Pixelated is the digital, double-blind, lit-inclined conversation series.
In each episode we put two writers on a sort of blind-date, and have them interview each other. The result? Who the hell knows. All conversations are 'manuscript-first', meaning they were typed as you see them.
Andrew: Welcome to the seventeenth installment of PIXELATED. I’m here with two debut novelists: Marian Palaia (THE GIVEN WORLD, Simon & Schuster, 2015) and Sara Novic (GIRL AT WAR, Random House, 2015).
I’ve yet to put together two writers who’ve written books that resonate more with each other than Marian and Sara’s debuts. Both have created unbelievably compelling narrators—strong, courageous woman supplanted from their home (or at least their idea of home). The strength of each protagonist is its own reward, but becomes crucial; as Marian and Sara move through time and place, from stability to chaos, from peace to wartime, their main characters serve as a sturdy fulcrum.
THE GIVEN WORLD wraps around Riley, following her through Montana in the 60s to San Francisco in the 70s and then Vietnam. Each new setting thrusts Riley into maturity, but Marian’s ability to show that progression into adulthood is unconventional, and often profound. GIRL AT WAR begins with a ten-year-old Ana, right as her home, Zagreb, suddenly transforms into a war zone. Ten years later she’s in college in New York, but a large part of her is back at home. The narrative shifts, but so does the person in stasis. Sara shows no one is in one place at one time, but in all of the places that have made them who they are today.
Before we get started, would you each kindly describe where you are and what you see?
Marian: I am at my house in Missoula, on the front porch, looking at a huge maple tree and my new, old 4Runner I just went crazy and bought yesterday. Also a worryingly smoky sky, and my dog staring at a rock. He will be barking at it soon.
Sara: Well I'm sitting on my couch in Queens, my sister and I have a two bedroom railroad apartment but I have the slightly bigger room where we keep the couch, too. And I'm staring at a huge pile of books, most of which some kind people in London gave me when I was there for the British launch of my book. I need a new bookshelf.
Andrew: How long have you been in Missoula/Queens?
Sara: I've been in NYC for about 5 years and Queens for 1
Marian: Been here on and off since '81. Bought this house in 2002, but am living in it for the first time since 2010. I move around a lot.
Andrew: Speaking of, both of you have written novels that take place far away from Missoula and Queens. Is it right to assume you both spent a good deal of your life in those places?
Marian: Yup. Correct assumption. I spent a lot of years in San Francisco (and am still spending at least part of them there now) and one year in Saigon, in 1994. And, Sara, btw, it is a great pleasure to meet you.
Sara: Well I lived in Pennsylvania and Croatia for a while (PA more), so those are the two other places in the book, though New York found its way into the novel there eventually, too.
Yes, hi! You, too!
(Also, I really want to hear more about your impulse 4Runner buy, though I don't want to throw us immediately off track)
Andrew: (There is no off track!)
Marian: Curious how you wound up in Croatia, though the last name does suggest a connection. And I will gladly talk about the 4Runner. I'm sure it will be pertinent at some point.
For now, though, I'll just say I am madly in love with it.
It's white. I feel like OJ. Sort of.
Sara: That sounds awesome
Marian: Except for the "you know" part.
Marian: taps fingers.
Andrew: scratches nose
Sara: So... why did you go to Saigon?
(I have family in Croatia--that's why I was there.)
Marian: aha. I do not have family in Saigon. I went because I'd spent a summer in Hong Kong and fell in love with Asia. Saigon seemed like the obvious next thing. To me. Not to anyone I knew.
I'd always had a fascination.
With the country and the culture.
It was awesome.
Sara: I've heard only great things. It's definitely on the list.
Though to be honest, pretty much everywhere is...
Marian: I hear ya. Everywhere I hear of, I want to go. And everywhere I go, I want to live there. I'm driving my dog crazy. When were you in Croatia?
Sara: Mostly in early 00s
Marian: And it was . . . ?
Sara: Physically and culturally stunning...
the Adriatic is a ridiculous color turquoise
Marian: I think I know that color. Like melted glaciers.
Sara: And because of the history there, the culture is a really interesting mix of Italian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman food/culture/religion et al
But of course there are a lot of scars, from the war(s)
Marian: I was just reading an account of the come-apart of the Ottoman empire, in a book about T.E. Lawrence. So complicated. So much scarring going so far back.
Sara: Hmm I'll have to look that up
Marian: He was a really fascinating guy. I'm trying to remember who played him in the movie. I suck at movies.
Sara: Me too. I'm embarrassingly bad at actors
Marian: I'm always all "You know, the one with what's his name, the guy who played that guy in the one with that actress . . ."
He was a Brit. Of course.
Sara: Well, of course!
Marian: But I think they all are, now.
