In Conversation: Eric D. Goodman and Sally Whitney

In our new column, “In Conversation,” jmww invites two writers, preferably at different stages of their careers, to talk about their latest books, the path to publication, and the lessons they’ve learned along the way. This month’s conversation features Eric D. Goodman and Sally Whitney. Eric’s second novel, Womb, will be released on March 21, 2017, by Merge Publishing, and Sally’s debut novel Surface and Shadow, came out last September with Pen-L Publishing.

Sally Whitney: Why did you decide to use such an unusual narrator, a child in utero, in your forthcoming novel Womb: a novel in utero?

Eric D. Goodman: The unusual narrator in Womb is definitely something people ask about. The entire book is told from the perspective of a narrator in utero. I was inspired to write the book because I wanted the challenge of trying to write from a perspective that was original. I started the first draft about 10 years ago, shortly after reading The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. In the very first line of her book, the narrator tells us that she’d been murdered. I was inspired by that unique perspective and tried to think of an unusual narrator of my own.

I didn’t have to look too far since my wife was pregnant with our second child. The closest I could find in existing literature to an unborn narrator was The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne. But even in that book, the narrator is an adult as he goes back and narrates his pre-birth. My narrator is still in utero as he tells his story. I was excited to take on the challenge of writing entirely from that perspective.

Eric: I’ve known you as a short fiction writer for a number of years. How was the jump from short form to novel-length fiction for you?

Sally: I’ve wanted to write a novel ever since I started writing fiction, but I knew it would take a tremendous time commitment, which I wasn’t sure I could give, and I figured I could get faster feedback on short stories, which would help me improve my writing craft. The idea of sustaining the reader’s interest in such a long work was a little daunting, too. But finally I couldn’t wait any longer, and I started writing a novel that I had been thinking about for years. I’m a planner by nature, so I put together a rough outline and starting writing. The outline gave me direction, even though it changed a lot while I was writing. It took me four years to complete Surface and Shadow, but now I really enjoy writing novels, and I’m working on my next one.

Sally: What were the worst drawbacks or hurdles you had overcome in using a narrator who’s in utero and what were the advantages?

Eric: The biggest challenge was probably the obvious one: how to allow my narrator to tell a story involving people in the outside world. How to convincingly allow him to know things, to see, hear, smell, feel, and sense things from inside. And how to do it without over-explaining it. Of course, it’s a fictional notion, but I read a lot of articles about real studies involving life in utero: how a fetus actually responds and reacts to stimuli. Growing evidence shows that they pick up on the speech patterns and accents of individuals while in utero, and have preferences when it comes to food and music. I allow my narrator to tap into the collective consciousness, a connection he claims is severed when people are born and must refocus their brainpower on bodily functions and motor skills. I allow him to “see” and sense things on his own and through his mom. But navigating those hurdles was also an advantage because it forced me to think of ways for him to express himself. Some of the scenes I’m happiest with are ones in which he conveys the feeling of being in utero and the understanding of life outside.

Eric: What inspired you to write Surface and Shadow? Can you share a little about 1972 Tanner, North Carolina, and the people there?

Sally: I had two main motivations for writing Surface and Shadow. First, I wanted to capture the culture and feel of small southern mill towns as I remember them when I was growing up in North Carolina. From the late 1800s to the late 1900s, there were hundreds of mills in the south. Today many of those mills are no longer operating, mostly because of consolidation and globalization of manufacturing. I also wanted to look at women in the 1970s (as the modern women’s movement was getting underway) who didn’t consider themselves feminists and weren’t ready to join the movement, but who knew something was wrong in their lives. Tanner, NC, is based on several mill towns that I was familiar with because of the town where I grew up and the towns where my relatives lived. These towns were good places to live, and they had a culture that was common among all of them. Some of their most distinguishing characteristics were a structured social order with the mill owners at the top, a close camaraderie among the citizens, and a fierce loyalty to the town.

Sally: Is Womb written in first or third person and why? Also, your first book, Tracks, was a novel in stories, whereas Womb is a traditional novel. Do you have a preference for either form, and how do you decide which form to use?

Eric: Yes, Womb is a traditional novel and is written entirely in first person. I felt that if I was going to narrate from within the womb, it was best to get inside the head of the main character and narrate from that center. Given my premise, I figured going third person or into other POVs would be “cheating,” since my goal was to narrate the entire novel from the one unique perspective.

