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Interview: Donna Freitas

Earlier this year, I was given an early copy of This Gorgeous Game by Donna Freitas. I was drawn in from the very first page, intrigued by its premise and engaged by the writing. As you can tell by my review, I really enjoyed the novel and loudly recommend it, especially to those who will benefit from learning that it is okay to speak up when you think something is wrong, or someone makes you uncomfortable. Not only is it okay to speak up, it is encouraged.

In this exclusive interview, Donna Freitas and I spoke at length about the story behind the story, fiction versus non-fiction, inspiration, fear, and truth.

What inspired This Gorgeous Game?

Wow, what a first question. I might rephrase it to say what drove me to write this novel, since I was intensely driven by events in my past to get Olivia's story out. Before I continue I will say, and with great emphasis, that Olivia's story is not my story. This Gorgeous Game is not an autobiographical novel.

But I did live an experience that is something like Olivia's - for a number of years I was stalked. While the events in Olivia's story are not at all (really, really, they are not) from my personal experience, her voice - the way she is constantly repeating things in her head, trying to convince herself that everything is okay, that this man is doing nothing wrong, that “I know I know I know I should be grateful” first line - I know that voice well. When Olivia's voice and those first lines of This Gorgeous Game popped into my head, it was so powerful, her voice so unrelenting and desperate that I had to get it out of me - that's why I say I was driven to write this novel - her voice drove me. And as I was writing I recognized its exhausting cadence as an internal voice I'd carried around myself a long time ago. It was incredibly sad to see myself in Olivia, but I am there in her voice. And also in her emotions. I would say that the emotions she experiences and that I hope her character evokes vividly in the story - emotions of being thrilled and giddy at first, then confused and incredibly anxious and uncertain, and then repulsed and disgusted and ashamed and utterly alone - those feelings, in my own experience, were so unbelievably potent. I hope that readers are able to feel those things with Olivia.

It's funny: never in a million years did I think I would ever be able to write a story that is related to one of the most painful parts of my past - an experience that is so dark and so upsetting to me, that for years I tried to live as if it never happened; I wanted it buried so deep that it disappeared altogether from my life. But when Olivia surprised me by showing up, I couldn't get her story out fast enough. The more I wrote, the more her story diverged from my own, the more I knew where her story would go and that I was the one in control of its trajectory, the more empowered I became while writing.

Olivia's story is really a story about unwanted attention and from a very powerful, older man - it's not about sex. Being stalked, becoming the object of attention, of obsession, by someone older, a mentor, someone with a lot of power over you, is so complicated. What do you do if this person never lays a hand on you, but you know in your gut that something is deeply wrong? How is it that such behavior - behavior that can seem so innocent - can be so utterly destructive to a girl? The kind of attention Olivia receives from Father Mark is incredibly insidious, unrelenting, and manipulative, but the fact that he never touches her delays her understanding of what is really going on and makes it nearly impossible to tell someone. Because what, really, can she tell on him for? A bunch of letters? Some coffees? Invitations and meetings? None of these are illegal, right?

I hope that these aspects of Olivia story really open up some conversation on this type of abuse - it's a kind of abuse that is less clear cut because there is no sex, and so we don't often (or really ever) talk about it. But it's so important to talk about! I know this from experience, obviously. I went forever without telling in my own situation. I still feel ashamed by how long it took me - even though rationally I know that I shouldn't feel any shame. Oh, if I could go back to that time in my own life with what I know now!

The protagonist of This Gorgeous Game, Olivia, is lucky to be surrounded by such supportive friends and family members. Did you model any of the characters after people you know?

It's interesting that you ask about all the many people surrounding people who love her dearly - even though as the attention from Father Mark gets more and more intense and she withdraws from everyone, becoming isolated. As a writer, I could still see the whole picture of the story, that even as Olivia begins to feel alone, I knew she was never ever actually alone. I knew that her friends and family would love her through this experience, that they would be there to pull her through to the other side when she needed them most.

So, to your question: it's not so much that I modeled her friends and family after people I know, but more that during my own experience of the events that led to my telling Olivia's story, I also had so much love and support in my life. Even though I hid (both from myself, for a long time, and from everyone else) what was happening to me, I had a wonderful boyfriend and incredible best friends and teachers all throughout, all of whom stood by me when I finally did tell. Especially my best guy friend, Jason, to whom the book is dedicated. I feel like a bit of Jason is woven into every good character in Olivia's story. Jason is like my brother and his presence is throughout This Gorgeous Game.

