Back in 2012, we published Tawnysha Greene’s 275-word story “Wilderness.” It was a wonderful piece that said so much in those few words. Three years later, Greene’s debut novel, which features the same family from “Wilderness,” is receiving rave reviews. And rightfully so. We were lucky enough to get the chance to chat with Tawnysha about the novel. Here’s what she had to say:
A House Made of Stars is a beautiful title. Tell us about the inspiration.
Thank you! The title came from research I did on the constellations my narrator would look to in the sky. I was intrigued by the Greek mythology behind these constellations and the stories I found ended up being an excellent parallel for the novel.
One of the constellations my narrator looks to often is Cepheus, named after a king who chained his daughter to the sea. It also resembles a tilted house, and I imagined this image to be illustrative of the narrator’s own family. Her family is like that house: headed by a powerful father, but also broken and askew.
What did you find most challenging about telling this story through a young narrator?
One of the most difficult things was knowing how much emotion to allow my character to feel. With the severity of the abuse and her young age, it would have been easy to make her very emotional throughout the book, but I was afraid that this would damage her ability to tell this story. So I eliminated as much emotion from her as possible. The lack of emotion would also be telling, because it would show that these occurrences of violence were not out of the ordinary for her.
However, there were some scenes in which I made her too stoic, so in some of the later revisions, I added more hints of emotion for her–fear, anger, and happiness–to better humanize her and allow her to connect with readers. I hope that I found a good medium.
This is a fantastic book, but it’s not an easy read. How do you handle writing such difficult subject matter?
With topics like poverty, mental illness, and abuse, it is easy to tiptoe around these subjects, because it would be simpler to just sweep them under the rug, but we need to talk about these issues.
My narrator’s mother does this often in A House Made of Stars. She lies to cover up their money struggles and her children’s abuse. She teaches her children to do the same to protect the narrator’s father. However, in doing so, she keeps the family trapped in this cycle of struggle that continues until someone has the courage to break it. These issues and the stigma surrounding them silence far too many families, because they are afraid to speak up.
I owed it to my narrator to speak up. So I wrote about poverty, mental illness, and abuse in the opposite way her mother would have described them. I wrote about them honestly. I wrote about them with a sense of rawness that could only be described by a child. I wanted these scenes to be hard to read so that even if you wanted to turn away from them, you couldn’t. Because we shouldn’t turn away from these things. We need to see them, we need to hear these voices, and we need to know when to speak up ourselves.
Although most of the reviews for A House Made of Stars have been overwhelmingly positive, you did get a 2-star review on Goodreads that said, “I liked this book but it was sad and hopeless.” What do you say to a reader who views this story as sad and hopeless? And how does a review like this fuel you as a writer?
The book is sad and conveys some hopeless things, so I don’t disagree with this reader there. However, the book is also one about hope, strength, courage, and resilience, and I couldn’t have conveyed these things without the sadness and devastation that came before it. Triumph cannot be fully acknowledged without also acknowledging the struggles it took it get there.
I try not to pay attention to ratings, because I know that it is impossible to please everyone. Readers all have different expectations, but even so, I am grateful to this reader for the two stars and the review. At least this reader gave the book a chance in reading it, and I appreciate that.
I first became familiar with your work through your submissions to Bartleby Snopes. How do lit mags play a role in your career as a novelist? What do you think is the value in lit mags as a whole right now?
Literary magazines are an invaluable asset to writers, because they allow one to make connections in the literary world and gain a readership.
I could not have written and published A House Made of Stars if not for the generosity of the editors who published pieces of the novel beforehand. Often, my work still needed revision when I submitted these excerpts to literary journals, and many of these editors had some wonderful ideas for making the narrative better and the characters more vivid, so I am very grateful for the lessons they have taught me.
These editors have also been extraordinarily kind and generous in promoting the work of their former contributors, too. Several of them have published reviews of the book and posted interviews as well as promoted the book on their social media. The literary community is a wonderful family, and I am so appreciative their support.
Bartleby Snopes is no exception. You have given me so much help in your editorial feedback, and your generosity in writing and publishing this interview is so humbling. Thank you.
What’s next for Tawnysha Greene? I’ve heard you’re working on a new novel. Any spoilers?
I am working on a new novel, a sequel that takes place twenty years after A House Made of Stars has ended. As an adult survivor of abuse, the narrator grapples with issues such as healing, forgiveness, and hope, and this is a difficult journey for her. I am in the first draft stage of the novel and am still figuring out how her story will end, but I am looking forward to learning from this book and everything my narrator still has to teach me.
Tawnysha, thank you for chatting with us. Congratulations on the success of A House Made of Stars, and good luck on the next book.