Kyle Craner: Sara! Welcome to Writers Who Don’t Write (WWDW). It’s hard to gather my
thoughts while I try to type this out, I’m a lot dumber than I thought I was.

Jeff Umbro: That’s nonsense. So, Sara, tell us about your career and how your Book ”Girl at War” came to be.

Sara Novic: Well, my career {laughs} uhh, its kind of funny, I think I realized quite late that a career as a writer was a thing women could have. I’m not sure I knew quite what I was doing because I was writing “Girl at War” for a very long time. But I guess I just though it was, I don’t know, a side project? Even when I was in Graduate school, I was kind of working on the book, but it didn’t feel like a book or like a job as a writer was the only job I could have, I mean its not the only job I have…I also teach, so that’s still true. Buy anyway…. I started writing “Girl at War” when I was an undergrad, I think I was maybe a sophomore and I write a short story and I bought it to a professor of mine and he was like “this is really good, you should write a novel about this!” And I was like, “umm, yea, I’m not sure, but thanks though buddy”. And I kept expanding on it anyway just because the idea was interesting to me and the main character Changed from a little boy to a little girl but the seed of the story stayed the same throughout and that’s the end of part one where the book is now. And so that’s kind of a little bit of the beginnings of the book anyway.

JU: So why was the idea interesting to you?

SN: The book? I was living in Croatia before I started college (I have family and friends there) and when I came back {to start school} I kind of was expecting “oh these are people that are in college, also I was the first person in my family o go to college so I had no idea what to expect, but I was like “Oh! College people are going to be smart. They are going to know about this war, which was something important to me, and they’re going to know what had happened here. But of course, that wasn’t the case. In fact, most people hadn’t even heard of Croatia at that point because this was pre Game of Thrones, so know Kings Landing or whatever the hell they have on TV {laughs}. I started writing that very first short story out of anger actually because I was like “I want people to understand that this was something that happened when everyone in the room was alive (I mean we were little kids then) but it was something that faded from the American memory so quickly that it really bothered me. And that was actually part of the original story, which it is in the book as well that the character was kind of struggling to come to terms with how to tell the story about his past at the time he was a boy again.

KC: How long was the process as a whole, from the time you came up with the concept to when you first saw it in print?

SN: I think, forever {laughs}. Hmm, lets see, I was a sophomore that’s like 3 years, and then I worked for at least a year after…4, 5, 6…maybe 6 or so years? 7 maybe even? Yea, it really took a long time. And also, even after I sold it, there were substantial changes that I made, which I feel really lucky about; I think they made the book a lot better. And David Ebershoff 09:30 is an amazing editor. And something that a lot of people don’t get anymore are big, huge, overhaul edits for a book. So a lot of changes made, particularly to the second section of the book, where Ana’s in America as an adult.

KC: How long did you spend in the editing process?

SN: With David and Random House, I think it was about a year probably, maybe even a little bit more if you count all the copyediting and all that.

KC: And you were teaching the whole time?

SN: Yea, I was teaching a couple different places. I was teaching at the Fashion Institute of Technology. I was teaching at this Orthodox Jewish School that was…that was amazing. The students were amazing, but I showed up the first day and I got yelled at because I was wearing the wrong clothes and I wasn’t allowed to wear pants and I had no idea what I was doing. So that was all happening and also I was editing this book at the same time.

KC: Teaching writing?

SN: Yea, I was teaching mostly essay writing for undergrads and sometimes creative writing too, but usually at the college classes all different levels of students. So, yea, sorry, I got confused. I don’t know if teaching really changed hat book. I fell like it was such a long timecoming that at the point that I was making the edits it was like a different plane of reality almost. But I think teaching has changed me as a writer for sure. I think about clarity automatically now in a way that I didn’t used to, in the way that you kind of have to teach a reader how to read something. So, that’s something that I talk a lot about with my students because as undergrads they’re kind of not used to writing multiple drafts of a thing still. That’s still a thing I’m trying to get them to think about a lot, so just transitioning an idea from the order that it is in your head to “maybe that’s not the actual order that it should stay in forever”, is something that I think about automatically myself as a writer now, whereas it took me a long long time to find the structure and order for Girl at War. I think I maybe would have been better at it if I had been thinking about thinking like that at the time.

