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Ambition, Secrets, and Sacrifice: Sari Wilson's "Girl Through Glass"

Girl-Through-GlassMuch has been written and said about the way last fall's big-buzz book, City On Fire, chronicled the world of New York City in the 1970s. Some of us around here would argue that Sari Wilson's Girl Through Glass does the same - even better – focused as it is around a girl growing up ballet-obsessed in that somewhat gritty place and time.

Another favorite author of ours, Kimberly McCreight (Reconstructing Amelia, Where They Found Her, and a new YA series called The Outliers, available this spring), sat down with Wilson to discuss her book.

Kimberly McCreight: One of the things, I adored about Girl Through Glass was learning all about the world of dance and the life of a young dancer. It was something I knew nothing about and now feel like I could almost teach a class. Are you a dancer yourself?

Sari Wilson: That's so gratifying! I wanted the reader to be immersed in the world of dance. That was something that really mattered to me, that you could feel the movement in the language, even if you didn't know anything about the ballet world. Like so many girls, I was a devoted childhood dancer—I studied ballet from about age eight to about age 14. I really fell in love with all of it—the movement, the rituals, the people. Then, after I left ballet, I danced modern through college (I went to Oberlin College) and for one wonderful year, I was a member of the school's dance troupe.

KM: The novel isn't the most flattering portrait of the ballet world. Did you intend it as a cautionary tale?

SW: Well, there are definitely cautionary elements to Mira's tale. Ballet is an often harsh world, and so much is demanded of young dancers in training. At a high level, the training is all-consuming and there is not much support for dancers once they leave that world. But at the same time, I wanted the novel to be a celebration of the wonders and joys of dance. It's a powerful and cathartic medium. For dancers, to dance is literally to live. I find the devotional quality of dancer's lives moving. So I wanted the novel to encompass several paradoxical truths about ballet, and dance—and by extension, perhaps, all pursuit of artistic beauty and excellence.

KM: Your novel is so rich in detail, both historical and modern. What kind of research did you do to capture the disparate time frames and scenes so vividly?

SW: I immersed myself in research—of the history of ballet, especially of the Balanchine era. I interviewed girls I danced with who are now adults, asking them to reflect on their experiences. I also audited a graduate-level Dance History seminar. But I also tried to make sure that whatever research I used served the story and the characters.

KM: Your book is told in alternating times frames. You also use both third and first person. Which point of view was easier to write and why?

SW: Definitely Mira's. The third-person point of view for Mira allowed me to capture her world, the setting of which was familiar to me—New York City, late 1970s and early 1980s, and a lot of the ballet world then. It also allowed me the distance I needed to insert myself as writer at times, in order to put into context what is truly at stake for her. I felt a lot of joy in seeing things through her eyes. Being in Mira's point of view was like rediscovering a lost world. I have to add here that the events of Mira's life are totally fictionalized—prompted by a lot of what-ifs—an exploration, maybe, of my childhood fears and fantasies. Kate was a different story. Kate's voice really came to me very clearly and I just had to write it down. I had so much less control over it.

KM: How did you balance the mystery element of the story—the plot—with the arc of Mira's character development in both the past and present?

SW: Well, this was definitely a challenge! I wanted to have a compelling and dramatic plot—one that was balletic, in a sense—but for me the true joy of writing is discovering characters. So Mira's character came first and I worked on her storyline until I felt that I was getting to the emotional truth of something. Kate's story provided a useful frame for the ordering and revelation of information about the past.... I don't outline, which means many, many (many) drafts. I do start with a general sense of the spine of the mystery—how it ends in particular—but the path I ultimately take to get there is as much a surprise to me in that first draft, as anyone else. (And, if you ask me: that's the very best part of writing.)

KM: Motherhood and daughter-hood are both significant themes explored in Girl Through Glass. Do you see the book as being more about one or the other or perhaps something else altogether?

SW: Well, I wanted to write about girlhood and adolescence and make it universal and compelling, because I think it is such a powerful time, filled with mystery. I'm also interested in the complex bonds between mothers and daughters. In Girl Through Glass, ballet is a crucible for exploring the pushes and pulls, the unfolding of selfhood of a girl. Also, I wanted to explore ambition and its costs—and the tensions extraordinary ambition puts on one's humanity and compassion for others.

KM: What's your background? Girl Through Glass is your debut, but was it the first novel you wrote?

SW: It's my first novel, yes, but I wrote several versions along the way in teaching myself how to write a novel! I've worked a lot of different publishing jobs and lived in a bunch of different cities. Then I did the Wallace Stegner Creative Writing fellowship and the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center fellowship. I moved to back New York City and published some short stories, but I kept getting drawn back to the material that became this novel, even though at times I felt hopeless. I've carried these characters around for a long time, Kate and Mira.

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