We’re happy to have Valerie Emmerich on the Book Country blog! Valerie is currently workshopping a literary fiction novel titled ROOM TO SPARE, which was a December Editor’s Pick. Valerie shares how she developed the idea for ROOM TO SPARE and advice for fleshing out characters.
Janet Umenta: Growing up, what books inspired you?
Valerie Emmerich: I don’t think I can point to one book or books that specifically inspired me. I’ve always just loved to read and write. There were lots of books around our house, and I practically inhaled them. I loved Dickens and I remember being enthralled by THE TRAVELS OF MARCO POLO, THE DIARY OF ANN FRANK, THE GOOD EARTH, and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, all quite different books. As I got older I ventured into the “grownup” books on the living room shelves and remember reading MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR (yes! A Jewish girl from the Bronx!) and IN COLD BLOOD. That may have set me up for my proclivity for reading contemporary literary fiction in my adult life.
JU: You list Claire Messud as one of your favorite authors in your Book Country profile. What do you admire most about her writing?
VE: So many things! For starters, her writing style itself, the words on the page – it’s a very sophisticated style and by turns witty, realistic, and entertaining. She can write rich, complex sentences. Her books really engage the reader.
Her character development is marvelous. You have to love the characters or hate them. If you don’t feel much one way or another about a book’s characters, then it’s all flat. I grew to detest Murray in THE EMPEROR’S CHILDREN – I mean truly detest him and his hypocrisy and narcissism – and when he left Danielle I could feel her depression, her emptiness.
It’s so hard to write a novel with all these multiple characters and weave their stories together, to make sure everyone becomes real in the reader’s mind, and keep it flowing, but Messud pulls it off.
VE: I don’t remember how I came up with the specific plot line of a woman who’d lost her husband in a tragic accident and 14 years later, feeling very disconnected from the rest of the world (including her own extended family), decides to start this “alternative extended family,” a group of unrelated people who she hopes will become a family of sorts. But then, as I was writing, I realized why I’d come up with the whole notion of this sort of substitute family. One of the characters, a young woman who comes to live in the house, is partially autobiographical. What I realized was that the book I was writing represented a sort of alternative reality for me. If I could rewrite my life script, joining Risa’s ex-fam might be something I would’ve done and the track of my life might’ve been different.
The theme of loss, and overcoming it, looms large in the book; all the people who come to make up the ex-fam (that’s what they call it) are dealing with losses, and not necessarily the loss of a person, in the case of one character. I experienced some traumatic losses early in my life, so I had to write about loss. I don’t see how it could’ve been any other way. Maybe my next book will be about something else, but this was what I needed to write about first.
JU: What advice would you give to fellow writers working on fleshing out the characters in their novels?
VE: Characters have to be nuanced and not merely a blob of one main quality. Maybe you have a handsome, charismatic guy who breaks women’s hearts, but then he goes and does something kind that you wouldn’t expect from him. With some exceptions, people are neither wholly good nor wholly bad. Even Hannibal Lecter had, in his own way, a soft spot for Clarice Starling.
In ROOM TO SPARE, Risa’s sister-in-law, Anne, is a celebrated physician, but she can be surprisingly naïve about certain things. Every so often she’ll get a faraway look in her eyes and talk to Risa about her desire to live a simpler life, maybe in North Dakota or North Carolina (does she even know the difference?) even though there’s no way she could exist without her expensive clothes and Jimmy Choo shoes. She’s not an idiot savant by any means, but that’s what I thought of when I created her; I took the concept and reduced and reshaped it to illustrate one aspect of Anne’s personality.
Everyone has quirks of one kind or another, and exposing a character’s quirks differentiates them from one another. In ROOM TO SPARE, Risa is very neat and orderly, mainly to have some control over her life after this freak car accident that kills her husband just as she was giving birth to their daughter. So when she has a few people over at her house, she goes around messing up things a bit because she’s so self-conscious about her perfect home – she’s been in other people’s houses and knows they’re typically not that pristine. She strews some magazines around on the coffee table, maybe puts a clean glass in the sink. So we learn something about her when she does these things: she’s self-conscious, she fears being made fun of.
About Valerie Emmerich
Valerie started her writing career freelancing for national magazines on health and medical topics and also wrote feature articles for the Harvard School of Public Health magazine that spotlighted school research. ROOM TO SPARE is her first foray into fiction (unless you count all the poems she sent to The New Yorker at age 10 or her gripping book, “The Leopard Without Spots,” that she published in second grade.) Valerie is a transplanted New Yorker who now lives with her husband and daughter in Brookline, MA, a not-quite suburb next to Boston. Connect with Valerie on Book Country.