JU: was it a conscious decision to not really lay out a Wikipedia style explainer of the Croatian War in the book?

SN: It was a conscious struggle man. I think I thought a lot and worried a lot about how much historical context to provide for the reader. At the end of the day I decided that since the book was form a child’s perspective, it was really important for me to not kind of overstuff it with an “information dump” about what happened and why this happened and just focus on the honest way that she would be confused about a lot of things. But, at the same time, try to provide ways that readers would kind of see around her or over her head a little bit. But yea, it was a lot of back and forth and sometimes I would over do it and people would think “wow this part is really boring”, so then I would take it out {Laughs}.

Also, the other thing about the book for me is that it’s not actually a war epic, its kind of a really intimate story of war. So it can’t possibly say everything about what happened in that war, or why it happened. The reasons go back hundreds of years and are really different depending on whose perspective you’re looking at of course. It was kind of also part of the reason why I just decided to give less historical information and more just focus on the emotions of how it would be to live through that.

JU: In hindsight, are you happy with that decision? For example, did you wish you wrote this in third person in order to add more exposition?

SN: In hindsight, I think I’m happy with Ana as the narrator. I don’t think we see a lot of war stories from female perspectives. And honestly, women and children are the people who are most affected by most wars. We think a lot about it from soldiers perspective and of course, that’s a huge part of it, but if we look at the damage done, it’s usually more on the home front and we don’t hear those voices as much. I think there needs to be other books about this war.

This is not the only book that can be. And we need vague, third person, many points of views stories about this war too. But I’m happy that Ana tells this particular story.

KC: You mentioned having worked through a couple of different structures. Can you point out some of the deciding factors for the final structure you ended up going with?

SN: I always knew that I wanted this story to go back and forth in time. The original short story I wrote that he book was based on also did that, and it was kind of an integral part of the idea behind the book, this kind of inability to cope years on. So I always kind of wanted this feeling of flux and traumatic intrusions. SO that I knew, I just didn’t know what order to put it in at all. So I played around with lots of different orders. I played around where it started in the present and jumped back and that was terrible because everyone was like “Why is this girl such a jerk?!, She’s so grumpy and shitty all the time”. And I was kind of like “well, you know, she really earned it, I promise”. But you can’t sit there and say that while someone is reading your book. So I realized I had to change that. I also played around a lot with how big of a chunk something should be. Like I did a version where it went back and forth like every chapter, and that was kind of too confusing. But I always knew that I wanted it to break right at the end of where is breaks in part one. So that was like a spot that I knew it needed to jump, and then everything else was kind of in flux and what ordered that all happened in changed a lot.

JU: How does memory play a piece in this story?

SN: I think it’s a big part of the story. Obviously, the way that it moves kind of mimics the way that trauma or ya know part 3 is in the war again, so even though she’s in the present, this thing keeps sneaking back into her consciousness. And that’s something I thought about a lot with this structure. And also, just the way that she remembers certain things and how after 10 years of being away, Luca, her best friend, remembers them really differently or doesn’t think about them at all anymore because he’s kind of in that same place. That’s something that I kind of thought a lot about while I was writing the book. I think it’s a big part of the book and its a big part of the reality of this war: how we remember it and how it gets written down in history text books is going to determine definitively whether or not it happens again. So it’s kind of a big deal.

KC: Is that larger war epic something you’d consider writing after this experience.

SN: I don’t know if I could. True confessions: I’m kind of afraid of the third person. The new project act I’m working on right now is in third person and it’s the longest thing I’ve ever written in third person. It’s not done and it doesn’t even make sense yet. So I don’t know if I have the capacity to write that book. It would be so much research. I did a ton for Girl at War and that was just the tip of the iceberg.

