Final Day, Interview with Ginnah Howard

August 10, 2009 by  
Filed under Books

ginnahNYTLasnightnavigationcovert month, we saluted Ginnah Howard when her novel Night Navigation was featured in the New York Times Book Review. Now, we have the opportunity to salute Ms. Howard again — and to thank her  for responding in such length to questions about her novel and herself.

We’ve been sharing that conversation over four days. In today’s final installment, Ginnah talks about her mixed feelings about the honor of the Times review of Night Navigation, and her hope that readers will have a more nuanced response.

What was it like for you to see your first published book, Night Navigation, reviewed in The New York Times Book Review?

Since I graduated from college, one of the highlights of the week has been going out on a Sunday morning to get The New York Times, to spend most of that whole day curled up with The Book Review, the news of the Week in Review, Arts & Leisure, the magazine…so it was a special thrill to learn that Night Navigation would be reviewed on July 5. Who would review it? How much space would it be given? Would it appear in the first half of the Review? And, of course the main concern: Would it be basically positive, with no “kisses of death?” “We don’t know,” the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publicity Manager said.

Of course it is a great streak of good fortune to have my first published novel reviewed in the Times, to have it be considered a positive “take” on the book, to have my picture included, to be on page 13. Further, the next week, to have Night Navigation be picked as one of the Editor’s Choice books. Beyond the pleasure that such recognition brings, beyond the fact that this recognition is likely to improve sales and, perhaps, add some energy to the chances that Rope & Bone may more easily find a publisher in the fall, there has been the joy of hearing from writers I’d met in workshops and residencies these last 20 years, but whom I’d lost track of over time [because of] changed addresses and emails.

All of that said, I must add that I was disturbed by the reviewer’s “angle”: that the mother in Night Navigation was as addicted to enabling as the son was to heroin. “Mark’s mother’s drug of choice is the drama her son brings to her life. She can’t resist the urge…to indulge in ‘supermom’ exploits.” That’s a conclusion that a careful reading of the novel would negate.

NAMI-30years2cAs a longtime member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), I was moved to voice a protest in the form of a Letter to the Editor which may or may not be published. I wanted to speak up for the many parents in this country who have adult children with the co-occurring disorders of both mental illness and substance abuse, especially where suicide is part of a family’s history. When to let go and when to hold on becomes very complicated under those circumstances. These families need no additional drama in their lives. Readers who’d like to see a full copy of this letter can contact me through my Web site.


The Full Dream: Interview with Ginnah Howard, Part Three

August 9, 2009 by  
Filed under Books

ginnahNYTLasnightnavigationcovert month, we saluted Ginnah Howard when her novel Night Navigation was featured in the New York Times Book Review. Now we have the opportunity to salute Ms. Howard again — and to thank her for responding in such length to questions about her novel and herself.

We’ve been sharing that conversation over four days. In today’s installment, Ginnah continues her precis of the sweeping, ambitious trilogy of which Night Navigation will be the central core.

Would you mind telling us about your work so far on the other two books of the trilogy?

Night Navigation opens in March 2002, on a black-ice night in upstate New York. Through the four seasons, this novel focuses on what is left of the Merrick family after the suicide of the father and the younger son. The novel follows the losses and gains of the remaining son, Mark, who has a bipolar disorder and who, throughout that year, is in and out of treatment for a heroin addiction, and his artist mother, Del, who anxiously tries to help him with the hope that once and for all she can let go. Though this sounds like a bleak tale indeed, many readers have stated that the buoyancy of the language has lifted much of the darkness  (see the Amazon and Bookbrowse reviews.)

