Abigail DeWitt: The World Began on D-Day

by Marie Hefley

Abigail DeWitt

Asheville, North Carolina, has long been known for its writing community, tracing that history back to giants like Thomas Wolfe, Carl Sandburg, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Wilma Dykeman, to name only a few. This tradition continues today, inspired by local university classes and writing programs, a multitude of bookstores, and a vibrant and growing group of writers, including contemporary luminaries such as Charles Frazier and Ron Rash.

A name to add to that list is Abigail DeWitt, whose three novels all touch on one event that profoundly impacted four generations of her family of origin. Sometimes that event is front and center; other times it’s the backdrop for her characters’ personalities and behavior. It’s always an inspiration. “My mother is a major source for my fiction,” she says, “and D-Day figures in much of what I’ve written.”

DeWitt was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where her parents taught physics at the university. The family lived on fifty acres outside of town. “We had a real community,” DeWitt says, “and I went to a school I loved.” When she was eleven, they moved to Austin, Texas, to a rented house in the suburbs. “I hated it, so I went to a rural boarding school about an hour north of Asheville, then to another fairly rural boarding school in California, and then to Harvard for my undergraduate years.”

From infancy to young adulthood, DeWitt spent every summer in the French Alps with her mother, her three sisters, and her mother’s relatives. She loved France, despite the occasional language barrier and the challenge of adapting to a deeply ingrained culture still reeling from World War II. Yet, at each summer’s end, she still looked forward to going back home to the U.S.

DeWitt didn’t conform to the usual pack behavior of American teenagers. “I was always somebody who went my own way,” she says. “In college, I moved off campus as soon as I could get permission. I lived in the Boston/Cambridge area for eleven years. I wasn’t into the rah-rah Harvard thing at all. I had a job waitressing, and most of my friends were waitress buddies. I see this tendency in my daughter. She goes her own way, with more grace than I did. My mom was that way, too. It seems to run in the family.”

DeWitt loved living in Cambridge, and moved back there after a stint at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she earned an MFA degree in creative writing. “While I was in Cambridge after Iowa, I started teaching very part time. Then I got a grant from Iowa to work on my first novel. It stipulated that you couldn’t have a job and keep the grant, which was ten thousand dollars. Although I lived on the cheap, I wasn’t going to make it in Cambridge on that amount of money. So, at that point, I moved back to North Carolina and lived in a little cabin in the mountains and met my first husband. We lived together in North Carolina for two years. He decided he wanted to go to grad school, so we went back up to Boston. After he finished grad school, I got pregnant, so we moved back to North Carolina.” She now lives “deep in the woods about a half-hour outside Burnsville" [North Carolina].

Over the years, DeWitt has taught creative writing in a variety of milieus. “Sometimes I taught part-time, sometimes full-time at Appalachian State, sometimes through private workshops that I led, and sometimes through the Great Smokies Writing Program.” In addition to her novels, she's published several articles and short stories.

DeWitt’s family history and her close relationship with her mother, Cécile DeWitt-Morette, inform and define much of her work. While studying for an advanced degree in physics, DeWitt-Morette lived with her family in Caen, on the coast of Normandy, under Nazi occupation during WWII. To circumvent the travel restrictions imposed during the war, she enrolled at the Sorbonne, in Paris, which allowed her to have a travel pass. She was in Paris to take an exam on June 6, 1944. On that same day, her family home was bombed; her mother, sister, grandmother, and housekeeper were killed. Her stepfather and fifteen-year-old sister, who were outside when the bomb hit, survived.

“My mother’s youngest sister spent weeks helping her stepfather dig the family out from the rubble. She and my step-grandfather heard my grandmother and great-grandmother crying beneath the stones, but by the time they’d lifted the stones away, my grandmother and great-grandmother were dead. Of Nicolette [the middle sister], all they found was an arm.”

Since there was no way to communicate, DeWitt-Morette didn’t know about her family’s fate until weeks later. “No one spoke about it except my mother,” DeWitt says, “and she talked about it a great deal, because, I think, she couldn't make sense of it.” It was these years of hearing the war stories, in great detail, that branded them onto DeWitt’s consciousness, forming the nucleus of so much of her fiction. “It feels like my origin story,” DeWitt says, “as if the world began on D-Day.”

