Sharon Dilworth is the author of two collections of short stories: The Long White and Women Drinking Benedictine, and novels: Year of the Ginko and My Riviera. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA where she is the director of the creative writing program at Carnegie Mellon University.
What was the inspiration for “How to Stay in Haiti”? How did the story develop/change from conception to completion?
The writer Herbert Gold once wrote that there are only three kinds of people who go to Haiti: missionaries, mercenaries, and misfits. I thought about that when I went to Haiti. My husband and I had to spend some time at the Hotel Oloffson in Port au Prince waiting to get on a flight out of the country. I had read about the hotel in both Graham Greene’s novel, The Comedians and Amy Wilentz’s A Rainy Season. The place did not disappoint. It oozes stories and characters and situations. People passing through, everyone sitting on that verandah telling their stories. We’ve been back to Haiti but never to the Oloffson.
How did the main character, Caroyln, first form in your imagination? Was there a pivotal moment, in the course of writing the story, where you discovered something unexpected about her?
I wanted to give my protagonist, Carolyn a reason to be in Haiti but one that reflected this spirit of endless waiting that I witnessed there. So I gave her a mission that even she knows is futile. She knows her sister. She knows nothing will go the way she wants it to. I feel that way about Haiti.
The setting is obviously not just a backdrop to the story but an essential element, and it feels as authentic as the story’s characters. What made you choose to set the story in Haiti?
Haiti looms large in my imagination and in my life. We sponsored a boy from the village where we worked and he became part of our family. His wife is Haitian and they have a child together. They go back when they can. It’s a place like nowhere else, a country that can’t seem to get a break, politically or economically. It’s hit with complete corruption and natural disasters, things that devastate the place over and over again. And now it feels like things there have gotten even worse and I can’t believe what everyone there must be dealing with.
How would you describe your writing and revision process? What have you found to be most helpful for you when dealing with writer’s block?
I tend to work on a few pieces at once, perhaps as a way to circumnavigate writer’s block. But it happens. I usually get stuck when I’m about half way through a piece. I have an initial idea and write until I’m sure where I want to go next. That’s when the best thing for me is to step away from the desk. I started rowing about two years ago. I row with Steel City Rowing Club here in Pittsburgh and the other members are much better than me. Much, much better than me, so when I’m sculling in the boat, I can’t think of anything but making sure my stroke matches theirs and that I’m doing everything to keep the boat moving and afloat. It’s a great way to not think about writing or the story I’m working on. The break always helps.
What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve received as a writer and what advice would you give new writers?
Advice to writers. Readers are essential. You need someone to read your stuff and see if you’re doing what you think you’re doing. Optimally it’s someone you don’t live – that gets too tricky — but someone who can read your work with a critical but not too intrusive eye. You don’t want someone else to edit in their voice or their visions but if you can get someone to read your work, it’s really important. Also I think writing gets better the more you do it. Graham Green used to write 500 words a day. (He is one of my favorite writers) – 500 words seems doable even if you have a full time job/family/everything else in life etc. So I think that’s my best advice. Get some writing done every day.