Debut Novelist Interview: Elizabeth Huergo

Elizabeth Huergo's debut novel, The Death of Fidel Perez, has just been published by Unbridled Books and I'm very excited to read it. As none other than Oscar Hijuerlos has said of her book, "There is an erudition of language and a wealth of dramatized history in this novel. Both a portrait of the realities of the revolution and a speculative fiction as to what has happened to the Cuban soul with the event of Fidel Castro’s rise and—in this scenario—what may well happen with his passing, The Death of Fidel Pérez will reward both a general audience looking for a lively read and the discerning reader who truly cares about literature: in short, a heartfelt and well-written novel, with a provocative premise.” As always, I'm interested in the story behind the story, so I asked Elizabeth how her first novel came to be:

VP: Your novel, The Death of Fidel Perez, is set in your country of origin, Cuba. I wonder if you wrote stories or earlier pieces prior to this book that helped lead you to it, perhaps ones that are set there as well? I'm also curious if there was a long gestation period for your book, or did the characters and plot come to you quickly?

EH: No, I didn’t write earlier versions of the novel. There was a long writing process--eight years, but a story, of whatever length or genre, comes to me as a whole and very quickly. I have a moment when I see the entire novel in my mind’s eye. In a flash the story becomes a beautiful architectural space that I can move through. I see this space in my mind’s eye, but I can also sense my movement through it. The flash is both a blessing and a curse because I end up pursuing this vision in a very Romantic or Shelleyan sense.

I went to Cuba, and when I returned to the US I began this novel. In her stories about Remedios, Cuba, where she grew up, my mother sometimes talks about Saturnina, a crazy woman who decided one day to put on all of her skirts and live in the streets. One day, during my visit, as I was walking through l’Habana vieja (Old Havana), I peered into a building covered by mosaic tiles.

I didn’t realize, however, that on the other side of the tiled façade most of the building was in rubble. I peered inside and found, at the top of a barely intact stairwell, an old woman in a rocking chair, the morning sky behind her, wearing everything she owned, and appearing to me as an ancient Madonna in a grotto.

I was expecting a grand foyer, one more example of the island’s rich architectural history that I could photograph. Instead, I had this deeply mystical experience as I peered across that threshold. I let go of the camera hanging around my neck. I wanted to apologize, but here was nothing for me to say. This fragile old woman, a bundle of rags and bone, nodded at me like a monarch on her throne.  It was almost as if she were giving me permission or forgiving me for the intrusion.

I named her Saturnina, and she haunted me all the way back to the United States until I wrote down what had happened, first as a journal entry, and then eventually as the first chapter of The Death of Fidel Pérez.

VP: Many first time novelists have a long path to publication. I’m curious about your backstory. You had published short stories before and some of them have been anthologized, but I wonder if The Death of Fidel Perez is the first novel you ever wrote?

 EH: Yes, the The Death of Fidel Pérez is the first, and it took me eight years to complete because I wasn’t just writing. I was teaching myself to write a novel. It’s also a very elegiac story. My own relationship to the manuscript was emotional: I was recreating something that I had lost, but also something that I was finding through the process of storytelling. I had to surmount the fear in myself that telling the story would be too painful. I had to teach myself at a visceral, cognitive level that the story would heal me.

I learned from reading Nadine Gordimer’s work that the short story can serve as a sketchbook of sorts for a longer, more complicated form. So my short stories served in that manner, especially “The Cigar Box,” which I wrote practically in one sitting. And the story came about because I was reading, not only Gordimer, but Heinrich Böll, who was the post-war writer of his generation who took on the political and social history of Germany, a daunting task for a German, and a task similar to Gordimer’s, a writer who takes on the social and political history of South Africa, of apartheid.

Gordimer’s short story sequence, “Six Feet of the Country,” and Böll’s short story, “The Rucksack,” taught me something about the viability of history as a character. In fact, I quote Böll directly at the very beginning of “The Cigar Box,” and the completion of that story, and especially the generous response of Eamonn Wall to the story, gave me confidence and propelled me forward. Eamonn, an Irish poet who has lived in the US for many years now, happened to be the guest editor of a volume on exile in Natural Bridge, a literary journal published by the University of Missouri, St Louis. He really could not have been kinder or more helpful.

VP: How did it come to find a home at Unbridled Books?

EH: My first impulse is to laugh and explain that I have no idea how the universe works except that it seems to require surrender at every point. We control so little, really. My second impulse is to tell you a story about how deeply I listened to a writer and mentor, Richard Peabody, and how that seemingly passive action led me to a wonderful agent and then a publisher.

