Guest Post & Giveaway: “Where a Novel Comes From” by Beth Gutcheon

Where a Novel Comes From
By Beth Gutcheon
Author of Gossip

In my experience, a novel accrues, over time and from many sources, with ideas and aspects seeming to light up until enough of them form a cluster that can become a story. I read a lot of biographies and I love volumes of letters because they give you authentic voices, the diction and vocabulary of a period. A major plot line in my novel Leeway Cottage came from one sentence in a book of letters by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Her fiction doesn’t speak to me at all, but her letters are brilliant and wonderfully frank and full of the daily details of a life. At one point the love of Sylvia’s life left her for a younger woman who was more beautiful and far richer than Sylvia. She bore it quietly, in spite of being devastated, because she wanted her lover’s happiness even more than she wanted her own. Eventually, Valentine came back, and Sylvia wrote to a friend this incredibly simple explanation: her rival had all the advantages, except that “I was better at loving, and being loved.”

What a thing to say, what a thing to understand.

I think Gossip started with a biography of Emily Post. I’m a longtime fan of Mrs. Post, a very witty writer and brave, self-reliant and deeply considerate woman. Etiquette books in general paint a vivid picture of changing manners and mores, but Post’s are the most fun. From her 1928 edition one learns that is shocking to allow your butler or footmen to sport facial hair of any kind. Who knows, in this Downton Abby world, when that might come in handy? (As you can infer, I find a lot of research material in second hand bookstores.) Mrs. Post is brisk and confident, but a crusader against snobbery and fussiness, and I thought I might do a character based on her, but instead turned out to use Tuxedo Park, the very grand, very early gated community where she spent much of her childhood and where she is buried. It was the perfect symbol for one of the questions the book raises: what does it mean to be an insider in society? What does it mean to choose to be an outsider? A maverick, if you will? By society, I mean any group that sets the tone for a community, be it the local grange in a farming village, or Mrs. Astor’s Four Hundred.

This is real life, but it is also Edith Wharton territory, of course; so many of her New York plots are turned by the terrible power of social judgments and gossip. But in Wharton’s world, and in Mrs. Post’s, there is a recognized social standard and body of opinion. Our world is very different. The true purpose of manners, according to Emily — I think of her as Emily, since she feels to me like a friend — is to treat others with consideration and kindness and avoid making people uncomfortable. In my mother’s youth, good manners required addressing people formally unless you were truly familiars. When she insisted, though, on calling my friends “Mrs. Todd” or “Mr. West” although she was 35 years older than we and we were wearing blue jeans with our hair down to here, it didn’t seem polite, it just seemed weird, really a protest or rebuke, if not actually to us, then to the world for changing and shifting the ground beneath her feet.

So the deal with manners is not propriety, but kindness. Which reminded me of the “Iago question,” which you hear a lot about if you’re an English major. What is his motive, why is he evil? Does he even know? He does seem to be one of the few characters in literature or life who actually knows that he’s mean. So I re-read Othello, and Othello led me again to the subject of gossip, or rather to the fact that knowledge is power, and words are weapons. I began to think of a modern character who winds up doing something like what Iago does, but in such a way that we understand what she thinks she’s doing when she does it. You almost never meet with pure malice outside of a mental ward, but you certainly all the time meet with people who do casual harm to others while feeling swell about themselves, and that seemed like a proper subject for a novel.

But is that really where this particular novel came from? I think we all wonder why some things lodge in memory when we forget so much else; someone once told me we remember moments when we learned things. Here’s a moment from when I was about seven. The subject of rumor had come up, maybe in life, maybe in a book. My mother told us about the girl who went to confession because she’d said something untrue about somebody else. The priest said that as a penance, she was to go outside, cut open a feather pillow, and empty it on the breeze. Then she was to retrieve all the feathers. I remember my childhood bedroom, blue wallpaper, my sister’s horseshow ribbons on a string above the mantel, the clock on the wall in the shape of a black and white cat with eyes and tail that went back and forth as it ticked, and that story.

Beth Gutcheon, author of Gossipis the critically acclaimed author of eight previous novels: The New Girls, Still Missing, Domestic Pleasures, Saying Grace, Five Fortunes, More Than You Know, Leeway Cottage and Good-bye and Amen. She is the writer of several film scripts, including the Academy Award nominee The Children of Theatre Street. She lives in New York City.

