Monday, July 08, 2013

Interview with Stephen P. Kiernan, author of The Curiosity - July 8, 2013

Please welcome Stephen P. Kiernan to The Qwillery as part of the 2013 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Curiosity, Stephen's fiction debut, will be published on July 9th.

TQ:  Welcome to The Qwillery.

Stephen:  I am delighted to join this active community of readers.

TQ:  When and why did you start writing?

Stephen:  I have always been a storyteller, from my earliest days. I grew up in a large family, and was on the younger end, so I did not receive tons of parental attention. My maternal grandmother somehow knew this, and when she visited she would lavish affection on me. She would pull me onto her lap, saying, "Now Stephen, tell me all about yourself."

Perhaps it was an unconscious influence, but she was a published author herself, and I like to think she inspired me. What I know for certain is that she indulged my desire to tell stories, and it was a sweet and respectful kind of love. She died what I was ten, but I still remember the feel of her chin against the top of my head while I curled into her lap.

I began writing professionally in 1988, while I was a student at the Iowa Writers Workshop. I wrote arts articles and editorials for the local newspaper, The Daily Iowan, and a few pieces on rock and roll for Spin. That was when I became addicted to being in print, a malady that afflicts me to this day. I've published nearly four million words so far, and rather than being tired or depleted, I feel the writing compulsion more strongly than ever.

TQ:  What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?

Stephen:  Revision. I write very fast first drafts. I call it "being in the fever." But only when I have a completed story do I know what I was actually trying to do, and what my subconscious was up to while I was busy typing. Then I revise and revise and revise. Even when it requires me to cut precious material I savor that process with excitement about what may emerge.

For this novel, I wrote the first draft in 40 weeks with no days off. The revision time took about 60 weeks, with breaks along the way. I cut more than 60,000 words, and added about 35,000. So the finished work bears only a vague resemblance to the original.

Friends who I entrust with reading early drafts are sometimes dismayed to see a character removed, or a whole scene cut. Sometimes it's difficult for me, too, so I save the cut material in a separate file, just in case I want to put some of it back in at a later time. So far I have never done that, never brought back a cut section, but somehow it works. Somehow I manage to trick myself.

TQ:  Are you a plotter or a pantser?

Stephen:  Both. I start out with a general outline, four or five important scenes or plot points, a list of characters and an extremely specific ending. The problem is the characters; they never care much about my plans. They have desires and motives that compel the story in new and unexpected directions. Any time I resist, I end up with lifeless material that lands in that file of removed material. I wish I could say that I learn my lesson, but it always seems to go this way.

Only when I've finished the book can I go back, yank out the junk in which I was pushing the characters around, and let the true story emerge.

The people who live in my books always know the story better than I do.

TQ:  What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?

Stephen:  One small thing, one big thing.

The small thing is, of course, finding sufficient uninterrupted time in which to work. I know of no writer for whom this is not something of a challenge. When I am knee-deep in a first draft, I have a notebook with me at all times and still I end up jotting ideas on my skin. I rush from exercising back to my desk with urgent ideas so frequently, the finish on the wood is worn off from my sweat.

The big thing is the limitation of my talent. It is not humility, but honesty, that causes me to know that I have a small gift. When I was at Iowa, I befriended people of huge talent, whose facility with language and capacity to create compelling scenarios made my stories seem trivial and small. My challenge, therefore, is to revise and rewrite and rework, and know that making something worthwhile will take me more effort and more obsession than it would someone with greater talent.

TQ:  What inspired you to write The Curiosity?

Stephen:  In 2010 I was touring nationally for my nonfiction book Authentic Patriotism, which was about how to mend America's political and cultural divisions through volunteerism and civic engagement. In those travels I saw trends and attitudes that troubled me, and since the nonfiction approach had not worked, I thought I would try telling a story.

The original idea for this novel had been rattling around in my head for 18 years, but it was missing something. On vacation with two close friends -- the novelist Chris Bohjalian and the playwright Dana Yeaton -- I told them about my idea and how I felt I could not begin until I'd found the missing part.

"Put a beautiful woman in it," Chris suggested.

"And make her smarter than all the other scientists," Dana added.

Well. By vacation's end I had a rough outline. About 250 days later I had a draft.

In revision I discovered that the novel I'd written was not the political and cultural thriller I'd imagined. You see, there were these two characters -- one man, and that smart beautiful woman -- and I could not turn my back on them for one second. I'd take one paragraph to be all clever and political, and when I came back they'd be mooning at one another or flirting or getting busy.

I had to admit that it was a love story, with a cultural thriller background, yes, but a love story nonetheless. So I rewrote it to let the true tale emerge.

TQ:  What sort of research did you do for The Curiosity?

Stephen:  Fiction of this kind requires extensive learning and study.

First I interviewed high level researchers and research policy people, to learn about the politics and atmosphere of serious science. That was where I learned phrases like "Swede fever," which apparently indicates a person who aspires excessively to win a Nobel Prize. To a writer, finding subculture-specific language like that is better than candy.

I also read a variety of papers and articles about the state of cell research. Scientists today are doing things routinely that I could not imagine were possible.

I spent days and nights drifting through Lynn, Massachusetts, and relied on the helpful people at the local historical society. I covered every inch of that city's cemetery.

All kinds of small moments in the book required homework, too. Thus I studied Arctic weather, early baseball (especially the first years of the Boston Red Sox), the order of streets in Back Bay, what the entrances are like at the Boston cathedral and Massachusetts General Hospital, even which direction jets typically fly over the city if they're landing at Logan Airport in a snowstorm.

You might think these details would take the imagination out of a story, but actually the opposite is true. The muse is never harmed by a trip to the library.

Finally I reviewed newspaper coverage of groups like Operation Rescue and the Westboro Baptist Church, since these organizations provided the rough outline for T.J. Wade and his red-shirted followers.

