Today’s Michigan author is Lynn Arbor. Arbor was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and has lived in California, Massachusetts, Colorado, and Illinois. She’s spent her life writing and making art. When her daughter and son were little she wrote children’s books: Grandpa’s Long Red Underwear was published by Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books. She contributed to a decorating column in the Detroit News and wrote two unpublished novels. For twenty-five years she made her living as a graphic designer, but after serious illness, she turned to fine art. She’s best known in the Detroit area as a painter.
Tell me about Intentional.
I wanted to write a novel about the aftermath of a suicide. How do family and friends cope? When I was considering writing this novel, I made a list of things that I wanted to explore beyond the suicide issue: politics, greed, environment, infidelity, desertion, friendship, and the frailty and strengths of being human.
What inspired you to write it?
When I was in my late twenties, about 40 years ago, a friend committed suicide. None of her friends could figure out why she did it, but we each had our own ideas. But I wanted my novel to be contemporary, so the story is set in 2012, a month before the election.
What is your process as a writer?
Sometimes I get ideas when I first wake up in the morning, especially if I’ve been stewing about something in the story. It’s almost like I’m in a foggy, half dream state. Then I get up and write as fast as I can before I lose it. Other times, uninspired, I just sit look at the keyboard, reread what I’ve already written, then write one sentence. Which, hopefully, leads to another sentence. One thing I find very useful, is walking my neighborhood first thing in the morning (not when it’s cold), it seems to stimulate my thought process.
When I did the final edit of the book (before sending it to the copyeditor), we were staying at the family farm in Wisconsin. About a mile from the farmhouse, past fields of corn and into a wooded area near a spring fed lake, we have an old airstream-like trailer. Everyday after I swept the mouse droppings out of the trailer, I read the novel out loud (no one could hear me except mice and deer). It’s an excellent way to edit, listening to the rhythm of the sentences.
What is your favorite part of writing?
Sometimes magic happens. I don’t know what will happen, don’t know where I’m going in the story, and I just start writing and words come from some unknown place inside me. Things happen that I hadn’t expected or planned. When I was writing Intentional, I got stuck on the first chapter about Christina (the mother of the woman who commits suicide). I was avoiding writing about her, I didn’t want to deal with her pain. Then as I started writing, I discovered that she was avoiding facing the reality of what had happened and so I wrote about her avoidance. I think it’s one of the better chapters in the book.
How does the process of writing a novel compare to your process in making art?
It’s very different. When I paint, I usually listen to music or NPR so the atmosphere is noisy and I’m painting half-distracted, working by instinct. When I’m writing I like it quiet so I can hear the voices in my head. When I’m having trouble writing, going into the quiet is too lonely, so I turn on the TV and don’t accomplish anything.
What was the biggest challenge you faced along the way?
Commas. I knew I needed a copyeditor to get my commas in control. Hiring someone was very smart and important, but expensive. I hesitated for weeks before hiring someone.
What do you like to read?
Mostly I like good fiction, short stories in the New Yorker, or by Alice Munro. Novels, recent favorites: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Old books, like Grendel by John Gardner. Non-fiction: Doris Kerns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, and The Wild Trees by Richard Preston are wonderful and favorites.
Do you have any literary pet peeves?
Yes, it irritates me when writers try to make a pamphlet or short story into a book. Padding and redundancy are such a waste of reading time.
Does being a Michigan author inform your writing?
Yes. I like it here, and I want other people to get to know about this place through my writing. Intentional takes place in Detroit and the Northern suburbs. People who live here tell me that it was fun reading about places they know in the area. One reader asked, “Are there really tunnels connecting the hospitals at the Detroit Medical Center. Does it really have all that art?” This week my husband and I went to the Detroit Institute of Art to see the Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera exhibit. It was so satisfying to me as I looked around at the fresco in the Rivera Court, that I could include that magnificent space into the narrative of my novel. People should know about our city and community.
Did you have any special teachers or mentors who encouraged you along the way?
I did. From the time I was tiny, I thought that my best and only real skill was art, but then, Katherine Peters, my English teacher at Groves High School introduced me to creative writing. Before that I had no idea that I could write or even that I liked writing.
Do you have any new books in the works?
Finally, just yesterday, after all the hoopla and exhausting (but fun) promotional work with Intentional, plus the slight depression and feelings of loss (is that normal?), I got back to working on my next novel. I’m about 13,000 words into this one. It began while Intentional was away being edited. It felt so good to get back to creating something new. The next novel, A Bird in the House, is set in 2008. The story is about a woman who’s the caregiver for her mother. This time, I’m exploring greed (again), compassion, family relations, jealousy, being trapped by duty and responsibility, and several aspects of memory loss.
Doesn’t that sound like a fun read? First novel’s about suicide, the second’s about dementia, woo hoo, such fun.