A Conversation with Deirdre McNamer

by Catalina Baker


Author and fiction professor Deirdre McNamer speaks exclusively in piercing writerly insights. And a few months ago, I had the distinct pleasure of basking in her incisive reflections. We sat by her fire, drinking tea and eating cookies, and I listened to her meditate on craft, process, and product. She said we must mine our lives for bits of character, render history as experience, and imagine writing as a form of travel and transformation. And ultimately, she explained, it’s about finding what haunts you. Find what haunts you, and embrace it.

Catalina Baker: Dee, thank you so much for speaking with me. 

Deirdre McNamer: Of course.

CB: So, when I was brainstorming what I wanted to ask you, I immediately thought about character. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it actually means to “develop a character,” and recently, you used a word to describe a character’s motivations that really resonated. You called them a character’s “agenda.” And what I found interesting about that word was the fact that an “agenda” suggests both long-term, game-changing actions and short-term, everyday tasks. I was wondering: when you sit down to write a story, how do you think about the characters’ agendas?

DM: That’s interesting. I think I start with an image or a place, but I combine it with a situation. And those lead to an agenda. For example, an image I’ve been working with recently is a woman who has returned to the little town where she grew up and decides to, essentially, occupy her empty childhood house. And she can do it because it’s been on the market forever and nobody’s checking on it. And so I thought, that’s just an interesting situation. So then, as I proceed, I describe the house as she sees it now, and some memories begin folding in. But why she’s doing all this—as you say, the sort of macro agenda—might start to take shape as I write. It’s not just, is she going to stay overnight here? It’s her larger motivation, and that usually takes longer to figure out. But I think it always has to be in the corner of your eye. Or at least provisionally, you should be thinking: Why would someone do this? Is she coming off some sort of trouble somewhere, some frustration, or a feeling that her memory is going? It could cover so many things, why someone would do something like this. So I guess the answer is, I begin with an image I’m trying to get down. What’s the day like while she’s walking around town? I imagine she sees her old house and tries the back door. There’s a realtor’s sign on it. I really try to fill in that image, to put the character there. And then I accelerate it a little bit: the back door easily opens, and so she goes in. And as I’m drawing the picture, I’m thinking, what’s motivating her? Some of this agenda might stem from a realization that you couldn’t fully have until you sat down to write a certain kind of story. And it could go nowhere. But I like to think about this sort of thing for a while. I like sitting with it.

“Somebody big and important and insistent had to say to him, your life counts. It counts. And that helped me a lot, thinking about the ordinary people and presences from my life, and wondering, who were they? What was their story? What happened to them?” 

CB: I’ve also been thinking about that “why” a lot recently. Often, it’s hard to figure out how aware the character should be of their “why.” Because it obviously makes it easier, in some ways, when there’s a reason that’s clear or precise or concrete. Or some well-formed thing they’re seeking. But even when it becomes clear to you as the writer, it still may not become clear to the character.

DM: No, and maybe it shouldn’t be, in a way. You’ll always have a better sense of why your characters are the way they are. And you might think about the “why” and then go, well, you know, that isn’t a very interesting “why.” She’s just doing something predictable. And that isn’t going to make a great story. It’s representation, and it’s not a false story. But it’s just not very interesting. And so another concern becomes, how do you subvert or bend or undermine a reader’s expectations? How do you make them more alert or involved in the story because there’s a little surprise here or a little reversal there? If she’s just pining for her old boyfriend who moved back to that town, that’s just not very interesting. So it might be something else. Or maybe she thinks she knows what she’s doing, but circumstances change, or what happens to her or who she encounters alters her own idea of what she thinks she’s up to.

CB: That’s interesting. And it also makes me think of something else you said recently about characters who are “unhappily unfeeling.” This struck me, and calls to mind characters who are, essentially, actively not doing things. They might even be shells of themselves, or empty in some way.

DM: Yes. Characters who are hollowed out for some reason.

CB: Exactly. Hollowed out. How do you go about creating some fuel there, when there’s no fuel in that character? 