KC: Does a larger War Epic have to be in the third person? I mean one of my favorite parts of Girl at War is how personal the larger conflict becomes though the views of small characters.

SN: I guess it doesn’t. I just always think of Epics as these big, sweeping, omniscient texts. But I guess you could do it where you had lots of different first persons as well. That would be cool. Alright, BYE! {laughs}.

JU: Sarah, I’m curious about other aspects of your career. You teach writing, you edit writing, and you write books. And you do all of this very successfully. In your mind, was there a path that got you here? (Since so many people don’t make it that far and they have that kind of ambition)

SN: I’m flattered you think I’m successful. It’s so hard to say. I think a lot of it is luck and timing. The people that I met in the graduate program in Columbia, friends actually more than teachers, really helped me. My friend wrote this really great story and it was in Granta 19:57 and all the agents were swarming after her and we were all so excited. She was like “this is all so great, except for I haven’t written a novel…so maybe you should email them”. So I wrote my agent now this really dumb email that was like “hi, my friend gave me your email address. I’d love to send you my book”. That part of it was really luck and the generosity of friends. I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher. I didn’t know that writing was a job that one could have. And I’ve actually really fallen in love with the editing aspect of things. Blunderbuss has been so fund to get to read all these different stories that come our way and kind of curate a certain aesthetic of wily, plot driven, crazy short stories from all these really different writers I think. SO that was a big surprise to me. But I’m just glad I get to be around words all the time. AS a kid I used to write in a journal all the time. My mom actually forced me because I was really shy and all the teachers thought there was something wrong with me. So she thought it would be good for my feelings or whatever. I have the original journal and the first have of it was just iterations of “this is really stupid” and then you can slowly start to see me enjoy it more, but then trying to hide that I’m enjoying it. Then just “oh fuck it, I like this”, and writing a lot. So, my first love as always words and it came early and I’m just happy I get to do stuff with words all the time, in different capacities. 22:17 side dialog “you can’t make me enjoy it mom…”

KC: When did the idea that you could write as a career start to seem real to you?

SN: When I sold my book! {laughs}. It still doesn’t feel real. It’s crazy when I see the book in a store by itself. I think “what are you doing out here, you should probably come home, its dark!”. It’s a great surprise overtime. I love it. I feel really luck for it to have happened to me. It doesn’t feel real still.

KC: It must be an incredible feeling.

JU: How does it feel that people are still discussing the book years later?

SN: Insane! It feels crazy. I didn’t really think about he audience aspect of writing until really late in the process. I did think about it in terms of “does this make sense” but not in the terms of actual real people in reality. And that has been so great, particularly for an introverted person like me. I’m still really shy. I get freaked out around people. But I really like doing book events and getting to talk to people and email with people about the book. It always takes me by surprise when somebody has a real, visceral, emotional connection to Ana. Its just really nice because I hung out with her for so long, and now other people are hanging out with her out there.

JU: I ready your essay in the Guardian about writing while deaf; not being able to read your work out loud when people like Stephen King say that’s the key to success. Can you chat with us about that a bit?

SN: It’s weird. It’s a weird thing to work in English where everything is so hearing/speech centric just even in the way that we talk. Like I hear you means I understand you. If you look at any newspaper within a 500 mile radius its going to have a headline that’s like ” It fell on deaf ears”, when they are trying to say “those people were not paying attention!”. Or were willfully ignoring something. Which is really frustrating. So it sometimes feels like you are working against the grain in that sense. I don’t think I need to hear myself read my work out loud.

JU: I totally agree with you.

SN: That kind of had me down while I was writing that Guardian piece. I was like “wow, all these important writers are dying these are the rules of writing”. But of course that’s all nonsense. But also, I do read my work outlaid sometimes just to feel the rhythm of the sentences. That’s something that I care about a lot as a person who cares
about rhythm and vibration maybe above average. This podcast is weird, right? I’m just saying these things and you’re recording them, hypothetically, but I will never find them again. It’s just out there, like a vampire.

