March 2012

Roxane Gay

features

An Interview with Dawn Tripp

I play competitive Scrabble so when a friend told me about a great novel where Scrabble figured heavily into the story, I had to know more. Really, I had to see if the writer, Dawn Tripp, could get Scrabble right. Most people think Scrabble is just a fun game, but serious Scrabble players know Scrabble is a game of strategy, or word chess, if you will.  

Game of Secrets takes place in a small town in New England. A woman, Marne, has returned home after living out west. She's back living with her parents and fumbling through the early stages of a relationship with her brother's best friend and trying to make sense of her tense relationship with her mother. Each week Marne's mother, Jane, plays a game of Scrabble at the community center with her friend Ada. As the novel unfolds, we learn about the complex history shared between Marne's family and Ada's. There's infidelity and murder and other betrayals, all against the backdrop of this weekly Scrabble game, in which Tripp carefully demonstrates some of its more interesting nuances. The novel is gorgeous and suspenseful and rich in what it reveals about place and history and how they shape people's lives.

Winner of the Massachusetts Book Award, Dawn Tripp's fiction has earned praise from critics for her "thrilling" storytelling (People), her "haunting, ethereal" prose (Booklist), and her "marvelous characters" (Orlando Sentinel). She is the author of two earlier novels, Moon Tide and The Season of Open Water. Her essays have appeared on NPR and online at Psychology Today. She teaches workshops on structuring the arc of a novel out of fragments of fact and fiction, and lives in Westport, Massachusetts with her family. 

I love Scrabble because when played well, the game is very much like word chess. Are you a Scrabble player? Why did you use the game as part of the narrative frame in Game of Secrets?

I love Scrabble. I grew up playing with my grandmother. She and my father taught me Pitch, gin, poker, and bridge. But it was Scrabble I loved. I remember the thrill I felt when I was old enough to keep my own letters, to have my own rack. We would play a game after lunch, then my father would drift off to something else. "You want to play again, Nana?" I would ask. And my grandmother would nod, light another cigarette, and start flipping over the tiles. We would play game after game, until it was time for her to fix supper. We'd eat, clear the table, she'd wash the dishes, I would dry them for her, and then I'd ask to play again.

The idea for this novel came to me years after she was gone. The two women in the story are not modeled after her, but the sense of my time with her -- generational, intimate, lost -- is strung all through it. As I wrote, I remembered the long hours of those childhood games, the stillness of the house, the light tick-tack as she lay down her tiles, the smell of her cigarette resting on the ashtray, untended. She played Scrabble for the words, as many women in her generation did. I always played for the numbers. How we play that particular game can reveal so much about how we tick, how we live, who we are. Some play to keep the board open; some play to shut it down. Some play with an eye to the sum of the total scores of all players; some play, simply, to maximize their own. Most players will look at the board and see the words that fill it. But a really good player, a canny player -- and she was one of those -- will also see opportunity in the skinny spaces still left open in between.

The unfolding of the mystery at the heart of Game of Secrets comes to mirror the playing of the Scrabble game: clue after clue is revealed, the story comes together piece by piece; disparate letters are arranged into words, which, in turn, are arranged into a larger grid. The game became the perfect lens for this story of two women, two families bound together and divided by unspeakable secrets, a brutal past, a murder, a love story.

Fifty years ago, Jane's father, Luce, was Ada's lover and was perhaps killed as a result, so throughout the game, there is this man they both loved and the mystery of his death between them. Jane's style of play belies her apparent gentle nature. She plays tight, making small words. She won't leave a hook or opportunity exposed. Ada, on the other hand, always plays for an open board. As Jane and Ada lay down their words, they begin to form what is unsayable between them and within themselves. Because what are words if not a bridge? Between one person and another. Thought and reality. Past and present. Present and future. Words bridge silence. Words, and the stories they comprise, bridge time.

Marne is a complex woman, and while I loved her character, I could also recognize that she was, at times, very unlikable, particularly in how uncharitably she viewed her mother. Do you find it hard, as a writer, to create unlikeable characters?

Characters often come to me often before I see the larger arc of the story they belong to. Even early on, I know things about them -- what they want, fear, hide, remember, dream, what they will not let themselves dream -- before I know their names or the details of their lives.

Marne was not in my original vision of the novel, which centered on the Scrabble game and the unsolved crime. Marne crept in as a satellite character, but only at the hem of things and from Jane's point of view. When Marne's voice began to become a driving force in the story, I actually called my editor and asked for her thoughts. "Keep writing," she said. "Let's see what this one has to say." I didn't like Marne at first. She was cynical, and she was not always kind. But she was funny -- self-deprecating and wry -- she made me laugh, and I could feel how alive she was, how on the verge. She felt so much and, at the same time, was resolutely unwilling to let herself feel. It made me curious: I knew that someone with such insistent hard-and-fast convictions would have to collide head-on into the thing she swore she never would.

