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Adelia Saunders On How Her Adventures In Archives Shaped “Indelible”

by Brendan Dowling on January 18, 2017

Adelia SaundersIndelible centers around Magda, a young Lithuanian woman who possesses a burdensome ability: she’s able to read the major and minor events of people’s lives on their skin. She copes by not wearing her glasses (rendering her barely able to see at all), but she’s jolted out of her routine when she reads her own name on the face of Neil, a young American graduate student studying abroad in Paris. Meanwhile, Neil’s father Richard has also traveled to Paris to research the life history of his mother, a prolific and influential author who abandoned him as a toddler. As the novel progresses, Saunders deftly reveals the different secrets that comprise all three characters’ lives and shows how they are inextricably linked. Kirkus Reviews praised Indelible as taking “up the mantle of myth, history, and storytelling with beautiful, sure-footed prose,” while Library Journal called it “hypnotically peculiar, exquisitely plotted, and teeming with suspense.” Adelia Saunders spoke to Brendan Dowling via telephone on October 19th, 2016.

The book follows the three main characters who are separated by age differences, educational opportunities, and, in one case, citizenship. How did you develop each of their specific voices?

The easiest one was Magda. I borrowed her accent and way of talking from my host sister from when I was a high school exchange student in Latvia, which is right next door to Lithuania and has a lot in common linguistically with it. So I based Magda’s way of talking, and also her way of thinking, on my experience in Eastern Europe—on people who I had known there and conversations that I’d had.

The Neil character felt fairly natural. I felt like I knew a lot of guys like him. It was probably the most like my own voice as an American and I wasn’t too far out of college when I started working on the novel.

Since Richard’s story is told in the first person, he’s in charge of his own voice and he’s very conscious of being a storyteller. I wanted that portion of the story to be told by someone who thinks of himself as a storyteller, as opposed to someone taking us through scene by scene as the other characters do.

Because he’s doling out information selectively based on his own comfort level.

He’s not a hundred percent a reliable narrator. He’s telling the story that he wants to tell.

It was interesting to play around with the idea that there are the stories that we tell ourselves and then there are other versions of those stories—the true version and other people’s versions. And they’re all different.

All of the characters are keeping secrets from each other and each in turn is discovering things that totally change their perspective. Were those secrets all in place when you began writing the book or did some develop along the way?

Some definitely developed along the way. When I started I knew I wanted these people in the story together, but I didn’t have much of an idea of how exactly they would come together.

For me it was cool to feel it evolve and realize, “That little thing that was in there at the beginning is now going to be so important.” So it was fun to discover those connections. But I did want it to be about these different realities. These people are existing very rationally inside their personal realities, which no one around them has the least idea of. So these secrets change the way they interact with other characters and how they how they deal with the world.

Magdalena goes through life bumping into things and squinting. No one would guess that she’s not wearing her glasses because she doesn’t want to read facts about people written on their skin. But that is her reality and it changes everything she does.

All three characters are very solitary and don’t have any support systems when the story starts.

They’re isolated in different ways. I don’t think they would even necessarily think of themselves in that way, but they are.  It was important that even at the end they aren’t together, yet something has happened so that connections have been made. Even though the characters are physically alone they’ve been pulled together like a drawstring pulling these disparate parts closer.

Was it hard not to play favorites with the characters and not let one overshadow the other two?

Once the process of this book involved other people that became more of an issue. There was a time when somebody wanted me to cut one of the characters and I didn’t want to. People also advised me to put one character a little more in the spotlight. So I would say because the characters carried different amounts of weight in terms of the narrative it was difficult to balance them—and I’m not sure I necessarily got the balance right. But I would say when the story was purely my own, before anyone else had read it, it had a slightly different weight to the characters than they do now.

You talked about Magdalena’s ability to read people’s lives on their skin and the novel has a big element of magical realism in it.  How did that trait make its way into the story?