DeWitt-Morette continued her studies during the war and became a theoretical physicist. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, invited DeWitt-Morette, on the recommendation of Nobel laureate Niels Bohr, to work at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. She was twenty-six and held a Ph.D., earned under the tutelage of Frederic Joliot-Curie, son of Pierre and Marie Curie. While at the Institute, DeWitt-Morette built on the “path integral formulation method” of Richard Feynman, a pioneer in quantum theory, for creating pictorial representations of the mathematics that describe the behavior and/or interactions of subatomic particles. These representations are called Feynman diagrams. DeWitt-Morette’s work enabled a wider application of Feynman diagrams in fields other than quantum theory.

DeWitt-Morette’s original goal was to go back to France to help rebuild it and revitalize the sciences there. However, while at the Institute, she met and married an American physicist, Bryce DeWitt. “This was the 1950s, so there was no discussion of his moving to France," says DeWitt about her father. "There weren’t the kinds of opportunities there for him that there were in the U.S.”

But DeWitt-Morette still wanted to go back to France. In addition to her own preferences, it was no small matter that her relatives were unhappy about her permanent move to the United States. They lost half of their family in the war, and, as they saw it, now were losing her, too. “They were collateral damage of the D-Day bombings,” DeWitt says. “I don’t think they were thrilled with these big, barbarian American children, either.’

DeWitt-Morette’s solution to her dilemma was to create a summer institute for physicists at Les Houches in the French Alps. Every summer, she took her four daughters there while her husband stayed in Chapel Hill. The institute attracted the world’s greatest physicists, including Stephen Hawking; more than twenty of her summer students went on to become Nobel Prize laureates.

In the States, DeWitt-Morette wasn’t recognized or rewarded for her qualifications and accomplishments. “In Chapel Hill, my mother was dead-ended as an adjunct,” DeWitt says. “She had no graduate students, no office, her colleagues asked her to type papers for them. Here she was, a woman who had worked with the giants of theoretical physics, who had been invited to the States by Oppenheimer, who had already made significant contributions to the field, and they would not give her her own office. Meanwhile, in France, she was a star. IBM had offered her the job heading IBM France when it was starting up. She went on to be named an officer of the French Legion of Honor.” The situation in the States improved eventually. The University of Texas at Austin offered both of DeWitt’s parents tenured positions, and at that juncture, the family relocated there.

When DeWitt-Morette left France behind, she didn’t leave her memories of the war. “My mom very much had PTSD," DeWitt says. “It definitely affected her parenting style. I suspect it wasn’t just the war that made her what she was, though. Some things came from her mother.”

One clear directive was that the stoicism DeWitt-Morette developed suffering through the war was expected of her children. “For instance, we weren’t supposed to cry,” DeWitt says. “If you didn’t know the war, you don’t know suffering. Vulnerability, weakness—those things weren’t welcome. She was very, very physically affectionate with me, yet she wasn’t someone I turned to in difficult moment.

“I think war trauma goes down through generations,” she says. “When my mother died, one of my first thoughts was ‘We were raised in the rubble.’ We had grown up with her metaphorically sifting through the rubble trying to find the bodies.”

In addition to a visceral understanding of the war, DeWitt echoes another trait of her mother’s—survivor’s guilt. “I feel that survivor’s guilt,” she says. But hers isn’t related to the war. “I have it in relation to my family of origin because I feel I had it easier. I was the last one. By the time I came along, they a had a housekeeper who was my babysitter and whom I adored.” Her parents were very permissive with DeWitt, although they hadn’t been with her older sisters. “I think they were tired of disciplining kids. They weren’t paying such close attention by the time I came along. I feel guilty about that. That survivor’s guilt is a theme in everything I write.

“Our summers in France started when I was a baby and were amazing,” DeWitt recalls. “We were in the Alps. My mother was busy running the school, so we—my older sisters and I—were just running around. It was like Heidi. I pretty much went back every summer. I even waitressed at the school for a few years. [As I got older] I visited our many relatives and helped my mother restore a house she bought. I tried to go back every year, to the coast of Brittany, the Alps, Paris.”