To me, characters' flaws are their most intriguing aspect. It impacts their fate; it is the point where what is paradoxical, seemingly irreconcilable -- what is weakest and most violent and most noble about them -- can intersect. Luce's greatest flaw, the reason he fails his daughter Jane is not because he does not love her enough, but because he loves her so much, yet cannot step out of his own shadows to say so. Jane, in turn, nearly visits the same fate upon her daughter Marne. I feel, though, the most deeply flawed character in the novel is Huck, and he was the most difficult character to hold in balance. Before I knew anything else about him, I knew Huck only as a fourteen-year-old boy driving fast down an unfinished highway, heat in his hands on the wheel, thinking about a girl. I knew that long before I realized what he might have done and who he would become -- how he would grow up to be a man whose views and past stand for things that are easy to dislike or disdain. But you can't quite lock him up that way, because of the fierce and simple desire he once felt, not just for that girl, but for the freedom of a dream she stood for.

Marne, who knows Huck as an adult, despises him. And on the surface, they seem diametrically opposed. Yet what Marne comes to discover is that awful and ordinary truth that often what we dislike most about another is what we have to come to terms with in ourselves. Marne scorns Huck's judgments; yet her judgments of him, and others, are scathing. Those origami birds she folds have such sharp intrinsic life -- and are not so different from the wood carvings Huck makes sitting in the back of his pickup truck. Both Huck and Marne struggle to work with what they have been given, to render out of a raw, at times brutal, inheritance, something of beauty, something free.

To me, characters have to have some relentlessly living aspect of them -- even characters who might appear, at first glance, one-sided, I will go and dig into them, to find that other side -- that vulnerable, inescapably human side that renders them in a different light, if only momentarily.

History is so important in Game of Secrets, and one of the most compelling parts of the novel was the way you slowly unthreaded that history for the reader. How did you keep track of everything? Do you do a lot of outlining? How did the details of how these people's lives intersect come to you?

Game of Secrets started with four primary fragments -- the real-life story of a skull that surfaced out of gravel fill with a bullet hole in the temple, and three images: a fourteen year old boy driving fast down an unfinished highway, two lovers meeting in an old cranberry barn, and two women playing Scrabble. I did not know their names, or details specific to their lives, but I could feel an undercurrent of the secrets and tension between them.

My novels often begin this way, in fragments of character, story, scene. They might feel intuitively linked; I might glimpse the larger order they belong to, but curiously for me, the longer I can resist the impulse to pin everything down into place, the more necessary the writing becomes. That doesn't mean the order isn't there. It doesn't mean some dark underside of my mind hasn't already figured it out. I put my faith in the fact that there is a cogent order. And I write to discover it.

In the early stages of a book, I turn my back completely on that adage "write what you know." I write what I am impelled by. I start where I feel led to start. Sometimes I draft a sequence toward the opening. More often I will draft the ending first. For months I write longhand, sometimes on little slips of paper, receipts, grocery lists, throw-away things that I then transcribe into notebooks, and from there to my laptop. I am particular about who I show my work to, and when. Not out of fear of judgment, but because when I am really living in a story, I am open. And I have a certain faith in that openness. I don't polish my drafts up too soon. I leave notes in the margins, some passages entirely without punctuation. I leave things untidy, open to change. I find that when I can let myself stay open to possibilities in a story that I may not yet have uncovered, when I can let myself be driven by what I do not yet know, the story often turns, deepens, in unexpected, revelatory ways.

At a certain point, when I have generated about 120-150 pages of story material, I begin to outline. I map the larger arc of the story against a five-act structure: inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement. More essential, I feel, than outlining is creating arcs. I map each subplot arc against the larger story arc. I map an arc for each character, so that each character changes in some significant way to advance the turns in the plot. Each of those smaller arcs -- subplot, character, etc. -- help drive the main arc of the story.         

All three of my books are highly structured. However, in the novels I admire more, structure -- no matter what form it takes -- serves the voice of the narrative. As a result, there is a certain dreamlike immediacy, a certain life of the work that takes precedence, a nuanced undercurrent of thought and feeling that propels the reader in a more visceral intuitive way.

Game of Secrets is a mosaic narrative, told from the perspective of several characters; the story moves back and forth in time. So while the larger narrative arc has a classic structure, the story does not unfold linearly. At one point, Jane remarks how in Scrabble, "words can work more than one way: Unite/Untie. Heart/Earth. Pare/Reap. Silent/Listen." Similarly, in Game of Secrets, I wanted the lens to be continually shifting, to reveal another side of the story, another perspective on a given moment, situation, or exchange. The shifts in point of view allowed me to explore the thematic question at the heart of the book: how well can we really ever know another person? It can be unsettling, to recognize how many different versions of truth there are. 

