On Novels and Novelists

Jodi Picoult, Luanne Rice, and Russell Banks

This post introduces a new category of entries here, On Novels and Novelists. This category features articles and interviews that focus on how writers create their fiction and on how critics interpret fictional works.

Jodi Picoult discusses the facts of fiction

In a recent lecture at Carnegie Mellon University, best-selling author Jodi Picoult described the research she does for her novels.

Picoult explained the research that went into her latest book, Leaving Time.

The book touches upon elephants’ expression of grief, which the protagonist’s mother studied before she disappeared. “Ultimately, this is a book about how the people who leave us never really do,” Picoult said. “And I began to dive into the world of elephants, knowing I was going to use it as a metaphor, so tonight what I’m going to be telling you about is everything you wanted to know about elephants and more.”

She even traveled to Botswana to meet with researchers who track elephant migration.

Given the amount of research Picoult does, why does she write fiction instead of nonfiction, the more usual vehicle for conveying information?

“There’s something that fiction can do that nonfiction cannot,” Picoult said. “A lot people will not address a controversial subject in nonfiction, but they pick up a novel, and they think they’re being entertained, and almost by accident, by the time they close that last page, they realize they are being forced to re-evaluate whatever opinions they have when they started the book…. Where I believe that nonfiction has the obligation to chronicle the past and what has happened, fiction has the opportunity to change minds, change the future, and change the course of what will happen.”

Author Luanne Rice ’77 channels the emotional turmoil of life into best-selling fiction

Luanne Rice’s writing career suggests that sometimes you CAN tell a book by its cover:

Most of her 31 novels feature breezy titles, like “Dream Country” and “The Perfect Summer,” with covers featuring softly hued images of young women staring off toward the sea. Those perusing bookshelves might be quick to classify them as “beach reads,” but with those pastel-colored sunsets come turbulence and unpredictability. It’s the prevailing metaphor of Rice’s fiction — and her life.

A beach cottage that her grandparents built in Old Lyme, Connecticut, is the inspiration for the fictional Hubbard’s Beach, the setting of many of her novels.

“I’m interested in the way people live on the edge, the borderline. There’s something about stepping off that intrigues me,” she says. “Also, there’s hardship and beauty — the light and the tides and the currents of things that are swept in and swept away.”

Rice attended Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. The college’s location allowed her to watch and ponder the ocean: “I wrote a lot of short stories at school sitting in my dorm room and hearing the foghorns.” Her father’s illness and death forced her to leave before graduating.

After her father died, Rice spent three months on a schooner studying whales. The majority of her 20s were spent in New York City, cleaning houses to make money, falling in love, and rubbing shoulders with the literary elite, including her late friend and mentor, New Yorker critic Brendan Gill.

Her first published novel was Angels All Over Town in 1985. Her next novel, Crazy in Love, put her on the literary map and was made into a television movie starring Holly Hunter, Frances McDormand, Bill Pullman and Gena Rowlands.

Throughout her career Rice has used the ups and downs of her own life as the source of her fiction: “Rice admits she uses her writing as a way to ‘figure it all out,’ working out her issues in the pages of her books.”

Rice equates writing to breathing. It’s the way she takes life in and makes sense of it, and she encourages others to do the same. “When you’re writing, don’t think about what your mother’s going to think, what your teacher’s going to think,” she says. “Let yourself be scared, without boundaries.”

Russell Banks: Literary devotion

Russell Banks, whose work has distilled blue-collar dreams into moving, sometimes violent, portraits of struggle and loss, will deliver Harvard Divinity School’s 2014 Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality Nov. 5 at Sanders Theatre.

Banks’ novels include “Continental Drift” (1985), “Affliction” (1989), “The Sweet Hereafter” (1991), “Rule of the Bone” (1995), “Cloudsplitter” (1998), and “Lost Memory of Skin” (2011). Last year he published a collection of stories, “A Permanent Member of the Family.” His Ingersoll Lecture is titled “Feeding Moloch: The Sacrifice of Children on the Altar of Capitalism.”

In this interview Banks, age 74, discusses his early apprenticeship in the writing of fiction: “I think when you’re a young writer you kind of need three things: a mentor, and you need to find a way to stay out of the economy if you can to buy time, and you need your peers and your contemporaries too.”

Since the lecture Banks will deliver is at the divinity school, there are questions here about his own religion and spirituality:

I’m aware that there are certain spiritual, if not religious longings in the characters that I write about and care about, and there’s a desire among my characters, as there probably is in myself as well, to find some kind of spiritual reality and meaning in the world that surrounds us. But it’s extremely difficult for me personally and therefore extremely difficult for most of my characters as well. I think that’s a common dilemma and quest as well. But I don’t have an agenda or a religious commitment that I am trying to dramatize and use fiction for. In a way, fiction for me is a way of discovery and a process that allows me to find out, to penetrate and then to find meaning in some aspect of human life which is deeply mysterious to me. And I can enter that mystery in a way through my work that I can’t really enter in any other part of my life. And I suppose in a way that’s a spiritual quest, but it isn’t driven by a specific, spiritually defined question.

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