Friday, July 15, 2011

Interview with Keith Donohue

I reviewed Centuries of June earlier in the week and I'm so pleased that best-selling author, Keith Donohue, has agreed to time out of his busy schedule and talk about the book. You can read my review here.

Where did you get the idea for the book?
Ideas usually twirl around a bit before slamming into each other to give shape to a story.   In the case of Centuries of June, I had been thinking of a couple of things—the myths and archtypal stories that run through American history, the way houses become a part of our lives, the Marx Brothers, Samuel Beckett, a painting of eight women in a bed by Gustav Klimt.  Just the ordinary, random thoughts that flit across the imagination.   Eventually, these disparate notions organized themselves around a theme—does history repeat itself, and if so, do we ever learn?  And a structure: there are nine stories in all, the eight women from the bed and the ninth story that the narrator is telling the old man. 

I got the idea of setting it mainly in the bathroom from that Marx Brothers’ movie A Night at the Opera.  Groucho is given a small room on an ocean liner that barely has room for his trunk (in which Chico and Harpo are hiding) when the maid comes in to change the bed, the porter comes in to mop the floor, room service delivers a meal, and on and on until the room is bursting with people.  Groucho says, “Is it my imagination or is it getting crowded in here?”  That made me think of a man whose imagination is a little too crowded, and the worse possible space in a house for a mob of people to stick around and swap stories.

How much research did you do for each story?
My rule for research is only enough to get the story told.  I read lots of books over the years about the subjects of the nine stories, and some of them are based on existing tales.   I adapted the “Woman Who Married a Bear” from a real folktale.  The Salem Witch Trials actually have lots of letters and diaries to use as models.  I used slave narratives and accounts of 18th century New Orleans for the “Woman Who Danced the Vaudoux” and so on.  Mainly, in research, I’m looking for the overarching tone, the facts, and most importantly, detail.  I’m a novelist not a historian, so I’m primarily interested in the reality of the story at hand.

Why did you pick the stories you did?
Well, the book is called Centuries of June because, among other reasons, the stories take place over five centuries.  That’s a lot of Junes.

There are eight women in the bed because each of them tells a story concerning one of the deadly sins (but aren’t there seven?  Yep, but I added “despair” as a modern sin).  So I had to space them out in order to have the penultimate story take place sometime before the present day.  There is a method to the madness.

As to the particular stories, they more or less suggested themselves as I went along, drawn from American myth and folktale and the like.  My real problem was deciding what to leave out.  Since they are all concerned with some situation between a man and a woman that also helped me decide.  But some of the process is still mysterious to me.

Did you know the ending when you started or did the book evolve?  
There are a couple of endings to Centuries of June.  There’s a moment when all eight women, the narrator, an old man, a baby, and a cat are all crammed into the bathroom, and there’s a kind of ending in that moment.  I knew about that ending.  And there’s the ending when the narrator realizes he is alone, and I knew that ending was coming, too.  What evolved was Sita’s story.  That came in after I thought I was done.

My M.O. is to have a general structure in mind but allow myself to be surprised along the way.  My first two novels had children as main characters, and I was resolved not to have any children in this book (other than the few that appear in the stories the women tell). 
However, there’s a moment during Alice’s tale, the one about the Salem Witch Trial, where she absent-mindedly makes a doll out of a washcloth.  The narrator then leaves the room and the doll has turned into a real baby.  That’s the kind of surprise I mean.  Once it happens, you deal with it, have fun with it, and integrate it into the story.

Your ending reminded me of the “Sixth Sense” - a great twist. 
Thanks, a couple of people have said something like that, and not to be coy, but I wasn’t aware of how it might come across as a twist.  There are clues along the way, I hope, for people to guess what is afoot.  And just how unusual the narrator is.  The twist, for me, is how he reacts to the situation he finds himself in, and how ready he is to get back on that bicycle.  “We all fall down,” he says at the beginning.  And we all get up again.

About the author:
Keith Donohue is an American novelist, the author of the national bestseller The Stolen ChildCenturies of June, and Angels of Destruction. He also has written reviews for the Washington Post. Donohue has a Ph.D. in English with a specialization in modern Irish literature and wrote the introduction to the Complete Novels of Flann O’Brien. He lives in Maryland near Washington, DC.