Rachel Basch, our most recent winner of the William Van Wert Fiction Award at Hidden River Arts, for an excerpt from her novel, The Listener, offers up answers about her winning manuscript, and about her writing practice.
1. Rachel, can you talk a little bit about The Listener — your inspiration, the entirety of the novel, and where the project is, currently?
The inspiration for The Listener came while I was finishing up my last novel, The Passion of Reverend Nash. That book was about a Congregational minister, and while I was working on it, I attended Sunday church services as a way of steeping myself in that world, that culture. One Sunday morning I spent nearly the entire service watching a young person in the row in front of me. He was no more than 16, and he was dressed in what most of us would consider feminine attire. He did not appear to be with his family, and basically I was fascinated at the courage it took for him to be himself in that place. There was something provocative about his stance, his appearance, even his facial expression. I wondered at the challenge his parents had in embracing him. And this phrase started spinning around in my head, “loving what’s hard to love.” Often in the course of our lives we’re asked to keep ourselves open to giving and receiving love when it’s not our initial inclination, when it’s not easy.
Right now the novel is with my agent who is sending it out to editors. I’ve never spent so long writing and rewriting a book before. The book has been something of a difficult child.
2. Can you talk a bit about your writing in a larger sense? What are your fascinations, your focus, what kind of writing are you most attracted to?
I do think that most writers have one, if they’re lucky, two, central obsessions. My books are almost always, in some way, about the nature and extent of our responsibilities to one another. I’m fascinated by the psychodynamics of families, of couples, of friends. I’m drawn to exploring the elasticity, the expansiveness and the limits of human love. And I’m extremely interested in the ways in which we can transcend what we consider to be our limits. I’m curious about the ways in which our souls can grab the reigns from our egos.
Jonathan Franzen recently said in an interview that he was most interested in writers who had “skin in the game.” I love that. Writing that matters, that really makes a difference is writing that I’m attracted to. I want to be pushed past where I am, always. I want to be made to think deeply and feel greatly.
3. Do you have any advice to aspiring writers? What should they be doing to move their craft forward?….to support themselves as writers?
I think the most important advice, advice I still need to give to myself, is to take the long view. Stamina and patience, perseverance and faith are essential qualities if you want to write. You need to sustain yourself over a lifetime of writing, and you need, early on, to lose your desire for external validation. It seldom comes and when it does it’s fleeting. Enjoy the process, the making of the art – that’s the part you can control, that’s the aspect of it all that belongs to you. Surround yourself with other artists and with other kinds of art – drama, music, painting. Art begets art. Always remember that you are doing something that, at its best, will be ignored by the larger society in which we live. You will need to invent your own measure of success, something very different from the yardstick that’s used by the prevailing capitalist culture. Making art is hard, and you need to actively respect your own efforts. As for practical advice, I’m well past the middle of my life, and I’ve still not figured out an adequate way to support my habit.
The next round of submissions for The William Van Wert Fiction Award, which provides $1000 to the winning manuscript, deadlines June 30, 2013 at midnight. Please see our guidelines on this site for further details.