Taylor Gray ’17: Your debut novel, A House Made of Stars, is a continuation of your dissertation, which began as the final project for a fiction class. What inspired you to continue growing this story?
Tawnysha Greene: When I defended my dissertation, I had an early draft of the novel with an ending I liked, but one of the most honest (yet most helpful) revision comments I received was that my character and my book hadn’t earned that ending yet. The book needed to be longer, and my character had to grow into that ending and earn it for the story to be complete.
I wanted to see my narrator earn the ending I wanted for her, so I spent the next year building her–making her braver, stronger–so that by the time she found her voice in the novel and decided to speak out, she had earned that voice and all the words she had to say.
The novel’s narrator is quite young, so your audience hears this heart-wrenching story of domestic abuse from a victim who has relatively limited understanding of the hardship and abuse she endures. Of all the characters in the novel, why did you choose the young daughter to tell the story?
I chose to make the narrator of A House Made of Stars a young girl, because in doing so, I could use a simpler, more honest mode of storytelling. There are so many issues addressed in this book—poverty, illness, abuse—and I wanted to convey these issues in the most direct way possible. Children are far more honest than many adult narrators and can be acutely aware of their surroundings, so I decided that I needed a younger narrator if I wanted this same kind of directness in my novel. I also decided on her as the narrator rather than her younger sister, because she is a bit more aware of her family situation as she can overhear bits of spoken conversation whereas her sister, who is deaf, cannot.
The characters in the book are nameless, which is quite an interesting choice. Tell me a bit about that decision.
Unfortunately, abuse is something that plagues far too many families, and it is easy to feel as if you are alone when you are growing up with an abusive parent. I wanted to write the characters in A House Made of Stars as if they could be anyone anywhere who was struggling with abuse. I wanted to write a narrative in which there is hope and a way to escape an abusive home. I hoped that in doing so, I could instill a small sense of encouragement and show that anyone living in a home of domestic violence can survive against all odds and emerge to have their voices heard and acknowledged.
Whether intentionally or inadvertently, both the father and the mother dismiss the narrator’s identity to some degree. The father refuses to accommodate his daughter’s deafness by using sign language, and the mother often rewrites stories in order to conceal the violent abuse. Tell me about the significance of communication (or a lack thereof) in the novel.
Communication is power in this book, and at the beginning, the narrator’s parents withhold this power from the narrator–whether it be refusing to engage with her in sign language or rewriting her narrative to cover up the truth of their family life. However, as the book progresses, the narrator learns how to communicate for herself—first in secret in signing to her sister and her cousin, then more openly in letters, then finally in the call she makes at the story’s end. She learns her value as an independent voice in the family, and how important it is to speak out for her family’s safety and well-being.
Throughout the novel, there are moments where you humanize the abusive father. Why did you feel this was necessary?
The father’s character was an especially difficult one to write, because he appeared too flat in a lot of my earlier drafts. He was reckless and violent, but he was not as believable as the other characters, because he did not have the same kind of redeeming qualities as they did. So I explored ways in which I could humanize him more and explain his actions. I added scenes with his sister in which she shares painful details about their past. I gave him a burn scar that runs from his neck down to the top of his hand. I gave him reasons for his pain and anger.
Instead of making him a stereotypical abusive father, I aimed to make him a wounded man who never healed from his past. This way, I could still write him as an antagonist, but as one who was a more rounded and well-developed character.
The story started out as a “secret story” that only your professor would read, an assignment that allowed you to write about a topic you may not feel comfortable sharing. Did the sense of discomfort stay with you as you continued writing? How did you handle writing such disturbing scenes?
The “secret story” is a wonderful assignment, because it forces you to try new things–whether it be an unfamiliar writing style or content you would have been uncomfortable sharing in a workshop setting. Writing these secret stories always involves risk, and there is usually a sense of discomfort when you try new things and falter along the way, but I find that these are the stories that are the most cutting, the most honest.
Honesty is something that I hoped to capture in A House Made of Stars, especially as my narrator is a young girl who would remember every detail about her family, so I owed it to her to be unflinchingly honest about everything in her life–both positive and negative–regardless of how uncomfortable they were. So when I wrote the scenes of abuse, I imagined how she would see these scenes and remember them, and I did my best to write those scenes with that same intensity.
Apart from being published, what was the most rewarding part of your journey with A House Made of Stars?
The most rewarding parts of the publishing journey have been the people who reached out to me after reading the book and who shared their own stories of growing up with an abusive parent. Their heartbreaking narratives of pain and, in spite of it all, survival, and ultimately, forgiveness and hope inspired me, because it was at this time that I realized that this book was no longer the “secret story” it had started out being–it was a story that too many of us already knew. While sad, this kind of connection was more rewarding than any other part of the publishing process, because it brought me these new friends who understood my narrator as they were all her at one point in their lives. Their journeys toward healing and peace were also moving and have given me hope that one day soon, my narrator can find these things, too.
What’s next for you/for this character?
A House Made of Stars a bit of an anomaly in that it doesn’t wrap up as neatly as many novels typically do. Some readers pushed for an epilogue at the end of the book to tie up the ending a bit more, but I hesitated to include one, because the rest of my narrator’s story was so much bigger than a short note at the end of a book. So much more had to happen before she truly found closure about her childhood, so I decided to start writing a sequel to better detail this journey.
This book is untitled as of now, but takes place twenty years after A House Made of Stars has ended. The book is still in its first draft stage, but I am looking forward to learning more about this character as an adult and what she can teach me.
Come hear Tawnysha Greene read from A House Made of Stars along with UTK alumni Kristi Maxwell on Monday, October 3rd in the Hodges Library Auditorium at 7PM. You can also hear her talk, “Publishing Small, Dreaming Big: How To Market a Small Press Book to a YA Audience,” at 2PM in 1210 McClung Tower!
Taylor Gray is a senior at the University of Tennessee majoring in English with concentrations in Literature and Technical Communication. Through her studies, she has developed an interest in feminist and multicultural literature. In hopes of becoming fluent in Spanish, she is minoring in Hispanic Studies. When not writing or studying, Taylor enjoys reading thrillers, finding new music, and checking her horoscope. She also dedicates much of her time to the UT College of Architecture and Design as the first-ever communications intern.
Tawnysha Greene received her PhD from the University of Tennessee where she currently teaches fiction and poetry writing. Her work has appeared in PANK, Bellingham Review, and Weave Magazine. Her first novel, A House Made of Stars, was released from Burlesque Press in 2015.