Starting In Medias Res: Strong Beginnings with Sally Cooper
Sometimes you have to go for the end without being fully aware of the means.
In light of our collaboration with the Luminato Festival, we've decided to reach out to Canadian writers to find out how they begin their work. Today's author is Sally Cooper who spoke to us about her novel Tell Everything. Click here to read the prologue to Tell Everything!
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What came first for you—the story or the characters?
The characters came first, Ramona and Pauline. I wanted to write about a woman who was a sex offender and a friendship she’d had outside of her criminal activities. As the story grew, it taught me what it was. I learned that I wanted to write about consent, where it can blur, and about the cost of living with a disrupted sense of home or place. As a teenager, Pauline moves from a rural Northern community to an suburb north of Toronto. This dislocation informs her character in surprising ways.
The book begins with a short prologue. What made you include a prologue?
The prologue to Tell Everything serves a couple of purposes. It foregrounds the importance to Pauline of her mother’s absence as a catalyst for Pauline’s misbehaviour. The prologue also sets up the importance of tale-telling in the novel and of fairy tales, which Pauline will later act out with Ramona as their friendship begins its heady descent.
What were you hoping to achieve with this prologue? What does this memory reveal about the narrator?
The prologue differs from the rest of the book in tone and style and location; it represents the first drop in the pool of Pauline’s motivation, the first clue to our knowing of her. Pauline uses her mother as a reason for some of her more questionable choices. The memory in the prologue reveals an association of her mother with the wild, beautiful place of Pauline’s childhood. It also reveals Pauline as a person attentive to story, as one who’s come by this affinity naturally.
Was there ever a time where this wasn’t the beginning?
Yes. I was on a retreat in Taos, New Mexico when I wrote the prologue. In its earliest stages, Tell Everything began with a scene between Pauline and her partner, Alex, an intense, role-playing scene that was disturbing and bordered (at the time) on the fantastic. Now the novel builds to a realistic version of that moment, which happens one-third of the way into the action, on the eve of Pauline’s testimony at Ramona’s trial. It has a different effect because Pauline’s character and her context are more familiar and the reader is invested in her relationship with Alex.
This first story is narrated from the first person but the action of the story takes place in a fantastical place. What was your intention using the first person to tell this story, rather than including it as a fable on its own?
The novel is written in the first person, except when Pauline is presenting the past. She writes about the past in the third person, using a persona named Peck. In the last memory segment, after she’s testified at her friend’s murder trial, she is finally able to tell the worst of what happened in the first person. Here, her use of the first person represents a healing or a reckoning with the trauma. It also connects her back to the prologue memory, told easily in the first person. Banana Rock is an idyllic place near where Pauline grew up, before her mother ran away.
How important is the beginning of a story to you?
The beginning is the most important part of a story to me. When I sit down to write, it doesn’t matter where I start, or I wouldn’t write anything. I’d spend my life devising perfect beginnings. While I do aim to draft a dynamic, grab-the-reader-by-the-ear-and-demand-she-listen beginning, the truth is, my stories, when they’re finished, often have a completely new beginning that takes place later in the sequence of events or (as with Tell Everything) earlier. I love stories that start in the middle of a scene so that as a reader I’m slightly discombobulated while being tangled up and invested in the language and character right off the bat.
How about as a reader?
Yes and no. I will give a book the benefit of the doubt for several chapters if the language and the characters attract me. I can tolerate one or the other being less interesting for the sake of good popular fiction (think Game of Thrones) but yes, if a book doesn’t “get going” by a certain point, I will abandon it. Often I will pick it up months later and finish it. More often, I’ll know on the first page that a book is not for me.
Do you have a favourite opening scene for a novel?
I pulled a few of my favourites off the shelf after reading this questions. The one that surprised me the most was the opening of Toni Morrison’s Beloved: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children.” Here is a world where ghost babies rage and trees grow on backs and the dying crave colour. With the arrival of a familiar outsider, the balance tilts, and though the baby ghost fights back, she is vanquished from the house. This singular story is as old as they come and every time I read this opening, I surrender to it.
What are the key elements to a strong beginning?
A strong beginning surprises and lures. There are no set ingredients, really, but the language must sing. There is a sense of compression, of every word counting, of that combination of words mattering. There is a gathering, too, a sense of momentum, however slow, an anticipation, evident in the language, that anything could happen.
Are there any “don’ts” when it comes to beginnings?
Cliches, and not just the hackneyed phrases. Cliched situations. The words “Ring, ring.”
What advice do you have for someone out there struggling to find where to begin their work (whether they are starting with a blank page or 400 pages of text)?
Set aside the struggle and start somewhere. Enter the story, get it down, and let it show you, once you’ve told it, where it should start. Be willing to let go as you write. Cultivate the state of knowing your direction while surrendering your attachment to the route. Later, when you look back at the whole, you may see that best opening is on page 5 or can only be written now that you know the end. But really, I can sum up my advice in one word: Start.
Sally Cooper will be taking part in Luminato's Literary Picnic on Saturday, June 22 in Toronto's Trinity Bellwoods Park.
Photo: Courtesy of Dundurn Press