Excerpted from Oh My Stars by Lorna Landvik. Copyright © 2005 by Lorna Landvik. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A CONVERSATION WITH LORNA LANDVIK
Alex Schemmer is a writer living in Los Angeles.
Alex Schemmer: Can you describe your writing process?
Lorna Landvik: A book usually starts with the appearance of the main character(s) in my head. I don’t know much about them, but am given enough of a glimpse (as well as their name; they always come named) to begin writing about them. The more I write, the more I learn the story. When the characters decide they don’t want to do what I have them doing, they rebel, and they almost always win in determining their fate. I write forward; I learn something that I didn’t know and then I go back and change things. My writing process is always a little dance– forward, then back, forward two steps, back one. I don’t write from an outline and while I sometimes get an inkling of what the ending is going to be midway through the book, often as not, the ending surprises me.
AS: How did the idea for this book come to you? Was the genesis a specific character, a place, an image?
LL: Violet came into my head while I was sitting on my porch and she immediately let me know she was from Kentucky, she had suffered a terrible accident, and the bulk of her story would be told in the Great Depression.
AS: How did you create and develop the character of Violet? Do you base your characters on real people, or are they entirely imagined?
LL: I don’t consciously base my characters on any living people but I can’t say they’re fully imagined. I think that everyone I’ve met in my life makes some sort of impression on my subconscious and it’s from that stew that I create my characters. My mother, who died shortly after I delivered the book to my editor, does seem to infuse this story, however. Like Violet, she grew up in the Depression and was an excellent seamstress and clothes designer, and like Kjel, music was a big part of her life. Something I recently learned was that when she played House with some of her sisters, they had names they called themselves–hers was Violet Robinson. That was a strange coincidence.
AS: What did you do as research to create the world of the Great Depression?
LL: I’ve always been interested in the Great Depression and throughout my life have read books about this time. I’ve always been fascinated by the New Deal and the programs that were initiated to put people back to work. I also heard stories of my parents and relatives who went through it.
AS: How about the music industry of the 1930s? Did you use any historical groups as models for the Pearltones?
LL: I’m a big fan of all kinds of music–about twenty-five years ago I stumbled upon a Stanley Brothers album and was immediately captivated by their harmonies. Their music drew me into bluegrass. That’s how it’s often been for me–one great song or one great album can make me want to explore not only that particular musician or group’s music, but the genre in which they’re playing as well.
AS: You are also an actress and a comedian. Do you find that your experience as a performer aids you as a writer?
LL: I think performing has given me more of an ear for the rhythm of the language–how, by the mere placement of one word, you can get a laugh or you can get dead silence. I think I’m also more aware of the importance of dialogue and will often say dialogue out loud after I’ve written it to make sure it flows right and that it’s in character.
AS: Each chapter begins with the elderly Violet addressing the reader in the first person, while the action is recorded in the third person. Was this always the plan? What made you decide on this format?
LL: This format wasn’t always the plan–I rarely have a plan. I began writing Violet’s story and bam-bam-bam–I realized all sorts of bad things happened to her and that her early life was pretty grim. Maybe to let the reader know that things worked out for her, I decided to have her looking back at her life from the perspective of old age.
AS: Music and laughter seem to be saving graces that propel your characters through adversity. Is this informed by your own life experiences? Are laughter and music restorative?
LL: I’m a big fan of music and a big fan of humor. I love to sing (I’d like to think my limited range is off-set by my ear for harmonization) and play a few instruments with varying degrees of skill. I don’t intentionally look for the humor in life but can’t seem to escape it (nor would I want to). And yes; laughter is restorative– there’s no way you can feel bad after a good laugh. Music can play to all your emotions but I guess anything that helps you feel more is a good thing.
AS: In the book, the elderly Violet claims that she is in the nature camp of the nature-vs.-nurture debate; upbringing can refine but not reshape a personality. Where do you stand on this issue?
LL: I have to say Violet and I are like minds on this subject. I really do believe that we enter the world with a certain personality and while nurturing can make its mark, the basic personality is already there.
AS: In the same vein, certain events and adversities change the course of Violet’s life. Do these events shape her personality, or does her personality influence how she reacts to them?
LL: I’m sure it’s a combination. She remarks on her upbringing, saying that she feels she was born with a sense of humor but that her mother’s abandonment and her father’s meanness sharpened her humor and made her use it more as a weapon. But when she is invited into Kjel and Austin’s world, her tight heart opens again, but only because she’s willing to let it flower. Austin and Dallas had the same background and faced the same prejudice, yet Austin wasn’t bullied by his pain; he didn’t submit to it, while Austin did, burying his real self.
AS: If Violet had reached San Francisco, do you think she would have committed suicide? Do you consider Violet a born "survivor"?
LL: I’m assuming she would have killed herself had she gotten there; that’s why I’m so glad she didn’t. Initially, it took a person like Kjel–big-hearted, his arms wide-open to the world–to get her to see the value of life, and then it was others–Austin, Leola, Esben, et cetera–who showed her the value of her own life. I don’t know that she was a "born" survivor–I think she survived the way all of us do–with the help and love of others.
