Fictionist and believer Suzanne Wolfe is a co-founder of the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society and of Image journal, a literary magazine that explores the intersection of the arts and faith. Her novel The Confessions of X earned the 2017 Book Award for Fiction from Christianity Today. Her first novel, Unveiling (reviewed in this issue), originally appeared in 2004 and was re-released in 2018 by Paraclete Press.
Unveiling is doubly of interest to readers of Dappled Things, as it deals with themes of art and faith: The narrative delves into the inner life of a talented conservatrice tasked with restoring a brilliant triptych altarpiece in a Catholic church in Rome. The technical process of restoration, as it reveals the painting’s surprising history, becomes an analogue for the protagonist’s healing from past wounds and the resurfacing of her authentic self.
Via e-mail, Suzanne and I discussed the craft of writing, faith and feeling in fiction, and more. Here is the conversation that unfolded, with slight changes for text flow.
First, I would love to hear about your writing life. Where and when do you work? What habits and attitudes do you consider vital to the process?
When my four children were small, I wrote mainly at night. This is how the first edition of Unveiling came to be written.
Now that my children are grown, I have my days back, so I have switched to writing in the morning. I get up early and write until noon. I try to do this every day, including weekends. If I am writing to deadline, I will write in the afternoon and evening as well for as long as it takes to get the job done. I’m a great believer in showing up for work and just doing it. This type of discipline is not possible, of course, with young children, but it can even be done with a full-time job (if you’re willing to live with exhaustion and a crummy social life!).
I hear a lot of people say that they write only when inspiration strikes. I can understand this, and for that reason I carry around a small notebook so I can jot down anything that may occur to me when I am out and about. But for the serious work of actual writing—of constructing a whole—I don’t have much faith in my muse. I have found that on days when I feel most uninspired, I may write the best I have written for weeks, and vice versa.
Writing is a craft and, like all crafts, “use makes master.” A carpenter who practices his craft every day becomes sensitive to the material he works with and can, in time, identify the grain of a particular species of wood from the feel of it under his plane. I think words and syntax and plot arcs are very like that. After a while, writing becomes instinctive rather than merely cerebral or emotional. At least, that is what I have found.
Mainly, I have found serious writing to be a rather unglamorous buckling down to work. For me, and I suspect for most writers, the biggest impediment to writing is the self. Writing is a hard thing to do, and I have found that, without discipline and habit, I am just too scared or lazy to do it. For me, showing up for work every day is much more important than having a solitary good day.
If that all sounds a bit grim, I have to say that the days when I become totally absorbed in my characters and their fictional world are some of the happiest moments of my life. Time seems to disappear, and I will look up from my laptop and discover that four hours have gone by. This is the miracle of writing. That the self and all its preoccupations can suddenly drop away in the magical discovery of the other—the characters and the world they inhabit.
What was it like for you to revisit your first novel fourteen years after its first publication?
Honestly, it was a bit strange. I have learned a lot since then, both personally and in my writing. It was like looking at a photograph of myself from my youth—clearly recognizable from the outside but much changed within. So there was a feeling of both recognition as well as disconnect at first. But then the magic of writing began to happen—I became intrigued all over again by Rachel, the main protagonist. I felt I was meeting an old friend who I hadn’t seen in years.
Tell me about the initial research process for Unveiling. Without giving away the content of Rachel’s discovery, can you point to any historical examples of unexpected provenance of an artwork that inspired it?
The inspiration for Unveiling came from a couple of paintings I saw in the National Gallery in Washington, DC. One was a triptych by Rogier Van der Weyden and one was a portrait of a woman by Modigliani. As you can tell, they were very different paintings—the triptych was a religious painting from the fifteenth century and the portrait was a secular painting from the twentieth century. The Modigliani woman looked very sad and I wondered why she was so sad; the triptych depicted Christ’s Deposition (his descent from the Cross) and Christ’s mother and Mary Magdalen were weeping. Somehow the emotion of these women in both these paintings fused in my imagination.
I was not inspired so much by the unexpected provenance of artwork so much as the process of art conservation itself. The act of restoration of something lost or obscured or damaged by time, neglect, or hard use, became a metaphor for the possibility of the restoration of the soul after personal tragedy.
Did you make any changes in the re-released edition? What (if anything) would you do differently if you could approach the same project for the first time right now?