Book 1, Rope & Bone, focuses on Del Merrick and Carla Morletti, and their families. The novel is made up of 34 linked stories covering the years from 1955 to 1993. Many of the stories concentrate on the friendship between Carla and Del―their misadventures as they try to raise their kids, get their old cars started on subzero mornings, and put in enough wood to get through to April at the same time they’re testing their theory: a good man’s hard to find. In addition to these friendship tales, all of the other characters―their children, their husbands, their lovers―have stories as well. Reading Rope & Bone, after finishing Night Navigation, would be like the way we get to know people, first in their present lives, and then as we spend more time with them, their pasts slowly surface. Rope & Bone is “finished”; it’s now with my agent, ready to go out to editors this fall.

I’m mid-way in working on the third book, Common Descent, which picks up a few days after Night Navigation closes in March 2003. It focuses on Carla Morletti and her daughter and son, Tess and Rudy, all of whom are also important characters in Night Navigation. When Common Descent opens, Carla is on her way to visit Rudy in jail and Tess is refusing to go in, stating that she’s had enough of Rudy’s troubles. Since I work from only a vague plan and often do not know where the story will go next, I can’t say for sure, but I’m hoping Mark and Del don’t come knocking on Carla’s door, that the Merricks will only be seen on the periphery, in a “what they’re up to now” way.

All three novels are written to “stand alone.” Ten of the Rope & Bone story/chapters have already been published. Several have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The published stories are now available on my Web site, each as a Story of the Month.


An Interview with Ginnah Howard, Part Two

August 7, 2009 by  
Filed under Books

ginnahNYTLasnightnavigationcovert month, we saluted Ginnah Howard when her novel Night Navigation was featured in the New York Times Book Review. Now, we have the opportunity to salute Ms. Howard again — and to thank her for responding in such length to questions about her novel and herself.

We’ve been sharing that conversation over four days. In today’s installment, Ginnah finishes telling her story of how she got started as a writer, and starts describing the sweeping, ambitious trilogy of which Night Navigation will be the central core.

Early on I began to send work to literary magazines, and every now and then a story was accepted: North American Review, Blueline, Permafrost, Water~Stone Review…. But publishing has always been an “extra,” not what made me sit down day after day. What makes me face the blank screen is the excitement of the words moving along on that emptiness—very similar to the thrill I felt as I hurried to get my shoe skates out of my metal suitcase and laced up to move out on the rink to throb of the organ. To leg-over-leg make the turns when I was 13. What I still feel when Bob Dylan tells me, “Don’t think twice; it’s all right,” while I’m peeling the potatoes for dinner.

Up until around 2005 or so, when I finally got an agent, Alice Tasman of Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, I did not have a major work published because the work wasn’t quite ready. My experience has been that most of the satisfaction, the joy of writing, has to be in the process itself: the making, the revision, the critiquing, the passion of talking about the work with other writers, the thrill of reading, reading, reading…the work itself.

You say Night Navigation is actually the second book of a trilogy-in-progress. Would you mind telling us about your work so far on the other two books of the trilogy?

Night Navigation opens in March 2002, on a black-ice night in upstate New York. Through the four seasons, this novel focuses on what is left of the Merrick family after the suicide of the father and the younger son. The novel follows the losses and gains of the remaining son, Mark, who has a bipolar disorder and who throughout that year is in and out of treatment for a heroin addiction, and his artist mother, Del, who anxiously tries to help him with the hope that once and for all she can let go. Though this sounds like a bleak tale indeed, many readers have stated that the buoyancy of the language has lifted much of the darkness. See www.amazon.com and www.bookbrowse.com reviews.

Book 1, Rope & Bone, focuses on Del Merrick and Carla Morletti, and their families. The novel is made up of 34 linked stories covering the years from 1955 to 1993. Many of the stories concentrate on the friendship between Carla and Del―their misadventures as they try to raise their kids, get their old cars started on subzero mornings, and put in enough wood to get through to April at the same time they’re testing their theory: a good man’s hard to find. In addition to these friendship tales, all of the other characters―their children, their husbands, their lovers―have stories as well. Reading Rope & Bone after finishing Night Navigation would be like the way we get to know people, first in their present lives, and then as we spend more time with them, their pasts slowly surface. Rope & Bone is “finished”; it’s now with my agent, ready to go out to editors this fall.

