Anne Valente Speaks about her Writing Process, and the use of Childhood and Research for Inspiration.
Interview by Gabriela V. Everett
I discovered Anne Valente’s work upon attending a reading for her first novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, which follows high school students healing in the wake of a school shooting. Grief and healing are major themes in her work, as she believes in exploring the aftermath of tragedy and how people continue on.
Anne Valente’s sophmore novel, The Desert Sky Before Us, explores the complicated relationship between family and catharsis. True to the journey of healing, the books unfolds over a slow-burn of mystery as the characters work to understand and connect to their mother’s past, all while being confronted by their personal phantoms. As a writer who loves characters with unique, researched backgrounds, the dynamics of Anne’s characters are revealed through our own exploration of various “documents” poised between each chapter, providing a whispered awareness.
I’d like to start by asking about how you harness your creative power. What inspires you to write? When an idea for a story takes root, do you let it simmer or take it up immediately?
I think curiosity has always driven my need to write. There’s so much I don’t know, and so many corners of this world to explore. Coupled with curiosity is the need to pay attention, always, to what is happening all around me; I think attention to the planet and to the human experience provides an endless capacity for stories, and for the empathy needed to write the characters and landscapes within them. My writing pace tends to hinge on what the idea is – I’ve had stories that I needed to sit down and write immediately because an image wouldn’t leave me alone, and I’ve had stories take months to simmer before I write a single word because I’m not quite sure yet why an image or idea is haunting me. Once I figure out why it might be – and sometimes this even happens after I’ve written a draft – then I start to write, or else revise.
Who are some of your favorite authors? What do you enjoy about their work and how does it impact you as a writer?
I’m always trying to discover new writers, from fiction to poetry to non-fiction, and am currently reading widely to keep exposing myself to new ideas and approaches to writing. But the three writers who made me want to write in the first place are Toni Morrison, Lorrie Moore and Haruki Murakami. Morrison’s Belovedblew me away when I was a teenager and continues to keep doing so into my adulthood. I was deeply influenced by her use of the ghost story to address buried history and trauma. I love Lorrie Moore’s perfect mix of humor and pathos, in addition to her wizardry with language and verbiage. And Haruki Murakami’s imagination is unparalleled: I’ve always loved seeing what he can do with each book, which all tend to begin with a seemingly simple premise – such as a man making spaghetti at the beginning of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle– that unfurls into a magical landscape beneath the mundane.
What do you do when writer’s block occurs?
I’ve been fortunate to not really have ever experienced writer’s block in the traditional sense; I seem to have the opposite problem that there are always so many ideas and places that my curiosity takes me that it’s difficult to determine which of them might be explorable in a story. I will say, however, that I’ve learned to value periods of rest, which may be another term for writer’s block. I used to think that I needed to be productive all of the time, i.e. writing every single day, and while I still do write regularly, I think the periods of contemplation are important too to recharge, and to really determine what it is that I want to say in the next creative project.
You’ve written a collection of short stories as well as two novels; what is your process for writing? Does it differ when working on short stories versus a novel? Is there a specific kind of environment or time of day where you like to write?
The process of writing stories does differ from the novel for me; with my first collection, as well as a new one I’ve recently completed, I wrote the stories across a number of years and then figured out which ones were speaking to each other to pull together into a collection. By contrast, I wrote both novels in the span of a single calendar year with a very intense writing schedule. This wasn’t an exercise in self-discipline so much as a need to really focus on the world of each narrative in a concentrated way. When I’m working on a novel, I do generally write every day, usually in the morning in my home office before everything else. I tend to write stories either at home or in coffee shops, in shorter spurts of daily writing for a period of days. But I’m not too precious about when and where I write. So long as I get the words down!
From your perspective, how have you grown as a writer since your debut short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names, to The Desert Sky Before Us? Has your journey from debut to present informed your writing in any way?
I think I’m still interested in the same things I’ve always been interested in – ghosts, magic, geography, attention to language and sentences – but my understanding of those interests and why I have them has expanded. I’ve always loved ghost stories since childhood, but I’ve also recognized in recent years that ghost stories are also a way of exploring trauma and grief in a collective sense, both in terms of history and buried, marginalized narratives that need to be told – much like what Morrison does in Beloved. For similar reasons, I’ve also become much more interested in place-based writing and what it means to write from and about a particular landscape. The story that the earth tells, and how our sentences can best relay that story, have become far more essential to me as a writer, particularly in an era of such rapid climate change.
I’d like to discuss your novels. Both Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down and The Desert Sky Before Us deal with grief and catharsis; what draws you to these themes?
Though my writing isn’t autobiographical, I think these themes are crucial to me as a writer and human being because I haven’t fully figured out yet how to find catharsis for grief. We are human; every single person we love will die. Sometimes I don’t know how we collectively get through a single day knowing this. But the beauty of our human lives is perhaps in the many individualized ways that we persist regardless. In general, however, I’m deeply interested in grief for the aforementioned reason of buried narratives. With Our Hearts, for instance, I saw again and again how our news coverage focused on the perpetrator in mass shootings but very rarely centered the lives lost, nor bothered to check back in on those families and communities and how they move on or don’t move on at all. We seem to remember the names of shooters, but never the many names of the people whose lives they took. The week Our Hearts was published, I visited the Columbine memorial in Colorado and the stories of each teenager’s life were overwhelming. These stories, the ones that we’re more reluctant to hold space for because they are so much more overwhelming than motive or cause, interest me the most.
The Desert Sky Before Usfollows two sisters, Rhiannon and Billie, on a cross-country road trip following the passing of their mother. What inspired you to write a setting that traverses the country?
Because my first novel was situated so firmly in the singular location of St. Louis, I was structurally interested in writing a novel that refused to stay in one place. It was a fun challenge to take on, and I also had the added benefit of moving across the country myself while writing the book, from Ohio to New Mexico. This helped further envision how these two sisters might spend their time on the road.
The Desert Sky Before Us was published by Harper Collins; what tips would you offer to writers who aspire to be traditionally published?
There are many routes to book publication, and I’ve taken a couple of them. My collection was published through my own submission to a book prize, with an independent press that I love. In submitting manuscripts to publishing houses, however, an agent is generally needed. After I published my collection, I signed with an agent to submit my novel to those houses, which an agent is able to do since a writer generally can’t. For writers who wish to publish with a major publishing house, I’d suggest reading the acknowledgements of favorite books to figure out which agents are representing their favorite authors, and which houses are publishing the books they love. This can help cull a list of agents for manuscript submission as soon as their manuscript is ready to submit.
What’s something you’d like your readers to walk away with after reading your work?
I hope readers will feel just as curious as I felt while writing the work. Much of my writing is research-based, an opportunity for me to delve for the project’s duration into witches or NASCAR or falconry or crime scene investigation. There is so much to know and learn all around us, and I hope readers feel this way too. I also hope they feel buoyed by the language and the craft of the sentences.
What advice do you have for young writers who’d like to sustain themselves off writing?
I’d say nurture the passion for writing in any way that works best. There is no one way to become a writer, which is one of the beauties I find in the profession. You can go to school for writing, or you can do something completely outside of writing and work on your novel during your lunch breaks, or you can use writing to become a mini-expert for a little while on falconry or NASCAR. It’s such a wide open field, and the possibilities are endless. What maybe ties all writers together is just taking the work seriously. I’d say treat your passion with dedication. It isn’t something to do when everything else is done in your day. It isn’t an indulgence. It isn’t selfish. It is necessary and important, and for many of us, a way to speak and to survive.
The Desert Sky Before Us
William Marrow Paperback