I always enjoy Ginger Moran’s novels. Her latest, The Body of Summer, came out this past summer (of course!). I had the privilege of interviewing Ginger about writing this novel, her process, what she teaches her clients and students and how her fiction and nonfiction writing influence each other.
Lisa: I love your title. I imagined that the entire book could have flowed from that initial title. Am I right? Did the title come early on in the process? Or when and how did the title come to you?
Ginger: I actually wrote the original version of The Body of Summer after my first novel, The Algebra of Snow. I saw it as a sort of bookend to the cold and isolation of Algebra. I had taken a really long time and many sheets of scratch paper to get the title of Algebra. When I came up with Body, it just sounded completely right—there is a body on the first page, floating in the warm waters of the Rivanna River outside Charlottesville, Virginia. And the summer itself is a felt presence, a body, throughout the book. Summer in the South is not easily dismissed—it is a force to be reckoned with all day and night.
I grew up in Charlottesville, in a time when there was no air conditioning, so I brought that sense to the book—the sense that summer was inescapable, a heavy weight always with you, sometimes comforting, sometimes violent, and never controllable.
Lisa: You begin with a mysterious one page scene. A scene that we will later realize relates to a murder, but we won’t learn what we’ve witnessed until the end. We don’t know what happens at the beginning or end of this scene, but we soon learn of a dead body. What inspired you to start with such mystery? And did you begin here or did you add this later?
Who Done It?
Ginger: I started with that scene. Mystery is my favorite genre, hands down. I love the noir effect of having the murder scene described early on—the deed virtually done before your reading eyes. I also am a lifelong, diehard fan of Virginia Woolf. The section of To the Lighthouse where no humans are there is central to my aesthetic and even my theology.
Nothing stirred in the drawing-room or in the dining-room or on the staircase. Only through the rusty hinges and swollen sea-moistened woodwork certain airs, detached from the body of the wind (the house was ramshackle after all) crept round corners and ventured indoors. Almost one might imagine them, as they entered the drawing-room questioning and wondering, toying with the flap of hanging wall-paper, asking, would it hang much longer, when would it fall? Then smoothly brushing the walls, they passed on musingly as if asking the red and yellow roses on the wall-paper whether they would fade, and questioning (gently, for there was time at their disposal) the torn letters in the wastepaper basket, the flowers, the books, all of which were now open to them and asking, Were they allies? Were they enemies? How long would they endure?
–Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
I am somehow consoled by the fact that the human is so small, so insignificant, to nature as a whole. But then, of course, the book plunges into the human, the ordinary, a woman who is mostly fretted by work and child-raising and the daily things that obsess us.
Many, many drafts
Ginger: That one came pretty fast too. I don’t want to make it sound like the book came quickly or easily! As usual, it took me many, many drafts. I just had the scene all arrive pretty much of a piece. I won’t go into my own marital adventures, but there is a lot of Colin that is familiar to me—and a lot of Kendal is very familiar. The deep conflict between them because of where they came from is going to appear in every interaction. And yet they home to each other. Even though their marriage is over, he calls her when he is in deep trouble. And she answers.
Lisa: From the very first line of chapter 1, we know Colin is trouble. And he keeps aggravating…I feel the anxiety coming on whenever Colin enters the picture.
Ginger: I see Colin quite literally as a black bear, one who is at home in the forest. But don’t let him loose in civilization! He isn’t evil—he is just naturally wild. As a human, that means he is going to go his own way, no matter what civilization tries to do to tame him. He loved Kendal when they met and married, but her extreme civilization is a huge barrier—she is the daughter of an old Virginia family and it is hard to get more extremely socially conscious as that without turning English. She has a wild streak, too, though, buried deep beneath her correct Virginia exterior and her career as a very theoretical academic.
Writing both novels and nonfiction
Lisa: As both a novelist and nonfiction writer, how does your nonfiction influence your fiction and vice versa?
Ginger: What an interesting question! When I got my Ph.D., I had to write a critical introduction to the novel that was my dissertation. It almost made my head crack in two! Nonfiction and fiction are so different and call for such different skills.
I have written a lot of nonfiction—journalistic articles, scholarly articles, and academic reviews. Luckily, most of the nonfiction writing I do now is essayistic.
Creative nonfiction essays and, by extension, most memoir, comes very close to fiction. You are trying to convey a story—through characters, place, and plot. My fiction tends to be based in my actual life and, clearly, all my essays are derived from my life.
I love fiction for the flights it allows—the way my imagination can take off from what was and go anywhere, dream anything. Like most fiction writers, I have very often had the story get away from me, characters do things I might even have told them expressly not to do.
The essays stay closer to the truth, but creative nonfiction is about arrangement—arrangement of the elements so that they make sense, where in real life, they might have been just as confusing as real life usually is. And the arrangement can often be created—fictionalized. I like the quietness of creative nonfiction, the challenge to make art of life. But I love the wildness of fiction too.
Ginger’s novel-writing process
Ginger: Oh, Lisa, I am the worst sort of terminal “pantser”! That is, I write by the seat of my pants, plotting nothing.
Because I’m writing mysteries almost exclusively now, that can be a real problem. So, I have tried having at least a general outline—a sense of the big plot points.
But, honestly, I start with something that is bothering me—a question I don’t have an answer to. As I write, on a good day, the problem is like sand in an oyster, something the oyster rubs and rubs until it turns into a pearl.
