Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Diana Clarke

Diana Clarke is a writer and teacher from New Zealand. She received her MFA in fiction from Purdue University and is currently pursuing her PhD at the University of Utah.

Her debut novel is Thin Girls.

My Q&A with Clarke:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I am a notoriously bad titler, so I didn’t actually come up with Thin Girls, although now I can’t imagine the book with any other name. I usually call a book some incomprehensible combination of letters (mcisnanxjcjw) until someone helps me out with a title. Titles give me stage fright; it’s terrifying, to name a book! A name, I think, should glance without pointing, suggest without winking, and I’m so unsubtle. I am also always wary of the dreaded aha (!) moment in which the reader comes across the book’s title in the book and is immediately ejected from the story’s world, so it was important to me that, if the title phrase did come up in the book, it wasn’t in a cheesy ‘big reveal’ way. The phrase “thin girls” is mentioned on the first page, and then regularly throughout the book. It’s a to-the-point title, an immediate declaration – this is a story about eating disorders, body image, the dieting industry. It’s a book about girls who are thin and girls who want to be and girls who can’t be and the fact that every girl is under the pressure to be exactly, and often only, just that.

What's in a name?

I really regret the twins’ (the book’s main characters) names, Rose and Lily, but by the time I realised they didn’t work, it was too late. The reason the names initially came about is because one of the book’s presiding images is the twinflower, a flower with two buds to each stem in which each bud simultaneously takes from the other while also keeping the other alive. So, the names make sense, but maybe a little too much sense. I tried changing them, but the girls seemed to want to keep them and it would have felt so invasive to take their names from them after writing the first draft. I wish I could let them choose their own names. What feels more comfortable, in terms of naming, is when the main character, Rose, gets involved with a pro-anorexia group and they nickname her Riz, because the name has a skinnier mouthfeel than Rose. They’ve all got thin nicknames too: Mim, Lin, Flee. I think the nicknaming process speaks to the power of names. A nickname is a name you choose for yourself, or your beloved people choose for you, and one that is adopted through unity and acceptance. It is because it fits. It’s often our first communication of the self to others and it allows us to retain some kind of authority over the self in a way that given names don’t. A nickname, a name taken on, is much more meaningful than a birth name, I think.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

Not. Not at all. She was a sad little thing. She might be surprised that I made it out of adolescence alive and healthy, happy, even! But she wouldn’t be surprised by this book. In a lot of ways, this book is for her. Here you go, little friend.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I can’t end a book. Beginnings are natural, for me. I write linearly and I start at the start and, usually, the first scene of the first draft remains the first scene in the published book. A miracle. The end, though? I must’ve changed Thin Girls’ ending a hundred times. One iteration was just me killing every single character in a big fire because I was so sick of writing endings. That was not a proud moment. I apologised in the next draft. The eventual ending is more hopeful than I ever imagined it to be, and I think that hope, that flicker of maybe, is so important, but it still makes me wince to read. Do other writers experience this? If anyone teaches a class on ending a book, sign me up.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Big time! I’m every character. I feel divided and multiple pretty much always, and so writing fiction is the perfect outlet for that strange crowded feeling. There are so many selves in this book, but the characters are also more than me; they usually have just an essence of my personality in them. Rose is an idiot, for example, and Lily is often self-destructive. That’s all me. But the twins are more than their respective idiocy and unawareness, too, and this is where the fiction comes in. I play “a person who does X would also probably do X” with myself while I write. For example: a person who does yoga would also probably enjoy eating salad. Or, a person who is as self-destructive as Lily would also probably get into a dangerous relationship. I find it to be a really helpful character-building tool – a way to distance my characters from myself.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

My friends and family. I take so much from the people in my life. Anecdotes and traits and mannerisms and speech patterns. I’m also super into trashy television. I like “good” TV too, but there’s something about bad reality shows that make me think hard about narrative and the ways in which we construct stories and characters and plot out of thin air. Reality TV tries to turn life into something that can be consumed in a few hours, and that’s what a novel does too. At least, for me.
Visit Diana Clarke's website.

My Book, The Movie: Thin Girls.

--Marshal Zeringue