As much as DeWitt loved France, when there, she felt a sense of cultural dislocation. “I experienced it myself enormously,” she says. “All through the '60s, France was still in many ways the way it had been in the years immediately following the war. It took so long to recover that France of that time felt, smelled, and sounded like France, minus the war rubble, of the late 1940s. The culture was uniform. Everybody dressed the same way, everybody ate the same meals, in schools everybody learned exactly the same things. It was a much, much poorer country than the U.S. Many places had squat toilets; toilet paper was little squares of wax paper. Nobody I knew had a TV, most people didn't have refrigerators. It was wonderful in a lot of ways, but worlds apart from North Carolina in the 1960s. America was broad white sidewalks and shopping centers, televisions, prosperity. It was new and bright. We would say ‘Ohhh, do we have to go to France?’ when summer came. It was so jazzy in the U.S.”

A challenge DeWitt confronted in France was her frustration with the language. “Although I am mostly bilingual—the key thing is mostly—my French was a step behind,” she recalls. “I didn’t get subtleties; I didn’t get jokes. I couldn’t express myself comfortably the way I can in English. I’m not uncomfortable, but I can’t always enter deeply into a conversation. When I was little in France, I became convinced that I was intellectually disabled, since I was always lagging. Also, I was in this super-intellectual family. Had my fear been proven true, that would have been the worst fate, because being smart was so important in our family.”

Wherever she went in France, DeWitt recalls feeling an unspoken but very real sense of the war, as though it had become part of the country’s DNA. “Reminders of the war were everywhere. You’ll see cannonball holes, or a church with beautiful ancient stained glass windows and one that doesn’t match because the original was destroyed and it’s the replacement. There were war memorials, signs saying ‘Give up your seat to the war wounded,’ widows everywhere, people on crutches—none of it was hidden away, the way it would be in the States. Because of what my family had endured in the war and because of my own homesickness when we stayed with relatives, there was both a richness and sadness I associated with France.”

DeWitt didn’t feel completely at home in the States, either. “I was totally comfortable, but I felt there were things people just didn’t get—like war. They had no clue. There was Vietnam, so we knew what it meant to have soldiers drafted and sent over, but it wasn’t on American soil. There wasn’t that visceral sense. In France, I was the one who was a step behind. In America, I was often thinking, ‘You don’t understand.’ I was critical in America and felt criticized in France.”

As a child, DeWitt recognized the effect of her mother’s not being like the other mothers in Chapel Hill. “I was very close to her but also embarrassed. My mother had a heavy French accent. Unlike the stereotype of French women—remember, she was a scientist— she didn’t cook, she wasn’t fashionable, she didn’t wear makeup, she didn’t shave her legs. She was just a weird, nerdy mom with a heavy accent. No one in Chapel Hill in the ’60s looked or sounded like her. Sometimes we’d have weird clothes bought for us in France. Sometimes American kids made fun of us.”

The issue of clothes, so important to young girls, cut two ways. “Mother gave us a lot of freedom,” DeWitt says. “When I was eight, I saved my allowance and went to Belk's, where I bought brightly flowered bell-bottoms that I was totally in love with. When we left for France that year, they were carefully folded on the top of my suitcase. When we got to France, we’d always go first to Grandfather’s house. He was very, very, very traditional. He had a gorgeous apartment in Paris with Louis XIV furniture and heavy oil paintings on the walls. That year, my first morning there, I put on my flowered pants. We were heading out to see a great-aunt who lived in a suburb outside Paris. My grandfather took one look at me and said, ‘You’re ugly, but we don’t have time for you to change. We have a train to catch.’ The whole train ride, everyone stared at me, because everybody still dressed the same. Boys and girls wore navy blue shorts and skirts and white shirts—that was the uniform. I’m there in my flowered pants! Walking to my aunt’s house, everybody in the streets stared at me. When we got to my aunt’s, she opened the door and said, ‘Oh, my little gypsy!’ She really was my favorite of all. She would try hard to keep us from feeling dislocated. She’d scour a million stores trying to find ketchup for us, since you couldn't easily buy it in France and she knew we loved it.”

DeWitt’s three published novels, as well as the one she’s currently working on, all touch on D-Day in some way. “I’m preoccupied with France in my fiction because it's a place where I can’t comfortably express myself. It’s the part of me that is sort of frustrated. I can’t fully say everything. I can write in French, but I don’t write creatively in French. I’m always trying to integrate it psychically.”