I liked the idea of this story existing in the world as we know it but having this one element of fantasy dropped in and seeing what that did to the characters, some of whom know about it and some of whom wouldn’t believe in it if you told them. I made the choice not to get into the mechanics of the ability—why exactly is it happening and what exactly it is—because Magdalena herself doesn’t really know or understand it.

I ended up doing a fair amount of research in the Lithuanian Historical Archives on an unrelated project. I got really intrigued by all these facts that would be contained in a person’s file from many years ago. You would have bureaucratic documents of birth, death, and marriage and all of the sudden you’d turn the page and there’d be this deeply personal item or a little caption that gave you an idea that there  was a much larger—maybe tragic, maybe exciting—story behind these documents. Sometimes you would get a letter written in the person’s handwriting or a school exercise. I was fascinated by that hodgepodge of documents that came to be all that was left of a person’s life. I liked the idea of a body turned inside out with its archives written out for one unfortunate person to have to read.

Both Richard and Neil are engrossed in different research projects and the reader gets to witness huge moments of breakthrough for each of them. How did you balance giving the reader the pertinent information without becoming too dry?

(laughing) Who knows if I got the balance right? I hoped because both Richard and Neil are so intrigued by their research that the reader would also be intrigued. It was helpful to use Richard because he’s a narrator who doesn’t know the full story. I wanted us as readers to see the adventure—because I did see it as an adventure in the archives—unfolding through his eyes.

In my own limited experience doing archival research I found that there were moments of great excitement where really unbelievable things would be found. And yes of course, you’re just sitting in the archives looking at an old fraying document but those moments of discovery happen more often than people might expect. So I felt it was fairly natural to have excitement in the archives, as unlikely as it sounds.

Inga, the novelist in your book, gets criticized by her contemporaries for using real life as inspiration for her novels. What’s your opinion on authors mining other people’s lives for their stories?

As a reader I think a good story is a good story. There’s such a long, well developed history of authors stealing stuff and using it when it makes for a good story that we as the world tend to forgive them for it. Although I do think there’s been a shift over time. Nowadays the tell-all memoir is so common. We love true life stories.

My impression is there was a time in literature when you weren’t considered a real novelist if you were essentially reporting somebody else’s story. You were a craftsman maybe, but not an artist. I personally share that belief. There’s something so freeing about making things up. But every story is based to some extent on some kind of real experience, even science fiction. It would be hard for me to feel that I could just rob a person’s story and present it as fiction. On the other hand, I would probably read that book if it were good.

At one point Neil’s research advisor tells him “fall too much in love with your subject and you’ll find the answers you already know.” Does that advice resonate for you as a writer?

I thought of that more as a historian. A lot of this I wrote while I was in graduate school studying international relations. We talked a lot about the stories that become history and the way that histories have political and social power. A lot of distortion happens. We have what we want to believe and we have the facts. We can often fit the facts into what we want to believe even if it isn’t exactly a perfect fit. Those things can lead to all sorts of complications on a world level and on a personal level.

As a writer, anyone in their tenth grade English class has been told you should write what you know and I think there are good reasons to do that. Personally I find it interesting to write about stuff that I don’t know much about or that doesn’t feel too familiar. You’re stifled if you’re writing about stuff that’s too much your own. There’s something freeing about writing, even if you’re putting a guise of strangeness over something you’ve really experienced. It’s nice to write in disguise.

You went to graduate school for international relations. Has writing sidetracked you from another career?

Since I was a child I’ve always written things but even now I wouldn’t say necessarily I think of myself as “a writer.” I like Chekhov’s model, how he was a country doctor who took care of his patients during the day and then went home and wrote amazing plays and stories. I like the idea that people who write exist in the world and they do other things and hopefully the other things they do are interesting and give them cool ideas for writing.

Practically I wrote this because it was something I enjoyed doing and then it took up more and more time. It just so happened I was able to find bits and pieces of time to write this book. I had kids after graduate school so the end of the novel was written during naps. But because my life ended up having these little pockets of time this book came into existence. So the short answer is I didn’t set out to write a novel or be a novelist, but in the future I would like to write more.