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Wednesdays with Writers: Luminous debut author Sarah Domet talks about how she struggled with story structure, how her book, THE GUINEVERES is all about the universal themes of hope, suffering, storytelling, when to break the rules, and so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Let me introduce you to this luminous debut, THE GUINEVERES, brimming with wisdom about four girls caught in the throes of a war, their own burgeoning sense of self, fought with religious strife.

Gwen, Vere, Win, and Ginny, collectively referred to as “The Guineveres,” four girls all sharing the same given name, Guinevere. One by one, they are dropped off at the Sisters of Supreme Adoration Convent by their families in…?? (well, that’s part of the mystery). For one reason or another, the girls’ families made the tireless (and perhaps rash) decision to abandon their daughters, not as infants, as one may believe, but as late childhood closed/early teenage-hood.

This audacious novel has already drawn comparisons to THE VIRGIN SUICIDES by Jeffrey Eugenides as it is a mesmerizing, character-driven narrative rift with deep wisdom and psychological insight.

Domet brilliantly weaves the ordinary and miraculous to tell a timeless story of faith, longing, and female friendship.

Join me in welcoming debut author Sarah Domet to the blog.

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Leslie Lindsay: Sarah, I am always, always curious as to what draws a writer to a certain topic, what was haunting you enough to write THE GUINEVERES?

Sarah Domet: At the time I wrote THE GUINEVERES, I was thinking this: Stories of women matter, yet so often they remain untold. Or, if they are told, they are often downplayed or undercut by a culture that has historically privileged the stories of men. The history of the domestic novel is proof of this, and some of the earliest women novelists were notoriously belittled with insults such as “scribbling women.”

At the same time, I was fascinated with groups of women, how they function, how power is distributed and displayed. Women often bond on such deep levels because of their willingness to be emotionally vulnerable, but this same vulnerability keeps them open to attack. I was interested in exploring these group dynamics, particularly set within a rigid and constrictive environment. How does one find her identity within a group? Can one be a feminist and part of a historically patriarchal tradition?

I wrote the first draft of THE GUINEVERES shortly after moving away from my friends and family and adapting to life in a new town where I knew nobody. It should come as no surprise, then, that themes of home and belonging crept into the novel.

L.L.: As readers we don’t know which war is going on, but THE GUINEVERES is definitely set against the backdrop of war (WWII, possibly?). We also don’t know where this is taking place. Could be England. Could be Massachusetts. And that may bother some readers. For me, I saw it as a literary device in that had me thinking, “does it really matter?” I think what you’re trying to say, is that regardless of where and when this story takes place, the values, thoughts, and trials these young women face are timeless and universal. Can you speak to that?
Sarah Domet: I recognize that not naming a clear time—or geography—can be frustrating to readers who what to know the specifics. I also recognized it’s a risk, especially in novel-length work to present such a gauzy world. When I taught creative writing classes and students would submit stories with vague, hazy settings, I always told them they had to suggest a clear time and setting. That is, unless they had a specific reason for doing not so. You’re absolutely right: In THE GUINEVERE, I wanted to point out that the struggles many young women face are universal, as is their suffering, as is their hope. This may be the same reason I choose the name Guinevere as well. Guinevere—at least to my ear—has a weighty, historic, timeless quality. I wanted to lend a mythic element to the story, much like the stories of the saints that the Guineveres were learning about in their classes at the convent. To name a specific war would have, I felt, shifted the focus from the stories of the Guienveres to the stories of the young soldiers who came to convalesce at the convent. Why were they there? What were they fighting for? Who were they fighting? Instead, I wanted the story to ask: What do these girls want? What do they need? In what ways are these soldiers reflective of that?


L.L.:  It was your construction of back story and insights into Catholic saints that gave THE GUINEVERE a delightful structure set-up. In some regards, this reminded me a bit of Emma Donoghue’s THE WONDER. I curious how you came to this organizational style? And did you deliberate on how to tell the story?

Sarah Domet: I didn’t only deliberate, I downright struggled with the structure and organization!

2016022713ed2.jpgThe stories of the female saints resonated with me since I read THE LIVES AS SAINTS as an adult. While the male saints displayed their faith in public ways, the female saints often demonstrated acts of faith through bodily suffering: cutting themselves, starving themselves, inflicting bodily pain, etc. Many of these female saints were women who defied the conventions of their day: mostly, that of becoming wives and mothers, because they sought something more, something bigger. I knew from the start that I wanted to use these stories to offset and complement the stories of THE GUINEVERES.

In some ways, I backed myself into a corner with the collective/first-person point of view. At times, Vere sees herself as firmly entrenched in the voice of the group. Other times, she feels distinctly separate from them. While the novel begins largely in a collective POV, throughout the novel the POV becomes more and more singular. I wrestled with how to incorporate the backstories of the Gwen, Win, and Ginny; somehow letting Vere narrate their stories didn’t sit right. At some point in the novel-writing process, it became clear to me that the novel was about the act of story-telling itself. This was an A-ha! moment for me: I knew I had to let Gwen, Win, and Ginny tell their stories in their own words.

L.L.: Let’s talk about back story for a bit. I, for one, love it. Other readers feel they get bogged down and would rather it not exist. Still, I see back story as motivation for present behavior. Where do you sit on the subject?

Sarah Domet: I love backstory, too! Too much, in fact. I’m endlessly fascinated with why people behave the way they do or why make the choices they do. Human psychology fascinates me, and I consider myself somewhat of an armchair psychologist. As a novelist, I think you have to know your characters’ back stories regardless of whether or not you use these details. If at any point the back story begins to overtake the “present” of the novel, I have to stop myself and ask: What story am I really trying to tell here? The answer to this question usually reorients my thinking.download (49).jpg

L.L.: What do you hope readers take away from THE GUINEVERES? What important truth did you learn as you were writing?

Sarah Domet: What a big question! The short answer is this: I want the reader to understand the power of story—of telling one’s own story. As a writer, that’s the truth I’m always learning and re-learning time and time again.

L.L.: Since it’s January, do you have any reading goals? Literary aspirations? Do you ‘do’ New Year’s Resolutions?

Sarah Domet: I try to read a new book every two weeks or so. Sometimes I read more, and sometimes I read less. The more I read, the sharper my writing becomes, and so I’ve come to see reading/writing as inseparable activities.

I am a sucker for self-improvement. (I may or may not secretly read self-help books on my Kindle.) However, as I’ve gotten older I’ve forsaken yearly resolutions in favor of a yearly theme. (I may or may not get buttons made with my yearly theme on them and pass them out to friends and strangers.)

L.L.: What’s next for you? Are you working on other novels?

Sarah Domet: I’m currently at work on a new novel. The process has recently picked up momentum, so I don’t want to jinx myself by discussing it yet!

L.L.: What question should I have asked, but may have forgotten?

Sarah Domet: I think you remembered them all!

L.L.: Sarah, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you. Take care and Happy New Year!

Sarah Domet: Thank you for the thought-provoking questions! Cheers to 2017!

For more information, to connect with the author, or to purchase THE GUINEVERES, please see: 

SarahDomet_no credit needed.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Sarah Domet’s debut novel, The Guineveres, was released from Flatiron Books in October 2016. She’s also the author of 90 Days to Your Novel (Writers Digest Books, 2010). She holds a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing from the University of Cincinnati where she once served as the associate editor of The Cincinnati Review. Originally from Ohio and still a Midwesterner at heart, she now lives in Savannah, Georgia.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay through these social media outlets:

 

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Flatiron Books and used with permission. Image of saints retrieved from on 1.24.17]