When Marie Bacigalupo was nine, she read Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins and was instantly hooked on fiction. She grew up to teach high school English before focusing exclusively on fiction writing, studying under Gordon Lish at The Center for Fiction, taking classes at the Writers Studio, and attending a number of university-sponsored craft workshops.
Marie won First Prize among 7000 entries in the Writer’s Digest 13th Annual Short-Short Story Competition with her entry, “Excavation.” Her other works have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Journal of Microliterature, The Examined Life Journal, Romance Magazine, and elsewhere. Ninth-Month Midnight is her debut novella.
The author is a native New Yorker who lives and writes in Brooklyn. Visit her at www.mariebacigalupo.com.
Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Ninth-Month Midnight. To begin with, can you give us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?
A: After struggling for years to conceive, Dolores Walsh, a New York City schoolteacher married to her college sweetheart, loses her beloved daughter to cancer. A year later she remains consumed by grief, rejecting the consolations of her lapsed Roman Catholic faith.
The loss transforms Dolores, a once willowy brunette, into a zombie-like chain smoker who stays unwashed and unnourished until her husband, Joe, bathes and feeds her. With another pregnancy highly improbable, Dolores wants the seemingly impossible: she wants her baby back. And she resents her husband for having put off starting a family.
Enter Salvador Esperanza, a charismatic psychic who helps the bereaved communicate with their dead. Dolores cannot resist this new hope or the man who offers it. But in order to attend Sal’s séances, she must do battle with her jealous husband’s hard-core rationalism. When Sal decides to move on, only a miracle can save Dolores from the numbing despair that threatens her sanity.
The initial idea for Ninth-Month Midnight arose out of the questions, What if the souls of the dead linger among us for a while? Would we be able to communicate with them on some level? When Hamlet says, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” I say, You betcha! I combined this idea with the story of a troubled woman who develops a desperate attachment to a male psychic.
Q: What do you think makes good women’s fiction? Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?
A: In the process of writing, my mind is filled with thoughts about the best way to create compelling characters and immersive plots. The “women’s” part of the genre distinction simply means that in most of my fiction, though not in all (you’ll find male protagonists in my short stories), the main characters are women. I’m interested in their strengths and vulnerabilities as well as the preconceptions of our society regarding their presumed limitations.
Like any other writer, I hope to continue perfecting my craft, and to do that I fill my mind with the strategies of great authors. In other words, I read; therefore, I learn. To answer your question, what makes good women’s fiction is the same as what makes any kind of fiction good: an engaging story laced with conflict, a well paced plot, and realistic characters.
Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?
A: For me writing is a long process of trial and error. The first draft of Ninth-Month Midnight was a straightforward chronological narrative that began with the discovery of cancer in the protagonist’s child and chronicled its devastating effects over a year.
Many drafts later, I decided Ninth-Month Midnight would be the story of the mother’s arc from suicidal depression to acceptance with a twist of fate. I needed a hook to get the plot rolling, so I used the protagonist’s explosive refusal to leave the gravesite of her four-year-old daughter.
Sometimes while writing, I get caught up in words and sounds, and then language takes precedence over the other fictional elements, a tendency I need to curb. My ultimate goal was to structure the book to keep the reader entertained.
For help, I turned to a library of craft books that I’ve accumulated, including a number of books on plotting that I refer to again and again. For example, from Larry Brooks (Story Engineering) I learned to introduce change—a new situation, a new development, new information—at specific and critical junctures, and to use these plot points to develop the character arc. Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey is another useful text for shaping a story.
To keep all the pieces together, I used Scrivener, a word processing program that makes it easy to organize notes and chapters. Scrivener integrates into a single project all aspects of the writing process from research to final draft.
Often I struggled with the “Are you kidding?” inner voice, as in, “Are you kidding, taking yourself seriously?” The antidote to this particular poison involves ignoring the voice and plodding on.
Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed him or her. Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing?
A: I suspect the seed of Dolores Walsh, my protagonist, was planted by a reading of McEwan’s The Child in Time and McShane’s Séance on a Wet Afternoon. The mother in McEwan’s novel is benumbed by the kidnapping of her child and unable to access emotion. In McShane’s work, the protagonist wants to convince people of her ESP and kidnaps a child whom she pretends to help the police locate through her séances.
The ideas must have been swirling around in my creative unconscious. Without a vivid memory of specifics, I suspect what lingered was the sense of the powerful emotions generated by the loss of a child. After I conceived my character—a mother who is driven to extremity by the death of her four-year-old and seeks her out in the afterlife—I re-read the novels and set to work focusing on the impact of the loss on Dolores.
