Interview with Elizabeth Graver
Elizabeth Graver’s work has an effortless feel as she takes readers on an emotional journey, spanning multiple generations in a Massachusetts seaside town. Her forth novel The End of the Point is a stunning example of her talent where both memorable characters and setting come to life. It was long-listed for the 2013 National Book Award as well as recognized as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Shorter works by her have appeared in Best American Short Stories, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize Anthology and Best American Essays. She is a professor at Boston College. UMass was thrilled to have her come speak to its writing students last fall, and she spoke with Breakwater's Andrea Gregory for this interview.
Breakwater Review: In your latest novel The End Of the Point, setting plays a really big role. Did you plan on having the setting play such a big role? Would you say your setting is almost its own character in the story?
Elizabeth Graver: From the start, I wanted this book to be very much about place: its hold over people, its natural history, how it can serve as a kind of crucible for human events. I was interested in looking at a small place but going deep inside it, both temporally and in terms of exploring its relationship to its human inhabitants. And yes, I do view place as a sort of character in the novel; that’s why I began with a rather broad, if brief, prologue, in which the place is more important (at first) than any singular person. I wanted to describe the layers of a place over time and have that be there as a kind of backdrop all the way through.
BR: This novel takes place over the course of sixty years. Because of this, we are able to see your characters grow. What was the benefit of covering such a long time period?
EG: I was originally going to cover even more time! I wanted to explore how place sits inside history: here, World War II, the Vietnam War, the Women’s Movement, and finally the approaching Millennium. I also loved getting to think about how each generation forms the next, and how at every moment that we encounter a character, that character has a kind of set of shadow selves who are his or her ancestors and who help create the present day situation, for better or worse.
BR: Your novel is decided in four sections. The first section probably stood alone as a novella. When you finished writing this section, did you know you would continue and how the story would continue? Was there any sense of completion after the first section?
EG: It didn’t really stand alone as a novella, not in my mind anyway. I didn’t know how I would continue, not precisely, but I knew I wanted to move into other characters’ points of view, as Bea’s story, much as I loved telling it, is more interesting to me when read in the context of the other stories. I pictured this book’s structure as a kind of prism or kaleidoscope, where each part is important for itself but also, and maybe more interestingly, for how it echoes or contrasts with the other parts.
BR: The second section is written as a series of letters. This is an interesting approach. It is a bit of an opportunity to almost eavesdrop on what a character is thinking. Why did you do this and what did you want the readers take away from this?
EG: I liked the change in form that happened with the letters–the way the prose itself was suddenly different and had a kind of immediacy and rawness, even a choppiness, that the more polished third person prose does not have. I was also interested in thinking about how letters are fast becoming a thing of the past, replaced by e-mails, texts, etc. In my novel, which ends in 1999, people wait for a long time to hear from each other, and over time, they leave a lot of very material–made of paper, in this case–artifacts that future generations can read. That materiality felt important to me in a book so much about the passage of time and the pull of a particular, physical place.
BR: Without giving any of the story away, why is the last section that takes place in 1999 written in present tense?
EG: Honestly, I’m not sure, except that it is the time frame closest to where we are now. I think I wanted to suggest somehow that the book is still unfurling, that the story has not ended, though the book must. But I’m kind of making this up after the fact. It was an intuitive choice, and it felt right.
BR: Your novel brings in several characters, each well developed and interesting. Can you tell us a bit about creating these characters and how you were able to bring them to life for the book?
EG: I do a lot of research for my characters, especially when they inhabit worlds I do not know about firsthand. To imagine Bea, I went to Forar, Scotland and poked around there. To imagine the base during WWII, I tracked down a veteran who had served at a Harbor Entrance Control Post on Buzzards Bay and had an amazing time interviewing him. But a lot of the character development just comes from within me as well–a sort of dreaming, a slow process of discovery. I go back and back and back.
BR: Can you tell us a little about your writing process? Did you know the whole story when you sat down to write it? Did anything change or surprise you in the writing process?
EG: All I really at the start was that I wanted to write a book set in this one place, and that I wanted to cover a wide swathe of time. I was originally going to write a series of stories all in the points of view of different “outsiders” to Ashaunt: Bea, but also a man who cleans up the oil spill, and maybe Native Americans, who began as insiders but were pushed out. What surprised me the most, I guess, was how the book eventually became as much about the “insiders” (as I am not one to this world), and how, during that process, I came to see that just about everyone experiences a feeling of being an outsider in one way or another. The easy divides and categorizations began to collapse once I allowed the book to be more complex.
BR: How was writing this book different from your earlier novels?
EG: This book took me longer than any of my other novels. It covers more time and has more characters, so it was particularly challenging, though I also really loved the process most of the time.
BR: You also write short stories. Besides the fact that writing a short story takes much less time, how are you approaches and the processes different for you?
EG: I often write a story in one sitting and then revise it again and again. I can feel the arc of it, its shape and motion, appear in front of me. I don’t need to worry about its architecture too much, and if I begin and it doesn’t work, abandonig it is no big deal. The architecture of a novel is very hard for me, particularly because I don’t outline and resist planning ahead, as it seems to cut off possibilities. So I write a lot of little chunks of prose, out of sequence, and sometimes I bridge toward them and they serve as a sort of non-outliney outline, or sometimes I discard them or forget about them. It takes me a really long time to be able to actually see the structure of the book.