A House Made of Stars, by Tawnysha Greene, is now available as an e-book! You can read it via Amazon and everywhere else e-books are sold.
To celebrate the release of the e-book, we present this “micro-interview” about the making of the novel, between Tawnysha Greene and Burlesque Press’s books editor, Daniel Wallace.
If you would like to hear Tawnysha’s advice for aspiring authors, or if are curious about the work required to take a novel from conception to publication, then — drumroll — you must read on!
A House Made of Stars: A Micro-Interview
Daniel Wallace is studying for his PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee. He is the books editor for Burlesque Press, an assistant editor of ASAP/Journal, and his work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Tampa Review, and Fiction Writers Review.
Tawnysha Greene received her MA from Auburn University and her PhD from the University of Tennessee where she served as the fiction editor for Grist: The Journal for Writers. Her work has appeared in PANK Magazine, Bellingham Review, and Weave Magazine. Her first novel, A House Made of Stars, was released by Burlesque Press in 2015.
Daniel Wallace: Something that I admire about your writing (in your novel A House Made of Stars) is how focused it is. There isn’t much discussing or reflecting. There’s no comforting outside presence (like an older narrator interpreting events) and the prose is tightly joined to the sensations of the child protagonist. Moira Crone commented on this closeness, too, in her response to the book.
Is this closeness a state of mind you have to get into? Do you have “feel” your way into the protagonist’s head and consciously stay there, or is it not like that at all?
Tawnysha Greene: Before I ever wrote a story, I wrote poetry, so I have always been more comfortable with this more condensed form of narration. While writing my dissertation at the University of Tennessee (A House Made of Stars is a rewritten version of this dissertation), I had a chance to revisit my roots and take poetry courses in addition to fiction workshops. Marilyn Kallet and Pam Uschuk were wonderful mentors in these poetry workshops and frequently pushed me to go deeper into the lives of my characters. We would frequently go through drafts of poems together and work on cutting out all the unnecessary details until only what truly mattered remained.
While I fleshed out these poems when I included parts of them in the novel, I continued to aim for that same directness I learned in the poetry workshops. This straightforwardness was necessary, I thought, because of the age of the protagonist and her environment. As a homeschooled ten-year-old girl who lives with her family in a one-room house above a garage, her experiences are restricted, and I wanted the language to reflect that. Also, this directness was important to convey the impact of the protagonist’s experiences on her—both positive and negative, so I used the present tense, included few details, and kept the chapters short.
At times, I went overboard with the lack of reflection or discussion, and this hurt the characterization, making my protagonist seem almost cold or distant, so during some of the later revisions, I made her more open in the way she expressed herself or reacted to what happened around her. It was a tricky line to walk, because I wanted to preserve the style without sacrificing the emotions of my protagonist, but I hope that I found some sort of medium in this book.
The book I am writing now, an untitled sequel, takes place twenty years after A House Made of Stars has ended, and it has been interesting to follow my protagonist as she grows older. The chapters are still short, the verbs are still in present tense, but there is so much more reflection in this one than in A House Made of Stars. As a child, she is guided only by what is happening in the present, but as an adult, her decisions are much more complicated. An abused child’s journey toward healing is often a long one as she discovers in this book, and a more reflective tone is needed to narrate the choices she makes. The book is still in its early stages and will not be finished for a while yet, but it has been intriguing to track these changes in her and explore which narration style is best to convey her story at different points in her life.
Tawnysha Greene: It’s interesting that your first question was about closeness and focus, because the cover seems to convey these things, too, which makes it a fantastic reflection of the narrative. The design is very striking and also draws the audience’s eyes very clearly to the juxtaposed line drawings of the girl and her stars—could you give some insight in how you decided on the cover art and how you went about designing it? Could you also share some thoughts about the back cover and how you went about looking for an image that would correspond with what you had created for the front cover?
