FINNY, the coming-age-story of a defiant fourteen-year-old girl, Finny, has been described as a combination of Charles Dickens and Judy Blume with a dash of John Irving and JD Salinger. However, the most surprisingly fact about this tender debut novel is not its influences but its author, Justin Kramon. His ability to channel the angst and confusion and will of a fiery female outcast and her quirky circle of friends and lovers is an oddity in a sea of male-authored novels about, well, guys. Here, Justin Kramon, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop whose stores appear in Glimmer Train, StoryQuarterly, Boulevard, and others, tells Jen Michalski what gives.
I love the name Finny! It’s such an unusual one, suggestive of Irish heritage, independence, boyishness, brashness, but maybe also a little introversion. One in which a character can inhabit and but also can grow. There are so many great little touches like this, like the character, Poplan (another great name!), who likes exotic Asian fruits and Irish fiddle music and kimonos. Where do these touches come about in your process? Do you do character sketches, or do you want for a character to reveal themselves to you, bit by bit? (Note to reader: there are also actual characters sketches on Justin’s website.)
Finny’s name was really the result of a day of pacing around my apartment thinking about a name that would capture the exact things you mentioned: independence of spirit, androgyny, and a suggestion of nineteenth-century adventures. I knew I wanted Finny to change her own name, and that her father would originally name her something a little stiff and pretentious (Delphine, it turns out). So it was like a math problem, where I had all these different conditions I wanted to meet, and a kind of feeling I wanted the name to have, and I brainstormed and looked through lists of baby names and all that—until the name just came to me.
I’m glad some of the details and little touches in the book work for you. I never know if they will, because a lot of them are just the weird directions my mind goes, and it’s hard to know whether they’ll end up being charming or funny or interesting to a reader. I can say that they’re very important to me, since the strange flourishes in characters and language are what, in my opinion, give a voice to a novel or a story. Whether that voice is one people want to read is a different subject, but I think that all you can do as a writer is follow your own oddball sensibilities—it’s really all you have that distinguish you from other writers.
I don’t do any character sketches, mostly because I can’t draw. (The artwork on my site is from David Ostow, a graphic artist who has a book out called So Punk Rock.) One thing I do, especially with the main characters in a piece I’m working on, is spend a good deal of time writing about them “outside the novel.” That can take different forms, but usually involves a combination of writing from their perspectives, biographical notes, physical details, personality traits or conversational habits, etc. I keep files for each of the characters in the book, which would probably seem insane to anyone who came upon them, but which do help as references. Some of these files are pretty full before I start writing a character into the book, and others get filled out as I go. The main idea is to try to get a sense of a personality—a real person—behind all the physical traits and details, so that I can think about the characters the way I’d think about friends or co-workers, asking myself what they’d do in such-and-such a situation.
That sounds like great advice for characterization! What’s the best and worst anyone has ever given you about writing a novel?
It’s hard to give you one thing. I feel like it’s very individual, what works for different writers and what doesn’t, and a lot of the things that have been helpful for me are tiny craft suggestions that would seem stupid out of context. I’m really a big believer in the idea that there’s no right way to go about it. I feel like the best thing writers can offer other writers are ideas about what’s worked for them, and hopefully some of those will resonate and help you to do the work you want to.
That being said, I would say that the most helpful advice for me was that you have to read novels in order to write novels. Maybe that’s not true for every writer, but I’d say that reading widely and trying to learn from that has been the thing that’s helped me most as a writer.
Least helpful writing advice? Probably when one writer told me that, at the end of his writing day, he used to stick himself with a needle once for every hundred words he’d fallen below his daily writing goal. I wondered if he rounded up or down? And I hope he’d gotten his tetanus booster.
I definitely concur about reading novels to write novels! I know Charles Dickens and John Irving were huge influences on the writing of Finny. What authors do you turn to in times of research or comfort or inspiration?
My favorite contemporary writer, and my most reliable source of inspiration, is Alice Munro. That’s not to say that I write like her, or am at all in the same league, but she’s one of the authors who’s shown me the most about the possibilities of fiction, especially fiction that’s focused on subjects like relationships, family, setting, the passage of time, psychology—all of which are very important to me. I love her voice, her dialogue, her humor, her narrative prose, but I also think of her as one of those writers—like William Maxwell or William Trevor—who’s truly experimental, not in a flashy way, but in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself. She has this simple (if quirky) conversational style, so much so that it puts you off your guard, and then she comes in with these mind-blowing insights and observations, twists of plot or huge leaps in time or new points of view. It’s a way of approaching writing, a kind of bold humility, that I hugely admire.
I also love Alice Adams, who’s probably less well known now, but I just enjoy her writing so much, the brightness of her voice, the way she can track all these subtle shifts of emotions and allegiances in a single conversation. I also think she does a wonderful job creating complex and suspenseful plots out of everyday moments and fairly undramatic lives. That’s a real gift, to my mind, to be able to make small moments feel large to a reader.
Other than these folks, I try to read as widely as I can. Some other favorites are Haruki Murakami, Lorrie Moore, Stephen King, James Baldwin, Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and almost anything by Edith Wharton. But there are always too many to mention, and I’d probably give you a different list if you asked tomorrow.
