Anca L. Szilágyi was born in Queens, raised in Brooklyn, and now lives in Seattle. She studied at McGill University; holds an MA from Columbia University; and an MFA from the University of Washington. A prolific writer of short stories, Anca received a Made at Hugo House Fellowship, a grant from 4Culture, a Jack Straw fellowship, and the inaugural Artist Trust / Gar LaSalle Storyteller Award. From 2012-2016 she co-curated The Furnace Reading Series at Hollow Earth Radio with Corinne Manning. Her extraordinary debut novel, Daughters of the Air has been described as “simultaneously elegiac and remarkably propulsive.” Anca.email@example.com
1. First, congratulations on Daughters of the Air. I found it tremendously compelling, simultaneously a page turner and a challenging read. You broke a mold in situating a young girl (not boy) alone in New York city. How did you conceive the plot? I’m interested in how you assembled the pieces. Do you have a personal connection with Argentine's dirty war?
Thank you so much! I do not have a personal connection to Argentina or the Dirty War. When I first learned of that history, in 2003 or so, I was very troubled by it, in part because it sounded like the Holocaust. I was in college and so perhaps naive, but I'd thought: hadn't we learned from the Holocaust already? How does history repeat itself? I suppose the personal connection here is that I'm the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors.
Around that same time period, I kept picturing a strange girl alone in the industrial neighborhood of Gowanus, Brooklyn. It's a mysterious place, with odd buildings and a long, terribly polluted canal with all sorts of flotsam in it: anything could be at the bottom of that canal. I decided the Dirty War was to be her history, and then I had to put those two pieces together.
2. You write lushly, as vividly as author I’ve read. What role do you believe texture and sense of place play in your story?
Place is enormously important to the story. It is the inspiration for it. I am interested in psychogeography--how we associate place with history, emotion, our internal lives. As Pluta wanders New York City, the ghostly memory of her father and her experiences back home in Buenos Aires follow her. This is also why the story is not told chronologically but in chapters alternating between 1980 and 1978, eventually converging. I'm also interested in the feeling that anything could be around the corner; there's a kind of magic to that, both treacherous and marvelous.
3, You deftly weave mostly two points of view, but actually four sometimes in the same chapter, sometimes on the same page. What is your own rule of thumb for point of view?
Yes--there are four points of view: mother and daughter, mostly, but also father and aunt. Each story or novel should have its own rule of thumb for point of view. In this case, I wanted to be able to access the minds of any of the family members that happened to be in a scene. A mentor suggested I create discrete chapters for each character, but that wouldn't accomplish what I'm getting after. I want the family to be a unit. When Pluta or Isabel are alone, their isolation should feel that much sharper given the absence of other family members' internal lives.
4, What was most difficult for you in writing this book? What were some changes you made as you reached towards completion?
The first draft was really hard; it took me years to finish, with lots of uncertainty. I decided going to graduate school and making the second draft my thesis might help. The biggest change occurred between those first and second drafts. The summer before my second (and last) year of the MFA program, I threw out several characters and changed the structure of the book from a linear, chronological story to the alternating timelines. This required starting from scratch, rewriting without looking back at the old version. I believe made it a stronger book. Later in the process I cut out a section that was beyond the current ending, a dreamier sequence that some trusted readers thought softened the end too much. I agreed with them; sometimes you don't want an ending to go on too long. I'm definitely a less-is-more kind of reader and writer.
5. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Read widely; read for courage; don't be afraid to experiment. And persist! All writers face rejection. Talent only goes so far if you don't work at it and keep trying.
Thank you, Anca. Congratulations on your superb debut. I look forward to reading short stories. https://ancawrites.com/about/