DM: That is a huge challenge. And yet, I understand why we write these characters. And maybe it’s especially appealing for writers in this era, or writers of a particular age—an age when you feel truly lost, when your patterns aren’t yet set. And ultimately, a lot of people are depressed. It’s not melodramatic to want to write about that. But sometimes it just doesn’t contain that much life, necessarily. So I think something you can do is let your eyes or attention slide away from that character’s hollowness or numbness and toward what actually happens as a result of being hollow or numb. For example, the character might miss a person who could’ve been someone with or for them, or it might turn out that they’ve been taking the wrong steps toward what they imagine to be happiness and aliveness. Or they learn that they’re an introvert, and they want to be alone in the woods. I think a lot of us are really afraid of being depressed, either because we have been ourselves or we just know the power, the weight, of it. But you don’t want to exhaust your reader. Surprises can still be contained in that state, and when we write about it, it’s important to show shifts or surprises that keep the reader invested.

CB: That makes sense. And what’s interesting is that I’ve also seen the weird kind of opposite of that, now that I think about it. Particularly as a teacher, I’ve seen young writers try to create what I call “quirks.” They give their characters as many “quirks” as possible, instead of actually developing them as people. And some of those quirks are good and vibrant details. But sometimes it borders on hyperbole or caricature, like when a character is an orphan with one eye who pops pills and is also coming out to his uncle.

DM: Oh yes, and he’s also running away from his parole officer.

CB: Exactly! So how do we avoid creating caricatures while also giving our characters vibrant qualities?

DM: Well, I think a lot of young writers—but also writers of all ages, really—sometimes don’t think that their own lives or the people they know are interesting. You know, Jim Welch, who was really a mentor of mine and an incredible writer, took some poetry classes with Dick Hugo when he first came to the University of Montana. At the time, he was just this skinny little guy who had been trying to go to business school. And when he first started writing poetry, he tried to write the way he thought a really fancy poet would write, about things that poets write about. And it was unintentionally fraudulent. It just wasn’t him. And Hugo finally said, write about what you know. Write about where you grew up, about who you know, about what happened to them. Write about what you think about when you’re back in that place. And they were difficult circumstances—Welch grew up on the reservation in far northern Montana. But that’s when it kicked in for Welch. And he published a chapbook of poems and then turned to fiction after that. But somebody big and important and insistent had to say to him, your life counts. It counts. And that helped me a lot, thinking about the ordinary people and presences from my life, and wondering, who were they? What was their story? What happened to them? 

CB: Absolutely. It really is about the subtleties and details from our lives. And we all know those people that intrigue us, those people who seem to have a quiet story within or around them. It seems important to write into that space.

DM: Right, and most fiction writers I know are very interested in that space. We’re kind of like existential voyeurs or something. We say, wow, there are question marks all around that person. What is it? What if this, or what if that? And then we go make it up.

“You’re going to have to stay with it, you’re embracing a sort of imaginative realm. And I think it really helps if there’s something that just gnaws at you, something you’ve never solved for yourself. Some question that nags at you.”

CB: Haha, exactly. So, I’d like to switch gears a bit. A couple years ago, I read two of your novels, Red Rover and My Russian. And I loved them both, and they’re obviously so different. But now, as I’m attempting to write my own place-based historical novel, I find myself returning to both novels to look at different things, to get clues or craft ideas. In Red Rover, in particular, your characters are a fictional part of a historical tapestry that involves World War II and the FBI—institutions and events that are very real and fact-based. And I was wondering how you approached creating a fictional foreground against this historical background?

DM: You know, Red Rover started as nonfiction. I worked on it for three years, thinking I was doing a quasi-memoir. I wasn’t alive during the time period when it takes place, but the story focused on the death of an uncle I actually had, who was the golden boy of my father’s family. And this death affected many things in my life. So I dug up some records and found that the woman who was the coroner here in Missoula when he died told the newspaper it was a suicide and that the shot was through the mouth. But she also filed a death certificate, which no one in the family had ever looked up, that said the cause of death was an accident and the shot was through the heart. And so that was sort of the start of it, that she lied one way or the other. That was compelling to me. So I got the FBI files, because my uncle had worked for the FBI, and began to look through them. But the issue was I knew I was never going to get to the end—I was never going to figure out what really happened. The FBI also thought it was an accident, but they know how to keep their secrets. So I thought, I’m going to start making up what happened. I thought, what could’ve happened? That was much more satisfying and fun to write, focusing on that “what if.” Those three years weren’t wasted, of course. I did a lot of research. And it just continued to absorb me, the “what could’ve happened.” Part of it, I guess, was that I had an obsession, and so what I was doing was identifying what haunted me. I think that applies to a lot of writing, whether it’s fictional or nonfictional. You’re going to have to stay with it, you’re embracing a sort of imaginative realm. And I think it really helps if there’s something that just gnaws at you, something you’ve never solved for yourself. Some question that nags at you.

