Filed Under: Interview Books
"Without memorable characters, a good story fades like sunburn. Philly resident Justin Kramon
's beach-perfect debut, Finny
, is full of unforgettable oddballs from a narcoleptic pianist to a digestively challenged father who claims he's 'brushing his teeth' every time he rushes off to the bathroom all of whom Kramon spends plenty of time with. That way, he says, 'all of that character's funny little habits and obsessions have a warmth to them, like you're coming home.'"
That's what I wrote in this week's Kaleidoscope
, the most refreshing summer novel I've read in a long time. In conjunction with his book's Tuesday debut, I asked Kramon a few questions
about how he tore his characters down, how he built them up and why Philly plays such an important role in his work.
What strikes me most about Finny
is its broad scope 360-page books don't often span this many decades of storyline. Can you tell me about why you made the decision to tell Finny's story so epically?
I got the idea for Finny from reading a bunch of coming-of-age books I love: The World According to Garp
, The Adventures of Augie March
and especially David Copperfield
. I loved these big stories, the sense of adventure, the humor and just the feeling of wonder I got from these books. One thing I noticed, though, was that most of these raucous, epic-style adventures of young people coming into the world are about young men. So I was interested in what it would be like to tell this classic story from the point of view of a young woman
coming into the contemporary world. I wanted to ask myself what would be the big adventures and meaningful moments for this kind of character.
Also, there's a special way that novels can capture the movement of time
, and I love when novels follow characters over a long time. You get to know everyone better, and when you return to a character, all of that character's funny little habits and obsessions have a warmth to them, like you're coming home. I wanted readers to feel like they were living in the world of the book, and experience the same sense of enchantment I had with the novels I've loved.
|Random House, July 13
In the book, Earl plays a supporting role to Finny's narration. Who do you relate to more, Earl (whose connections to you might be more tangible, since you're both writers and both male) or Finny (the main character, who, despite being female, has universal qualities of spunk and brazenness)?
I feel connected to both Finny and Earl (and to [Finny's brother] Sylvan, too). I like to have a connection to all the main characters in a piece I'm writing, or else I feel like it's easy to short-change them, make them seem petty or small. But I do have a special feeling for Finny. The book came alive as soon as she stepped onto the stage.
She made me laugh in those early quirky dinner scenes with her family, and she also has a wonderful ability to cut through people's pretensions.
I think that's something I enjoy about writing from a woman's point of view in general, the way it allows me to step outside of myself. If I'm writing about a relationship or a friendship or sex, I think I can bring up some more useful observations by cutting myself out of the equation. It's easy to take your own temperature when you're writing
, but I'm not sure my readers would be interested in that.
I borrow aspects of different characters from my own life. I can understand some of Earl's feelings about writing, and some of Finny's feelings about being misunderstood, and some of Sylvan's feelings about wanting to do something meaningful with his life but not knowing how. But seeing the world through Finny's eyes allowed me to bring a humor and warmth to everything in the novel, and it allowed me to think about the world from a different angle, and maybe bring up some shortcomings in the male point of view.
In that way, writing let me become a better version of myself
. Not that Finny is noble or good all the time. But she brought some wisdom and perspective to a lot of issues and situations I've wondered about.
Your characters are lovably quirky: Finny's dad spends his life quoting famous men and "brushing his teeth"; her boarding-school principal chews on pencils and shouts constantly; her friend Judith is the consummate unreliable narrator; and Earl's father is a narcoleptic piano player. What's your process for developing these characters' eccentricities? Are they based on folks you know, serious people-watching sessions or something else entirely?
Sometimes characters are simply people I'd like to meet or who interest me or even people I hope I'll never meet
. I never write someone from my life directly into a story, which is something I'm sure my friends and family are happy about. But there are times when I'll borrow a trait or situation, and maybe shift it or amplify it a little bit to help me build a character. That's something that Dickens is famous for, and that style was a big influence in this book.
You mentioned the principal of Finny's boarding school, Mrs. Barksdale. She came from an experience I had when I was working as a cater-waiter in New York, just before I started writing Finny. I was hired by a company who asked me to attend an unpaid training session in their kitchen. The whole session consisted of the owner talking about how great his company was and how much better it was than other companies, and every time he'd brag about something, he'd look at his assistant â this poor, overworked woman â and say, "Isn't that right, Edna?" And she would have to agree with everything this bozo was saying.
It was annoying to be subjected to this, but later on, when I was writing Finny
, I thought it would be funny to have Finny's principal have a similar relationship with her secretary, Ms. Simpkin. They both pump up each other's egos in this silly way, but in the novel, what had been annoying to me became funny in Finny's eyes
. It let me say something real about powers and ego, but in a way that was entertaining and consistent with the bright tone of the book.
is surprisingly sensual at times, which I guess makes it an even more enticing summer read. However, the book's sexier moments are more of a nice surprise than an expectation fulfilled, since the book isn't billed as steamy so much as a coming-of-age story. Was this intentional?
I always want to write sex scenes with the same level of detail as I write everything else. I think it's easy to be overly vague or overly detailed about sex, especially when you start thinking about it as separate from the rest of life. But I think Finny is mature enough to see it as a part of the jumbled pleasures and sadness of life. It would have been a disappointment to see so much of the world from Finny's quirky perspective, and not to take that same humor and pathos and understanding to sex, which I think is a part of most people's lives, if not everyone's. To be honest, I hadn't really thought about the sex in the book
until early reviewers started mentioning it. It felt like the only honest way to write the book.
Finny experiences a lot of loss in her life, which brings a melancholy tone to the novel. Why is it important that Finny carries so many burdens throughout the years? Does it make her a more credible and relatable narrator? Or is it a vehicle for redemption?
A sad truth about writing a novel is that you're always looking for ways to make life hard for your characters
. Not that you always want them to fail, or to have everyone around them dying. But you're always challenging them, always seeing how they'll act when times get a little tough. I feel like that's part of what makes a good story. There can be triumphs and joys; but I think there have to be challenges
In a way, I think that love is actually the biggest challenge for Finny as much as the deaths and betrayals and disappointments. Finny starts out the book as such a defiant, independent young woman, and I think that it's always interesting when someone like that falls in love, because suddenly she's dependent on another person. Being true to that, while also being true to herself, is something she struggles with throughout the book.
Also, I do think the hardships get a little more serious as Finny gets older
. There's a whimsy and fun to the book, but that gets tempered with age and experience deaths, illnesses, break-ups. I feel like that aspect, the way life shifts and deepens, is something that's true to my experience of the world.
How important was it for you to incorporate Philly into your story, since you live here? I appreciate the fact that you don't beat us over the head with local references.
It was very important to me to get Philly into the story, since both Finny and I have spent a good deal of time here
. When I write about a place, my goal is always to get the feeling of the place into the work, as much as the details of street names and restaurants and local expressions. I don't do a huge amount of research for my writing. Factual accuracy isn't one of my great strengths as a writer (or person). I try to get feelings I've had about people I've met or places I've lived into a story that hopefully says more about the world than the truth ever would.
Justin Kramon reads from Finny Sun., Aug. 1, 3 p.m., free, Big Blue Marble Bookstore, 551 Carpenter Lane, justinkramon.com.