Hypertext Interview With Gail Wallace Bozzano

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Interviewed by Christine Rice

Every page of Gail Wallace Bozzano’s lyrically written chapbook, Supposing She Dreamed This (Michigan Coop Press), sizzles with a the joy, fear, and frustration of parenthood. Bozzano’s narrative promise–that that danger is real but, in the end, the situation hopeful–unfurls in just over 40 pages. But those 40 pages! In them, Bozzano fully juxtaposes the fantasy of family–healthy babies, strong marriages, and supportive grandparents–with reality.

Bozzano’s protagonist, Katrina, needs a break, dammit. She’s dealing with her son’s diagnosis of autism, her husband’s inability to engage with their son, and questions of ‘when are you having another baby?’

Even a decade-and-a-half removed from having small children, I felt the first two paragraphs in my gut. Katrina, just off the phone with her mother – who encourages her to have more children while Katrina’s husband has made it very clear that he has no interest in having more kids – has to get out of the house.

Bozzano writes:

“Twenty minutes,” Katrina repeated. “I just need to get out for twenty minutes. I’ll be back soon.” She wasn’t asking permission, but she stood, waiting, at the sliding door that led to her own backyard.

Wayne looked up from his spot on the couch, fingers poised above his laptop keyboard. The cool disdain in his eyes stunned her. But the next second it was gone, and he cracked a grin, a ghost of his once-bright smile. “Figures,” he said, glancing at the phone she’d just replaced in its base on the end table. “This happens every time you talk to her.”

Bozzano’s writing captures fleeting moments of intimacy and extreme vulnerability between characters.

I caught up with Gail via email to discuss her debut.

Christine Rice: – The title of your book comes from an e.e. cummings poem:

supposing i dreamed this)

only imagine, when day has thrilled

you are a house around which

i am a wind-

Katrina, finally out of the house, imagines the ‘happy, cozy, perfectly framed’ lives of her neighbors. A few lines later, you write:

Sometimes it seems as if Ethan’s diagnoses four years earlier–autism, mild hypotonia, pervasive developmental delay—had catapulted her out of her own warm, sweet life and into a chilly, windy land of darkness and shadows and questions without answers. And fears, so many, many fears.

How does being a parent impact your creative process?

Gail Wallace Bozzano: That’s an interesting question because I became a mother while learning to write fiction (I received my MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago when my oldest was three). My kids and my writing—and my parenting skills, hopefully!—have grown up together. It’s hard for me to imagine what my creative process might look like if I didn’t have children. I’d probably have more time, but much less to write about.

One direct impact on my process was caring for my three kids at home full-time. When you make that choice, your world both shrinks and expands. Mundane details—a bird in the backyard, a commuter train at an intersection, the scent of Play-Doh—suddenly become important because they are important to your child. Immersion in the sensory world was good for my creativity. Also, because taking care of little kids isn’t exactly cerebral work, my mind was free to wander. When I wasn’t writing, I spent a good bit of time thinking about my writing. Entire scenes from my novel-in-progress, what became my MFA thesis, came to me while I was walking around our neighborhood, pushing my young son in his stroller. Now that my kids are older—my oldest is starting college in the fall—I don’t spend as much time with them, which means I have more time to write, but I have to remind myself to play. It’s good to walk barefoot in the grass and break out the Play-Doh every so often.

CR: I’m curious about this line found in About the Author:

Her work is inspired by the three years she lived in Thailand, China, and Japan; her experiences raising a child with special needs; and her concerns about climate change.

Can you tell me why (and how) these three things, in particular, influenced Supposing She Dreamed This, and how these things continue (or not) to influence your writing?

GWB: Living in Asia and raising a child with special needs are experiences that set me apart from the norm. In Asia, I was keenly aware of my foreignness and tried hard to assimilate. Though eventually I felt at home in places that were very strange to me at first, that sense of displacement stayed with me. Then when I returned to the States, I went through reverse culture shock and had to re-assimilate here. Similarly, when you have a kid with special needs, you aren’t going to fit in with the other mothers at the neighborhood park. Your life is different—fuller, richer, in many ways, but undeniably different from that of a typical parent. I write in part to understand my own experiences, so it felt natural to create a character who has a child with special needs, who feels like an exile.

