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Mabel, Mabel, strong and able! Get in here and set the table!
Those of you who are old, like me, will remember that rhyme.
Dr. Mack Roark said, "Our past informs our present and our future reaches back into our present to define who we are." In terms of our heroine this is very much the case; she has dreams for her future but until she can forget and forgo what happened in her past she will never fulfill those dreams. Her journey to do this makes for a very nice “beach read”.
Shout-out to Maggie Boyd for this thoughtful review. Thank you for the buzz!
What types of novels do you write? Why do you choose to write those types of novels?
I write what’s known as commercial fiction or women’s fiction. I’ve also published contemporary romance novels and historical romance novels. Like most writers I know, I write what I love to read. I picked up a paperback romance while studying some horrid advanced math topic in college, and it gave my mind a welcome break. Ever since that time, my goal has been to write the kind of books that uplift and entertain readers when they most need it.
When did you get your first novel published? What was that feeling like?
I sold my first novel in 1986, and it was published in 1987. At that time, I was in my 20s, a math teacher at the Kinkaid School in Houston. I was also a young mom and schoolteacher with a toddler and two dogs. When the editor called me to say she wanted to publish my book, one of the dogs had just yarked on the floor and the baby was making a beeline for it. This was before cordless phones, so I simply took the phone call. I guess you could say my feelings were mixed, but since I was achieving a huge goal, it was a great feeling of accomplishment. But it was not glamorous!
Were your novels rejected before you first got them published? How many times and how hard was that?
I stopped counting my rejections. Back in the ‘80s, there were a lot more publishers for the kind of books I was writing. Nowadays, there are just a few major traditional publishers left–HarperCollins, Random House, St. Martin’s, Simon & Schuster, Hachette. An emerging writer gets rejected by the literary agents she contacts to represent her work, and she gets rejected by editors who work for the publishers. I sent my work out dozens and dozens of times, and received both form and personal rejection letters. It was hard in the sense that I had to keep working at my craft and I had to keep sending out my work. It was NOT hard because I knew I had set an ambitious goal for myself, but it was something I wanted. And how hard is it to go for something you want? Do you make a living as an author? And what percentage makes a living as authors?
I’ve made a living as an author for the past twenty-five years, and I was the sole income for my family up until I remarried in 2012. This is an extremely rare situation for an author, but I’ve worked hard, made good choices and sought out the best people in the business. A writer is self-employed and works from contract to contract, so it definitely has ups and downs based on sales, the market, trends and the economy in general. The percentage of writers who make a living at their craft is incredibly tiny! If you want a number, you could contact authorsguild.org to find out the results of their regular survey. (The Authors Guild is a great resource.)
What’s the best part of your job? What’s the worst part of your job?
The best part of my job is writing and talking about writing (like this interview) and hearing from readers. At the moment, it’s pouring rain outside, but I can look out my window and see the ferry chugging past my beach. Mount Rainier is visible in the distance, despite the rain. There’s a roaring fire in my living room, a chihuahua sleeping on my legs and a doberman lying on the floor next to me. I’m drinking a mug of PG Tips tea and making stuff up that will ultimately be published in 2017.
The worst part of my job is taking care of business. As I mentioned above, a writer is self-employed, so she has to be on top of bookkeeping and accounting, promotion and marketing, social networking, tech support–everything a large business does, only she’s just one person and it can be awful. For example, I just spent about an hour on the phone trying to get help installing WordPerfect X7 on a new computer. (That is my writing software of choice.) That’s an hour I don’t get to spend writing, and it’s frustrating. But then I tell myself, people go to jobs they hate, every day, so I can get through this hour and get this done.
Where do you get your ideas?
Another Dr. Seuss quote: “I get all my ideas in Switzerland near the Forka Pass. There is a little town called Gletch, and two thousand feet up above Gletch there is a smaller hamlet called Über Gletch. I go there on the fourth of August every summer to get my cuckoo clock fixed. While the cuckoo is in the hospital, I wander around and talk to the people in the streets. They are very strange people, and I get my ideas from them.”