Toward the very end of his novel seminar, Richard talks about the critical elements of a cover letter, the sort of cover letter that will pique an agent’s curiosity, despite the endless piles of queries she receives. “You have to describe your novel in one sentence,” Richard insisted. The students in the class pushed back. He answered their questions, but he stuck to his point and went on to elaborate on other, rather counter-intuitive aspects of the cover letter.

The following week, everyone came to class with their draft cover letters, the focus of that last class discussion. All of the letters were two- and three-page descriptions of plot or writing process, long explanations about the writer’s heart-felt devotion to the beloved manuscript. On some level, conscious or unconscious, the students seemed to feel that they knew more about the industry, about the culture of agents and publishers and writers, than Richard did.

Me? I took him quite literally—in large part because I have spent so many years teaching writing and observing the energy students often misspend in resisting instruction, even when that resistance is not conscious. I struggled all week and finally boiIed my novel down to one sentence, the opening sentence of my cover letter: “The Death of Fidel Pérez is a tale told by Che Guevara and overheard by Italo Calvino.”

I sent out my first batch of ten cover letters to New York agents interested in literary fiction and got an 80 percent return, which is outrageous. One of those responses led me to an extraordinary agent at Don Congdon Associates, Katie Grimm.

And having spoken to Katie, I remembered something else Richard said during our seminar. It was almost a throw-away, a casual bit of advice tossed like a message in a bottle: “Get an agent who genuinely believes in your work.” Katie pitched my novel for a full year with exactly the same enthusiasm, intelligence, and work ethic that she demonstrated the first month we worked together. She found Unbridled Books and Fred Ramey, another extraordinary professional.

So, as in The Life of Pi, you have to decide which story you prefer: the spiritual or the rational? I prefer the spiritual one, the story that lies suspended across invisible corners, a vibrating nexus of causes and effects that insist on the essential mystery of life.

VP: I'm sure your readers will be curious what you're working on next. Can you share with us your current project?

EH: I’m almost done with my second novel, Between Ana and Ella, which is a contemporary version of The Grapes of Wrath.

Jennifer Spiegel: Two Books in One Year, Not Bad for a Beginner

Out of the blue, author Jennifer Spiegel wrote to me and said that she had pitched to interview with me to The Nervous Breakdown and they had agreed! What a great way to make a new friend. Jennifer was already doing something incredibly nice and generous in my direction, which turns out to be par for the course for her. When I mentioned what she had offered to do for me, author David Abrams said he wasn't a bit surprised: “Jennifer’s like that. She’s good people,” he said. And now that I've met her at the AWP Writers Conference in Boston I know more than ever that he’s right. We enjoyed a tasty lunch together in which we discovered that our paths to publication had been similiarly long and circuitous. But when Jennnifer finally broke through to book publication, she did so with gusto: she had two books of fiction, not one, come out in 2012!

She’s a terrific writer. I loved her novel Love Slave, the story of a young woman in New York City in the early 1990s. Music, dating, work-life, the bar scene, and a genuinely sympathetic heroine—it all rings true in this wonderful novel, and I should know because, like Jennifer, I lived in NYC at that time. The Freak Chronicles, which I am starting to read and enjoy now, is a collection of stories that explores the question of what makes a person a freak. These stories show that there’s a fine line between the ordinary and the extraordinary.

I liked Jennifer so much and would happily read her writing on any subject. But, in particular, I wanted her to share with us at 4 and 20  her interesting path to publication, and the surprising year of twin book launches!

VP: You have had a remarkable year with two books coming out within months of each other. Can you explain how you came to such an abundance?

Who knows how these things happen? I can tell you this right now: I’m no prodigy or someone who wrote a book on a whim and it turned out to be something magical. Rather, I wrote for a million years, took other jobs, got an MFA, had babies, even gave up briefly, and then lost Dzanc Book’s short story collection contest. Amazing, Dan Wickett of Dzanc called me to tell me, in 2009, that I lost their contest but they still wanted to publish The Freak 2012. If I were interested. I was.

So, I had to wait till 2012 for things to happen. In the meantime, Unbridled Books accepted Love Slave, my novel, for publication, and it came out less than four months after The Freak Chronicles. Basically, one book was published in June and the other was published in September 2012.