Long Weekend Special: An Interview with Ginnah Howard, Part One

August 5, 2009 by  
Filed under Books

laura_baudo_sillerman_2Lasnightnavigationcovert month, we saluted Ginnah Howard when her novel Night Navigation was featured in The New York Times Book Review. Now we have the opportunity to salute Ms. Howard again — and to thank her for responding in such length to questions about her novel and herslef.

What came back will be shared here over the next four days (think of it as a long weekend of our creation.) I am very very happy as I look at her these complete answers to my questions, and find them a guide to the writing process as well as insight into ways of thinking about art and maturity.

Check back every day through Sunday for Howard’s story of how she came up with the novel, why it makes sense to write Part Two of a trilogy first, and how it feels to stand up for your work when even the Times gets it wrong.

Do you think one has to be brave in order to undertake the writing of a novel like Night Navigation, which has such profoundly personal themes?

ginnahNYTPerhaps one would have to be brave to write a memoir that dealt with one’s own family history when that history includes mental illness, substance abuse and suicide, but for me writing fiction seems to involve a different process altogether. In fact, for several years I tried to write a memoir which covered some of the same ground as Night Navigation, but each time, 25 pages or so into it, I’d have to give it up. The prose felt stilted: I could not find the “voice.” By then I had already been writing seriously for about 15 years. I had completed several long-term projects: a novel, a teacher narrative, short stories, lots of poems…so going off by myself for three or four hours each morning to write had become a part of my life, a daily practice important to my re-balancing. I had to find a way around this continual hitting of the delete button on the going-nowhere memoir. I saw an ad in the paper for an eight-week fiction writing workshop, structured around critiquing: Bring a few pages to read to the group.

I signed up, hoping to overcome my “block,” hoping to eke out at least a short story. I sat down to produce something for the first workshop session with no plan or real idea. What came to me in a flash were the opening sentences of Night Navigation: The House is cold. He doesn’t look at her, just sits hunched at the kitchen table, with the hood of his sweatshirt up: under cover. Her son. He is even thinner than when she left.

Within a few hours I had what became, with only a little fine-tuning later, the opening chapter of Night Navigation as told in the third-person voice of a mother. By the end of that section, I already had the feeling that this was the beginning of a novel, but the great eureka moment was when I realized that the next chapter, moving forward in time, was going to be in the voice of the 37-year-old son, that I was going to alternate mother/son chapters throughout. What I could not do in memoir came rushing out once the work made the critical leap into fiction. Entering the interior of a 37-year-old man allowed me to go into rooms, into places, I could never have gone as myself.

Almost all good stories require many of the same basics: dramatic tension, characters we can believe in, images that are electrified by original language…. Each day I sat down and made the Night Navigation world on the screen: an architectural project. What had really happened, as opposed to what was imagined, seemed irrelevant. It all became “material.” That I had, in fact, actually lived in a world similar to this gives the novel a kind of authenticity, a power that comes from that experience, but it is much larger than “my story.”

So, in my case, bravery was not what was needed, rather I had to find the right distance from that experience and the story had to find its own structure and voice. Morning after morning after morning, I sat down and built a few scenes more.

Given that Women’s Voices for Change is about and for “women who were not born yesterday,” do you have any words about working for a long time, without having a major work published until you are almost 70?

Perhaps because I did not even consider learning to write until I was in my mid-40s, I have a different perspective from someone who began turning out stories as a child, who began to see herself as an author early in life. For me, writing came as a bolt out of nowhere. A wondrous gift from the gods. My children grew up and left home. For the first time I had some white space in my days, stretches of uninterrupted time. I was an English teacher. A visiting poet came to my high school to work with my students. He expected me to write along with the class. With much trepidation, I wrote my first poem: a love poem about my fear of walking along the high rocks above the sea at Montauk. The poet wrote, “You make it new” across the top of my paper. I wrote another poem.

