Interview with Carole Waterhouse

The author of Without Wings talks about her book’s germination, her characters, the writing process, on teaching writing in a prison, on finding her publisher, her new book and lots more.

Interview by Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball: What inspired you to write Without Wings?

Carole Waterhouse: I spent two summers as a volunteer instructor at a men’s prison in Pennsylvania, teaching fiction writing the first summer and journalism the second. While teaching the journalism class, I also wrote a cover story about prison writers for The Pittsburgh Press Sunday Magazine. At the last minute, the editor decided he wanted to include some illustrations by one of the men I interviewed to accompany his poetry. The only problem was this man wasn’t in my class and I didn’t have any way of getting in touch with him. The only way I could contact him was to have my name and address passed from person to person in the prison, along with a request that he mail the drawings to me. I did get the llustrations. I also received one rather quirky love letter. That single piece of correspondence, which of course I never answered, ended up being the inspiration for Without Wings.

MB: Did it have its germination in your own experiences as a writing instructor in a prison? Are any of your characters based on those you met in

CW: The book was greatly influenced by my own experience of teaching in a prison and many of the difficulties that Rachel finds herself confronted with in her classes – especially those that reveal her uncertainty as a teacher–I’m sorry to admit do very closely parallel experiences of my own. I was very young when I taught in the prison – just out of graduate school – very nervous, and still learning how to teach. The prison never purchased textbooks for its students, instead having us teach the courses entirely from illegal photocopies, a bit of irony that wasn’t lost on any of the men locked up there. This came up the first night I taught. So did a discussion of the boxer shorts they were required to wear. Like Rachel, these unexpected topics of conversations would throw me completely off course. Every class has that one student who just has to be the center of attention, and prison classes, I found, were no different. But then I’d look at my other students’ faces and see them getting frustrated too, or embarrassed about having their underwear discussed in front of a woman, and would find myself oddly reassured, reminded that despite the unusual surroundings, these were just everyday people. So a lot of the incidents and the general atmosphere of the classroom as described in the book were based on real events. I was careful, though, not to pattern the characters too specifically after any of the men I encountered there. I felt they were entitled to that much privacy. After all, when they signed up for a writing class, they never
volunteered to become characters in someone’s novel.

MB: I know this is your first published novel, but is it the first novel that you’ve written? If so, what are some of the key lessons that you’ve learned from writing a novel that you didn’t really know from teaching writing or writing short stories.

CW: This was the first novel I ever attempted and I did find the experience to be extremely different from writing short stories. The shear length of a novel opens up so many more possibilities for varying the structure. In this one I played with the idea of a story within a story and the sequence of letters between the different characters. Before, I always imagined a novel as a longer, more developed version of a short story, which I suppose it can be. I have a strong interest in experimental forms, though, and while Without Wings is still conventionally structured, I’ve started to think of books more as one long folded canvas, something that can be designed as well as written.

MB: The book is ostensibly about Rachel’s journey, but it is also very funny in parts with almost Dickensian characters. Did you set out to write a funny novel?

CW: Life is most appealing to me when it makes me laugh. I’ve always been drawn to the unusual sides of human nature, finding people’s weaknesses sometimes to be more endearing than their strengths. One of my colleagues described my book as having characters that seem to float above the surface of reality. That was exactly the effect I was trying to create.

MB: Were you worried that the almost zany characters like Dennis, Aunt Amanda and Madeleine might cause the novel to be taken less seriously critically?

CW: I’ve always been especially drawn to authors who offer their message through humor or even absurdity. Milan Kundera is a wonderful example. So is Margaret Atwood. I don’t dare to put myself in the same league as those two, but I certainly feel there are a host of writers out there who have proven that there’s nothing frivolous about laughter. There’s such a wonderful common experience about sharing a laugh with someone, or even better, causing someone to experience one. Emotions are closely linked. Once you open someone up with a laugh, you can make them feel anything.

MB: As a writing instructor, did you find yourself fighting the urge to critique your own work before it was ready?

CW: I’m very good at keeping those two sides of the process separate. I do revise my work extensively, so I give myself complete freedom while I’m in the process of actually putting words together. I just keep reminding myself it can (and probably will) be changed. Later, at a different sitting, the critic will take over and see what’s there.

MB: Were you helped, or hindered by your deep knowledge of the mechanics of the creative writing process?

CW: I don’t know about a “deep knowledge,” but my university experience has given me an opportunity to discuss the writing process with writers of all levels, from student to professional, and to become familiar with some of the research in both composition theory and creative writing. Thinking of my work as a product of what’s supposed to be a lengthy process and a result of a series of revisions is something I find reassuring simply because it takes the pressure off the moment.

MB: Tell me about the story within the story (Mitch’s work).

CW: During a discussion we had in one of my classes, I remember one of my students making fun of the idea that everyone in prison always claims to be innocent. Whether taken literally or more symbolically, the story Mitch offers could be interpreted as his explanation of how he ended up in prison, how it was all just the result of a series of unfortunate events that got out of control. Or perhaps it’s just Rachel’s own naiveté that makes her read the story this way, her desire to create an
excuse for Mitch and see him as being innocent.

MB: Tell me about the underlying premise or theme for the book.

CW: I think we all in some ways build prisons for ourselves, imagine there are things we can’t accomplish, find ourselves in situations where for one reason or another we just can’t act. In Rachel’s case, even when she does decide to make changes in her life, they always end up being the wrong ones. And yet like Rachel, we all somehow manage to muddle through.

MB: How long did Without Wings take you to write (tell me a bit about the process)?

CW: I’m embarrassed to say I spent almost ten years working on it, though not consistently. I completed my doctorate in a program that allowed a creative dissertation and the first version was written in order to receive my degree. I had to write it more quickly than I would have preferred and ended up being pleased with the first half but frustrated with the whole direction the second half took. It sat in a drawer for a couple of years after that. Eventually I took it back out and rewrote
the entire second half. Everything changed so much, though, in that version that I found the first half no longer really fit, so of course I ended up changing it, too. The only parts that ended up staying essentially the same were the very beginning and the very end.

MB: Tell me more about Annie. WIth friends like that…

CW: Annie is quirky, but to be perfectly honest I don’t see her as being all that bad. One reading group where I discussed the book even suggested that despite her faults Annie may be the friend Rachel needs at this point in her life, someone who can push her into making the kinds of changes she needs to make. She’s caring, but in a different way–she gives kicks and shoves in the right direction instead of kind, gentle nudges. Annie is very insecure in her own way, careful not to reveal her most private emotions and certainly not willing to let anyone see any of the real problems in her own life. The best way to draw attention away from herself is to focus on other people’s problems, something she just doesn’t do with as much sensitivity as others would sometimes like.

MB: How did you find your publisher AmErica House?

CW: I spent quite a bit of time researching publishers. AmErica House is a small publisher that works with a lot of newer writers.

MB: Is there a new novel on the way?

I have a novella and short story collection called The Paradise Ranch that will be released later this year. All of the works included in one way or another involve the relationship between animals and people. There’s a senile cat that ends up changing the lives of the people around him, a woman who tries to use her horse training techniques to teach a man how to love her, and a flock of alienated people who engage in imaginary flights from city rooftops.