Friday, January 22, 2010

Interview with Anne Spollen, author of The Shape of Water

Anne Spollen, author of last year's The Shape of Water and the forthcoming Light Beneath Ferns, has been kind enough to visit here. I guess she could tell how wildly obsessed I've become with her writing and wanted to speak for herself! I hope my enthusiasm rubs off on some of you. And PS...Anne snuck in a little question for me at the end.

I am almost done reading Light Beneath Ferns and I am loving it. As Anne herself states, it is quite different from "Water". She says it is less lyrical, but I have to say—Anne's incredible poetry comes right through. I told Anne that readers of her book might also enjoy a book by Laura Whitcomb, entitled A Certain Slant of Light, a ghost story with a lyrical twist.

Now I will step aside, and let Anne take it from here...

Tell us a bit about your background and what you've been up to lately.

I was born in Staten Island, NY, and went away to New Paltz, NY to attend college. After I met my husband there, I stayed and became a high school English teacher. I also taught in the English department at SUNY, New Paltz while completing my Masters in English literature. I stopped teaching when my first son, Christopher, was born. I had always written, so I began writing poetry while he napped. By the time his brother came along 26 months after him, I stayed home full time and worked on poetry from time to time. I had very little time as I had had two kids in two years and my husband and I didn't have anyone nearby to help. So writing time was pretty scarce. When I did have time, I wrote and published poetry regularly. Then I moved on to longer poems that became short stories. I felt pretty happy when I began publishing short stories on a regular basis. Eventually, one story wouldn't stop. By that time, Christopher was in the fourth grade and that story eventually became the Shape of Water.

Lately, I've been teaching online Spanish classes and English classes at a college. I am, of course, working on a YA book and a new middle grade book. An "adult" book is in the distant future.

Your first book, The Shape of Water has a strong connection to place, a seaside community in Staten Island, one of the boroughs of New York City. Can you tell us how you came to set your story there?

Well, I grew up in Staten Island right on that beach that Magda inhabits. The setting was already in my mind; I imagined nothing to create that setting. One day I got the image of a girl standing on the beach, looking out at the water. I recognized the beach, but not the girl. The image kept recurring, and when I sat down to write about what I saw, I saw fire behind the girl. Magda just sort of told the story to me. Writing that book, not to get too Shirley MacClaine-like, but it was a lot like channeling.

I think Magda taught me exactly how important setting is to a story. I couldn't imagine her (or her mother, even though you never formally meet her) anywhere but on that beach.

Are there any specific biographical elements in The Shape of Water, or are they more abstract? Although I never suffered such loss as Magda, I also experienced feelings of isolation growing up in suburban Long Island. I thought perhaps it was your intention to express those feelings and how a person can work their way out of them.

My mother still lives near that very beach on Staten Island. I did lose my dad less than a month after I turned 13, so I probably drew on some of those feelings. I don't think when we write we are entirely in control of what goes on the page. Or maybe that's only my experience.

I do believe that every teenager has feelings of isolation as s/he goes through adolescence. Or every thinking teen (I don't know anything about those outgoing, super athletic kind of teens --) The teens who write to me say, "You got it right; this is how I feel right now."

I think the loss of the parent serves as a metaphor for that loss of navigation we all feel as we realize that life will not continue the way it has through our childhood, that very soon, we will have to do things that are difficult and confusing - and we will have to do them alone.

Are there any other insights you'd like to add about this book? (Can you tell I'm kind of obsessed with this book?)

Lol, I'm obsessed with books pretty often, too. I think you pretty much got them all in your review, Lisa. Probably the strangest element to this book is that I felt, as I said, that I wasn't in control of the writing; the characters were. Mrs. Fish, in particular, was not supposed to play as large a role as she did. In fact, I edited out quite a bit of her conversation before sending it out, and she still would easily be considered a character.

Your latest book, Light Beneath Ferns is quite a departure from The Shape of Water. Can you discuss this with us?

I deliberately wanted Light Beneath Ferns to be different from The Shape of Water. I didn't want anything to do with the ocean, or fish, or a dreamy kind of girl. Elizah is a stronger girl than Magda; she is fine with being alone, and Magda clearly was not (she may not have wanted peers either, but she clearly suffered the absence of her mother). I also wanted to be less lyrical. It's difficult for me because I started out as a poet, and I admit to loving language over plot (there is not, on the whole, too much plot development in poetry). I do love creating images and evoking atmosphere; it's not unlike casting a spell. But you don't want to end up writing the same book in a different setting.

Second books have it tough. People are expecting the first book in a new cover. I think writers should have range. And Light Beneath Ferns is meant for a younger audience than Shape of Water.

I was criticized fairly frequently in Shape of Water for being too lyrically dense, having inaccessible passages, and creating language that was too lyrical for teens. (I should add that I got a lot of praise for Shape of Water, too, but that was pretty common criticism) LBF does not have these characteristics; I wanted to create a stronger voice, a stronger female character and not worry so much about the language. I think each book teaches the writer something new. From LBF I learned more about voice.

What was your road to publication?