My last book, Tracks, was a novel in stories. Each form has its own challenges, but I find the short form to be a little easier to navigate. Other writers have said that short fiction is more difficult because you need to get the entire story arc and character development into a smaller space. But for me, making sure everything is consistent and everything “works” seems more difficult in a longer novel. There are more moving parts to keep track of. For that reason, I think I find the novel in stories a great “best of both worlds.” You can focus on each story as an individual story, but they tie together and deepen one another. That said, only certain storylines can be told in the novel-in-story form. As much as I like the novel in stories, I suspect I’ll write and read a lot more novels than novels in stories.

Eric: Surface and Shadow features a strong female lead in Lydia Colton. Are there any strong female characters in literature who inspired her?

Sally: Not one in particular. I’ve always been drawn to stories about strong women who, despite obstacles, are able to make a difference in their lives and/or in the lives of others. My favorite novel when I was young was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. I loved the way the main character, Francie, made her way through a very disadvantaged life by taking advantage of whatever opportunities she had. Other favorite female characters are Idgie and Ruth in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg, Dellarobia Turnbow in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, Lila in Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, and Dixie Clay Holliver in The Tilted World by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly.

Eric: Those are some great characters. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was a book I remember fondly from my youth as well.

Sally: How was the road to publishing Womb different from the road to publishing Tracks? What did you learn in publishing Tracks that helped when it came time to publish Womb?

Eric: The biggest lesson I probably learned when Tracks was published was that regardless of how great your publisher is and how much they want your book to succeed, the best advocate and promoter for your book is you. That’s true whether you’re with a big publisher or a small one. I have great appreciation for Atticus Books, who published Tracks, and Merge, who is publishing Womb. My literary agent negotiated my book deal with Atticus, and Atticus was only in its second year as a small, independent press at the time. Now, they’ve been around for seven or eight years and have done great work. Merge Publishing is also a small press, and they’ve only been around a couple years and have very few books under their belt, so it feels a little like déjà vu.

I think already having a novel out helped make Merge more comfortable with the decision, but I don’t feel like getting Womb published was really any easier than Tracks. The thing I appreciate most about each of the publishers is that they believed in my work enough to take the risk to publish it. But a lesson I’ve learned is that regardless of what the publisher puts into it, the author has to put on the marketing hat and really try to get the word out, do readings, interviews, and the likes. That was true with Tracks and it’s true with Womb.

Part of me thought that first finding a literary agent and then getting a publisher for my first novel (in stories) would open doors and make things easier for the next book. But, to tell the truth, I found all of the same challenges before me with Womb that I did for Tracks. Lessons learned were best practices to put into place while continuing to face the challenges of making it as a small-press author in a big-press world.

Eric: Speaking of publishers, how did you come to be published with Pen-L? As a first-time novelist, how was your path to publication forged?

Sally: A major break in my path to publication came through a friend. I was in the process of querying agents and small publishers about Surface and Shadow when Mark Willen, whom I met through our blog Late Last Night Books, published his novel Hawke’s Point with Pen-L Publishing. I wasn’t familiar with Pen-L, but I was impressed with the quality of the writing, editing, and design of Hawke’s Point, so I sent them a query about Surface and Shadow. They asked for the manuscript, and fortunately, they agreed to publish it. Pen-L is a small, independent publisher in Fayetteville, Ark., that was founded in 2011. They publish in many genres and have quite a few books on their list now. Working with them has been a pleasure, and I appreciate the work they’ve done for me. I agree with you, however, that no matter how much the publisher puts into a book, the author still has to take a major role in marketing.

Sally: Going back for a moment to your comments about narrative arcs in novels in stories. I think that might be the most difficult form to write because each story has to have an arc, and the whole book has to have an arc. How did you keep in mind the novel arc while you were writing each story?

Eric: I guess there are a number of ways to approach the novel in stories. I started out writing stand-alone stories, then realized there was a connection in that they were all on a train. Since the theme in Tracks was all about how people can touch one another, and how even a stranger on a train can alter the course of a person’s life, it was easy to find ways to make them connect. After the initial few stories, I realized I was working on an interconnected collection, and kept that in mind as I proceeded. But with each initial draft, although that was in mind, I focused on the individual story first. It was in later drafts that I really found details that allowed me to strengthen the ties between the characters in different stories.