One quick thing that really surprised me, in reading the first two Amazon reviews that went up about two months prior to the pub date for the book, on this very issue: the writers of the reviews are very passionate about the book (which is good, right?), but very, very angry about Olivia's reliance on her boyfriend throughout her story - almost to the point of not noticing the fact that there are about ten women who populate her life and on whom she relies intensely as well. The reviewers essentially say that Olivia is a bad character and a weak girl because she just hops from one man to another, blindly, and somehow she should have been able to get through this without the help of any man at all. When I read that I was so surprised - mostly because I thought to myself, Wow, when you are in a situation like Olivia's, and you finally get enough courage to reach out for help, to speak up, you hang on to anyone and everyone you trust who is nearby, man, woman, pet. Whomever. Really. That's what you do. Because all that matters is getting through to the other side. I hung on to both women and men. Does that make me weak or somehow less strong? The thing is, Olivia's not strong at the end of the book. She's been broken, and she turns to whomever can help her pick up the pieces. I wasn't strong, then, either. I just needed to make it.

I hope that the many, many friends and loved ones in Olivia's life, seeing their presence throughout her story even when she no longer sees them there because of her isolation, is a comfort to readers that she is never, ever alone. I know that seeing them there, for me, as the writer, is a huge comfort.

The novel begins when Olivia discovers she's won a scholarship based on her writing ability, on the short story she submits to the contest. Did you get the idea for her short story before or after you plotted the novel itself?

The writing contest Olivia wins and the fact that she writes short stories was just sort of a random idea I had - I needed a device for having Olivia and Father Mark meet, and in a way that would spark an initial connection, and this is what came to me to make that happen. I read a lot of magic realism (you know, One Hundred Years of Solitude and The House of the Spirits) and for some reason, that was in my head when I was working on the novel, so I gave Olivia's short story that kind of feel. While I am in awe of that style of writing, I don't think I could ever pull it off, myself, but I liked the idea of giving my character that ability!

Do you write short stories?

I do not write short stories - I'm too wordy! I don't even know how to conceive of a short story, to be honest. I don't read them much, either, since I prefer novels. There is nothing like sinking in to a really long, fantastic story, and so short stories feel daunting to me, like they are over too quick and abruptly to actually enjoy them. Though I love Jhumpa Lahiri's short stories - hers are the exception for me.

Your first novel, The Possibilities of Sainthood, features Antonia Lucia Labella, a girl who hopes to be the first Patron Saint of the Kiss. When you were a teenager, did you have similar aspirations? What were your priorities at her age?

Because of Antonia, everyone asks me if I wanted to be a saint when I was growing up and the answer is a resounding, “No.” But! But, Antonia is boy crazy and she is particularly focused on getting her first kiss (her other main aspiration in life) and here Antonia and I have a lot in common. I was a late bloomer in the kissing department - I was almost sixteen and never been kissed and I thought I must be the only girl left on the planet (or at least in Rhode Island) who hadn't kissed anyone at my age. I also really liked boys, but it took a while before any of them seemed to take an interest in me. So boys and kissing were a huge priority. So was spending every waking moment of summer at the beach (I grew up at the beach), which was also conveniently tied into the boys interest of mine. (The first boy I kissed I met at the beach!)

Like Antonia, I am Italian and so cooking and eating with my Grandma and Mom were a huge priority, as was doing well in school (I was valedictorian at my high school, actually), and spending time with friends as much as possible. I loved going to parties and dances and really anywhere with friends. I had a pretty fun time growing up. Social life was important, and when you live by the beach, life is pretty low key and laid back.

Both of your novels to date have been touched by themes of faith and belief. However, the novels differ in style - Sainthood is a lighter story, while Game has a darker, more dramatic tone. How long did it take you to write the first draft each novel? Were they written in the order in which they were published?

First drafts of novels come very quickly for me - I've learned this by now. I wrote The Possibilities of Sainthood in a burst of energy in just under a month, and it was the same for This Gorgeous Game, and yes, I wrote them in order.

When the voice of a character shows up in my head and it's really compelling - as it was for both Antonia and Olivia, even though they are very different - I write like I am possessed. I will literally spend hours at a time pouring out the story as fast as I can. Four, six, eight hours, whatever I've got for that day. It's almost like I am running to catch up to my characters and they are yanking me along, beckoning me. I don't worry about length or editing or anything during that initial burst - my job is to get the story out while it's in me. If I push it off or try to edit as I go I lose the story and I don't finish. It's my favorite thing in the world, to write like I do in that first draft, so intensely. It's really exciting and I think that's why it's so quick.

But revising is another story. Revising is hard and long and forever. I usually go through several major (and I mean major) revisions, and I will tweak at a single page for an entire hour. I'd say on average, for each revision, I spend an hour a page. It's kind of ridiculous. So while first drafts for me are fast, revisions go really slowly. Though I am very diligent about them, and I will revise for upwards of 8-10 hours a day, without skipping a day, until I get through the entire manuscript.

Do you approach writing nonfiction differently than fiction? How so?