CB: That’s fascinating. And yes, I think trying to identify or recognize that nagging obsession is so vital. And yet it also becomes an issue for me, because that obsessiveness that drives me also gets me bogged down in the research and fact-checking. I want what I’m writing to be accurate, and I get consumed by that. I’m trying to balance the research and the writing, trying to figure out what I can say with authority. But that stalls the writing. Do you have any strategies for navigating writing and research?

DM: Well, I’ve realized that if you’re writing fiction, you research in a different way than you do if you’re writing as a journalist or a historian. Because the latter wants the record. When I was a journalist, I felt it was crucially important that there be an accurate record. And I continue to think that’s important. But when I’m researching as a fiction writer, I’m way more concerned with the feel of things, because I have a character that’s going to be in the middle of a historical moment. What I think is most interesting to convey is not data but experience. How do the historical facts affect the feeling of that time and place? How might a character experience it? You need that underpinning; the reader should feel like, if I go look this up, there will be accuracy and truth to it. But it’s the writer’s job to provide an experience.

CB: That makes so much sense. In my case, I have a few people I’m able to interview, and I’m hoping I can find more, because I feel like they actually provide me with those textures and sensory details. Doing a few cursory Google searches is so insufficient.

DM: Right, exactly. And what you can do is ask yourself questions as you research to uncover what those details might be. For instance, what would the little “daily-nesses” be? What items are in the room? What does a place feel like? What does it smell and sound like?

CB: That actually leads into my next question about place specifically. I’ve been thinking about My Russian because it’s so rooted in place. Much of the novel happens in Greece, and that landscape is such an important part of the story. To you, what does it mean to create a place-based novel? What does it require?

DM: Well, I had to go back to Greece!

CB: Haha, of course! That’s not too bad for “doing research.”

DM: Not at all. I had gone to Greece in my twenties, and I loved it. And then, when I got going on My Russian, I thought: Well, where am I going to have this person go? And Greece was the obvious choice. So I went back, by myself. And I think it was good that I went alone. And I went to a relatively comfortable island where a lot of Athenians go, but it was still the off-season. And I just got a little room, up these white-washed stairs, and then walked a lot. I would get little pangs of aloneness, but for me, that can be really helpful sometimes. And it helped me begin to imagine this woman alone there. And it finally wasn’t so much about Greece. It was more about the getting there, riding the ferry boat, the travel itself. Travel has always been interesting to me—I like wondering what people are looking for, where they’re going, and what a place feels like to someone who’s traveling through it.

CB: It does feel important to re-immerse yourself in those places and spaces if you’re beginning to reconceptualize them in a novel.

DM: Right, right. And places don’t really exist apart from your emotions about them. They are physical entities, but our perception of them is entirely emotional. For example, when I went to Greece when I was younger, I was going through an extremely painful break-up with someone in the States, and so I associated getting this “it’s over” letter with where I was—in this hot little dusty Greek town. And I was sick, and was just at my wit’s end. And so to go back, and have all the same sorts of smells and heat and colors but to be in a different stage of my life, was really interesting.

CB: I completely agree. And when it comes to writing, it can be helpful to think of “place as emotions.” It reminds us that any place we render on the page is still existing through someone’s consciousness—through their mood and fears and desires.

DM: Right. Places are an instant trigger. And you know, writing a novel itself is a form of travel. You’re entering a different land. It’s a new place that you’re not very familiar with but that interests you, and you want to be there. But you have terrible days. Any travel is like that, especially if you haven’t swaddled yourself in money and comfort. Or if you don’t have people to put you up. There will be days when you’re sitting in the plaza at one in the morning wondering: Where am I going to sleep tonight?

Deirdre McNamer has written several novels, including Rima in the WeedsOne Sweet QuarrelMy Russian, and Red Rover, which was named a Best Book of 2007 by Artforum, The Washington Post, and the L.A. Times. Her stories and essays have appeared in the New Yorker, Ploughshares, Doubletake, and the New York Times opinion page, and she has taught creative writing at the University of Montana for more than two decades.

Catalina Baker is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Montana. She received a BA in Social Thought and Political Economy from the University of Massachusetts, and she has worked as a professional writer and editor for seven years. She currently teaches academic and creative writing at the university, and she serves as an editor for CutBank. She also teaches creative writing to youth at the Missoula County Juvenile Detention Center.