Observations on Writing

Lambda Book Report Interview by Bett Norris

October 10, 2008
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1)   First, congratulations on a wonderful book. What is your writing process like? Do you work from an outline of ideas or scenes, a roadmap of sorts? Do you let the characters pull you forward through the narrative? (BN)

Thank you.  “Red Audrey” started as a short story that I wrote in graduate school.  The short story was, in its way, quite complete:  four of the five main characters from the book are in the short story, and the Latin and UPS, and the roping and accident are in the short story too.  To a certain extent, the short story worked as a guideline for the novel.  For the proper writing of the novel, however, I just wrote scenes and put the whole thing together afterward.  I would take long hikes and think about place and conversation, and then the characters did all the work once I sat down to write.  The characters had their own minds and tones and decided exactly how the novel would play.  The writing part was almost improbably easy, the thinking part took years.   (JM)

2)  Red Audrey and the Roping is full of flashbacks, flash forwards. It is not told in a linear fashion. How did you decide on this style?  (BN)

Since I wrote in scenes, I printed all the scenes out, spread them on my bed, and put them together in what seemed like the most accurate timeline.  That was the first draft, and it was linear except for the hospital scenes.  At that time the novel was divided into three sections:  Emily, Nick, and Audrey.  My first readers thought that Audrey came into the book much too late.  In my first re-write I worked to get Audrey into the hospital scenes, and that single revision altered the form of the novel.  That revision allowed me to jump through time at will because all the characters had been introduced from the beginning, and I could make reference to them throughout the narrative rather than allocating them a rigid place in the chronology.  The time hops create another layer of tension to the narrative, and they are textually representative of Jane’s nonlinear thinking as a result of the accident.  (JM)

3)  Describe what this past year has been like, winning the Bywater Prize, getting your book in print.  (BN)

This year has been an absolute thrill.  I have been little-kid excited through the entire process.  I wrote the short story ten years ago, and even after it sprawled into a novel, I wasn’t completely convinced it would ever become a book.  Bywater changed all of that for me.    (JM)

4) What was the editing process like? Did you enjoy it?  (BN)

The editing process was fascinating.  I hate punctuation; it’s superfluous so often.  We had a lot of fun putting quotes around all the dialogue and adding a million commas.  More than anything, my editor, Kelly Smith, made me more mindful of inconsistencies in the text, and overuse of certain words.  She also restrained me in those areas where I was playing a bit too hard with the language.  The best part of the process was her conviction for the story.  (JM)    

5) Any advice for aspiring writers? (BN)

Write a blog.  I find a blog to be the best exercise for keeping my writing concise and innovative.  It is amazing how much exposure a blog will bring for a writer.  (JM)  

6) What’s next after Red Audrey?  (BN)

I have another novel in the works.  So far it’s darkish, but I think I may have finally stumbled upon a way to edge the dark with humor.  Without humor I don’t think there’s much point to writing.  Red Audrey never would have worked without Grey.  Once I found Grey, the story became funnier and more human.  Otherwise you’re just Thomas Hardy, and no one needs that much grim. (JM)


This interview was published in the Lambda Book Report.  Bett Norris is the author of Miss McGhee, and the soon-to-be-released What’s Best for Jane.  

Bett Norris, born and raised in Alabama a few short miles from the place where Harper Lee did the same, followed in the footsteps of her idol and inspiration by attending the University of Alabama, somehow managing to graduate with a degree in history and a burning desire to write. Real life intruded, but many years later, her first novel, Miss McGhee, a runnerup for the first annual Bywater prize for fiction, was published, a story set in the south during the decades of the civil rights movement. 

Norris continues to write using the South as source material and setting. “Almost everybody’s got a story about crazy relatives, mad dogs, good trucks, fishing, deer hunting, drinking, cussing, fighting, football, running around barefoot in the summers, better times in the past, and where the bootleggers live.”  

She now lives in Florida with her partner, and gets up every morning at an insanely early hour to write.



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We must live with our stories

August 9, 2008
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I’m at the point in the writing where the end of the novel is in every sentence–its inevitability, its weight and tragedy. It’s so blissful when you’re puzzling through this stuff, when you untangle the major threads, and the twists, and the climax, and have sorted the beast out. But then, when you must write their happiness, when you must make it honest and vulnerable and give it depth and humanity, knowing all along that you will tear it from them, well, then it gets tough.

If it didn’t feel real, it wouldn’t move you. It wouldn’t feel real, if it weren’t. I love and grieve for them. Like any mother, I want to spare them their suffering, but the writer, that nefarious creature, will have her spoils.

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August 9, 2008
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The narrative perspective for the new novel I’m writing is third person limited, which means I’m writing from the perspective of (in this particular case) three different characters. The narration is filtered through one of their perspectives at any given time. At present, I don’t go into anyone else’s perspective.

I am beginning to feel though, that the book might really be third person omniscient. In which case, the narration can move into any character’s perspective, and can even narrate things that the characters can’t possibly know (e.g. Thomas and Jordan pulled into traffic while three streets away a drunk driver ran a red light and floored the accelerator).

Perspective is a fascinating topic for writers. We love to tell you who cheats (Jane Austen) and whose dynamic narrational choices create unique opportunities previously unexplored (Ian McEwan). “The Jane Austen Book Club” would not have been the clever, layered story it became if it had been told in third person omniscient, or even first person singular. Why are the Sherlock Holmes stories narrated from Watson’s viewpoint? Because he’s an idiot who has to have everything explained to him, so the reader gets to be smarter than Watson, but surprised by Holmes.

Perspective. I might need to broaden mine.

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