Writing is a process. A very challenging, frustrating, rewarding, emotional, unpredictable process. Some stories can be knocked out in a few months. Others take years. Joanna Rose’s latest work, A Small Crowd of Strangers, was definitely the latter. It took twenty years for her to turn her idea into the incredible book that it is today.
Q: What inspired A Small Crowd of Strangers?
A: “When I first started this story twenty years ago, I was almost fifty and I was starting to reach a point in my life where I was realizing that there were things in my past that I was never going to get the chance to see resurface. For example, I had lost touch with a friend years ago, but she died before we could ever reconnect, and now we’ll never get the chance to make things right. I wanted to explore the themes of regret in my writing because regret is such a powerful emotion, and I was experiencing it for myself in my own life. Regret is a quieter form of shame, and you can live with and tolerate shame, but regret is much heavier and much harder to live with.”
Q: How did your first draft differ from the final product?
A: “At the time, I was very interested in framed stories – stories that look back in time. The first novel I’d ever written was very straightforward. The plot moved forwards, scene after scene after scene. I wanted to try something different with my next novel, so I wrote the first draft with the end – present-day – at the beginning of the book. Pattianne was already at the Pink Dolphin Motel and she was looking back at the events that led up to her present situation. This kind of writing was hard. I had her going back and forth between the present and the past all the time, sometimes even flashing all the way back to her childhood, and I was really struggling to maintain the tension between her and Michael, and their tension is a major component of the story and why she ends up at the Pink Dolphin Motel in the first place. And the first draft was written in first-person, which the final product is not.
After one or two more drafts of the story in that framed, first-person style, my editor told me that she didn’t like it. It was missing something. That feedback was very disappointing to hear, and I ended up deciding to set the book aside while I processed and tried to unpack what the story was missing and what to do with it.”
During that time of processing and unpacking, Joanna developed an interest for short stories, and she enjoyed that kind of writing so much that she decided to press pause on A Small Crowd of Strangers, and that pause lasted several years.
“After a few years of writing different kinds of short stories, none of which had anything to do with A Small Crowd of Strangers, I realized that I missed the world that I had created in those first drafts. I missed Pattianne and her life in St. Cloud, and I especially missed her life in Tofino on Vancouver Island because both of those places have sentimental value for me and I love them dearly.
When I unpressed pause, I spent six months unpacking those first drafts and reorganizing the story so that it happened in chronological order instead of in flashback format. Rewriting the transitions between the major events in the story was the hardest part. In this new chronological format, Pattianne was no longer looking back at her life, so I had to find ways to build up the story so that the events transitioned smoothly. It ended up changing the story quite a bit.
When I was all done putting it in chronological order, my computer crashed and my backup disk was corrupt and I lost the entire new draft. I had paper copies of the new timeline so I could have retyped it all, but I decided to take another break from the story, instead.”
During this next break, Joanna tried her hand at another new writing style – non-fiction. For a few years, she wrote lyric essays, personal essays, she studied with some great non-fiction teachers in Portland, until eventually she once again returned to Pattianne and the world that she missed.
“This time when I came back to the book, I retyped it in third person instead of first. I had written a few short stories during that first break in third person and the possibilities of that style really intrigued me. So I wrote this new draft from that view, as if the narrator was perched on Pattianne’s shoulder, and it completely changed the sound of the book for me. For some reason, getting a little distance and feeling like someone else was telling the story made it funnier. I never intended for the story to be funny, or Pattianne. It was very surprising.”
Joanna loved what third person had done for her story, but she was a writer with commitment issues, and so she took yet another break from, A Small Crowd of Strangers. This time, she studied poetry. The first class she took, she took on a whim, and the voice possibilities that poetry offered drew her in right away. That one class became a three year long education in poetry at the Attic Institute.
“When I came back to the novel, yet again, I decided to give Michael – the young Catholic man who becomes Pattianne’s husband – his own point of view. I decided his point of view was necessary because without it, when he’s viewed just through Pattianne’s eyes, he comes across as a jerk. As a character, I didn’t like him until I really got into his head, until I looked at his family from within and looked at his faith from within.”
Q: Even with Michael’s point of view, he still comes across as the “villain” of the story by the end. Did you mean for him to play that role?
