CS: What made you write The Algebra of Snow? Where did you get the inspiration?
Ginger: I spent a very cold winter once in a log cabin in the country in Virginia. It got down around zero degrees every night for a week and I had to sleep in the living room, where the oil furnace was. One night it got so cold in my bedroom that a bottle of Oil of Olay on my dresser froze and broke.
CS: Did you have a clear picture of the book before you began writing, such as all the plot details, or was it more of an organic process that developed as you wrote? Did you create any kind of outline before you began writing?
Ginger: Algebra evolved from a short story that I wrote that winter to a novel when I was in graduate school and desperate for a dissertation. I read novels almost exclusively and have an idea that you write what you read—and I don’t have the intense, short style that is required for a good short story. So I’d always wanted to write a novel, but I was very much intimidated by and in awe of the process. I was studying Virginia Woolf’s short story “Mrs Dalloway on Bond Street” and the way it became the novel Mrs. Dalloway and the light bulb went on: I could do that with my short story.
CS: Do you have a particular structured ritual or writing process that you follow for novel writing? How do you think this process differs from writing other genres, such as a self-help book or essays?
Ginger: I write first thing in the morning, before I’m awake. When my kids were little, I came up with a ritual that involves making a cup of tea in my room so that they didn’t hear me in the kitchen—any sound in the kitchen being a clarion call to young persons that Mom is up and available. The closer I can stay to the bed, the better, in my opinion. I aim for two pages a day. That will get you a novel by the end of the year.
CS: The Algebra of Snow has some very interesting recurring elements, such as Amelia’s preoccupation with math. How did you think of these particular elements? Were you inspired by any personal experiences or real life encounters? Do you find that when writing fiction, the story borrows or takes on aspects of your real life or is it always purely fiction?
Ginger: There are parts of Algebra that are autobiographical in origin, but the math is not one of them! In fact, I describe this book sometimes as a novel about a mathematician in the Adirondacks written by a Southerner who can’t add.
CS: You have a lot of experience in studying literature, including a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing and degrees in English. What effect do you think having such an academic background of literature had on your novel writing process? Did you learn anything new during the writing process that you hadn’t learned while studying it? How was the experience different in the “doing” versus the “studying”?
Ginger: I was a literary scholar and teacher long before I was a writer. That is true of the outside me, at least. Inside, I had been devouring books since I was very young, beginning with my mother’s reading me Hans Christian Anderson when I was practically an infant. And I always told myself stories and told anyone who would listen (again my long-suffering mother!) stories. So I was a writer before I knew I was. But by the time I started writing, I was also deep into literary criticism, an area by which I remain quite fascinated. As it turns out, high level literary criticism begins to verge on the world of physics and abstract math at a certain point and I was able to translate that, after a fashion, into the algebra that is in the book. I guess I should say that I took a wild shot at it and then had real mathematicians read it behind me and say that I was not too far off (and, of course, correct me when I was).
CS: How was your experience writing The Algebra of Snow different from your experiences writing your other works, such as your collection of essays or nonfiction book? Do you find that you apply what you have learned about novel writing in the same ways for writing any genre?
Ginger: I would say that each of my books has a different “voice” because the characters are different and the settings and situations are all wildly different. But my heroine, it is also true, is often someone who is pretty thoughtful if not always completely intellectual, and she is often bemused by the real world.
CS: Did you find that you developed a particular voice or style in The Algebra of Snow that you didn’t use in other works? How do they differ? How did you decide on this voice and how did you know it fit with the narrative?
Ginger: Because I’m a literary scholar, I hate to use the standard “well, the character just sounded that way in my head”—but that is what happened. I once wrote a story from the point of view of a guy truck driver. It won an award and the judges were surprised when they found out the writer was a woman and a college professor. I think it’s a very good thing that I turned out to be a writer because I might otherwise be worried about the voices I hear in my head! As it is, I feel lucky when one of them gets a good story going and I get to go along for the ride.
CS: You are also very experienced in working as an editor as well as a writing coach. Did you find yourself writing The Algebra of Snow in the same methods and ways you would have coached another writer to do? Did you find you were coaching yourself during the writing process? If so, what were some of the ways you were able to coach yourself and look at your own writing as a more objective reader would?
Ginger: Algebra was my dissertation and I had to write a 30 page critical preface to it as well as defend it in my dissertation defense. Good lord! I thought my head would crack! I had written tons of criticism by them, presented papers, published scholarly articles, and written a lot of short stories and essays as well as the novel. But the hardest thing I ever had to do was to write the critical preface to my own book. Good thing I don’t have to do that again.
CS: Did you find that you edited The Algebra of Snow in the same ways you would have edited another writer’s book? What was your experience like editing this book, having the perspectives of an author, editor, and academic reader? Was it difficult to look at your own writing through each lens? Do you find that you edit other authors’ work any differently, having written a book and been in that other role?
