The View From Here Interview: Patricia Wood
Lottery, Patricia Wood's debut published novel, was released in the US in hardback August 2007 by Putnam and released in trade paperback by Berkley June 2008. In the UK, the hardcover came out Jan 2008 by William Heinemann (Random House) and the paperback was released recently by Windmill books, a new imprint (Random House) in January 2009. Lottery was selected as an October 2007 Book Sense Notable and included in the Washington Post Best Fiction 2007. It went on to be short listed for the 2008 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction.
“This wonderful first novel is about a guy who starts off with all the chips stacked against him and still comes out a winner. It’s an underdog novel, and the underdog is a most satisfying hero, for more than any other protagonist, the underdog is the one we love to love….Patricia Wood’s portrait of Perry is so vivid and funny and poignant and joyful that it avoids the disappointing flatness of the predictable.” -- Washington Post
“What I love about Lottery is that it is much more than a novel about a windfall affecting a simple soul - it's a book about a stupendous event affecting a great number of people, all the winner's friends, and especially the reader.” -- Paul Theroux
Patricia, let’s start with Lottery. Perry has an IQ of 76 but “is not retarded”. Do you or did you work with people who have a disability? You deliberately made Perry non-specifically with special needs. He’s not Down Syndrome, or autistic or anything in particular….
Perry could be everything or nothing. It’s so seductive to label. Developmentally delayed? Cognitively challenged? Mentally retarded? Autistic? Learning disabled? Whatever. Any of those immediately puts a person into a little box.
When I was a public high school teacher my students all had different abilities and different special needs. Additionally my brother-in-law had Down syndrome, and my PHD work was in disability and diversity. Because I’ve had this experience I think I’m able to look at how all of those things interconnect and conflict. Oftentimes academics have “Ivory Tower” ideas of how we should educate those with special needs, and parents have other more practical concerns, and teachers who work with these students every day can get overwhelmed and jaded.
I also wanted to show that if someone with a cognitive challenge has one person who is truly meaningful in their life, whether a grandmother, a sister a friend (a mentor if you will), then that person is likely to achieve far more than otherwise expected.
What about the use of the word retarded? You explore it in the book and you ask that of your book club readers, “how does it make you feel?” What is your opinion and how should one use that or other terms?
There are certain words that diminish a person’s worth and cause society to marginalize them and retarded is one such example. A person is defined by many things and not just by what their IQ is. I object to its popularity both in comedy routines and in trendy speech by teenagers. I think it desensitizes us and makes us less empathetic when we use those words.
You mentioned ‘labeling’, and you pointed out in the book, this 76, the number, and if you were 76 you were OK and if you were one number lower you were not. That was interesting to think about…
We give these numbers to everything: IQ, grades on tests, ratings, below average, average, above average- And what’s considered rich? A million dollars, two million? We have these ideas about who and what we are based on numbers. Am I too heavy? Too skinny? Do we all really want to be like everyone else?
I had students in my class, at a variety of IQ levels. Schools don’t test for IQ very much anymore, unless the parents ask for it, but it used to be always tested, and that was it. Everyone was tested, that was where you fit in, and you couldn’t change. While researching my book I was trying to find what constituted, ‘retarded’. You know I couldn’t find a straight answer. One country had 68, and another was 70. Even state to state, here in the United States it varied. In criminal situations there is a self-identification segment, to being excused of the consequences of a crime, you have to be interviewed, tested, but you need to be able to say, ‘yes, I am mentally deficient’, and often times the person will not do it, even if it means being put to death, they will not admit to anything but being slow. I thought all of this was fascinating yet somewhat depressing at the same time. Have we really not progressed any further than this?
You interact with your readers in a number of ways online, through your blog and through web book club meetings. What feedback do you get?
Authors would love everybody to enjoy their book, but that’s not the way it happens. My words may provoke one person to think and examine their beliefs or may cause another to roll their eyes. One person will say it’s deep and profound, another will say it’s a cute little beach read. What somebody gets out of your book is what they get out of your book. You have no control over readers. You have to accept that.
It adds to, and makes a really interesting discussion in a book club, when one reader feels comfortable to say, you know Patricia, I really hated the end, or I just didn’t believe Perry, or I didn’t like this or that. It makes for a more interesting dialogue. Some people have been put off by some of the language. Keith uses the f-word a lot- it adds to his authenticity as a Vietnam vet. Authors have no control over what their characters do. I did not sit down and plan ahead of time that Keith was going to be a big, farting, rude, Vietnam vet who said the f-word. He spoke in my head and that’s what he became. In the same way that Perry became the way he was, and Gram the way she was. It is very interesting to readers in book club discussions to hear about how my characters came to be.
How tightly do you plan your plot in advance and how much do you allow your characters to develop and shape it as you go along?
Everybody who writes novels does it differently. This is what’s so wonderful about writing - anybody can do it, and you don’t necessarily have to go to school to learn it. You can to learn it by doing. I always have the story in my brain. I never start a book where I don’t know what the story is about. I know there are authors who do. People start writing and they say,”I love this character, I’ll just write and see what he does.”
I dream and my dream will be an abbreviated tiny synopsis, and as I write, I get ideas for more and more things happening. Generally I have the first and the last chapter written. I’ll create a file, and use my novel template with empty chapters and fill them in.
Lottery is the fourth novel I’ve written even though it was the first I’ve gotten published. I got a quick idea of what the book was going to be about, I made 40 chapters, I wrote the prologue, and essentially the essence of the story is as I wrote it that first day. That prologue changed very little but the rest of the book morphed a bit. My epilogue was pretty much the same but I didn’t know which characters were going to be there or not. I had no idea I was going to kill off any characters until I did…
For the ending I believe you had a number of different scenarios thought out?
I wrote four different endings. You don’t sit down, write a book, and that’s it. You write drafts, and then you go back and see how can you make this character better. Or you might say, should this character really be two characters? I don’t think I need this other character, he started off being important and he’s no longer important. Should Perry and Cherry get married? OK, what if they don’t? Should I just have them have a needy night of sex, and that’s it? There were lots of different ideas I had for the ending. Ultimately, it was important for me to have at least a transient happy resolution.
How did you know when Lottery was ‘finished’ and how did you feel on completion?
You never really know. You just suspect that it’s close. I often let a work sit for several weeks and then go back and revise. I just felt I took the story as far as I could at that moment and decided to query literary agents. If I hadn’t gotten interest and offers I would have gone back and revised some more.
How did you go about publication? Experience of rejection? Editing? Choosing an agent?
I got myself educated about the publication process by attending the Maui Writers Retreat and Conference for several years. I networked with other writers and I kept writing novel after novel. I learned how to write a good query letter and I kept going even after I got many rejections. I didn’t give up and I continued to write non-stop. I was fortunate that I was able to do this without losing hope. The thing is I love to write and I would be writing still even if I wasn’t published.
Part Two of the Interview will follow on Friday in which Patricia talks about being shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2008, her advice for new writers and living and writing on boat in a Hawaiian harbour. I'll review Lottery tomorrow.
And look out for our mini 'lottery' tomorrow after the review, when all comments will be entered in a draw to win an exclusive Lottery bookplate, signed by Patricia.
For a printed edition of this interview go here.