TQ:  Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?

Stephen:  Daniel Dixon came most easily to me. He is a reporter, which I've been for decades. He is a pig about women, which made him fun to indulge in early drafts (his most sexist stuff is in that file of removed material, of course). He had a strong voice, strong opinions, strong appetites, an unapologetic manner that together made him simpler to characterize. He also had props in his hand almost all the time, which made expressing his emotional state easier. Best of all, he had a gift for simile. Once I realized that, I gave him lots of room. And often surprised myself with what came out. Dixon is not a likeable character, but writing him was a kick.

By contrast, Jeremiah Rice was a challenge in almost every sentence. He was born in 1868. How could I give him a voice that reflected his time, without making him seem costumed or inconsequential? He was a judge. How could I characterize his cautious way of thinking? He is enchanted with the modern world, but misses his wife and daughter. How do I portray his ambivalence? Ultimately, he may be dying. How do I express the thoughts of a man who suspects his time is running out?

In the final draft, Jeremiah's sections are as carefully wrought -- in language, pace, tone -- as anything I've ever written.

TQ:  Without giving anything away, what is/are your favorite scene(s) in The Curiosity?

Stephen:  It's hard not to reveal too much. When the divers discover what species of seal is suspended in the iceberg, that's a favorite. When Kate pulls down her surgical mask and introduces herself, that's a close second.

When the girl wants Jeremiah to autograph her bare belly, when Kate and Jeremiah argue over who should eat the last egg, when Gerber puts on the bicycle helmet, when Kate comforts Jeremiah in the cemetery -- these are all favorites. Oh, and the high school students with the microscopes, it's a little moment but I'm fond of it.

In fact, this question has my liking my book all over again.

TQ:  What's next? /this is where you share whatever you'd like to share/

Stephen:  I'm deep in the research of another novel, and just about to begin writing. This is therefore a time of immense excitement and fear.

I'm hopeful, too, that enough people enjoy The Curiosity and spread the word about it that I have the opportunity to travel the country and meet readers. I had that good fortune with my nonfiction books, and it is incredibly gratifying and rewarding to come face to face with people who were kind enough to take the time to read your work and let it come alive in their imagination.

I should add that 20th Century Fox has purchased the option to make a film of this novel. I hope that happens, even though the movie is rarely as good as the book, because I'd like to see how the cinematic form of storytelling brings the characters to life.

Plus I want to see what smart and beautiful woman they cast as Kate.

TQ:  Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.

Stephen:  Thank you for letting people know about The Curiosity and other books.

About The Curiosity

The Curiosity
Publisher:  William Morrow, July 9, 2013
Format:  Hardcover and eBook, 432 pages
Price:  $25.99 (print)
ISBN:  978-0-06-222106-3 (print)

A powerful debut novel in which a man, frozen in the Arctic ice for more than a century, awakens in the present day and finds the greatest discovery is love . . .

The Curiosity

Dr. Kate Philo and her scientific exploration team make a breathtaking discovery in the Arctic: the body of a man buried deep in the ice. As a scientist in a groundbreaking project run by the egocentric and paranoid Erastus Carthage, Kate has brought small creatures—plankton, krill, shrimp—back to life for short periods of time. But the team's methods have never been attempted on larger life-forms.

Heedless of the potential consequences, Carthage orders that the frozen man be brought back to the lab in Boston and reanimated. The endeavor is named "The Lazarus Project." As the man begins to regain his memories, the team learns that he was—is—a judge, Jeremiah Rice, and the last thing he remembers is falling overboard into the Arctic Ocean in 1906. When news of the project and Jeremiah Rice breaks, it ignites a media firestorm and protests by religious fundamentalists.

Thrown together by fate, Kate and Jeremiah grow closer. But the clock is ticking and Jeremiah's new life is slipping away. With Carthage planning to exploit Jeremiah while he can, Kate must decide how far she is willing to go to protect the man she has come to love.

A gripping, poignant, and thoroughly original thriller, Stephen P. Kiernan's provocative debut novel raises disturbing questions about the very nature of life and humanity—man as a scientific subject, as a tabloid novelty, as a living being: a curiosity.

About Stephen

Author of the new novel THE CURIOSITY, Stephen Kiernan was born in Newtonville, NY the sixth of seven children. A graduate of Middlebury College, he received a Master of Arts degree from Johns Hopkins University and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Over two-plus decades as a journalist he has won 40-plus awards, including the Brechner Institute’s Freedom of Information Award, the Gerald Loeb Award for financial journalism (two time commentary finalist) and the George Polk Award.

THE CURIOSITY won an Indie Next award for July, 2013, and has been named a top summer read by the Los Angeles Times, Good Housekeeping and Philadelphia Magazine.

Stephen taught at Middlebury College and the New England Young Writers Conference, and worked on the staff of the Breadloaf School of English and the Breadloaf Writers Conference. He chairs the board of the Young Writers Project, and sat on the advisory committee of the New Hampshire Palliative Care Initiative and the Vermont Legislature's Pain and Palliative Care Study Committee.

As a result of his 2007 book LAST RIGHTS, Stephen travels the country speaking to a wide variety of audiences about health care, hospice and palliative care, and advance directives. Following his 2010 book AUTHENTIC PATRIOTISM, he also speaks on civic engagement, service learning, volunteerism and philanthropy.

Stephen has also performed on the guitar since he was ten years old. In addition to recording 3 CDs of solo instrumentals, he has composed music for dance, the stage, documentaries and TV specials.

He lives in Vermont with his two amazing sons.

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1 comment:

  1. I wouldn't get "love" out of a cover like that. But hey - I like it! A beautiful smarter than all the other scientists is a good angle...only if she doesn't know she's pretty tho!