By Daniel Ford
What the $%(&$&^ was Noah’s wife thinking?
Her husband starts seeing signs during a biblical rainstorm, builds an ark, and tells her to get on (in author Lindsay Starck’s words) “a floating zoo.” It would take a loyal and flinty woman to step aboard and buy into her man’s faith, right?
Starck’s debut novel, Noah’s Wife, not only gives us a better understanding what that woman might have been like, but also provides the literary world with yet another strong young voice.
The book, which goes on sale Jan. 26, finds our heroine arriving in “a gray and wet town” that has been inundated with rain for “as long as anyone can remember.” Noah’s wife has to grapple with her “eccentric” neighbors, her husband’s “internal crisis of faith,” and, of course, zoo animals.
The author recently talked to me about her early publishing efforts, dealing with rejection, and the inspiration behind Noah’s Wife.
Daniel Ford: Did you grow up wanting to become a writer, or was that something that grew organically over time?
Lindsay Starck: I wanted to become a writer from a young age. I wrote a number of stories, and in middle school I very optimistically sent one off to a publisher. (It was called The Stranded Island Dudes. It featured a group of house pets that went on an adventure to a tropical island. Now that I think about it, I guess I’ve always liked to write about animals!) The publisher, understandably enough, rejected it—and I was so disheartened that I stopped writing creatively for many years. I didn’t know then that rejection is an inevitable part of the writing process.
But I always loved literature. I loved reading books, and I loved writing about them. My writing career as an adult grew out of this deep engagement with books in high school, college, and graduate school. I remind my writing students now that to become better writers, they must first commit themselves to becoming better readers. It’s a cliché, but (like so many clichés) it’s true.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
LS: Lucy Maud Montgomery, certainly—I read Anne of Green Gables many times over. I also read and reread Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s Greensleeves, a fantastic YA novel in which the heroine eventually realizes that she wants to become a writer. Perhaps that’s where I got the idea! As I recall, Anne of Green Gables was a writer, as well.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
LS: I know that some writers prefer solitude, but I like to work in coffee shops—that way I can look up and see what everyone else is doing. My writing is character-driven, so I usually start with the idea of a personality and then build from there.
Because Noah’s Wife is organized into forty chapters, when I was writing it I assigned each chapter its own Post-It note. (Even this organizational strategy was based on characters: each chapter was assigned to a single character’s perspective, and the notes were color-coded accordingly.) Then I stuck the Post-Its up on a door in my apartment, arranged in eight rows of five, so that I could visualize the storyline. At times, when revising and rewriting, those Post-It notes were scattered all over the place. Editing is a pretty messy process.
DF: What inspired your debut novel Noah’s Wife?
LS: When I began writing this novel, I was in my mid-twenties and my friends and colleagues were beginning to pair off. As I watched people navigate the tumultuous waters of romance and friendship, I wondered over the nature of “pairings” more generally. What makes a marriage work? Why do some friendships fall apart, while others last for decades? What qualities make a good mother, a good daughter, a good neighbor?
The idea of “pairs,” along with my conviction that the flood story was darker and more complex than it often appears to be in popular culture, led me to Noah—and from there, to his wife. What sort of woman, I wondered, would be willing to abandon her community and follow her husband into a giant floating zoo? What if she were afraid of reptiles or allergic to feathers? How could she continue to believe in Noah, if she could not see the signs that he saw? If she were given a voice, what would she say?
DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters in the book? How do you develop your characters in general?
LS: There is a little bit of me in every character, certainly—I feel as though I share Noah’s wife’s desire to please, Mrs. McGinn’s fear of change, Leesl’s oddly fatalistic sense of hope, Noah’s anxiety over disappointing those who love him.
In general, I piece together characters from things that I’ve heard, stories that I’ve read, people that I’ve known. A friend of mine did take an empathy class in med school, as Dr. Yu does; I imagine Mrs. McGinn’s daughter looking a lot like a former roommate; and at times Mrs. McGinn sounds a lot like my mother. Sometimes I hear sentences that stick with me, and sooner or later I’ll find one of my characters speaking those words aloud on the page.
DF: When you finished your first draft, did you know you had something good, or did you have to go through multiple rounds of edits to realize you had something you felt comfortable taking to readers?
LS: I felt comfortable sending out the draft almost immediately—but I was young and hopeful and a little naïve. When I signed a contract with a publishing house, I assumed that the book would be coming out in a matter of months. But I spent four full years revising the novel after the contract was signed. My editor bought the novel because she liked the writing and she liked the concept, but she knew that I didn’t yet have enough of a real story (plot, tension, etc.) to hold readers’ interest. She also knew that it would take time to find that story. Fortunately for me, she was willing to be patient while I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote until finally the narrative began to emerge.
DF: How long did it take you to land an agent and publish Noah’s Wife?
LS: Once I finished the manuscript, I bought one of those giant books of literary agents and began making a list of everyone I thought might be a good fit for the novel. I decided to send out five queries per day, every day, until I found someone. I steeled myself for rejection, and I got a lot of it. But I knew I only needed one “yes,” the right “yes”—and after a few weeks, I had it. I found an agent who loved the book and, more importantly, who was willing to work with me to improve it.
Of course, there was a whole other round of rejections when my agent sent the new draft out to publishing houses. But once again, we only needed one good yes. And after a slew of “no’s,” we finally heard it.
It’s a lot like dating, or job-hunting, really. You have to manage a lot of heartbreak and rejection; but when you find the right fit, you know it. And you only need the one.
DF: Now that you have your first book under your belt, what’s next?
LS: Well, since I’m a graduate student by day (novelist by night!), my next task is to finish my dissertation. I’m writing on modernist literature and gossip. But I’ve also begun sketching characters and scenes of a second novel. It may take a few years, but it will come.
DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?
LS: Remember that everything is a work in progress. Noah’s Wife only emerged as a novel after years of intensive revisions. I had to cut out whole characters, come up with new plotlines. It was exhausting. And even though the novel is stronger for it, the book isn’t perfect. There are things about it that I would change, if I could. As a perfectionist, this is hard for me to accept—but it’s the inevitable result of growing as a writer and a person.
DF: What is one random fact about yourself?
LS: I used to play the viola. I chose it as my instrument because I knew that viola players were always in high demand—so even if I wasn’t very good (and I wasn’t), people would still ask me to play in groups with them. And they did!