Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Guest Blog


Jayne Pupek, author of "Tomato Girl" (Algonquin Books, 2008)

People sometimes ask where I got the idea for my novel, "Tomato Girl." Most people want to know if the events in the story are based on actual events. They aren't. I did what writers do best: I lied. (Given the way folks sometimes gossip in small towns, I think my mother wants a disclaimer printed on the book's cover, making it clear that she is NOT the crazy mother I have written about and my father was NEVER infatuated with a teenage "tomato girl." But that’s a topic for another day.)

Regardless of whether a story is true or not, all stories begin with an idea. The idea for my novel, "Tomato Girl," came from a poem I'd written years earlier. It seemed like a good plan. And I certainly needed one. On a whim, I'd signed up for several online critique groups. One of those groups focused on writing The Novel. The basic premise was to submit your novel, one or two chapters at a time, for critique by other group members. In return for their feedback on your masterpiece, you gave feedback on theirs. It was a "you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll scratch-yours" system that seemed to work like a charm.

I had misgivings. I didn’t feel qualified to critique work by people who’d been at this for awhile and seemed to know what they were doing. I was a poet, not a novelist. I knew very little about things like end of chapter hooks, back story, and pacing. Did I dare suggest that somebody cut lines or worked on making dialogue sound more natural? I reminded myself that I was a therapist by trade and had grown up in the South. Surely I could offer feedback to a few aspiring novelists without bruising any egos or ruffling any feathers. Well, maybe.

My second problem was more daunting. I didn’t actually have a novel to submit for critique. I didn’t even have the first chapter of a novel. In fact, I'd written very little fiction except for "flash fiction" pieces that resembled prose poems more than short stories. Writing a novel seemed a lot like an arranged marriage. What if the characters and I didn’t get along? I almost withdrew from the workshop before writing my first sentence.

I talked myself into staying. So what if I hadn’t written a novel? I’d read a lot of novels, and I'd written a good bit of poetry, so maybe I could do this. It might actually be fun. I had nothing to lose.

Still, I needed a place to begin. Where could I go for an idea? I may have found one in any number of places, but I turned to something I did know how to write---poetry. I searched through my notebooks and folders, looking for an idea. That’s where I found “Tomato Girl,” a short unpublished narrative poem I had written a year or so earlier, and then abandoned. I’d written the poem from a one word prompt: “RED.” The poem told the story of a girl whose mother quarreled with a vendor over his tomatoes in the days following her husband leaving to be with a teenage girl. The poem was merely the result of a practice exercise. I never intended to do anything with it.

But as I read the poem again, I saw something new. I saw the skeleton of a story. I found the characters that would become central to that story, and most importantly, I found the voice of Ellie, who would narrate the story. I thought maybe I could write it down. So I did. Months later, I had the first draft of a novel.

I tell this story when people ask me where I got the idea for “Tomato Girl.” I tell it not only to satisfy curiosity, but in hopes that aspiring writers---as well as established writers who suffer writer’s block or hit a dry spell-- will be reminded that ideas for stories are all around us, even as close as the color “RED.” Sometimes, we just have to take a second look. An idea is little more than a place to begin. The beauty lies in the discovery of where the idea will lead. That's the essence of adventure. It's what I love most about writing.

Jayne Pupek, who lives near Richmond, is a Virginia native and a former social worker. Though Tomato Girl (Algonquin Books, 2008) is her first novel, her writing has appeared in many literary journals. She is the author of a book of poetry titled Forms of Intercession (Mayapple Press, 2008).

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Anonymous said...

I want to read your book!

rebecca said...

Ooh, this is so wishlisted!

Ann Hite said...

You go, Jayne!

River Jordan said...

I LOVE your title! Now, why didn't I think of that - :)

Wishing you all the best with the new novel.

River Jordan

Jayne said...

Thank you all so much for the warm welcome and for your interest in my book.

All my best,


Karen Harrington said...

This sounds wonderful...and delicious!