The Rumpus Book Club chats with Sari Wilson about her new book Girl Through Glass, the demands of the dance world, the difficulty of making a plot feel organic, and New York City as a character.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: Funny thing about Brooklyn—I’ve visited there twice in my life, and the reason why was a kind of throwaway image in the book. I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, so the Watchtower building brought back some memories.
Sari Wilson: Oh yes. I remember from your reading. The Watchtower was an omnipresent part of my childhood. Big and yellow with that painted sign: Watchtower. I felt watched. I just read that the Jehovah’s Witness are selling The Watchtower.
Did you stay in a hotel in Brooklyn Heights?
Brian S: Yeah, I haven’t been a member in almost twenty years now, so I haven’t kept up. But that property has to be valuable now, I would think.
Brian S: I remember staying in a place called the Standish Arms once. I don’t remember the other time. That was 30 years ago at least.
Brian S: What was the spark for this book?
Sari Wilson: The Standish Arms—I remember that place. How funny that you remember it. This is when I was growing up there, right down the block from the Standish Arms. When we first moved there it was an SRO and then “the Jehovahs” (as people in the neighborhood said) bought it. And everyone was happy because it was “cleaned up.”
Sari Wilson: The spark for the book? I guess my own childhood experience of dance—I was a childhood dancer, pretty serious about it… and then I left that world.
Chapin: Speaking of your childhood as a dancer, I was wondering how much of the story is autobiographical?
Sari Wilson: And I wasn’t sure how to process the experiences I had. Some wonderful. Some very disturbing. So I decided, eventually, to write a novel about it (after first trying a memoir, short stories, everything else).
Molly: I enjoyed your book. I just finished it a few minutes ago! It had a freshness to the plot, and it was compelling in its realness. I’m interested to hear you talk about how you made choices regarding structure… how did you decide to tell it in two time periods, with first and third person narrator? And, how did you decide who told which stories? (For example, it was really interesting to me that Kate told the story of the attack, but Mira told the story of the moment of sexual intercourse). I’m a writer, too, so this interests me.
Brian S: I thought you really captured the way that if you’re going to be world-class at something, and you have the physical attributes that make it possible, you have to sacrifice pretty much every other part of your development, including your emotional development, to truly excel.
Molly: Oh cool, so you told the story in various ways before arriving at this form, and bringing it into the world in this way. I have this anxiety as a writer that once I tell a certain story (I write mostly CNF), then once that’s out in the world, I will never be able to write about that again… even if it was a compelling experience.
Amanda: Hi Sari! Jumping in a little late. I really enjoyed the book! I have the same questions as Molly about how you decided on point of view/tense, etc.
Sari Wilson: Thanks so much Molly! Glad you enjoyed it… the plot took a lot of work. First, I wrote the Mira storyline and then I wrote the Kate storyline (it didn’t feel finished with just Mira)… and then I spent a few years putting the storylines together. I made a lot of charts. The decision you mention (about who tells the story of that night) really had to do with revelation of information—and what the reader could know at what point… does that make sense?
Chapin: Thanks—I really enjoyed the book. Great story well told. A world I have zero knowledge of/experience in, so I found it very interesting.
Amanda: Wow! what a fascinating process to weave the two together!
Sari Wilson: But then, also, I had to make it work with the emotional truth of each character’s arc. And that was tricky… it was like a complicated puzzle (so I’m gratified that to you it felt fresh)…
Molly: That does make sense. Did you always know that Mira would become Kate? That an older self would emerge in the storytelling?
Sari Wilson: Plots are really hard. That is, how to get them to feel organic and now imposed? Are you writing a novel?
Molly: It must have been complicated! But, it all made sense to me. I liked how we knew what had happened at certain points, but didn’t know how it happened.
Brian S: Plots are also strangely out of fashion in literary fiction.
Molly: No, maybe someday 🙂 I write mostly creative nonfiction now.
Amanda: Yes Brian! I really liked this book choice because it had a plot AND was well-written. Sari proved you can do both!
Sari Wilson: Actually, no I didn’t know that Mira would become Kate. For a long time there was just Mira and I wrote her whole story… and then I showed it to some people… but it didn’t feel done (and there was a question about whether it was YA and I knew it wasn’t in my heart). Then, at the same time, I had a baby and I started getting this other, older woman’s voice—but I didn’t know who she was yet.
Amanda: Sari—did you shop the memoir or short stories around before deciding to go the novel route? Did an editor steer you that way or did you decide on your own?
