Q & A #49 – Wendy J. Fox, “The Pull of It”

pullcoverThis post goes up the day after a big celebrity breakup.

I’m not going to waste another byte on their names but they appeared to be so tight–their outward image to the world–that they were referred to by one merged, mashed-up name.

One of those.

Who can see inside a marriage? Who can really know what’s going on?

Wendy J. Fox, who stopped by the blog last for Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories, is back with her first full-length novel, The Pull of It (launching today).

It’s about marriage and also about diving into a new culture in a distant land, in this case Turkey.

A full review of this memorable novel follows.

Wendy was also kind enough to answer a few questions by email.

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Question: What was the original spark for The Pull of It?

Wendy Fox: The original spark was for The Pull of It was when the US invaded Iraq for the second time, in 2003. I’d been in Turkey for six months, and the university I worked at was adjacent to a military base. The cadets disappeared to the border and the US issued a travel warning. A woman I only marginally knew who was in country on a Fulbright went home. I remember calling the embassy in Ankara from a payphone and they were like, Oh, it’s fine. It happens. I wasn’t sure whether to be shocked or comforted by their flippness about it.

Before this, I had been having a bit of a hard time, and half-heartedly looking for a reason to return to the U.S., and then suddenly I had one, a real reason—no one’s going to argue with fear, with war—but I didn’t take it, because there was something holding me.

The Pull of It started there, when I realized I could go with minimal questions asked, but chose not to go.

Question: Did you take notes at the time or do any writing there? Did you need to do any research more recently, without the benefit of being there?

Wendy Fox: Yes, it was 2002 – 2004, and the last time I visited was 2007 (and that was only for four or five days).

I started the novel when I was teaching in Kayseri, in central Anatolia, and worked on it later when I lived in Istanbul. I did have many notes, and I also had all of the emails I had sent to friends and family in the U.S., and luckily my mom and a few friends saved the letters I wrote them which helped with little details.

I’m not much of a photographer, but I did take a great deal of pictures when I was there, and I was grateful for the record.

Question: The biggest challenge in The Pull of It, among many challenges, was making Laura likeable, given that she is leaving her family and traveling around the world for an extended period of time. How did you approach this issue? Were you concerned about reader reaction to Laura’s decisions?

wendy-j-fox-2Wendy Fox: It’s interesting, because at first I was really not worried about making Laura likeable, because likeability is not something I particularly care about as a reader or a writer, and I also feel like this burden is unduly placed on female characters (and writers).

Yet, as I got feedback about the manuscript, I had to be realistic about people’s perceptions—I realized it’s fine for me not to prioritize likeability, but if no one wants to read the book, that’s a problem.

In the published version, Laura is still a challenging character, but in revisions, I tried to focus more on her motivations, and did a great deal of restructuring so that more of what was at first her backstory came sooner. I hope that this serves to, if not make Laura “likeable” at least understandable.

Question:  Why is marriage such an endlessly interesting topic for writers? Laura is keenly aware of how she and Julian “spiraled inward” during the marriage and how they couldn’t live up to the outward appearance of togetherness and coupledom. What drew you to this subject and why did you send Laura so far away that she may as well have disappeared?

Wendy Fox: Other folks who write about marriage and coupledom may feel differently, but my perspective is that this is such a rich topic because the stakes are so high. Who one partners with can have massive implications for one’s life (whether good or bad)—it really can be quite radical. Laura is an example of someone who did not consider this, particularly; she gets to where she is, for many years, by just letting life happen, rather than making choices. And when I began this book, that was a fundamental fear of mine, being too passive.

It’s true Laura’s reaction is pretty extreme, but I wanted to send her so far away to give her courage to be on her own. The circumstances aren’t the same, but her motivation is based on how I felt when I left the United States. I took a job, I had a commitment. It’s not like it would have been impossible to back out, anything is possible, but the effort of it helped me stay on, even when I was lonely and culture shocked and frustrated. Again, when the State Department travel warning came, I would have had a reason to bolt, but I didn’t take it.

In writing Laura, I wanted this same barrier for her to return, and it needed to be harder for Julian (her husband) to show up on her doorstep. You’ve nailed it when you say “may as well disappeared.” If she was just hiding out at one of her brothers’ houses, she could have simply hopped a bus. Or Julian could have been a short flight away. The distance was required to sustain her absence.

Question: What was goal in sending Laura to a place where she was completely immersed in such a different culture?

Wendy Fox: The goal of immersing Laura in a different culture was to completely destabilize her. For Laura to get down to the core of herself and to understand what she wants, she had to be in a realm that was totally foreign to her. Otherwise, it would have been too easy for her to fall back into the trappings of domestic life, and too easy for her as a character to just check out.

Question: How did you go about developing the character of Yasemin? And did you know before you started about all the situations that Laura would face, both in terms of relationships and incidents?

Wendy Fox: Yasemin started out as a very minor character, just a gal who owned a little hotel. Yet, as I developed the story, it was clear that Laura needed an ally, and Yasemin was just as likely as she was unlikely.

Yasemin was much more of a process of discovery than Laura, and it was important for me to portray her as an educated woman who was more culturally Muslim than fundamentally Muslim, because that echoed many of the women I met.

