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Sena Jeter Naslund’s Wide Ranging Novel Explores Modern Debates about Religion and Science

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Naslund’s Wide Ranging Novel Explores
Modern Debates about Religion and Science An exclusive Authorlink interview
with Sena Jeter Naslund
author of Adam & Eve

By Ellen Birkett Morris
February 2011

Adam and Eve cover
Adam & Eve
by Sena Jeter Naslund

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Sena Jeter Naslund has always been drawn to the arts. In high school she played cello with the Alabama Pops Orchestra. She won a music scholarship to the University of Alabama but turned it down in favor of studying writing at Birmingham-Southern College.

She is a graduate of Birmingham-Southern College and the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa where she received her MA and PhD degrees in creative writing.

“‘A writer writes.’ It is as simple as that . . .”
—
NASLUND

“I studied writing in college and went to the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, so I was on track to becoming a writer with those very definite choices and moves. But I also grew up believing what my mother said to me, ‘A writer writes.’ It is as simple as that,” said Naslund.

She admits she did not really begin to think of herself as a writer until after she published her third book. By then, writing novels “seemed less a matter of luck and more something I could repeat at will.”

Naslund spent many years teaching full time and finding time to write. Now her focus is on her writing, although she still teaches. She is currently Writer in Residence at the University of Louisville , program director of the Spalding University brief-residency MFA in Writing, and a former Kentucky Poet Laureate. She is also the editor of The Louisville Review and the Fleur-de-Lis Press (both of which she founded in 1976).

Naslund read novels growing up and loved the expansiveness of the form. She wanted to write a novel and tried to learn how toward the end of her graduate study by writing longer short stories. Then she wrote a series of related stories that could be arranged chronologically. That became her book The Animal Way to Love.

“I didn’t make the transition from being a short story writer to a novelist for quite some time.”
—NASLUND

 

 

 

 

 

“At Iowa I was trying to write a novel but I didn’t make the transition from being a short story writer to a novelist for quite some time. It was a difficult transition for me. . . It was the long reach of the plot line that I found especially elusive,” said Naslund.

She wrote Sherlock in Love, a novel with “some genre trappings,” that explored the character’s love of music as it represented his emotional side in hopes that her engagement with the topic might keep her from “freezing up” as she took on the challenges of the form.

“I learned how to write a novel by writing a novel for fun, finally, with the Sherlock Holmes material,” said Naslund. That book, Sherlock in Love, was published in 1993.

Her work includes Ahab's Wife, Four Spirits, Abundance, and two collections of stories: Ice Skating at the North Pole (1989) and The Disobedience of Water (1997).

Her latest novel, Adam & Eve, looks at fundamentalist religious views against the backdrop of two discoveries, one involving the discovery of extraterrestrial life and the other an alternate version of Genesis, with the potential to transform modern thinking about our origins and place in the universe. Those discoveries are safeguarded by Lucy Bergmann, an art therapist whose husband, an astrophysicist, is murdered under mysterious circumstances.

Naslund was partly inspired by the conflict between a literal interpretation of the bible and evolution. Her novel also explores the human drive for artistic expression and the impact of scientific and historical discoveries on belief systems.

The story takes Lucy across the world to the site of the discovery of the Gnostic gospels in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, where she is given a black case full of ancient texts to safeguard, to a lush oasis in the Middle East, where she meets a modern day Adam, to caves in the south of France, which is the site of a chase scene.

Her research included reading in astrophysics, biblical scholarship and the cave paintings. She visited Egypt and the cave paintings in the south of France at Peche Merle.

The book is set in the year 2020, although Naslund sees the book not as science fiction but as “the projection of real science according to the expectations of astrophysicists.”

She admits the book is a much more risky book than her other works, describing it as part murder mystery, part thriller, part romance and part fantasy in which she takes those standard forms and subverts them.

Her greatest challenge in writing the novel was her aversion to high plot action, which diverts attention from her characters’ inner lives.

“There are some fairly big actions in this plot. I just tried to put myself in the moment and imagine the details of those big actions so they wouldn’t seem generic . . . I tried to particularize the big set piece actions,” said Naslund.

She also worked to establish subtleties in the character before placing them in the action so the reader gets a feel for the character’s particular reactions and responses to the action.

She wrote the book in three years. Naslund’s writing habits vary depending on the project and the level of inspiration she is feeling.

“There have been long periods in my life when I haven’t written at all.”
—NASLUND

 

 

 

 

 

“There have been long periods in my life when I haven’t written at all. Even when I am writing a long project I often miss some days or even weeks or months because I am busy doing other things,” said Naslund.

She is attentive to the muse and tries to take full advantage of moments of inspiration.

“Inspiration comes at the most inconvenient times, usually when you are dead tired and you want to sleep. My advice to any writer when an idea comes is to grab it and start writing the thing itself, not to take notes on what you are thinking but actually to begin the writing process and to continue it as long as you can. Then when you come back to the material you can reread what you wrote, get on the same pitch with it, you’ll gather momentum and you’ll be able to continue with the writing,” advised Naslund.

When inspiration is absent, she employs discipline.

While writing Sherlock in Love, while on sabbatical, Naslund wrote six hours a day or ten pages, which ever came first, five days a week.

“Be kind to yourself about the effort you are making. When you are working from discipline you say ‘I did it. I wrote a sentence. Good, Now another,’ said Naslund.

She finds beginnings of books the hardest part to write and she tends to revise them again and again. She has rewritten the opening of her next book, The Fountain of Saint James Court, at least 60 times, each time thinking she has nailed it only to find that the next morning that it isn’t quite what she is seeking.

When revising entire drafts she employs a set of trusted readers, friends who are writers, and revises the book totally three of four times before sending it on to her agent Joy Harris.

She worked with two editors at William Morrow, Marjorie Braman and Jennifer Brehl to shape Adam & Eve.

Working with Brehl, Naslund cut 85 pages that offered background on the life of the character Adam.

“The structure was improved . . . books evolve. They change shape,” said Naslund.

She advises writers who want to write and never make time for it to enroll in a class, which will force them to meet deadlines.

When seeking publication, Naslund suggests sending work to journals that publish stories that are like your work. One way to do this is to read anthologies, which compile stories from a variety of magazines, and see if any of the stories include are similar to your own. Years ago, she placed a story in the Paris Review using this method.

“One of the things I ask is does this book need to be written.”
—NASLUND

 

 

 

 

 

For aspiring novelists, she suggests following your muse and surveying the literary landscape.

“I have a lot of ideas and I don’t write all the books. One of the things I ask is does this book need to be written. I ask is there a gap in the literary landscape that needs to be filled,” observed Naslund.

About Sena Jeter Naslund

Sena Jeter Naslund is the author of the novels Sherlock in Love (1993), The Animal Way to Love (1993), Ahab's Wife (1999), Four Spirits (2003), Abundance (2006), Adam and Eve (2010); and two collections of stories: Ice Skating at the North Pole (1989) and The Disobedience of Water (1997).

Her fiction has been published in many journals including The Paris Review, The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review (where she won the Lawrence Prize in fiction), The Indiana Review, and The Alaska Quarterly Review. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and the Kentucky Arts Council, and has won the Harper Lee Award and the Southeastern Library Association Fiction Award.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.