Interview with Author Christine Maul Rice
This month, Airstream Dispatches and Monthly Mentorship writers are reading Christine Maul Rice’s novel, Swarm Theory. Recent awards include Honorable Mention for Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year, Silver for Best First Book for the Independent Publisher Book Award, and a National Indie Excellence Award (for Midwest region). This novel of linked stories and intersecting lives is set in New Canaan, a fictional town based on Christine’s hometown just outside of Flint, Michigan. We spent 4 weeks reading, discussion, and studying her work. This weekend, we’ll gather for our monthly livestream webinar to work from a craft lesson and prompt based on our studies. Meantime, we sent Christine these interview questions. Enjoy!
Katey Schultz: The first chapter of your novel, “Atmospheric Disturbances,” struck me as utterly memorable, breathtaking, and significant. You began at a key turning point in Astrid’s life and so many other events tumble forward from that moment as a result. The writing hinges on magical realism at times, although not all chapters featuring Astrid employ this technique. Can you tell us about that decision? Perhaps related to this is a question I want to ask you about language. I often tell writers that my first book proved I’m ultimately wedded to language (word choice, rhythm, lyricism) more than I am wedded to story. As my skill set widens and my studies improve, I find that the two are stand on equal ground now. What thoughts do you have about lyricism versus narrative, and the balance or battle between the two?
Christine Maul Rice: There have been times in my life where reality can’t begin to explain (or contain) events. For me, these moments get all wound around in my grey matter to become fantastic events, as magical, as surreal. The breakup of my family felt that way. In “Atmospheric Disturbances,” the storm swirling around the kitchen seemed completely natural (to me!) and a manifestation of Astrid’s internal despair. And while I in no way compare myself to the brilliant Gabriel García Márquez, one of my favorite writers, I’ve taken a page from his playbook when it comes to magical events.
In a 1973 interview by William Kennedy in The Atlantic, Gabriel García Márquez talks about magical events in Leaf Storm: “Faulkner was surprised at certain things that happened in life,” García said, “but he writes of them not as surprises but as things that happen every day.” García feels less surprised. “In Mexico,” he says, “surrealism runs through the streets. Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America.”
That storm in “Atmospheric Disturbances” felt like a natural extension of Astrid’s reality. There are moments in life when things seem surreal, right? Maybe more so lately than ever before! The storm erupting in the kitchen, or Jesus appearing on the beach in Empire, or the roses surrounding Astrid as she claws her way up through the water … those all seem like natural reflections of the interior lives of my characters. They are pretty brief but dense in imagery. Did it really happen? Or not? Could it have happened? The magical moments come to me very naturally and I kind of love writing them because they feel very organic; they seamlessly capture the interior lives of characters while emphasizing the importance of that particular moment.
Here’s an example of something that happened in my life that, until this new novel I’ve been writing, I hadn’t been able to figure out how to use…At one point during my parents’ breakup, my Mom called me. She was incredibly upset. For some reason, I chose to drive back to Michigan from Indiana, where I was in college, to be with her. I somehow rented a car. A ferocious snowstorm kicked up and the visibility, as you might know from driving that snow-belt tip around the lower end of Lake Michigan, made whiteout conditions. I couldn’t see a thing but, at one point, the car seemed to slide beneath a semi truck. That moment of sliding seemed to take forever. Did I black out? Did I somehow get the car under control? I don’t know because, the next thing I knew, a tow truck pulled my car out of a ditch. I can’t explain this particular moment but it is seared into my memory. Was it magical? Divine intervention? Purely made up? Sometimes things happen that I can’t explain. Sometimes they just happen and I don’t know how to process them until decades later.
This question about balancing lyricism and narrative is such an interesting one to me at this stage in my writing career and it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. This second novel I’m writing (actually my third novel since my first novel was never published) is less lyrical and more plot-driven. There are moments of lyricism but much, much less so than in Swarm Theory. As a younger writer, I had a tough time pushing my lyrical tendencies out of the way of the narrative to the point that I simply couldn’t see my way through from beginning, to middle, to end, as we say! For me, lyricism is much easier than plot. But the novel I’m writing now is heavily plot based. It is also a traditionally-structured novel (opposed to a novel-in-stories). The fact that it is traditionally-structured takes a lot of angst out of figuring out the overall structure. I can’t tell you how many times I had to rearrange details in Swarm Theory or adjust scenes to fit what was developing as the overall narrative arc. For example, surprise characters kept popping up and I had to figure out how they fit into the narrative (Mae Shaheen is one of those characters who bullied her way onto the page). That’s not to say that this traditionally-structured novel doesn’t have its own challenges.
As far as a battle between the two … for me, Swarm Theory demanded a certain amount of lyricism. The story and place and characters demanded it. The 1980s seemed very dreamlike to me – so many changes and shifts were happening in the world and in my personal world. This new novel I’m writing takes place in 2016 to the present. It’s modern and the pace reflects that – it seems relentless. And to top it off, actual events in our country are surreal. For example, there’s a scene where my characters are watching the white nationalist march in Charlottesville, NC. White men marching, waving flags with swastikas, IN AMERICA, to me, is surreal. One of the book’s main characters, a World War II vet, simply can’t believe it and wonders, out loud, if those men knew what he and his buddies had sacrificed.