DeWitt’s mother imprinted the details of the war in her daughters’ minds through storytelling. “We were all riveted by her stories,” DeWitt said. “She was a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful storyteller and she had a beautiful voice.” DeWitt acknowledges that using such sensitive family experiences for her fiction could be risky. She teaches her students to “think of everything as material,” but to be ready to take the consequences. While the writer is using others’ realities to craft her story, she is filtering those experiences through her own lens. “Every character I’ve created…is a version of myself; but they are versions of myself mixed in with other people’s smells, mole-hairs, mispronunciations, bald spots, limps. I’ll steal anything that works.”

She illustrates this point by referring to her youngest aunt, the fifteen-year-old who dug her family out from under the rocks and debris of the bombing. “She doesn’t speak of it, but I do, even knowing she might not want me to. This is the dark side of writing, for which there is no answer.”

DeWitt’s first book, Lili: A Novel, took over ten years to write. The protagonist, Lili Ravaudet, a philosophy professor, struggles with the existence of God and seeks “a single, perfectly formed argument she could offer the world: a proof of God’s nonexistence that could not be softened by anything, not even by the notion of mystery.” She ponders this big issue while caretaking a severely disabled son and while caught between a husband who no longer desires her and a lover who is everything her husband is not.

While Lili’s life spans both world wars and the turbulence of the post-war years, thereby drawing on DeWitt’s family’s history, the book is not explicitly about those events. Instead, against that backdrop, it explores Lili’s intellectual pursuits and her conclusion that atheism, or the absence of God, was the path to purity, altruism, and decency.

A New York Times review said, “What makes [Lili] more than interesting, what bodes so well for the future of this novelist, is DeWitt’s sophisticated choice of narrative voice.” DeWitt laughs at this. “I was trying to figure out what I was doing,” she says. “I had no idea. I was blindly going along. When I saw that line in the review, I thought, I didn’t really give any thought to the narrative voice.” Her stumbling resulted in a story wherein, again as the reviewer saw it, “Lili’s consciousness is narrated not by her but through her…She does not tell her own story…Her case is made for her; it is not one she would ever make for herself.”

Although Lili was written in the close third-person point of view, in her later works, DeWitt writes in first-person. “Initially, I was turned off by a first-person narrative,” she says. “Now I love it. First-person is fun for me because I used to study theater. It’s like acting on the page, doing a monologue on the page, and I love that.”

DeWitt’s second novel, Dogs, traces the coming of age of Molly Moore, beginning when she is twelve and ending when she is an adult, facing adult truths. Molly’s changing geographical backdrop and the disintegration of her broken family have autobiographical echoes; yet, this story is about a fictional character who makes mistakes big and small as she tries to become her authentic self.

“Molly is what I imagined would have happened to me if I hadn't left Texas, both in terms of some of the family dynamics and in Molly's thinking her only road to salvation was to be ‘bad,’ ” DeWitt says. “I think a lot of fiction is what if. What if that hadn't happened, or if it had happened, and everything else was the same. Also, I really love teenagers; I love people at transitional stages—newborns, the dying, teenagers. Teenagers are messy, they're sort of molting, half-feathered. I find that beautiful and moving. I love teenagers, so it's easy to be in their mind. And maybe I never quite grew up.”

DeWitt’s latest novel, News of Our Loved Ones, uses her family’s experiences during D-Day and WWII as basic facts in a story that clearly reflects her mother’s trajectory and its influence on DeWitt. Unlike many historical novelists, she didn’t need to do extensive formal research to present her story in an accurate manner. “My mother knew how to make stories come to life with details,” she says. DeWitt’s sharp personal observations of life in France during her early years also contribute to the wealth of detail in this book.

“I did have to double-check dates to make sure I got them right,” she says. “There is a funny story about that. The book was almost in galley form when it occurred to me that because D-Day was an important day in history, there might be information somewhere about what the weather was like then. In my opening chapter, which takes place on D-Day, I had a girl in love with the world, thinking about the red-haired boy. I wrote it as a beautiful sunny day, and she’s opening the shutters and the sun is pouring in. I’m online with no time to spare, and I read that the weather was really bad and they almost had to cancel D-Day. I was in a panic. What can I do?” She shakes her head and laughs. “So, I had to go back and write that she loves the gray sky!”

