I guess in the past debut authors talked in person about the trajectory hurling them toward launch day—and the rolling emotions and endless details that accompany that journey. Today, we find one another in specialized Facebook groups and exchange intel. That’s how I got to know Anca Szilágyi.
Anca is the author of the newly published novel, Daughters of the Air, which Shelf Awareness called “a striking debut from a writer to watch.” Her writing appears in Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Lilith Magazine, and she will be teaching Writing Contemporary Fairy Tales at Portland (Oregon’s) Literary Arts and with StoryStudio Chicago while on book tour. She received the inaugural Artist Trust/Gar LaSalle Storyteller Award, and earned grants and fellowships from Vermont Studio Center, 4Culture, Made at Hugo House, and the Jack Straw Cultural Center. Originally from Brooklyn, she currently lives in Seattle.
Please welcome Anca L. Szilágyi.
When I was just starting to write seriously, I fetishized notebooks—and, like an eight-year-old—stickers. I preferred black, hard-backed notebooks with graph paper that forced my writing into small, neat boxes. My favorite treat was popping into a stationary store in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, to buy a cheap book of Dover Art Stickers depicting famous paintings by Michelangelo, Kahlo, Goya, and the like. I was trying to write the first draft of my first novel, Daughters of the Air, using Hemingway’s supposed model of 300 words a day, no more, no less, stopping mid-sentence and all that jazz. The mid-sentence idea was cool; there’s always something to come back to. (And if you didn’t remember what you were coming back to, maybe it wasn’t all that good to begin with.)
Aside from the word count, I didn’t have a very language-oriented approach to writing, which, come to think of it, is kind of strange. I don’t like complicated writing prompts. (Write a dialogue between a mother and a cat. The mother should be in a sour mood saying sweet things, and the cat should be doing something that is both like and unlike a cat. Include the words mousse, temperament, and proclivity.) In addition, the blank page was your typical blank-page nightmare, even with all those calming blue gridlines. So, in came the art. I would shuffle the stack of sticker books with my eyes closed, randomly open one and choose a sticker. Then came joy, disappointment, or bafflement at my selection. The tiny reproduction took up a square of space on the page, and then I had to write. Whatever came to mind. Hopefully related to the book. Sometimes not.
The really famous painters oozed their egos all over the page. I had little to say about Michelangelo. Kahlo demanded I only write about Kahlo. Which is fine, because I love Kahlo, but my novel has nothing to do with her. It was the lesser known painters, to me at least, that gave me an opening. Sad, dark flowers by Nolde. Chagall’s gold-hued and green warmth. Modigliani’s eyeless women. Kandinsky’s colorful abstractions, suggesting messy, unarticulated internal conflicts.
Over time, Nolde faded away, but Chagall fueled the father in my novel, Modigliani the mother, and Kandinsky their daughter, Pluta. Through all this groping in the dark with my shuffling, I learned to return to these three artists in particular. (Goya dropped in sometimes.) In retrospect, I can see how these painters shaped the novel’s characters in personality and to some lesser extent, their biographies.
The father in my novel is warm and is an Ashkenazi Jew. Modigliani didn’t paint eyes as he felt they were too intimate, and the mother in my novel is cold and distant. And, like Modigliani, a Sephardic Jew. (These two demographic tidbits also aligned with the Jewish cultures of Buenos Aires I had been researching.) Writing from Kandinsky’s works was a special challenge (no gestures, no objects), but somehow, they suggested a path for my protagonist, Pluta, in her emotional and actual journey: messy, indirect, all scribbled up.
When I finished the first draft, this ekphrastic process gradually fell away. The raw material was before me, and it was time to make sense of it. A couple of reviews have called my book surprising (in a good way, thank goodness), and I think in part the surprising quality came from the experiment of engaging with art in this way.
It was hardly the most efficient way of writing a novel. That first draft took several years, and then I went to graduate school and rewrote the book. But I’m not sure efficiency is something we should necessarily value in art. It’s art, after all—not paint-by-numbers. Even as it is painful to grope around in the dark looking for the shape of a story and its meaning, even as it could take longer—much longer—than you would expect—if it wasn’t a surprising process with surprising results why would I even write?