Ask the author: Jennifer Fawcett
A graduate of the University of Iowa’s MFA Playwrights Workshop and co-artistic director for 10 years of Iowa’s Working Group Theater, Jennifer Fawcett has published her first novel, “Beneath the Stairs.”
Jennifer Fawcett is a graduate of the MFA Playwrights Workshop at the University of Iowa and was co-artistic director of the Working Group Theater of Iowa for 10 years. Her first novel, under the stairs, tells the story of two girls dealing with the consequences of what they see in a house in the woods when they are 14 years old.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Read the full interview on dailyiowan.com).
Daily Iowan: What was the inspiration for your book?
Fawcett: So a friend challenged me to do NaNoWriMo when I was in Iowa City. That was many years ago and I had no idea what I was going to write about, and this idea – this image – kind of came to me for young women, like young teenage girls, standing with their bikes next to them one summer day looking at this abandoned, possibly haunted house and trying to decide whether to go in or not. It’s as if this image had come to my mind. And I think the reason why – I don’t know why I was thinking about it – but I think the reason I did it is because when I was 13, on a summer day, during a bike ride, I did the same thing. I did it. I was one of those girls and walked into this house which I had recently found out was near us in the countryside and was supposed to be haunted, and therefore was shaped like a an octagon. That’s why the house in the book is an octagon, because the real house I walked into was. It’s like a weird detail that I had never thought of. I had no idea. It was like some kind of architectural trend or something – I don’t know. Like, there are octagonal houses, so there aren’t many of them. I was trying to figure out if it was like a meaning of the number eight or something. I was told the idea is that the devil can’t pin you down. Except then someone said, “Oh, no, that’s more for roundhouses.” But I mean, it would also work for an octagonal house because that’s not true, you know? It’s not a 90 degree angle.
DI: What does your artistic approach look like?
Fawcett: I do a lot of writing. I didn’t describe this book, which is probably one of the reasons why it took me so long to write it. I did what they call “pants” which is kind of you go in and kind of write your way in and find out what the story is. So because I was initially creating this in NaNoWriMo – and again, I wasn’t really sure if I was going to be able to create a book. NaNoWriMo’s goal is pretty much a word count. It’s just about hitting a daily word count so that by the end of the month you’ve written 50,000 words which actually isn’t really a novel it’s what will be a short novel, in fact. But you are definitely on the right track. So it was really just moving forward. Go on, go on, go on and tell me to get the story on the page. And then after that, once I figure out what the story was, I go back and look at what’s there and see that I’m trying to sort of see what the structure is that was created organically into a story and then how do I, you know, reinforce that structure, basically. because I think when you write the first draft your mind drops all kinds of good clues and you know, unfinished threads and all that kind of stuff. And so part of the work of revising is to go back and see what all of these elements are and remove some of them and then continue others to, for example, continue my metaphor.
DI: Considering your experience as Co-Artistic Director of Group Theater, how do you think that impacted your novel and your writing style?
Fawcett: I would find myself writing a lot of dialogue. I am very comfortable writing dialogues. Some writers are not comfortable writing dialogue. I was writing entire scenes and then going, ‘Oh, oops. It’s all about dialogue. Because that’s how I’m used to telling stories. So you use different tools for each different way of writing, you’re still telling a story, but your tools are slightly different. So what was fun about going from theater to fiction, from play to book, is that I had to put down some tools that I’m used to, don’t is this not ? I’m used to actors, for example. I had to put that in writing, but then I had to choose the ones that I don’t normally use and you don’t use in a piece like point of view and interiority. The timeline will work a little differently. You can, in a book, you can kind of go anywhere, can’t you? As if you could create a scene. You could stage a scene in the middle of a war, you could stage a scene on Mars, right? It’s good because all this lives in the imagination of the reader in a theater. You can also stage a scene in the middle of a war and you can stage a scene on Mars, but you’re also working on thinking about how that’s going to play out in space and time? On stage, it’s not necessary to have a literal setting, but it will always have to be achieved in some way, through bodies, light and sound and all that kind of stuff.
DI: What’s your best writing tip?
Fawcett: I don’t know if I can put it in a pithy way, but I think that’s the advice I have to give myself again and again and again, which is to allow yourself to write badly. Allow yourself to write badly, which is not original and say that, but it’s essential to get to the right things, we actually go through the wrong things. If you are waiting for inspiration, you could be waiting a very long time. Look, I think – not that the inspiration won’t come – but I think you kind of have to allow it to be rambling and dumb and cliched and whatever. Because if you stick with it and go through it, you’re going to get to something really good, but you have to go through the bad stuff first, and it’s really uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable for professional writers, it’s uncomfortable for my students – nobody likes to know what they’re doing sucks. Also that you know what you’re doing is like, ‘Man, I’m gonna have to work so hard to make this work’, so you’ve got like, hours and hours, or in my case, years and years of work in front of you. But that’s the only way, sometimes what comes out of your brain is brilliant, but I think that’s rare. So yes, allow yourself to write badly. And I think what ties into that is also this idea of giving yourself permission. It’s a lesson I learned in the first play I wrote, I was giving myself permission. I had a story to tell and people were listening. If I wanted to say it and it’s something I try to say to other people who want to write too is that they have to give themselves permission to sit down and do it because it’s is really very long to do.