Sara: Or Australian
Marian: Now I'm thinking about The Wire.
Right! Australian. What happened to all the Americans?
Retired with pensions I suppose.
Making Youtube webseries?
Marian: Except Sean Penn. He's never going to retire. He's just going to get more chiseled.
Where was I going with this?
Sara: Now I want to Google a recent picture of Sean Penn
Marian: He's looking pretty good, in a chiseled sort of way. Aging well. Or great make-up.
Sara: His chin cleft is getting intense!
Andrew: Do woman like chin clefts?
Sorry to interject.
I am not a caveman.
Marian: I wonder if he hides stuff in there. And I think it depends on the cleft. Which is a strange word.
No! Don't be a caveman.
Sara: I know I was just thinking about what a weird word "cleft" is
I mean, I'm not against them.
Marian: Great minds.
Sara: It's not on my must-have list...
Marian: me either. or at least it wasn't.
Now, I don't know.
Andrew: It's right for the right man.
You can't just throw it in and hope it works.
Marian: Exactly. And that man is Sean Penn. Who else?
Sara: Hah I can't wait to read Marian's forthcoming chin essay....
Marian: My dog has just offered me his backside to scratch. Because he doesn't know I forgot his birthday.
Chin essay. Check.
Sara: Well, that was sweet of him
Marian: He's a good one. Sweet as Tupelo honey.
Sara: What kind of dog?
Marian: Mongolian Barking Shepherd.
I bought the 4Runner for him.
Ha! See there? I did it.
He's Aussie and wild-Mongolian mutt. Rare breed.
He likes rocks.
Sara: I had a dog growing up who ate rocks
Marian: And Toyotas. I'll be quiet now and let someone else talk.
Sara: well, gravel
And then he'd puke up little piles of gravel around the house.
He was really dumb.
So nice though.
Marian: Oh, no! Eating them is not good. Carrying them around is okay.
what kind of dog?
Sara: A golden retriever with a little bit of something else large in him
Marian: Goldens are not known for their brains. They sure are sweet, though. Tupelo has no tolerance for them. He yells at them at the dog park.
Tupelo is my dog. In case that wasn't clear.
I wonder what that other large dog was.
Sara: I don't know but he was giant. He had a chest like a barrel.
Marian: I once mistook a great dane in the back of a pickup truck for a cow.
Sara: Of course he thought h was small.
Marian: lap monster?
I have the strangest image of that dog in my head right now.
new essay topic.
Sara: Haha. Large dumb dogs. That'd get so many clicks on the internet...
Marian: I thought you said "chicks."
Yes, it would. We should start that.
Sara: Well, maybe that too! Chicks dig animals.
Sara: Hah, should we say something about writing now?
Well the essay counts...
Andrew: Not if you don't want to.
Marian: I want to know what Andrew thinks about animals and chicks. Aside from clefts.
Andrew: What about animals and chicks?
Marian: Or maybe not. We could talk about writing.
Sara: chicks as in human women, rather than chickens
Andrew: Oh, sure. I think a chick liking animals is definitely a good sign.
Marian: this has gone awry.
Andrew: Though if it's a cat we're not in luck.
Marian: a little bit.
in a good way.
Sara: Good thing you've got that truck
Andrew: OK—here's a total pivot in conversation. On a scale from 1 to 10, how much do you associate with the protagonist of your debut?
Marian: allergic? they have those furless ones.
Sara: Cause we are OFF THE RAILS
Andrew: Yeah but no one likes them.
Sara: Because they're terrifying!
Marian: Off the rails is my comfort zone. What's a deec?
Sara: 8.5 is a lot!
Marian: Of course. I knew that.
Andrew: OK, here's an even better question.
A friend just asked me this, and it's like intensely personal.
Andrew: (Also Sara still needs to answer the protagonist question.)
Marian: But Sara didn't answer the scale question.
Marian: Like you said. Just now.
Andrew: (And feel free not to answer this upcoming question.)
Marian: Sara, "Damn" is not a number.
But you probably already knew that.
Sara: I mean I could go two different directions, like in terms of autobiographical-event semblance, it's pretty low, but in terms of how I relate to the character's personality, her feelings and the way she interacts with others, then high, like maybe an 8.
Never overestimate my math skills. Pro tip.
Andrew: The latter.
OK—here's the Q.
Marian: I like it. All of it.
Andrew: What do you think is the most common reason someone might strongly dislike you?
That was not my answer.
Sara: Haha can I use that answer
Marian: I am really bossy.
Sara: Heaps of people think I'm a bitch when they first meet me
because I'm deaf, so I literally don't respond to them
And even if I do talk to them I can "pass" for a while.
That gets me into trouble
Marian: WHAT? What people? Oh, *those* people.
I can see how it would. Get you into trouble.