DeWitt started News as a collection of short stories that evolved into a novel while still retaining some of the structure of a collection. “My readers have been divided into two camps—people who responded really positively to it, and people who get confused trying to see what the connections are between the different chapters. I get that—those are two different brain types. I would love to say to those who are confused, ‘Don’t worry about the connections. They’re there, but forget ‘em. Sometimes they’ll show up and it’ll be a surprise and that’s great, but don’t worry about it. Think of it as a collection of stories; it’ll be a much more pleasurable read that way."

DeWitt is working on a new book that grew out of News. When her editor urged her to turn News into a novel, she needed to write new chapters to fill in the blanks and take out others that didn’t directly relate to the family. She didn’t kill all of those darlings, however. “There was a chapter that I needed to discard,” she says, “but I was heartbroken to have to do it. That chapter is the basis for my new book.”

She’s reluctant to reveal too much about the new book. “It’s really embryonic,” she says. “If I talk about it too much, I’ll let off too much steam and then I won’t have the urge to write it. In terms of process, I really like it when there’s something that gets cut from something that then generates something new. This chapter is a departure point. Something happens in the war that’s a departure point, and then it jumps way ahead.”

In addition to building much of her fiction around D-Day and the war, DeWitt also employs common threads in her works. Some commonalities are light or just circumstantial, like the presence of twins or of redheaded boys. She laughs about these when she thinks about how they came about.

“My Dad had reddish hair, but what’s funny is that my husband was a red-head. I included a red-haired character in Dogs as a cameo for my husband. In News of Our Loved Ones, the red-haired boy is an important character early in the book and he reappears later, when it’s essential that he be immediately visually recognized. And, because of my husband, I like the idea of a girl having a crush on a red-haired boy.”

She thinks for a minute about the presence of twins. “I don’t know where the twin thing comes from. In News, there are two sets of twins, which I didn’t do deliberately. It’s just a convenient way to get multiple children where you need them to populate a story." She adds, almost surprising herself, “News is a fictionalization of family stories, and there were adopted twin boys, my uncles, in the family.”

The more serious commonalities provide the bedrock on which her stories are based. Because D-Day and WWII underlie everything, the stories necessarily are replete with deaths, disintegration of families and their environs, losses that impact several generations, and conflicting feelings about God and Catholicism. All of these themes reflect dynamics that played out in DeWitt’s family.

Lili explores the protagonist’s conflict between faith and the intellectual argument for atheism. “My mother was Catholic; my father wasn’t, and they worked it out. I was raised Catholic, and am grateful I was. I grew up believing I had a soul and my soul required my care. I still believe that. But there were family members who had big conflicts, and that’s part of the family’s story. Some started out very devout and because of some major trauma became fiercely atheistic. Also, it’s a part of the French culture, so if you’re writing about France, Catholicism is likely to be in there.”

Dogs tells of a broken family in a contemporary setting. D-Day and WWII provide a backdrop to the story, but some of the interpersonal dynamics and relationships that build and break can be traced to people and events in her family history. She has taken autobiographical details and transformed them into a compelling and fresh story about a fictional family.

News of Our Loved Ones depends most heavily on the war years and takes place during that era. The characters resemble DeWitt’s relatives and their fictionalized stories echo those of her family. A main character, Geneviève Delasalle, is partially based on her mother.

Using details from loved ones’ lives can put the author in a precarious position, from accusations of defamation and libel to damaged personal relationships and destroyed friendships. Since DeWitt’s novels so closely follow her family’s history, she recognizes the pitfalls, as she discussed in an article, “When Writing Fiction Hurts the People You Love,” and defends her use of those painful details.

“I tell the family stories,” she says, mentioning again the young aunt who dug her mother out of the rubble and would never talk about it. “I don’t know how she feels about my books, but I can imagine that it would be very painful for her even just to think about it. And, here I am, using this material. Although it affected me, it certainly didn’t affect me the way it affected her; and yet, I still make that decision to do it.”

So why this choice? “The reality is that everything I write is about me, although I’m using details from others’ lives,” she says. “Their thoughts are my thoughts. I'm all of them. Fiction writers borrow events and external details from real people, but it's often themselves they're actually revealing. I'm very introverted and private, so I hope the redemption in the fiction is that if I write something that somebody identifies with, the boundaries between us dissolve. To get to that point, I'm using other people's details, and I think it's something to be aware of.”

