Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Christiane M. Andrews

Christiane M. Andrews grew up in rural New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, on the edges of mountains and woods and fields and sometimes even the sea. A writing and literature instructor, she lives with her husband and son and a small clutch of animals on an old New Hampshire hilltop farm.

Spindlefish and Stars is Andrews's first novel.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Because the entire story was inspired by a picture of a stargazy pie (a Cornish fish pie, sometimes decorated with pastry stars, where the fish heads are left poking through the crust and “gazing” at the sky), the working title for this novel was “Stargazy.” However, while the fish and the stars became the center of the story, the pie itself never made it into the draft, and my editor and I worked together to find a new title.

Though Spindlefish and Stars suggests the direction of the story, it deliberately does not take readers too far into it; in fact, it was a bit of a struggle to find a title that did not reveal too much! So many of the ones we brainstormed would have given away significant parts of the plot—Why did Clo’s father send her to this desperately gray island?—or identified aspects of the characters—Who is this old woman who locks Clo away? Why is Clo given such repulsive chores with the fish?—not meant to be understood until later in the text. Though the word “spindlefish” does not appear anywhere in the novel, I think readers will come to see how it fits… and I have actually seen readers using it to identify something left otherwise unnamed in the book.

What's in a name?

As is the case in fairytales where characters are identified only by some element of their identity (the woodsman, the witch, the prince, etc.), many of the characters in Spindlefish and Stars also remain unnamed: Clo’s father, the swineherd, the parchment-skin man, the bosun, the old apple-faced woman (though there is, in fact, a passing reference to her actual name slipped into the text!). Only a few characters—and the piggish cat—have names, and here, I tried to reference (but not reveal) the myths from which I lift them: Clothilde (Clo), the main character; Cary, the boy she meets and befriends on the island; and Haros, a man Clo must journey to find by the sea.

Locations, too, are left unlabeled, with the goal of not limiting Clo’s place in the world. Though her story is inspired by Greek myth, variations of this myth appear in many different legends and tales, and because Clo and her sometimes-thieving father travel from village to village to village always seeking out new homes, she really could be from anywhere.

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

I think my teenage self would be moderately surprised. I was reading a good deal of Russian literature then—so not, I would say, particularly close to Spindlefish and Stars—but I remember also being very taken with myths and retellings, so teenage-me would likely not find it unexpected that the novel re-imagines several Greek myths. Teenage-me probably would be surprised by a middle grade novel, though, as I had not thought seriously of writing for children until I had my own son and began re-discovering the beauty of children’s literature with him. However, now that I think about it, I did have to write a children’s picture book for senior English in high school, and I remember absolutely loving this project, so perhaps I wouldn’t be surprised after all!

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

Endings! Endings are definitely more challenging for me, and this is absolutely my own fault. I spend a lot of time thinking about a story before I even begin writing it, so I usually have a good idea of where I’m starting and where I’m going… but only up to about the middle of the book. When I wrote Spindlefish and Stars, I knew how Clo would arrive on the island, I knew what she would discover about the old woman and herself when she was there, I knew the image and scene I was writing toward (which is now the chapter “In Which Our Hero Dies”), but I did not really know how I would help her off this island where I had trapped her. Because I had left her in a rather bleak place with only a few personal possessions, I had, in a sense, also trapped myself: I had to reconsider all the details I had seeded in the earlier parts of the story to see how they could be used to resolve the plot. This was a good exercise—and one that fortunately worked out well!—but in current projects, I have been trying to keep at least a vague idea of the ending in mind, even if it’s constantly shifting as I write.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

In Spindlefish and Stars, there are a few non-literary inspirations. Brueghel’s paintings—especially his Landscape with the Fall of Icarus—shaped not only the portrayal of Clo’s father and his work with art, but also the development of the book’s plot and themes. The pre-Raphaelite painters, too, with their re-imaginings of myths and legends and tales (particularly the different renderings of the Lady of Shalott by Waterhouse, Rossetti, and Hunt) probably also had some influence here.

Place was likely an inspiration as well: I lived in Downeast Maine in high school and grew up vacationing with my family on various islands (and even now take summer camping trips with my own family to quiet sections of Atlantic Canada), so I’m certain I drew from these experiences when writing about Clo’s ocean journey. Clo is desperate to escape the perpetually gray island she travels to, but I’ve always loved the coast more when it’s foggy and silent and gray.

And lastly, though I wasn’t necessarily thinking of them as I was writing, I’m sure my mother and grandmother, who spun and sewed and wove and knitted, inspired the portrayal of the old apple-faced woman—at least her dedication to her craft, if not her (rather chilly) personality! I was always struck by how much time and care and artistry went into my mother and grandmother’s projects: I wanted to honor that in the old woman’s weaving and show her work as art, and not, as it has often been dismissed, just “women’s work.” Because women who are engaged in fiber crafts are often making household objects or items of clothing for others, I also wanted to honor the generosity of this art, and to explore how both the crafting skills and the objects themselves are passed from generation to generation.
Visit Christiane M. Andrews's website.

My Book, The Movie: Spindlefish and Stars.

The Page 69 Test: Spindlefish and Stars.

--Marshal Zeringue