History, Revision, and Rebellion: An Interview With Molly Patterson

Molly Patterson

Molly Patterson’s debut novel, Rebellion, is notable in its sweep and scope, following the lives of four women across a variety of time periods, circumstances and countries. Centering on the turn of the century’s Boxer Rebellion, as well as mid-century America and modern China, Rebellion examines the ramifications of the choices women must make and the ways in which each of the novel’s four protagonists live broadly within – or rebel against – their assumed roles. A Pulitzer Prize winner and an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau-Claire, Patterson has written an intricate first novel that illuminates the intersections and subtleties of each woman’s life.

A longtime high school friend, Molly graciously made the time to email with me this summer about her new novel, due out August 8.

How did you first develop the idea for this novel?

When I was in college, I spent a semester studying abroad in Tianjin, a coastal Chinese city that saw a lot of action during the Boxer Rebellion. I think that was the first time I ever heard of the Boxer Rebellion, which really struck me: the event was such a flashpoint between China and the West, it happened only a century ago, and yet it’s not at all well known in the States. I lived in China for a few years after graduating college and then spent a few years working as a waitress while writing; later still, I attended an MFA program and at last worked up the nerve to try writing a novel. At that point, it had been several years since I’d moved back from China, and I was thinking a lot about the identity I’d constructed as a foreigner there, but since I’ve never been very interested in writing autobiographical fiction, I turned backward in time. This is where Addie came from. I started with her character and the idea that the book would lead up to the Boxer Rebellion. Everything else came from that.

The scope of Rebellion is incredibly impressive, following multiple lives across different landscapes and eras – sisters Louisa and Addie, Louisa’s daughter Hazel, and Juanlan. How did you decide on the book’s structure, and when and how to showcase each voice?

It wasn’t easy! I work from character and voice first; structure comes much later for me. I started the book in 2010, didn’t finish a full draft until 2015, and it wasn’t until the last year of that drafting process that I had a clear picture of what it would look like. Not long after I began, I decided it was going to be a book that featured a contemporary character discovering and retelling her great-aunt’s stories through a box of letters. I spent nearly a year with this character before coming to the realization that I was forcing something that just didn’t work. Her voice wasn’t authentic and her own story felt thin. So I abandoned that character and structure and was left with Addie and Hazel (who had asserted herself within the first few months of writing). I spent some more time in the wilderness and after a year or so, I began to tinker with a Chinese character who would be connected to the other two in specific but subtle ways. Later, Louisa came onto the page as a character in her own right, rather than just the recipient of letters that Addie wrote. Altogether, it took six or seven years to write Rebellion, and it took almost that long to figure out the structure.

On the topic of voice, the novel’s prologue is striking in its roving third-person point of view between multiple characters, before the novel delves into close-third seconds for each main character except for Hazel, who is narrated in first-person. How did you decide on the point of view for each character and section?

I have this concept that I call “the manner of telling”, which includes point of view and perspective, tense, and style: for me, it dictates everything else. Until it’s right, I can’t start to develop a plot at all. Given the scope of this book, I think I always knew it would be polyphonic to a certain extent, and in the end I do think of it as having five distinct voices: that of the “Driving” sections, and then one for each of the main characters. One theme that emerged in the construction of the book was that we get to see characters from different perspectives. We start the novel with Hazel at an old age and see her from the outside, not only in the third-person, but using different characters’ perceptions to form a multi-faceted impression of her. This makes it striking later when we first hear her voice, which is the only first-person perspective in the novel and comes from a different point in time than the first chapter. We get this same multi-faceted perspective on Louisa, who we see through Addie’s eyes, through Hazel’s eyes, and even through Edith’s and Bert’s eyes in the last “Driving” chapter. And of course we’re closest to her in the “Louisa” sections, which utilize a close third-person perspective. Juanlan is the only main character to speak for herself, without another perspective to contradict it. The book is constructed so that we meet her right after we meet Addie, which felt important to me in terms of the vision of China that the reader gets: Addie’s perspective is very limited, and Juanlan offers a much more nuanced vision of China that will likely be new for many American readers. And because Juanlan’s sections are in present tense, they feel more immediate for the reader, and perhaps more true. In the end, I think of Hazel and Juanlan as having the most authority in the book, and I feel that we get closest to them as characters.