She also talks about characters that can hurt the author. “In News, one character is a Nazi.” For the character to be believable, DeWitt needed to be in his head as she wrote him. It affected her in a way she didn’t expect. “It was uncomfortable,” she says. “I was driving to work in my husband’s four-wheel drive because the roads were bad. I was approaching an intersection and people were turning left in front of me. I came within inches, or maybe feet, of plowing into them. I was thinking ‘Get out of my way. What are you doing crossing in front of me?’ I had a red light, and I didn’t even see it. I was thinking, ‘I’m here and I get to go where I want to go.’ It was just a split second. I slammed on the brakes and thought, ‘What has happened to me?’ What’s going on?”

Yet, sometimes a story demands an evil presence to move it forward. What to do? DeWitt couldn’t just write him out of the story, but for her own sake she needed to exorcise the Nazi’s persona from her consciousness. She decided to pull back and not write about him for a while; she went back to him only when she could think about him more objectively.

And for future stories? “I don’t know that I should try to avoid a character like the Nazi. If he’s essential to the story I wouldn’t want to shy away from it, but in general, I’m attracted to characters who are really, really flawed but whose essential goodness is obvious to me, even if it’s not to everyone else."

DeWitt is very open about what she likes and dislikes about writing. “My favorite part of writing fiction,” she says, “is getting to imagine I’m other people, you know, playing make-believe. What I don’t like is the anxiety, the ‘I can’t do it,’ the self-doubt. Having taught writing for thirty years, I know that every writer has some version of this. It isn’t about doubting the work, but it’s about fearing the work. I love it when I’m doing it, but to get myself to do it…I have a studio out across the driveway from our house, and sometimes I feel like there are men out there with machine guns just waiting for me.” She laughs at the thought.

“As for a particular thing I doubt about my work, it used to be that I thought I’d never write a beautiful sentence, but I don’t have that anxiety any more; so, when I get a sentence right, that’s another favorite part about writing for me. Now, my doubts are free-floating. They can be anything. The story doesn’t hold together; I don’t understand this character well enough; I’ll never get this published; I’ll never go deep enough; I don’t live in the world enough to have anything to write about. It’s always going to be there, so just keep writing anyway. It’s like the devil and its ability to shape-shift. There’s always going to be something to doubt.”

Negative reviews and criticism upset her, but she feels compelled to read or hear them. “I have friends who say, ‘Don’t look, don’t look.’ I’m not a person who, in any realm of life, is able to not look at something. So I look, and I feel bad, and then I get over it. There is an antidote, though, that I don’t use enough.

“My tendency is to fixate on the negative. If I get a positive, I say, ‘That’s really nice,’ and move on. I think the antidote is to flip that. Spend time thinking about the nice things people say. Re-read their notes, print them out. I’ve not done that enough.”

She relates a recent experience with her newest book. “I went to a book club a couple of nights ago, and they started by going around the circle and each person said how they responded to the book. I should have died and gone to heaven at that moment. It wasn’t just that they said nice things, but that they were so elegant about it, and said insightful things about the book. In reality, when something like that happens, and it’s amazing, and I’m buoyed by it for a day or so, and then somebody I don’t even know says something on Goodreads and I’m just like [DeWitt mimics crying]. It’s just human nature.”

When DeWitt was teaching undergraduate creative writing students at a university, she developed a method that encouraged productive critiquing and kept the class inspired. “These were kids,” she recalls, "and they didn’t know how to critique, so they would say devastating things to each other, or not say anything. So, I made them all write down all of their comments for each other. They couldn’t just say them out loud.

“For each story we discussed in class, they had to type out a series of answers to questions I had given them. Most of the questions were value-neutral: what do you think this story is about, what sensory details did you notice? Was there other sensory information you wanted? Finally, I’d ask, if you could make only one suggestion, what would it be? Now, write a full paragraph on what you thought was strongest in this story. They weren’t allowed to say anything else. They could make only one critical suggestion. I told them each draft has different needs, and this will go through twenty drafts, so for the next draft, what’s the one thing to work on? This method made it possible for people to be inspired to go on and revise.”

