Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Growing Up with Finny--a Conversation with Author Justin Kramon

Last fall when I was attending our event with Lorrie Moore, I was bowled over when an attendee asked Moore about her references to Jane Eyre, a connection that I had not previously thought of in my own read, nor had it been referenced by our many friends and customers who read A Gate at the Stairs, nor had I seen it remarked upon in the numerous reviews I read. (Yes, I’m sure there are plenty of folks who talked wrote about it, but I missed it).

I am reminded of this as I get ready for our event with Justin Kramon, author of the new novel Finny. The book goes on sale July 13th, and our event is on Friday, July 23rd, at 7 PM. Finny is the story of Delphine “Finny” Short, daughter of a socialite and academic, coming into her teen years, but more secure about who she is not than who she is. She finds herself attracted to Earl, a neighbor boy, and starts to see him under the guise of taking piano lessons from her father. The ruse is discovered, and she is sent to boarding school.

Wherever Finny goes in life, she finds dynamic personalities, sometimes good, sometimes bad, often a combination of both. With each episode, she discovers a little bit more about herself, and learns that the world is far more tinged with gray than she ever imagined.

As I read Kramon’s novel, the thought went through my mind that the structure and voice and episodic quality of his novel was referencing something, but I had no idea what it was. Desperate to know and having a few other questions to ask, I approached Kramon, and he was gracious enough to reply.

Goldin: I was curious about your inspiration. There were periods when I was reading it when I thought you were doing some sort of homage, only I didn't know the source. My literary vocabulary can be somewhat limited.

Kramon: Dickens was a huge inspiration, and the original idea for the book was to do a reimagining of David Copperfield, the great Dickens novel, and that's where a lot of the references come from. I also had a couple other great coming-of-age books in mind: The World According to Garp, Great Expectations, The Adventures of Augie March, and several others. I love their intricate and suspenseful plots, the slightly-larger-than-life characters, the humor, and the sense of bigness and adventure I get from even the opening sentences. I feel like these classic novels are treasure chests of funny characters and surprising moments and beautiful insights about the world.

But one thing I noticed about a lot of these books is that they’re about young men. So I was interested in what it would be like to tell one of these big classic stories about a young woman coming into the contemporary world. And that’s how the idea for Finny started.

Goldin: Well, that’s a bit embarrassing, as I read David Copperfield a little more than a year ago. But now that you mention it, of course!

I’m always curious about this, but since you have a female protagonist, it makes the question a bit more interesting. Is there anything autobiographical in the story? Did you identify more with Finny or Earl?

Kramon. There are a lot of things I draw from my life -- scenes, characters, traits, ideas -- but there's not a whole lot of autobiographical material in this book. I wanted to be able to move way outside of myself with this book, and create a point of view on the world that's different than mine. I've lived or traveled in the places where Finny lives/travels (Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Paris, Boston), but my experiences there were very different. I identified with both Finny and Earl, and felt for them both, but I have a special feeling for Finny. She made the book come alive, and it couldn't be there without her.

Also, I've always enjoyed writing female characters. I'm not sure why -- maybe because I'm only about 51% male. But I think it also has to do with the kind of fiction I want to write. If I talk about friendships and relationships and sex from the point of view of a woman, it helps me to cut myself out and universalize the experience -- or at least bring up some useful observations about it.

Goldin: Many of your side characters have exaggerated mannerisms or distinguishing tics. Were you thinking more along the lines of character shortcut, or were they more exaggeration of type? I didn't really see the book as satire, but I didn't notice the correlation between inner and outer beauty, which, in the case of this novel, is pretty much invesed. The most attractive folks tended to be the most shallow (and sometimes villainous), whereas the eccentrics tended to have noble stuff about them. Did I read this right? Care to comment?

Kramon. The exaggerated mannerisms and distinguishing traits you notice are part of the tribute to Dickens -- who was the master at creating these slightly-larger-than-life characters, accentuating traits or themes he saw in people in his own life to bring closer attention to them. I wanted to try to blend that style with a more modern approach to psychology and interior thoughts and character.

The moral center of the book -- and the correlations between inner and outer beauty -- are also big themes in Dickens, but as you said, I wanted the correlation to be not completely straight-forward. I don't think there are any characters in the book who are noble all the time. Even Finny puts the note under Poplan's door and neglects to tell her brother about Judith's history, partly because of her infatuation with Judith. Those moral issues are all part of the theme of coming-of-age in the book, but I hoped there wouldn't be clear answers to every question.

Goldin: In Finny, there are some characters, such as Sarah Barksdale and Dorrie, that felt like they were more developed in your head than what you saw on paper. Was the book originally longer? If so, what did you have to cut?

Kramon: The book was originally longer -- closer to 500 pages. I slimmed it down a lot, in order to emphasize only the most important plots. I wanted the book to be densely-plotted, so there are still a number of story lines, since that's the nineteenth-century style I was writing in.

You're right that some characters originally took up more space. It just turned out, as I revised, that I didn't feel their stories were as essential to Finny's story.

Goldin: Sylvan and Finny's relationships with Judith and Earl somewhat parallel each other, to the point where in each case. the boyfriend or girlfriend seems to cheat on our heroine or her brother. Yet Judith is ultimately cast as a problematic partner in a way that Earl is not--twice Finny overcomes Earl's infidelities. Did you think Earl was ultimately a different character at the end of the book? In a similar way, Earl chose his mother over Finny, and only really broke away from Mom after she died.

My intention was for the ending of the book to hit a kind of questioning note -- to have some ambiguity in it, along with affirmation. I think Earl is not a perfect person, and there are questions in Finny's mind all the way to the end. To me, that's part of the growth in the book: the ability to accept those questions and move forward without necessarily resolving them.

And to me, that’s one of the big differences with a modern and historical Dickens. I am not an expert on this, but I think Dickens felt at the end that his characters were essentially good or bad, and anything that made readers think otherwise during the course of the reading was essentially literary camouflage. Kramon, like so many modern writers, sees the good in the bad, and vice versa. I suppose I am falling victim to moral relativism, but that should be a shock. Thinking back to my days obsessing with Myers Briggs, I was a pretty strong F.

Want to continue the conversation? Come to our event for Finny on July 23rd at 7 PM. And being that the book is a paperback original, Kramon is very interested in talking to book clubs. Want to set something up? Contact me and I can put you in touch.

Here's a rave about Finny on the Galley Cat blog.

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