An Interview with Sara Nović, by Peter Kispert
June 16, 2015
Sara Nović’s stunning debut novel, Girl At War, concerns the realities of war and their effect on and shaping of a girl’s coming of age. Here, Nović responds to questions posed her about the novel’s development, her relationship with her characters, and the one question she wishes she were asked about her novel—and her answer to it.
Finding the right structure was definitely the hardest part of writing this novel for me. I knew I didn’t want the book to be chronological–I was thinking quite a lot about memory and trauma, and I didn’t think a straight narrative would be able to get across the fragmentation that comes along with the kind of shock Ana experiences. I also wanted readers to have a bit of a break after the violence that occurs at the end of part one; I didn’t want them to get fatigued and stop feeling the full weight of what was happening. Still, I wasn’t sure where to start the book for a long time. I tried starting in the present-day and jumping backward, and that didn’t work at all. Then I realized the easiest way to get the reader to understand the underpinnings of this very complex conflict would be to learn about it alongside the protagonist, and that beginning scene with the cigarettes is the moment Ana first recognizes an ethnic or cultural divide in her city, albeit in a small way.
The book took about 5 years to write (and then there was a lot of editing to do after that!) But I didn’t write it at a consistent pace. The first time an iteration of these characters appeared was in a short story I wrote as an undergrad. I think it was the first or second story I’d ever written, and I had no idea what I was doing, but my professor was very encouraging and sort of coaxed me into making it a bigger project.
Even a few years in, when I realized, “Okay, I think I may actually be writing a novel here!” I was always working on unrelated stories and essays, too. When I was in the MFA I didn’t work on the book at all for two semesters–I wanted to focus only on short stories which, I think because they can be read and workshopped in their “complete” form, are the best way to learn about plot and pacing and what makes a narrative work.
Girl At War moves at a brisk but never hasty pace. A lot of this seems to be tied to a sense of urgency and stakes for Ana and her family that resonate internally and exert external pressure. Which scenes were the most difficult for you to write, and why?
Child Ana was much easier for me to write, on the whole. I think this is because the tension in that part of the book is so overt, and the stakes are literally life and death, which every reader understands and identifies with on the most basic level. Ana as an adult was much more difficult to write, not only because her turmoil is all internal, but also because as readers I think we expect our adult characters to be able to make sense of their thoughts, feelings, and surroundings, and this is exactly Ana’s struggle as someone dealing with trauma.
Originally the road trip on which Ana and Luka embark was much longer. I think I needed to write that stuff to work out the nature of their adult relationship, but it didn’t need to be in the final book. Similarly, initially I’d written a lot of interactions between Ana and her classmates at college. In the end those characters were nonessential, but they were useful for me, in understanding the ways in which Ana was incapable of connecting with Americans, or just people in general.
How much do you identify with Ana? What falls centrally in the Venn diagram of experience, and how important was that to you in the telling?
The way in which I identify most with Ana is probably in personality. Both of us grew up as extreme tomboys, and are introverted and avid readers as adults. I also have a little sister, over whom I feel similarly protective. And the big, driving-force questions in our life of “where do I fit in? where is home?” are the same, though maybe that’s true of everybody. As a Deaf person, I often find myself sliding between languages and cultures, and sometimes getting confused in that process, and that’s a feeling Ana experiences upon return to Croatia, so that’s another thing we share.
At my book launch someone in the audience asked me a question I’ve been thinking about since: “How would the book be different if it were told from the perspective of someone from one of the other ethnic groups in Yugoslavia?” I thought that was such a cool question, and at its root, a really important one. If Ana had been a Bosnian or a Serb, obviously her understanding of why the war was being fought would’ve been different, particularly as a child, but technically, any of the terrible things that happened to Ana could potentially have happened to anyone from any group. That’s the scariest thing about war–especially a war like this in which unregulated paramilitary groups commit war crimes against civilians–which I think Ana comes to understand later as an adult, when she says something like, “the guilt of one side doesn’t prove the innocence of the other.” In the context of the many conflicts happening all over the world right now, I hope that’s something that sticks with readers.
Peter Kispert’s stories have appeared in Slice Magazine, The Journal, Tin House online, McSweeney’s online, among other journals, and as Kindle Singles. He has worked with Electric Literature and Narrative Magazine.