I'll confess to a moment of jealousy here. I'm a soon-to-be-debut-novelist, and like every other writer on earth, I'd love to have written a literary masterpiece, replete with cultural significance and poetic prose and inescapable gravitas, the kind of book that causes critics to swoon and readers to yelp incoherent but excited praise at book clubs. This is certainly what I had in mind for my own book, but it turns out I am not quite that kind of writer.
Sarah Domet, on the other hand, is that kind of writer. She landed one of the most lauded editors in the business, who described The Guineveres, Sarah's debut novel, in such glowing terms at this year's BookExpo America I nearly passed out from anticipation before I got ahold of a copy. Despite the fact that she spent last week as a powerless hurricane evacuee from her Southern home, Sarah was kind enough to answer questions for me about her book.
First: The Guineveres. It's the story of four girls with the same name—nicknamed Win, Ginny, Gwen and Vere—who find themselves captive in a convent, subject to the strict ministrations of the nuns of the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration. Ginny is artistic and rebellious, Win is strong but secretive, Gwen is gorgeous and bold. And Vere, the center of their circle, is innocent and faithful, struggling to reconcile her beliefs with the deprivations she’s encountered in her young life. Each of them arrived at the convent abandoned by their families under different but equally heartbreaking circumstances, but they each hold the same longing: to be free and to be loved. They quickly band together, forming a fierce alliance. After an escape-attempt-gone-wrong, the Guineveres find themselves assigned to nursing-assistant duty in the convent’s sick ward, a job that offers unforeseen and startling avenues of possibility after the arrival of a group of comatose soldiers. Do these sleeping, mysterious men represent the Guineveres' chance at new lives?
It’s been a long time since I’ve cried at the end of a novel. But Domet’s story is so riveting and dreamy and affecting that I found myself unable to stop thinking about it after I finished it. Her prose is beautiful but also wholly convincing: never once did I doubt that I was in the convent too, alongside Vere and the others as they record the remarkable events shaping the Guineveres into the women they’d become.
Hope you enjoy the interview with Sarah, below:
Kimmery Martin—The four Guineveres live in a convent, in a world so insular they seem to possess almost no knowledge of popular culture, which gives the novel an arresting, timeless quality. One of the few clues to the timeline is the girls’ awareness that America is fighting a war, resulting in the maiming and deaths of many young men who were conscripted into service. How did you decide how much information to share with the reader regarding the era in which the story is set? Does the girls’ limited understanding of the world outside the convent have a specific meaning in the context of the plot?
Sarah Domet—When I set out to write The Guineveres, I was interested in exploring a coming of age story set against the backdrop of Catholicism and war, two really large conceptual ideas that seemed distinct from the idea of girlhood itself. I’ve always been interested in how young girls forge a sense of identity beneath the overshadowing mythos of institutions, partly because of my own experiences growing up. I wanted to shine a light on the insularity of The Guineveres’ lives and the claustrophobia of it.
Finding the right balance between what The Guineveres did and did not know was tricky. In initial drafts, The Guineveres were a bit too naïve about the world around them, and this became a problem for early readers. Like most elements of story, the right balance worked itself out eventually in revisions.
However, I always remained steadfast in my refusal to name the war. I didn’t want to write a novel “about” World War II or Vietnam or Korea—or even the effect of these wars on young girls. Instead, I wanted to remain focused on the girls and their lives: their fears, desires, insecurities, and dreams. That’s where the heart of the story belongs.
KM—I’m always fascinated by the research that goes into a novel, especially one set in circumstances outside the author’s own experiences. Most novice writers follow the oft-quoted maxim write what you know, which typically lends debut novels a semi-autobiographical feel. Not so in this case! How did you choose your setting and your subjects, and how did you manage to convey such authenticity to their voices?
SD—Caveat: I grew up in a Catholic household and attended Catholic schools from 1st-12th grades. I often jokingly say, who needs fiction when you have the memories of a Catholic upbringing? Growing up Catholic provides plenty of strange, odd-ball stories that, when young, seem totally and completely normal. It never occurred to me, for instance, how strange it was to be shipped off to a Find God retreat, our watches seized, and our contact with the outside world cut off completely. In some countries, this is a mode of torture! Certainly, some of my own memories from my Catholic schooling have been repurposed and reimagined for the sake of this novel. And, as for the The Guineveres—it’s possible that they are an amalgam of me and so many self-conscious, self-flagellating girls I’ve known. Growing up is, after all, kind of traumatic.
KM—Do you have a favorite among the four Guineveres?
SD—I really don’t. I love all my Guineveres, and my heart aches for each of them in different ways. I’ve been asked several times: After working on the novel for so many years, aren’t you sick of it? Not at all. I’m now working on my next novel, and I find myself in fits of nostalgic reverie. I stop mid- paragraph and wonder: What would The Guineveres do?
KM—The life stories of female saints, woven throughout the convent chapters, are beautifully portrayed. What significant do this stories have, and why did you include them?
SD—A friend of mine gave me The Lives of the Saints for my birthday when I was in my early twenties. When I read the book, I was blown away by the stories. While many of the male saints were out in the world doing—founding abbeys, leading forces into battle, preaching, or participating in the world in a public way—many of the female saints held a sense of faith intrinsically linked to their bodies. Bodily suffering became a mode of practicing one’s faith, and so we see a lot of female saints inflicting suffering upon themselves—starving themselves, lying of beds of glass, wearing crowns of thorns, cutting off their breasts, burning their faces with lye, etc.
As an adult—as an outsider, really—these stories took on new meaning for me. The stories and myths that shaped my upbringing, now, to my adult eye, seemed so much more complicated.
Though I don’t directly tie the saint stories to those of The Guineveres, I do think the saint stories represent the kind of stories that The Guineveres were taught in terms of what makes a “good girl a good girl.” And these can be the kind of stories that lead girls to feel a sense of shame toward her body and her inability to ever attain that kind of perfection. And, yet, at the same time, I wanted the narrator, Vere, to find strength and commiseration in these stories. I wanted her to place her own suffering in context and consider how other women have encountered—and overcome—adversity.
KM—The ending of The Guineveres is especially poignant. Did you know before you wrote it the path of each of the girls, or did you surprise yourself with their ultimate fates?
SD—I think I always knew how the story would end, but I didn’t know how I would arrive there. That was the fun part for me: tracing The Guineveres’ steps, helping them arrive at this moment of redemption.
KM—Your novel was selected for publication by one of the most acclaimed editors in the business, and is sucking up vociferous praise from Booklist, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and a slew of top-notch, big-name authors. How do you feel reading descriptions of your work? Did you expect this kind of success?
SD—Most days, I still think I’m dreaming. I love reading descriptions of the book, mostly because I find it fascinating to see how others have interpreted the work. Once The Guineveres was published, I, as the author, really ceased to exist. It’s humbling and terrifying and enthralling all at once.
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