KS: Many participants in Airstream Dispatches had questions about how you “built” or organized Swarm Theory. I’ll paraphrase a few of those questions here: “Did the novel start with a central character and grow outwards. Or were there multiple characters and storylines from the beginning and, if so, how did you decide which storyline to focus on, and which to drop? How much did you know beforehand about the timeline, themes, and various characters (as compared to how much was revealed to you later, through the act of writing and revising)?”
CMR: I began Swarm Theory in 2012 as a response to a prompt on Patricia Ann McNair’s website. The prompt was: “This is how they get you.” That’s when I wrote “The Art of Survival.” At that point, Astrid, Paulie, and the town (as character) caught my attention. I now think that the fact that I didn’t know that Swarm Theory would be a novel-in-stories helped me take risks on the other characters that kept popping up in the town and in the lives of Astrid and Paulie. In other words, I didn’t realize that these were linked stories, with an overall narrative arc, until I got about halfway into the writing. At that point, I’d already introduced a boatload of characters and, well, I had to deal with all of their nonsense going forward.
I simply couldn’t get away from the characters that popped up in New Canaan (a fictional version of my hometown). They kept informing the narrative in various ways. For example, I didn’t know that the three dancers (Eric in particular) would take up so much real estate. For me, almost everything is revealed in the act of writing and extensive, extensive rewriting. Astrid, Paulie, Caroline, and Father Silver were the characters I knew I wanted to learn more about. Once I started unearthing them, I couldn’t ignore the characters with whom they interacted and, as a result, the spider-web structure of the novel started to take shape. They exist in the center and other characters are captured by virtue of their past or future interactions with those characters.
It was definitely challenging to write a novel-in-stories (as opposed to a traditionally-structured novel). Or, I suppose, each pose unique challenges – with the novel-in-stories, perhaps, being slightly more challenging because you are bucking tradition.
Since Swarm Theory’s timeline isn’t revealed in chronological order and it’s not structured as a traditional novel, it wasn’t written as a traditional novel. That sounds obvious, right? When the narrative dictated that it was shaping into a novel-in-stories, things started to “click.” I’ve found that, even with a traditional novel structure, I don’t really know what the overall narrative arc will look like until I’m about 100-150 pages into it (as with this latest novel I’m writing). Many other writers would use an outline to resolve this but I find that I spend a boatload of time on outlines and then they fall by the wayside (maybe that’s important too!).
I wrote all of the chapters and then set them down on the floor, from one end of our house to the other. Our house is on a city lot and our upstairs hallway extends through the entire length of the house. So I put them down and walked up and down the line of chapters, and moved the cat who seemed to love to lay on certain chapters, and kept moving things around. And then it seemed like it needed more structure. So then I started thinking about theories … and then I started thinking about the scientific method (observe, formulate, examine, result) and that spoke naturally to what was happening in the overall narrative. So I rearranged the stories to fit into those sections.
Swarm Theory proved to be like putting a puzzle together. I knew that this and this probably happened to Character A to make her act the way she did, but I wanted to listen to the voices of different characters telling their sides of the story. For me, as for many writers, there are so many ways to look at a situation. I wanted to get that nuance on the page. When I finished the novel, I went in and shifted a lot of the chapters around to fit in the specific sections and to firm up the overall narrative arc. I then went in and wrote scenes/chapters to fill in gaps.
This is a story I’ve told a few times but I’ll tell it again…When I finished Swarm Theory, I started sending it around to agents. In the meantime, I “accidentally” met the founder of University of Hell Press at AWP, Washington. I was looking over the books in their booth and said, kinda to myself, “Your authors are way cooler than me.” And the person setting up the booth, who happened to be the publisher, Greg Gerding, laughed and asked me what my book was about and I told him and he told me to send it to him. I did, thinking I wouldn’t hear from him.
In the interim, an agent responded to say that she ‘loved’ the writing but didn’t feel like she could sell Swarm Theory if it wasn’t in chronological order. So she asked me to rearrange the chapters in chronological order…which I thought was weird and counterintuitive but I did it because she is/was a good agent and I wanted my book to be published.
After a few months, Greg contacted me to say that his editor loved my book and that they wanted to publish it. I was floored and ecstatic but when his editor asked me if I’d worked on the book in the meantime, I said, “yes” and I sent her the chronologically-ordered book. She read it and emailed: WHAT DID YOU DO TO YOUR BOOK! MAKE IT THE WAY IT WAS!
I, of course, had kept the original and sent it to her.
KS: Goodness–what a story. YES! Thank you for all these gems. I, along with my participants, am curious: Can you tell us a little about your process in terms of the key takeaways or lessons you learned as a writer, that proved essential to the completion of the final, revised book? I can imagine the effort felt monumental. If there were significant “tricks” or “ah-hahs” that pulled you through, we want to hear about them.
