Author Features / Essays / Features / Fiction

Quilting Without a Pattern: On Making a First Novel

by Kim Church

I don’t quilt. I don’t even sew. But I regularly watch a sewing show, which for me is like watching magic. The host of the show, Nancy, sometimes uses the word herself: “And then a little magic happens,” she’ll say, demonstrating some trick. In yesterday’s episode she said, “This is the magic where I break all of the rules of the traditional Lone Star quilt.”

I never try to understand what Nancy is doing. I don’t want to spoil the mystery and wonder of it. During yesterday’s show I closed my eyes and listened. Nancy is a poet. “Press the seam. / Use plenty of steam.”

For someone who has never quilted, I think about quilting a lot. When I was stranded in my first novel and despairing that I might never find a way to complete it, I took inspiration from quilters.

The novel, Byrd (Dzanc Books, March 2014), is the story of Addie Lockwood, an independent single woman who gives birth to a son and surrenders him for adoption without telling anyone, even the baby’s father. I wrote a complete draft of the book in first person, with Addie narrating. I wanted Addie’s story to have the intimacy of a confession. The structure I chose was a familiar one: a simple linear narrative. As a nervous first-time novelist, I felt the need to rely on a traditional form.

I thought I was being sensible. I spent years on that draft.

When I began revising, I realized the structure didn’t work. Addie doesn’t know enough to tell her own story. She makes choices for reasons she doesn’t fully understand, and her choices have effects she can’t see. As I’d written it, her narrative was strained, incomplete; it didn’t reveal her. The structure I had imposed, one I’d chosen because it seemed safe, turned out to be a jail for my character.

I was at Vermont Studio Center when I had this revelation. I remember announcing to Rikki Ducornet, our visiting writer, “I’m not going to write my next book this way.” Rikki gave me a penetrating look. “Why,” she said, “would you wait for your next book?”

Meaning, start over. Advice no writer wants, however necessary it may be.

I spent the next three days walking around in the snow. I cried until my face was chapped and raw. Then I went back to my room and started over.

I broke the long narrative into small pieces. Small pieces are what I like most and do best. I like to compress and distill. Even my short stories are short. I admire the economy of poetry and flash fiction.

As I took apart the manuscript, salvaging what I could, I also began writing new scenes from different points of view—Addie’s family and friends, the father of her baby. I gave the father, Roland, his own parallel life with all new characters. I created new characters to interact with Addie and help flesh her out. I added an astrologer, a sort of one-man Greek chorus.

As I deconstructed and constructed, wrote and rewrote, the story became more layered and complex. The book took on new life.

I had found a way into the material.

But I had no idea how to shape it.

Gee’s Bend, Alabama, is a tiny, isolated, African-American farming community in the crook of a river bend. For over a century, the women there have been making quilts of their own design—abstract, asymmetrical color-field quilts made of work clothes, Sears corduroy, mattress ticking, flour sacks, and other cast-off materials. The quilts are serviceable: they keep families warm. They are also art. The women display them on clotheslines. The designs are simple, often minimalist, and striking, composed mostly of strips and blocks in irregular shapes and unlikely color combinations.

A year after I restarted my novel, I saw an exhibit of 60 Gee’s Bend quilts at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC. They were unexpected, beautiful, unlike any quilts I’d ever seen. The women of this tiny backwater had used scraps and imagination to create work that was innovative, compelling, and unique.

Quotes from the quilters were printed on the walls of the exhibit.

Andrea Williams: “How I start to make a quilt, all I do is start sewing, and it just come to me. My daughter ask me the other day what I was making, and I said, ‘I don’t know yet; I’m just sewing these pieces together,’ and the quilt looked pretty good. No pattern. I usually don’t use a pattern, only my mind.”

I bought the exhibition catalog and took it to my writing studio, where it became my daily inspiration. Every morning before I began work, I would open the book and consult quilts. (I’m reminded of the line from the Eric Pankey poem, “Sortilege,” that Amy Hempel quotes in her Paris Review interview: “He opens a book at random and consults randomness.”) Each design was as surprising as it was satisfying. I noticed how a single slice of red in an otherwise neutral bar quilt could bring the whole thing to life. How the thinnest, palest floral border could soften a pattern of geometric solids. How subtle gradations of color could be just as dramatic as bold contrasts.

The work-clothes quilts have an almost human quality. The fabric is faded, stained by dirt and rust and sweat. Denim, especially, carries the imprint of the person who has worn it—the trace of a body, the pressure of elbows and knees.

I noticed how each design moved my eye. Each had its own visual rhythm, irregular, syncopated.

I copied quotes from the women and taped them to the wall of my studio.

Arlonzia Pettway: “Jennie Pettway told me, ‘You don’t have to worry yourself about trying to make a Star of Bethlehem. . . . Just take what you know and do what you want to.’”

Nettie Young: “In the quilting bee time, I started using patterns, but I shouldn’t have did it. It broke the ideas I had in my head. I should have stayed with my own ideas.”

One of the characters in Byrd—Addie’s brother, Sam—believes that there is a right way to do everything, even if it isn’t always apparent. When I first started over on my novel, I indulged in that kind of thinking. I let myself believe there was a preordained structure for my material, one that, if I worked hard and proved myself worthy, would somehow reveal itself to me.

This belief kept me writing for a long time—too long. Well-meaning friends would ask how the novel was going, and I would take the question as mockery. I began to wish I’d never told anyone what I was up to. Too late, I understood why Dorothea Brande (Becoming a Writer, 1934) had warned new writers not to tell people they’re writing.

When the women of Gee’s Bend sit down to piece a quilt, they don’t wait for a pattern to manifest itself. They don’t have that luxury. They have to work quickly because their lives are full of other work—in the fields, in their homes, among their families. A skilled quilter works “in the lap,” piecing and stitching as she goes, so that the whole design isn’t revealed until the quilt is done.

Geraldine Westbrook: “I just went to putting them together, just get me a needle and some thread and sitting down and just went to work. I was just doing the best I could. When you sit down you got to get yourself a mind of your own, figure out a way to put them together.”

I decided to try working this way on my novel. I started piecing it together, making up a pattern as I went. When it was time for a long chapter, I stitched scenes together. When it was time for a letter, I inserted a letter. The episodic structure felt right for the story, which is a fragmented family history. I began to consciously think of the book as a quilt—a family quilt for Addie’s absent child.

Mary L. Bennett: “I just taken me some pieces and put it together, piece them up till they look like I want them to. That’s all.”

My novel isn’t long—239 pages spanning 45 years. It’s written in chapters of different lengths from different points of view interspersed with Addie’s letters to her son. It doesn’t look like other novels. But I hope it is whole. I hope it has life in it. I hope it’s something a reader can wrap up in for a little while, get warm, maybe find some comfort.

Bloom Post End
Quotes from Gee’s Bend quilters are collected in The Quilts of Gee’s Bend (Tinwood Books, 2002). A catalog of quilts can be viewed online.

Kim Church’s stories have appeared in Shenandoah, Painted Bride Quarterly, Mississippi Review, the Norton anthology Flash Fiction Forward, and elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize nominee, she has received fellowships from the North Carolina Arts Council, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Millay Colony for the Arts, and Vermont Studio Center. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with her husband, artist Anthony UlinskiByrd is her first novel. Her website is kimchurch.com.

Click here to read a Q&A with Kim Church.

Click here to read an excerpt from Byrd.

Homepage photo courtesy of Emily Barney/Flickr: cc

3 thoughts on “Quilting Without a Pattern: On Making a First Novel

  1. Pingback: ICYMI: Links Roundup for Mar 21, 2014 - storyacious : storyacious

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