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- Jan Elizabeth Watson is a writer who lives and teaches in Maine.
- A graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program.
- Her first novel, Asta in the Wings, was published by Tin House Books to critical acclaim in 2009.
- An Italian edition of the novel, Le Prigione di Neve, was published by Fazi Editore shortly thereafter.
AMIE FLANAGAN: You do a nice job in creating a darker side of Vera, the protagonist, by giving her hints of alcoholism, lying to police and so forth. She seems to be in a constant struggle with herself. How did you create this conflict that was subtle but noticeable?
Jan Elizabeth Watson: I knew early on in the writing process that I wanted Vera to be a layered character with many contradictory traits. Most notably, I wanted her combination of low self-esteem and arrogance to frequently put her at odds with herself, as you suggest, and serve as an Achilles’ heel of sorts. I like to etch these sorts of character complexities with a light hand so that anyone reading closely can draw inferences and make educated assumptions about why my characters are the way they are. Perhaps this speaks to my own preference as a reader of not having everything explicitly spelled out, but rather insinuated.
AF: I love how you give hints of backstory in What Has Become of You especially with Vera. You mention she had an eating disorder in a conversation with her mother. What tips would you give for a writer to include backstory without it becoming excessive?
Jan Elizabeth Watson: I wholeheartedly believe in knowing your characters through and through, even if many of these details or backstory never makes it on to the page. When I’ve taught fiction I lead my students in exercises where they identify what their characters would have in their medicine cabinet, in their glove compartment, or in their closet. I believe that such minute details really inform the writer and give her more ammo to work with; it helps her shed subtle light on a character’s motivation and mindset if such details are carefully placed or hinted at throughout the story. I feel like Vera’s entire pathology can be found on the pages of What Has Become of You, and putting it all together is a little like an Easter egg hunt—admittedly, a very weird Easter egg hunt!
AF: You seem to have a lot of fun with form throughout this book. One minute we’re in Vera’s point of view and the next we’re in Jensen’s through her journal. What advice would you give to a writer about playing with different point of views?
Jan Elizabeth Watson: Personally, I love voices. When I am adopting different points of view or using dialogue, it’s like the greatest form of play for me. So one bit of advice I would have for writers is to have fun inhabiting people’s minds and playing with different voices, the same way you might have enjoyed playing dress-up or cops and robbers as a child. I think the voices really come to life when you allow yourself to feel that joy.
AF: I love how you juxtaposed Jensen and Vera. How important is it for a writer to find such juxtapositions between characters?
Jan Elizabeth Watson: I am not sure that all writers must find such juxtapositions between characters, but I believe that juxtapositions in general are important—beauty versus ugliness, for example. In the particular case of What Has Become of You I wanted to create characters that mirror each other in unexpected ways, but it is the lure of this mirror that leads the main character down a treacherous path. The juxtaposition is really integral to the plot in that way.
AF: You do a fantastic job with creating memorable minor characters especially with the girls in the class. How do you give such strong impressions of the secondary characters?
Jan Elizabeth Watson: Minor characters are, to my thinking, often the best characters in fiction. Sometimes they develop voices that are louder than you expected. The writer should understand these characters just as thoroughly as the primary characters, even though this ‘supporting cast’ may be described very economically. For example, student Martha True is described as ‘a bespectacled girl with a sharp little chin and a wobbly, nasally voice.” To me that sharp chin and the unsteadiness of her voice do a lot to characterize her as a rather tense young woman who is also shy.
AF: You give phenomenal concrete details. How do you choose which concrete details to use in the book verses just telling us all about Maine?
Jan Elizabeth Watson: Thank you for the compliment! I do try to paint a clear picture without going into descriptive overkill. I am not really sure that I have a specific process for doing that, but I think I’ve always had a knack at zeroing in on key details, kind of the way a caricaturist can pick just a few key features and come out with a recognizable likeness of someone.
AF: I’m intrigued that you mixed themes with Catcher In The Rye and What Has Become of You. Why did you chose Catcher verses any other book out there to tell this story?
Jan Elizabeth Watson: The Catcher in the Rye is still often taught in high school and considered a definitive portrait of adolescence, but it offers a boy’s perspective, and I thought it would be interesting to have this classic book of adolescent boyhood dissected by a group of young female readers. I read The Catcher in the Rye on my own when I was about 13 or 14 and thought Holden was just the bee’s knees. Later on in life I realized there were many other readers out there who actually don’t like him. There is also the fact that The Catcher in the Rye has head a few sinister things associated with it; as mentioned in What Has Become of You, it has been a favorite read among quite a few killers, including the man who shot John Lennon. I thought it would be appropriate to the mood of What Has Become of You to borrow some themes from a novel that has developed this kind of stigma, fairly or unfairly.
AF: It’s interesting that you have a writer who is writing about a murder case. You pull this off so that it’s not as cliché as it sounds. This is nice! How do you put a fresh spin on an old topic so it doesn’t feel cliché?
Jan Elizabeth Watson: Well, I believe that everything old can be made new again. I’m not one of those people who despairs of the fact that all the good stories out there have already been told—because I don’t think it’s true, first of all, and even if it were true, each new perspective on a story can bring something new and revelatory to it.
AF: I’m a huge psychological thriller fan. You really kept increasing the stakes of this novel. Do you plot? If so, can you give tips on how you plot?
JW: Although I have been writing stories since I was a kid, plotting is probably the last of my writing skills to develop. I have always been able to characterize and describe and to set scenes and even put in some narrative tension, but a tight plot is hard to come by! My editor helped me by suggesting that I cut certain scenes to help out with the pacing. I like the fact that it is still a novel that takes its time, though. Sometimes I think slow pacing can really increase the tension in a story. Think of that scene from Psycho where Norman Bates is seen mopping up the bloody bathroom floor for what feels like about fifteen minutes! It’s a terrifying scene, even though little is happening.
AF: What is the best advice you can give to a new writer?
JW: Read! Reading will always be your best teacher. Read both contemporary stuff and classic stuff to get a sense of where we are now and how we got there. Be patient with the process of writing and with yourself. There is not much immediate gratification to be found in writing, but the gratification writers do experience is profound.