I did not change the plot or characters, but I did try to nuance the emotion in the novel. I would say that one of the things I have learned in writing over the years, at least in terms of rendering highly charged moments, is that “less is more.” It’s important to learn when to suggest and evoke rather than merely state—readers need space to feel the emotion, and the writer’s obligation is not to crowd them. No one likes a movie where the soundtrack is so insistently telling you how to feel that you never get a chance to have the experience yourself.
On the other hand, if I wrote Unveiling now, I’d flesh out the characters and their backstories a lot more. Still, I hope they come alive enough for the reader to imagine their lives beyond the words on the page.
Could you say more about representing emotional depth in a more restrained or minimalist mode: What do you look for on the line level of prose—and how do you get from draft to finished project—with a scene like, for example, the difficult reunion between Rachel and her mother in the “Center Panel” section of Unveiling ? There is a lot of challenging history in their relationship that is successfully hinted at in that scene, and later revealed piece by piece, in such a way that the desire to discover the history compels the reader along. I’m interested in the mechanics of the composition of a passage like this, as well as your experience of the process.
Writing scenes that communicate emotional depth is very hard to do, as the writer needs to leave space for the reader’s own interpretation and this will depend on the reader’s own life experience which, of course, the writer cannot know. So, like film, it is a matter of showing a scene and hoping that the characters’ words and actions give enough of a hint to what lies beneath without ever directly spelling it out.
In Unveiling, the scene in the hotel room between Rachel and her mother was especially challenging; I had to show that there was a lot of history between them—I had hinted at it before—and this history meant they were in separate worlds . . . as if there was a sheet of glass between them making communication impossible. So I had to make their interaction oddly at cross purposes but, at the same time, intelligible to the reader. In the entire novel, this was the most difficult scene to write.
One of the “tricks” I used in order to get into Rachel’s mother’s head was to write the scene from the mother’s point of view. Then I switched back to Rachel’s point of view for the final version. This exercise enabled me to understand the mother more deeply.
Of course, the shared history in the relationship between mother and daughter, as well as the themes of loss, are metaphorically the same as the process of restoration. At first, the layers that obscure the original picture have to be dissolved and scraped away to reveal what lies beneath. The hotel scene was the beginning of this restoration process; that is why it only hints at, and does not fully reveal, that the process has begun—and also why it is rather painful! The full revelation for Rachel comes in the hospital room.
In your view, how does the expression of emotion in a piece of fiction relate to the expression of the experience of religious faith in the same medium? Unveiling deals subtly with some aspects of belief, whereas The Confessions of X addresses faith much more directly; I think both novels succeed in their treatment of faith insofar as they both extend an invitation to the reader to investigate an aspect of experience, rather than presenting claims to be accepted or rejected: can you expand on this a bit?
For the writer, conveying religious experience is a bit like conveying emotion. The “less is more” maxim also applies. Both states have to be firmly rooted in the characters’ experience rather than floating somewhere outside them as an intellectual or doctrinal proposition. In both Unveiling and The Confessions of X, both protagonists come to a kind of revelation via enormous personal loss. This loss reveals to them the depth of their longing for healing and wholeness.
One way I suggest this longing is by the use of metaphor, an indirect way of approaching emotional and spiritual experience. Here is one example from the final chapter of The Confessions of X: “I am the living heart of a tree uncovered by the axe, still pliable, still green and full of sap.” This line conveys (I hope!) not only X’s suffering at the hands of another (the woodsman’s axe/Augustine) but also her resilience and courage (still green and full of sap). It conveys all her history and character in this one metaphor. In this way, our hearts’ deepest longings—our desire for peace, and wholeness—are enacted rather than stated. And the use of the first person shows that she herself is aware of this inner strength and the fact that, after so much suffering, she is still standing. The quality of her awareness is the religious experience, that not only has she survived loss but that she has, mysteriously, become stronger by it. This is the mystery of redemptive suffering. The key to X’s revelation is that she does not come to this understanding intellectually, but through experience. It is earned rather than merely acquired.
So may I ask what you’re working on now?
I am currently working on the revision of my second novel in an Elizabethan mystery series. The first is A Murder by Any Name (Crooked Lane Books, 2018); the second is The Course of All Treasons (Crooked Lane Books, 2019). These are very different novels from Unveiling and The Confessions of X in that they are genre fiction (I hope to keep writing more literary novels but writing a novel a year in a series is currently taking up all my creative energies). There is a lot of humor, skullduggery, and bawdiness in these novels—fitting for the time of Shakespeare, who is a minor character in the novels.