I wrote for tiny publications with pictures of draft animals on the cover out in the Midwest when I began. Editors would force me to work on maybe the two last lines of an eighteen line poem seven times. I think that's paying your dues. I never got paid; but a wonderful thing happens: editors solicit you. I was enormously flattered by this in my twenties, even though non-writer friends would look at me like I had just grown an anterior head. "You mean, they asked for a poem, and they aren't going to pay you? Why are you so excited?" Well, because someone had read and LIKED my other poems enough to contact me. I started getting well-known in the literary journals and by the 90's, I was getting a little bit better known for fiction. Of course, having a new baby in 1998 sort of put the brakes on. Then I was home with three kids all under six, so things slowed down. I wrote maybe a page or two a week. When Emma was about two, and napped, and both her brothers were in elementary school, I began trying to write at least every other day. I went back to short fiction, but they kept growing longer and longer. Becoming a novelist surprised me, but it's one of those lovely surprises in life.

Any advice to striving authors out there?
Yes, don't take advice. Sit down and write what feels and is true. Nothing else matters.

Tell us something about Anne Spollen we might not expect.
Even though now I'm the mom who always has a year's supply of children's vitamins in the kitchen cabinet, and carries Neosporin, clean socks, cough drops, juice boxes and healthy snacks, I used to do incredibly risky things as a teenager. Not the kind of things you might be thinking, but more like taking a rowboat under the choppy waters of a New York City bridge, driving a car across an icy pond, and seeing if you really DID get detention for flipping off a substitute teacher (you do). I think it's because I did those things and I had so little fear of consequences at that age, that I stalk my kids. I KNOW what's in their genes; unfortunately, it has become apparent to me that nature, at least in our household, is overriding nurture. But I don't think people expect that a bookish mom who writes careful novels would have had such a wild spirit as a teenager.
And that's a good segue way to close this: people almost never ask me why I chose to write YA as opposed to say mysteries or romance novels. I hold a not-so-secret conviction that somewhere, inside all of us, we are still recovering from middle school. That's why we, as adults, can connect so instantly to teen fiction. I also secretly believe that YA writers (and possibly their editors) suffer from this malady more than the average person. Just saying...

Now Anne turns the tables on me:

And Lisa, one question for you: You are a YA writer. Can you tell your blog readers just the tiniest bit about your writing? (Can I guess that it's lyrical?)

Ah! Well, I do strive for lyrical. As a trained artist, I guess my writing springs from the visual. I struggle to describe the scenes I see in my head. I'm still trying! I guess, Anne's skill with language is the ideal I aspire to. My writing is a LOT wackier and I live in a crazy magical place where angels pop out from behind trees. I'm trying to ground myself a bit more.

I have now adopted Anne Spollen as an official Lisa Amowitz muse. And to think, if not for a random comment on a blog, I might have missed this literary gem.

Thank you, Anne! See you on the best-seller list! Be sure to visit and catch up on our Shape of Water discussions.


  1. Wonderful interview, Lis and Anne! Can't wait to pick up both The Shape of Water and The Beneath Ferns!


  2. As always, a great interview. Now TWO MORE BOOKS on my wishlist!
    Congrats, Anne, for your success, and my favorite line which I will have to quote again and again: ... Somewhere, inside all of us, we are still recovering from middle school.


  3. Excellent interview! And I think Anne just identified why I write YA and love reading it. Maybe she should get paid for therapy too? LOL!

  4. Yep, Heidi..and then reliving all over again with our kids. (oh..that's what you have to look forward to!). true! Her book are therapy for me.

  5. Great interview. I LOVE the cover of THE SHAPE OF WATER. Gorgeous!

    My favorite line was the middle school one, too! :-)

  6. great great interview. i guess i can share anne spollen with you. she is my muse haha. i have read her book shape of water a million times. when i feel like i've given up on my writing i re-read her book. its gorgeous.

  7. Thanks, Shannon. Hey D! look, Anne we're fighting over you. I think I'll be reading The Shape of Water again, soon, myself. And I never read books twice.

  8. Awesome interview :) I love the way your 2 books are not clones.

  9. Just a terrific interview. I loved it!

  10. This is a great interview! I've never read her books, but I'm really looking forward to it. Adding them to my list!

  11. Excellent interview, Lisa. And Anne, it's nice to know you more better...As for your booke, The Shape of Water, did I tell you my husband LOVED it? I am looking forward to reading Light Beneath Ferns. The name alone is intriguing

  12. PS Lisa...I just HAD to become your 100th follower.

  13. Wow, Bish! Congrats on that. You'll always be special to me!

  14. I haven't read Anne's books but I'm in love with Anne now. What an inspiration - and I particularly like her theory that we're all still recovering from Middle School. It explains an awful lot ...

    Thanx for the interview, Lisa!

  15. There's an award for you at my blog :o)

  16. What a nice surprise to wake up to. Thanks, Niki! I'm on my way over.

  17. Wow, these are all such nice comments! It's so great to think my writing helps people in some way, especially to encourage them to write.

    And Bish, I really never think of men as even reading my work. Almost everyone who writes to me or comments me is female, so that was a happy surprise.

  18. Hi Anne. Glad you're enjoying your party!

  19. Great interview, ladies. Really looking forward to reading Anne's work. By the way, I adore the cover of Shape of Water. So beautiful and scary.

  20. You mean we'll get over middle school some day? I think anyone who suffered through those years will always bear at least a few scars. The ones who didn't suffer through it, though -- they really missed out.

    Great interview. How interesting that you started out as a poet!

  21. Yeah. They'll never be writers! Thanks for stopping by, Mary.