NOTE: We recognize that reading is a personal experience, and we hope that the author interview and questions below will provide a springboard to provoke a lively discussion.
INTRODUCTIONArabella Hicks helps her students focus on their writing, and she encourages them to nurture the distinctive voice that emerges on paper as a result of that focus. For some of them, it’s the first time any of them have ever had their written work taken seriously.
Unfortunately, it’s becoming increasingly harder for Arabella to practice what she preaches. She’s been writing the same novel for seven years, and lately her time in front of the computer has involved more games of Spider Solitaire than she’d like to admit. Revision consists of considering alternate punctuation. She can’t find an appropriate ending for her novel. Also, she’s distracted. Her mother, ailing from Parkinson’s and living in a nearby nursing home, still has enough energy in her to leave Arabella feeling angry and depleted each time she visits. And these visits, every Wednesday evening after Arabella’s fiction class, are becoming more and more important. As her mother’s health begins to decline rapidly, Arabella must find a way to move their relationship past its previous obstacles and into a place where both women can feel comfortable admitting they need—and love—one another.
Susan Breen’s The Fiction Class is a work of wit and intelligence with a hefty emotional weight, a narrative that teaches us as much about the craft of writing fiction as it does the power of memory, love, and compassion.
ABOUT SUSAN BREEN
Susan Breen teaches fiction classes for Gotham Writers’ Workshop in Manhattan. Her short stories have been published by a number of literary magazines, among them American Literary Review and North Dakota Quarterly. She is also a contributor to The Writer and Writers’ Digest. She has an M.A. from Columbia University and has worked as a reporter for Fortune magazine and an editor for the Foreign Policy Association. She lives in Irvington, NY with her family, two dogs and one cat.
A CONVERSATION WITH SUSAN BREEN
Q. How many years have you taught at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop in Manhattan? And how similar was the structure of Arabella’s fiction class to the way you run your own writing courses? Did you have any emotional or philosophical difficulty in “lending” Arabella your lecture notes and writing exercises, or did you give her material completely independent of your own?
A. I’ve been teaching beginning and advanced fiction classes for GWW since 2002. One of the most difficult parts of writing the book was trying to capture the rhythm of a fiction class, and of course, each class has a different rhythm because the personalities of the students vary so widely. In the first draft of The Fiction Class, I included my complete lectures, which went on for pages and pages, but I realized, when I read through it, that reading a whole lecture can be incredibly boring. So I chopped and shaped. I think if you were to sit in on one of my classes, you might hear me say some of the same things that Arabella says in The Fiction Class, but I think it’s okay to borrow from yourself. In fact, I think that’s what writing is.
Q. By the end of The Fiction Class, Arabella has formed a resonant, fairly symbiotic relationship with her students. Arabella’s extenuating circumstances aside, how rare (or common) is it for students and instructor to form a bond of mutual respect and admiration? What is the biggest obstacle to the teacher/student relationship, and how often do you run across it?
A. The most important thing I do as a fiction teacher is create an environment of trust so that my students are able to share their work. If a student does not feel comfortable in the class, she cannot take risks, which means she cannot write. So friendship is a very important element of the class and I consider many of my students to be good friends. The only real obstacle I’ve ever encountered is that some people simply do not want to change their work; they want me to read it and hand them the name of an agent. It is often a surprise for students to realize just how much work is involved in writing. But I generally harangue them into it by the end of the class.
Q. Arabella deals with a particularly vicious bout of writers’ block in this novel. How often do you suffer from writers’ block, and how do you manage to begin writing again?
A. I’ve never suffered from writers’ block because I don’t have the time for it. When my children were little, I had only fifteen-minute increments for writing; often I found if I was pretending to wash the dishes, they would ignore me for a bit. Even now, I spend a good part of my day running around with kids and so usually, by the time I sit down to write, the words have been building up inside of me for some time and it’s just a question of getting them on the page. However, there is something about a blank page that makes me very nervous, so when I am starting something new, I will put any words on the page, even ridiculous ones, so that I do not have to see that whiteness.
Q. Is it safe to assume that, like Arabella, you emphasize the importance of writing, and not publishing, to your students? That being said, how do you view the world of publishing these days? What advice would you offer to a writer who—having spent a lot of time crafting his/her work—wants to publish a novel?