Ginger: I wrote Algebra many times—I’m a very slow reviser and a firm believer that revision is truly a re-vision, as in seeing it again. Worse, I write all my fiction by hand. And I write the revisions by hand too. I think you have to be willing to let everything go that isn’t working and you have to be disciplined about that. There are really two different parts of the brain that do this work, so I always write a book all the way through and then go back and revise. This is also what I tell anyone I’m coaching. I wouldn’t mix up those functions. I had great teachers at the University of Houston where I got my Ph.D. and Jim and Mary Robison were fabulous with Algebra—they pushed me hard to make it great while also saying wonderful things about it. I had a great agent too and she line edited the book and challenged me throughout, while also championing it.
CS: What things did you learn through your experiences as an academic, editor, coach, and author that you have passed on to your writing students? What do you think are some of the most vital things for novel writers to learn for their writing, such as certain philosophies or practices?
Ginger: I know it’s been said a lot before but read, read, read. I think it would be very hard to be a good writer who doesn’t read. Some people don’t read as much, but they have grown up in a family of story-tellers and have honed that skill themselves at the dinner table or the neighborhood bar. That can work too. But mostly I say soak in the great writers—Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Dickens, Hardy—and also read the true yarn-spinners like Brian Jacques who wrote children’s books but who has everything—rollicking plot, multi-dimensional characters, and a story that matters about courage and loyalty. He also adds a in a lot of what I call “weather”—the wonderful scenery, the world of the story, the humor which takes us out of what Virginia Woolf called “the cramp and confinement of personality”—of ourselves and our small, narrow concerns.
CS: Writers have to make a lot of decisions about who to work with when writing and publishing their book, such as agents, editors, publishers, etc. Having some insight in these fields, what advice do you have for writers on choosing and working with others to produce their book?
Ginger: These days it’s often a matter of who you can get as an agent or an editor—if we’re talking about the world of commercial fiction. It’s so hard to break in there that mostly a writer is lucky if he or she can get the attention of anyone in the business. But, of course, that person needs to be very compatible. I’ve been very lucky to have had an agent who is just a terrific person and good friend, Kay Kidde. I admire her tremendously and can’t think anything more delightful than spending a day with her.
CS: The Algebra of Snow was nominated for a Pushcart Editor’s Choice Award. What was that experience like? What are some of the other positive results you’ve experienced since publishing this book?
Ginger: It was hugely gratifying because I’d had the discouraging experience of having a number of commercial editors say how much they loved they book but didn’t think they could get traction with it in the commercial world. It is a quiet book on the outside—a mathematician alone in the Adirondacks in winter doesn’t sound all that action-packed, does it? There actually is a lot of action, though it is interior. So it was great to get the affirmation when an editor at Doubleday nominated it for the Pushcart Editor’s Choice Award, an award given by Pushcart to a book that is considered of literary merit. Only editors at the big commercial houses can nominate books for this award.
CS: Did you encounter any roadblocks during the writing and publishing processes? How did you overcome these? What advice do you have for readers encountering similar roadblocks?
Ginger: This business isn’t for sissies. But, then, life isn’t, is it? The biggest roadblock to getting the book published was that I ended up being a single working mom to two fantastic, active boys for much of my career. I wrote that whole time, but didn’t have the time to send things out for publication. After they had gotten a bit older I was able to start sending things out again and that is when the book and many of the essays in my collection on being a single, working mom got published.
When I was about to have my first child, I asked a wise friend of mine—a mother and a writer—what it was like to have a child. We were at breakfast and she drew a hill on the napkin. “Here is how much trouble you think your kid is going to be,” she said. Then she drew a MUCH bigger hill on top of it. “Here is how much trouble your kids actually will be,” she said. My heart sank at her words and I drooped over my scrambled eggs. But she wasn’t done. She drew a hill as big as the napkin and then some. “What you can’t know is that THIS is how big your love for him will be.”
That’s what writing is like. It’s WAY more trouble than you think it’s going to be. And it’s much, much, much more rewarding than you can ever imagine. The adventure of it, the places it will take you, the heartbreak, the neglected beauties, and the triumphs—these become a part of the fabric of your life and, in fact, become a way of being alive. That is what writing can do for you.
CS: How can our readers reach you?
Ginger: At email@example.com.
Ginger Moran is a teacher, writer, editor, writing coach, and single mom of two boys. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Houston in Literature and Creative Writing and Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in English from the University of Virginia. She has been published in Salon.com, Oxford American, Literary Mama, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Hook, Feminist Studies and other journals. She has written three novels, a collection of essays about her years as a single working mom, and a nonfiction book on custody. Her novel The Algebra of Snow was nominated for a Pushcart Editor’s Choice Award. She currently edits the University of Virginia Women’s Center magazine, Iris, and serves as the associate director.
I so enjoyed this interview. It provided new insights into the beautifully written, The Algebra of Snow which I so enjoyed reading–makes me want to read it again.
A great review and such wonderful thoughts on the meaning of writing.