What he’s saying in his own inimitable way is that ideas come from everywhere–a photograph of a stranger. A childhood memory. A chance remark by a friend. A brainstorming session with other writers. Inspiration is everywhere. I usually know I’ve hit on something when I feel it in my gut. The idea intrigues me–What happens when a woman wakes up from a coma to discover her husband has divorced her and left her penniless? (Family Tree) What if a squabbling couple drives of a cliff and dies, and their wills leave the kids to two different people? (Table For Five). What if a woman drives her daughter across the country to college, and all along the way, they sort out their issues? (The Goodbye Quilt) What if a high school girl interviews an author and learns a huge secret, eh?
How much research do you have to do?
Probably more than you would suspect when reading one of my novels. Research is constant. Every geographical location and every time period has to be researched until it feels authentic to the reader. Every career a major character has–same thing. You have to sound like an expert, whether you’re writing about an EA-6B Prowler pilot (The Ocean Between Us), a photographer who is losing her vision (Home Before Dark) or a maple syrup producer (Family Tree).
The trick is to do enough research to sound authentic without boring the reader. The other trick is to keep from spending all your time on research.
Do you outline your books or do you just freely write?
Both. I start with a general idea and a sketchy outline, a few pages talking about the character, situation and setting. I write a more detailed synopsis (I’m using this term interchangeably with outline) to make sure the pieces of the story all fit together, and then I write. I compose the book in longhand, in a Clairefontaine grid-ruled notebook, using a fountain pen with peacock blue ink. There are a couple of reasons for this. 1) I’m left-handed so I need quick drying ink that doesn’t smear as I drag my hand over the page. 2) I wrote lots of journals when I was young and so I associate these tools with creativity and fun. 3) With paper and pen, I’m not tempted to be distracted by the digital world. To some, writing in longhand seems like extra work, but it helps me think and limits distractions. It’s also a shout-out to the early me–the emerging writer dragging her notebook wherever she goes.
Do you write about your interests?
Absolutely. All the topics of my books are topics that are relevant and interesting to me, such as recovering from trauma (Family Tree), caregiving (Starlight on Willow Lake), Nazi plunder (The Apple Orchard), running a cooking school (The Beekeeper’s Ball) or being a librarian in charge of a Christmas Pageant (Lakeshore Christmas) are all examples of things that intrigue me that turned into books.
Was it hard for you to get started as an author?
No. It was hard to make my way to a self-sustaining career as an author. Getting started, meh. I had that mom (see above). It takes incredible focus and a willingness to work hard, hone the craft, fail and pick up the pieces, succeed and follow that success to the next level. There are a lot of people with stories who want to be an author, but are they willing to do what it takes to make it happen? It’s no coincidence that the most successful writers I know (and greatly admire) are also the hardest working–Debbie Macomber. Nora Roberts. Erik Larson. Robert Dugoni. Jodi Picoult. Terry Brooks.
Have you ever gotten writers block? If so, how did you overcome it?
I don’t get writers block, but I do get stuck. I question myself about what should happen next, where it’s going, is it going to work for the story, is it going to lead to a dead end…a writer’s insecurities are legendary. We never know for sure we’re on the right track. So I get stuck. It usually unravels when I’m doing something completely unrelated to the book, such as a long, vigorous dog walk, digging in the garden, riding my bike, sitting in the hot tub…It’s a bit scary to be stuck, because you worry about getting behind on your writing schedule and missing a deadline, but as I’ve said before–If this career was easy, there would probably be more writers in the world.
To celebrate Family Tree, my first novel in the William Morrow imprint, we’ve remodeled my website. I’m grateful to the amazing design team at HarperCollins and, as always, to the lovely and talented Willa, who has been my web designer since the web was invented. Please take a look around and let me know what you think.
My blog has been integrated into the site, so here’s a post inspired by Catherine, the very bright daughter of one of my favorite writers and people, Robert Dugoni. She’s a sophomre in high school, but she asks the questions everyone wonders about when they talk to a writer.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer? What led you to want to be a novelist?
I have been a writer since I was two years old. I have proof in the form of an old church collection envelope on which I was writing my name at age 2. My mom was so startled to see me writing that she saved the envelope, and I still have it. By age 3, I was illustrating stories and having my mom write them down. (I have an awesome mom). In third grade I learned cursive writing and my teacher, Mrs. Marge Green, said I should write a book. I did, and I still have the book I wrote. You can see samples of my earliest work here.