A: “I actually wanted Michael to be a victim, not a villain. By the time she reaches the island at the end of the story, Pattianne has a number of things that she regrets, and I wanted what she did to Michael and his family to be one of those regrets. Once I gave him a point of view of his own, that changed. He was still a victim, but a victim of his faith and his own decisions instead of Pattianne, and his faith and his decisions were viewed by others as malicious. I liked that adding his view took away his status as her victim.”
Q: The Catholic faith plays a heavy role in this story – both a good and bad one, depending on which character’s view we’re taking. What personal experience do you have with the Catholic faith?
A: “I was raised kind of Catholic. My experience was actually a lot like Pattianne’s. My mother’s family was very in touch with their faith, my father’s family was Protestant, but my parents didn’t put as great an emphasis on it as their parents had when they were growing up. Because the only practice we participated in regularly was attending church on Sunday’s, I didn’t really understand growing up that there were families out there like Michaels, who had a different kind of intensity about their beliefs and practices. When I was learning more about the Catholic faith and the more regular, traditional practices that many heavily committed Catholics participated in, I was surprised by how much I didn’t know about the faith I’d been raised in, and I thought it would make sense for Pattianne – who was much like me – to also be in the dark.”
Q: You went through so many different drafts of this story. Was there anything that stands out to you in the old drafts that didn’t make it into the final draft of the book?
A: “For a while, while I was studying plot, I was reading a lot of magical realism stories because they’re notorious for their complex plots. And because of that, magical realism made it into some of the drafts. There is a scene in the final draft where, while Pattianne is on the island, she sees an old woman on the beach. She doesn’t really have a role in the story, but in earlier drafts she did. She had a house in the woods that Pattianne could only sometimes find, even when she searched the exact same spot where she saw the house before. After a while though, I realized that I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with magical realism and what place it had in the story, so I backed away from it.”
Q: You live in Portland. Why did you choose to write the story where you wrote it?
A: “I wanted to start in New Jersey because I lived there a lot when I was a kid and that’s where some of my family are. I liked exploring that area and my personal family dynamic in fiction, and I wanted Pattianne to have a similar setting as what I had growing up. I wanted to get her to the middle of the country, and I chose St. Cloud because I liked the name and, as a child, my parents had a family friend who was a priest in the town that we would visit every now and then. For Tofino, that area is very near and dear to me. It’s on the far edge of Vancouver Island and I used to spend a lot of time there about forty years ago, and during that time it looked the way it’s described in the book – a tiny town with just a few people. It was great.”
Joanna hadn’t always wanted to be a writer, but that time of her life was very short and fleeting. That period of her life lasted until she was in third grade, when she decided that she wanted to spend her life creating stories like the ones in the books that she spent so much time reading. She wrote her first story – a novel – in third grade, went on to writing poetry in junior high, and in high school she was the editor of the school’s newspaper, where she would slip in her own original poems under a pen name.
But, as demonstrated with her constant back-and-forth with A Small Crowd of Strangers, Joanna was easily distracted, and she found her career as a writer put on pause when she started to work at Powell’s bookshop in Portland as the Outreach and Advertising Manager. During her time there, she started a reading series that still exists today, she worked with publishers to bring writers to the store, and she partnered with local venues and organizations that promoted reading and writing to plan events that would bring outside writers to Portland.
“I got away from my writing while I was at Powell’s because I was reading everything I could ever want to read and I was hanging out with writers that I idolized, and when I was in that kind of setting, I found that I didn’t want to talk about my own writing with them.”
Q: Do you think that joining writing groups and taking classes regularly are an important part of evolving as a writer?
A: “Those are important pieces for me, personally. I take a lot of writing classes because it’s so interesting to hear how other people talk about writing. And I teach a lot of writing classes for the same reason. People bring their work to me and we study it and talk about it and explore ways to rework it based on what the writer wants the vision to look like in the end. I just love peeling back the layers of language and story. That’s my idea of a good time.
I have a prose critique group and a poetry critique group, and I share my writing with them because they look at my writing through a different lens than I do. They can notice something – a trend or a theme or a personality in a character – that I didn’t intend to be there, which I think is fascinating, and it’s so helpful because they show me how readers might perceive what I have written.”