Interview with Author Robb Grindstaff
I’m thrilled to announce that today I have the wonderful author Robb Grindstaff on here for an interview! Two weeks ago, I posted my review of Hannah’s Voice – and it was a staggering, without-a-doubt five stars, since the book absolutely blew me away. I invite you to check it out, enjoy the interview, and please don’t hesitate to post further questions for the author – I’m sure he’d be thrilled to know what you thought of Hannah’s Voice!
Nola: Hannah’s Voice does an amazing job of striking a balance between religion, politics, and the personal lives of those affected by both. What inspired you to take such an interesting direction with the story, from the perspective of a girl who chooses not to speak?
Robb: I know of several things that influenced this story, but I’m not sure any one thing inspired it. The whole story came to me in a flash, unlike most things I write. I was driving at the time, so I pitched the brief synopsis to my wife. She said, “That’s nice, dear,” or something like that. But it all came in a single thought, from the storyline to the character’s name to the last line of the novel. I still had to write it, flesh everything out, and when writing, new characters and new directions show up unannounced.
As I was writing it, I thought of the movies ‘Being There’ with Peter Sellers and ‘Citizen Ruth’ with Laura Dern. I’m sure I was influenced by John Irving’s ‘The World According to Garp’ and many other books and writers. The real world events going on at the time influenced it. I started writing Hannah more than five years ago, before anyone had ever heard of the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street, so the somewhat similar groups in the book were not based on these organizations. I intended to take the divisions in the country over politics and religion to an absurd level. Unfortunately, real life has far surpassed the absurdity in the novel.
Nola: Brother Ronnie provides a delicate cushion for Hannah between the faith she holds dear to her heart – the faith that soothes her grief – and the religion that quickly develops into an extremist group around her on both sides of the coin: those that believe she is a demon, and those that believe she is a prophet. When Brother Ronnie is no longer a safety net for Hannah, there is little mention of Hannah devoting thought to her own personal religious beliefs after his death. As a reader, I felt this did not shake Hannah’s faith as much as it solidified her need to look at things logically and without a security blanket. What was the goal for you with Brother Ronnie’s character?
Robb: I don’t know that I had a goal for the character of Brother Ronnie and what happens to him. It just happened. He’s a connection to her father, and somewhat of a father substitute for Hannah. But Hannah makes references to praying, going to church, reading the Bible, even singing hymns in her sleep throughout the story. I guess you could say she has a quiet faith (bad pun intended). But that’s not the central theme or focus of the story – it’s just part of who she is. It’s not a “Christian fiction” novel. It’s just a novel where the main character is a believer. Granted, she breaks one of the Ten Commandments in the second paragraph, but she never claims to be perfect.
Nola: Blood plays a large role in Hannah’s Voice. As a reader, I connected all sorts of things to the blood: Hannah’s emotionless perception of the blood she encounters as a representation of the parts of herself she shut down, protectively, when her father died… also as a Biblical reference, for a sacrifice that is a catalyst to bigger things, things often out of control in Hannah’s life. What symbolism did you intend with the repeated use of blood in Hannah’s Voice?
Robb: Did I use blood repeatedly? I didn’t realize it until you mentioned it. Readers keep finding religious and Christian symbolism woven throughout the story that I didn’t know I was putting in. Perhaps it’s just pure coincidence with no symbolism intended. When I write, I tend to submerge myself into the character, so perhaps this was a subconscious act on Hannah’s part. Thinking back through the story, it does seem that blood generally is tied to moments of death, loss, or grief, and how Hannah reacts to those traumatic moments.
Nola: The strength of Hannah’s actual “voice” in this story is dynamic and captivating, because she has clear thought patterns. When she speaks, she speaks how I imagined she would speak, and I heard her clearly despite hearing so little from her in terms of actual dialogue as an adult. What was the biggest challenge for you in creating a main character with very little dialogue, and getting that clear voice?
Robb: Her internal voice comes first because it’s a first-person narrative. And she communicates with others in various ways throughout the book. So when she does speak, it’s a natural outgrowth of her internal voice and her non-verbal communication.
The bigger challenge was how to tell a story, and keep it engaging for readers, from a first-person narrator who doesn’t speak. If it was all her internal thoughts, that would be rather dull. She has to interact with others, has to communicate. Whether she was thinking to herself, writing someone a note, or texting someone on her phone, it was all the same voice as when she speaks out loud, so the transition to dialogue was pretty natural, I think.
For me, it was tougher to write the first third of the book in the voice of a six-year-old girl and make it believable and realistic, but not so ‘childlike’ that adults would find it hard to read, or that would be difficult to sustain for 100 pages or so. I mean, who wants to listen to a six year old talk for a couple of hours? I went with a voice that is a mix. At times, it’s a little older than six, but I tried to keep enough of the thought processes and word choices of a six-year-old’s stage of child development so it would be clear she is narrating it in real time, not ‘adult Hannah’ looking back on events that happened years earlier.
