Danila Botha is the author of the novel Too Much on the Inside (Quattro, 2015), which recently won a Book Excellence Award in the Contemporary Novel category, and the short story collections For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I’ve Known (Tightrope, 2016) and Got No Secrets (Tightrope, 2010). She just started writing a column interviewing writers for The Puritan’s Town Crier. Danila is currently writing a new novel and working on her MFA in Creative Writing through the University of Guelph. She will be teaching at the Humber School for Writers, in the correspondence writing program, this spring. She lives in Toronto with her family.
Danila stopped by the blog this week for an interview ahead of her Jan. 11 visit, and told us, among other things, just how well she came to know at least one man and one woman in her latest book.
BWS: One of the recurring characters For All the Men, Elliot, is revealed to have insomnia, depression, and difficulty with emotions (he “shuts down” when he and his partner, Melanie, have conflict), which are all to some extent a function of having been abused by a parent, as is his subsequent teenage pain-killer addiction – plus, there’s something of a hoarding disorder, too. All in one character! What draws you to characters who are in pain? And is there a limit to how much pain you can inflict on your characters?
Danila: Wow, what an interesting question. Those are really fascinating observations. Initially, when I was writing Elliot, I wasn’t sure what his issues would be, and I tried out a few options before finding ones that suited him and fit with and against the dynamic of the relationship with Melanie. I actually wrote the stories chronologically (first “My Second Family”, then “The Keeper of Your Secrets”, then “Start Being More Independent”), even though they appear in a different order in the collection.
It was important to me that Elliot be capable of coming from a place of compassion and empathy, but because he hadn’t really dealt with his own issues, also be uncomfortable with being in a relationship that involved openness. I thought of him as a very intelligent and sensitive character who was not ready to process the effects of his past.
The nuances of his history (his home life, and the depression he suffered from, for example) and the effect on his choices was so important in terms of his relationship. The tension between his good intentions versus the distant and sometimes cruel way that he treated Melanie, for example, and her own unarticulated needs versus her impatience with him, was so interesting to me.
I always thought, also, that his and Melanie’s issues were actually similar – there was a lot of shame, fear and missed opportunity in both of their lives. What was also similar was both of their inability to really talk about their feelings and needs and expectations beyond their initial confession.
I knew early on that I wanted addictive behavior to be in some way part of the calculus, too – they both wanted to plunge in very quickly into commitment, desperately seeking stability, but actually both being incapable of real intimacy.
I did a lot of research on the issues, and their effects. I’m glad they read as authentic. Hoarding is a really interesting one.
To answer the second part of this question (and I love this question, too), I’m interested, in everything I write, in trying to understand people’s compulsions and feelings, motivations and behaviour. I always want to know how people feel, why they want what they want, why they can be their own biggest obstacle to having it, for example. My goal is to always find new ways of empathizing and understanding people.
I read an interview recently with Lisa Moore where she said: “Character is desire… [and] whatever it is they want… they want it badly. No matter how big or small, they want it with all their might. And that desire is luminous and has made them alive and indelible. It doesn’t matter if… they are worthy of what they want. What matters is if we are caught up in the sweeping spotlight of that desire.” I was so excited, because I thought, yes, that’s exactly where I approach things from, too.
There is a limit. I do actually always wonder how much is too much to put a character through. I try to approach every character (and their relationship dynamics and choices) from a place of compassion, love and empathy. I think about it all the time.
BWS: It would be one thing to tell about Elliot (or Melanie, or any character in any work of fiction) from two different people’s perspectives – say, one “pro” person and one “con”– but two of these stories are in the third person and presumably told by the same narrator. It’s a remarkable reversal. How did you go about constructing the same character twice for two different effects?
Danila: Thank you so much. This question is so great.
As part of my research for this book, aside from reading, I interviewed people about their relationship experiences and histories. What I heard overwhelmingly was, “I got involved with someone who seemed to be [attentive, loving, etc.], but then they hurt me [in varying terrible ways] and now I can’t figure out, [or, now I really don’t know] which part of them or my experience and perception is real.”
That confusion, and that fear of deception and inability to trust one’s one instincts after the fact is totally understandable, but I thought: there must a way that people can feel conflicting emotions, and maybe both are appropriate. Maybe someone can be deeply loving, is capable of being patient, generous and kind, and that can be true, and they can also be distant, and cruel and cause great pain, and that also can be accurate.
So I became consumed with wanting to write the story in two parts. I wanted to write the falling in love part as romantically and as bursting-with-hope as possible, and I wanted to write the falling out part with all the devastation one can imagine – but also with the reasons why on both sides. I really wanted readers to feel for both characters, and to understand the limitations of not fully processing or dealing with one’s issues, for example.
I hope that by writing “The Keeper of Your Secrets” in the second person, I set up the romantic feelings in a universal enough way that they can apply to a lot of early relationships. The second person can provide an interesting amount of both intimacy and distance. And initially, “Start Being More Independent” was written in the first person (I actually tried writing it from both characters’ points of view) before landing on the third person, which let me switch between them.
The main goal was to humanize both Elliot and Melanie, to make their actions and motivations, and the dynamic between them seem as realistic and relatable as possible.
BWS: Many of your stories shatter expectations just shy of their endings, often in a single “gut-punch” sentence or paragraph. When you’re writing toward this moment in a story, how do you know when to take that swing?
Danila: I love this question, too. The “gut punch” is a great term. I usually know it before I write the story. I often write that last paragraph first and then build the story around it. Or I write the early paragraphs and then before I’ve written the middle, before I know how to get there, I have the line, or paragraph that ends it all.
It often gets fixed to be even more impactful through drafts or in the editing process. It’s my favourite to write, I have to say: that moment of emotional impact, of revelation or realization is usually the most fun to write (and I really love writing short stories in general).
BWS: On that note: between your first collection, Got No Secrets, and this one, you wrote a novel (Too Much on the Inside). Did you learn anything from the longer form that changed the way you write short stories?
Danila: I’m finishing a new novel right now, but every time I get a break, or hit some kind of wall, I go back to the new short story collection I’m also working on. I absolutely love writing short stories. I love the specificity and the economy of the form. I love reading short stories, too.
I find everything about the form completely a pleasure and a joy.
The thing I realized, especially with Too Much on the Inside, is that you have room to write a lot of backstory and go into a lot of depth and detail that you just don’t have room for in a short story. I learned not to be afraid of seemingly irrelevant details – you never know when knowing something about a character that seems small could be useful in the story later.
Thank you so much for these wonderful questions! I’m so looking forward to reading at Brockton.
BWS: Thank you, Danila! We can’t wait.
Danila Botha visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, January 11, 2017 – in our new home, Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church St., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC) – along with John Calabro, Soraya Peerbaye, Dane Swan and a special guest speaker!