Daniel Wallace: I’ll be honest, I got pretty stressed by the design of this cover. I wanted to make something really good, a design that would be striking from the other side of a bookstore, but I wasn’t sure quite how to do that.
From the start, I was interested in a cover that represented some kind of duality or doubleness. The novel portrays horrifying, harrowing scenes of violence, as well as more subtle, but equally harrowing scenes of miseducation and denial — and yet it is also an imaginative coming-of-age for the protagonist. She is slowly learning about the world, forming a model of reality that is distinct from her parents’ disturbed values. She has to do this to survive. This imaginative work requires her to rethink her relationship with the Bible, with Greek mythology, and with the people she finds around herself: it is a wide-ranging and powerful re-calibration. So the story is one of dreaming and imagination as well as one of fear and panic.
My initial attempts to execute this intention were poor, and I decided to simplify the design for the first full version, trying for a cover that conveyed the menace of the protagonist’s situation: the long journeys across night highways, the scribbled letters she writes to her grandmother. But the resulting design was not great.
My wife had said that the cover might have some childlike elements, as though it were a child’s drawing. Now, I knew enough about the thornier aspects of graphic design to know that making a full book cover look like an actual crayon-ed sheet of paper, say, was beyond my skills. I couldn’t make it literally look like a child’s drawing. Yet I kept thinking about how I might incorporate some hand drawing (or a mouse-drawing) into the final image.
I was still not making progress. But then the author Lish McBride (a friend who writes very funny, clever novels about necromancy) posted on Facebook a link to the cover of a new YA book, Up To This Pointe, designed by Noelle Stevenson.
I loved Stevenson’s cover, and I was struck by her use of a horizon to create perspective. I liked the idea of having a ground in the image, angled. So, in the actual design of A House Made of Stars, the ground came first. Isn’t that weird? From there, the idea of a girl looking up at a circle of stars appeared to me.
And once I had the idea of the ground and a girl looking up, hopefully, at stars, it was easy to bring back my first idea, the double, or the negative of her, the buried, troubled girl, her mirror image.
About the back cover: when I finished reading your manuscript for the very first time, I immediately looked up Cepheus, the constellation. I needed to know what it looked like. Your narrator often references Cepheus, the house made of stars, and she even describes the difference between the way the actual constellation looks and how the house she imagines looks. Readers, I decided, needed a picture of the constellation somewhere in the book, and the back cover seemed like a great place to put it.
Additionally: most good front cover designs require a lot of background space. You need room to put the title and author’s name. But the need for background space is even more pressing on the back, because there will be blurbs and a synopsis and so on. The text has to be clear. So I knew I would remove the hand-drawings and the stars for the back cover, just leaving the sky and the ground, and I liked bringing in a relatively faint constellation map to add detail back in, to keep the page visually interesting.
Tawnysha Greene: Now that all the editing and design work is finished and A House Made of Stars is released, what is next for you and Burlesque Press? What kinds of projects do you hope to work on as the book editor/designer? Are there any particular types of manuscripts that you and Jeni would like to see?
Daniel Wallace: Of course, on one level, I don’t consider the work complete on A House Made of Stars. There’s lots of post-publication goodness to continue to carry out, much of it about promotion and connection-making. And in December, I’m particularly looking forward to introducing you and the book to The Hands On Literary Festival and Masquerade Ball, the conference for writers, scholars, and artists which our press hosts each year in New Orleans.
But on the other hand, it’s true that with the book released, the creative side of things is complete for A House Made of Stars, and that’s a great feeling. Burlesque Press has a penciled-in plan of the next few books we’d like to publish. We’ve been fortunate that, since we started publishing books last year, some truly excellent writers have contacted us, and we’ve been able to work on a series of remarkable projects. Largely, I think this is due to the great reserves of regard and goodwill that Jeni, the press’s founder, has built up through her years of helping writers establish themselves and make connections.