Each character experiences her own version of what is expected of women. How are these women’s voices connected for you, and why was it crucial to privilege them together in this novel?

I think a lot about how women’s stories are considered and treated in the world of reading, writing, and publishing fiction. On the one hand, women make up a disproportionate segment of the fiction reading population. On the other hand, their stories are often considered light or frivolous. We have the (rather demeaning) term “chick lit” for popular fiction that features female protagonists, but we don’t have an equivalent term for popular fiction featuring male protagonists. And when it comes to what the culture deems “serious literature” male voices and protagonists are still given more credence. I don’t think male authors fear their book covers to the same extent that female authors do—the dreaded woman in a field, or the back of a woman’s neck, half-turned away! Rebellion is specifically about the experiences of women who feel boxed in by expectation and circumstance. Even so, I have this imaginary reader in my head who says, “But where are the male protagonists? How is a male reader supposed to relate?” It’s not like I read a book with a male protagonist, or a protagonist that’s not white, or a protagonist that’s not from the Midwest, and say, “Well, this book’s clearly not intended for me!” Yet still, I picture this reader, or this critic, or this publisher, and I don’t think that he’s entirely imagined.

In terms of connections among Rebellion’s characters, for me, it’s about the ways that women across culture and time have been expected to—or forced to—lead small lives, with small expectations. In some cases, I think that idea of smallness is actually misleading: Hazel spends her whole life in the same house on the same piece of land, but I consider her world expansive in terms of emotional experience and philosophical outlook. But in other cases, I think it’s frustrating, and it’s interesting to see what happens when that frustration finds an outlet. Thus Juanlan and Addie, and to a certain extent, Louisa.

Rebellion incorporates an incredible amount of historical research as well, from the landscapes of Illinois and Ohio to missionary life and the Boxer Rebellion in China. What kind of research did you have to do, and how did you organize so much information while writing the book?

I studied Mandarin in college and then lived in China for several years, so I was able to build Juanlan’s world out of my own observations and from talking to my Chinese friends. The China of the late nineteenth century was much harder to envision. I read many books about missions in China and about the Boxer Rebellion. I did a lot of research online, too—photographs are incredibly evocative for me. Most helpful, though, were journals and letters written by the missionaries themselves because these texts showcase the writers as much as they do the world they were writing about. In other words, they helped me to create characters. Addie’s story is very much from this point of view; she remains fairly blind to the perspectives and experiences of her Chinese contemporaries. As for Hazel, I unabashedly borrowed outlines of my grandmother’s life: the house she lives in very closely resembles my grandmother’s house; the farm is essentially my grandmother’s farm. But I had to fill in the psychology and the emotion. My grandmother never spoke to me about her life. Hazel’s story was partly my effort to get to know my grandmother better after her death.

You spent several years in China as well, in Ya’an in the Sichuan province. How did living in Ya’an inform your work on the novel?

Ya’an is a town of more than 100,000, that—like so many towns in China—has changed incredibly rapidly in a short period of time. The geography of Heng’an overlays that of Ya’an pretty closely, but it’s a fictional town, which gives me leeway to imagine, add, and subtract what I need. Just as Hazel’s house borrows much from my grandmother’s house, Heng’an is a fictional place that makes use of the real. The most important way that living in Ya’an informed the novel, though, is that I developed close friendships with several people who live there. I stayed in their homes, navigated the town and culture in their company, was “Auntie Molly” to their children, and learned a lot not only about China but about the U.S. as well—in particular, the stereotypes that those on either side construct about the other. This helped me to write from Juanlan’s perspective, and it helped me to write the character of Rob, an American who visits Heng’an in the contemporary Chinese storyline. More than anything, though, I love Ya’an, plain and simple, and I miss it a lot. I’ve always found that I tend to write about places only once I no longer live there.

In full disclosure, we went to high school together and both became writers. What were some of your earliest influences in writing, and some of the most important voices for you once you left St. Louis and studied creative writing and literature beyond high school?

