Archive for February, 2015

THE SWEETHEART is So Much More Than Sweet

February 4th, 2015 by Terra | No Comments | Filed in Talking with Other Authors

There are a lot of things I gained from my time as a Creative Writing MA student at Florida State University. A fantastic education in the craft of writing was the main one, but close on the heels of that were the relationships I formed with the writers I met and worked with there.

Angelina Mirabella has always stood out to me as one of the more exceptional writers I encountered in the program: funny, honest, whip-smart, and intensely dedicated to literary craft. She was and is the kind of lady with whom you very much wanted to discuss literature (or life’s general embarrassments and humiliations). When her debut novel, The Sweetheart, was announced, I jumped up from my seat with joy. And that joy has continued, now that I’ve actually read the thing and seen what an amazing work my friend and colleague has created.

Whether you’re a YA writer, an adult lit enthusiast, or a young person interested in writing, this Q&A is for you. In it, Angelina talks about the creation of her debut, The Sweetheart, but –as was the case when I knew her then– there is so much more one can glean (about life, and writing, and relationships) from what she says.

It’s 1953 and seventeen-year-old Leonie Putzkammer is cartoonishly tall and curvaceous, destined to spend the rest of her life waiting tables and living with her widowed father, Franz, in their Philadelphia row house. Until the day legendary wrestling promoter Salvatore Costantini walks into the local diner and offers her the chance of a lifetime.

Leonie sets off for Florida to train at Joe Pospisil’s School for Lady Grappling. There, she transforms into Gorgeous Gwen Davies, tag-team partner of legendary Screaming Mimi Hollander, and begins a romance with the soon-to-be Junior Heavyweight Champion Spider McGee. But when life as Gorgeous Gwen leaves her wanting, she orchestrates a move that will catapult her from heel to hero: she becomes The Sweetheart, a choice that attracts the fans she desires but complicates all of her relationships with Franz, Joe, Spider, Mimi (who becomes her fiercest competitor), and even with herself.

 

TEM:   Okay so, I’m sure every time you talk about The Sweetheart, you talk about second person, but as someone who has also carefully studied writing, I’m so intrigued by how you managed this. Second person is a) difficult to sustain for such a long period and b) extremely hard to keep from being gimmicky. And yet you do both, and also ultimately (with such brilliance) justify why second person. Can you talk a little about the challenges of, and writing discoveries you made in narrating the novel this way?

AM:  Using the second person was definitely the most challenging and anxiety-producing aspect of the novel for precisely the reasons you mention. George Saunders says the use of any “gimmick” is “a sort of contract agreed upon by writer and reader” and describes it this way: The writer says, “Mind if I try this? It helps me.” And the reader goes, “Well, it’s kind of annoying. But will you eventually make it worth my while? Will that quirk not only turn out to have thematic resonance but be essential to the aesthetic end game of the story?” And the writer goes, “Uh…yes? I think so?” But then at least, the game is on: the writer has to make that quirk pay off.

In using the second person, I knew I was asking the reader to take a chance. But I didn’t do it because I wanted to try out a cool new trick; I did it because it was my way into the story. Any unconventional choice has to be necessary for the story, and the writer has to honor the risk that the reader is taking by doing her damnedest to make that choice pay off.  So that’s what I did. I felt like I had to do at least three layers of work: first, get the bones down; second, flesh it out; third, polish the language in a way that made the second person seem inconspicuous and indispensable. I tried to make it inconspicuous by crafting my sentences in such a way that I didn’t start them with “you” too often, and I tried to make it indispensable by connecting it to the theme of identity (including the use of a frame), making the voice of the narrator as engaging and compelling as was in my power to do, and using it strategically when I could. For example, in some of the wrestling scenes, the voice of the second person is more directive. In that way, it becomes the voice in her head, driving her actions.

TEM:  The fact that this is a historical novel makes the girl-wresting aspect of it extra-interesting, but since your writing is so contemporary feeling, I couldn’t help wondering about what a modern-day parallel would look like. Why the 1950s for you, and second,  could this story have worked in a more current era?

AM:  When I first began conceiving this story, I imagined an 80s era novel, when we had G.L.O.W. and the Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection. But I became more compelled by this time period after watching a documentary called Lipstick and Dynamite. This generation of wrestlers really challenges the preconceived notions about what women were like in the 50s. Wrestling is still an unconventional choice for a profession, but back then, it was an even more transgressive (and therefore braver) one. But I’m glad that it has a contemporary feel. Leonie’s challenges aren’t constricted to her era, or to wrestling, for that matter. Determining how to present yourself to the world, understanding who you are and what you want from life, balancing professional goals and relationships, forming friendships: these are challenges that many modern women experience.

TEM:   Related to that, you reference actual people, places, and events in The Sweetheart, albeit sometimes loosely. What kind of research did you do to bring this time period to life?

