Their Souls in Letters – An Interview with Carlene Bauer

February 26, 2013
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Frances and Bernard cover
Frances and Bernard
by Carlene Bauer

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An Exclusive Authorlink Interview with Carlene Bauer,
Author of Frances and Bernard

By Diane Slocum

 

In Carlene Bauer's debut novel, Frances and Bernard meet at an artists’ colony. Though very different in temperament, they continue their friendship through letters and occasional visits. They discuss their faith, their families and their feelings. As the intensity of their relationship grows, from 1957 to 1968, and their writing careers develop, so does the difficulty in maintaining their lives and their sanity.

“ I'd been writing a version of the book that was told in third-person omniscient, and it was feeling flat.”
—BAUER

AUTHORLINK: How did you decide to write the book using letters from the characters as the entire format? Did you start it out that way?

BAUER: I'd been writing a version of the book that was told in third-person omniscient, and it was feeling flat. I took a break from it, and then in that break got the idea to try writing it as an epistolary novel. I've always loved books of letters, but at that time had been particularly taken with Words Into Air, a collection of letters between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. I was intrigued by the relationship playing out between a great effuser (Lowell) and a vehemently private person (Bishop), and started wondering what it would be like if those personalities had to negotiate a romance. It was kind of answering the question that made me want to write the novel in the first place, since Lowell and (Flannery) O'Connor played those roles with each other, too, but there is very little correspondence between them. So it was this book that crystallized my decision to shift modes. It seemed to me that the format of letters would allow me to cut out what was making the book drag–feeling bound to a certain amount of expository prose and psychologizing–and get right to the heart of the matter. Once I made that decision the book took off! I don't want to say it wrote itself, but the writing did come quicker. I was relieved.

AUTHORLINK: Did you imagine the scenes as they played out before writing the letters or did you see them originally as letters?

BAUER: A little of both. Some scenes I knew had to happen, and had them noted in an outline I made for the book's dramatic development. Some of them came up during the composition of a letter.

“I did draw on a number different relationships or situations I'd been in, ones that never did turn into anything lasting.”
—BAUER

AUTHORLINK: Is the tenuous relationship between Frances and Bernard based on someone? Who and in what way?

BAUER: No, not anyone in particular. But I did draw on a number different relationships or situations I'd been in, ones that never did turn into anything lasting– whether for reasons of timing, lack of will, fear, miscommunication, or the shortsightedness of youth. I think many of us, if not all of us, have at least one relationship like that, as Lowell said, might have been, whether it's a romantic relationship or friendship.

AUTHORLINK: Why did you set it in the 1950-60s? How did you capture that era?

BAUER: I set it in that era because I thought had to, if I were going to play with the spirits of Lowell and O'Connor. I now wonder if I shouldn't have been braver and set it in the present! I'd read a lot about the literary scene in the 50s and 60s–the Partisan Review crowd–over the years, so had that to draw on. And my grandparents and parents and aunts lived through that era, so I drew on family memories for extra color. Also, I'm not going to lie–knowing that those who lived through the era have thought Mad Men a pretty accurate reflection of the mores of the time made me feel like I knew a little something about the time from being an obsessive watcher of the show. I think Peggy and Frances would have gotten along quite well.

AUTHORLINK: Did you have difficulty convincing an agent (or editor) that a book full of letters would work? How did you query?

BAUER: After starting this book, my previous agent told me she was leaving the field. So I went looking for a new agent with 60 pages of the book in hand. An editor friend gave me the name of an agent, I sent her the book so far, and she said that she thought a colleague of hers might be a better fit. He saw the 60 pages and was enthusiastic. Though I didn't have difficulty convincing him that a book full of letters would work, we did discuss, before he signed me, the possible pitfalls of a book like this, some of the pitfalls being that the form may keep the reader at arm's length, and the action could stall. So I wrote the rest of the book always conscious of needing to balance action with contemplation.

“My sense is also that if the novel is good enough, agents will want it, no matter what has come before.”
—BAUER

AUTHORLINK: How much did having a published memoir help you sell your novel to a publisher? Do you think writers trying to sell a first novel should get other publishing credits first?

BAUER: My sense is that it didn't help, because I was writing in another genre. My sense is also that if the novel is good enough, agents will want it, no matter what has come before. I think having published short stories before the novel in solid journals does seem to help.

AUTHORLINK: How would you encourage writers with unusual techniques who might often be told “you can’t do it that way?”

BAUER: I would tell them to keep doing what they're doing, and just make sure to get feedback from readers you trust to make sure they think that you're pulling off whatever you hope to be pulling off. I'd say to turn those voices off while you're writing, and then let feedback, if you feel it's right, guide you. And then send it to publishers.

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?

BAUER: I'm working on another novel that may or may not have to do with female friendship, and music fandom. I'm still waiting to see whether it's going to take solid shape!

About Carlene Bauer:

Bauer’s memoir is Not That Kind of Girl. Her work has appeared in the New York Timesand Elle. She lives in Brooklyn.

Diane Slocum
About
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.

 

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This post was written by Diane Slocum