I think of the burkini debates that are going on now, and Yasemin definitely would wear a burkini, and wear it happily—the burkini means you can swim in something like a wetsuit, instead of something like dungarees. Turkey has in the last decade been on a path to conservatism that is not positive, but even in conservative places, women do find ways to keep their space. If one thinks that Muslim women are uncomfortable with their bodies, I think, Eh, you’ve not been to the hamam—so Yasemin is also in part meant to give a nod the many women within Islamic traditions who are whip-smart and nails-tough, but who also feel cultural pressure.

I didn’t know how important Laura’s friendship with Yasemin would be in the earliest drafts, but I did know part of what Laura would face, because I wrote most of the ending first. It was a question of how she would get there.

Question: Please describe your fixation with minerals. And chemicals.  You drew on them in your short story collection and they appear here, too. Sulfur, aluminum, arsenic…

Wendy Fox: The whole using science in writing thing that I drew on for the short-story collection and for this book started with Yasemin. She’s a chemist by education, if not by trade.

My general fixation is that for someone who is very deeply interested in the emotional lives of my characters, the language of science gives me a way to write in a way that is much more concrete. The words sad and sulfur are very different; something like sulfur has more specificity: it has a color, it has a smell, it has distinct properties. Sad is more nebulous. Sad requires more exposition.

So there’s this kind of concision that the language of science can offer.

Question: What was the hardest part of going from writing short stories to a full-length novel? And what was the best or easiest thing about the change?

Wendy Fox: The hardest thing, for me, is sustaining the narrative and negotiating longer lines of plot. While a short-story might do, in quick time, some of the work of a novel (as in, containing a story) a novel is not the converse. A short can be a compressed novel in a way a novel cannot simply be an elongated short-story.

The best thing about this shift is that as a writer you have more time to develop the setting and the characters. You get a little more room.

However, I will say that in working on larger projects, I still try to break these down into 10 – 20 page chunks (short-story size) because smaller, discreet sections help me focus.

Question: What’s next?

Wendy Fox: Thanks for asking! I’m starting on revisions of a second novel—I think it is almost, but not quite there, and I’m also working on a book of linked short-stories that are stylistically very different than most of my other writing, which is challenging, but it’s nice to have a challenge.

Neither of these projects are anywhere close to having a home, but it’s exciting to both be in the thick of creating and having work coming out.

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Website: Wendy J. Fox 

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REVIEW:

Lydia Davis ends her brilliant, enticing introduction to A Manual for Cleaning Women, a short story collection by Lucia Berlin, with a quote pulled from one of Berlin’s stories:

“So what is marriage anyway? I never figured it out. And now it is death I don’t understand.”

Yes, what is marriage anyway? Is it as unknowable as death?

To Laura Clarey, the complex main character in Wendy J. Fox’s first full-length novel The Pull of It, the answer to the second question might be “yes.”

In the very first moment of The Pull of It, Laura hears a comment from her husband Julian that makes her wonder whether she’s married the right guy. It’s a simple comment about whether it’s a good idea to bring in a “holiday babysitter” for New Year’s. If a teenager doesn’t have somewhere to go on New Year’s, Laura thinks, is she appropriate to watch their seven-year-old daughter?

Julian, “ever practical,” tells Laura to stop wondering so much about other people’s lives.

And there’s the rub. Laura does wonder about other people’s lives. It’s in her DNA. And she wonders if she wants to be married to a man who does not.

Big deal? Little deal? Does it matter?

Right out of the shoot, on the second page, we are keenly aware that Laura Clarey would prefer to have spent New Year’s with her daughter and not hanging around a boring party where “everyone was so deeply coupled.”

Laura, we know, is not so “deeply” intertwined. Hardly.

It’s Julian who suggests a vacation. Laura is unemployed but there is a contingency fund. It’s supposed to be a few weeks. But Laura wants distance—and she gets it.

Istanbul—and then into the interior of Turkey, to a village.

And Laura stretches a “vacation” into something much more.

At the heart of this brisk novel is a prickly concern: how can a married woman leave behind a seven-year-old daughter and go search for answers to questions about her marriage in a country half-way around the world where communication is both dicey and infrequent?  That’s the challenge Fox gave herself and she pulls it off. Laura Clarey may not be 100 percent sympathetic, but if you’re married or otherwise “deeply coupled” in any way you will recognize the search for identity. The novel dances down a taut, interesting path.

Laura moves to a town in Turkey’s vast interior and takes a job in a twenty-room guesthouse run by a woman named Yasemin. Interspersed with flashbacks to Laura’ early life and early relationships and early interactions with Julian, Fox layers-in information about Laura and how she’s been built to respond. Then, Laura meets one man and then another and I’ll only say here that The Pull of It is not all interior contemplation. Stuff happens and it isn’t all pretty.

To fans of Fox’s Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories (a finalist for The Colorado Book Award in 2015), the clean, spare writing will come as no surprise.  “That’s the way marriage goes sometimes, I suppose. As our friends around us paired and coupled off, I would say, Congratulations. I would say, I hope this is exactly what you want. But you can’t know, ever, until the marriage is happening, and by then, you’re already battened down every available hatch.”

The Pull of It ventures into space where many novels have tread but you won’t soon forget the messy, uncomfortable space that Laura inhabits or the surprising, grounded conclusion. Is this book for guys? Any husband who is in relationship where there are questions in the air (more questions than talk, let’s say) should go with Laura on her not-so-little trip. And think, “what is marriage, anyway?”

 

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