AM:  In addition to watching Lipstick and Dynamite, I read biographies of Mildred Burke, Penny Banner, and the Fabulous Moolah, who were wrestlers during this time period. The Mildred Burke biography, Queen of the Ring, was particularly helpful. Before it came out, I couldn’t find a lot of reliable information about this time period. Thankfully, Jeff Leen used his investigative skills to illuminate this world.

TEM:   So speaking of research, the wrestling scenes are all so vivid—the moves, the terms, the way the crowd acts—what delving went on in that department? Did you practice moves on your family so that you could describe them?

AM:  YouTube and eBay were indispensible. I learned a lot from watching videos of old matches of famous women wrestlers of this era. I also bought copies of old wrestling magazines, which helped me with the terminology. YouTube provided the visuals; Wrestling As You Like It provided the language. And yes, I did practice on my husband once or twice. There were a couple of times when I wasn’t sure about a sequence that I put together, and I needed to act it out to make sure it would work. But it was more of a wrestling pantomime than actual wrestling. That is just not a skill set I possess.

TEM:  The Sweetheart has been a long time coming—you’ve been working on it for quite awhile. What can you say to writers, particularly young ones, about the long arc that sometimes creating something great requires? How did you keep going? Is there value in stepping away and coming back?

AM:  Writing is a long apprenticeship. It takes time to figure out how to write anything good, and then it takes more time to put together enough pages to make a book, find the people who think those pages should be a book, and turn those pages into an actual book in a bookstore. I don’t know how anybody keeps the faith through all that without at least one person in her life that thinks this is a worthwhile pursuit. My husband has been that person for me. He made time for me to write and read my pages. He gave me feedback and encouragement. Most importantly, he thought of me as a writer long before I felt I had earned the title. I couldn’t have endured otherwise.

TEM:    You’ve already said smart things about being a writer who is also a mother in your interview with Julianna Baggott, but are there any other bits of advice you have for other writers in this position, about how to balance things?

AM:  I don’t think you can think in terms of “balance.” I believe us Gen-X girls were sold a false bill of goods about “having it all.” Women’s liberation didn’t make time expand. We have more choices about how to spend our hours, but there are still only 24 in a day, so we have to prioritize. And you have to be honest with yourself about your priorities. For me, parenting well is more important than writing, but writing is more important than a clean bathroom. Seriously, if you come to my house, you might want to pee before you get here. And part of parenting well is acknowledging that writing is still important to me and honoring that. If I sacrificed all my time to my kids, I would lose my sense of myself and feel put upon, and I would be modeling martyrdom instead of fulfillment. That wouldn’t be good for any of us.

Also, writing time doesn’t always mean sitting in front of your computer. If you are thinking about your novel, you are writing. You can do that while you are grocery shopping or washing dishes or showering or one of the countless other things you have to do to keep everything from going to shit. This may be one of the advantages of having kids–it keeps you away from the computer and makes you spend more time letting things percolate before committing them to words.

TEM:   This is a fabulous coming-of-age/becoming-your-real-self story, and many of my readers are young adults or at least fans of the genre. What was the appeal of this particular time of life for you?

AM:  Late adolescence is a time of transition. Childhood is ending, adulthood is beginning. The push-and-pull between those periods creates a lot of interesting tension. It is also a time of possibility and experimentation. That is exhilarating, but it is also a little bit dangerous. Experiments can go awry and mistakes are made. Often, we can learn from these and do better, but sometimes, they can alter the course of your life in a way that is hard to fathom when there is still so much life ahead of you. There is a lot of potential for trouble, and trouble is the stuff of fiction.

TEM:  Connected to that, The Sweetheart is certainly a romance, but it is also the story of friendship—both the closeness that can happen between friends, plus the rivalry and the betrayal. Can you just . . . talk about that some?

AM:  For me, the heart of the story is the relationship between Gwen and Mimi. It’s a story about two women who play flat characters–one good, one evil–for an audience but are actually much more complicated in real life. The characters they play are built from characteristics that they possess, all of which have positive or negative connotations for the culture. Gwen is sexually desirable, enjoys attention from others, and is in a media-friendly romantic relationship, so she’s “good”; Mimi is plainer and more athletically built, cares more about pleasing herself than others, and has professional goals that are more important to her than a conventional romantic relationship, so she’s “bad.” Of course, neither of them is actually good or bad. They are both just fallible humans making good and bad choices. The really unfortunate thing is that they both let these constructs and expectations keep them from really seeing each other, which keeps them from connecting as fully as they might. I don’t think this is a problem that is unique to Gwen and Mimi, or to wrestling. It is just one of the many pitfalls of female friendship: sometimes we treat each other as rivals when we are really on the same team.

 

See? I told you. Angelina has a lot of smart things to say. I hope you will glean some of them from this interview, but also that you will pick up The Sweetheart and explore  a part of what her genius writing  has to offer.