I think novels in particular have to have a mystery at their heart—a question that needs to be answered. I prefer that it be a question that I don’t have an answer for, at least in the first draft so that I can discover the answer as I go. For instance, I honestly didn’t know whether or not it was Colin who killed the woman at the beginning. It could have been. I wanted that to be a question for me so that it could be a question for Kendal and thus, hopefully, for the reader.
Carefully crafting later drafts
Now, later drafts are all about careful craft. Being a pantser means having to write a lot of drafts, because the final version has to be a carefully arranged and polished as if I’d known all along where I was going. It’s a trade-off—enjoy the wild ride of pantsing it and have to pay later, or carefully construct earlier and not take so long.
Lisa: Much of the book takes place at the University of Virginia. Can you share some of what attracted you to that setting for this particular book and character?
Choosing a setting
Ginger: The University of Virginia is more my home territory than even Charlottesville, where I lived my entire life into my 30s and returned to later. My family worked at the University for over 100 years. It is a remarkable institution—a Southern university that was a gentleman’s school for much of its life, until the 1970s, when women were admitted in their freshman year. I was actually admitted in the first class of women. My Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees were both earned at U.Va. I wound up my academic career on the faculty there as associate director of the Women’s Center for 15 years.
I have deep respect for the complexity the University embodies. Like its founder, Thomas Jefferson, it is complex, often contradictory, falling short of its promise. And yet still admirable. I have lived in the South all my life—as a liberal and political activist literally from childhood. I believe, as my Southern history professor did, that the terrible problems in this country, particularly of race, class, and gender, are more apparent in the South and, at some points, more productively addressed there because they are manifest daily, in ordinary relationships. While the rub can be worse, the possibility for change is also there because we don’t live separated from those issues.
Applying Reader Feedback
Ginger: The Body of Summer in its original version actually came before American Queen. I have watched my books become more complex—and more populated—with each one. Body is much more populated than my first book, The Algebra of Snow, which, as you know, has only one character. Kendal, at least, has a father and a child, along with a close friend from childhood, an ex-husband, a darkly alluring date, and a terrible boss. American Queen is teeming with people—almost overwhelmed, with the main character’s five children, spy husband, diplomatic parents nearby, Jesuit advisor, English nanny, and the entire social and political world of Washington, DC. There are a couple of novels in between where I worked on the techniques of ensemble casts.
Developing More Characters
I love the Golden Age of English mystery—Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh. They always have a cast of characters so that there are several suspects. I plan to publish those other two novels in the next couple of years, after some updating. I might chart the population explosion as I go!
Lisa: Kendal Grant is an English professor at a prestigious university. There is a long tradition of novels set in academia, but this one doesn’t stay on campus. Why is that?
Ginger: I am an academic, a Ph.D. in English, and taught at a Jesuit school in Mobile, Alabama, Spring Hill College, an HBCU—Fisk University in Nashville, and back to the University of Virginia at the end of my academic career. I love academia and the life of the mind.
And yet that isn’t where my imagination lives. I have also been politically involved all my life, as a child in a civil rights household in the South in the 50s and 60s. The schools in Virginia were closed when I was supposed to start school because the Virginia governor closed them across the commonwealth rather than obey a federal order to integrate. My father took us to sit-ins at segregated restaurants and met Martin Luther King when I was 8. We were harassed by whites who resented my white family’s involvement in civil rights. I became involved in women’s issues as I grew up, along with anti-war activities. I was a genuine hippie—but not so much as a rebel as a continuation of my childhood.
Drawing from family history
Where I have landed after all that is in a deep fascination with class. My paternal grandparents, who were central to my childhood, came from, on one side, a “First Family of Virginia” and, on the other, the hard scrabble life of a mountain farm family. The clash of class took the form of my grandparents living literally in different houses, though they never divorced (“not done” at that time in Virginia, in any class).
Thus Kendal, from her somewhat cloistered position as a college professor, explores those issues by marrying someone from my grandfather’s working class and having that fail, to going on a date with someone from her own class to a classy, exclusive steeplechase, to attending a fraternity party, going to a smoky underground club, meeting a graduate student bartender, to taking refuge regularly at her father’s distinguished home. The irony is that it is the social climbing of someone who reaches the highest levels of academic and social success that causes the mayhem.
All these issues of society and class cross over into the powerful ties of family and the complexity of history. That seemed like a fine mess to put my character in!
Lisa: What is coming next?
Ginger: I have a novel coming up that takes place in Houston, TX, where I went to graduate school. The contrast of the crazy, unzoned world of Houston after my quite tidy life in Virginia was pretty extreme. The main character is a guerilla environmentalist graphic designer who gets hired by a big oil company—thus co-opting her talents. She accepts the job because her chef husband, left behind in Virginia with their young son, has drunk up all their assets before getting straightened out. She is pulled in many directions by her personal concerns and experiencing the wild ride of Houston extremes, while becoming aware of an impending ecological disaster brewing in her own company.
A writer, teacher and book coach, Ginger Moran’s areas of expertise are in memoir and fiction writing and editing. She has Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in English from the University of Virginia and a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the University of Houston. She lives in Maryland with her dog and cat and close to her grown sons. Currently she writes novels and works with aspiring creative writers.