The delay—despite everything—was actually a good thing. The Freak Chronicles had the opportunity for some strong revision (as did Love Slave, really). I wrote three new stories, which were not included in the original manuscript, and I re-wrote two existing stories (one of them almost entirely). My children moved out of the baby stage, which helped a lot. And I had plenty of time to prepare for the wonders of publication. Plus, I have to admit that my philosophy and thoughts on writing and publishing had changed immensely from my first brush with success in my twenties to my eventual publication in my forties.

VP: So your first published book is The Freak Chronicles, but is it the first book you ever wrote? If you have previous manuscripts in a drawer, do you think you’ll be tempted to bring them back out again?

I wrote a novel called So I Slept With Mickey Rourke when I was twenty-five, and it got some attention from Random House. It morphed into “The Mickey Rourke Saga,” a story in Freak, which is about five million times better than that original manuscript (for more on this story, look at David Abrams’ The Quivering Pen author interview series). I have no desire whatsoever to see the original book ever again. Similarly, there was a short story collection that I sometimes forget all about too: The Size of Your Country. I can assure you that they both suck.

VP: How did you decide to keep persisting as a writer when you didn't have success immediately? Did taking on different types of jobs help you in your process, or do you think of those years away from writing as more of a distraction from your ultimate goal of getting a book published?

Well, as I mentioned earlier, I did give up a little. It probably wouldn’t have lasted, but there was a time—right after the birth of my first daughter—when I thought I’d stop trying to publish my work. I had met with multiple failures, rejections, bad agent experiences, more rejection. I also had some pretty complex and warped ideas on what it meant to be a woman and a mother. I felt guilty, in part, about my passion for writing—guilty for thinking of it as a vocation or calling, guilty for this competition I set up in my head between writing and motherhood. It was awful. I was now in my mid- to late-thirties. I was a first-time mother. I was depressed. I didn’t fit in with the other moms. My husband was supportive, but also at a loss for how to help.

Somehow or other, I must’ve entered my book in the Dzanc contest. No doubt my association with Kyle Minor helped. He had originally accepted “Goodbye, Madagascar” for publication in his now-defunct journal, Frostproof Review. He went on to remember me, and put me in touch with the folks at Dzanc Books.

When I lost—but kinda won too—I was, in many ways, pulled from the pits. Like a freakin’ Phoenix rising from the flames! I mean it! Not only did my writing life re-emerge, but also my children were inevitably benefited—as was my marriage, my sense of self, my understanding of what it meant to be a woman. [feel free to tweak grammar if necessary]

I don’t know if I really answered your question. I don’t see any of it as wasted time or distraction. In the final analysis, it was all good. I will say—and I don’t mean for this to sound cocky—I believe that writers who make it are confident in their abilities. They think they’re good. They have to believe this. If you’re going to make it, you have to think, I’m good and people should read me.

VP: What advice do you have for aspiring writers who hope to sell their first book?

Think about it as a life, a vocation, a calling. Ask yourself if you’re in it for the long haul. Ask yourself why you’re in it, for what reason? Try to think deeply about what you’re doing. I don’t know how it happens, but either way: you’ve got to live with yourself. I’m a bit of a nut. I hope that answer is okay.

The China of My Mind: Or, Where Stories Come From

When people hear that River of Dust is set in China the first question they ask is if I’ve ever been there. The simple answer is no. The not so simple answer is yes, in a way. I have never visited mainland China. I did, however, live in Hong Kong when I was three and it was still under British control. My father was a visiting scholar and our family lived in one of the early high-rise apartment buildings overlooking Deep Water Bay. I was sent to a British preschool that terrified me. I remember very little about it, except that naughty children were sent into the corner with a dunce cap on—a tall conical hat made out of paper that later came to mind when I saw pictures of the KKK.

What I more clearly remember about Hong Kong was Ahko (forgive my phonetic spelling). A tall, elderly Chinese gentleman, he served as our butler and house “boy.” I cringe at that term, but it was the word people used back then. He must have been in his sixties. I am told that when I returned home from my half day of school, he served me sandwiches made of difficult-to-procure peanut butter and jelly.

Some days when my mother was busy elsewhere, Ahko walked me to and from school. Although my father stood six foot four inches tall and I should have been used to giants, I remember looking all the way up to Ahko as he looked all the way down to me and took my hand. My favorite method of transport, though, was when he lifted me high and perched me atop his shoulders. From that vantage point, I saw over the exotic spiked plants and down the cliff side all the way to the bay. On the way home in the afternoons, he placed me high again as we cut through crowded streets where people passed quickly by.

