When Sarah Cornwell moved to Austin in 2007, she was just another aspiring writer with a messy draft of a novel and a dream. This week she returns to BookPeople to celebrate the publication of that novel, What I Had Before I Had You, with Harper Collins.
The novel received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist and has been chosen as a January Amazon Editor’s Pick in Literature and Fiction. Elle calls the novel “propulsive” and “bewitching” and Cornwell a “confident writer to watch.”
Cornwell is visiting Austin from her current home, Los Angeles, where she’s now a working screenwriter. She’ll read from her novel this Thursday at BookPeople with fellow Michener alum Mary Miller at 7pm. We talked with her in advance of the reading.
Austin Chronicle: Had you begun the novel when you arrived in Austin as a Michener Fellow in 2007? How did it grow and change during your time here?
Sarah Cornwell: I began work on this novel in 2003, when I was 20 and had no idea how to write a novel (though I would have been terribly offended if anyone had pointed that out at the time). There was something about the first scenes that presented themselves to me – about Olivia’s haunted childhood – that compelled me so lastingly that I held onto the project throughout my education as a writer. (By which I mean workshops, reading, and countless drafts of short stories, yes, but also 10 years of lived life.)
The writing sample I submitted for admission to the Michener Center was an early chapter from this book, and my thesis was a hefty incomplete draft, with certain sections separated by bolded headings that read: “section missing here.” So, I hadn’t figured everything out after my three years of study at the Michener Center, but I had figured out enough to know that I hadn’t figured everything out, which I think is better evidence of learning than if I had stitched up the gaps and called the book finished, as I longed to do.
AC: Much of the book is set on the Jersey Shore, an area that many of us know best from the reality-TV adventures of Snooki and company. Why did you choose it as the setting for this story? Is the Jersey Shore an important place in your life?
SC: Ha! I have never seen that show; maybe I should? I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and spent many summer days “down the shore.” There was this sense of possibility there – that my friends might fall in with some bad kids and have an adventure, that anything could happen (and sometimes did.) Shore towns, like all tourist spots, interest me because of their dual nature – public and private, bright and dark – which feels right for a story full of dualities and polar extremes.
AC: Bipolar disorder is an important element of the book as well. How did you go about capturing that experience so deftly? Now that the book is out, have you been hearing feedback from bipolar readers?
SC: Yes, some of the most touching and meaningful feedback I’ve received has been from readers with personal experience of bipolar disorder. It’s very important to me, though, that bipolar disorder is, as you say, an element of the novel, and only one of many forces informing the choices my characters make. I spent years with these characters before I understood that the behaviors I was writing pointed to bipolar disorder at all. Myla emerged first as a mercurial, passionate, unreliable mom with a carefully guarded past and Olivia as a sheltered teenager experiencing an accelerated adolescence. Once I saw that their moods and behaviors pointed to a family history of bipolar disorder, I let it color the story, and then I began research to make sure I rendered that illness accurately.
AC: How did writing a novel compare to writing screenplays? Have the two crafts informed each other?
SC: Writing a novel took me 10 years! I hope the second one doesn’t take that long… Novel-writing is like a relationship you must nurture through hard times, and which ultimately rewards you in a profound and personal way. Screenplays are more like short stories, both in their possible scope and in their highest rewards: moments of otherwise inarticulable insight into a circumstance, a moment, a slice of life. In my screenwriting, it is a thrill to work in a collaborative medium, and to make use of visual storytelling tools (a director will change and interpret and hopefully improve what I’ve written, and actors will add complexity and depth to my characters) but it’s also frustrating to lose the flexibility of prose, where you can follow a thought process or a memory, and need not be bound to visible action. Working in two mediums has brought me invaluable insights; clarifying the distinctions between the two forms has helped me to make better and more conscious use of the tools each medium affords. I have my mentors at the Michener Center to thank for that – for forcing me to try screenwriting, something totally new, and for knowing it would open doors both creatively and professionally.
Sarah Cornwell reads at BookPeople (603 N. Lamar) on Thursday, Jan. 23, 7pm. Visit the BookPeople website for complete event details.
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