Zan Romanoff On Story Origins

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.

Today's guest for the WHAT is Zan Romanoff, debut author of A SONG TO TAKE THE WORLD APART. She also writes essays and fiction, mostly focused on food, feminism, television and books. She graduated from Yale in 2009 with a B.A. in Literature, and now lives and works in Los Angeles.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

The origins of A Song to Take the World Apart are definitely murky: when I first started writing about Lorelei, it was in a short story, she was in her 30’s, and the focus was really on her bartender boyfriend. Luckily someone in a writing class suggested I switch the perspective to hers, which was the right thing to do: as soon as I started writing about how she’d figured out what her powers were and how to use them, I realized that I had stumbled onto an idea that let me talk about a bunch of my favorite subjects—music, magic, adolescence, family inheritances, women’s place in history and myth, to name a few. I sort of let myself pretend I was still writing a short story until I was many, many words in, though. 

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

I always have a hard time describing this book to people because the concept and the plot are essentially both: a girl figures out who and what she is. Song was a nice first novel that way, because it really is a pretty straightforward journey: Lorelei doesn’t know what’s going on with her or her family, and then she finds out! Most of the work of the book was building out her emotional world: her relationships to her family, her friends, her boyfriend and his friends and his family, etc. It’s pretty much all emotional arc that drives the plot (such as it is) in the book.

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

Yes, yes, lord yes. I’m not much of an outliner, but I’ll usually keep a handful of blank scene documents in the sidebar of my Scrivener file with notes reminding myself where I want to go next—scene titles like “pool” or “conversation with X,” just so there’s some skeleton in place. I’d say typically about half of those scenes end up getting written. Sometimes those changes are minor, and sometimes whole emotional beats end up getting scrapped when they go. The plot of Song also changed semi-significantly in revisions with my editor at Knopf—it ends up in pretty much the same place, but how it gets there is different than in the early drafts…

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

I can come up with ideas like crazy—most of which I know immediately are just funny concepts, things I’ll never actually sit down to write out. Then there are a handful that seem compelling enough to start working on, which sometimes pan out and sometimes don’t. I have not yet figured out how to tell the difference between the two, which is frustrating, because I can only work on one piece of fiction at a time. 

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

So far this hasn’t been a problem in terms of starting projects—what happens more often is that I’ll be a third or so of the way through something and struggling and start thinking maybe this was the wrong idea, maybe I need a new one.

I recently got stitches in my arm and was taking mental notes the entire time about how I felt before, during, and after the process of being badly injured. Do you have any major life events that you chronicled mentally to mine for possible writing purposes later?

Oh god, I don’t think anything has ever happened to me that I haven’t mined for writing purposes. I’ve actually written about that! Now I’m mostly conscious of it, but it’s been really fascinating to get through writing these first two books and see how much stuff gets put in them that I’d been saving for years without quite knowing why—details about houses that have stayed with me, stories about outrageously rich people in Los Angeles doing outrageously rich people things, emotional dynamics from friends’ families that I found fascinating—truly all kinds of stuff.