I have never been to China, but I remember how Hong Kong smelled and looked from that choice and trusted perspective. The character of Ahcho in my novel is based on the kind man on whose shoulders I sat. And in a similar way, the China in River of Dust is based on the early childhood memories I still carry in my mind. As it turns out, remembered impressions and sensations can be enough to conjure a person or place—if not accurately then perhaps at least in some way that is true.

Still, I look forward to visiting China someday soon.

Persistent and Inspiring Debut Novelist #3: Jenny Milchman

The peripatetic debut novelist Jenny Milchman is covering the country with her new novel, Cover of Snow. I'm looking forward to catching up with her in Richmond, Virginia on February 12, 2013 at a reading organized by wonderful Fountain Bookstore. But first, I was curious to ask her about the long path to her first book publication. VP: You worked on Cover of Snow, which came out in January, 2013, over many years and many drafts. Can you share with us the story behind the story: what helped you as a writer to get to the draft that finally sold, and what helped you as a person to keep persisting to achieve your dream of publishing a book?

JM: The moment when my debut novel came out arrived after thirteen years, fifteen-almost offers, three agents, and eight novels. Cover of Snow is my debut novel, but it wasn’t the first one I wrote. In 1998, I was working as a psychologist-in-training at a rural mental health center. Suddenly my life was like something out of a suspense novel. I was treating a cherubic blond child who’d just happened to kill the family pet; another patient took a gun out during group therapy and threatened to shoot herself.

I began my first novel, and the words just poured out of me. I was lucky enough to get responses to queries, including one single-spaced, packed sheet of paper (snail mail, 1998, remember?) from Jonathan Kellerman’s agent. Among other things he said that he didn’t like spending so much time in my “neurotic protagonist’s head.”

I was stung because, in the way of most semi-autobiographical first novels, my protagonist was an awful lot like, well, me. I hadn’t realized she was—neurotic. Ouch. (I now call this kind of hard-hitting critique ‘neurotic protagonist’ feedback).

Anyway, after I received that rejection, I sat down at my computer and looked at the novel again. And I saw why the agent thought my protagonist was nuts, and better yet, I saw what I could do. I cut 60,000 previously-thought-to-be-essential words in just two weeks.

That novel—however trimmed down—didn’t get published, but it did earn me offers of representation. And so began the next ten years of my life when I was on more or less continuous submission. At a certain point, I said to myself, “Well, published writers write a book a year, and I want to be a published writer, so I’m going to try and do that.” At the very least, it would give me more chances to write something someone might like.

I had been working for three years with the agent I now call my forever agent. We were about out of options. My seventh novel had climbed all the way to the publisher at the helm of the house that was considering it, only to be turned down at the very top.

My agent had said to me, “I am your agent. No matter how you publish, even if it’s with the smallest of presses, no real money to be had, you can count on me.” At the same time, the world had changed. Self-publishing had become a viable option. It had become in some ways, for some writers, a better option even. But it wasn’t a better option for me.

At this stage of the game, self-publishing precludes or at least sorely limits a writer’s entrance into bookstores and libraries, and for me that was a huge part of trying to publish, as opposed to simply penning stories in my garret. I had this dream of meeting readers and booksellers and librarians all over the country.

I had come to admire many authors during my long road, and one had written a novel in 2010 that particularly spoke to me. She knew about my many near misses, and although she had told me, quite understandably, that she couldn’t read unpublished manuscripts, at a certain point she agreed to take a look at my latest.

It was during the early dark of a January evening, just after my seventh novel had finally been rejected, when this author sent me an email. “Jenny,” it said. “I couldn’t wait to tell you how much I am enjoying your book. If it doesn’t let me down at the end—and I can’t imagine that it will—I will want not only to offer you a blurb or endorsement, but to put it into my own editor’s hands.” That editor turned out to like my book as much as her author did. And that is how I finally came to be published.

What enabled me as a person to hang in there for so long? I would say three things: The belief that dreams are worth going for. A strong support system around me: my husband, my parents, other writers. Being a little bit nuts. I was that neurotic protagonist, after all.

VP: Your path to the book's publication was long and circuitous, and now your path in the months after its launch are literally that way, too. Tell us about your tour and why you're choosing to share your book with readers in this particular way?

JM: Circuitous for sure! My husband, who is responsible for the route-planning, has groaned a few times about driving from North Carolina back up to Virginia even though we’re heading south, or to Colorado before we hit Mississippi. But if you long to get to a certain bookstore, you have to understand the store’s busy schedule.