Climate change terrifies me. I’ve been freaking out for the past five or six years, and at some point realized I couldn’t not write about it. Supposing was my first attempt at including climate change in a work of fiction. Katrina’s concerns mirror my own, but, like her, I feel too beleaguered by day-to-day life to take meaningful action. I wanted the issue to loom in the background, which is the way I think many of us experience it: we’re uneasy, but it doesn’t dominate our thoughts or lives. I expect climate change will continue to influence my writing. How could it not? The stakes get higher by the day, by the hour. Since I began working on this interview, a trillion-ton iceberg broke away from the Antarctic Peninsula and the Southwest experienced a record-breaking, deadly heatwave. I’m not optimistic about the future, but what a fascinating moment in human history to write about. Focusing on the creative potential of the issue keeps me from freaking out too badly.

CR: Yes. Feeling ‘too beleaguered by day-to-day life to take meaningful action’ is a good way to put it. More and more authors–including Claudia Casper and Jaimee Wriston Colbert–are dealing with these climate change anxieties in their work.

Tell me about the importance of weaving those elements seamlessly into the narrative of Supposing She Dreamed This?

GWB: My writing, especially the first drafts, tends to be intuitive rather than intellectual. I didn’t set out to write a story that included A, B, and C. The story arose from a question: how would I, or someone who resembles me, deal with a nonverbal child and an unsupportive spouse? Basically I took my own situation and made it worse (…for the record, my spouse is incredibly supportive)! Katrina’s sense of being an outsider and her concerns about climate change evolved as the story took shape. As I worked on an early draft, the Chicago area experienced an unusually warm winter and spring. My visceral reaction—“Oh shit! The climate has changed already! We’re all gonna die!”—contrasted sharply with others’, which ranged from “What gorgeous weather!” to “Yeah, it’s probably global warming, but we can’t do anything about it, so oh well.”  Because much of the action in Supposing takes place outside, I felt it made sense to include climate change in the story, and to have Katrina’s fears about it be one more thing that sets her apart in her community.

CR: Because this is a chapbook, you didn’t have a lot of real estate to develop characters and, yet, the tension between the parents is established immediately. Once I picked up Supposing She Dreamed This, I couldn’t put it down. And I really enjoy that about chapbooks–it holds that satisfying space between a short stories and novels.  Can you talk about how your experience as a journalist influences your writing?

GWB: Thank you! I think the years I spent writing for newspapers probably still influences my style. Journalists have to absorb complex information and boil it down into easy-to-understand articles. Big words and long, convoluted sentences wouldn’t make it past my editors. I also learned to get to the point quickly. Every column inch is precious; every word has to earn its keep. (And, I need to give a shout-out to my writing coach, author Katey Schultz, whose keen eye helped shape and streamline the story).

My training as a journalist probably has influenced my fiction writing, especially when I was first learning the craft. I prefer writing realistic stories (though my reading tastes are much more varied) and that likely arose from a journalist’s charge to convey information and events as accurately as possible. My early work tended to be heavily autobiographical, though it is less so now. Also, I had a terrible time with revisions. The fast pace of a newsroom doesn’t allow time for multiple drafts. My first response to rewriting assignments in grad school was, “If I could make it any better, I would have done so the first time around.” Over the years I’ve come to enjoy the revision process, but it took a while.

CR: Ha! I’ve heard grads and undergrads say that same thing about rewriting! I enjoy it too.

Writing so closely about your own experience can often blur the line between fact and fiction. Certain books, like Peter Ferry’s Travel Writing, blur that line to the point of naming his main character Pete. Can you talk about writing fiction that is very close to reality? And how you then distinguish that from memoir?

GWB: I’ll talk about my personal preferences as a writer and a reader, because there are so many different ways to tell a story, and who am I to judge other writers’ choices? And I’ll answer your last question first. I’m pretty much a stickler about memoir: I want the truth. I’m irked by memoirs that contain events that didn’t actually happen, or composite characters that stand in for two or more people, even if the author is upfront. For years I thought I couldn’t write memoir or personal essays because I couldn’t recall past conversations verbatim. (This is another way my training as a journalist has shaped me. I used to live in fear of misquoting my sources). Memory is elusive and unreliable, and memoirists can and should use literary fiction techniques to make their books readable and to protect the identities of vulnerable parties. If I ever decide to undertake writing a memoir, I imagine I would give myself very little leeway to fabricate. But it’s possible I might completely reverse my position.