In creative writing classes, especially introductory ones, the subject of craft often looms large. DeWitt takes a different approach, even in a craft class. “I tend to emphasize process over craft,” she says. “I’m more interested in process and in the psychological barriers people have to writing. I think that when you get past those, what comes out is naturally so strong that it won’t take a lot to revise it. If you try to approach writing through craft without having dealt with the psychological barriers, you’re squeezing it out. It’s much harder to get anything out there and to get anything out there that’s really powerful.”

DeWitt’s approach is one that David Ebershoff, the author of The Danish Girl, also used to learn how to write. DeWitt says, “There’s something about craft I’ve discovered in recent years and am so excited about. I had heard the writer Larry Brown was doing some other kind of work but wanted to be a writer. He taught himself to write by copying out great books by hand, word for word, comma for comma, sentence for sentence. I was really interested in trying that with my students at Appalachian State, but how could I grade a class on copying? I tried it in one class—ten pages, hand-written. The dramatic increase in their ability to craft a story was like nothing I had ever seen. It was unbelievable. So now, when there’s a craft discussion, I just tell people to go copy out pages. That’s what will teach you. You would think it would make people derivative, but that’s how painters learn to paint.”

DeWitt uses this method herself when she needs to “oil the gears.” She says if a writer copies out several different authors, it will help him avoid being derivative. “What copying out does is make it as if you’re flying on the back of a bird. That way, you discover this is how you turn, this is how you lean, this is how you dip down, this is how you go up. It’s totally in your body that you’re experiencing it. I think that’s more powerful than any discussion of craft.”

She doesn’t dismiss craft entirely. “I also learned my craft from teaching craft. So, although my classes focus primarily on process, when I found myself, for example, having to teach a class on how to write dialogue, which I did pretty instinctively, I looked at a book and saw things I never thought about. That made my own dialogue stronger. I’m also aware of aspects of craft that I don’t get. I guess that goes back to--what do you doubt about yourself? I doubt my craft, especially structure. I don’t necessarily see how something works, but I can tell if it does. A lot of it is unconscious for me. I’m in awe when somebody can see craft so easily.”

In a time when many writers rely on software to help them create, format, and publish their work, DeWitt is an admitted throwback. “I write by hand,” she says, “and then I put it onto the word processor. I use Word to type it up. I don’t have outlines. I mostly free-write and then see what I’ve got. What works for me is to enter into a dark room and try to find my way around it. That makes it fun for me.”

DeWitt has three pieces of advice for emerging writers.

First: “Get a copy of Dorothea Brande’s book Becoming a Writer, written in the 1930s. It was one of the first books to deal with right brain/left brain, how to get past writer’s block—all of that. A lot of the books that followed from that thank her for her pioneering work. It’s the best of all of the writing process books I’ve ever read. I must say, though, that there is one piece of her advice I really disagree with. She has all these exercises, and says if you find you can’t do them, give up—you don’t want to write enough. After teaching for thirty years, I said, ‘No. I don’t agree with that part.' Everything else in there I completely agree with.”

Second: See above—“copy” great writing by writing it out.

Third: address your psychological barriers to writing. “Know that life conspires against you. It will make you feel like you can’t do it. Being a human being will make you feel you can’t do it. It’s not about you—it’s not about your writing. It’s just how it is for everybody, so you have to find a way to make yourself keep doing it. All writers struggle with that. If what works for you is to take a class so you have deadlines, or to join a writers’ group, do it. Or impose artificial deadlines on yourself—those are really good. Find a way to make yourself keep doing it.”

Abigail DeWitt is the author of three novels: Lili (WW Norton), Dogs (Lorimer Press), and News of Our Loved Ones (Harper, October, 2018). Her short fiction has appeared in Five Points, Witness, the Alaska Quarterly Review, the Carolina Quarterly, and elsewhere. She has been cited in Best American Short Stories, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and has received grants and fellowships from the North Carolina Arts Council, the Tyrone Guthrie Center, the McColl Center for the Arts, and the Michener Society.

Marie Hefley, a long-time member of the Great Smokies Writing Program and Managing Editor of this publication, is a graduate of the Master of Liberal Arts and Sciences program at UNC Asheville. She invites you to read her interviews with Wiley Cash (Issue 9), Robert Beatty (Issue 14), David Ebershoff (Issue 18), Frances Mayes (Issue 19), as well as several other authors, found in the Great Smokies Review Archives. She has also been published in The Forest Companion and Smoky Mountain Living.