For more information please visit her author website and follow the author on Facebook.

  Book Giveaway 

Today at Stiletto Storytime we are not only honored to have author Beth Gutcheon visiting and sharing with us but we also have a copy of Gossip available to one lucky reader. Giveaway ends midnight EST on April 14, 2012. US/Canada addresses only please. Winner will be selected by random number generator and notified by e-mail.

To enter simply comment below and share a memory, person or event that you think might be the starting place for a novel. I loved Beth’s description of her childhood memory about the girl who rips the pillow case and releases the feathers like gossip goes out into the world and can truly never be reversed just as every feather can never be replaced. It’s such a striking image in one’s mind.

Want extra entries? You can get an extra entry by doing any of the following:

Be/Become a Follower of Stiletto Storytime

Be/Become a Follower Stiletto Storytime on Twitter

Like Author Beth Gutcheon on Facebook

Tweet or Blog about this Giveaway (Please leave link in comments)


Filed under Adult Books, Author Interviews & Posts, Chick Lit, New Books

20 responses to “Guest Post & Giveaway: “Where a Novel Comes From” by Beth Gutcheon

  1. I would love a novel to start at Six Flags. edysicecreamlover18@gmailDOTcom

    • stilettostorytime

      What an original idea…I think that would be a great starting point for a middle grade or YA novel!

  2. This sounds like a book I’d love! No need to enter me.

  3. I would like to start my novel on the city bus. I commute to and from school everyday on the bus, and it’s there I observe others, and also myself. I figured out every morning there’s is always a guy about my age who would get on the bus and fall asleep immediately, leaving his backpack in an empty seat. When the bus gets crowded, nobody dares to wake him up to ask for the seat…and I end up wishing he would miss his stop, but he inevitably wakes up right before his stop.
    ok, I don’t know where my novel would lead to…XP

    Lilian @ A Novel Toybox

    • stilettostorytime

      I love that your idea comes from observing human behavior as does Beth’s as well…I think really all novels come down to that on some level.

  4. I follow by email. =)

  5. Liked Beth already on Facebook as Lilian Cheng.

  6. Followed Stiletto Storytime on twitter with @lilboxism.

  7. Margaret

    I recently got in touch with not one but two old friends who had a crush on me back in the day. It would be fun to explore the idea of them competing for my affections. Vain but fun lol!

    -liked Beth on fb
    -tweeted Margaret ‏ @LiteraryChanteu


  8. carlrscott

    I thought about leaving home after high school with a couple of hundred bucks and a backpack, heading west. It was a pretty good story, but not a novel yet.
    I am a Follower of Stiletto Storytime by email: carlscott(at)prodigy(dot)net(dot)mx
    I am a Follower Stiletto Storytime on Twitter: @carlrscott
    I Like Author Beth Gutcheon on Facebook: Carl Scott
    I tweeted about the giveaway:!/carlrscott/status/187376094763167744
    That’s all 5 possible entries – Thanks!

  9. Shannon Dolata

    Love it

  10. SLove

    One memory that sticks out is when my cousin and I would put on variety shows in my grandmother’s living room. I often based my characters off of Tina Turner. Rolling!

    • stilettostorytime

      I think childhood memories are some of the best and most poignant…they make for great writing because they are so treasured and well remembered.

  11. Bridget O'Neill

    Not to be vain, but I think I might be a starting place for a novel.
    Thirty-one year old gets diagnosed with breast cancer, has mastectomy, chemo, radiation, breast reconstruction, and 3 years after being diagnosed adopts a beautiful baby girl (who’s now three years old and stomping around the kitchen as I write this).

    Also a follower of Stiletto Storytime on twitter: my user name @bridgetoneill1

    • Bridget O'Neill

      And I’m now a follower of Stiletto Storytime by email

    • stilettostorytime

      I don’t think that’s vain whatsoever Bridget….so many people out there could find hope and encouragement from your story and experiences. You are a person of immense bravery and perseverance it sounds like. A role model. It’s also a real-life happy ending it sounds like…what’s better than that? Thanks so much for sharing.

  12. stilettostorytime

    Drum roll please…congratulations to Lilian @ A Novel Toybox on her copy of “Gossip”. Thanks to all who visited Stiletto Storytime and entered to win this giveaway! Keep trying and as always Happy Reading along the way!

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