JU: I don’t mean to bring it up when it ma be a tough subject, but I do think its an important aspect. Often times we deal with the fact that it’s expensive to transcribe our interviews. And unfortunately we often decide that it’s not worth it. So I’m sorry, because if its not in front of us, sometimes we just don’t think about it. Is that something you’ve had to deal with your whole life? How do you get around it, if ever?

SN: It’s a thing that’s everywhere. Just recently, there are some movie theaters that you can actually pick that movie that you want to go to. Before a couple years ago it was like “this is the {one} show with captions! Its transformers 4 and its at 10:00am, and go fuck yourself”… Now, some of the movie theaters have these individualized captioned things which are terrible because they are just a piece of plexy glass and they are running the captions backwards not he back wall and you have to catch the reflection of them to read the captions and watch the movie at the same time. That is just one example of normal life. A lot of people just don’t think about it. Like you said, if it’s not infront of you, you don’t think about it. It’s super frustrating. Usually I ignore it, or just go do something else, like read a book. Sometimes I rage about it on Twitter {laughs} it just kind of depends on my mood I guess.

KC: Twitter is a place of rage.

JU: What do you like to read?

SN: I love books. I’ m a Zadie Smith fan girl. So, everything by Zadie Smith. If you haven’t read them, you should find Zadie Smith’s movie reviews for the Guardian. In 2008, someone made her the reviewer for the Guardian (I think it was the Guardian) for time and it was THE best. Its like the Best thing ever. It’s Zadie Smith reviewing Iron Man or something. It’s incredible. What else? I really like historical fiction. I really like plot driven stuff. Maybe you can tell that form my writing {laughs}. I like some action in my books. I’m trying to think what I’ve read this summer. I read the new Ryan Gatus I’m not actually sure that its out yet. I think it just came out, but I had a galley of it and its great! It’s called “Safe” and that was a big actiony thrill, crime novel I loved. Now I’m reading a galley of a friend’s memoir called “After the Eclipse” about her mom’s murder and dealing with the aftermath. The author of that is Sarah Perry, that’s coming out in September. I’m plugging it cause its great. That’s what I’ve been reading lately.

JU: I know you’re a part of Words After War, which is a big friend of the show. Is it odd being intuit realm when you aren’t a veteran yourself?

SN: No, it feels completely normal and I feel like the guys at Words After War are some of my closest buddies in New York. It’s been a great program. Also, Words After War is kind of special with respect to veteran’s workshops because it’s kind of built to bring civilians and veteran together. SO there are other civilian students and there are just people interested in writing war fiction or family members of people who served. So its kind of the perfect forum for it and I think t hat the level of writing on the craft level is really kind of elevated because of the mix of all the different kind of people coming there. Not only because they are interested in or tethered to the war or military but actually first and foremost, the writing.

KC: Have you found writing workshops useful? First when you were writing “Girl at War” and not that you are writing your second novel?

SN: I haven’t actually work-shopped any of this new novel but, “Girl at War” I wrote some of while I was at the MFA program. Its really hard to workshop a novel I think, because you can’t give everybody the whole thing at once and so sometimes you end up spending tour whole workshop trying to answer questions about a thing that going to come out in the next chapter and you can’t say shit because you’re supposed to jus sit there and take it in. That can be really frustrating. But overall, I think the workshop process can be really valuable. I learned a lot from just work-shopping short stories. Skills that I got out of that about plot, pacing and narrative can be applied to novels, certainly, but I think that it can be really hard to workshop a novel in parts, for sure. Also, I had a really weird experience with “Girl at War” where a teacher of mine told me that it wasn’t worth writing because we already had a lot of Holocaust books. So that was a good lesson for me as a teacher. I realized you could really fuck a student up with what you say off hand. I don’t really know she put much thought into that comment because it doesn’t actually make sense when you think about it. But it definitely stopped me from writing the book for a dew months. I had a private tantrum and threw it out and was like “I’m never writing this dumb book again”. But then a few months later, I was like “alright, I’m writing this dumb book again”. But yes, as a teacher you can really effect a student strongly in both directions. That was a learning moment for me for sure.