Oh, definitely. Fiction, for me, is the most joyous form of writing, as you might guess from my last answer. You wait for the story you are writing to show up each morning, the character's voices in your head, ideas for plot, pivotal moments, and then you just pour them out until you are done for the day. The first draft, at least, is so unhindered and unrestrained. It's thrilling! And fun. And mysterious. The fact that your imagination is your primary source is just sort of shocking (in the best way) for someone who is used to writing nonfiction.

Which brings me to writing nonfiction and why it's so different. All writing is hard work, and while I may write first drafts of novels very, very quickly, I usually spend a solid year or so revising day in and day out, polishing, whittling away at the prose, etc. But nonfiction is always grueling. It rarely feels joyful and unrestrained the way fiction does because nonfiction can't be unrestrained - you are generally drawing from a mountain of research, whether theoretical or collected data from fieldwork. So nonfiction is very careful and slow, in the sense that you are piecing together a narrative that is supposed to reflect a reality you have access to in the most authentic way you can manage. There are usually lots of endnotes and fact checks and relying on data to bolster the prose.

To give a brief example, when I was writing my last nonfiction book, Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance and Religion on America's College Campuses, I was drawing on a mountain of data I'd collected from college students all over the country that I'd spoken with for hours at a time. This meant I was crafting an overall narrative about sex in relation to faith on campus from thousands and thousands of pages of commentary from the interviews, and dozens of face to face meetings with students - all of which could not fit into a single book. So at times I felt very overwhelmed by the task of selecting which student stories would be in the book, and then also which parts of their stories, as well as drawing conclusions from that much data.

It's not that I don't enjoy writing nonfiction - I do, and in fact, Sex and the Soul as a project is one of the things I've done in life that I am most proud of, since it is having a widespread impact on student life on college campuses and I care deeply about the conversation it addresses and the people it is reaching. But from beginning to end, writing a book like that is grueling in a way that fiction never has been for me. I always find it a huge relief to turn to fiction after working on a nonfiction project like that.

Are you in the midst of writing anything at this time?

Yes, I am. It's a novel called The Survival Kit and it will be out in the fall of 2011 from FSG. Like This Gorgeous Game, this one is very personal for me, and it's really all I've worked on this last year.

Here's the story behind this new one: So my mother died a few years ago and she used to be a nursery school teacher, a really wildly amazing one. The first day of school in my Mom's classroom was usually also the first day of school ever for her kids. While they would sniffle and cry a bit at first, soon they were off and running to play with the other kids and all the amazing things my Mom had set up for them. The parents, though, were another story. They would cry for weeks about leaving their babies at her door. So my Mom started making Parent Survival Kits: a series of symbolic items she'd place inside a paper lunch bag that were designed to help parents make this transition of seeing their kids go off to school for the first time. My mother held a parent meeting every August to give the Survival Kits out and discuss their contents.

Last August, I was sitting outside at a coffee shop, and it popped into my head that if my mother were still alive, I'd probably be at home in Rhode Island helping her with the annual Survival Kit making event - they were very labor intensive and we all pitched in to get them done. As I sat there, remembering this part of life when Mom was still around, I began to wonder what it would have been like if my mother had made me my very own Survival Kit for after she died - what she would have put in it and why, and what, in my own experience of mourning her death, I now know it would have been so important to have had inside that paper lunch bag, what I really could have used to get through that first year after her death. Then, it occurred to me that this would make a really wonderful frame for a story.

So my new novel, The Survival Kit, begins (on the very first page) with the protagonist, Rose Madison, escaping into her mother's closet - it's a week after her mother's funeral - and searching out a dress she'd always loved of her mother's. "Rose's Survival Kit" is tied with ribbon to the hanger, and all the items inside, Rose going through them, living them one by one, is what propels the story. It's a very bittersweet story for me, but it was wonderful to write. And it is about to go to copyediting, which means it is virtually done, too, so I am excited. I can't wait for it to come out.

What are your ten favorite books of all time?

(Note: This list is often changing, but if you ask me this question now, this is what I'd say, and I'll stick to novels, not nonfiction):

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
George Eliot's Middlemarch
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (of course!)
Bram Stoker's Dracula
The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen (and all things Sarah Dessen)
Elizabeth Knox's Dreamhunter duet.
Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Related Posts at Bildungsroman
Interview: Donna Freitas (2012)
Review: This Gorgeous Game by Donna Freitas
Review: Gold Medal Summer by Donna Freitas
Review: The Tenderness of Thieves by Donna Freitas

Visit Donna's website.

Visit all of today's Summer Blog Blast Tour stops:

Matthew Reinhart at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Jenny Boylan at Fuse Number 8
Lisa Mantchev at Writing & Ruminating
Jess Leader at Shaken & Stirred
Donna Freitas at Bildungsroman

Also read my 2012 interview with Donna Freitas.

Tags: books, interviews, sbbt

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