Robin Oliveira has the literary world on its heels with her debut novel, My Name is Mary Sutter (Viking, May 2010). With the book released to rave reviews and picked as our SLR Read of the Month, Oliveira could have easily balked at yet another interview request. Instead, she gave her time generously and we think you’ll be fascinated by the insightful discussion we’ve shared below. Find the rest of Oliveira’s converation with SLR contributor Adele Annesi in tomorrow’s post.
You’ve mentioned the lead character came to you in a vision. That prompted you to discover information about 17 female nurses who worked as physicians during the Civil War. Mary Sutter is one of these women, but throughout the book, both male and female characters are equally well-drawn. How did you go about creating these fictional characters with such detail? What tools did you use – e.g., character sketches, profiles, etc.?
Characters evolve as I write. I use none of the oft-recommended tools to develop characters. Whenever I do, I find that the characters are no longer interesting to me because they are already static in my mind. I want to discover them, as the reader might discover them, or as another character might encounter them in the book. As the characters respond to events erupting around them, I begin to understand who they are, even though initially they are frequently one-dimensional. Through subsequent drafts, the challenge becomes to develop them by asking what else the character wants other than the thing he first revealed to you.
I also keep in mind that subplots have the role of magnifying theme. This is the less intuitive guide to developing what any given character wants and therefore who they will eventually become. Characters in subplots are contrasts or mirrors of the main character’s desire and are therefore arranged along a spectrum related to that desire. In My Name is Mary Sutter, all the female characters are arrayed on a spectrum in regards to the love/knowledge theme. The male characters are delineated in their response to Mary, to the women in their lives, and to the war and its demands on their medical knowledge.
While writing, I remain open to whoever might walk onstage, always hoping for the wonderful surprise, while keeping in mind the developing theme and the structural requirements of the story.
Your research is incredibly thorough, and it leaves readers with increased knowledge about life during that era. With so many historical details to track, how did you keep all the information organized? Did you use a timeline? Colored note cards? Post-its arranged in various blocks or binders? A specific software program? We’ve heard a wide variety of authors’ tricks, and we’re curious to know yours.
My system involves a plethora of overstuffed folders in various filing systems, an overstuffed email inbox, and a bookshelf overflowing with reference books. This simple, rather haphazard system works for me because as soon as I organize anything, I can never find it again. I rely a great deal on my memory. Once I have fed the research into my imagination, it surfaces when necessary. Mine is not a system to emulate, but it is the one that works for me.
Some authors outline a plot and follow that outline when crafting a novel. Did you approach this story that way, or did events and people begin to take on a direction and life of their own? (You’ve mentioned hearing Mary Sutter’s voice).
For me, an outline has proved useful only to evaluate progress and diagnose problems. I did outline My Name is Mary Sutter on the very last draft because Mary’s emotional arc didn’t feel right. For help, I turned to Jon Franklin’s Writing for Story. He won the Pulitzer Prize twice for newspaper features. His book elucidates epic story structure in a way I had never before encountered. It is based on the familiar character in conflict, action in development, and resolution paradigm, but he adds the idea of interlinked conflict, which helped me to discover wherein the current structure the problem lay.
I think the important factor to remember is that Franklin already knew the beginning, middle and end of his stories. He was writing features for a newspaper in which he was shaping a known story. As fiction writers, we often don’t know what’s coming; that’s part of the fun. My method for My Name is Mary Sutter was to have a vague idea of an ending (based on desire: would Mary get or not get the thing/person that she wanted?), and then forge ahead to see what developed. I discovered new, wonderful story elements that, had I attempted to stick to some predetermined outline, might not have surfaced.
Merely as an exercise, I have tried to outline my new book in an attempt to save myself some time. I don’t know how helpful this exercise will prove in the long run. What it has helped me figure out is whether or not I have enough story for a novel (I think I do), but whether the outline will bear any resemblance to the final story is in question. I suspect I will file the outline somewhere in an overstuffed folder and only consult it, or more likely re-outline the book, if I find the emotional arc of the final draft faulty.
Learn more from Robin Oliveira tomorrow in Part Two of the author interview by Adele Annesi.