Andrew: Well, you both answered. Didn't think that would happen. Thanks.
Sara: Marian for the internet lingo win!
That's the only one I know.
Sara: It's weird because I know different abbreviations from talking on the TTY
but now I am learning the youth internet ones too. Hah.
Marian: Different from texting?
Sara: Yeah, because the TTY was initially made way before texting--basically just a typewriter that connected to a phoneline
Sara: and then the Deaf person types and the operator reads and then the operator types what the hearing person said
Of course now there are video phones for this purpose, because the Jetsons...
Marian: A solution.
Thank goodness for the Jetsons.
Sara: Still waiting for that car in a briefcase...
What was their dog's name?
Marian: ANDREW. ARE YOU ABOUT TO SAY WE HAVE TO STOP?
Andrew: Sara—and I apologize if you've been asked this in every interview—but do you think being deaf had a big part in drawing you to fiction?
Marian: Yes! Astro.
This is actually the five hour version of Pixelated, so I hope everyone went to the bathroom, etc.
Marian: Oh, good.
Sara: No I don't mind talking about the deaf stuff--it's actually the easiest thing to talk about for some reason.
Marian: Have you always been deaf?
Sara: Yes, I think it's a big part of the reason why I like reading and writing... Having been relatedly socially awkward, I was always reading as a way to escape and writing as a way to express myself.
No, I have a progressive hearing loss that started when I was a kid and got worse over time.
Which is why I can sometimes talk for a while without anyone noticing "deaf accent"
People often ask me where I'm from when they mean that.
Marian: Wow. Must have been tough to know that was happening.
Sara: And then when I tell them I'm deaf they say really weird shit.
Marian: Like what?
Sara: One time a guy insisted that I was French.
Another time guy told me I was "too cute to be deaf"
Marian: And that you were just saying you were deaf? Because it's, um, all the rage now?
Sara: That one still hurts my head haha
Haha I don't even know what people think.
Andrew: Do you think he eventually turned into a good person and looks back on that moment with horror?
Could have been a defining moment for him.
Sara: I mean it is kind of awesome...
Andrew: It is, at its most base level, a compliment
Or meant to be.
Sara: Poor guy. If he did ever turn human.
Marian: My father had an expression: Cute's ass. You are welcome to use it if someone else ever has the bad judgment to say that to you. It's great for confusing the already confused.
Andrew: I am confused.
Sara: I'll keep that in my back pocket.
Andrew: Like, cute is all about the ass?
Marian: Not at all. Just "cute" is a dumb word. According to my dad.
Wait. I have a question
Marian: It doesn't really make sense, but we got it. When we called a guy "cute" he'd say that.
Sara: Marian--can you pinpoint a reason why you wanted to be a writer?
I don't think I ever wanted to be a writer, so much as I wanted to write. Does that make sense?
Andrew: I think that's a wonderful answer.
Sara: Yes. I mean I feel the same. I didn't even realize I was writing a book until I'd written like 100 pages of it or something
Marian: I am just in love with the language.
What did you think you were writing?
100 pages is a lot.
Sara: Nothing. I just wanted to be writing.
Curious: longhand? Or computer?
Sara: I am a big journal-er, so a lot of the stuff from the book at the start was me writing down stories people had told me about the war
Marian: When you were in Croatia?
Marian: Longhand when I was young. Hardly ever now.
I want to hear the stories. But, I guess I can read the book, and I will.
Sara: Do you stop yourself from editing too much while you're writing on the computer?
Like in early drafts?
Marian: I wish. I edit way more than I write. If that's possible. Forward momentum is a problem for me.
What about you?
Sara: Well that's the good thing about writing on paper-- I barely ever look at it, and write like 20 pages or so, and then when I go to type it up, that's like the first pass.
Marian: I am in awe of you.
Andrew: And just when we get to the writing stuff—we're nearly out of time.
Marian: That was NOT five hours.
Sara: I think I'd edit way more if I wrote on the computer though. I think I'd go crazy
Marian: I have gone. Crazy. But it's working for me okay.
Sort of. (trails off.)
Andrew: Five hours west coast time.
Sara: It seems like it is! I remember seeing your book on the Amazon list of best books or something.
I liked the cover. Definitely will have to read
Marian: I think they paid for that.
Sara: Yes if you add all the timezones... we've been talking for three days
Marian: Deal. I'll read yours, and you read mine. I'm going to go buy it tonight.
Sara: what the hell did I just do
Marian: Whoa. I don't know, but it was amazing.
Andrew: Well that was a first
What an ending!!!
Andrew: Yeah really. No better way to sum it all up than the alien from the Simpsons(?)
Marian: This was so much fun.
Sara: It was!
So nice to meet you both!
Marian: You too, both. Til next time.