Sunday, May 15, 2005

CHOOSE 3 with Ginger Strand

"Booklist" calls Ginger Strand's "Flight," "a finely wrought novel about the back-and-forthness of life." Set in Michigan, "Flight" centers on Will Gruen, an aging commericial pilot coping with his impending retirement and the aftermath of 9/11, even as his family spirals apart in unravelings of their own. Told in multiple points of view, "Flight" follows one family through an increasingly askew wedding weekend that looks back on four decades of sweeping cultural change.

Ginger Strand has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of places, including The Iowa Review, The Believer, The Gettysburg Review, and the New England Review. She has received residencies from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Sewanee Writers Conference, and has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. "Flight" is her first novel.

To learn more, visit her website.

P.F.: Will Gruen is such a wonderful, nuanced character. Though your novel is told in multiple points of view, he is clearly the heart of the novel. Was that your intention or did he simply emerge as the strongest character?

G.S.: It wasn't my intention, in fact, but those patriarchs do have a way of taking over, don't they? Seriously, I simply found as I wrote that having Will take a more central role worked for the story. I was interested in getting at how family stories are never one individual's story--the traditional novel viewpoint--but rather a combination of overlapping stories that echo and bounce off one another. As I shaped Will's character, I began to see him as someone whose life history, for better or worse, had shaped his family's trajectory, so it was easiest to tell all the stories using his as the center point.

Also, I felt that Will's career could be used to reflect macrocosmic changes in American culture--in the way Americans live and work and relate to each other. Books about young people can be wonderful, and can build a kind of affection for their characters, but frankly, I always find older people more interesting. They have more stories to tell, more experience to draw on, and you can begin to see how their lives have been defined by social and cultural forces. Leopold Bloom is far more interesting than Stephen Dedalus, no?

P.F.: 'Flight' deals with the Vietnam war's continuing impact on a veteran and his family a generation after it was fought. How does that perspective differ from the fiction that was written twenty years ago? What can it add to our understanding of what that war meant and how it altered lives?

G.S.: I am a huge fan of the work of writers like Jayne Anne Phillips and Tim O'Brien, who both write very powerfully about the effect of the Vietnam War on those who lived through that era. I was a small child when the war ended, but it hung over my very early years in a strange way. My father did not go to the war, but he knew many people who did, and many of them died. My parents began by believing the president and then slowly turned against the war. Sometimes I think the "cynical slacker" image of Generation X comes partly out of that formative experience of helplessness--we became aware of politics at a point when they were very divisive and fraught.

I wanted to consider how Vietnam influenced not just the generation who lived through it, but subsequent ones too. Not only that, but it affects everyone's relationship to current events. For Will, the experience of 9/11 can't help but bring back emotions and feelings about his Vietnam experience that he may not have dealt with then. And I think that happened in our culture as a whole: Vietnam tends to rear its head in times of national trauma, as evidenced by the brouhaha about Senator Kerry's war medals during the election. So in writing about it today, we must address a less immediate experience, but one that has additional historical resonances.

P.F.: 'Flight' like many recent "post 9/11" novels forces its characters to confront a world that is not nearly as solid as they believed it to be. Do you believe that fiction has a role in helping people to live with that reality?

G.S.: Solidity is always an illusion. Fiction helps us see that. And that's really what I was trying to write about in "Flight." We have this way of looking at our lives as narratives, progressing neatly through beginning, middle and end, neatly wrapping up with a moral and--preferably--a happy ending. But life doesn't work that way. We move forward, we're pulled back, we move forward again, never certain what's going to happen, or if we've chosen the right path. We just have to do the best we can. Books have always helped me to embrace that, whether fiction, poetry, epic, or good nonfiction.

I don't really like happy endings anyway. They're too pat. I'm the sort of person who finishes a Jane Austen novel and thinks, "That's cute, but what about next month, when she finds out he snores?" Happy endings, like solidity, are fine and dandy, but they're really just resting points, not endings at all. So enjoy them! But the only real ending in my opinion is an ending like that in Samuel Beckett's novel "The Unnameable": "In the silence you don't know, you must go on; I can't go on; I'll go on."