Since I was a storyteller from birth, I can only think that what led me was the inner urge a human is born with to tell stories. That, and the fact that both of my parents were avid readers. They read all the time, and they read to their kids all the time. I’m sure they read to me as a baby, so I came to associate reading and stories with comfort, security and love. I wish the whole world could have parents like mine!
Here is one of my favorite Dr. Seuss quotes: “You’re never too old, too wacky, too wild, to pick up a book and read to a child.”
Was English always a strong suit in school, or did you struggle through it?
I was one of the lucky ones–the subject came naturally to me and it never felt like work. Straight As. 100% on every test. A standardized test or exam was a cakewalk for me in this area. I was a great speller. I actually liked diagramming sentences and parsing out the structure of a work. My fascination with language and story knows no bounds. So in this sense, English class was a vacation for the mind.
However, there are writers who did struggle with English and schoolwork and the like, yet they’re still incredible authors. A number of writers I know have dealt with learning disabilities. I am in awe of such writers. To struggle in this area, AND achieve success as a novelist, is phenomenal.
What did you study in school?
My undergraduate degrees are in math and French. I have a master’s degree in education. I was a teacher for eleven years, writing in the evenings, on weekends and throughout the summer. Teaching is one of the hardest jobs in the world, but I loved it.
During those years, I had three jobs–teacher, mom, and writer. In order to write, I gave up watching TV and a good amount of sleep. I devoted every evening after my daughter was in bed to writing. It wasn’t easy, but anything worth having is worth sacrificing for.
People who tell me, “I would love to write a book, but I don’t have time” simply don’t want it badly enough. You make time for what’s important to you, so if getting your book written is important, you’ll figure out how to fit it into your life. Get up an hour earlier. Stay up an hour later. Stay at your desk during lunch hour. A dedicated writer is resourceful with her time.
If someone wants to write novels, what should she study in school?
Anything and everything that interests you. Study whatever you want. We know writers who have studied law, medicine, library science, advertising. We know writers who have virtually no formal education at all. You could study literature, creative writing, dance, engineering–anything that trains your mind.
Read novels. Read essays and poetry. Read memoirs and history and nonfiction. Read EVERYTHING.
Write all the time, about anything and everything. Pay attention to the sound and sense of the written word. Let your natural voice come through.
Were you a big reader growing up? Do you still love to read?
Absolutely. I read a book a day and more as a kid. One summer, I read a biography from each letter of the alphabet, A to Z–Jane Addams to Zoroaster–just because. These days, I still read every day–fiction, thrillers, nonfiction, you name it. Reading is a part of my life the way breathing is a part of my life.
When you’re an avid reader, there are books that stay with you for the rest of your days. They become part of your blood and bone as a writer and person. I hope everyone has this collection close to her heart.
Thanks for stopping by. Check back in a couple of days for Part 2 of Catherine’s interview, and we’ll tackle the nitty gritty of what it takes to make a writing career.
That’s what was confirmed for me during my visit to Argentina for the 42nd Annual International Book Fair. I was a guest of the US Embassies in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, Uruguay. It was love at first sight for me and South America.
Uruguay has incredible beaches and even better people, wine and food. Tannat, anyone?
Buenos Aires is a feast for all the senses.
(Oh, and it’s fall there. Autumn leaves in May.)
It was extraordinary to sit with women who speak no English and–through a very nimble translator–discover that we are all the same. We love our families, we dream of romance, we’re endlessly curious about the world, and we love to share.
During my presentations for teachers, students and readers, we all had the same questions for each other–how did you get started? Where do ideas come from? What’s the best strategy for a life doing what you love most? How old are you and how much money do you make? 🙂
And what’s up with all this mate? (Mah-tay, a shared social drink of steeped herbs in a hollowed-out gourd).
We’re all alike and we’re all friends because we all agree on the most fundamental principle of all–books matter. Ideas are important. Freedom of expression is everyone’s basic right.
Hasta la vista!