Sari Wilson: Thanks so much Amanda (about plot and well-written)… I find that a hard balance to find as a reader, too.
Sari Wilson: Agree. Plots are out of fashion. So I had to borrow from genre writers. I read this really helpuful book—Write Away by Elizabeth George—that really helped me with the organization of information/events.
Amanda: I was also curious about what you thought about the movie Black Swan—I saw a lot of similarities between your stories.
Molly: I’ll have to make note of that book, Write Away.
Sari Wilson: Thanks Molly! And yes, totally, Brian—I think that is really interesting–the whole thing about child athletes and how parents are so invested in excellence at a young age…but it definitely has a cost
Sari Wilson: Chapin—so glad you were able to connect with the story, even with no knowledge of dance world. Was it still interesting to you? Just curious.
Brian S: So how long did this novel take to put together?
Molly: Yes, it did seem that this book was important in revealing some of the darker truths of the ballet world, and was revolutionary in that way. I liked that, it drew me (a non-dancer, but someone very interested in psychology and development) into that world. I found it really disturbing—and Kate a realistic person—someone I both empathized with a great deal and also was slightly disturbed by (re: her relationship with Siobhan).
Amanda: I know nothing about the dance world and I was fascinated! I loved the little bit of history and view of women in ballet we got in the epilogue too. Made me want to learn more.
Chapin: I think it made it more interesting, honestly. I am just the type of person who would rather read about something new to me than something with which I’m super familiar. And I am a New Yorker, so I definitely connected with the city as character aspect.
Sari Wilson: Right, Black Swan! I really actually loved it. Because it was totally gothic with some camp… and I felt like that was a great genres to set in the ballet world. That world is really so hyper-real and intense… I thought it used the vernacular of ballets themselves in the storytelling… I thought it was really smart
Brian S: And then it has the extra layer of being an adaptation of Swan Lake.
Sari Wilson: Oh interesting, Chapin, yes, New York City was definitely a character in this novel…my childhood memories of it (1970s and 1980s) and now…
Sari Wilson: Awesome Amanda! I also wanted the novel to connect with people who knew nothing about dance, so I gave it a feminist angle (or rather that’s how Kate came to me).
The history of dance/ballet is actually really interesting—I geeked out over my research at times…
Yeah, Molly, I know. It is disturbing—I am hearing that a lot. I wonder why I had to write this novel. But i just had to write it. I think there is a lot that is disturbing about that world, but there is a lot of beauty in it too—I wanted to put both into the novel.
I think psychology is fascinating—character’s psychology. Why people do what they do. Maurice for example, I wanted to understand him. It would be easy to see him as a monster and certainly he does monstrous things…
Brian S: But to simply dismiss him as a monster lets him off the hook for what he’s done.
Sari Wilson: How long did it take to put together? About a decade (depending on how you count the years)…
Sari Wilson: Yes, Brian. Agree. To see him as a monster lets him off the hook. Thank you. And he does pay a steep price. They both do.
Molly: Yes, it was disturbing but in a way that made me want to keep reading. The book and the characters—Maurice, Siobhan, Kate/Mira—had that combination of innocence and agency that made me care about them even as I saw them do things—not things that I judged, but things I empathized with—like like, “oh no, now you’re going to have to deal with the ramifications of that, why did you do that?”
Brian S: Right, which circles back to the idea that putting so much time and energy into this one thing—dance in this case—means that some other parts of your development (like decision making) get shorted a little.
Of course, that doesn’t get at why the parents make their bad decisions. 🙂
Sari Wilson: Sounds like you are sophisticated reader, Molly, so interesting for me to hear you talk about the characters in this way. I think once I had set up the dynamics of the characters and what their core issues were and how they sought to heal themselves in this strange world, I had to then play out the complexities to the end. Sometimes I didn’t even want to write what I knew I saw I would have to write. If that makes sense?
Brian S: (Parents make bad decisions because they never get any sleep. Or that’s my story at least.)
Sari Wilson: But I did have some control over it. Like I wanted Mira to be an actor in her own life. And not just a victim. I’m glad you found the characters human and relatable, Molly. ”Innocence and agency” I really like that, Molly. Will be thinking about that.
Molly: Thanks! That does make sense. I have yet to experience that myself (probably given my age and gravitation towards the memoir genre), that commitment to the characters’ playing out what’s right for them, but I’ve heard other writers mention it. and yes, I did enjoy seeing Mira become Kate and find a second passion in academia.
