The Writer caught up with Goddard MFAW alumna Nancy Norbeck to ask about her book, The Silver Child:
1. What was the impetus for the story?
A few weeks before my first Goddard residency, I realized I hadn’t written much of anything for at least a month. I had a major attack of Impostor Syndrome and said, “Okay! I need to write something! I can’t go off to an MFA program when I haven’t even written anything lately!”
So I went to a website based on the idea of The First Line magazine, and found one: “The baby had been born with ______.” Unsurprisingly, my brain filled in the cliché: “a silver spoon in its mouth.”
My first reaction was to dismiss it. You can’t be born with a silver spoon in your mouth, after all. But then a little voice in my head said, “But what if you were?” and the game changed completely, starting with the baffled doctor who delivers this child, and then figuring out the story for both of them, which involved lots and lots of questions over the next 2+ years.
I wrote about 17 pages before I left for that residency and tucked it away, not really knowing what it was other than an unfinished exercise. I started at Goddard writing short fiction, even though I’ve never really written much that was short in my life, thinking it would give me an opportunity to try a lot of different things. I kept the story as a sort of insurance policy in case nothing came to me for a particular packet, which was a concern in part because my grandmother was not doing well and I didn’t know how my working time might be affected. I ended up sending it to Reiko in my third packet, and when she suggested it was “not a short anything” and would make a great thesis novel, I had to decide if I wanted to switch gears or not. I’ve never regretted that choice.
2. How did you find the characters?
My protagonists really showed up in that first page, if not the first paragraph. Dr. Martus was the one who started telling the story, and of course Maia was already there, too. I write by the seat of my pants, because part of what keeps me writing is wanting to find out what happens next. If I know all that ahead of time, I don’t need to write the story. In this case, since those characters were right there on page one, I jumped right in. The rest either popped up on their own or appeared when I realized that Maia needed parents, or was going to have to talk to someone on her journey.
I will admit that I do “cast” some of my characters in my head as I’m writing. I had Donnelly Rhodes from Battlestar Galactica in my head for Martus, and Pronsius looks like a professor I once knew. But I don’t cast them all. Maia and her family, for instance, aren’t modeled after anyone.
3. What did you do when the going got tough?
Panicked? No! Kidding.
I think the biggest gift of writing a large piece of fiction as a thesis is that you have two years to do it. And that’s it, unless you want to shell out for an extra semester. I knew I didn’t. Money aside, by the beginning of my last semester I could feel senioritis kicking in and I knew it had to be my last. There was no choice, then, but to get it done.
And as a result, probably the biggest lesson I learned at Goddard is that deadlines are little pieces of magic. I’d always dreaded deadlines—even been afraid of them—but when I had to deal with them every three weeks, I discovered that when I knew I had to get work to my advisor by a certain date, it would happen. Even when I would look at what I still had left to do a week before I had to mail my packet, convinced that it was impossible, it would get done. It often astonished me, but I’d look up and realize it was done. On time. Ready to go in the mail.
I was determined not to miss a deadline to where it became a matter of personal pride, which I think has a lot to do with it, but I’ve also noticed deadline miracles in other context. If you think deadlines are the enemy, it seems to me that you just haven’t learned to appreciate their magic yet.
I think this is why I don’t really remember things getting tough. I mean, there were moments when writing this book was like pulling proverbial teeth, sure. But in the end it always came together, and it usually happened within three weeks. Of course, I did so much thesis revision on top of my full-time teaching job in my final semester that those four months are a complete blur for me, so it’s possible that my memory’s a bit selective, too.
The times when I land in trouble are the times when I don’t have a credible deadline to keep me on track. Then I can get lost in the weeds. For example, it took me six months to figure out how to make Victorian time travel work in my current book, and I got so hung up on it that I got nothing else done in that time. If I’d had a deadline, I’m pretty sure I’d have come up with something a whole lot sooner.
Nancy Norbeck wrote her first story, inspired by her brother’s case of chicken pox, when she was in fourth grade. She flirted with writing off and on over the years, but began to take it seriously in high school, and then in college. After teaching writing to English as a Second Language students for several years, and working on her own writing projects, she enrolled in Goddard College’s MFA in creative writing program, which she completed in 2009. THE SILVER CHILD is her first novel. She currently works as a writing and creative process coach.
For more information on current projects, upcoming releases, and coaching services, please subscribe at nancynorbeck.com or follow her on Twitter @NancyNorbeck. She would love to hear from you.