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Writer's Block Festival Feature: Q&A with Jacinda Townsend


1. Why do you think that character is the foundation of a novel, rather than plot or setting?

To engage oneself with fiction, I think, is to actively seek out that common emotional well that a writer must set. Readers are seeking a sort of universal humanity that very particularly drawn characters can offer; readers are seeking to be able to identify, in a novel or story's characters, that elusive, transcendent thing that makes us all know how achingly beautiful is the human condition. Plot doesn't give this to us, nor does setting. It is only in the characters' internal and external conflicts that we recognize ourselves.

2. What do you feel is the key to good self-editing for a novel-length work? Does this come back to character development?

Good question. Editing novels is oh so different from editing short stories. Short stories have to be so tightly packed, because they are generally marching towards that one epiphanic moment. Novels feel messier. They feel like they have room. In fact, novels are, in their own way, just as tough to self-edit. Tougher, perhaps, because there are so many more characters and plots and subplots that cutting one can mean changing the novel's thematic direction. And I think that's the key, on a second or third draft of a novel--knowing just what that thematic direction is. It's harder to sort out in a work that's three or four hundred pages, but once a writer knows, it becomes easier to leave thirty or forty pages on the cutting room floor. I had to cut one of my favorite characters in Saint Monkey because having her in the novel made the book a work that was about something else altogether than the friendship between those two girls. The chapters were stronger chapters for having that character, but the book is a stronger book for leaving her behind. The key to successful self-editing is knowing just what that longer work is about and having the courage to leave behind quite a large number of trees in order to shape the proper forest.

3. In your novel Saint Monkey, the main characters Audrey and Caroline are beautifully characterized. One of the ways you characterize them is through their unique first person voices, through alternating sections. The voices are unique, so it’s clear who is speaking without a prompt. Please discuss how you’ve developed this ability to create character though narrative voice. Can you give our readers some guidance on ways they can develop alternative voices?

Certainly! I took great care with the syntax and the diction that each girls used. Diction is what the character says--the vocabulary they use, the salty phrasing, and so forth--and syntax is how the character says it. So one of my characters spoke in long, complex sentences and the other had a more minimalist way of stringing sentences together; Caroline's voice, for example is one in which I rarely used semicolons. Also important was the difference in observation between the two voices. One voice felt dreamier to me while the other was more caustic. The girls could see the same event unfold but one would judge and scrutinize its every detail.

4. Saint Monkey is your debut novel. Your next novel, Souria, according to, is told “in the voices of an American woman who adopts a Moroccan girl and the young mother, escaped from Mauritanian slavery, who lost her.” Can you describe how you came up with the idea for a plot set in Morocco? Also, please tell us what lessons you learned from writing Saint Monkey that you have applied to the writing of Souria.

I was very fortunate, at the end of my Fulbright year in Cote d'Ivoire, to happen upon a flight that stopped in Casablanca. I'd wanted to experience more of Africa, so I extended my layover to make it four days and whoa--those four days in Morocco just blew my mind. It is a place of many varied and rich cultures that are all just meeting there, just north of the Sahara (and sometimes in it), and I fell in love. I've been back again and again, and every time I've been has been an entirely different trip, andthe maghreb and its people have captured my imagination. I had also had, in northern Mali, the experience of encountering slavery, so when I found out just how extensive and brutal was the system of slavery in neighboring Mauritania, where an estimated 20% of the population was enslaved, it was a natural fit. My character escapes slavery in Mauritania only to find that she is unable to actually belong to Moroccan society without papers (and without the right skin color). I think one of the main things I learned from writing Saint Monkey that has helped with this novel is to unify the two very different stories into one, and to have each character's section be a dramatic continuation of the different character's section that came before it. That was much of the challenge of Saint Monkey, actually, to have each girl's voice inform and confront the other. In Souria, the process came more naturally to me. I think I'd already worked it out in my subconscious.

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