Sari Wilson: Right, Brian. The lack of sleep is VERY REAL. Lots of studies about that (lol). But, really, it’s true. I spent so many many hours in the dance studio from ages 8–14 and so did so many of the girls I danced with. Our whole childhoods, really. And we are not alone. And I wanted to examine that. What did we miss out on? What aspects of development get thwarted? There is drama—and maybe tragedy—in that, it seemed…
Amanda: Did your editor make any major changes to the story? Or is there any major change you made after it was written? I’m always sort of interested in the ‘deleted scenes’ or ‘alternate ending.’
Brian S: I saw in your bio that you were a Stegner Fellow—what years? And is that when you experienced the Tenderloin?
Sari Wilson: Brian, I was a Stegner Fellow 1997-1999. Yes, the Tenderloin from that period—all the SF stuff came from that period, when we lived in the Mission. But then I interviewed some dancers who were dancing there in the 90s because I wasn’t—just riding the BART/Cal Train out and back to Palo Alto. Did you live in SF?
Brian S: I did, from 03-05 when I was a Stegner Fellow. And I rode those same trains.
Sari Wilson: Oh good. I wanted Kate/Mira very badly to find something else, to find some new passion. My editor really helped bring that out… as well as the parallels in the two storylines you mentioned, she worked on that with me too. (Over a year and half!)
Molly, that’s really foresightful of you… it took me a long time to commit to this novel. But finally I just knew that it would never leave me alone if I didn’t see it all play out.
Brian S: Are you working on something new yet or have you had other projects in play while you were finishing this?
Amanda: What are you working on now? What’s next for you? Do you think you’re done with ballerina stories or can we expect more from that world?
Sari Wilson: Amanda, both my agent and my editor worked with me on the novel. They both had me basically rewrite the entire Kate storyline. They were trying to help me get to something in the character, some salvation for her I think (it was even darker before they worked with me). With my agent, I de-plotted the ending (there were many more scenes and a different student lover). The student lover changed from a man to a woman. And I added more walking and thinking and processing scenes for Kate.
Amanda: Very interesting! I loved that the student lover was a woman. It completely changed the story and made more sense.
Sari Wilson: My editor too was really brilliant in the way that she helped me find the parallels between the two storylines. Did I answer your question Amanda?
Amanda: Yes! Perfectly! I am really enjoying this chat. Moreso than anyone else that we have chatted with, you have really done a great job of answering our questions and explaining your writing process to us. Thank you!
Sari Wilson: Brian! I didn’t realize you were a Stegner too! We need to have coffee sometime. Excelsior was farther out, toward Palo Alto? The geography is fuzzy now… I have been back in NYC for fourteen years!
Great, Amanda. This is really fun for me too. To be talking to such involved and thoughtful readers/writers… Ooh, so glad you like that the student lover was a woman, Amanda. I got some flack for that—a book person told me that “I would lose a lot of readers”
Brian S: Yeah, I was in poetry. I don’t know too many people outside my two years there, unfortunately. Excelsior is in the city, north of South San Francisco and east of Glen Park. About two neighborhoods south of the Mission. Mostly working class when I was there. Most of the kids spoke English; most of the adults spoke something else.
Molly: I see you’re coming to Harvard bookstore soon! I don’t live there, but my cousin, a former professional dancer does—I passed that news on to her!
Sari Wilson: Thanks, Molly! I’d love to see her at the Harvard Bookstore reading. I really love talking to dancers and hearing their take on the novel…
Brian S: What are you reading these days? Anything we should be on the lookout for?
Sari Wilson: Brian, so much good fiction coming out right now! On my bedside table: Rachel Cantor’s Good on Paper, Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot (a beautifully written book with a total plot), Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa… I guess all of the are plot books… but so uniquely written.
Sari Wilson: Also, Elena Ferrante’s 2nd novel from the series—The Story of a Name. I’m hooked. Like everyone else. How about you all?
Brian S: Well, our next book is Mark Leyner’s Gone with the Mind, which will go out as soon as I get them from the printer.
Sari Wilson: I will look for Gone with the Mind…
Amanda: Thanks so much for a great chat Sari! I will look forward to whatever you come up with next!
Sari Wilson: Thanks everyone for joining me and being such perceptive readers. I really enjoyed this chat.
Molly: Thank you so much, Sari! Good luck with your readings and events !
Brian S: Have a great night everyone!