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Focus on the Work, Advises Fox

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 Days of Awe by Lauren Fox

Focus on the Work, Advises Fox
An Authorlink interview By Columnist Ellen Birkett Morris

October 1, 2015

 


Days of Awe
by Lauren Fox

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AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a writer – degrees, jobs, workshops, writing groups, classes, and mentors that helped you along the way.

FOX: I like the idea that the years of rejection and simmering misery were actually my apprenticeship!  I graduated from the University of Wisconsin- Madison with a degree in English and creative writing, then took a year off and worked and wrote… then I applied to MFA programs, but I didn’t get in anywhere.  I managed to dust off my pride reapply the next year, and I ended up at the University of Minnesota.  The years I spent earning my MFA really do feel like my most formative ones as a writer.  More than anything, they gave me the time and space to write, to practice, and to fail.  More and more I’ve been thinking that that is the key to becoming a writer – that failure and rejection are just integral to it all.  It doesn’t feel productive or important at the time, of course! The writers I met in those workshops are still some of my best friends and wisest critique partners.

“Days of Awe began with a feeling, a pervasive sadness and the inkling that I needed to write about it.”
—FOX

AUTHORLINK: Where do stories begin for you? Character? Plot? Image? First line? 

FOX: This is a great question, and I think the answer has been different for each of my novels.  Days of Awe began with a feeling, a pervasive sadness and the inkling that I needed to write about it, to turn it into fiction, to make my way through it.  Still Life with Husband began with an article I read about “starter marriages,” the phenomenon that young people in their late twenties were marrying, then splitting up after a few years, and that these were almost like training marriages before the real ones that would, presumably, last a lifetime.  That idea sparked something in me.  Friends Like Us began with ideas and stories from my own life that had been whirling around in my brain nonstop for several years, and that I could only write about with about twenty years of rumination and perspective.

AUTHORLINK: This is your third novel. Has anything changed in your process or approach as you have gotten more experienced or is each foray into a novel equally challenging?

FOX: Because I have written each novel at different moments in my life, each has come with a different set of challenges — at first those challenges were about confidence, and starting down a path that was so uncertain;  lately they’re more about time and chaos and distractions (good distractions, but distractions nonetheless).  I quit my job in order to finish Still Life with Husband, around twelve or thirteen years ago. That felt like taking a dive into something unknown and scary, but it was something I’d wanted to fully commit to for such a long time.  It’s different now, but I think I will always feel like I’m free falling as I approach the next novel.  

AUTHORLINK: How did the premise of DAYS OF AWE develop?

FOX: I alluded to this in my answer to the second question.  A few years ago, I experienced a deep and deeply personal loss in my life, and I was undone by it.  I felt this little glimmer in the midst of a lot of darkness — that the way I could begin to understand it (not get over it, just comprehend it) was to write about it.  Days of Awe is a novel; it’s not a memoir, and the story doesn’t mirror mine.  But as with all novels, there is that singular truth behind it.

“I think Isabel begins to figure out that even in darkness there are moments of light . . .”
FOX

AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about the title. You reference it twice, the Jewish ritual and Isabel’s experience (”the days were finite, full of awe” p.243).

FOX: It’s twofold.  The Days of Awe are the ten days between the Jewish High Holidays, and they are meant to be a time of introspection and repentance, a time when you think about the way you’ve lived the past year of your life, ask forgiveness of those you’ve wronged, and try to figure out how to get it right in the coming year.  I felt like that touched on Isabel’s feelings of guilt and culpability in terms of her friendship with Josie and of Josie’s death, and also it obviously refers to the themes of Jewishness and Jewish history in the book.  I also love the literalness of those words;  I think Isabel begins to figure out that even in darkness there are moments of light — not necessarily that those moments of light will rescue you, but that they deserve attention, too.

AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about your choice to tell the story from Isabel’s POV.

FOX: At the beginning, I played around with different points of view – I wrote a little bit in third person, thinking maybe some distance would work well in writing a novel about such intimate grief.  But in the end I came back to Isabel, because I am attracted to the immediacy of first person, and also because it was a good way to show that there was so much she didn’t know about Josie, so much to uncover after she died.  First person felt like the right way to pinpoint her discoveries.

AUTHORLINK: This book really gets into the ways that grief can echo through someone’s life and have an impact in unexpected areas. How much of this had you planned (outlined) and how much emerged through the writing.

FOX: I am a disciplined outliner.  An outline before I start writing is my security blanket.  I can always deviate from it if I want to, but knowing it’s there helps me not go completely off the rails.  So, what maybe seems unexpected in the novel was pretty carefully thought out ahead of time. 

AUTHORLINK: Was there a point in the story where you surprised yourself?  

