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Interview: January 16, 2009

January 16, 2009

T. Greenwood, a creative writing professor at The George Washington University, is the author of several novels, including BREATHING WATER, NEARER THAN THE SKY, UNDRESSING THE MOON and the newly released TWO RIVERS. In this interview with's Alexis Burling, Greenwood elaborates on the complex relationships among her characters and the metaphorical significance of the book's title. She also examines the parallel themes of atonement and forgiveness that are present in all of her works, muses on the idea of finding "real love" more than once in a lifetime, and shares with readers the same advice she gives to her students in the classroom. What was your inspiration for writing TWO RIVERS?

T. Greenwood: I actually started thinking about TWO RIVERS about eight years ago after taking a cross-country train trip with my husband. Originally, I planned to write about a pregnant teenaged girl who was sent from her home in New Orleans to Canada via train. I initially thought this story would belong to her.

At the same time, I had also been thinking about writing a book about a good man who does something reprehensible. I wanted to explore what would bring a man to this point of no return. I also wanted to understand how someone could live with themselves afterwards. Harper was that man.

So then I imagined that the train carrying that pregnant girl derails, and Harper is the one to find her. What I didn’t know then was who Maggie really was or what would happen after she talked him into taking her in.

BRC: What's the significance of the title, aside from the fact that it’s the place where Betsy died?

TG: I think that the characters, like the parallel narratives, are (in many ways) like two separate rivers, which ultimately converge. Betsy and Harper. Maggie and Harper. Even the carnie and Harper. And it is at the confluence of these rivers, at the confluence of the two narratives (when the two parallel stories meet), that Harper must make his most important decisions. Harper says of the literal Two Rivers:

“Where they intersect, now that’s the real thing. Because the place where the creek meets the Connecticut, where the two strangely different moving bodies of water join, is the stillest place I’ve ever seen. And in that stillness, it almost seems possible that the creek could keep on going, minding its own business, that it might emerge on the other side and keep on traveling away from town. But nature doesn’t work that way, doesn’t allow for this kind of deviation. What must (and does) happen is that the small creek gets caught up in the big river’s arms, convinced or coerced to join it on its more important journey.”

After that moment of stillness, those moments of intersection, Harper is always faced with the decision of whether or not to be swept up “in the big river’s arms.”

BRC: You open the second chapter in your book by writing, “People say we are defined by the choices we make; some of them are easy, small, while others are more difficult.” Speaking of choices, why did you choose to open with that line?

TG: As I said earlier, this novel is, in many ways, an examination of what happens when someone fails to act and that failure has tragic consequences. I had seen images of lynching postcards once, and they made an indelible impression on me. The focus of those postcards is, of course, typically the victim. But I wanted to know the story behind the onlookers, behind those white faces. It is easy to vilify the perpetrators of such horrific violence. What’s difficult is allowing them, these criminals, to be human. I needed to understand how a real man, a good man, might find himself involved in something so despicable.

I actually wrote that opening line to this chapter after the book was done. The same thing happened with UNDRESSING THE MOON. Sometimes I don’t know what a novel is about until it’s written. Only then can I go back and give the novel its opening lines.

BRC: Betsy is such an inspired character, so vivacious and passionate, almost too large for life. Is she based on anyone you know? Did any of the characteristics of her character change along the way?

TG: Betsy has been larger than life since I started to write about her. I first pictured this tough, beautiful little girl with skinned knees, drinking an Orange Crush, and I, like Harper, was prepared to follow her anywhere. She is, I suppose, the kind of girl I would have liked to be as a kid. She’s damaged but strong, certain and unwavering in every choice she makes. She’s so different from Harper in this way, and I think that’s why he loves her. And needs her.

Betsy does change through the course of the story. She makes sacrifices, as people do, as they grow older. She is a victim of her times, and she is the victim of her own fears. There are so few things that she is afraid of, lightning being one. And the night she dies, it’s this fear that puts her where she is, in the Desoto during a storm parked at the Heights with Harper.

