The Next BIG Thing for CARLEN ARNETT

I had fun with The Next Big Thing Meme and am excited to host some friends, starting with my friend, poet and now proser, Carlen Arnett.

And now. . . Carlen Arnett

Thanks to Amy Dryansky for inviting me to participate in this writers’ chain interview, The Next Big Thing. Amy’s second book of poems, Grass Whistle, will be out shortly from Salmon Poetry in Ireland. I have Amy’s first book, How I Got Lost So Close to Home, so I know her poems sizzle with honestly, unexpected images, and atypical insights. You can find her Next Big Thing interview here.

Thanks too to Robin Black, author of a forthcoming novel still seeking its title, but already full of intrigue and fascinating characters (trust me!), and of the terrific short story collection, If I Loved You I Would Tell You This, which has enjoyed a wide, smart audience here and around the world (you’ll have trouble putting it down) — both from Random House. Robin’s also in on The Next Big Thing, and her interview can be found in an earlier post, below.

(Interruption from Robin: Thanks, Carlen!)

As for my interview? Here we go…

1. What is the working title of your book?

The Robber Girl’s Tale.

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

Short answer? Eleanor Wilner.

My time as Eleanor’s student was one of the unfathomable gifts of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. I graduated in poetry in the1990’s. So you see, I’m a seriously late bloomer, which means I’ve had a long time to look back, and build an understanding of my story’s beginnings. Obvious to me now is that a one-time conference with Ellen Bryant Voigt probably turned me in the direction of prose in the first place. She talked to me as I was entering my essay semester, when I had to choose a subject and poems to examine within it. What she saw in my own poems we didn’t talk about; instead she spoke to me about the interrelatedness of declarative sentences, trauma, and about fables as a literary form. Over time, that discussion (I knew enough to mostly listen) would open a whole new territory in my analytical process — beautifully, and without clamping down on the playful, creative half that just wants to write first drafts all day long! No small feat, it seems to me now.

So I came away charged with the task of discovering something about sentences and short tales, but within the context of poems. I had been assigned to work with Joan Aleshire, a masterful teacher who conjures a delicious degree of attention out of her ability to be both subtle and direct with students — often at the same time. With Joan, I undertook that study of sentence structure in three poems by Theodore Roethke. Syntax! Sentences! (I had been a student only of poetry, remember.) Like all of us, I had five or so months to write and create in myself a deeply embedded sense of what syntax could do — in Roethke’s poems, and by extension in poems generally. What I ultimately saw, ultimately put together out of my study, rocked my comprehension of creative writing forever. I had come to understand the forces and hierarchy that a sentence could direct. The sentence, above all, became my unit of concern.

I worked again — on fairy tales — with Eleanor after that. At some point she asked me if I’d ever read “The Snow Queen,” Hans Christian Andersen’s tale in chapters, written in 1844. I told her no, I’d read and been told many more tales from Grimms’ when I was young.  I found two or three translations and read and compared them. The tale recounts the journey of a school-aged girl, out to rescue her closest friend, a boy who has been kidnapped from their town square by the beautiful and wicked Snow Queen, and carried off to her ice palace beyond the Arctic Circle.

It’s easy now to see that “The Snow Queen” inverts the Greek myth of Hades’ abduction of Persephone, complete with Nordic style sexual overtones (“Come, creep under my bear skin!”), and just enough Hansel & Gretel on the side to assure the reader that it’s a tale for the kiddies. The Persephone/Hades/Demeter triangle was one I’d studied and written on earlier in my work with Eleanor. But many times over as her student, I learned that the theme or conflict which presents itself up front in a work of literature often arrives with a lesser side feature — one that turns out to be just the thing for a below-the-radar route to transformation.

Andersen’s heroine, Gerda, meets many female characters on her journey north, and each is useful and instructive in her way. That Andersen wrote in so many helpers, all female, is remarkable. But the explicit, often moralizing message in his writing annoyed me as a contemporary reader, even as it gave me impetus to ‘write away’ from it when my own time with Gerda and one of her helpers came. I could begin and focus on Andersen’s most unexpected character, his Little Robber Girl, straight from the wrong side of … just about everything … and pure antithesis to the good and golden blonde Gerda.

At some point before I finished at Warren Wilson, Eleanor and I were seated somewhere together, talking. I remember the look on her face, her eyes half-closed in concentration, and the eraser end of the pencil she held barely tapping her teeth. She said in that so-quiet voice of hers, “…you could write The Robber Girl’s story, Carlen.” I didn’t think much about it at the time, but I heard it, remembered it. Prose was the furthest thing from my mind. All my creative work, as an undergrad years earlier, and at Warren Wilson, had been poetry. I thought of myself only as a poet. But I received what Eleanor said, and so a seed was planted — and lay without any apparent growth — for more than fifteen years.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

Is there a section marked “Widely Read” in bookstores, real and online, these days? It’s Literary Fiction, I suppose. Although its audience, in terms of age, could change in revision.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I haven’t a clue. Still too close to the characters, I guess.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Twelve-year-old Asrid, a motherless Robber Girl in 1840’s Sweden, is transformed by true friendship and emboldened to challenge her charming but domineering father, the Robber King, ultimately freeing herself into a life of her own, away from the Robber Castle and the binds of her childhood losses.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It has to be bad luck to answer that!

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Depends on how you count, but months is the unit of measurement if I string active writing periods together. Re-writing is another story entirely.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I do see it as fairy tale, but comparisons are up to others, if they see them.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

To actually sit down and soak open that seed, let it sprout into its first two dozen pages, fifteen years after Eleanor’s observation? Friendship, of course.

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

The talking animals.

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  1. Wonderful to hear where you’ve been and where you are going with this, Carlen. Can’t wait to hold this book in my hands. Poetry – prose – I’m not so sure about the lines. You do rock. xxsallyb

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