An Interview with Claudine Guertin

Claudine Guertin

MA: Hi, Claudine. Thanks for agreeing to talk with me today. I’d like to talk a little bit about writing in general and your writing process in particular, if I might. I’ve had the pleasure of reading some of your fine work and I’m always struck by your use of strong detail and striking /images. Can you tell me a little bit about what moves you as a writer?

CG: Thanks for saying that because I often feel like I write so deeply from inside characters’ heads that the 3D world around them is underdeveloped. I always have to go back through and add concrete imagery and details to anchor scenes. What usually moves me the most are the emotional experiences of my characters, and that’s the journey I ride when I write. So the /images that emerge tend to be born out of those emotions.

MA: I can see how that would work, especially if your characters have vivid imaginations, which I know they do. And I do believe that the internal world can be at least as vivid as the external–sometimes more so. You know, I would also say that there are some fabulist elements to your work…that may not be quite the word I want. But by “fabulist” I mean something that is universal and striking and hits the subconscious as much as the conscious. Like a fairy tale or a fable would. Does what I’m saying make any sense to you when thinking of your work?

CG: Wow, I’ve never consciously thought of my work that way, but I think you’re right. I’m always thinking about the layers of meanings as I write. I often think about how these individual character experiences spin outward to something more universal. All of my stories feel somewhat mythic and fabulist as they’re percolating inside me. But translating that to the page is sort of an act of faith. You never know how much of that is really coming together in the final product.

MA: Well, as one reader/fan, I can say with authority that it’s working for me. This leads me to another question. As you know, my co-author for the non-fiction book was from Poland and his family believed very strongly in dreams and the power of mythic stories. I think Europeans tend to be more tuned in (than Americans) to such things. I know you have connections to eastern Europe. What are those and how do you feel they have influenced your writing?

CG: Yes, my boyfriend is from Bosnia. We met eleven years ago, and even before that, I was very drawn by Russia, which is part of my heritage. I studied Russian in college, and I now study Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian with a University of Chicago professor. We’re working on translating a short-story collection by a popular Bosnian Serb writer. So a lot of circumstances in my life seem to bear echoes from that area of the world.

MA: I think that influence is part of what makes your work so interesting and exciting to read. A novel can be such a vast landscape. How do you find your way in? Do you wait for a voice to emerge? A Character? A plot?

CG: I believe, if a story is coming from the deepest place, that the novel calls to the writer, and not the other way around. At first, there’s always something there haunting me, and I sit with that until the characters begin to speak to me. That can take months or even years. For instance, I recently completed my first novel and began writing what I’d planned for two years to be my second novel. In the back of my mind, I always thought I’d write a novel about Bosnia and the war, but I didn’t think I had the literary chops for it yet, so it was on the back burner until my writing could mature more. But then, this past summer after I was thirty pages into Novel Number Two, my boyfriend and I went to visit his family. What I saw in Bosnia, which, by the way, is one of the most gorgeous countries I’ve ever visited, was a lot of war devastation, ethnic separatism and tension, corruption and also, so it doesn’t all sound dire, some rebuilding and positivity. It was profound to hear people’s stories. Many of them are not “past” the war, and it’s easy to see why not. Everyone knows someone who died, whose house was bombed or burned, who was in a concentration camp, who lost their savings, etc. The entire fabric of life was destroyed for people on every side. How do you get past a war in a city that’s been ethnically cleansed and repopulated with different people, as my boyfriend’s city is? How do you move forward when your daily commute includes bombed-out buildings and bullet-riddled street signs, like in downtown Mostar? So on that trip, the main character of this Bosnian novel started speaking to me, and I could feel the weight of the story in my throat, if that makes any sense. Or maybe I should say I could feel all the emotions of the story in my throat. So I’ve shifted tracks and am now working on this new, intimidating project, for better or for worse. I still have a lot to research and discover, so I’ll be underwater here for quite some time.

MA: Sounds fascinating and very “deep.” I can’t wait to read it. What do you think gives a story depth?

CG: To me, a deep story works like a prism that the reader can turn over to find unexpected facets of meaning, either by leading to new territory or by turning old territory on its ear. That happens, I think, when the writer plumbs the emotional landscape of her characters and their situations to the very bottom. Then she can reassemble all those elements into something altogether different, honest and complete. Or maybe that’s a neat and tidy crap answer. I think we’re always learning, and I, for one, usually enter into a story never knowing much at all. What comes out on the other side is always a bit of a surprise.

MA: Yes, hurray for the surprises. Where would we be without them? Thanks for the great answers, Claudine, and the great conversation. You’ve given me a lot to think about.  Good luck taming the new novel. I know you will make something wonderful.