Monday, 15 June 2015

Interview with Sara Nović, author of 'Girl at War'

Girl at WarI have the absolute honour of presenting you with a Q&A I did with Sara Nović, author of the amazing Girl at War which came out last month. Girl at War is a stunning portrayal of war and childhood and I had the pleasure of reading it in advance. I was blown away by it, so being given the chance to ask Nović herself some questions was great.
Zagreb, summer of 1991. Ten-year-old Ana Juric is a carefree tomboy who runs the streets of Croatia’s capital with her best friend, Luka, takes care of her baby sister, Rahela, and idolizes her father. But as civil war breaks out across Yugoslavia, soccer games and school lessons are supplanted by sniper fire and air raid drills. When tragedy suddenly strikes, Ana is lost to a world of guerilla warfare and child soldiers; a daring escape plan to America becomes her only chance for survival.
Ten years later Ana is a college student in New York. She’s been hiding her past from her boyfriend, her friends, and most especially herself. Haunted by the events that forever changed her family, she returns alone to Croatia, where she must rediscover the place that was once her home and search for the ghosts of those she’s lost. With generosity, intelligence, and sheer storytelling talent, Sara Nović’s first novel confronts the enduring impact of war, and the enduring bonds of country and friendship.
I remember hearing about the Yugoslav War as a child and it was a conflict I have always been aware of. What inspired you to write a novel about it?

In 2005, after graduating from secondary school in the States I went to Croatia to stay with family and friends. Everywhere we went, people told me their experiences from the war: the homegrown mines and barricades and cluster bombs that made up urban warfare, the civilian militias that fought for independence, and the Peacekeepers who, at best stood by, or, at worst, joined in on the war crimes. A feeling of abandonment ran deep, and there was an eagerness to tell me these things, I think because I was an American, but also a familiar face—a “safe person.”  I wrote the stories down in my journal, I had always been an avid journaller, but didn’t have any plans for what I might do with them.

When I returned to the US and went to Uni, I was shocked to find that a lot of my peers didn’t even know where Croatia was, never mind what had happened there. I took a creative writing class and wrote a short story about a boy whose violent past is dredged from memory on the eve of Milošević’s death, about which my professor was very encouraging—he told me to turn it into a novel. I had never written fiction before and I doubted I had a book in me, but I began to write out from all directions. The young boy became a young girl, Ana, but that first short story remains pretty much in-tact as the end of Part 1 in the book now.

Writing from a child's perspective can be very tricky since you have to constantly consider what a child really sees and understands. Did you find it challenging to describe how Ana's perspective changed as she grew up?

Yes, the question of having a child tell a war story, particularly a war as complex as this, was something I thought a lot about while writing the book. I thought about whether it would be good to have a protagonist who doesn’t have full agency over her life, and about whether Ana could possibly understand the breadth of this conflict. But as I wrote I realized that childhood, in a lot of ways, emphasizes the nature of war rather than obscures it—nobody has agency in a war-torn place, and nobody really fully understands what’s going on in such a high-stress environment. Ana being ten also allowed for her parents to explain things to her, so in that way I think the reader got to learn alongside the character to an extent.

Of course when Ana grows up and returns to Croatia, that’s when she realizes that things were much more complicated than she realized as a child. This more nuanced perspective, as well as Ana’s adult character in general, was the harder of the two for me to write, I think in part because as readers we expect our adult characters to have a certain level of insight or knowledge on a subject, but that’s Ana’s whole struggle—she can’t make sense of what has happened to her.

While reading the novel I felt that there was an interesting duality about the title, Girl at War. Not only is Ana fighting in a war, she is also at war with herself, with her own identity and history. Was this side of Ana something you actively wanted to explore in the novel?

Definitely. One thing that shaped this story in its very early stages was the Faulkner quote, “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” For Ana, and for the rest of the country, the war ends, but isn’t over at all. That’s something that’s true of the ex-Yugo countries in real life, too; they just discovered another mass grave site in Bosnia yesterday.

Girl at War is your debut novel but your writing has a very strong presence within the book. Was it hard to find your own voice or did it come naturally?

Well thanks! I didn’t really think consciously about the idea of voice in terms of writing. It’s funny because my editor in the US commented recently that he noticed my writing has a very strong rhythm to it, which he thought was strange because I’m deaf. But really I think it makes sense—rhythm is the part of sound that I feel just like everybody else, so it’s probably what I pay most attention to.

Additionally, I knew that this particular book would be written kind of starkly—I wanted the pain and violence to be raw and bare and not dressed up in any way, so simplicity was something I aimed for in terms of descriptions.  

What comes first for you, plot or characterisation?

Since the anecdotes people told me about the war were the impetus for this book, I guess plot comes first in certain ways. But I’m not a planner when it comes to writing—I don’t have an outline, or know what will happen in each chapter. The thing that actually gets me in the chair to write is usually an image. For example, the very first thing I wrote in a very early draft was about the way the neon clock numbers blur and appear to float around the dashboard when you’re crying in the car. That scene got cut quite a long time ago, but I still think of that image and the way it relates to these characters.

Which books inspired you to write?

The first book that really shocked me and made me think about reading as a writer was probably Ellison’s Invisible Man. It’s an incredible story, and not a single word is without purpose in that novel.

With respect to Girl at War I was (obviously) thinking a lot about Sebald, the nature of traumatic memory and how to best portray it—that was one of the reasons why I ended up with nonlinear structure for the book. 

Thank you so much to Sara and to those at Little Brown who made this Q&A possible.

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