Nan Cuba’s novel Body and Bread (Engine Books), won the PEN Southwest Award in Fiction and the Texas Institute of Letters Steven Turner Award; it was listed as one of “Ten Titles to Pick Up Now” in O, Oprah’s Magazine, and was a “Summer Books” choice from Huffington Post. Cuba co-edited Art at our Doorstep: San Antonio Writers and Artists (Trinity University Press), and published other work in Quarterly West, Columbia, Antioch Review, Harvard Review, and storySouth. She is the 2016 Dobie Paisano Fellow; founder and executive director emeritus of Gemini Ink, a nonprofit literary center; and teaches in the MA/MFA Program in Literature, Creative Writing, and Social Justice at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, where she is writer-in-residence.
Nan is teaching a class for the Writers’ League called “How to Tackle the Embarrassing, the Forbidden, and the Emotionally Difficult” on Saturday, February 13 at St. Edward’s University. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.
Scribe: Can you think of a time when you transferred your own emotions and experiences into a story in a completely unexpected way?
Nan Cuba: Once I listened to an audio tape my grandfather made sometime during the 1950s. He was a co-founder of Scott & White Hospital (now part of the Baptist Hospital system) in Temple, and this was his attempt to honor a woman who had been an anesthesiologist during the hospital’s early years. They recalled wild experiences, such as an emergency trip in a two-seater airplane, with her scrunched into the tiny floor space between my grandfather and the pilot, who were strapped in. Later, while I was writing a scene about a surgeon having an epileptic seizure while performing an appendectomy in a cotton field at the turn of the century, my grandfather’s adventures drove my imagination as I wrote, even though the doctor was an audacious man of questionable character in his early twenties.
Scribe: What is one way you connected with characters as you writer, including characters who are very different from you, morally or otherwise?
NC: I’ll give you an example. Years ago, I found myself writing a story from the point of view of a woman who put her teenage daughter in uncomfortable situations with boys. This woman seemed like your average mother, and she did indeed love her daughter. But she couldn’t stop herself from doing this because she enjoyed the sexual tension; she lived vicariously through her daughter’s banter and interplay. When I realized what the story was about, I was tempted to make the mother into a villain, which would prove that she wasn’t anything like me. But I knew that writers should never judge their characters; they should always empathize. In other words, I had to find a way to relate to her, to make her sympathetic, to make her complex enough to seem like someone readers could know, maybe even remind them of aspects of themselves. But how? In the final draft, the mother is recovering from a mastectomy, and her husband, a decent man, has stopped any physical contact. She feels neutered and unloved, and without any conscious understanding of what she’s doing or why, she allows herself, through her daughter, to imagine feeling whole and desired again.
Scribe: What is one piece of advice you have for how writers can get into that intensely emotional state without it overwhelming them and thus compromising the quality of the work?
NC: My novel, Body and Bread, is loosely based on the aftermath of my brother’s suicide. My protagonist’s brother also commits suicide, so I had to write that scene. It doesn’t appear until near the end of the book, and I dreaded writing it for years. When it came time, I used several filters to help me. First, the sister narrator was not present when her brother died (neither was I when my brother died), so she had to imagine what happened instead of an omniscient narrator or witness going into graphic detail. In other words, this gave me emotional distance from the scene. Second, the methods of suicide were completely different, as was the brother character from my brother; the men were similar in some ways, but the character and his death were not my brother and his experience. Third, the setting was completely imagined, as were all the other characters, so while writing the scene, I focused on conjuring descriptive details and figuring how the relatives’ reactions would impact the plot. Use filters/diversions; concentrate on craft.
Scribe: I like that you mention the importance of avoiding the melodramatic. What is one way writers can avoid getting into melodramatic territory?
NC: If you’re focusing on word choice (sounds, syllables, formality, imagery, allusions), sentences (syntax, length, rhythm, pacing), paragraphing, and variations of these, while depicting multidimensional characters who develop then change and settings that create atmosphere and force revelations about the characters, you won’t be controlled by emotion while you write. You use craft to build, piece by piece, the finished product; your emotions are your inspiration. A symphony is composed note by note; a painting is created color stroke by color stroke; a scene is written word by word. Keep in mind that the narrative voice should be convincing and natural, not overblown or hyperbolic. If this is a temptation, imagine the narrator describing the scene to someone you know, preferably a skeptic, someone who would laugh if you tried to impress. That way, you’ll have to be honest (no exaggeration), convincing the reader that this really happened. Rely on craft to guide you; be honest.
— Thanks, Nan!
Click here to register for Nan’s class.
Click here for our current class schedule.