Four girls who share the same name search for “home” inside the sequestered walls of a convent in Sarah Domet’s debut novel.
Enter to win a copy of the book HERE.
Sarah Domet’s first fiction novel The Guineveres opens with a chapter titled “The Assumption” about four girls all named Guinevere who are plotting to run away from a convent. Left by their parents for one reason or another, the Guineveres are bound together by their birth names and their stories.
With praise from Kevin Wilson, who calls it “some kind of wonderful miracle,” and Brock Clarke, who describes the book as a “revelation” similar to Jeffrey Engenides’ The Virgin Suicides, The Guineveres is one of the most anticipated books for fall. And while Domet certainly draws on her Catholic upbringing and the rites and rituals of the Catholic Church, she says she never intended to write a novel about faith.
“I always intended this book to be a coming of age story about four girls and their friendship and the family they form against the backdrop of the Catholic Church,” she says. Indeed the Guineveres—who go by Vere, Win, Ginny and Gwen—have formed their own family inside the convent. Isolated from the outside world and longing for the families who left them behind, the girls see four comatose soldiers who arrive at the sick ward as their ticket out.
In a novel that sneaks up on you with its subtle grace, Sarah Domet weaves the story of these four girls with that of the heroic lives of the female saints. We interviewed her by phone to ask about her inspiration for The Guineveres, how moving to the South has influenced her work, her writing process (she’s also the author of 90 Days To Your Novel) and how becoming a mother has changed her idea of girlhood.
Chat with Sarah Domet on Twitter this Friday, Nov. 11, from 1-2 CST using the hashtag #southernlit. We’ll also be giving away a copy of The Guineveres for Literary Friday!
On being raised Catholic …
SD: When you have the memory of a Catholic girlhood, there are a lot of interesting and unusual stories that arise out of that experience. When I would explain to friends or colleagues certain things that we did, like being shipped away to these religious retreats and our watches taken away, they’d think that’s a little strange, but to me that was part of growing up. I was always interested in setting a novel in that particular kind of environment, because I think it can be really challenging for young girls to grow up within this strict and rigid and confined environment. I was always interested in the saint stories and was fascinated with them as a kid. As I got older, a friend gave me a copy of Lives of the Saints in graduate school and I read them, this time with the perspective of many years and feeling like an outsider. I couldn’t help but think these were the stories I grew up with, and they seemed much more complicated to me. Male saints were going out and founding abbeys and displaying their faith in a very public way, while female saints seemed to be left to suffer in their bodies. The only way they could display their saintfulness was by inflicting suffering upon themselves. I thought I could really connect the stories of the saints and the suffering of the saints to that of young girls.
The Guineveres resolved to face adversity with grace, as the greatest of the saints had done. We’d recently learned during Morning Instruction that Saint Marguerite had survived Iroquois attacks, fires, and plagues, and that Saint Barbara’s own father had locked her in a tower for years. Still, we couldn’t help but feel more than defeated.” – “Penance”
What’s in the name Guinevere?
SD: I knew I was going to have multiple characters with the same name and would carve out nicknames for them. I needed a name that was versatile enough to be able to do that. I was one of seven or eight Sarahs in my class all through school. I wanted a name that had historical weight to it—it’s not a direct nod to the historical Guinevere but a nod to the historical weight of it adds to the mythical component of the novel.
Convents as safe havens …
SD: I remember my mom telling me that she remembered when she was a young girl and had her first job and for some reason they took her on a tour of a home for young, unwed mothers who were pregnant. It was sort of a convent where these nuns had taken in these women. It seems like a scene out of a science fiction movie or dystopia where all these women are being gathered under the roof of nuns to shield them from culture. One of the reasons I didn’t want to depict the clergy and nuns and priest as innately negative forces in the lives of these girls is because I know that historically, nuns in particular, had a history of providing a safe haven for young women. There are plenty of other novels or films or works of art that have this more stereotypical view of nuns as all stern and super strict. My goal was to make the nuns certainly strict and driven by the rules of Catholicism, but also really human, maybe even flawed themselves.
We turned our thoughts to Thanksgiving past, to our memories of sitting around white-clothed tables, some of us at least, the way we ate too much turkey and dressing and corn pudding and pearled onions and creamed spinach, then sat around talking about how much we had eaten. Inside the convent, gluttony was a sin, but outside, gluttony was the purpose of the holiday, the whole point. Didn’t the Sisters understand how the world operated?” – “Thanksgiving”
On moving to Savannah, Georgia …
SD: My husband and I moved to the South in 2010—I was teaching college at the time. Then in July of 2015, we moved to Savannah. Certainly living in the South has influenced my sense of writing and where I am in terms of how my geography is. Something I’ve always noticed and loved about Southern writers is there seems to be this almost anxiety of place, how do you both embrace and question the legacies that are more complicated? It got me thinking as I was writing: At the core, this novel is a coming of age story about girls, but also a meditation about home and what home means. It took moving to the South for me to think about some of these issues. I had never left the Midwest, so my meditation on home and place generated some inspiration for the novel.
Can you really write a novel in 90 days?
SD: When I was doing book events for 90 Days [her first book], one of the first questions was, ‘Have you written a novel in 90 days?’ At the time I hadn’t. I had done a lot of teaching so I felt capable of writing this book. I had to write 90 Days as a process of thinking through my process of writing this novel. I was really adamant about writing that first draft in 90 days, and I did write the first draft in 90 days. It essentially is similar in plot, but it was very different from the novel it ended up being. I spent several years revising it. Most revisions came even after it was purchased by my editor. I was revising when I was nine months pregnant still and finished the final version two days before I gave birth to my daughter. I had two deadlines pushing up, and because I knew I was having a daughter, I would think this is the only time in my life I’m ever going to be able to protect her from suffering—and there’s a lot of suffering in the novel. I couldn’t help but think what kind of stories would I want my daughter to hear. That was an interesting moment for me as a writer and soon-to-be mother.
On her next book …
SD: I got a two-book deal. The novel I’m currently working on, my editor has not yet read it. It’s set against the last two appearances of Halley’s Comet in 1987 and 1910 and follows the lives of two women on the brink of personal disaster.
Sarah Domet will be speaking at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home Nov. 20 as part of the 2016 Fall Lecture Series on the topic of “Spanning the Mason-Dixon: Who Can Write About The South.” The series is free and open to the public, and lectures take place at 4 p.m. in the parlor of the home.