A Conversation with Amanda Boyden
Maurice Carlos Ruffin: Where does a story/novel begin for you?
Amanda Boyden: If I’m in the nascent stages of a novel, I’ve usually decided on my characters. I know who they are and how they’ll respond to most anything. The characters help me write the rest. Seriously. I tend to determine a handful of plot points, maybe a dozen or so, and let my characters lead the way from one to the next. I love how my peeps occasionally surprise me.
I don’t write stories that often any more, but when I do, they usually spring from something small, an observation or glimpse of a slice of life that’s odd or unusual. I watched a kid kick a dying pigeon down the length of a street gutter once, twenty years ago, and knew I had to write about it. A shirtless man falling off his bike. A neighbor running out of her bright blue house paint before she’s reached the roof. Those sorts of moments.
MCR: What balance do you try to achieve between characterization and plot?
AB: All readers have particular tastes. I know a number of current graduate students who are perfectly content to read a story where very little happens. I, on the other hand, have a pretty good-sized appetite for plot. I like stuff to actually happen in a story or novel. But that said, if I can’t inhabit the protagonist’s brain and body, I’m not at all interested in what’s happening, plot-wise. I need to know a character through-and-through. So, I suppose I try my damnedest to balance both elements, to weight them as equally as I’m able.
MCR: Do your characters choose their actions or do you?
AB: I usually attempt to set up the obstacle course for the characters, but invariably they jump through the hoops and leap over the walls in a different order or bypass some rope swing altogether. The characters themselves regularly change their paths.
MCR: What do you do when you’re having a difficult time with a patch of writing?
AB: When I hit a section that isn’t simply flowing with the usual genius ease that I’m so used to–I’m joking!–I’ll double-back and reread/edit. A little like clicking on the refresh icon, I suppose. It helps put me in the character’s headspace, if nothing else. I do write from beginning to end without skipping forward, so my process can resemble sewing by hand, not liking a line of stitches and pulling them out, trying them again with more care.
MCR: What’s the best bit of writing advice you’ve gotten?
AB: Hmm. I like to think we all have little people perched on our shoulders as we write, keeping us in line, in check. Fortunately a good number of excellent writers (my husband Joseph Boyden being one of them) have told me in ridiculous harmony–I have a full choir standing on my shoulders–to not let my writing get too precious. I’m utterly in love with the word, so I have to guard against my line writing usurping character or plot. I’m always cutting away sentences or full paragraphs that my little shoulder people would call “too Too.”
MCR: What has been the most surprising thing about the professional writing life?
AB: Really? That I can live it. How many people get to live out their deepest, most heartfelt dreams? I’m living the life I imagined as a kid. Life is so beautiful and rich, and I get to write about it for a living.
Amanda will be reading new work at Yeah, You Write, next week at Tipitina’s.