Then, Hannah jumps ahead to her teenage years. This presented a bit of a challenge too, in aging her from six to sixteen, including the more complex thought processes, fully developed vocabulary, and maturity levels of a young woman, yet clearly keeping the same voice, the same person.
Nola: Based on your success with Hannah’s Voice and a voiceless character with vivid voice (say that 10 times fast!), what advice can you offer authors in creating distinct voices for their characters, regardless of how often they speak?
Robb: I’m not sure I have any good advice in this regard. I tend to write characters who show up in my head, introduce themselves, and demand that I sit down and at the laptop and take dictation. I hear the character’s voice in my head. Maybe it’s somewhat like a method actor in that I become the character. I see the story through that character’s eyes, and I write what the character sees and thinks and feels. I write it down the way she talks. I don’t know that this is a technique I can recommend or even explain. But maybe the advice is to get inside your character and get to know them as well as you know yourself or a close family member. Or let your character get inside you. I’m supposed to be a writer, and I’m at a loss for words to explain this. Probably a mild form of psychosis.
Nola: Hannah’s Voice has several stages of life over the course of the story, but I think the biggest point of growth for Hannah is in her New Adult stage of life, when she stands up for herself (even silently), takes risks, experiences events that are out of her control, and eventually takes back control of her life by demanding the damn pancakes. Readers connect with these themes and grow through the characters they read. For the New Adult readers of Hannah’s Voice, what kind of growth/development/maturity do you hope they will carry with them from the story?
Robb: I hope they read the book and get a few hours of enjoyable entertainment out of it, and maybe some emotional connection to Hannah. When a story has a greater meaning for a reader, and I’ve read books that have affected me that way, that’s a great thing. But all I strived for was to tell a good story with a memorable character. The books that have stuck with me my whole life are the ones where I remember the character in great detail years later, well after I’ve forgotten the specifics of the story. Holden Caulfield from ‘Catcher in the Rye,’ Garp, Huckleberry Finn, Chuck Pahlaniuk’s ‘Rant,’ for a few examples.
Stories with a message feel to me like the author thinks he’s more important than the story or the character. And he’d be wrong.
Nola: Taking on the challenge of writing a character with no voice (and a vivid voice, too!) is a monumental task, and I hugely admire you for it (#fangirl). What kind of unique challenges can we expect to see from Robb Grindstaff the author going forward? Is Hannah’s Voice going to be a tough one for you to top, in terms of influential and revolutionary writing, or do you have something else up your sleeve you can tell us about to get us all excited for what’s next?
Robb: The first novel I wrote (the second to be published, coming this Summer 2012), ‘Carry Me Away,’ has a teenage girl as the main character, Carrie. She believes she’s going to die before she reaches adulthood, so she decides to accelerate her life to reach all of her goals – travel the world, make it to college, and find her One True Love. Doctors gave her five years, so she’s in a hurry. Whereas Hannah doesn’t want to be the center of attention, Carrie craves it. Hannah doesn’t speak; Carrie doesn’t know when to shut up. She’s brash, crass, with morbid sense of humor, and very vulnerable.
After finishing each novel, I swear the next one will be with a male lead character. I’ve written plenty of short stories with male leads. But I had no sooner finished writing Hannah when Trixie showed up, and now I’m writing her story, ‘Turning Trixie.’ At least she’s an adult. A single mom and the small town’s only prostitute, she knows the winning lottery ticket in her purse is about to change her life, but trouble starts when she decides the rest of the town needs changing too.
As far as writing challenges, I enjoy playing with perspective. In my short story collection, ‘Sonoran Dreams,’ I play with perspective and point-of-view – seeing if I can successfully change characters, chronology, point-of-view, even switch verb tenses or write scenes out of order and still make it into a coherent story that is fun to read.
Another novel that’s on my plate, nowhere near complete, is being written as a series of short stories all from one main character’s first-person narrative. The concept is that each chapter is a standalone short story and can be read by itself. Therefore, you could read the stories in any order. You could read them chronologically if you wanted to. But I’m going to put them together in seemingly random order, bouncing from age nineteen to forties to early twenties to mid-thirties, but as the book progresses in this out-of-order sequence, each story builds on the ones that came before, gradually filling in the missing parts and pieces of her life until an overarching novel-length story emerges.
I don’t know if I’ve got the chops to pull that one off. Maybe someday.
I’d like to extend the most heartfelt of thanks to Robb Grindstaff for doing this interview – Robb’s integration of unique voice, clear perspective and brilliant story arcs will make Hannah’s Voice an unforgettable read.
You can purchase Hannah’s Voice Here
……and please drop by Robb’s Facebook FanPage Here.
Also: Stalk him on Twitter @RobbWriter