Let’s see if I can recall my process: I jotted down notes to myself. I did a character interview, parts of which I integrated into Dolores’s sessions with her psychiatrist. I thought about my protagonist a lot, imagining a Natalie Wood look-alike and keeping a photo of Natalie Wood in my word processing program to keep the character’s image vivid in my mind. I made her a chain smoker, I think because I once used cigarettes to cope with stress, and stress was threatening Dolores’s hold on reality. When I needed ideas, I looked at how other authors handled works with similar themes. And so it went.
Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?
A: In Nine-Month-Midnight, McShane’s psychic re-emerged as Salvador Esperanza. I used Sal to reveal the character of the protagonist, advance plot through an extra-marital love interest, and beset Dolores with internal and external conflict. Dolores is drawn to the psychic both spiritually and physically, much to the dismay of her husband.
I shaped the character of Esperanza to produce ambivalence in the reader, who must determine if he’s mostly antagonist creating conflict or villain creating havoc. In either case, like real people, he’s not entirely good or bad. I further individualized the character by giving Esperanza arresting bi-colored eyes to reflect the ambiguity of his character and a machismo softened by tenderness toward the grief-stricken men and women who attend his séances.
His backstory, I think, is also realistic. The son of Hispanic farmworkers, he starts a small landscaping business tending to the million-dollar estates on Long Island and has an affair with the owner’s daughter that leads to his ruin.
Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?
A: One way I kept the narrative exciting (I hope!) was to inject suspense by maintaining the mystery of Salvador Esperanza, as expressed in my tag line: Is he a selfless savior or a self-seeking seducer? Powerful scenes also generate excitement. For example, when the protagonist’s husband confronts her in the psychic’s apartment, emotional fireworks explode. In addition, I withhold information, like details regarding Dolores’s past, till key moments when it will have the most impact, and I end the novella with a surprise I won’t give away.
Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?
A: The attention to setting was primarily focused on the séances, which I charged with sensory description and with the reactions of participants to multiple stimuli. Some writers, I find, depend on visual and aural images, neglecting smell, taste, and texture; yet all the senses are important to capturing the essence of a place, time or event.
In the case of the séances, I paid attention to the spectral nature of the conjured dead, the foul odors of fiendish spirits, the contrasting voices of the psychic and the spirits he conjured, the aura of candlelight, the rushing wind of released spirits, the brush of a passing soul. Participants were at different times ecstatic, horrified, saddened, credulous, and skeptical.
Dream settings and reveries are suffused with Dolores’s memories of her child, with the soft touch and sweet scent of baby flesh, the horror of blackened eyes, and the cries of pain.
Q: Did you know the theme of your novel from the start or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Is this theme recurrent in your other work?
A: It does seem I’m drawn to end-of-life issues; they appear in my short stories as well. With regard to Ninth-Month Midnight, I discovered the theme early in the process of writing the first draft.
The novella’s epigraph is a passage from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which gives voice to the idea that life reasserts itself in constant replenishment, like the tides of the primordial ocean.
Without giving away the ending, I’ll say that in Ninth-Month Midnight this theme is expressed in the unbreakable bond between mother and child, and the existential pain that results when death intervenes to test that bond.
Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?
A: That first question is a toughie, perhaps better suited to a philosopher. I can only speculate that after craft has done the best job possible to express the writer’s vision, the writer evokes some magic to raise the work into a rarefied sphere called art, inexplicable but recognizable to all.
Everyone can learn a craft; fewer can create art.
As for your second question, in my opinion, editing can destroy the initial creative thrust only if the author lacks the objectivity to distinguish what is valid in the editor’s suggestions from what is not. Valid criticism speaks to the aims of the book the author has written, not to those of the book the critic wants her to write. In general, I think editing and revision sharpen the writer’s vision and produce a better work.
Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?
A: Persistence, willingness to keep learning one’s craft, openness to valid criticism. If I may add a fourth: love of reading.
Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. What do you think about that?
A: I would agree in the sense that practice—another word for homework—is as vital for a writer to master her craft as it is for a student to master a subject. Every author must be proficient in the 2 R’s: Reading and ‘Riting.
Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?
A: I took creative writing classes at NYU, The New School, the Writers Studio, and later The Center for Fiction under Gordon Lish. I participated in the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival, the One Story Summer Workshop for Writers, and the Narrative Magazine Workshop under Tom Jenks.
I attend conferences and festivities whenever I can. To keep abreast of developments, I visit numerous writing sites at various times. The Creative Penn, Storyfix, Plot Whisperer, and Grammar Girl come to mind. Point of information: Writer’s Digest has an annual issue listing the 101 Best Websites for Writers.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?
A: I’ll share some advice that helped me: Allow yourself to write garbage; just get the words on paper. Once purged, you can sift through the waste to find that kernel of value to expand on. And keep in mind you don’t need an M.F.A. to write. Alternate routes for learning craft abound: Take noncredit courses; attend conferences; enroll in workshops; join writers’ groups; read, read, read. If you have the will, the way is clear.