CR: Misquoting sources is something I still have nightmares about. Once, when I first started freelancing, a really unscrupulous editor actually attributed a minister’s quote to a rabbi’s quote in one of my journalistic pieces. When I called her to ask what happened, she said that she thought that they ‘sounded’ better that way.

Sorry. Carry on.

GWB: Writing realistic fiction is where things get really interesting, because you can take an event that actually happened and tweak it, ratchet up the tension, invent characters, include composite characters—or in Ferry’s case, give a fictional character your own name—do whatever you want. I haven’t read Travel Writing, but I love that Ferry seems to have created a sort of “anti-memoir” by naming his character Pete. He’s probably making his readers’ heads explode a little bit as they try to figure out what’s real and what’s made up. Good for him! I suppose you could write a work of nonfiction, change the characters’ names and a few details, and hide behind the label of fiction. (I wouldn’t be able to do that with most of my life experiences because they’re not interesting enough; they need embellishment). But since I’m such a stickler about truth in memoir, it wouldn’t bother me if I read a work of fiction that was 90 percent true. And if I’m not intimately acquainted with the author, how would I know the percentage? That part isn’t my business. Fiction authors aren’t obligated to dissect their work for their readers, and readers shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that literary fiction is memoir in disguise.

CR: Tell me about your publisher, Michigan Writers Cooperative Press? How did this chapbook come to be?

GWB: Michigan Writers Cooperative Press is a small, independent publisher founded by a group of writers and educators in northern Michigan. The press holds an annual chapbook contest for emerging writers of short stories, poetry, and creative nonfiction (I was the 2016 fiction winner). Winners get to read at a book launch reception, held in the Writing House of the Interlochen Arts Academy. The event kicks off Interlochen’s annual Writers Retreat, which I’ve attended many times beginning in 2009. The Writing House is one of my favorite places on earth; it’s infused with creative juju. The audiences at the chapbook receptions are always welcoming. MWCP publishes beautiful books and is supportive of its authors. I’d encourage emerging writers to consider entering; you don’t need to be a Michigan resident, but you do have to be a member of Michigan Writers (the annual dues are minimal). More information can be found at www.michwriters.org.

CR: The image and plight of the tree really hooked me. The main character, Katrina, hears a ‘creak’ coming from her beloved maple.

She picked her way around puddles over to the tree. The trunk was black, rain-slick. Branches formed a latticed canopy above her. A smear of green-brown moss crept up the tree’s north side. Katrina squinted and moved closer. And then—how could she have missed this?—the crack materialized, like one of those images in a 3-d picture. A deep fissure ran several feet down from the place where branches met trunk. Katrina placed her pale hand in the hollow space. She ran her hand over wet, rough bark. There was no getting around this problem.

Later, she finds out the maple has girdling root, that it is strangling itself.

Can you tell me how this image worked its way into the narrative? Was it one of the primary images for you? Or did it emerge out of the scene?

GWB: It emerged out of reality. While I was writing the first draft of Supposing, I learned my backyard maple was dying of girdling root. As I listened to an arborist describe what was wrong with the tree, I felt sad but was also fascinated by the creative possibilities. At the time, I was making discoveries about Katrina’s character, and I realized she wanted a second child. Girdling root felt like an apt metaphor for Katrina’s responses to life. I knew I had to put the tree in the story. The scene with the arborist came to me fully formed, like a gift. Once I had that scene, I rewrote the beginning to include a small scene where Katrina discovers the tree is cracking apart. From there, I had a structure of sorts as most of the subsequent scenes involve some issue with the tree: Ethan gets upset when the maple is cut down, Katrina and Wayne argue over the location of the new tree. The story would have been totally different if my tree hadn’t died.

Find out more about Michigan Writers Cooperative Press.

 

 

 

 

 

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