A Conversation with Therese Fowler
Question: As the title implies, one important element of Souvenir is, so to speak, the remembrance of things past . . . But it’s also very much a book about seizing the present, despite mistakes and regrets. Can you talk a bit about this aspect of the novel?
Therese Fowler: Early on, Meg, who anchors the story, thinks about how her father doesn’t like facing the past because “that’s where all his mistakes live.” They have this in common, as she’s made some questionable decisions of her own and has preferred to avoid thinking about some of the more troubling results.
When she begins reading her late mother’s diaries, though, she has no choice but to recall her past–which also manifests itself in the form of her old love, Carson, returning to their home town, where she still lives, in order to plan his wedding.
Ever more, and in unexpected ways, Meg is forced to decide whether she will live consciously or let the power of regret continue to dictate her life. It’s more than just her life that’s involved, though; Meg has a teenage daughter who, more than anyone else, will benefit–or suffer–from her decisions.
Q:Souvenir is told from the point of view of three strong characters: Meg Hamilton, Carson McCay, and Meg’s daughter, Savannah. Could you tell us a bit about these characters? What goes into the decision to make a particular character a point-of-view character, and how important is that to the success of the novel?
TF:Point-of-view is a matter that readers rarely pay attention to, yet it’s one of the most important story decisions an author makes. Your experience of the story depends upon my rendering of it.
When I first conceived the novel, I knew Meg’s story began with her as an essentially “good” but naïve young woman who faced a loyalty dilemma. And I knew Carson, well-meaning but similarly naïve, was the man on the losing end. Then I thought about the effects of Meg’s dilemma and realized that giving both her and Carson a voice was essential–because you can’t really know Meg’s story without knowing Carson’s story, and vice versa.
Making Savannah a point-of-view character gave me the opportunity to create an interesting and dramatic parallel to Meg’s past and present. And the more I worked with Savannah the more I understood how her story was inseparable from the others’.
Q:Souvenir is your first published novel–how did you go from aspiring writer to published writer? Any tips for readers hoping to follow in your footsteps?
TF:I got here by pretty much the same route all the novelists before me did: determination, rejection, perseverance, and a LOT of writing. Trust me, there were many times when I wondered why I was trying to have a career in one of the most capricious industries in existence–but there I was, in my late thirties, finally seeing that I had a real aptitude for writing, I loved writing, and I wanted so much to make it my profession.
Taking myself seriously was a huge first step in the right direction. That led me to apply to a graduate writing program, which led to a teaching assistantship (which would give me the credentials to teach if writing wouldn’t pay the bills), and what I like to call protracted immersion in the art and craft of fiction writing.
There are as many routes to writing success as there are writers who got there. My advice, however, applies across the board: read widely, learn the craft by whatever means you can–workshops and writing programs are ideal, but even self-study can work–apply what you learn, and persevere.
Q:Are you the kind of writer who plots her books out extensively beforehand? How much freedom do you give your characters within the plot structure?
TF:I only ever have a vague idea of the plot ahead of time. I’ll know where the story starts, and have a strong idea of where it will end, but most of what happens in between arises organically as I get to know the characters.
It’s like this: as I write a scene, I’ll discover something about the character that hadn’t occurred to me previously. That will, in turn, influence how I direct the story–the process is in essence a continuous series of exploring if-then possibilities, peppered with that ephemeral writing magic–small epiphanies that enrich the story in ways even the author doesn’t expect.
Q:That’s certainly evident in Souvenir. It’s hard to steer clear of spoilers when talking about this aspect of the novel, but I think it’s fair to say that the book contains elements that at first seem familiar, if not conventional, but then takes these elements in unexpected directions.
TF:I consciously aimed to create a story that both fits and overturns convention, because as a reader I love such stories best. Predictability is boring! I want a book to take me someplace I haven’t been before, show me sights I haven’t seen, make me ponder questions I may not have pondered before.
The writing process, though, was filled with surprises. While I knew that I wanted to create such a story, I wasn’t sure how I would do it.
Q:Again, not to give anything away, but did you ever encounter resistance from your agent or editor on these points? I can see how readers might find your choices, or rather the choices of your characters, somewhat controversial!
TF:No, no resistance at all. In fact, my agent sent the book out to editors two days after reading it–she didn’t ask me to change a thing. And judging by the number of interested publishers we had, I’ll venture to guess that the controversial aspects were considered a plus.
I’m delighted to be working with people who, like me, believe that good fiction should ask something of the reader. The history of storytelling isn’t one of simply entertaining the masses but of also advising, instructing, challenging the status quo. Think of the controversy Mary Shelley explored, and incited, with Frankenstein–which, as those who’ve read it will know, is far more a domestic tale about the tragic effects of an arguably honorable intention than the Hollywood-ized story it’s become. Readers are smart; we should strive to offer them smart books.