That wasn’t a problem to consider in Womb, being all from one POV. Earlier you mentioned the challenge of keeping the reader’s attention with a literary novel. I think that’s one reason I tend to like the novel in stories. It seems to automatically tackle that issue by taking the reader from one character and situation to another every 20-30 pages or so, so the reader isn’t as likely to get tired of one narrator. Keeping one storyline and character engaging for a full novel—hat’s s a challenge!

Eric: When I think of your writing, the genre that comes to mind is literary fiction. But Shadow and Surface seems to have one foot planted firmly in the mystery genre. Did you find it more challenging to plot out a mystery? Or was it just a different kind of challenge? Or did it all come naturally, because you knew the story you wanted to tell—and you’re a natural planner?

Sally: I usually think of my writing as mainstream, but the stories are all character driven. Plotting the mystery wasn’t particularly difficult. It would have been more difficult for me to sustain reader interest in a truly literary novel like the novels Marilynne Robinson writes. I wanted a strong plot to drive Lydia’s evolution. As the characters took their places in the story, I began to know how they would act and react, and one plot development led to another. I don’t remember when I first realized how the mystery part of the novel would be resolved, but I had been working with the characters for a while before it happened.

Sally: What do you think makes a good title for a novel? How did you settle on the one-word titles you used for yours?

Eric: Titles for stories and books usually just pop into my head. Not always before I begin the story, but usually before I finish them. I rarely go back and change a title. I would if I thought I should, but usually you can feel whether the title is right. In today’s age, I think two things are important to keep in mind regarding titles. One: make it easy to remember. Two: make it easy to search online. I found it important to include the subtitles “A Novel in Stories” and “a novel in utero” because that makes it easier to find online. Search for “Tracks” and “Goodman” and you get a bunch of Benny Goodman music. Not a bad find, but it doesn’t help me connect with readers!

Surface and Shadow is a good example of what I’m talking about: it’s easy to remember, but put together, easy to find online. (With or without quotes around it, your book’s the first thing to pop up in a Google search.) How did you arrive at that title?

Sally: I changed the title several times, because none of them suited me. None of them seemed to capture the spirit of the novel, or they were too long, or, like you said, not unusual enough to pop up quickly on Google. Surface and Shadow came to me one day when I was thinking about one of the major themes of the book, which is how many of us are pressured into living one type of life on the surface when actually we’re somebody else in the shadows.

Sally: Do you think a novel can change the world? If so, how would you like your novels to do that?

Eric: When it comes to my expectations, I’m a realist. But people who know me well know that my head is in the clouds, so in that way I’m an optimist. I’d like to think that a novel can change the world. I think some novels have. But maybe the more realistic hope is that novels can change the world by changing one person at a time. I know that novels can change people. Novels can change a person, or remind them of important things they knew but lost sight of in the hustle-bustle of modern life. One theme I hope a writer would see in much of my work, including Tracks and Womb, is that stories matter, every person has an important story, and important stories exist in what on the surface appear to be mundane slices of everyday life. Novels can help people understand one another. Make them look up from reading and say, “I get that. I feel that.” I believe fiction can change the world, one person at a time.

Eric: How about you? Do you believe a novel can change the world? If so, how would you like yours to do it?

Sally: I agree with you that novels can change the world one person at a time. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is sometimes credited with instigating the U.S. Civil War. For me, a novel has succeeded if it makes readers think about the world in ways they haven’t before. If my novels can encourage readers to see people they know and situations they experience in a more open-minded way, then I’ll be happy. I hope readers of Surface and Shadow will think more carefully about the roles society often forces on people because of their gender, race, occupation, or economic status. I want readers not to be afraid to question the status quo.

Sally Whitney’s debut novel, Surface and Shadow, was released in September 2016. She also writes short stories, including “Everything Happens for a Reason,” which appears in Best Short Stories from the Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest 2017. She blogs at her website, SallyWhitney.com, and at LateLastNightBooks.com, a blog for readers of fiction.

Eric D. Goodman lives in Baltimore, where he writes about wombs, trains, and animals gone wild. Learn more about Eric and his writing at http://www.EricDGoodman.comHis latest novel is Womb: a novel in utero. Womb‘s release date is Tuesday, March 21 (first Tuesday of spring). The book launch is on Tuesday, March 28, 6:30 pm, at the Maryland State Library for the Blind & Physically Handicapped, (415 Park Ave., Baltimore MD  21201) as part of the Enoch Pratt’s “Writers LIVE!” series.

Have a conversation you’d like to share? Send to our series editor, Jen Michalski, at jen.michalski@gmail.com. 

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