Writing Lessons

Against the Grain

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By Sheila Kohler

August 4, 2014


 

Probably the best piece of advice that was given to me was by Gordon Lish, then an editor at Knopf, who read my first novel, The Perfect Place. So much has been written about Lish, good and bad, but he gave me very good advice.

I had written a book in a rage after my sister’s death, convinced that her husband, a wife batterer, had killed her. In other words, I was bent on revenge.

Lish told me my novel was sentimental, that a victim did not work well on the page. I needed to be complicit in the crime. He told me I wrote wonderful description, that my narrator should look and not feel. I imagined someone entirely unlike the person I considered myself, someone who cares only for appearances, someone damaged emotionally (I had to find a reason why) and detached from the world around her. I conjured up my ex-mother-in-law, whom I considered a snob but who was also intelligent, amusing, and who dared to say what many of us felt. That is, I wrote from the point of view of someone I was in conflict with, which forced me to take a distance from this red-hot material that I had been unable to hold.

In the novel, a woman is accosted by a stranger in Switzerland and gradually recovers memories of her friend’s murder in which she has been complicit. I was obliged to reverse everything I had wanted to write. I wrote against the grain. It took me years and several novels and essays to try and approach the subject more directly.

I think I dared to write the book, which received some excellent reviews, because I felt it had not come from me but from somewhere out there, a story that was waiting to be told.

Sheila Kohler is the author of 11 novels—including Dreaming for Freud, Cracks, Becoming Jane Eyre, and The Bay of the Foxes—and three collections of short stories. The recipient of many awards, she teaches creative writing at Princeton University and Columbia College.

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