Segal Explores Complex Family Life in The Awkward Age
An exclusive Authorlink interview
By Columnist Ellen Birkett Morris
The Awkward Age
by Francesca Segal
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In her second novel, The Awkward Age, author Francesca Segal takes on the complex work of blended families and adds a fascinating twist—love between step-siblings. Julia and James are newly married and worried about blending their families. Julia’s daughter Gwen and James’s son Nathan go from mutual hatred to attraction and the ups and downs of their relationship send the whole family reeling. Segal discusses the origin of the book, following the truth of her characters and why publishing success has no timeline.
AUTHORLINK: James Dickey said the idea for Deliverance came to him as a vision of a man standing alone on top of a mountain. Where did The Awkward Age begin for you? Character? Voice? Plot? Image? First line?
SEGAL: I read an article about stepsiblings in love, which exploded whatever my preconceptions might have been. One’s brain starts screaming INCEST! JERRY SPRINGER! But one quickly realizes that actually, lots of stepsiblings first meet in their mid-teens when they are not only filled with their own destabilizing hormones but also feeling discombobulated and unsettled and resentful at their parents’ new lives. Then they’re thrust upon one another with minimal supervision and commanded to be nice, and it suddenly seemed surprising to me that it didn’t happen more often. That article made me think about the parents, in such situations. Building a new life with a second partner, and along come their own children in a kamikaze plane.
AUTHORLINK: The desire to write a novel often begins with a question. What question were you hoping to answer with this novel?
SEGAL: I was interested in the tension between personhood and parenthood. Is there a statute of limitations on maternal self-sacrifice?
AUTHORLINK: Which writers do you consider your influences?
SEGAL: Influences sounds very grand, but my most beloved writers are AS Byatt, Edward St Aubyn, Nick Hornby, Barbara Trapido, Rosamond Lehmann.
AUTHORLINK: The central dilemma of the story is the role their children play in complicating Julia and James’s relationship. Could this story be set in another time period or is this only possible in the modern age of guilt-ridden, indulgent parenting?
SEGAL: That is such a fascinating question – I rather suspect that in another generation they (the children) might have been considered substantially less. I leave it to the reader to decide whether it would have been right, or not, but I think they would have certainly been offered less of say in household affairs, in previous generations.
AUTHORLINK: You give us complete and interesting portraits of the different characters here. What did you do in terms of structure, pov and other things to make sure we had a full look at each of these characters?
SEGAL: Thank you so much. I’m afraid I don’t have a great technique to offer here, only that I am interested in hearing all sides of the story, and so I move between them instinctively.
AUTHORLINK: Tell me about the four part structure and the choice to divide the story this way. What does each section represent?
SEGAL: I broke the book where it felt right – I’m not sure that’s a very interesting answer! I broke it where I sensed the sea change.
AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing The Awkward Age and how did you overcome them?
SEGAL: I think the greatest challenges were ensuring that everyone did what they would do, not what I wanted them to do. Planning a novel and executing a novel are not quite the same – once I knew the characters better, some of the fates I had intended for them no longer held psychological truth. So they had to do what they would do, and my plans went in the trash.
AUTHORLINK: Talk about the process of revision. What was it like working with your editor? How many revisions did you do and what was your main focus when making changes? Advice on revision for apprentice writers?
SEGAL: My best advice on revision for apprentice writers is not only to see it as part of the process, but to see it as the process. Very few writers pour forth flawless final copy. Occasionally, in moments of grand passion, I will write a passage or a chapter that appears unaltered in a novel but even then I’ll have filleted it for word repetitions, and egregious adverbs. And most of my writing has been through numerous versions. I read and reread and reread and I don’t let go until I am happy with every sentence. Great screeds of writing go in the trash – waste is another thing not to fear.
AUTHORLINK: What advice would you offer to apprentice writers on honing their skills? On staying focused? Staying encouraged?
SEGAL: For honing skills there is nothing better than to take your reading seriously as part of your writing. If you can consume two novels a week, snatched in any moment you can find – say, one contemporary novel and one from the Canon (whichever Canon you subscribe to) you’ll be substantially better a year later. It’s hard and time consuming, but so is writing.
In terms of staying encouraged, it’s so hard to hear when all one wants is to have ‘made it’ already but there is really no rush, with writing – luckily, it’s not like tennis, peaking at 14. We should all get better and better deep into our old age, until frailty and senility undo it all. There is no shame, and indeed there is no little wisdom, in a first publication at fifty.
AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.
SEGAL: I’m in the process of planning and building a quartet of novels – which is pure pleasure, and exhilarating terror.
|About the Author||
Francesca Segal is an award-winning writer and journalist. Her first novel, The Innocents, won the Costa First Novel Award, the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction, the Sami Rohr Prize, and a Betty Trask Award, and was long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize).
For more information see: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/537682/the-awkward-age-by-francesca-segal/9780399576454/
|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.|