I know, right? I find it fascinating that many of the writers you’ve listed as being very influential are women, and one of Finny’s strengths is that you get into the head of a female protagonist so convincingly with alternating tenderness and bravery (but not the much more masculine bravado). Along with these women writers, were or are there any strong female role models that have inspired and/or enlightened you?
It’s true, a lot of my favorite writers are women. Most of my friends and the family members I’m close to are women, and I’d count a lot of them as role models, particularly my mom. I think that I’m basically a woman. I don’t know why, but female points of view have just always been fascinating to me. Maybe it’s because I find myself and my own hang-ups boring. I’m not sure. I also feel like a lot of the topics that excite me as a writer—relationships, sex, psychology, food, awkward social situations—are ones that women have a lot to say about. Men do, too, but maybe it’s less articulate? I hate making generalizations, because they’re always wrong or incomplete. And I like writing about men, too.
Also, for whatever it’s worth, I do think it’s really helpful to find a character who’s different from yourself but whom you’re still able to understand and write about. It gives a different point of view on all kinds of situations. The only material you have to work with as a writer is your own experience, this fenced-in little piece of property, and when you’re writing fiction, you get tired of that space after a while and want to move out of it. I think that one way to do this is to find someone whose property nudges against yours, in other words, someone who might share some experiences or ideas with you, but who also has some new turf you haven’t seen. Finny has some similarities with me—where she grows up, the time period she lives in, her family structure, the places she visits, some of the situations she’s faced with—but then there’s a whole other set of experiences and characters in her life which I’ve never come into contact with. The similarities give us a common ground, and help me to hop that fence into her life.
I also try to never think of a character as representing a “female point of view” or a “Mexican point of view” or whatever. Finny is a particular woman whom I felt some connection to and understanding of, but I’d never say I can speak for women in a novel.
What usually happens first for you as a writer? Does a situation/scene occur, does a character appear, a clip of conversation is heard, or all of the above? What was the first thing that signaled to you that you were going to be writing a novel called Finny?
It depends on the piece, but usually I start with a basic situation. Then, when I’m writing initial pages, the situation usually changes or gets so minimized or diverted that a reader wouldn’t even be able to spot what the original situation was.
For example, in Finny, the situation I started with was actually Sylvan dealing with his dad’s death and his mom starting up with a new man he was suspicious of. The book was written in his point of view (so it wouldn’t have been called Finny if I’d stayed on that tack), in first-person. I wrote a ton of pages that sucked, and I was trying to figure out why they sucked, and then I got to this scene where Sylvan was at the dinner table with his family, and his dad quotes Picasso, saying, “Good artists borrow; great artists steal.” Sylvan’s sister Finny pokes fun at their dad a little, and dad says, “Finny, don’t mock me.” Finny replies, “I don’t mock, I steal!” It made me laugh, because it was sharper than anything I’d think of in that situation, and it cut through all the dad’s pretension. I realized that Sylvan was kind of a parrot for his dad, and that actually it would be more interesting to follow Finny, the rebel, and suddenly the book opened up into this big adventure and love story, because Finny took it there. The original situation (dad dying, mom dating new man) is buried deep in the final book, but I don’t think it would ever occur to anyone that that’s where the book started.
That’s the thing I was saying about it being helpful when you find a character you can write who’s a little different from you. Sylvan’s probably more like me, which is why I started with him, but Finny had a more interesting story to tell.
I hear a lot from other writers that what you want to write is not the same as what needs to be said. I know you’re working on a second novel now; has it told you what needs to be said?
Honestly, I’ve never thought about writing in those terms.I really want to do the best I can to tell a good story. I think it’s true that sometimes you start out with a lot of high-minded ideas about what you want a book or a story to do, and a lot of these ideas get whittled away if they don’t help the narrative.My hope is always to just get lost in the characters and the story.I want the people in the book to feel like people I know. I’m not sure I ever get to the point where I know what needs to be said, but I hope I do a good enough job understanding the people in a story and pulling out moments that are significant to them and to readers.
The book club tour seems to have gained great momentum for authors during the past few years, and you seem, by your schedule, to be a great champion of it! You’ve also remained ahead of the curve with youtube interviews and an interactive website. What advice would you offer other writers in promoting their work? Conversely, is there anything authors should concentrate less on?
I wouldn’t presume to offer advice to other writers about how to do this. I’m figuring it out along with everyone else.The main reason I visit so many book clubs is that it’s a type of event I enjoy and am comfortable doing.I like talking to people who read a lot, and it’s nice when I show up for an event and everyone has read the book so I don’t have to sell it.Plus, I don’t get out of the apartment much, so it’s nice to get an invitation once in a while.It makes me feel like I have friends and a social life.
Having a comprehensive website is helpful, since a lot of writers use that like a press kit.If someone’s looking me up, she’ll probably go to my website first, so I like to post links to interviews I’ve done or articles about me or ways for book clubs or writing groups to get in touch.It’s just a good hub for everything.And it also prepares people for how pale I am in person.
I guess, if I had any advice about it, I would just say that it’s worth finding ways to promote your work that don’t make you want to kill yourself, ones that don’t make you cynical or kill your desire to write.That’s the tide we’re all swimming against.
I like to end an interview with a cheerful thought like that.
Justin Kramon lives in Philadelphia; you can find out more about him and the novel Finny at his website: http://justinkramon.com/index.html