AS: The natural world (Violet’s name, her paternal affiliation with a tree, Kjel’s fascination with the heavens) registers strongly as a motif throughout the book. As an author, do you consciously think about themes or motifs when writing? Or do they spring up organically?
LL: I try to tell a good story with engaging characters and whatever themes my readers find in my writing is okay by me.
AS: Dallas and Selma French seem like an unlikely pair, yet they fall in love. Is love blind? Do you believe in soulmates?
LL: I believe love is blind, deaf, and dumb; I also believe love is all-seeing, all-hearing, and all-knowing. Why a person falls in love with another is beyond easy analysis. I believe that we have many soulmates, and are lucky if we find just one of them.
AS: What are your thoughts on beauty? Violet starts out as a homely, awkward girl, but becomes, in her own way, a beautiful woman; do you think beauty is dependent on bone structure? On attitude and confidence? Or is it purely subjective?
LL: Oh man, there isn’t time or space to answer these questions! I certainly appreciate the kind of beauty that comes with good bone structure and fine features but I know that lasting beauty has much more to do with the things unseen than seen. (Guess I’m channeling The Little Prince here . . .) I’m disgusted by the culture that thinks beauty cannot exist without youth, or at least without the appearance of youth. In the end, it’s not how the world sees you, but how you see yourself.
AS: Will we see Violet again in any of your work?
LL: I doubt it; I think Violet’s story has been told.
AS: When you’re not writing yourself, whom do you read? Do films and music inspire you as well?
LL: Some of my favorite writers are Anne Tyler, Michael Malone, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Robert Girardi, Kaye Gibbons . . . I could go on and on. I see a lot of movies–we’ve got a great big palace of a movie theater near us that still serves real butter on its popcorn and my husband and I are regulars there (sometimes more for the popcorn than for the movies). Some of my favorite movies were made decades ago–I love Preston Sturges; his movie Mad Wednesday is a comedy classic. As in books, I prefer character-driven movies above all. And music– who isn’t inspired by music?
AS: In the book, one character claims that the Pearltones helped change the world. Do you think art (big "A" or little) has this power?
LL: I do. Its effect may take years; but a good painting, a good song, can inspire someone else to do something even greater that in turn inspires someone else. I think the world is saved by people trying to reach out, trying to inspire.
AS: Their enjoyment aside, do you want your readers to take away anything with them after this book?
LL: I spoke to a reader who asked me about "Tree Pa." She wondered if I knew a person who actually sought out a tree to hug and hold as Violet did, or if I just made the situation up. I told her I just made it up; she then told me she knew a man who had no family and few friends and had his own tree he went to for solace, to hold when no one else would hold him. She said she got goosebumps reading about Violet and Tree Pa because it reminded her so much of her friend and how he didn’t seem to need the tree as much the more their friendship grew. I would love readers to close my books thinking that as long as we all are in this world together, we might as well do all we can to help one another out; to stand in and substitute for that tree. And then of course, I’d like them to think, "Hmmm, I wonder if the bookstore is open so I can buy some more Lorna Landvik books."
1. Oh My Stars begins in highly unusual fashion, describing Violet’s horrible accident in the opening passages. Why might an author introduce a character this way? What sort of tone does it establish for the novel?
2. Consider the book’s portrayal of Depression-era America. Why has the author selected this particular time and place for her story? How does the setting complement the action?
3. Music-making is one of the central dramatic tropes in Oh My Stars. What is the thematic significance of music for these characters? How, if at all, is musical expression preferable to the spoken or written word?
4. Violet longs for recognition: Even when jerking her arm from industrial equipment, she thinks of the birthday party she ought to be enjoying instead. What different kinds of attention does she seek from others? How are her expectations fulfilled or disappointed? Ultimately, does anyone "see the whole Violet"?
5. Violet explicitly weighs in on the nature-vs.-nurture debate in chapter 5. What are your views on this issue? Is the cake in fact already baked at birth?
6. Various sorts of families appear throughout the story: the Hedstrom clan, Violet and her father, the band. What defines a family? What are its obligations, and what determines its success?
7. Despite its subject matter and the bleak circumstances of its setting, Oh My Stars maintains a relatively upbeat tone. Would you describe the book as funny? How does the author use humor? How do the characters use it? Does humor represent a solution to problems, or merely a diversion from them?
8. The narrative employs a flashback structure, braiding the events of the Depression with more recent commentary. Why did the author choose this technique? How do you think it contributes to the story? Do you feel Violet’s perspective (as presented in the italicized paragraphs that introduce each chapter) enhances your own understanding of the events she describes?
9. Throughout the book, certain events and adversities change the course of Violet’s life. Do these events shape her personality, or does her personality influence how she reacts to them? What about Kjel? Austin? Which characters are the most impressionable? Which are the most indomitable?
10. The characters in Oh My Stars are, by and large, a celebratory group. What does the book celebrate? Does the author, in her narrative, impart any lessons distinct from the messages Violet shares?