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Best-Selling Author Alice Sebold Talks About Her New Novel, The Almost Moon

Nov 8, 2007
Surrounded by modern art in the San Jose Museum of Art in California, best-selling author Alice Sebold talked about her books and her writing process. Sebold was the first lecturer in the museum's Creative Minds series. She spoke on October 25th.

Sebold began by reading a passage from her new novel, The Almost Moon. The novel, like her other two books, begins with a violent act. In this case, the main character Helen reveals that she murdered her mother, Claire. Jumping between the past and the present, the novel explores mother daughter relationships and the disturbing psychology of this family.

Sebold read from the passage just after the murder, in which Helen begins to feel a sense of freedom as she comes to the realization that she must hide the body.

After her reading, Sebold sat down with Kate Evans (a poet and teacher at San Jose State University), who interviewed Sebold on her books and her writing process. Audience members could write questions down on slips of paper provided to them for Evans to ask her.

Sebold said she spent two years trying to find the right voice for The Almost Moon, working this book from many different points of view, including the ex husband's first person and the mother's first person, before settling on writing the book from Helen's first person point of view.

Finding the right voice is vital to Sebold's writing process. "The book works once you have the right voice and the right obsession," said Sebold.

Sebold often uses the act of writing to discover where she wants to go with her writing, and seems able to toss out storylines and chapters that don't work with ease.

Sebold also wrote several chapters for The Lovely Bones , her bestselling first novel, that did not make it into the final draft. The Lovely Bones tells the story of Susie, a girl who is raped and murdered, and looks down on her family from her own personal heaven. Sebold said that she used these chapters to explore Susie's heaven, so that Susie and readers would not feel lost in that world. For Sebold, letting go of chapters, or of entire novels, is all a part of the process of writing.

The Lovely Bones is currently being made into a movie, which will be directed by Peter Jackson, known for his work on The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Sebold said she gave notes and feedback on an early script of the film, and that she feels relaxed about the process of seeing the film come to life.

"I think if you are a control freak this process will drive you insane," said Sebold. "I'm a process freak, so I'm loving it. At this point it's exciting to watch." She said the filmmakers have been very friendly and open with her.

Both novels reveal a violent side of humanity. One audience member asked how Sebold could maintain her peace of mind while exploring such dark topics. "Not writing about or facing it," answered Sebold, "that would freak me out. It's better to face it."

Sebold feels a need to get to where she understands human violence and emotions. "It's mistake to look at someone who does a violent act as a monster rather than a human." She explores this in her books, with Helen who murders her mother in The Almost Moon, and Mr. Harvey who murders Susie in The Lovely Bones. It was important to her to approach such characters as human, "so that they have depth." Besides, said Sebold, "It's much more frightening to look at them as human."

The conversation then moved on to other topics of discussion. Sebold spoke briefly of her challenges growing up with dyslexia. She grew up in a house hold of readers, and said that "it gives you a good sense of fight." Her sister's reading levels were far more advanced that her own. There was a level of shame surrounding her reading abilities.

"Humiliation, shame, despair -- these are good things," said Sebold. "They create a kind of motivation."

It wasn't until Sebold was in her twenties that she started loving novels, and not until her thirties that she started to love the "old dead authors." Sebold said that poetry was
her way into her love of reading. "I'm obsessed with reading poetry, so that probably influences my writing," she added.

The conversation also drifted into her writing day. Every morning Sebold rises at 4 a.m. to begin writing. "I'm a big believer that if you're up before dark, the judges are still asleep," she said. "It's how I sneak up on myself and manage to do my work."

For the last question of the evening, an audience member asked about how Sebold's love of dogs influences her writing. Sebold laughed. "I love dogs because they have nothing to do with human language," she said, "... and they are perfect beings upon the earth. What more can I say?"
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