Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The In Character Interview with Diane Bracuk

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Diane Bracuk

In a culture where we now talk easily and openly about the difficulties of "adulting", it seems to be the perfect time for Diane Bracuk's Middle-Aged Boys and Girls (Guernica Editions). We all know (or may ourselves be) those adults who are not quite one thing or the other — too young for youth but terrified of the trappings of a full adult life. Rebels and outcasts, the perennial cool kids seem tough on the outside but are dealing with the same losses and challenges as their more settled counterparts. Funny at times, painfully true at others, these stories are timely and sharp, and will resonate with adults of any age.

Today we're talking to Diane as part of our In Character interview series, where we hear all about the titular boys and girls. She shares great advice from Anne Lamott's iconic writing guide Bird by Bird, tells us about following characters where they take her and the characters she's most loved reading.

Open Book:

Tell us about the main character in your new book.

Diane Bracuk:

As the title Middle-Aged Boys and Girls implies, my characters are stranded in various stages of adolescence. Growing older, but not necessarily growing up, is the theme of these stories, featuring characters who are stuck in adolescent roles of rebel, outcast, prom queen and cool kid, just to name a few. While the characters are older, I think people of all age groups can relate to them. Their quirks, foibles, blind spots and vulnerabilities are our own.


Some writers feel characters take on a "life of their own" during the writing process. Do you agree with this, or is a writer always in control?


Yes, I agree that the best writing comes when a writer relinquishes control and lets the characters take on a “life of their own.” In her classic book on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says, “Let your characters follow the music they hear, and let it take them where it will. Then, you may discover, when you get close enough to peer into the opening, as if into a scenic Easter egg, that your characters had something in mind all along that was brighter and much more meaningful than what you wanted to impose on them.”

I discovered this for myself in my book’s longest story “Dissolution” which is about a fiercely idealistic yoga teacher named Janet. I had originally envisioned her as a spiritual wise woman type, above mundane, ordinary concerns. But during the third draft or so, her voice started getting petulant, whiny and self-pitying on me — not what I had in mind! But rather than edit Janet’s “new” voice, or worry that she was becoming too unsympathetic a character, I simply went with it for a while. This created a totally unexpected twist in the plot, which made for a better story overall.


How do you choose names for your characters?


I usually go by intuition, but also keep the names generation-appropriate. Kaitlin or Dylan for example, were not popular names of boomer children, just as few people would now name their child Debbie.


What is your approach to crafting dialogue, particularly for your main character? Do you have any tips about writing dialogue for aspiring and emerging writers?


Keep it real. As Anne Lamott writes, “nothing can break the mood of a piece like bad dialogue…Suddenly the piece is emotionally tone-deaf and there’s a total lack of resonance.” I agree wholeheartedly with this. There’s a real skill to getting a sense of how people speak in real life, and it’s a skill worth honing to create believable characters that resonate with readers.

How can you develop it? By becoming a good listener for starters. Listen, really listen to the way people talk — their tone, nuances, speech rhythms, inflections, the things said and unsaid. Write down people’s dialogue, play with it, and then learn to condense someone’s speech without losing the essence of what they are saying. Practicing this over and over will give you that essential ear for dialogue.


Do you have anything in common with your main character? What parts of yourself do you see in him or her, and what is particularly different?


Yes, I’m chronically immature like my characters! I’m probably still stuck in “rebel” along with “annoying class clown.” These stunted adolescent states can be self-defeating to any adult who needs to move forward, but empowering as well. For example, as a long-standing rebel, I refuse to be defined by traditional stereotypes of aging.


Who are some of the most memorable characters you've come across as a reader?


I love all the dark, edgy, provocative characters in Joyce Carol Oates fiction. I’m also a huge fan of John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, the hero of his four novels Rabbit Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990), which capture the cultural shifts of four decades in American life.


What are you working on now?


I’m working on a series of creative non-fiction pieces about my complicated relationship with my father called Boxer’s Daughter.

Diane Bracuk is an award-winning Toronto writer whose work has been published in leading literary and mainstream magazines. Her story “Doughnut Eaters” won the 2015 PRISM International creative non-fiction award. Middle-Aged Boys & Girls is her first published collection of short stories.

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