We asked author Kia Corthron five questions about her creative process and the evolution of her debut novel, The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter. You can find her at IFOA 2017, and IFOA Windsor on October 21st.
IFOA: The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter is your debut novel. What was your writing process like and how did it differ from playwriting?
Kia Corthron: Because it was my first novel—my first crack at fiction since undergrad—I basically taught myself how to write a novel by writing it. And rewriting it, and rewriting it…Novelists who try fiction are sometimes daunted by the idea of providing all the necessary info in dialogue. Similarly, dramatists are so accustomed to the efficiency of a script that we are often overwhelmed at the prospect of filling in all that narration.
What I discovered was that the narrative, like the dialogue, is most effective when trimmed down to only that which is essential. (In my case, that meant paring it down to 800 pages!) In the end, I found more similarities than differences between writing for the stage and for the page, most notably that you have to take the plunge, to write the messy draft before you can ever hone it until ultimately reaching the final draft. (And, given the chance, probably most of us, playwrights and novelists, would happily tweak that forever.)
IFOA: Tell us about the title of The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter? How did it come about?
Corthron: I had been struggling with a title, and after several drafts—it was time to start shopping the manuscript to agents—as I was about to see a show at a Broadway theatre, it sort of came to me, forming itself in parts.
The novel focuses on two black brothers and two white brothers, starting in their youth in the ’40s and continuing through old age. The castle image was part of a dream of one of the protagonist children, inspired by towers he and his friend had made out of junk. The Magna Carta was mentioned twice in the 1941-42 sections, with the adolescent boy of each family studying it in his respective school. What, I wondered, if the younger brother mispronounced it: “magnet carter”? This distortion of the words felt right for the book, though it didn’t occur to me exactly why until many months later: warped justice.
IFOA: What was the most challenging part of writing a novel that people have called ‘a stunning achievement by any measure’?
Corthron: Haha! Well… Starting it! I had gotten the idea for the story about a year before—I did not know then it would be an epic novel, but I did know the story was considerably longer than a two-hour play—but then I got distracted by theatre impulses, as I had every other time over the years when I thought about undertaking a project in fiction. So, I had just opened a play in New York, and found myself at the luxury of a writer’s colony—with no play to write. No commission, and the idea for my next play still required much research.
So, I thought, with three weeks here, it’s now or never with the book. It was then I realised that it wasn’t just that I was drawn away from fiction by a theatre project: it was that I was TERRIFIED to try to write a novel! But I did, leaving the colony with an eighty-two something-page Word document start, and from there I was totally OCD—fourteen months and three drafts later emerging with the official first draft that I began to show my various generous friends (and my sister, also a playwright-novelist!) so I could gather feedback. I promised myself to get to the last word of the first draft before I did any rewriting—otherwise I’d spend years getting Chapter 1 “perfect”—and I made good on the promise, only looking back for one or two chapters out of more than a hundred.
There were other challenges: some chapters were emotionally agonising, my labour-intensive self-imposed trim of 20% was painstaking, and fact-checking all that 20th century history—some regionally indicated—was a bear. (Eg, did you know that “in the loop” or, perhaps originally “out of the loop,” was not a part of the vocabulary until the ’70s, presumed to be related to current technology?) But all those blood, sweat and tears were welcome, now that I had generated something to bleed, sweat and cry over.
IFOA: Who would you cast as your protagonists, if this was a movie?
Corthron: Hah! I’m embarrassed to say, I’ve thought about this!
- B.J.: Russell Harvard, a wonderful deaf theatre actor, who had a small but important role in “There Will Be Blood”
- Eliot: Michael B. Jordan
- Randall: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
- Dwight: The jury is still out.
IFOA: What drives you as a writer, playwright, citizen and activist?
Corthron: I love this question! Because I do consider myself a political artist! By that I mean one who is drawn to issues of social justice—working out my anger, frustration, searching for answers. Probably most of my ideas originate from guests on my primary news source: Pacifica’s Democracy Now!
I’ve been presented with various artist-activist opportunities over the years to write short plays—no money for anyone involved—to bring attention to a very current issue: the suffering of Iraqis under U.S. sanctions, a benefit for Haitians after the earthquake, a recently launched website called Break The Wall – short plays that anyone can download and perform to educate about Palestine and Israel. The sheer behemoth page-count of Castle Cross provided space for me to address practically everything: school segregation and other Jim Crow measures, Japanese internment camps, racial assimilation, classism, deaf rights, gay rights, child offender rights, saw mills and coal mines, suicide, unions, abortion, onset of the AIDS epidemic, war, violence against animals, racist violence – It’s all-American!
Kia Corthron is the author of the debut novel, The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter, and winner of the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. She is the 2017 Bread Loaf Shane Stevens Fellow in the Novel. She is also a playwright, sixteen of her plays produced nationally and internationally, and for her body of work for the stage she has garnered the Windham Campbell Prize for Drama, the Simon Great Plains Playwright Award, the United States Artists Jane Addams Fellowship, the Lee Reynolds Award, and the Otto Award for Political Theatre. She has also written some television (The Jury, The Wire). She grew up in Cumberland, Maryland, and lives in Harlem, New York City.