#amwriting #FeriadelLibro #uruguay #argentina
For me, and probably for a lot of writers, self-confidence is a friable and tenuous thing. The least little nay-saying inner voice can derail a whole project. I cherish my friends who inspire me with a sense of possibility. Here is a shout-out to one of the wisest women I know, author Dorothy Allison (remember, her watershed novel is BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA). Love this woman. Love her books. Her writing speaks for itself:
“I wear my skin as thinly as I have to, armor myself only as much as seems absolutely necessary. I try to live naked in the world, unashamed even under attack, unafraid even though I know how much there is to fear….I tell myself that life is the long struggle to understand and love fully. That to keep faith with those who have literally saved my life and made it possible for me to imagine more than survival, I have to try constantly to understand more, love more fully, go more naked in order to make others as safe as I myself want to be. I want to live past my own death, as my mother does, in what I have made possible for others–my sisters, my son, my lover, my community–the people I believe in absolutely, men and women whom death does not stop, who honor the truth of each other’s stories.” –An excerpt from Skin: Talking about Sex, Class and Literature by Dorothy Allison
Could she be any more honest and brave? Her bio reads like one of her novels, only with a happier ending. Born to a fifteen-year-old unwed mother who quit the seventh grade to work as a waitress, Dorothy learned the power and perils of storytelling at a young age. She recalls “hiding out under the porch” and listening to her aunts tell stories, and entering a library or bookstore “with a sense of desperate passion.” Books were her escape from the world. She told Salon Magazine, “To find a way out of the world as I saw it, I read science fiction. To sustain my rage and hope, I read poetry and mainstream novels with female heroines. And I read books by Southerners for ammunition to use against Yankees who would treat me mean.”
The public library has long been important to Dorothy. “My most profound library memory was the shock I got after we moved to central Florida and I went to the school library there. I was thirteen and had gotten used to the South Carolina school libraries which were pitiful—full of biographies of generals and judges but not much else. The central Florida Library was enormous and had a world of books I could borrow—novels, poetry and theologies, history books, and my favorite section of the Dewey Decimal system—with all those books on the occult. I tried to check out everything—which earned me a quick note from the librarian to my mama asking if she knew what I was reading. ‘Did I have permission to read those books?’ ‘Let her read anything she wants,’ my mama told the lady. But it took a signed letter to get me the access I wanted.
“I think I scared most librarians – because I wanted to read the books they thought I should not read—the grown-up fiction and those plays by Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers. But the librarian I worked for when I was in my junior and senior years was a marvel. Mrs. James was fearless and just assumed all young women were like her and wanted to read everything. She was the one who told me about inter-library loan. Suddenly I wasn’t just stuck with what was in the Maynard Evans High School Library. I could request books from other High Schools or even the main library downtown.
“By the time I got to the eleventh grade, I had pretty much exhausted the new books, but Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty got me an after-school job at the school library where I got to record and accession all the new books. That meant I got to read them first. I am still grateful to Lyndon Johnson, and always will be. He may be known to everyone else for his role in the Viet Nam war, but to me he will always be the man who helped me save money for college and made it possible for me to first read the collected poems of Muriel Rukyeser.”
For Dorothy, the library was “the secret world where I could go hide and fall out of this world and into that other one where anything was possible. It had solid wooden tables, sturdy chairs, carpets and air conditioning. If I could have, I would have moved in and lived there. As it was, it was my home away from home—a refuge and a promise. I used to sit on the floor and lean against the bookcases, lean back and dream about having my own place some day—a place where books would be stacked just as high—novels and anthologies and blank books in which I could write my own poems. The library made me think all that was possible, and it was.
“I think the best thing about the library is and was how it always felt to me—not just that it was the repository of what I loved—books themselves—but that it was a place in which a reverence for the word was implicit. Libraries have always seemed to me temples of wisdom—places where study and quiet concentration were honored, and where wanting to read was admired, not held in contempt. I was the child of a truck driver and a waitress, a girl who lived in a claustrophobic house where both the television and the radio were playing loud all the time. The only books in our house—other than the few that were my own—were the big illustrated Bible and my mama’s collection of Mickey Spillane and Ross MacDonald. It worried my family that I tended to hide in a corner and read so much. I was constantly being told to ‘put down that book and go out and play’. But at the library, no one interrupted me, or if they did, they did it softly and with respect. At the library, reading was holy—which is how it felt to me, how it still feels to me.
“In my house, I limited my son’s access to computer and video games, but the house rule on books is simple. If he wants to read it, we will try to find it. And we not only go to the library frequently, we donate books to our local libraries all the time. I want the children in my county to have what I always wanted—new novels on the shelves waiting to be read. It’s just lucky that now publishers actually send me many of them, so that I, in turn, can pass them on.”
