Violet Ackerman has drifted through a career, four children and a divorce without ever knowing who she is or what she wants. After moving to the coast, she starts receiving a series of mysterious letters sent from a mother and baby home in 1959, written by a pregnant twenty-year-old Elizabeth to her best friend. Who is sending Violet these letters, and why?
One of the things I most noticed about The Letters was the attention Fiona has paid to detailed descriptions, of both the natural world and her characters. This should not surprise anyone who knows Fiona's writing from her blog A Small Stone but I thought I would ask here how the practice of noticing details every day feeds into writing a novel as well as the balance between her prose and her poetry.
1. When writing your small stone every day do you see that as separate from your novel writing, or as practice or as potential material to be included? I do see it as a way of honouring my commitment to being a writer, and so I suppose you could see it as a kind of practice - as a noun as well as a verb. I also see writing small stones as helping me to pay attention, even if I ony notice one thing properly every day. I don't think I've ever used one in a longer piece of writing - they arise as they are and I haven't tried transplanting them!
2. How do you decide the level of detailed description to include in a novel?
I don't think it's a conscious decision. When I'm writing a scene I'll 'look around' and see what I notice - the details present themselves to me most of the time rather than me having to dig around for them. Obviously too many details would get very tiring for the reader - when I'm doing my drafting hopefully I'll spot the passages that are too clotted with details and thin them out.
3. How much do you feel that detailed description adds to the vividness of a character compared to say dialogue?
Vivid is a good word. I think extremely specific detail can conjure a character better than anything else, but maybe this also includes a particular phrase or word they might use, so dialogue can contain detail too.
4. You've also had a collection of poetry published. Do you use detail differently in your prose and your poetry?
I think my background in poetry has given me a love of the SOUND of prose - the rhythms, the way the words sound when you roll them around in your mouth. I try to write 'poetically', whatever that means - especially when it comes to the details. I think poems can take more vivid language than prose, as you're concentrating much harder when you read a poem - although some prose can be chock full of poetry, like Annie Dillard's work. I love what Gretel Ehrlich once said, about sneaking poems into her book 'This Cold Heaven'. I'd aspire to that.
5. How do you decide which ideas will become poetry and which will become prose?
My fiction so far has been inspired by the main characters appearing in my head. They're a bit fuzzy to start with - I had a vague impression of Violet (from The Letters) as a wiry, prickly woman who wore long flapping cardigans - but as time goes on I get to know them better and they tell me their story. Poems are usually inspired when I notice something in the outside world which leads me to further thought. In a way, the ideas decide for themselves what they want to be. Although I haven't written poetry for a while - I don't think there's enough space for poems in my life at the moment...
Thanks Fiona for your answers! The Letters is published by Snowbooks * £7.99 * ISBN 9781906727062