How The Story Came To Be
Lisa Hodorovych: How did you the story for Still Breathing come to you? Did you have a dream or see something that inspired you to write this novel?
E. A. Fournier: I carried the beginnings of Lizzie’s story idea in my head for years. It wasn’t the notion of a person choosing to pursue a dream that was unique, it was the idea that Lizzie made that choice at the close of her life. Initially, I wrote the opening scene as a screenplay. An older woman sits alone at the bedside of her comatose husband. He comes conscious long enough to apologize for not sharing the major decisions in their life. He asks her to choose to do something, after he’s gone, that she’s always wanted to do. He slips back into the coma. A few days later he’s dead. My problem was that I could never quite resolve what the wife would choose to do, so I put the idea aside.
After I published my first novel, Now & Again, a sci-fi yarn based on a quantum mechanics theory, I realized I wanted a wider audience. Once I learned that women read far more books than men, I challenged myself to write women’s fiction. It seemed to me that the typical main characters in that genre were young, smart and lovely. Hoping to offer something different, I decided to feature someone significantly older: a woman with wide hips and grey hair, someone sensitive but not sappy, big-hearted but seasoned. I wanted to explore what impact an average woman with a kind heart could have in a foreign country. Since I’m the wrong gender, I also wondered if I could actually make her character ring true. I revisited my Lizzie idea and decided her time had come. Still, the question remained: what would Lizzie choose to do?
And the answer is…
It turned out, the answer was now right in front of me. My small local church supported an orphan home in Kampala for street boys. The young founders were my friends. My son had traveled there to teach art and had created a dramatic film. His efforts not only helped the orphans but won him a charming Ugandan bride. It was suddenly clear to me that Lizzie had found her unlikely destination.
Most of the situations and events in Still Breathing came directly out of my research or from my interviews with missionaries, former Ugandan street boys and other native Ugandans. For example, the plight of boys on the street, the scarcity of copper, boarding school funding, corrupt customs officials, local police issues, the national military, the perils of marriage for women, the new method to send money from the U.S.—all these plot points came directly from those sources.
In addition, I peppered the book with local language and tribal clothes, flavored it with open markets and sights and smells. I tried to make the land and its weather another character in the story. Many of these elements came directly from my lovely Ugandan daughter-in-law, Diana. There are many dialects spoken in Uganda but Luganda, the language used in the book, is the main one spoken in Kampala. Fortunately, most Ugandans also speak English, so even though Lizzie possessed no language skills, she would get along okay in Kampala.
Writing In a Woman’s Voice
LH: You did a fantastic job of writing from the perspective of and in the voice of a woman. How difficult was it to write in a woman’s voice?
EAF: I can’t tell you how wonderful it makes me feel to hear within your question that you enjoyed Lizzie’s character.
This novel was a risk for me. On the one hand, I was excited to attempt to write a female character who would be so authentic that women could securely identify with her. On the other hand, I was terrified of unintentionally doing it badly. The book took years for me to write and inevitably people would ask what I was working on. When I told them, I’d usually get the cautious, quizzical looks from women, or the utterly blank, almost giddy stares from men.
My wife, Jane, was my most influential person in giving breadth and depth to Lizzie. Also, a writer, Jane was my initial editor, my grammarian and, in this case, my professional guide and translator for all that was woman in my story.
It became a fascinating experience for me to put on Lizzie’s mind and heart and really begin to experience the world and other people solely from her perspective. Slowly, I think, I grew more at ease in being Lizzie. I suspected this only because Jane’s corrections grew fewer and fewer. By the end, we were on the same page with Lizzie’s characterization and that of the other women in the book. In fact, I’m hopeful that I surprised my wife by a few of my womanly insights later in the story when Lizzie finally meets Dembe’s mother.
LH: Was it difficult to switch from writing in a woman’s voice (like Lizzie or Nana) to writing in a man’s voice (like Pastor Kajumba or Dembe)?
EAF: Such an interesting question.
I have to admit that I did run into a few problems. You’d think that going back to writing in the men’s voices would be a relief, since that should be natural for me, but it wasn’t easy anymore. I found myself questioning their dialogue, doubting their choices of words and their mannerisms. It was almost as if I had worked so hard to become Lizzie that I’d lost the knack of writing men.
