Interview with Shannon Hale: The Actor and the Housewife, Pt. One

Shannon Hale is the author of several young adult novels–including Enna Burning (reviewed here), the Newbery Award winner The Princess Academy, and, most recently, Forest Born.  She has also published two adult novels, Austenland and The Actor and the Housewife. The latter provoked strong responses among Shannon’s readers, and no wonder.  It’s a bold work likely to twang nerves, even for those who like it.  I reviewed it for AMV here. As part of my impulse to explore and enjoy The Actor and the Housewife until sated, I invited Shannon to an AMV interview.  She graciously–and prodigiously–answered several questions in this two-part interview.

What artistic works have inspired you?

That’s a big question. I was raised on fairy tales, C.S. Lewis, Lloyd Alexander, Joan Aiken, etc. High school and college was mostly the “classics,” then grad school was literary fiction (living authors do exist!). After selling The Goose Girl, I discovered YA lit, and that makes up 50% of my reading material now. And then there’s music, movies, plays, visual art…hard for me to dissect it, but it all gets into my brain.

You’re a mother with young children.  In your novel, The Actor and the Housewife, Becky wonders if it’s possible to support a spouse and a best friend of the opposite gender. But for aspiring writers with young children, the question of how to support a writing career while meeting the needs of family may be equally compelling.  How do you manage the challenges?

One of the things that fascinates me is the question of balance. I think women are asked to be professional balancers, and we learn on-the-job. I’m somewhat methodical about it: I make a list of priorities; I set aside time for writing then try to keep the writing hounds at bay during the other hours of the day; I make daily writing goals; I constantly reevaluate. As a woman, as a human being, I need a creative outlet. I need to play with words and tell stories. I believe making the time to pursue it makes me a better mom.

On your website, you tell how Actor and Housewife began with a dream.  The dream, which you describe as a glance at a relationship between two people, resembles in its snapshot nature the dream Stephenie Meyer says began her narrative journey. Is something rising in the dreams of Mormon women writers?

Ha! That’d be awesome. There should be an epidemic of Mormon women having novel-inspiring dreams that take over the book world! That’ll get the newspapers talking. I’ve been writing for 26 years (I started young! I swear!) and this is the first story I’ve written that began as a dream, though I knew many writers in college who often trolled their dreams for story fodder. Like Stephenie, I didn’t dream the whole book but used a moment between two characters from a dream as a place to begin. It was serendipitous and I’d love to be so fortunate again, but most of my dreams are just weird.

On your website, you describe A&H as a “labor of love.”  That’s a wonderfully ambiguous phrase.  How was the writing of this novel a labor of love for you?

Well, this is a wonderfully ambiguous novel! The only audience I had in mind for this book was myself. That may seem self-indulgent, but it’s absolutely necessary in order to shut out the other voices and be true to the story. I didn’t know what market would embrace this, if any–Utah? Out of Utah? LDS? Religious? Not religious? Chick lit readers or chick lit loathers? I didn’t even know if my publisher would be willing to get behind it. But I knew I loved this story and these characters, and I knew I wanted to share them. I spent two and a half years on this book. It does mean a lot to me.

Could you tell us a little about why you went the route of the romantic comedy screenplay for the storyline of A&H rather than writing the story in the more lyrical style of your YA novels?

Ooh, good question, and there are so many reasons for this, but I’ll try to narrow my response to just a couple. The 3rd person narrator of my YA novels is so set in stone in my head, she’s not flexible. She is a way to stay close to my main character and yet use language that character couldn’t employ, and so add meaning the character might not see. I love that narrator. But she is limited. For one thing, she has no sense of humor. In order to add humor, I needed a different narrator.

I also needed one who was a strong personality, almost a tangible character in herself. This was for several reasons, but partly because I played with genre in this novel. In my experience, this can make adult readers uncomfortable. By the time we’re adults, we are taught to depend on genre as a handle to hold a story (compare the children and teen sections of a bookstore to the rest–we poor adults only know how to shop by genre!). There’s a huge risk I’ll lose my reader by fiddling with and bending genre so much, so I needed a very strong narrative presence, a lifeline, a feeling that someone was in control, who could see it all and assure the reader in moments of darkness.

