Sarah Gardner Borden’s novel, Games to Play After Dark, is a book about one of life’s most complicated thrill rides: marriage. In this interview, Sarah and her editor Jenny Jackson discuss Sarah’s writing process, what it’s like to be a first time author, and the relative importance of having demons.
Jenny Jackson: Thanks so much for doing this Q&A with me. To start off, I wanted to ask you a little about where your head is while you’re writing. One of the things I love most about Games to Play After Dark is the rawness and the explosive, honest, no-holding-back storytelling. Kate and Colin say wretched things, they also say very funny and tender things that are private between couples, and Kate admits some very complicated, difficult emotions when it comes to parenting. I could see that for some writers, if they allowed themselves to think about their parents, partners, or friends reading about the thorny, messy aspects of life, they might never get these lines to paper. While you were writing, how focused were you on the eventual publication of the novel? Were your readers and their responses something you allowed yourself to think about?
Sarah Gardner Borden: Thank you Jenny! That is all so great and flattering to hear.
I don’t actually really think about the reactions or reading experience of my family and friends at all–maybe because if I did I would never write anything, exactly as you say! But my feeling is you just can’t worry about that too much so I just don’t. Maybe I’m just completely and utterly shameless and crass. I don’t think so, though.
I think I would feel differently writing an actual memoir, and the few nonfiction essays I’ve published are much more analytical and reserved, I’d say. I do draw on my personal life for my fiction but it’s a total mix. But one of the most helpful and inspiring things I learned in my MFA program was this: one of my advisors said, think about your characters as if they’re characters in a fairy tale, always doing the wrong thing, going into the candy house where the wicked witch lives, biting into the poison apple, things you wouldn’t want your children to do and probably wouldn’t do yourself, things your upstanding-responsible-citizen self wouldn’t do.
This was awesome advice for me. I began to look at situations from my own life and think, well, what if I’d done this instead of that? Or this? Or that? And I will use what I feel like using from my own experience and chop it up and deconstruct and reassemble it and drag in other people’s stories, and stuff gets generated and made up along the way. So basically, although my fiction certainly resembles my real life, I also feel pretty clinical about it and disassociated from it. The fiction, that is!
And also, I guess my personality is such that I kind of relish stuff that is pretty cringeworthy, so that to think about someone I know reading it is kind of horrifying but also weirdly enjoyable?
JJ: I love that you relish the cringeworthy aspects of life! But while you’re writing them, aren’t you cringing, too? Another one of my authors wrote very realistically about an acutely embarrassing romantic situation—his character is completely discarded by a woman he is hoping to sleep with. I was blushing and feeling horrible as I read the scene, so I asked him if he was blushing and feeling horrible as he wrote it. He said no, that writing about the terrible day he had, the memories of shames past actually made him feel better. Is that true for you? Does it feel good to exercise these demons, or do you feel a little bad while you write tragic things happening to your characters? There are books that make me sob, and I always pictured the writer sobbing at her computer as she wrote the scene. Is this all a myth? Are you guys cackling away at your keyboards just knowing how bad you’re going to make us weep??
SGB: Wait, do you mean exorcise the demons? Or do you actually mean exercise the demons? Either way, I really love the latter image, of taking the demons out for some exercise. And possibly that is what writers do when writing, rather than an exorcism? If we don’t keep the demons in shape we won’t have anything to write about!
No, but I’m kidding. There’s always something to write about and you don’t need to have demons to write something interesting…look at our beloved Laurie Colwin and Calvin Trillin and so on and so on. I think that for me at least, once something in my personal life becomes an idea for a story or whatever, the aesthetic eclipses the emotional, like your desire to get the aesthetics right distances you from the emotional power of what you’re writing. And also, making artistic sense of some painful or shameful event in one’s personal life sorts out the pain or embarrassment of the thing…but in a way that’s a by-product of the process and beside the point in a way? Mainly, it’s very satisfying to find that objective correlative that is, as T. S. Eliot wrote, “the formula of that particular emotion,” and through the formula to convey something inarticulate: the inarticulate and unnamable quality of “that particular emotion,” itself attached to a certain experience or idea.
Says the inarticulate novelist!
JJ: I definitely meant “exercise the demons.” Some Lucifer Leg-Lifts, Satan Squats, and don’t forget to stretch the Mephistopheles Muscle group!
But, speaking of the devil, word is he’s in the details. You and I did a fair amount of revision, and we went back and forth to get all the details absolutely perfect (I recall us torturing ourselves to make sure the seasons lined up with the chronology of the story). Are you a writer that hates revision or embraces it?
SGB: I love revision, especially when I have someone like you to work with! I always came away from our meetings feeling revved-up and excited to get back into it. Revising and working on the details is fun…it’s the initial composing, the first draft part, that I find really difficult.
JJ: So if it’s the initial composing that’s difficult, what do you do to get yourself writing? Are you a disable-the-internet, close-the-blinds, turn-off-the-phone writer? A seven packs of gum, three packs of cigarettes, two pots of coffee writer? A scribble-in-your-notebook-as-you’re-walking-down-the-street kind of writer? What’s your happy place?
SGB: Definitely a scribble-in-my-notebook-walking-down-the-street writer (as well as a two pots of coffee writer). I pretty much write everything in longhand first, either in a notebook or on yellow legal paper (unless I’m in a café, because scribbling in a notebook in a cafe is just too precious so in that case I will work on my laptop). But I find composing with the screen in front of me somewhat intimidating, albeit much more efficient than writing longhand then transcribing, which is what I generally do (although I do sort of revise as I’m typing it up).
Another problem with the above method is that sometimes I can’t read my own handwriting!
JJ: My last question for you is this: When you were scribbling away on your yellow legal paper, years away from having your first novel published, is this how you imagined it would feel? Any big surprises so far?
SGB: I hoped it would feel like this—if it ever happened at all—because it feels pretty great. I imagined that if I did ever manage to finish a novel and actually get it published that something would seem awry—I would secretly hate the book or just not be as excited as I wanted to be, or SOMETHING. So the big surprise is that it all DOES feel amazing, exactly as I might have wished it to, and that I’m actually very happy with the book (thanks largely to you and Jenni Ferrari-Adler, my agent, who persuaded me to make some pretty significant changes before we sent it out). That definitely doesn’t always happen, not for me at least in all my years of writing short stories! The novel seems right to me at this point…and therefore the experience of having it published has been a total trip, in a good way. I consider myself extremely lucky.