Our editor-in-chief Lauren Bender recently had this exchange with Constance Renfrow, our Issue #34 featured fiction author. Here’s what she had to say about her revision philosophy, her inspiration for “The Lady of the House,” and the balance of talent versus hard work in writing.
What inspired you to write this story?
“The Lady of the House” is the first story I wrote during my MFA program and was inspired by a number of prompts and challenges set during the residency. My then-advisor, Steve Amick, is a huge proponent of the third person, and when I confessed I only ever wrote in first person, he suggested I give third a try. I’d also taken this kind of ghostly photo of the silhouettes of three women, and I decided to use it as a prompt – that, somehow, they would appear in this still amorphous idea for a third-person story. But what really set the story in motion was an entry from the Forest Grove police logs: a woman called to report noises in the attic, but the investigation revealed nothing unusual. It was the quickest rough draft I’ve ever written!
Tell us about your writing process. Do you have a specific routine, time, or place where you write? Do you rely more on inspiration or steady work?
I have definitely become a “steady work” kind of writer. I try to write for an hour or two first thing in the morning, usually at my desk or the kitchen table, and I’ve found that sets the tone for the day. If I write in the morning, I’m much more likely to jot down notes about various pieces throughout the day, and then I’ll more purposefully write again late in the afternoon or evening. I also find leaving the document open on my laptop helps keep the story fresh in my mind and has helped me get comfortable writing outside of my routine.
What is revision like for you? How do you know when a piece is finished?
I prefer to revise than to write initial drafts, so for me, revision is really where I start to understand what my story is about and what exactly I’m trying to say. I usually revise multiple times, and in the early drafts, I will often completely re-envision what is already on the page. Character names get changed constantly, I switch POVs, locations, characterizations, tone, tense, style—whatever I feel may be needed to get down to the true heart of what the story is trying to accomplish. I suppose I know when my story is finished when I know that I have done everything I possibly can to the best of my ability. That I have pushed every scene to its logical conclusion, that I have trimmed away all the fat, that I know exactly why every line is where it is, and that I haven’t let myself or my characters off the hook or taken any easy outs. If I find myself thinking, “Eh, it’s finished enough,” then I still have work to do.
What I love about “The Lady of the House” is that it’s both a supernatural/ghost story and a dark/psychological human story. Have you written in the horror genre before? What topics or themes do you find you’re most interested in exploring through your work?
I would say in writing and stories, and in creating in general, I’m really most interested in exploring people. I’m fascinated by the facades we put up and the layers and motivations underneath; I want to know what a character feels the need to defend or hide, both from others and from themselves. I lean toward the gothic, so old houses, basements, and abandoned buildings make their way into my fiction, as do isolation and loss, repressed anger, the dingy, the dark, the gleams of light, and usually a fair amount of ambiguity. This is my first ghost story and my first piece to embrace the horror element, though I’ve since written about a few more ghosts.
The story masterfully builds suspense and then bursts into a very satisfying climactic moment, followed by an unresolved ending. How do you decide how much to give away throughout a story, and why?
I’ve always loved stories that say only as much as they need to, leaving room for multiple interpretations; in writing and revising, I try not to let my endings overstay their welcome. When I first began to learn about writing, I worried too much about “insulting the intelligence” of the reader, believing that if I clearly revealed basic facts of the story I would be talking down to my audience. In striving for subtlety, I ended up with a lot of obscure passages that the reader didn’t have enough information to parse. These days, I am conscious of how I reveal information, attempting to dole it out naturally, in a way that speaks to the point-of-view character’s personality, rather than willfully withholding it from the reader and therefore accidentally intruding myself onto the page.
If the ghostly figures in the story agreed to help Marla, how do you think they would do so? Would Armand be mysteriously thrown down a flight of stairs—or something less gruesome?
I think their revenge would be more psychological than physical; perhaps they’d start haunting Armand. I imagine they’d make him wonder why his dog is staring at the ceiling or random spots on the wall; faces he thinks he almost sees would flash across his high definition TV; he’d feel a sudden, inexplicable fear of drawing back the covers on his parent’s possessions in the attic. I think they’d gaslight him, never let him be certain that this isn’t all in his head, and leave him trembling and so alone in the realization that he has no one to confide in, because he’ll finally understand that no one will believe him. But I believe they’d also haunt Marla, except, in her case, their presence would be a comfort, a gentle sense of company.
You write in several different genres. Is there one that you are drawn to in particular? Is there one that came first and led you to the others?
I definitely consider myself a fiction writer. I suppose I see the world through stories, and when I want to express an idea, it’s rare that I don’t immediately think to do so through fiction. I do occasionally write poetry and articles, sometimes as a way to step back from a story that’s frustrating me and to let each piece inform the other, but usually my poetry and nonfiction come from some external motivation rather than an internal one.
In your bio you mentioned you are in the process of completing an MFA, and you also work as an editor. What are your thoughts on the perennial question of what can and can’t be taught about writing?
The idea that there’s something about writing that can’t be taught or learned—that you either have or you don’t—is certainly one I struggle with, both as a writer and an editor, and for a long time I found it to be utterly paralyzing. I’m still wrangling with it, but I’ve come to see it as a way to tell others, or to tell yourself, not to try, that it’s a way of excluding others or yourself from a conversation artificially made elitist.
In my program, we talk a lot about “talent” versus “hard work,” and I prefer to believe in working hard, striving to improve, reading, writing, rethinking, re-strategizing, rewriting, rewriting again. Writing is hard work, and if I had to pick one thing that “can’t be taught,” I would say it’s that desire to put in the hard work that’s necessary to keep growing your knowledge base and improving your craft.
What projects (writing-related or not) are you working on now?
I’m working on revising my Victorian governess novel, which I aim to have done by the summer, and I have two other novels in the early stages that I’m yearning to really sink my teeth into. I’m also putting together my thesis, which I hope to be able to expand into a collection of short stories.
Since we’ve grown out of a writers’ workshop, we like to ask: could you share a best—or worst—workshop experience?
I’ve been very lucky with my workshops; so far, they’ve all been very productive and supportive, so thankfully I don’t have any nightmare stories yet. A kind of best/worst moment though was at a mini workshop during a lit festival about two years ago, when one of the participants was giving me some fairly critical feedback. Another participant laughed and cut him off, saying something to the effect of: “Stop! You’ll scare off the newbie writer.” I might have been the youngest person in the group, which might be why she said it, but even though I was shy and nervous, I immediately slung back, “I’m not a newbie writer. You’re not going to scare me off.” Afterward, the first guy told me he thought it was cool I said that.