KC: We’re glad you pulled it back out of the trash.

SN: Me too!

KC: Do you have a strategy for how to get the most out f them? (Writing workshops that is). Like how you pick and choose what you’re going to show to the class.

SN: Even if I were to show and excerpt now, I would want it to be something pretty self-contained that prevents outside digressions. But the thing about workshops is about learning to find your readers. You can’t write a book that everyone will like all the time. A workshop is a great place to be like: here are 8 people and maybe 2 will like this and I am going to find them and hone in on what they say. I will still listen to what everyone has to say because everyone’s got a good idea once in a while, even if they’re not the target audience for the work. I think that’s finding your reader and finding who you’re talking too is an important part about being a writer. Oh man, I’m turning into my dad. My dad has some saying “even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while”. Oh man.

JU: Not to bring this to a dark place, but I’d love for you to chat about refugees for a little bit in the context that you wrote a fictionalized account of refugee crisis that was far from American minds. And now we seem to be in that same boat again. If you had to tell the American people one thing to do or pay attention to, what would it be?

SN: It’s so hard to pay attention now at the brink of apocalypse. I feel fatigued looking at the news. It’s really hard to have discernment on what it is. Its really a shame for me to see the way that immigrants and refugees are being treated in the country, or those that are trying to get into the country, just the mentality that’s surrounding it is really upsetting. A lot of people are dying. A lot of kids are dying. We have the capacity to help and we’re not. It’s really hard to get people to pay attention to it when there are so many other legitimately terrible, also life-threatening things (like the health crisis here) going on. Its really hard when the stakes are so high. 35:50 We have to try to pay attention to all of it and its like a full time job.

JU: Amen

KC: Damn. Well now might be the time to pivot to the story you’ve struggled to tell. We bring writers onto the show to talk about the stories they’ve had telling in the past. And you’ve shared with us a couple of examples before the show, but is there one in particular you’d like to talk about based on what we’ve been discussing?

SN: I don’t know.

JU: We get that a lot.

KC: Standard reaction.

SN: I guess the Trump stuff is obviously on everyone’s mind. It almost feels like cheating to say it’s hard for me to write about all this political stuff because it’s hard for everyone to write about it. But, its something that I’ve been thinking about a lot particularly in the context of religion and the way religion works in America. And it’s hard for me to write about for a lot of reasons. For one, its kind of an emotional soft spot for me, and also, I don’t want to hurt my family. Like you guys mentioned, we try to protect our families as writers and its hard and it stops us from writing often. So I guess we can talk about that, if that works?

KC: Yea absolutely. I feel like religion is always a struggle to discuss fro any number of reasons. But personal ones are especially difficult to get past. Can you talk about why it seems more impotent now to talk about that stuff?

SN: I think for me it feels more important because it seems a big part of Trumps base is the Evangelical circuit that’s voting profile and that’s why they’re voting and they are white and they are willing to bank on that whiteness and say I’m going to vote for a guy that’s saying it yet doing a lot of technically un Christian things because I know that it can’t really hurt me, because I’m white and I just care about abortion. To me that feels important because to me, it seems part of the reason we are where we are right now. On top of that, it factors into all the social components of the policy we’re discussing now; the healthcare the immigration, and the way that these stances that the right is taking the same in such stark contrast to any basic tenants of biblical teaching, especially the New Testament. I think it’s important to talk about. There’s also this really interesting think I’ve been thinking about lately that I want to write about if I can, but I might chicken out. I went to the Arc. There’s a life size Noah’s Arc, built to the biblical specifications (which is 300 cubits in case you’re interested), in Kentucky. You can go to it, and walk around in it, and it’s a museum for Creation Science. I’ve been. Inside, the Arc is filled with baby dinosaurs. Animatronic baby dinosaurs because god said two of everything. So everything, there must have been dines as well because we know they existed so they had to be in the Arc. {laughs},

KC: that sounds adorable.