BRC: When Harper and Betsy are courting, they do a lot of wonderfully romantic things that might still be seen by teens as the ultimate date. Where did you think of these ideas? Did you have these kinds of dates when you were younger?

TG: Oh God no! I don’t know if anyone would want to read a novel with the kind of dates I had in high school in it. For example, I dated one guy for about a month, and we went to see Rocky IV three times. (The turnover on movies at our local movie theater was pretty slow back then.) The McDonald’s parking lot was also a really popular venue for dates. I got ditched at my eighth grade graduation dance and went to the prom with a friend. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that writing fiction is just the teensiest bit of rewriting history/retrospective wish fulfillment.

BRC: The moment when Harper blames a black man for Betsy’s death is such a powerful one. He’s thinking of the anger he feels over his mother’s death. Why did you tie those two incidents together?

TG: I don’t think most people are honest about racism. I think that we compartmentalize our feelings and refuse to explore the darker, scarier sides of ourselves. But Harper is acutely aware of himself, of his fears and biases. The man who kills Betsy is a black man. The people who killed his mother were also black. His instinct, his gut, makes this connection. Of course the two events are connected, no matter how loosely, in his mind. His heart has been broken twice. He has lost two people in his life at the hands of individuals from a different world than his. I think what makes him an enlightened character is that he is willing to explore the possibility of his own darkness.

However, had he not lost Betsy at this man’s hands, he would not have acted/reacted in this way. I know this. But I think it takes him the 12 years following that night for him to believe that it was always about Betsy. In the opening scene, he describes the man’s skin as being the color of blackberries. In the final scene at the river, that blackberry becomes a literal one he watched Betsy eat one afternoon. I wanted this transformation to clarify that, while he may indeed be guilty of prejudice based on the circumstances in his life, the paralysis he experiences at the river is because of Betsy. And Betsy alone.

BRC: After Mr. Montgomery’s wife is long dead and Harper finally finds out the truth about what happened to her, Mr. Montgomery says, “Sometimes, there’s room for more than one real love. Most people find love where they can.” Do you believe this is true?

TG: For Harper, I have to believe that it’s true. And for myself as well, I suppose.

My grandparents were married for 65 years when my grandmother passed away. They were the kind of couple who still held hands, who kissed each other and said “I love you” and meant it. Not long after her death, he married a woman he’d known almost his whole life. And she saved him. Her love saved him. It didn’t mean that he loved my grandmother any less. It didn’t denigrate anything about what they had had.

In order for Harper to proceed, to live again, this must be true. Shelly, Maggie, Wilder and Brenda are all opportunities for this.

BRC: Admittedly, I didn’t see the ending coming. What prompted you to throw the twist in there?

TG: I didn’t know why Maggie was really on that train when I started writing the book. I had probably written a hundred pages, which I was sharing with my sister-in-law as I wrote them, when she said, “Oh, is Maggie….?” And it was like a lightning strike. Suddenly it all made sense. I finished the book with this understanding, but I was just as surprised as you were.

And I suppose this is why I write --- for those glorious moments of revelation, when all the random seeds I’ve planted start to grow and I get to figure out exactly what the flowers are going to be.

BRC: Along those same lines, is there a part of the story you enjoyed writing more than the other (Harper’s past with Betsy or his present, with Shelly)? Did either of them come easier for you?

TG: I wrote each timeline separately and then went back and merged them. The 1980 sections were difficult because I spent so much time in the dark as to who Maggie was. I really loved watching the relationship between Harper and Betsy grow. And knowing early on that she would die while they were still young imbued each of these scenes with even more significance for me.

BRC: In your eyes, what role does vengeance play in the book? How about forgiveness? How are the two intertwined?

