We often ask contributors to The Writer to include recommended reading along with the article they are submitting. Invariably Janet Burroway's textbook Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft is on their list.
I've been hearing and reading about Burroway for years and have always wanted to interview her for the magazine. I was able to reach her publisher to set it up and was excited to learn that for part of the year, she lives in southeastern Wisconsin with her husband Peter Ruppert, so I could interview her in person. But first I had to prepare.
One of the great pleasures and requirements of doing interviews is reading the writer's work. I started with her more recent novel Bridge of Sand and then read an earlier work Raw Silk. Both involve women embarking on new stages in their lives, one in England and one in the American Deep South. I loved the way she used details about English textile factories and American paper mills that were descriptive, metaphoric and also moved the stories along. In Bridge of Sand, she transports the readers to a Florida mill town and immerses them in sights, smells, sounds and textures of the community. I made a note to ask Burroway about her effective use of such details in creating a sense of place.
I was completely taken with her book of essays, Embalming Mom, which I've since been recommending to friends, especially the poignant title essay, in which she imagines a conversation with her deceased mother in an attempt to get to understand her better. How many of us wish we had known our parents better when it's too late? The essay captures that painful sense of loss and regret for not having been able to do so and the realization that there are some parts of our parents, sons and daughters that are utterly unknowable. In reading her essays, I was struck by her directness and her willingness to reveal herself. How does she write about such personal matters and keep the themes universal, without a hint of self-indulgence?
I had hoped to get through more of her work before the interview, but alas I am a slow reader. I am looking forward to reading Cutting Stone, about a couple who move to the Arizona frontier in 1916—her only historical fiction—and her political novel, Buzzards, which she calls her best. You'll find excerpts of all her work, including Writing Fiction, at www.janetburroway.com.
In addition to her book on fiction, Burroway is the host for a wonderful DVD for writers So, Is It Done?, in which she and other writers give advice on editing, revising and polishing.
I met with the author in July at her home nestled in the woods. Burroway, a tall striking woman with penetrating blue eyes, proved to be gracious and generous host and subject. In Writing Fiction, she tells students to be honest in their writing. What that means was a jumping off point for the interview.
As one might expect from her books, she was intense, forthright, funny, and an altogether engaging person to hang out with while talking about writing. (Look for the interview in the December issue of The Writer).
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