friendship and love—including obsessive, misdirected, and frustrated love—troubled and challenging friendship, and the extraordinary conflicts that impinge on seemingly ordinary lives. Liz, Patrick, Tess, and Jon meet at a University of Michigan co-op in the 70s. They quickly form lasting friendships, which continue through the 80s and 90s. Liz, the narrator, takes us on her journey as she grapples with crises of love, loyalty, and the inexorable pull of sexual attraction.
What has sustained you as a writer through the years?
Stubbornness. While continuing to write and submit short stories and novels, I worked as a creative director in the marketing field and, more recently, as a feature writer. Some of my short stories were published and, intermittently, I made an effort to hunt down an agent for my novels. Then, I began submitting to independent publishing houses, and New Libri Press accepted One Who Loves. Independent presses are the lifeblood of contemporary literature.
I should add, however, that, were I not published now, I would continue to write, as I have always done throughout my adult life. Why? Because, gratifying as it is to have readers out there who are enjoying what I’ve published, I have stories I have to tell—or, perhaps, one story that I have to keep telling—and, readers or no readers, I’ll keep telling that story as long as I’m able. Although my writing is character driven and revolves around family and relationships, it is—as is all literature—influenced by a personal quest, our search for—what? Love. Purpose. Rootedness. A sense of belonging. A room of one’s own.
What advice would you give to writers who are just starting out?
During my brief stints as a teacher of freshman composition, I told my students, at the beginning of each term, that becoming a better writer was an ongoing two-step process, and that both elements of the process were absolutely essential for success. The two steps, in order of importance, were (and are):
I would reiterate this advice often during the term, but I doubt if it made much of an impression. It’s like that timeless advice for losing weight: Eat less. Exercise more. It’s just too damn simple.
What are you working on now?
Right now, I’m working on a novel, as well as submitting for publication another novel that was first developed some years ago and has recently undergone a considerable makeover. It’s a novel about family (sound familiar?) in a small town (think: “Three or four Families in a Country Village”). The characters will, I hope, be fully realized (at least to the best of my ability), but their quest—in all fairness to my readers—will be only partially fulfilled. As a realist, I don’t believe in happy endings. I do, however, believe in the resilient human spirit. We aspire. We struggle. We take risks. We often fail. But we are sustained by friendship, family, and love.