TG: Rage brings Harper to the river’s edge that night. He wants to punish the carnie, to exact revenge for Betsy’s death. But Brooder is the one in charge. And Brooder is the one who calls all of the shots. Harper’s mistake, again, is his failure to stop him before everything gets out of control. By the time he realizes the true danger the man is in, it’s too late. And his rage, at that point, has already given way to regret.

I would say this novel is absolutely a story about forgiveness. It takes Harper more than a decade to forgive himself, to move beyond that night.

BRC: Your novels are all so different from each other. BREATHING WATER, your debut, was about domestic violence, drug abuse and eating disorders (to simplify it). NEARER THAN THE SKY tackles Munchausen syndrome, and UNDRESSING THE MOON’s protagonist has breast cancer. Is there a common thread that binds these novels? Something that compels you to write about these subjects?

TG: It’s funny, because I actually think my books are all very similar. Every single one of them has to do with atonement and forgiveness of oneself. In BREATHING WATER, Effie blames herself for the death of a child. In NEARER THAN THE SKY, Indie blames herself for not being able to save her brother. And in UNDRESSING THE MOON, Piper is plagued with guilt for revealing an inappropriate relationship with her music teacher. In these three books, however, each character’s actual culpability is minimal. TWO RIVERS explores what happens when someone is to blame --- when atonement for past mistakes is necessary to the character’s very survival.

BRC: Your novels are often written in a series of flashbacks. Why is that? Do you ever toy with writing them in a more linear way?

TG: I always start out trying to write in a linear fashion and wind up all over the place with my chronology. I think it’s because my characters’ pasts are always so murky and keep popping up.

I’m trying right now to write a linear novel. So far, so good, but we’ll see what happens.

BRC: Do you prefer to read a specific genre of books? Might you have a few favorite books to recommend to your readers?

TG: I read almost exclusively contemporary literary novels. I have two Master’s degrees (in English literature and creative writing), and I think I burned out on the classics in college and grad school. I am always looking for a new and surprising voice to thrill me. I want to know what my contemporaries are writing: from Eliza Minot and Miranda Beverly-Whittemore to Nichelle Tramble and Julie Orringer. Of course, I also have my favorites who never change: Toni Morrison, John Irving, Mary Gaitskill, Kathryn Harrison, A. M. Homes, Scott Spencer, Barbara Kingsolver, Howard Frank Mosher….and on and on.

BRC: You’re a professor of creative writing at The George Washington University. What’s the number-one piece of advice you give to your students about becoming a writer?

TG: The only way to succeed as a writer is to write. You have to write when you’re happy. You have to write when you’re sad. You have to keep writing when not a single person thinks what you’re writing is worthy. You have to write when you are sick, when you’re only getting two hours of sleep a night because you’re up with a newborn, you have to write when you’re fighting with your best friend or your husband, when your mother dies, when your house burns down. I can teach the basic elements of creative writing to my students. And I can teach perseverance. That’s all I have to offer. For the talented ones, that’s all they should need.

BRC: I see that you’re also an aspiring fine arts photographer. Tell us more about that.

TG: I used to take pictures a lot in college, but it was always such a hassle to get to the dark room and so expensive that I eventually resigned myself to taking pictures with a series of point-and-shoot cameras. Last year I finally bought myself a digital SLR, and it was like a whole new world opened up.

I take pictures of my children mostly. I am obsessed with Sally Mann; I have been for a decade now. I aspire to evoke even a sliver of the emotion in my own work that her images conjure.

I had my first show last fall at a small gallery here in D.C. last fall. I also keep a blog:

BRC: You look so pensive in your author photo. What were you thinking about when it was taken?

TG: I was actually thinking, Please, please, please let this one be a good one. I hate having my picture taken; I’m much happier behind the camera. My husband teased me, “What are you looking at anyway?” I told him I was watching our kooky neighbor take out the recycling.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

TG: I’m almost done with my next novel. It’s called THE HUNGRY SEASON, and it’s about a family in the wake of the death of their teenaged daughter. It’s due out from Kensington in February 2010.

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