CMR: I try like hell to outline but, alas, I am not an outliner. This fact makes me sad (not really) but it’s something I’ve learned to live with. Here’s what I do, though … Because the narratives I write move back and forth in time, I use timelines to make sure that I get the dates right. I tape or tack this timeline to the wall in my office, right next to my head, so I can look at it easily. I also fold a piece of printer paper in half and make lists of what I’ve established and what needs to happen (generally) in response to established scenes. In other words, every character and every scene should do their part holding up the overall narrative. Here are some photos of a few of those “visuals” I use.
KS: One thing I like to ask every writer I interview is they’ll share a “tiny moment” from their life with us. “Tiny moment” is the phrase I use for a moment/experience/millisecond in time that has stayed lodged i
n your memory. If you can, try to share what “before” or “after” were like for you, as you render this memorable moment and why you think it influenced you. It might be from childhood, it might be from your writing career, from your formative school years–you name it. What has stayed with you? Why do you think so? We want to hear about it.
CMR: So many tiny moments! Probably the most compelling memory is the time I found my Dad’s World War II scrapbook. I was probably in kindergarten because I remember finding it when unpacking a box, after we moved. I write about this moment in an essay published in StoryNews. Here’s an excerpt: “My dad served in World War II, arriving overseas in time to survive the Battle of the Bulge. It wasn’t something he talked about. Ever. But he had a black scrapbook that, miraculously, is now in my possession. As a child, I pored over the images. I looked at them, again, before writing this. They’re faded, but one page—tucked between the now-sepia pages of postcards—holds images he took. They’re taken from the vantage point of a young man, a GI, standing outside the open door of a room where many hundreds of human bodies have been stacked—carelessly, haphazardly, limbs sticking out at odd angles, heads thrown back, mouths open. Another shot, outside, shows impossibly long rows of mutilated bodies decomposing under a mean, low sky.
KS: One writer participating in my Monthly Mentorship program asked: “How did you get comfortable with the ‘white space’ that is inevitable in a novel that is a series of linked short stories? What were your expectations of the reader, in terms of connecting the dots and retaining information or remembering characters?”
CMR: Ah, the dreaded white space! This is an interesting question. I am completely (maybe too much) comfortable with ‘white space’ (maybe because I love that space in others’ work – where you have to fill in and be active in the story) but I think that this is where a good editor comes in. When my editor read the first draft, she had a series of questions for me, a number of things that needed to be further ‘linked.’ Sometimes you have to step back, let a trusted reader look at it, and then respond.
KS: Another Monthly Mentee asked, “So many of the chapters include trauma, violence, or emotionally wrought experiences that–to some readers–felt hard to read. Was weaving trauma into every character’s life an intentional decision, or perhaps part of an overall message you were trying to convey? Did you find it hard to write/stay in some of those traumatic moments on the page?”
CMR: I write what I need to know and understand about the character. This results in being unflinching on the page (when it isn’t gratuitous) and trusting that my readers won’t flinch either. I wish that we lived in a more Disney-like world. I did find it incredibly difficult to stay in those scenes (and considered taking them out more than once). The writing of those moments wasn’t an intentional decision but one that the characters’ lives dictated, one that helped explain how they react to the world and how the world, in turn, reacts to them. The events in my most recent novel are more subtle, less outwardly or physically traumatic … more emotionally traumatic. This new novel is shaping up to be a dark comedy. I guess I needed a break from the ugliness of the world too.
KS: Let’s end by celebrating the work of another author. Tell us about book(s) that recently rocked your world, and why.
CMR: Yes! So many books are rocking my world lately. I’ll be leaving so many out but here goes: The first is a book is the poetry collection, King Me, by Roger Reeves (Copper Canyon Press, 2013). It is brutally honest and the language is stunning. Next: ANYTHING by Jesmyn Ward because, you know, she is incredible. The third is Desiree Cooper’s short story collection Know the Mother (Wayne State University Press, 2016). I often use the stories from Cooper’s collection when I teach because she can pack so much emotion and nuance into a small amount of space. The Promise of Failure by John McNally (University of Iowa Press, 2018) is an invaluable source of inspiration for all writers, young and old. I also just finished Rita Dragonette’s Fourteenth of September (She Writes Press, 2018), about a co-ed trying to figure out the tumultuous years surrounding the Vietnam War and the first draft. Oh! And one more! Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s White Dancing Elephants (Dzanc, 2018) is a short story collection that will take you on multiple journeys – mentally and geographically. Did I say, “One more?” I didn’t mean that. I’ll mention a few of my colleagues whose work continues to resonate: Patricia Ann McNair’s essay collection And These Are the Good Times (Side Street Press, 2017), Shawn Shiflett’s novel Hey, Liberal! (Chicago Review Press, 2016), and Eric May’s novel Bedrock Faith (Akashic, 2014) are all books I go to again and again to study ‘how they did that,’ during those times when I’m stuck or just want a little inspiration.