And of course it all ties into how Becky met Felix and how they re-met again, and what happened in the end. The romantic comedy movie–its archetypes, charms, and detriments–are the underpinnings of the whole story. We live in an age when this genre largely defines the female viewer in movie theaters. There is always at least one romantic comedy at any multiplex. If I’m tackling questions about femininity, that is something I need to explore. (And interesting side note: most romantic comedies are written and directed by men.)

And other reasons…blah blah blah.

On your website, you speak of the risks of writing this novel–“huge,” you called them.  The first risk you mention seems a personal one, standing on a cliff in a high wind.  The second is writing religion into the story.  Did those risks pay off?

Hm, I’m not sure. That’s tough. The risk paid off for me personally as a reader because I wrote the book I wanted to read. I know the risk paid off for those readers who have sent me personal notes of thanks for this novel, but not for many others. So how do we judge the success of anything overall? If it was a blessing to one single reader, is that enough? I knew it would be risky to write a “genre-less” story about a religious main character, and I would be very, very hesitant to do it again. The judgements against this book and against me personally have been loud at times. I’ve never had this experience before–I’d always felt that my home state and my home religion were very supportive of me as an artist and a person, so it can be a little bewildering when that support is weakened. I don’t regret a single word of the book and feel so privileged that I got to write this story, but the next time, would I be able to turn off the shouting voices? I don’t know. It’s been interesting from an intellectual standpoint. I used to have people ask me all the time to please write a book about an LDS character. But there was an unspoken caveat there, I realize. LDS readers largely want a certain kind of LDS character–one who represents them personally, or perhaps the ideal of themselves, so that the book can positively represent this religion to the rest of the world. I failed at that wish for many readers. Inevitably. Of course, that was not my intention. A book written with that goal in mind would have self-imploded. The wonderful thing I’ve learned is there is no LDS stereotype! No one can agree on what it means to be an “ideal” LDS person. That should be good news.

What have been some of the reactions to the religious material in the novel?

All over the place. I’d say in general, I’ve had the most positive responses from non-LDS Utahns and LDS non-Utahns. I wonder if it’s harder for LDS Utahns, because Becky is one, and if she doesn’t represent the reader personally, then they have a hard time with her. And for non-LDS non-Utahns, while I’ve had many wonderful responses, I think many are a little uncomfortable with the presence of religion. Usually religion in a non-religious book is the big “issue” of the story. The religious person is evil or else questioning and ultimately rejecting it. It’s rare to read about a character whose religion is just a fact of their personality, especially when that religion is Mormonism. The reaction has confirmed for me that I cannot possibly anticipate how each reader will read a story or try to make it work for everyone. I have to write to myself and hope the book finds kindred spirit readers, whoever and wherever they may be.

Clearly, writing a character’s death in the novel was difficult.  I found reading the first nightclub scene just as disturbing.  In that scene, Becky and Felix face the first hard test of what they have between them.  Working out the trouble their actions give rise to requires finer qualities, such as patience and restraint–rather like in a marriage.  At this point in the story, they pay the price for their bond.  The tensions of that scene open the way for a new kind of story.  Where did that scene come from? How did writing it affect you?

It’s interesting that you mention that scene. It was one of the most important scenes in the book for me, a lynch pin of the plot”¦ Okay, I went on to explain why it was important, what the scene meant in terms of Becky’s character arc and where it allowed her, Mike, and Felix to go later on, how it set up the story for a moment of grace, etc., and then I deleted it. Whenever I find myself explaining these sorts of things, I feel wrong about it. I try not to be the Voice of Authority. Once the author says what things Mean, I fear it takes away a reader’s right and ability to decide for herself. The true magic of storytelling never happens in the book but in the mind of each reader. Ooh, that sounds hokey, but I believe it passionately! I can talk about the writing process and more general things, but I try not to pontificate about specific meaning in my own books. At least not in writing. Get me in private, serve me a couple of milkshakes, and I’ll tell you everything.

It’s a deal.  In milkshakes veritas, as the Romans liked to say.

Part Two will post 3/16.

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