SN: I wish it was adorable but it was actually really scary because of the way that the descriptions were written, in part. Because its set up like a science museum but all the plaques are kind of yelling at you. “If you think evolution is real, or if you’re a Christian who thinks maybe god used some evolutionary tactics to help move things along, then you’re an idiot and you’re going to hell!”. That essentially was what they say. I think this literalist interpretation of the bible is really freaky. Then, in turn, makes me question what we value as

Americans? This glorification of STEM studies is so hardcore. Al this standardized testing, would there be pressure on people to even invent a thing like Creation Science (which is just weird), if we didn’t say everything is invaluable except for science. If we, as a people, thought you could actually learn something from reading books of fiction or history or philosophy, then maybe we wouldn’t feel the need to put these things in opposition with one another. Anyway. There are lots of animatronic baby dinosaurs in the bottom of the Arc in Kentucky. And tax payer money paid for those dinosaurs.

KC: That’s a really interesting perspective. That’s American Exceptionalism, right? Or maybe I have that wrong? The idea that competition solves all of our problems? Instead, it might be preventing us from having a more open conversation?

SN: I don’t know if American Exceptionalism is the same thing as completion solving all of our problems? But I think that competition solving all of our problems is a huge part of this problem specifically, A couple of studies I noticed that recently came out were that Christians were way more likely to blame poor people for being lazy or being poor. And that kids who are rated in Christian or traditional religious households, Judeo-Christian households, are less likely to be altruistic than their secular peers. It feels to be like a weird braid of capitalism and religion that we’ve made right now. Tying back to this hyper literalist interpretation of things, it’s almost like a failing of the imagination. I think that’s what empathy is in the end, it’s just to be able to picture yourself in another persons position. 43:11 And if you don’t have the capacity to imagine or make an abstract thought, then you get this.

KC: It’s like a weird American boondoggle.

SN: Boondoggle is an amazing word. We should all put it in our stories right now.

JU: Sara, I want to ask you about some of the negative criticisms you got for “Girl at War” in the context of tolerance, or the lack of it. Is that ok?

SN: yea, sure.

JU: So I’m thinking specifically of the Irish Times review. Honestly, that woman just seemed like she hated you. Not sure what happened there.

SN: {laughs} That was a really weird review. I’ll tell you right now, I don’t usually read my reviews, but I read that review and that was the first one I read. I can not read reviews ever again. I read that and then I sat on the couch for like 2 hours and was like “writing is terrible, what am I doing with my life!?”. Then I got an email from David that said it was all fine, just be like Serena Williams and just look at the pictures and never read your reviews. I think a lot of writers say they don’t read their reviews and then they actually do. But, I really don’t anymore and it was all thanks to the Irish Times critic and in the end, it was a gift. But, to what she said, I think the frustrating thing about it was that her review was historically inaccurate and there was nothing I could do to respond to it without seeming like defensive prick. If there was one thing I could say about it is just that I wish that people would know that YES Zagreb 45:12 did get bombed and that was a real thing that did happen and killed people!

JU: A simple Google search proved her wrong! It’s crazy! I don’t know how that got by her editor. It’s wild! But, I ask in the sense that I’m curious how you deal with it and move forward in a positive way. IE, how do you “brush your shoulders off”?

KC: Laugh at your own jokes.

JU: I think it’s something that’s really important for writers, especially new ones.

SN: At the end of the day, it gave me a strategy moving forward. This person is mean spirited and also, there’s nothing I can do about it now. The book is in print, I can’t change it. Not everyone is going to like it. And this is how it is. So I can choose to read these things, or I can choose to not read these things. And that really helped me along with that decision. That’s really all you can do. 46:25 You say, this thing i write is me; one human writing something and not all the other humans of the world are going like it or care. They are definitely not going to care about it in the same way that I cared about it. A lot of times they will care about it in different ways or have really good experiences with it. Sometimes they are going to fucking hate it and that is OK.

JU: That is a FACT. Life would be way easier if it wasn’t. Thank you for joining us, Sara.

KC: Thank you so much for working through this with us.