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Feeling the Need

Writers turned editors Kevin Rabalais and Jennifer Levasseur offer secrets to literary success with their new book of writer interviews, Novel Voices.


"Essentially, writing is a gift; some people have it, and some people don't."

-- Valerie Martin

That's one writer's opinion, and, like a political pundit's thoughts on the war, it will have its share of supporters and dissenters. There are few absolutes in the art of creative fiction. Everything is open to conjecture, and this becomes strikingly apparent when speaking to the writers themselves. Young writers seeking an illustrious "writer's path" will find many maps and guides -- some going in opposite directions.

This need for direction prompted two such young writers, Jennifer Levasseur and Kevin Rabalais, to begin a series of interviews with a number of renowned novelists. The results of their interviews and tireless research are contained in Novel Voices: 17 Award-Winning Novelists on How to Write, Edit, and Get Published. However, if you think this is a step-by-step blueprint for instant success in the publishing world, look elsewhere. While Levasseur and Rabalais as editors focus their questions on such subjects as: editing, research, advice for beginning writers, and point of view, the answers often contrast. For instance, Carrie Brown, discussing character development, says, "some characters lean over my shoulder and breathe heavily in my ear and try to tell me what to do, because that's the kind of people they are." Richard Ford couldn't disagree more: "But they don't talk to me. They don't tell me what to do. ... Authorship means I authorize everything."

And yet, both methods work. Brown listens to the voices in her head and produces the critically acclaimed The Hatbox Baby, and the authoritative Ford wins a Pulitzer Prize. Therein lies the point: Success for writers depends on discovering what works best for them. The value of this book lies in its ability to present a number of alternatives and the process behind each author's methodology. What Levasseur and Rabalais have done is create their own creative-writing class with guest lecturers such as Ernest J. Gaines, Elizabeth McCracken, Charles Baxter and Tim Gautreaux.

"We hope each interview works as a good writing workshop," Rabalais says. "In workshops that we were in, we would leave after a good day wanting to go home and hit the desk. That's the effect we want."

Or, as Levasseur explains, "We wanted to choose authors with the vocabulary to talk to young writers; people who knew what angle to approach the subject from, and had thought about the process."

Their choices are admirable. The interviews are insightful, the authors candid in their responses. It's heartening for someone suffering through the challenge of writing in the third person to know the reason that Ann Patchett wrote The Patron Saint of Liars in multiple first-person sections, "was born out of weakness and inability." The writers have been there and continue to be. Prolific as they might be, there are still days like the one the late Andre Dubus experienced the day of his interview: "I wrote only 19 words today, and I don't even know what the characters are doing in this story I'm writing."

The one aspect of writing that the interview subjects can agree upon is the sheer amount of hard work it entails. Charles Johnson, a National Book Award winner, wrote six unpublished "apprentice novels," spends years on a single novel, and once "threw away 2,400 pages ... to arrive at the final manuscript of approximately 250." Elizabeth McCracken, invoking the procrastinator in all of us, will pace the room for an hour saying, "I don't want to do this," and then might write for 16 hours straight.

Levasseur and Rabalais are no strangers to this; the book began while both were undergraduates at Loyola University in 1998 and completed in September of 2002. A simple independent study with professor and esteemed local author John Biguenet became an intense educational effort for the aspiring writers in which Levasseur and Rabalais read the proposed author's entire body of work and then prepared questions. After the interview, Rabalais would transcribe the conversation and the two would set about editing and re-editing the work. During this endeavor, they also managed to graduate from Loyola, earn master's degrees from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and Levasseur even wrote and published an excerpt of a novel.

As Novel Voices establishes, writing creative fiction is no simple task. The hours are long and lonely, much of your work is thrown away, and there is the endless stream of rejections. What is it that makes an artist persevere and carry on despite the road hazards? Perhaps it is as basic as Melanie Rae Thon offers: "I'm not thinking, I want to publish a story. I'm thinking, I need to understand this. If I'm going to live in the world, I need to understand."

Success for writers depends on discovering what - works best for them, and Novel Voices provides - writers with alternatives and the process behind the - methodology.
  • Success for writers depends on discovering what works best for them, and Novel Voices provides writers with alternatives and the process behind the methodology.

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