Y cover
by Marjorie Celona

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An Authorlink Interview with Marjorie Celona

A baby is abandoned on the doorstep of the YMCA. She becomes Shannon as she passes through foster homes where she is sometimes abused or neglected. Her life turns for the better when she is adopted by Miranda, a single mother raising another daughter. But she still never quite feels as if she fits in. Something is missing. And that is the answer to who her mother is. Why was she left at the Y? Shannon’s restlessness and search for identity make her a troubling enigma to herself and her family. Yula’s own twisted story is woven into Shannon’s leading to that fateful moment at the Y.

“Well, I thought I'd discovered some kind of secret code. . .—”

AUTHORLINK: A title is not often a single letter. How did you decide to go with “Y”?

CELONA: Well, I thought I’d discovered some kind of secret code—I was interning at a literary magazine and noticed, for whatever reason, that an inordinate number of stories they published started with a word that began with Y. It was a weird pattern, a weird coincidence. I fixated on it. Sometimes, I think, when we get things right, they’re right right away, with little or no conscious thought.

AUTHORLINK: How did you get interested in a story about an abandoned baby?

CELONA: Not sure. I have trouble explaining where my ideas come from—they’re either there or they’re not. I knew very little about foundlings, or foster care, or adoption when I started Y and yet they’re topics that interest me. Maybe it’s just that: a combination of noticing those literary-magazine Y’s, which led to a first line (“My life begins at the Y”), and a latent interest in what happens to a little baby when he or she is left behind.

AUTHORLINK: Why do you use Shannon as the narrator, even in scenes she wouldn’t be aware of? For example, the first scenes are more or less from Vaughn’s viewpoint, but Yula is referred to as “my mother.”

CELONA: And by “more or less” from Vaughn’s viewpoint, you mean the first scenes aren’t from Vaughn’s viewpoint at all—all of Y is narrated by Shannon, even the deepest thoughts, desires, and observations of other characters. It’s her story. She wanted to tell the whole thing.

AUTHORLINK: Did agents or editors ever object to the many layers of chronology? For instance, Chapter I gets Shannon from birth to about three years old. Chapter II goes back to when she’s about to be born, then to five days before her birth, then back to how Yula’s parents met.

“I printed out the entire thing and taped it up around my bedroom, then sort of stitched it back together . . .”

CELONA: No one objected except me. I found my novel horribly confusing (in an early draft, I even explored Shannon’s grandfather’s childhood) and so I printed out the entire thing and taped it up around my bedroom, then sort of stitched it back together into something that made sense. So: Shannon’s storyline is fairly straightforward chronologically—from birth to age 17; Yula’s is a five-day countdown to Shannon’s birth with a few extended flashbacks here and there.

AUTHORLINK: How did you put the story together? How much of the story did you know before you started writing?

CELONA: The year I wrote Y, I was on this blissful writing fellowship that only required me to teach one class. So I’d work on Shannon’s storyline one day, teach the next, then work on Yula’s storyline, then teach, work on Shannon’s, teach, Yula’s, etc. I wove the storylines together as I wrote them—though after I finished the first draft I had to print it out and reassemble it as I said above. I knew I wanted Shannon to find her mom, but I knew nothing about Yula—who she was, where she was. All of that was as much a mystery to me as it was to Shannon.

AUTHORLINK: Did Shannon develop as you expected her to, or did she sometimes surprise you?

CELONA: Shannon always surprised me. I’ve never had a character’s voice be so loud in my head. She’s the most real character I’ve ever written—and by ‘real’ I mean that I still expect her to show up at my door, demanding to know why I’ve told her story, what right I had to do so, etc.

AUTHORLINK: Did your published short stories help you to find an agent who would look at your first novel?

CELONA: I had maybe 15 or so stories by the time I graduated from Iowa. I sent these to many agents, thinking I’d publish a collection first. When my agent took me on she urged me to debut with a novel. I asked her if she could be patient, and she said she could, and so she was my agent for years before Y was finished.

AUTHORLINK: What advice would you give someone trying to sell a first novel?

“. . . we’re all blind when it comes to our work. Get some feedback.”

CELONA: Well, that’s the hardest part—writing it—so if it’s already written and ready to be sold, write some nice query letters to agents and see what happens. It’s pretty easy to find out who represents whom, so, you know, query agents who like work like yours. First, though, give it to a few people who are better writers than you are; I mean, we’re all blind when it comes to our work. Get some feedback.

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?

CELONA: A novel about two boys who play a near-fatal prank on their father. And what happens next.

About Marjorie Celona:

Celona was born and raised on Vancouver Island where Y takes place. She received her MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop. Her short stories have been published in Glimmer Train and Harvard Review. She lives in Cincinnati.

Diane Slocum
Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum

Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.