Those penciled-in books will likely take us through the rest of this year and into 2016. We are a two-person team and, at the moment, we more or less work on one book at a time. But we are actively seeking new submissions. And while I have do some personal preferences for the kind of manuscripts I would like to see, I’m hesitant to describe them. For instance, I would be personally interested in a collection of stories or essays that displayed great skill at structure and design, full of internal connections, where the endings build to satisfying places. That seems like something I could really help, as an editor, to help develop and grow. But the quality of the work is much more important. Like most people, I’ll always prefer to read an unexpectedly great manuscript, written in a genre or style that startles me, over one which is merely a good version of something I think I already like.
I would also be interested in publishing essays that speak to popular as well as scholarly concerns, and which challenge the reader’s preconceptions, cause some readers discomfort and some to cheer. A critic like Yasmin Nair would be someone I would one day hope to (dream to) work with. Additionally, I’ve long been looking for a good manuscript on the craft of fiction, and so far I remain on the lookout.
Overall, I feel like the press is reaching a really interesting place. This year’s festival is looking to be the largest yet, and we’re somewhat trembling at the prospect of welcoming Dorothy Allison as the keynote speaker for 2015. The Hands On Festival is such a unique time: a full three days of readings, discussions, and performances, taking place in a convivial, intimate, supportive atmosphere. It’s a place where writers find it easy to meet likeminded people, forge new connections, and eat great food, aided firstly by the welcoming energy that Jeni brings to the event and secondly by the strange, troublingly chaotic, joyful air of New Orleans.
As the press and the festival grow, it’s going to be exciting to see how we adapt. I wonder where we’ll be in a year or two.
Daniel Wallace: Now that you’ve published your first novel, it must feel like an important station on a very long road. Many years of work go into that first manuscript. What advice would you give to a talented aspiring fiction writer who is just starting their journey on that road, someone in the first semester of his or her MFA, someone whose work impressed you, but who, in terms of projects and publications, was clearly just starting out. If this writer asked you for career advice — “What should I do to get better at writing, to reach editors and readers, to build my portfolio / resume?” — what suggestions would you give?
Tawnysha Greene: When I took a fiction workshop with Richard Bausch, one of his biggest pieces of advice for writers was to read—everything from the classics to contemporary literature—because it is during this process that you learn the most, and I find this to be excellent advice. Every year, I teach Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, to my freshmen students, and King has the same advice—saying that to become a better writer, you must read a lot and write a lot.
Not only is it important to be knowledgeable about the literary canon, but more and more, it is imperative to be aware of what is being published today. I would advise a new writer to become familiar with the literary journals that are publishing now and better yet, become a reader for one of these journals. When I was a graduate student, I served as the fiction editor for Grist: The Journal for Writers, and this was an enlightening experience, because I could get a behind-the-scenes look into what made a journal come together. Additionally, I could get a better look at the strategies successful authors took in their cover letters and submissions and follow these examples when submitting my own work to other journals.
Editing a journal also helped me make connections to other writers, and this kind of networking is essential in becoming a successful member of the literary community. So, nourish those friendships. Buy books. Write reviews. Go to readings. Write to the authors you love, and tell them that you enjoyed their books.
Sometimes, it can be intimidating to do these things, especially as most of us writers are introverts. I remember going to my first AWP conference in Boston and seeing Roxane Gay, a writer I adored, in the bookfair. I mustered up the courage twice to walk toward her and say hello, but each time, chickened out and turned away at the last minute, because I was too nervous, but my husband (who knew I was blowing my chance to talk to a writer I admired) turned me around, and I tried again one last time. And she was wonderful! We talked, and she was so kind and gracious. She was funny, too, and my nervousness just melted away.
So don’t be afraid to talk to other writers, make connections, and pour yourself into the writing community, because it is such a supportive group. Being a writer is hard work, but the family you can create by networking is an invaluable one, and it is important to have people with whom you can celebrate successes, mourn failures, and learn how to be better storytellers in spite of it all. I treasure the friends I’ve made on this writing journey and look forward to all the others I still have yet to meet.