Midwestern Gothic staffer Rachel Hurwitz talked with author Sari Wilson about her novel Girl Through Glass, intertwining stories, delivery and destruction in the ballet world, and more.
(Photo credit: Elena Seibert)
Rachel Hurwitz: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Sari Wilson: I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s and 1980s, which was a pretty frayed and urban landscape, alternately dense and abandoned. Then I went to college in Ohio, at Oberlin, and it was the first time I had seen such a big sky. I remember just walking around marveling at the sky. I also lived in Chicago in the 1990s and loved it. It felt like a respite, a place where I could explore. Flash forward: my family moved to Ann Arbor for my husband’s Knight Wallace journalism fellowship. At this point, I was revising Girl Through Glass and I would go write at this great coffee shop, up near north campus, where we lived. I think that I fell in love with the spaces of the Midwest—they feel more open and generous. Ironically, perhaps, I now live in Brooklyn again, a few miles from where I grew up, but living in the Midwest at these key times was really key to my writing life. I think I developed a broader perspective on the world and myself.
RH: Girl Through Glass, your debut novel, is somewhat personal, as it reflects on your own time as a ballerina. Was it difficult to base a story on some of your own experiences? Or is the novel more loosely based on your life – making your experiences a better form of inspiration?
SW: Initially, I tried to write a memoir about my time as a ballet dancer—from about 8 to 14, but it never went very far. I realized at some point that my experience wasn’t very usual or dramatically compelling, so I began interviewing girls I danced with who went on to dance professionally. I incorporated all these experiences into the characters of Mira and Maurice. Combining the autobiographical elements—the ones from my memory—with the fictional elements, was challenging but really freeing at the same time. It let me go places I had never gone.
RH: Similarly, Girl Through Glass, intertwines two stories: that of Mira, an up and coming ballerina and her relationship with her balletomane, Maurice, with that of Kate, a dance professor and her relationship with one of her students. Was it difficult to keep the two stories and tones separate? Or was it a natural transition between the two?
SW: Well, actually I wrote the storylines at different times. First Mira, and then Kate. I wrote the whole Mira storyline and it took me a bunch of years and then this other voice started coming to me. It was Kate’s voice. It wasn’t until I had Kate’s voice that I knew that I had a book on my hands. After I wrote Kate’s story, I threaded the narratives together. This part was difficult and I kept a lot of charts to remind myself where I was in the narrative and in Mira and Kate’s lives while at the same time continuing to develop the themes of the novel as a whole.
RH: Why did you choose for Kate to be a professor at a college in the Midwest? How do you think the juxtaposition of Mira’s life in the city to Kate’s in the Midwest affected the novel?
SW: Such a great and interesting question! So even though the college in Girl Through Glass is not really Oberlin, I used my college experience to evoke a sort of similar space—a small college town with a big sky, powerful winters. And a great dance program. For me personally, and I think for the character of Kate too, the intensity and competitiveness of her childhood New York City in dance is alive in her memory—and kind of frozen in time. Going back to New York City, the scene of her childhood, and of so much that is unresolved for her, is a very high-stakes moment that has, I hope, dramatic tension which is only increased through the contrast in settings.
RH: Girl Through Glass has been called “a chilling, evocative portrait of the 1970s New York dance world and the young lives it consumed,” by Kate Walbert, author of Our Kind. Do you agree with her proposition that ballet consumes lives and do you think that this is portrayed in your novel?
SW: The ballet world I knew both delivered and destroyed. It gave us so much—power, when we, as children, had so little—and an experience of beauty. At the same time, the pressures, especially on the body and body image, could be destructive. These two truths exists side by side because, I think, we live in a world full of paradoxical truths. Writing Girl Through Glass revealed this to me.
RH: After so many years as a dancer, what influenced you to become an author in the first place? Additionally, why did you choose for this topic specifically to be the crux for your debut?
SW: When I was 18, in college (I had already left the ballet world), I had a really difficult injury and it made a professional dance career impossible for me. I started traveling—and keeping a journal and writing in my free time and became really devoted to writing. As for why I chose this topic, I think it more chose me! I happened on the opening scenes during a free writing session years ago, I just kept working with it and it grew and grew over the years and kept expanding until I realized it was a novel. I wanted to explore that early passion I felt and see if I could bring it into language, my new love.
RH: What is the most difficult facet of writing for you? Is it the initial idea, or the final editing? Maybe the depth of characterizations or choice of location?
SW: The sheer stamina it takes to “lay down track,” to just get the words on the pages. I enjoy the editing process, it’s challenges are those of working with a material, like clay or something. Writing the pages and pages for a first draft feels like running blind into a fierce wind; it just is a real marathon that takes a lot of energy.
RH: What’s next for you?
SW: There seems to be a lot of interest in the issues in Girl Through Glass—from ballet, to the 1970s, to the lives of girls (and boys) in high performance, competitive fields. One amazing thing about the publishing process is listening to readers and exploring the issues that are interesting to them. So I’m enjoying writing essays related to dance and writing. I also have, in secret moments, another novel brewing, and am hoping to start it in earnest this summer.
Sari Wilson is author of the acclaimed novel Girl Through Glass. Her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Agni, Slice, and Third Coast. She is the recipient of a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center Fellowship, and a residency from Yaddo. Sari trained as a dancer with the Harkness Ballet in New York and was on scholarship at Eliot Feld’s New Ballet School.