A. Occasionally one of my students will tell me he doesn’t care about publication, and I always think he’s lying. I believe every writer wants to see his words in print, and why not? I didn’t deal with the details of publication in the book because the information seemed too specific to get across in one novel; for example, I would have to know about what genre the writer was working in. As to advice, I think my own example is a very encouraging one. I started off with absolutely no connections in the publishing world. I am not related to anyone famous, I am neither tall nor gorgeous nor wealthy and yet, here I am, filling out a reading guide. All you can really do is write and write and not quit.
Q. An important element of the novel is the Arabella’s relationship with her mother. Is that autobiographical?
A. My mother and I did have a strained relationship after she went into a nursing home. I think we both felt like failures, especially me. Every time I visited, we fought, and over ridiculous things. Then I got my job at Gotham and I was surprised to realize that my mother loved hearing about my class. She actually loved to listen to my lectures, loved listening to me sit on her bed and declaim about plot or point of view. My fiction class brought us together. After she died, I realized what a gift it was that she and I were able to connect, so when I began to write The Fiction Class, it was very much on my mind that I wanted to write about a woman who was able to heal her relationship with her mother.
Q. What projects are you working on currently? Are you still writing short stories? What can we hope to see from you in bookstores in the near future?
A. I hope you will see many things from me in the future. At the moment I am working on a new novel about a woman and her son, told from the point of view of the mother. It takes place on tour with a traveling troupe of actors, and it has to do with a reinterpretation of A Christmas Carol.
- In “First Class: Getting Started,” we meet all of the members of Arabella’s ten-week writing course. Who, out of the twelve students, surprised you the most in terms of character development? For those who have taken any kind of community workshop, discuss Breen’s ability to create characters that reflect the types of people who enroll in these classes. How well does she avoid making them stereotypes or clichés?
- Discuss and evaluate the structure of the novel. How do Arabella’s class lectures and writing assignments reflect, highlight, or provide insight into her personal life? How do they work as vehicles for flashback and foreshadowing? What keeps the lecture/classroom scenes from becoming formulaic?
- Similarly, consider the ways in which Breen uses setting to parallel Arabella’s state of mind and/or reveal meaning. How accurately does she portray the atmosphere of a nursing home? How vividly could you picture the nursery school classroom in which the fiction class takes place?
- Arabella isn’t always a sympathetic character. We see her typecasting and criticizing her students rather ruthlessly, and in the beginning of the novel she fails to see how she might be culpable for the rift in her relationship with her mother. What keeps us interested in Arabella as a character? What allows us to keep reading about her until the end of the book?
- Discuss how Breen writes about the effects of diseases like multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s. What does her writing reveal to you about the lives of people with these diseases and the lives of their caretakers?
- Is there anything ironic about Chuck’s place as the romantic hero? How does he fit the role, and in what ways does he not? Do you think his relationship with Arabella will last? Does he change much in the novel, or is it simply Arabella’s perspective (of him, and others) that changes?
- How did you feel that Arabella could never answer her mother firmly about her own beliefs about God, fortune-tellers, and miracles?
- Before Arabella reads her mother’s short story, we see parts of the narrative interspersed between chapters. How, in these early stages, did the story about Joan and her hoped-for miracle work as a parable for what was happening in Arabella and Vera’s life? What did Vera’s story reveal—not only about her relationship with Arabella, but about her perspective before and after her husband’s multiple sclerosis diagnosis?
- Arabella says, “Theme is how you interpret the world.” Just as there can be more than one interpretation of the world, there can be more than one theme to a novel. What would you consider to be the central themes of this book? What would Breen have you believe about familial and romantic relationships, the nature of love, and the role of faith and hope in our lives?
- Like all good literature, The Fiction Class contains symbols that reinforce the theme(s) of the novel. Perhaps the most obvious of these symbols is the perfect apple, which Chuck gives to Arabella early in the semester. Arabella considers various possibilities for the apple as a symbol, but how do you think it works to support the novel’s thematic development? What other symbols did you notice, or consider, when reading the book? What or who did these images and items symbolize?
- The Fiction Class is a highly reflexive novel in that it contains or employs many of the devices Arabella talks about in her lectures. Did this make the novel more or less enjoyable to read? Were you conscious of the narrative’s plot development, pacing, character development, dialogue, and thematic development as you read the book? Did you learn anything from Arabella’s lectures? Did her lectures inspire you to try writing on your own?
- Do you think that Vera’s vision of her husband (as described in Marvel’s letter) qualified as a miracle? Does it work as a plot device, connecting Vera’s short story with Arabella’s real life experience more solidly, or does it detract from the novel, and make it seem less realistic and genuine? Why do you think unhappy endings—or, at the very least, endings that are neither happy nor sad—are preferred in literary fiction?