I sat next to a woman in a bar who told me that as a teenager on Long Island her doctor gave her large bottles of diet pills (speed), and how she took them regularly and went home to scrub the grouting between the bathroom tiles with a tooth brush. I turned that into a badly written story―all “tell’ and no “show.” I took a creative writing class and learned how to turn the cameras on, how to get the people talking, how to let what was in their glove compartments give us clues to their inner mysteries.

During that first t 10 years or so, I wrote and wrote and threw a lot of it away. I was able to go to month-long workshops. The first such workshop was facilitated by Russell Banks. After he read the stories I had submitted, he said, “I love these women. Go home and write a collection of linked stories, and when you have about 12, I’ll give you a recommendation to my agent.” This was in 1988. I believe it was at this point that I began to think of myself as a writer. Also from these intensive workshop sessions, I learned I always have to be part of a good critique group.

After several more of these summer workshops, I had the good fortune to begin being granted writer residencies at art colonies such as MacDowell, Blue Mountain Center, and Ucross. I try to have at least one of these month-long residencies every year. This October I will be at Hedgebrook, which is about one hour from Seattle by ferry. Six women writers, each off in her own beautiful cottage in the Northwest woods. A delicious dinner provided in the main house at 6: Heaven.

Ginnah Howard’s Journey and You

July 6, 2009 by  
Filed under Books

laura_baudo_sillerman_2A first novel was baptized this past Sunday. It happened in three-plus columns of The New York Times Book Review (July 5, 2009). The book’s title is Night Navigation, and the author is Ginnah Howard.

howardginnah-263x300With the review, there is a photo of Ms. Howard. In it, she is looking at the camera but also gazing beyond it into a far distance. Though I only knew her for a short time, I do believe I know she has had her eye on that long road for decades. The fact is, her very favorable Sunday Times review can inspire us all.

I first met Ginnah Howard in a writer’s workshop in 1990. There were about a dozen of us in that room each day for two summer weeks in Saratoga. Lynne Sharon Schwartz, our workshop leader, ran a tight ship. We worked hard, went to lots of stellar readings and, to varying degrees, believed in ourselves as writers who would “make it.”

Ginnah, like me and two or three or others, was unusual: she (and we) were beyond the age when we dreamed of finding success young and having long and glamorous careers as famous writers. That success has actually happened to two of our classmates, Christina Garcia (Dreaming in Cuban, The Aguero Sisters) and Matt Klam (Sam The Cat and Other Stories and too many magazine publications to list.).

But this is about older writers and older dreamers, about putting one foot in front of the other. In 1990, Ginnah was north of the age when she would be a young phenomenon. She was going for something more by being in that workshop. She was honing her craft, believing she could learn enough and apply herself enough to become what she wanted to be. Now, 19 years after she showed up every day in that writer’s workshop, she has gotten there: That Times review of her first novel says that “the strength of this story pulls Howard’s readers along, unable to turn away.”

There are a lot of writers out there reading this. Some of you are saying, “I’ve always wanted to write,” and perhaps even, “I should have gone to a writer’s workshop.” Ginnah’s Night Navigation stands as a roadmap to your getting to one now. There is still time to register for workshops that are happening this summer, and there are many all around the country year round. And there’s next summer and starting to plan for it now. There’s Ginnah’s novel out there waiting for us to read and telling the story within the story. (You can hear a little of Howard herself in the video below.) A mature woman began to believe in this book nearly two decades ago. And a much older woman just published it as her first novel. The truth is, self expression doesn’t have a schedule. I can’t wait to read Night Navigation, and I hope I get to read something by one of you soon (or even later) as well.

(Editor’s note: Laura Sillerman, WVFC co-founder, is our poetry editor. If you want to try your hand at nonfiction, all are encouraged to check out the submission guidelines at Women’s Voices for Change. We’re always looking for fresh voices!)