Yes, we’ve led eerily similar lives! In terms of early influences, there were the teachers and then there were the writers. I remember writing an essay in fourth grade about seeing a moose in the wild, while on vacation in Wyoming; my teacher, Mrs. McCormick, was so encouraging, and that might be the first time I thought, “I’m a writer!” instead of “I want to be a writer when I grow up.” My earliest literary influence was Maya Angelou. She wrote a long poem called “On the Pulse of Morning” for Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, and I remember memorizing the whole thing and reciting it every day. (This made me a pretty weird ten-year old.) I also read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings around then—at probably too young an age—and I adored it without fully understanding everything. Maya Angelou was my first conception of a Writer, the first specific writer I sought out, as opposed to seeking out a book in a series (see: Nancy Drew, The Baby-Sitters Club, Sweet Valley High, etc.).

There have been so many influences over the years since then, however. In high school, I encountered Rick Bass in a creative writing class and I remember consciously mimicking his setting-driven technique. Nowadays, my influences tend to be writers who do interesting things with voice and perspective. I love Edward P. Jones for his roaming point of view and his use of the “flash-forward.” Likewise, I’m really excited by how Alice Munro moves around in time as needed. At the end of a story, she’ll suddenly leap forward a decade in a paragraph—that kind of thing thrills me. Louise Erdrich constructs novels with an intuitive logic that is simply stunning. I also adore a voice that’s fun and funny, like Zadie Smith, who’s a definite favorite. I’m always adding new influences. Last year I read Nathan Hill’s The Nix and instantly wanted to use a similar structure for my next novel.

What has been the novel’s journey from writing to publication?

I began the novel in 2010, initially writing about Addie. I spent a long time on her childhood in eastern Ohio, on meeting the man who would become her husband, and then a long time on their journey to China—none of that made it into the first full draft of the novel, much less the final one. I’m not a linear writer, so I spend a long time writing moments, images, backstory, and half-scenes, most of which is later cut, and a very little bit of which is eventually expanded and becomes the story. I like to think that it’s not wasted writing—it’s all helping me to understand the character and to home in on the voice—but in any case, there’s not much I can do about it; it’s simply my process.

I finished a full draft in the fall of 2015, which was about 50% longer than the published version. Then I cut and cut and cut, added a little, changed some more. Part of this process took place before finding an agent, part of it after (before selling the book), and part of it was working with my editor at Harper.

What was the revision process like for the book?

It was a long and ongoing process. I was revising for several years, long before I ever finished a full draft—mostly a lot of changing direction, which of course required throwing away quite a bit. The draft I sold to Harper is largely the same in terms of shape as it is now, but we spent some time reworking scenes. At one point, my editor said, “It seems we have a lot of scenes that take place in restaurants…” I’d never noticed, but thank goodness she did—it was something like nine! So some of revision was simply stagecraft. But we also worked on character arcs, and of course, cutting anything that wasn’t moving the story forward. I remember when I was younger hearing writers talk about how satisfying they found revision, and all I could think was how difficult it was. Now I feel like it’s both: it’s difficult and it’s satisfying. When you get to that point where you can see what the book will be and you know revision is getting you there—that’s the best.

What are you currently working on?

I’ve been working for about a year on a new novel, but it’s tough going—I’ve written about ninety thousand words, and I’m not sure that I have a usable one. My mentor, Erin McGraw, has likened writing a novel to feeling your way around a dark house—you discover a room, and then you discover the stuff that’s in the room, and then there’s another room and all the stuff that’s in that room…if the process is one of turning on the lights, one by one, then I’d say at this point that this new novel is still completely dark to me. Or maybe I’ve got big mittens on my hands that keep me from finding any of the switches…

That said, it’s very important to me to keep writing even when the writing isn’t going well. I finished a book this year and I also gave birth to twins, so I am, perhaps, a little exhausted in terms of creative output! For now, I’m maintaining the habit of writing and trying to keep faith that eventually I’ll find the light switch. That has to be enough for the moment.


Photo: Elaine Sheng

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1 comment

  1. Thank you for sharing so candidly about your process and the setbacks. It helps to understand a book like this wasn’t written linearly.