Place figures heavily in this book and, throughout the novel, I felt like I could see this town, smell the salt air, follow the winding roads. Do you often write about place? Why does place play such a significant role in Game of Secrets? 

This question of place in literature has always fascinated me. My first three novels are set in the small coastal town where I live: Westport, Massachusetts. In Game of Secrets, I wanted to do more than simply take a story and set it in a place. I wanted to capture elements of the unique history, culture and human demographic of the town, to allow the working consciousness of the place to impact the characters and the unfolding of their stories.

I love this town. I love it beyond reason. To me, it is, and has always been, the most beautiful point of earth. But I am not from here. I grew up coming as a summer person. I am married now to a local whose family has been in in Westport for fifteen generations. And I realize that although I live here year around, I will always experience the place through the lens of someone from away. When you are from a place, really from it, when your DNA is all mixed in with the river, your experience and perception of that place is more complex. A town like Westport, like any small unique town, is marked by its stories. There is a certain consequent force that infuses a place as a result of the lives that have played out there. The heart of a small town, like the heart of Game of Secrets, revolves around stories -- those that are told and retold, that enter the common lore, and those other stories that are not told. Every small town has them: stories that are known but only spoken of behind closed doors, if at all; often stories that cannot be told, because they are too tangled, too tragic, at times so wild and unlikely they could never be cast into fiction because no one would believe they were true.

I've seen your book referred to as a thriller and yet, I did not read your book as such. How do you feel about that label? Why do we try to classify books by these arbitrary terms? 

One reviewer called Game of Secrets "a page turning thriller." A Boston-area bookseller described it as a "literary thriller told through a poet's eye." The tag "thriller" did surprise me. Although Game of Secrets has the mystery of an unsolved murder at the heart of it, it does not play by conventional "thriller" rules. So the term could be misleading to a reader who has a certain expectation. That said, I have noticed that this is happening more frequently. Whereas there used to be clear-cut demarcations between "literary" fiction and "genre," now terms are swapped around more loosely. Publishers, readers, booksellers, and sometimes even writers are looking for that sound bite to classify a book in a sentence or less. Genre terms are marketing tools. I don't balk at the tag "thriller," nor do I embrace it. I don't think in terms of genre. I write what I am moved to write.

What surprised you as you wrote this novel?

Game of Secrets was an unusual book for me because even after I had mapped out the structure of the novel, I felt like I was continually being overturned. I knew in my gut that I had to stay open to that. Again and again, I would uncover some new element that was not in my original vision, and often in consequence, some aspect of the story would change, and I would have to let it change.

I wrote what I thought was the ending of this novel early on. I fell in love with it. It became that kind of horizon a strong ending can be that drives you, day in, day out, to create the three hundred pages leading up to that moment. What I did not expect, and what I could not have foreseen, was that in fact the ending was not the climax. The most powerful revelation was something I was writing toward without even realizing it, until all at once, I did. A story can do that. A game can do that. It can all turn at the end.

I came across Game of Secrets because a friend recommended it to me. What books are you recommending to your friends these days? 

The Uninnocent by Bradford Morrow, Night Swim by Jessica Keener, Embersby Sandor Marai, Light of Evening and Saints and Sinners by Edna O'Brien, Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata. I recently wrote a piece for NPR on Australian Writer David Malouf's Ransombut the work of his that I love most and that I reread every year is An Imaginary Life.

What do you love most about your writing?

I grew up writing poetry. Still now, when I take time away from a novel I am working on, to let my mind go fallow and do its underground thing, I read poetry. Most of the novelists I adore have a certain cadence to their work. I have faith in that cadence. I feel that along with voice, it's a key element of creating powerful fiction that is often overlooked. Rhythm draws a reader through a story. The meanings of words touch the mind -- the twists in plot engage the intellect -- but rhythm calls forth a deeper more intuitive connection to the lives of the characters, their struggles and fates. A shift in rhythm allows a reader to feel a shift in thought, a change of heart, that breath-caught-sharp moment of a revelation. I strive to keep my language space, but I always have that attention to the pace of a sentence and its emotional effect. One consequence of this is that when my editor takes a pen to my draft, I don't mind at all if she draws a big X through a passage, or even suggests I cut a page. I'll make that cut. But if she cuts a word or two in a sentence, I have to go back and rework that line until the flow and cadence feel right.

I took an extra year to back through this novel and sharpen it. To cut out the chaff, to pare out even moments I may have loved but that felt extraneous to the story, its momentum and arc. I believe it's critical, as a novelist, to learn that kind of ruthlessness, where you can let go of what you long to keep. It gives what remains a luminous intensity. Things rise up, breathe in a different way. I have a file for those castoffs. I go back through them sometimes and strip-mine what still have life for me, shift the details, and transform it into new work.