SALISBURY — Sena Jeter Naslund traded questions and answers with guests at the writing Q&A last Thursday at Catawba College’s Brady Author’s Symposium. Naslund began by asking the group a question of her own. She had told a story about the origin of her name, Sena. Her great-great-grandfather was a soldier in the Civil War. He was injured or ill and captured by Union soldiers. One soldier was assigned to take care of him, a man whose last name was Sena. When the author’s great-great-grandfather got better, Sena told him, “When I turn my back, you should go,” and he did. When her great-great-grandfather had a child, he named the girl Sena, Naslund’s great-grandmother.
She asked, “Should I start my next book with a preface about Sena or weave it through the story to be revealed later?”
“Weave it!” was the unanimous decision.
Here are some questions Naslund answered:
She knew she wanted to write when she was 10. Her mother read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books to her; she remembers the sound of the attic fan in he old house and the smell of a passing skunk — “My mother called it a polecat” — and she remembers all the details in the books. She remembers reading Wilder’s description of a blizzard and feeling very cold, even though it was 90 degrees inside her house. “How is this possible?” she asked. “It’s these words . … I’d like to be able to do that some day.”
Naslund says she was a “very fierce child.” She was “a good fighter and could take anyone down.” She said she learned to lie to get out of trouble, but she was wracked with guilt and often could not sleep. She told stories to herself through the night, often Westerns starring her two brothers.
Her books go through at least four total revisions — she rewrites the entire book four times.
She writes the first version, edits it lightly and then starts again. This way she knows if the first few sessions don’t go well, it’s not a problem; she can go back and fix it.
“I love revision, I’m like a sculptor; I love to touch my work.”
“I’m never sick of the books I’ve written.”
The beginning is always the hardest part for her. She wrote the beginning lines of “Ahab’s Wife” 50 times. “I thought I had it. I woke up in the morning and said, no, you don’t.” Her upcoming book, “The Fountain at St. James Court or Portrait of an Artist as an Old Woman,” has brought her up to 80 times rewriting the beginning. “Does it mean I’m only half as good as I was? I don’t think so.”
Does she identify with any book in particular? “Ahab’s Wife” has a special place. “I never knew it would be published.”
Her most autobiographical works are “Ahab’s Wife” and “Four Spirits,” which details what happens after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham and the deaths of four girls. The last half of the book covers Naslund’s experience teaching college.
Author, professor and actor Kurt Corriher asked Naslund how she made a living while writing.
“I have taught since I graduated from college. I have a Ph.D. in writing from the University of Iowa,” home of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She has been writer-in-residence at both the University of Louisville and Spalding University, where she created the MFA program in writing. “I would never rely on writing to keep food on the table. … I want to take care of myself.” She’s considering retiring in 2014 from Louisville.
“It’s harder to write as you get older. I write bad sentences.” She finds it harder to think of the words she wants. She is finishing up “The Fountain at St. James Court or Portrait of an Artist as an Old Woman,” and “I want to write the ‘War and Peace’ of the American Civil War,” with her next book, using the story of her name as part of it.
She is meticulous in her writing. Before she started “Ahab’s Wife,” she read and reread parts of “Moby Dick” to pick up on how Herman Melville did things and how she could do them.
She was well into the book before she knew who Una’s last husband would be. “I thought, the critics will howl, and my husband said, ‘are you sure you want that?’ and I said, ‘Yes!’ ”
Writing historical fiction requires authors to put words in known characters’ mouths, like Marie Antoinette. “I’m very careful about what historical figures say. I do it as accurately as possible.” The challenge is connecting one authentic part to the next one, the in between part.
She does not have notes or ideas when she starts a new work. “Write it until you drop,” she says. She works by inspiration and discipline. She suggests looking at your calendar and picking out when you can write. “Don’t do anything else. Don’t sharpen your pencil. Type. Write a sentence, don’t edit yourself, don’t listen to your negative voice.”
In writing “Ahab’s Wife,” she went back to Melville’s source for “Moby Dick,” the true story of the sinking of the Essex, which included cannibalism. Melville avoided that because of his beliefs, but Naslund felt it was part of the story. “I wanted to go where Melville had not gone.” Emotionally, it was the hardest part to write; technically, it was the easiest. She wrote it out of order through inspiration. She had an idea and had to get it done.
She writes on the computer, after years of writing by hand, then typing her manuscript. The revisions were much easier on a computer. The physical labor of typing held her back. Using the computer helped her stylistically. But she doesn’t limit herself. When the difficult stuff comes to her, she’ll write on a brown paper sack if that’s what she has in hand.
Her initial short story collection, “Ice Skating at the North Pole: Stories” (1989), is out of print, though new copies from 1989 are available for as much as $150. Naslund would like to have a new short story collection, including some of those stories and about 80 pages cut from “Adam & Eve” that could stand alone. She’d like the publisher of her Civil War book to print that, too, as a deal.
“I know the thematics as I deal with subjects. I know I want to write about the Civil War. I’m not sure what I want to say about it. I have this neighborhood in mind … I want to go turn this stone over and see what I find.”