Certainly I will have readers who, because of their personal and/or religious convictions, will disapprove of certain choices my characters make. I understand that. My hope, though, is that the story will spark some dialogue, get those people to at least reconsider their views.
Q:Is the novel based at all on your personal experience?
TF:In some ways, yes. I lost my mother in 2004; she died, quite suddenly, while staying with me to undergo cancer treatment at the Duke University Medical Center. The loss was crushing, and I so wished she had left behind some sort of diary or journal, some tangible piece of herself that would immortalize her, even if just to our family. Souvenir explores the power those left-behind words can have.
Q:You mentioned your MFA in writing . . . What are the benefits and drawbacks of entering a writing program? Does it really help in the quest for publication?
TF:The primary benefit for me came from the study of literature, which is at the core of every program, combined with critiquing my classmates’ stories and having mine critiqued. Like learning architecture by studying the greatest works and then also designing one’s own structures, earning an MFA gives a breadth and depth of study most writers can’t get by other means.
The main drawbacks are, for many people, the expense and the time commitment involved. I was fortunate that my husband could carry the primary burden of earning our living, and fortunate to win a teaching assistantship, which covered my tuition and paid me a small stipend.
Inasmuch as a writer applies what she learns and does the necessary pavement-pounding, then yes, the programs do help lead to publication. But by no means is an MFA a kind of publication carte blanche. Whether there are initials after your name or not, you still have to tell a good story and tell it well.
Q:How did working as a writing teacher effect your own writing?
TF:First, it forced me to quantify things I knew only by instinct. I’d never studied writing at the nuts and bolts level, and so in preparing to teach it that way, I gave myself a crash course using the same writing text I was assigning to my students.
I can’t tell you how many times in my life I’ve ended up doing things in what most people would say was the wrong order. And yet it’s a system that seems to work pretty well for me. In this case, learning those writing basics in concrete, teachable terms elucidated the craft in ways my graduate workshops never had. Suddenly I understood the hows and whys, which then helped me teach effectively and, I suspect, write more effectively.
Q:How do you juggle the responsibilities of being a spouse and parent with the creative demands of writing?
TF:I learned to juggle real objects in Mr. Greathouse’s junior-high science class–I gather it was an exercise in following specific instructions (important in the sciences), but what it demonstrated, to me at least, was that even something as complicated as juggling could be mastered if one approached it systematically.
I can’t say real life is as easy to manage as a trio of colored balls, and I’m certainly no model of efficiency, but I do try to give each facet its due attention. I write mostly during regular work hours, then do the mom and spouse stuff after work and on weekends, just like people with more standard jobs.
Like everyone, I sometimes drop a ball. Fortunately my sons are teens now and becoming more self-sufficient. And they, along with my husband, are wonderfully supportive.
Q:Like many writers today, you maintain an active web presence via blog (Making it up, http://theresefowler.blogspot.com/) and website (www.theresefowler.com). Has the Internet made writing a less solitary occupation in some ways? And is that a good or a bad thing?
TF:Creating a blog connected me to a terrific community of like-minded readers and writers–I love that! Writing full-time is very solitary, but because of the so-called blogosphere, I can always find someone to visit with when I have a few minutes. We’ve discussed how our blogs are like virtual kitchen tables or, depending on our moods, bar tables. My blogmates or blog pals, as I like to call them, bring in welcome questions and ideas and perspectives.
Q:On your blog, you mention that Souvenir is a hybrid between literary and commercial fiction. What did you mean by that?
TF:Maybe because I came to writing as primarily a reader of popular fiction, I’ve never had much patience with the high-mindedness of some in the literary world. Not everyone has the privilege of higher education, not everyone has an elevated vocabulary. Esoteric as a quality standard isn’t sensible for the book industry–which only exists because readers buy books.
So even while earning my MFA, my approach to storytelling was to imbue my work with literary elements–vivid prose, emphasis on character, universal themes, symbolism, etc.–while telling stories that I hoped would have broad, i.e. commercial, appeal. This approach is not always well-received in MFA programs.
But I think the literary-commercial chasm is a false divide. Some “literary” works sell phenomenally–which makes them, de facto, commercial.
I believe in accessibility. Does that make me a sort of literary populist? I also believe that readers should get a quality product for their money, no matter what genre they prefer.
Q:Are you working on another book? And if so, can you tell us anything about it?
TF:Yes, I’m hard at work on my next novel. Like Souvenir, it’s a love story; this time I’m writing about a woman who gets a second chance with an old flame, only to inadvertently fall in love with his son, who’s nine years her junior. It’s a story of old conflicts, long-held secrets, upended expectations, and the question of what makes love true.
From the Hardcover edition.