Once I realized what was happening, I stepped away from the book for a few days. I realized that authors, like film actors, can have character portrayal issues—something I was familiar with from my work in motion pictures. In their efforts to make viewers believe their character, actors risk losing touch with themselves. Authors run similar risks, except they put on every character in their book. I don’t mean to make this seem bigger than it was, but I found I did have to consciously readjust myself each time I switched from writing female dialogue/action to male dialogue/action. Every author with mixed genders in their stories does the same thing, but since everything that happens in Still Breathing is from Lizzie’s point of view, her gender added another level of complexity for me.
First-Person vs. Third-Person
LH: Like I stated in my review of your amazing novel, I prefer to write in first-person over third-person. Which do you prefer more and why?
EAF: I prefer third-person. It just feels natural to me. I also prefer the past tense. These choices are probably a result of my age and the thousands of books I read growing up and through college—most of which were written in third-person and past tense. It was the default standard for book writing at the time.
I have tried first-person present tense and first-person past tense, and both were a struggle for me. In fact, I even experimented with them in an early draft of Still Breathing. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach and this book could have been written in either one, but not by me. First-person gives a feeling of urgency to scenes and creates a tight connection with the main character but when I try to write that way, it ties me in knots and mangles my flow.
First-person present tense seems to be the growing choice for today’s books in most genres. I have read many recent books written in first-person and I liked them. The Help by Kathryn Stockett is an example and I absolutely love that book.
LH: On your “Dedication Page” and “Author’s Note” page, you give thanks to your daughter-in-law, Diana, who’s from Uganda and helped you along the way with translations, descriptions, etc. How often were you calling her for all of that? Or was there like a month where you sat down together to get all of this information?
EAF: Diana was born and raised in Kampala. She had a strong mother and grandmother who sacrificed many things to afford to send her to school. Diana was the first in her family to graduate from college. My son volunteered to teach art for a few weeks at an orphan home near Diana’s house. When he returned to Uganda the next year to shoot a film there with street boys, Diana made sure that they met. Their subsequent long-range courtship spanned the next two years and consumed a mountain of phone cards.
On July 4, 2007, after her first plane trip, Diana arrived at our Minneapolis airport to begin her life here in the U.S. We met her, took her to her first July 4th fireworks display and settled her in our spare room. After a whirlwind of decisions and firsts, Diana and my son, Alex, were married on September 14 and settled not far from us. They now have three very active boys and Diana, a proud U.S. citizen, is about to complete a nursing degree.
The reason I sketch this all out for you is to say that the insights I gained into Ugandan culture, family structures, friends, schooling, food, styles, jokes, language, environment, etc. came to me over a number of years and across numerous dinner tables and cribs and playgrounds.
When I was actively writing Still Breathing and would get stuck, Diana was only a phone call or text away. We had many discussions. She knew everything about boarding schools and taxis and open markets. If I had dialogue that I wanted to be in Luganda, I would write the lines out and send them to her. She’d quickly translate and shoot them back, with comments. Despite how busy she was, she read through every Ugandan event in my book to make sure the localities felt right and that my descriptions were accurate. In addition, Diana was a great supporter of the story and loved to read the new chapters as they rolled out. Clearly, without her help, the book would never have turned out so rich in characters and locations.
So Many Different Characters
LH: How did you come up with all of the different characters?
EAF: The number and variety of characters in Still Breathing was one of the many pleasures in writing the book. To be honest, when I started out, I had no idea there were going to be so many. Memorable characters just kept popping up, scene after scene, like magic. It was exciting. I had no idea, chapter to chapter, who Lizzie was going to meet next.
Kampala is just that kind of third-world place. People live outside, on their porches, on the streets, in the markets, and they’re always on the move. You’re liable to meet anyone at any time: foreigners, rich and poor, male and female, young and old, police and military; you name it. And Lizzie was the perfect, wide-eyed observer to bring the many characters to life.
Naming the Characters
One of the problems a writer runs into, especially with a large cast in a foreign country, is creating proper names. In Uganda, the right choice is especially tricky due to the strong influence of clans and tribes. Suffice it to say, their names carry subtle tribal and family indicators which go unnoticed by most readers but are telltales to Ugandans. For example, the current president of Uganda, who has been in power for more than thirty years, comes from the Basita clan, Bahororo tribe. If you’re a person of influence in Kampala, whether in the military, the government, or business, chances are you’re related to his tribe, or to a tribe that supports him, and your name reveals it.
One of my approaches to finding proper names was to compile lists of current Ugandan military officers and government agency officials from Google and then switch their personal names around. I assumed that since they were in power, they must be from the proper tribes. Here too, my Ugandan daughter-in-law was an invaluable help and had the final say.
Let’s Learn About EA Fournier
Finding His Love For Writing
LH: When did you first realize your love and passion for writing and that you wanted to pursue it as a career?
EAF: My, that goes back a way. I guess I started out as a kid imitating the stacks of books I read. Like all good early writers, I would slave over my book title and my author credit for hours and then spend almost no time writing the story. Eventually, I got that sorted out.
At first, I think I saw myself as a poet, and then somewhere in college, I was swept into the visual poetry offered by motion pictures. It was like an addiction. I pursued movies for many years, both at college and in Hollywood. It turned out that I had a flair for script writing and film editing but not for making money.
Only recently did I try my hand at books. I guess I’m a very slow learner, but I quite belatedly appreciated that writing novels gave me the ultimate freedom. I was no longer hemmed in by restrictive screenplay formats or by producers with short attention spans. I could take my time with characters. I could make use of metaphors and describe things. Better yet, I could fully develop plots, fill in the backgrounds and even add scenes. My imagination wasn’t limited by budget or time, and the only people who mattered were my readers. What a rush! I wonder now what took me so long to wise up.
Mr. Fournier’s First Novel
LH: I noticed on your website that you have one other novel published, Now & Again, which was your first novel. It’s a science fiction thriller while, on the other hand, Still Breathing is more contemporary fiction drama. Why the change?
EAF: The change really has more to do with the type of story idea I was exploring than anything else. I enjoy reading a lot of science fiction, so it was natural for me to first write in that genre. When it came time for my second book, I wanted to try something new. Still Breathing is women’s fiction and I believe Lizzie’s story appeals to a wider set of people than hard science fiction does.
Now & Again actually came about as the result of a nightmare. I dreamed one of my sons and myself were caught in an unusual, chain-reaction traffic accident. Have you heard people say you can’t be killed in your dreams? How you always wake up just before the end? Not this dream. We were both killed but the dream continued, and the accident happened over again—except, now that I knew how it ended, I tried to change things. I altered my driving and lasted longer but still died. Finally, my son and I managed to modify enough parts of the accident to survive. And only then did I wake up. The novel was my attempt to explain that nightmare.
To a large extent, the book is simply a what if story applied to a historic, and currently very relevant, quantum mechanics theory. On a deeper level, I hope it’s a celebration of the pluck, adaptability, intelligence and iron determination of normal people faced with critical choices. I think there is also an element of how important second chances at life could prove to be if we offered some.
LH: Which genre do you prefer to write? Is there a particular one or is it more whatever comes to you is what you write?
EAF: I think my focus has always been on the story idea itself and how the characters interact and develop rather than on the genre. I guess I’m more likely to write adult drama than comedy, but it would be rare to find me writing horror, romance, YA, MG, or murder mysteries. When reading, I like settling into a solid science fiction adventure but seldom pick up fantasy. For whatever reason, today’s series-fantasy with its stress on dark magic, super-powers and horror doesn’t appeal much to me. However, I could see myself writing a historical fiction book if I came across the right idea.
My work in progress right now probably falls into literary fiction or general fiction. The setting is a cattle ranch in South Dakota during the drought of the late 1950’s. It deals with a broken family trying to survive the weather as well as their own emotional hurts until the rains come again.
LH: Who inspired you when it comes to writing? Who inspired you when it comes to life?
EAF: Many authors have inspired me to write books of my own. I’ve always been a voracious reader across various genres. Harper Lee, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, James Clavell, J. R. R. Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, John Knowles, Larry Niven, Clifford Simak, Stephen Ambrose, Kathryn Stockett, John Grisham, Lisa Wingate, Daniel Silva, and Lisa Genova all have their places in my heart. Still, at a certain point in my life, I became enamored with the writing style of William R. Forstchen. His choice of words, his sentences, his rhythms resonated with me. I loved reading and rereading his Lost Regiment series of eight books. I still dip into them occasionally for motivation when I’m stuck with my current work in progress.
Since college, it has always been easy for me to answer the question about who inspired me when it comes to life. He was a Jesuit priest and teacher. His classes were unrelentingly tough and unimaginably delightful. He taught English and American Literature, Poetry and An Introduction to Shakespeare. His name was Leonard A. Waters, PhD, S.J. but to those of us who listened raptly to his every word, and struggled endlessly to win his grudging praise, he was known affectionately by his initials: the LAW.
He had a great and powerful voice and commanded our best efforts. He treated us with the respect of fellow scholars, and despite ourselves, we lived up to his high expectations. There isn’t a sentence I write, a poem I discuss, a movie I watch, or even an e-mail I type, that I don’t still ask myself what the LAW would think of it. He is just a part of who I am and how I think. A great teacher can be a potent force.
Mr. Fournier’s Writing Process
LH: What is your writing process? Do you do an outline? Do you write everything out first before typing it up or do you go straight for your laptop?
EAF: I tend to write by the seat of my pants and let my characters determine what comes next, but I’m enough of a plot and outline guy to limit their scope. Without a plan, a story can get away from a writer and the characters may escape, die early, or just fritter away the time. I’ve found that an ounce of story planning is worth about ten pounds (relatively speaking) of writing. On the other hand, people don’t understand that there are also times when characters talk back to an author, or refuse to say lines, or do the opposite of what’s asked. Really. It’s why I laugh when people say a writer’s life is lonely. No, it’s not! It’s stuffed with noisy imaginary people who interrupt each other, argue, laugh, cry and are certain of their own opinions—just like people in the everyday world.
My physical process is old-fashioned. I scribble my first drafts in longhand. Yes, I have a computer—a rather nice one—and yes, I use it a lot, but never for the initial draft. I’ve found through trial and error (mainly error) that my ideas flow best when they’re linked through my hand to a pen that scrawls actual marks onto paper using cursive. No, I’m not kidding. It may come as a shock to new authors, who never learned cursive, but there are scientific studies showing that a unique exchange of ideas and emotions occurs between the mind, the hand and the pen that never happens between fingers and keyboards. Who knew?
Once I get my notions down on paper, I scratch lines through some words, I circle phrases and draw arrows, scribble comments in margins, doodle, add exclamation points where I’m pleased and question marks where I’m stumped. The ink spilled across the paper tracks a battle of ideas fought across the page. I might read the draft aloud (if I’m alone) or in muffled whispers (if someone’s near). I jot changes, read again, taste the rhythm and then slog on. When the pages grow too muddled, I copy them to clean sheets. If I produce 3 handwritten pages in a day, I’m satisfied. Some red-letter days have seen 6 or even 7 pages! Many bleak days have returned only 1.
At least twice a week, I type the pages into my computer. During that transition, phrases shift, words alter, additions and subtractions occur. When I’m happy, I print it out. Everything looks different when it’s on a physical page instead of on the screen. I read it through out loud and mark it up with red ink. When I have sufficient pages for a decent story flow, I hand them over to my wife (English major, former teacher, resident grammarian and story doctor). She marks her own suggestions in pencil, and we discuss.
Before my next longhand writing session, I read the last few printed pages to recapture the movement of the story, and then plod on with pen on paper once again. I know the process sounds tedious, but it doesn’t feel that way. The story is literally coming to life under my hands. Eventually, the months pass, the three-ring binder thickens, the manuscript wends its way to its last chapter, and on a certain favored day my story has been told.
Of course, the book is not finished. It still needs beta readers and editors, proofreaders and formatters, cover artists and file encoders and all the modern falderal of completion, but I only wanted to share how I write my stories, not how I complete.
Advice from Mr. Fournier
Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing
LH: In this world of traditional publishing vs. self-publishing, there are a lot of people who are on the fence, unsure of which way to go. What advice would you give them?
EAF: I can only say that there’s an awful crowd of us up here on that fence.
Publishing is in constant flux, much like music, motion pictures, fine art and most other creative endeavors. Rapid technology has altered all of our landscapes and the ground continues to shift. From the tools we use, to the products we create, to the audiences we reach, to the way we deliver, market, evaluate, criticize and get paid, everything is fluid. I’m not sure what advice to give.
My first book, Now & Again, was self-published using Amazon KDP. I jumped straight off the fence and into self-publishing. I did the writing, rewriting and proofing. I designed the cover, paid for help to format/encode the book, staged giveaways on Goodreads, begged for reviews and fought to get noticed. Sadly, although liked by those who read it, my novel’s nose never lifted above the clamorous sea of other titles.
After I climbed back onto the fence, what did I hear? “Maybe the story wasn’t good enough, the writing wasn’t thrilling or lyrical or funny enough.” “If only the cover had more grab.” “It needed more reviews, more virtual interviews.” “Did you do actual signings?” “More media presence.” “More Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok.” “Maybe it wasn’t promoted soon enough, or long enough, or…just not enough buzz.”
I was told the best thing I could do to help myself was write another book. So, I did. I’m not short of ideas. Two years later, here I am with Still Breathing, a women’s fiction title. It’s a better story, better written and with wider appeal. The story dealt with women’s issues and aging, discrimination and abuse. Most of the action took place in the third world. It featured cross-cultural friendships, bombs and danger, tears and hope. What was not to like?