The Greenville, South Carolina native describes herself as a Southern novelist, feminist, confirmed flirt, femme, expatriate rebel, and born-again Californian. In a 1999 Salon interview, Dorothy says, “I was born to a very poor, violent family where most of my focus was purely on survival, and my sense of self as a lesbian grew along with my sense of myself as a raped child, a poor white Southerner and an embattled female. I was Violet Leduc’s Le Batard much more than I was Le Amazon, that creation of upper-class Natalie Barney. People tell me that class is no longer the defining factor it was when I was a girl, but I find that impossible to fully accept. Class is always a defining factor when you are the child one step down from everyone else.”
At the age of thirteen, she “…was always calculating how to not kill myself or how not to let myself be killed. That tends to stringently shape one’s imagination. I did not plan to fill up a hope chest and marry some good old boy and make babies….I was a smart, desperate teenage girl trying to figure out how to not be dismissed out of hand for who I was. I wanted to go to college, not become another waitress or factory worker or laundry person or counter-help woman like all the other women I knew. Everywhere I looked I saw a world that held people like me in contempt.”
After winning a National Merit Scholarship, Allison attended college and went on to study anthropology at the New School for Social Research. But storytelling was in her bones, and that, combined with an awakening feminist spirit, informs and inspires her award-winning work. For Dorothy, feminism “…was like opening your eyes under water. It hurt, but suddenly everything that had been dark and mysterious became visible and open to change.” The author believes her first book, The Women Who Hate Me, (1983) “wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t gotten over my own prejudices, and started talking to my mother and sisters again.”
Her literary influences are surprising. One was Flannery O’Connor — “that astonishing, brave visionary who told hard truths in a human voice — an outsider holding a whole society up to a polished mirror. She was as ruthless as one of her own characters, and I loved her with my whole heart…If I set aside Flannery O’Connor, I would have to say that science fiction made me who I am today. I spent my childhood buried in those books. Every science-fiction novel I fell into as a child…widened my imagination about what was possible for me in the world. There were those perfectly horrible/wonderful stories about barbarian swordswomen who were always falling in love with demons, and there were the Telzey stories and the Witch World books and countless brave and wonderful novels told from inside the imaginations of ‘special’ young girls….On another world, in a strange time and place, all categories were reshuffled and made over.”
Dorothy’s novel, Bastard Out of Carolina (1992), skyrocketed her to fame, boosted by a full page in the New York Times Book Review which proclaimed the novel “as close to flawless as any reader could ask for,” lauding the author’s “perfect ear for speech and its natural rhythms.” The Boston Globe her “one of the finest writers of her generation.” The novel rose to the top of national best seller lists and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. It was adapted and made into an award-winning and controversial movie, directed by Angelica Huston.
“In my family,” Allison says, “…we all commit some unforgivable sin and then spend the rest of our lives trying to redeem it in some fashion. And the romance of self-destruction: I truly do not know why some of us can resist it and some of us can’t, why some of us kill our children and some of us try to send them whole into the world.”
Dorothy serves on the boards of PEN International, the National Coalition Against Censorship and Feminists for Free Expression, and the advisory board of the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award, presented annually to a science fiction or fantasy work that explores and expands on contemporary ideas of gender.
Her advice to writers is succinct: “You learn to live with uncertainty and poverty if you are going to be a writer. I’m still very blunt: If you want to be a writer, get a day job. The fact that I have actually been able to make a living at it is astonishing. I know so many great writers who can’t and, oh, it is not about justice. I am trying to carry it off with grace and a sense of humor.
“Understand me,” she writes. “What I am here for is to tell you stories you may not want to hear….And to scare hell out of you now and then. I was raised Baptist, I know how to do that.”
Some of Dorothy Allison’s Favorite Books
Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown.
Sula by Toni Morrison – “I remember…how this great grinding noise went through my brain. Of course, I thought.”
Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers.
My Antonia by Willa Cather.
The Persian Boy, Fire From Heaven and The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault.
Odd Girl Out and Beebo Brinker by Ann Bannon.
Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller.
The Female Man by Joanna Russ.
The Life of Poetry by Muriel Rukyeser.