Acorn Author E. A. Fournier reflects on the passion and craft that has helped him form a lifetime of love for writing and literature. In this exclusive Acorn Interview, Fournier transports readers into his process and inspiration for his upcoming novel STILL BREATHING.
What was your inspiration for writing Still Breathing? Why did you write this book?
I carried the beginnings of this story in my head for many years. At one point, I wrote it out as the opening scene for a screenplay. In it an older woman sits alone at the bedside of her comatose husband. He becomes conscious long enough to tell her he’s sorry for not sharing the decisions in their life. It’s his biggest regret. He asks her to choose to do something, after he’s gone, that she’s always wanted to do. He begs her not to worry what anyone thinks. Slipping back into the coma, he never speaks again. I could never quite decide what the wife would choose to do, so I put it aside and wrote a different book.
Years later, I challenged myself to write women’s fiction. Not just any women’s fiction—I wanted to write a novel with a mature main character. It seemed to me that most main characters in women’s fiction were young and beautiful. Oh, a few were muscular, imperfect, or foul-mouthed, but most were still knock-outs and under thirty. I wanted to write about someone significantly older: a woman with wide hips and grey hair, someone sensitive but not sappy, big-hearted but seasoned. Since I’m the wrong gender, I wondered if my character would ring true enough for women to identify with her. Now, if I could only find a story.
Thinking about how this book came together is a little like finding puzzle pieces. The final keys to this puzzle were an orphan home for street boys that my little church funded in Kampala and the fact that my son traveled there to assist them. His efforts not only helped the orphans but they won him a lovely Ugandan bride. Remarkably, they also provided me with the unlikely destination for my mature woman character.
What was your favorite part of Still Breathing to write?
I like to write the moments in a story where there’s heavy action or deeply felt emotions—most writers are probably built that way. The hard part is setting everything up; the fun part is paying it off. My characters made sure that there was plenty of both in the story.
Still, one of my favorite sections to write began the moment my mistreated main character, Lizzie, wakes up after being drugged. She finds she’s lying in a trash strewn alley on the bad side of Kampala. Her story takes a massive turn here. All her plans are for nothing. Her future is doubtful, her very life dependent upon a wily, fifteen-year-old street boy named Dembe. It was great fun to create the perilous journey of a street-wise, homeless kid guiding an older white American woman as they sneak across the night slums of an African city. This section becomes the heart of what drives the rest of the book. It’s the moment when Lizzie’s trip becomes an adventure, and it’s this incident which will utterly transform her life.
What sort of research did you do for Still Breathing? How long did you spend doing research for this book?
Once I’d decided to write the book, I recorded interviews with Ugandans here in Minneapolis, I visited Americans who’d recently visited Kampala, and I exchanged emails with the founders of Home Again, a group who rescues street boys.
I gathered and reviewed numerous materials from many sources dealing with Ugandan history, tribalism, clans, family names, gender issues, their educational systems, the police and the courts, cultural conflicts, native and outside religions, the military...well, you get the idea. I developed a set of folders so I could quickly find the right information when my characters ran into something in the story.
I enjoy research and often discover key plot points or story twists directly out of some factoid or another. For example, the scarcity of copper in Uganda, the way boarding schools work, the corruption of customs officials, the perils of marriage for women, the new way to send money from the U.S.—these all came out of the research.
I peppered the book with quite a bit of local language and flavored it with open markets and native foods. Many of these elements came directly from long talks with Diana, my Ugandan daughter-in-law. Luganda, the language of the book, is the main dialect in Kampala. Mercifully, most Ugandans can speak some version of English.
When did you first feel that Still Breathing was a story? Was it after writing a specific point or did it always feel like a story?
STILL BREATHING became a story the moment I knew where Lizzie would decide to go. Once I had the answer to those first scenes, I was set. I didn’t know all that would happen to her on her journey, but once I knew where she was going, I knew I had the story.
My characters often surprised me with many things I hadn’t planned, and more than once, they revealed secrets I didn’t know. I find those moments in a story to be the most gratifying part of novel writing— when characters talk back, or refuse to say lines, or do the opposite of what you ask. It’s why I laugh when people say a writer’s life is so lonely. No it’s not! It’s stuffed with noisy imaginary people who interrupt each other and argue and laugh and cry and are certain of their own opinions. Just like the everyday world.
What was the most fun part to write in Still Breathing?
For me, the most enjoyable parts to write in STILL BREATHING were the terrorist scenes and other action scenes such as the ride in the truck or the wild motorcycle taxis. I also love creating dialogue, so the arguments were great fun for me, especially since I like to check the flow by reading the lines out loud. In this novel, I had the added consideration that most of the characters were non-native English speakers. Finding ways to make the dialogue feel natural while preserving their more formal style was a fun task for me.
Has any one person influenced or been an inspiration for any of the characters or situations in your book?
I would have to say that my wife, Jane, was the most influential person in helping me give breath to Lizzie, my main character. Jane is also a writer and my first editor, my grammarian and, in this case, my guide to making sure Lizzie stayed true to her gender. Jane was my translator for all that was woman in my story.
What are you most grateful for in your writing? Is it a person? A support group? A favorite writing snack?
Most grateful for? I am most grateful for my beta readers—all women. I depended upon them to be honest with me. Especially in this case, with my concerns about creating an authentic female character. They were so helpful and supportive, I couldn’t ask for a better set of readers. They quickly fell in love with Lizzie and her story. In fact, it was their eagerness to learn what finally happens in the story that gave me the passion to keep writing to the end.
Favorite writing snack? How funny that you should ask. I have to admit that during the writing of this book I discovered Peanut-Butter M&Ms. What a fabulous aid to writing! What a waistline destroyer! There were many days when I dangled those beauties in front of my mind, while I negotiated.
“If you finish this paragraph, I’ll let you eat one.”
“Hey, make it to the end of the chapter, you can choose three.”
“Wow, cool dialogue, have a candy.”
“Look, solve this plot problem and...”
I’m sorry to say that I now buy re-closable bags in the red share size but I don’t ever share them with anyone.
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