FOX: I wasn’t completely sure if Isabel and Chris would get back together.  They still loved each other.  And their marriage was never that wrong; it just wasn’t right anymore.  Early on, I thought maybe they would reconcile.  And then there was a moment: it’s when Isabel is lying on the couch, and Hannah asks to play a game with her.  She can’t rouse herself from her misery to be a better mother to her daughter, and Chris comes into the room, arms folded, judgmental, and demands to know when she will snap out of it.  Chris is not wrong, and Isabel isn’t behaving very well, but that’s when I knew they wouldn’t come back together.  And that did surprise me.

“This book wasn’t easy to write, but there was a sense of urgency about it all the way through.”
FOX

AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing DAYS OF AWE and how did you overcome them?

FOX: This book wasn’t easy to write, but there was a sense of urgency about it all the way through.  So, it’s not that there weren’t challenges – there always are, and usually that challenge is my own laziness or distractibility or my desire to do anything else but write — but, honestly, there were no huge obstacles that I had to overcome.  Nothing monumental.

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your research for this book.

FOX: Research, when you’re writing a contemporary novel that is more about relationships and psychological complexities than anything else, isn’t exactly research — it’s taking notes, and listening, and daydreaming, and taking more notes, and… you get the drift.  I’ve always wanted to write a really juicy historical novel, and the idea of doing intense research is both terrifying and compelling to me.  But Days of Awe is not that kind of novel, so my “research” was more of the living-in-the-world-and-thinking-like-a-writer kind. 

AUTHORLINK: Talk about the process of revision for this novel. Who was your editor and what was it like working with her? How many revisions did you do and what was your main focus when making changes?

FOX: Jenny Jackson at Knopf is my editor, and the depth of my affection for her is embarrassing, so I’ll try to tone it down here.  I had a creative writing teacher in college who said, “write for an audience of one person, and that one person is exactly like you, only smarter.”  Jenny maybe isn’t exactly like me, but we share the same vision, and she’s definitely smarter.  Anyway, I don’t know if I can say how many revisions I did, because when you work closely with an editor, there is so much back-and-forth, and revision is as constant and continual as writing.  I think one of my main focuses was working through the complicated structure of the novel and making sure the timeline remained accurate and steady – because there are lots of flashbacks and some flashbacks-within-flashbacks.  Things could get dicey unless we were paying very close attention.

AUTHORLINK: Are there particular habits that you would encourage writers to cultivate – habits of the mind or attitude or work habits?   

FOX: I just gave a little talk at my local library that was geared toward young, aspiring writers, and as I was writing the speech, one of the things that seemed most important to me was to pay attention to the world — to put down your phone and look up.  I’m guilty of this myself, of course; probably we all are.  But I sometimes wonder what writers will be like in ten years, what writing will be like, because it often seems like nobody is really paying attention to the world around them.  

AUTHORLINK: Who is your agent? How did you connect with your agent? Any tips for selecting the right agent?

FOX: Julie Barer is my agent.  She took me on about ten years ago, after having had the patience to read past the first, crappy fifty pages of Still Life with Husband that ended up on the cutting room floor.  My only tip for selecting the right agent is to make sure there is magic there.  You work so closely with your agent — they really pull double duty as editors and agents.  Julie and I worked together for six intense months on revising the manuscript of Still Life with Husband before it was ready to be sent to publishers. I adore her and trust her and felt immediately that we would work well together, that she had insights into what I was trying to do in my fiction that even I couldn’t quite grasp, and also, always, that she has my best interests at heart.  Find that. That’s my best advice!

AUTHORLINK: Advice to new writers on staying encouraged and focused on the right things?

FOX: It’s so hard to keep from becoming discouraged.  I often think about the Samuel Beckett quote:  “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”  Nobody sails through a writing life with 100% success and accolades.  I just think it’s crucial to minimize the noise, by which I mean your own ideas about success, as well as the rejections, which are inevitable.  The thing is to focus on the work, which is what you are compelled to do.  I guess that’s less advice and more of a mandate.  Just keep reminding yourself that the work is what matters.

AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on next. 

FOX: I’m working on my next novel, but it’s still so early, still germinating, that I can’t talk about it.  I learned the hard way not to discuss what I’m working on, because that somehow petrifies it.  I’ve been writing some essays, too – I just finished some guest blog posts for the Jewish Book Council.

About the Author

Lauren Fox is the author of Still Life with Husband and Friends Like Us. She earned her MFA from the University of Minnesota in 1998, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, Marie Claire, Psychology Today, Glamour and Salon. She lives in Milwaukee with her husband and two daughters. 

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning journalist whose interviews and reviews have appeared in Authorlink, Prairie Schooner Online, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and reprinted in the reader’s guides to The Receptionist and Clever Girl. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Antioch Review, South Caroline Review and Notre Dame Review. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink.