Saturday, October 17, 2020

Sarah McCraw Crow

Sarah McCraw Crow grew up in Virginia but has lived most of her adult life in New Hampshire. Her short fiction has run in Calyx, Crab Orchard Review, Good Housekeeping, So to Speak, Waccamaw, and Stanford Alumni Magazine. She is a graduate of Dartmouth College (AB, history), Stanford University (MA, journalism), and Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA in writing). When she's not reading or writing, she's probably gardening or snowshoeing (depending on the weather).

The Wrong Kind of Woman is her literary debut.

My Q&A with the author:

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

My novel’s title is The Wrong Kind of Woman, and I hope it raises a few questions, like “Who is this wrong kind of woman?” and “What does that phrase even mean?” and “Who gets to define the right kind of woman?” I think titles are difficult for many, if not most, writers—I went through long brainstorming lists with my agent and editor. My earliest titles referred to the fictional town (Westfield) and college campus (Clarendon College) where the novel is set, and to a character’s death (After Oliver), because my character Oliver dies on the first page. But none of those early titles took the reader into the story, because the story isn’t really about the campus, the town, or even Oliver. At its heart, The Wrong Kind of Woman is about Virginia, a 39-year-old widow, and her quest to move forward with her life, and she does that after she starts to see the world through a more feminist lens.

What's in a name?

I think character names can serve as great shortcuts to help the reader place a character in time and setting, and they can help the writer understand the character better too. My character Virginia Desmarais grew up in southeastern Virginia, and decades ago her given name was a common one for girls born in Virginia. But in my imagining, she has that name because she was the baby of the family and her parents had run out of good ideas for names by the time she was born. And Virginia’s last name, Desmarais, reflects her husband’s French-Canadian, New Hampshire-born father. None of that background made it into the novel, but it helped me envision her as a fuller person with a life history behind her.

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

First of all, my teenaged self would be embarrassed! I spent middle school and high school trying to be invisible, and was mortified (though secretly pleased) when my tenth- and twelfth-grade English teacher, Mr. MacConichie, praised the short stories I’d written for his class. After coming to terms with her embarrassment, my teenaged reading self would be surprised that this novel wasn’t a big sweeping saga, like The Thornbirds, or something kind of cynical or noir, like a Graham Greene novel. I think she’d also be a little surprised that this novel follows three characters: Virginia, an almost-forty-year-old woman, Sam, a twenty-year-old male college student, and Rebecca, a thirteen-year-old girl. But then she’d say “I’m nothing like Rebecca. Well, maybe a little, but only a little.”

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings?

Endings are so hard! I know some writers have an ending in mind when they start a new project. I didn’t, but I knew that I wanted this story to stay within the timeline of a year or so, which in turn helped me figure out what to write toward. Still, at one point, I wanted the novel to end by circling back to twenty years before the present of the story, when my characters Virginia and Oliver had just met, when they were grad students. That was a terrible idea, and it took away from the story, but I was attached to those pages until my agent gently let me know that I had to let go of them.

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

While I hope that my characters are believable people quite different from me, I do see some of myself, though mainly more surface-level traits, in them. For Virginia, it’s mainly her background—like me, Virginia is a transplanted Southerner, temperamentally a New Englander, and someone who often feels in between, not one thing or the other. Rebecca (Virginia’s almost fourteen-year-old daughter) is an obsessive reader, as I was, though much more of a one-best-friend girl than I was. And Sam, the lonely college student, is a pop- and rock-music nerd, as I was.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Probably the two biggest ones are music and landscape. When I hear an old song that I first heard long ago, like maybe in eighth grade, the sound of it can take me right back through the decades, to the confusing mix of emotions, of feeling half-adult, half-little kid. The landscape inspiration is more indirect, but whenever I take a long walk on one of our beautiful New Hampshire trails, if I’m just alone with my thoughts and not listening to a podcast or music, then chances are something will come to me that I can use in my writing.
Visit Sarah McCraw Crow's website.

--Marshal Zeringue