I jumped back off the fence with new hope. I was determined to get representation and go the traditional route with one of the big five. I learned to write query letters. I researched agents and agencies, policies and idiosyncrasies. I studied publishers and contracts. I joined Query Tracker, explored critique groups, sharpened my submissions, compiled lists, sent materials, followed up, tracked results and listened to experts. I was professional, stayed positive, remained patient, and on and on and on—trust me. Result? After six months, I had 142 form rejections or silence. No personal responses. Not one. No requests for pages. Nothing. I slowly dragged my sorry self back onto the top of the fence and sat down.
I attended a writing conference in San Diego and was shocked to catch the attention of a hybrid publishing company whose owners fell in love with my writing. They coaxed me down off the fence again. With their help, I was paired with a wonderful editor, guided to an excellent cover design company, shepherded through KDP and introduced to new distribution channels. They taught me to build a better author platform, assisted in a book launch, blog tours, secured some book reviews and kept me sane. (Yes, that also cost me $$ and time—nothing is free.)
Will it make a difference? One can hope. If I’m being honest, though, I’m leaning against the fence and wearing a skeptical expression.
In the meantime, I’m 30,000 words into my third book.
For Aspiring Writers
LH: What advice would you give to an aspiring writer, like me?
EAF: Read good books.
Don’t expect to write anything worthwhile until you’ve earned some life experience. Write what you feel drawn to write, not what you think will sell. You might as well enjoy your writing because, unless you’re very fortunate, you’ll never make much money doing it.
Approach writing like a job. Do it whether you feel like doing it or not. If you wait for inspiration you won’t get anything done. In my experience, inspiration seems to come when you’re already writing.
If you want to improve your craft, improve your powers of observation. Pay attention to the people around you because that’s where your characters and probably your stories will come from. Study the way light falls on objects and note the changing colors that night brings. Authors listen and observe the world around them and take notes. Realize that memorable stories brush by your shoulders every day. If you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss them. Where do you think The Help came from, or To Kill A Mockingbird, or A Separate Peace, or Still Alice?
Eavesdrop. Listen in on conversations in coffee shops and restaurants, at the grocery store or at work. Note the rhythms and pace of real spoken language. Listen to each person’s word choices, their contractions, their accents and pauses. Write out the lines and study them. Don’t confuse this with dialogue. It’s not. Dialogue is a highly focused hybrid of conversation where each word and pause reveals character and drives the plot. The writer’s trick is to perfectly disguise dialogue in the trappings of conversation.
Remember to include smells and sounds in your descriptions. They not only sharpen the experience of locales for the reader, but they can trigger memories. Smells and sounds are some of the most powerful prompts in humans to bring back past events—good and bad. They should be a part of every author’s toolbox.
LH: What is next for EA Fournier?
EAF: White Eyes is my current work in progress. The setting is a struggling cattle ranch facing a drought in South Dakota during the late 1950’s. The story focuses on an emotionally broken family and what it will take to heal them. Separated from his estranged wife and son for 12 years, a rancher receives a lawyer’s letter informing him that his wife has unexpectedly died in Chicago. With no other options, his city-raised, 14-year-old son is sent back to live with him. Father and son haven’t seen each other or spoken in more than a decade. All the boy knows is that his dead mom couldn’t stand his father, the ranch, the town and the people who live there.
LH: May I have at least one interesting fact about you that no one knows? (For example: You’re a comic book enthusiast, you have a plethora of tattoos you’re hiding…something that would make people say, “What?!” Haha!)
EAF: Here’s one that still makes me cringe. When I was first trying to break into the Hollywood business, I sold a script to Charlie’s Angels (the original TV series) for an episode that saw the Angels go undercover as female wrestlers. The pitch session with the producer was surreal and the whole experience felt bizarre. The episode was called Angels in a Steel Cage. No, it wasn’t ultimately shot that season, but they did pay me for the idea and the script.
Thank you again, Mr. Fournier for taking the time to answer my questions. It was an absolute honor communicating with you and it is truly appreciated!
If you would like to learn more about Mr. Fournier’s books and where you can purchase them, please check out his website.
Again, please remember, I did not get paid to write the review on Still Breathing nor am I getting paid to interview Mr. EA Fournier. I am just a fellow writer and a fan showcasing the work of a great author. If you have any questions or would like to be featured on my blog, please don’t hesitate to contact me.