Las t 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?

Perhaps 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.

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