For the next six months we are going to drive 18,000 miles back and forth and up and down across the country. We’re taking the kids out of school—“car-schooling” them—and visiting as many bookstores, book clubs, libraries, and schools as will have us.

For most writers, connecting with readers is key. And while I appreciate email and Facebook and Twitter for really widening the world of readers we can connect with, the real time, face-to-face dimension is very important to me as well. There is just nothing like that moment when a reader comes up to you and you get to see her face as she describes a scary moment in your book. Or a wonderful one.

Bookstores are very important to me, too, and I hope that by being a part of the day or evening out that a bookstore event can provide, more and more people will come to rely on them, not only as a place to buy their books, but as a way to deepen their connection to their community.  And I hope to meet readers and potential readers—they are the reason I struggled for so long to get published!

VP: What advice can you offer to aspiring writers who may face a wee bit of discouragement as they pursue their craft or delve into the daunting world of publishing?

JM: I think that the fact that it did finally happen for me should offer encouragement. It can take a long time—but when you finally wind up with the book that sells, you’ll probably be glad it was that one, and not a version that came before. I know that doesn’t help much now, so I would also say…

There are more ways than ever to realize your writing dreams. More ways than ever to hone your craft, and connect with readers. For me, it was important to publish traditionally, but I know many, many writers who are having great success on their own. And I have hope that in years to come, there will be ways to publish independently and still have a presence in bookstores and other bricks and mortar venues. I think it’s a wonderful time to be a writer—and I can’t wait to read your book.

Jenny Milchman is a suspense novelist from New Jersey whose short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Adirondack Mysteries II, and in an e-published volume called Lunch Reads. Jenny is the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, and the chair of International Thriller Writers’ Debut Authors Program. Her first novel, Cover of Snow, is published by Ballantine Books.

Jenny can be reached at and she blogs at

Fantastic Novelist Interview #2: Anita Hughes

Author Anita Hughes is on a roll. Her first novel, Monarch Beach, came out last summer and was a Target Emerging Author Pick. Her next novel, Market Street, comes out March 26, 2013, and Lake Como will be published on August 13th, 2013. And she has young children! But Anita has been a dedicated writer all her life. At age 8, she won a writing contest and was named "One of Australia's Next Best Writers.” I asked her if Monarch Beach was the first novel she ever wrote. AH: Monarch Beach is not the first novel I wrote. When I was fourteen I wrote a novel called The Great Book of Suchness. It was about a young prince who must find the meaning of life in order to save his kingdom. After visiting several Utopian societies that ultimately fail, he comes to the realization that the meaning of life is simply: "Such is life." I wrote the full manuscript, typed it up and sent it (unsolicited) to a legendary children's book editor at Harper & Row. A few weeks later I got a revision letter! Can you imagine? If I had known what a rare thing I held in my hand, I would have fainted. But I had just made the cheerleading squad and I didn't go back to it. I wonder what would have happened if I did.

VP: Your second novel, Market Street, is scheduled to come out less than after your first, in March, 2013. Can you share with us the sequence of writing these two books?

AH: When I sold Monarch Beach to St. Martin's Press, I received a two-book deal. I wrote Market Street after getting the deal. I then wrote another book—Lake Como—which comes out on August 13, 2013. I am very excited to have two books coming out in the same year and I hope my readers will enjoy them both. My books have a common San Francisco theme, and I love exploring female friendships with a lot of humor.

VP: Do you have advice for aspiring writers about how to persist and not lose heart in a difficult market? What helped you to persist and achieve the success of having three books in such rapid succession?

AH: My advice mainly is to write what you love. Even when I don't need to be, I am generally writing. Once I get immersed in the story and develop my characters, there is nowhere I'd rather be than in front of the computer screen. I wrote Monarch Beach because I finally had the time to write (I have school aged children) and I really enjoyed it. When it was finished and I started querying agents, I immediately started another book. I do find it helps to set a daily word count goal. If you write 1,000 words a day, before you know it you have a book. Writing daily also keeps me connected to my characters and the story. I think there is a lot of opportunity in publishing right now, and a lot of wonderful books out there. When I'm not writing (or driving my children around) I am generally reading, so I believe there can never be enough good books.

The Next Big Thing from Marian Szczepanski

The Next Big Thing continues with a reply from Marian Szcsepanski, author of the forthcoming novel, Playing Saint Barbara. Here are Marian's answers to the questions posed by The Next Big Thing: Copious thanks to Virginia for generously offering to host my interview post. I have always admired authors who take on stories that require significant research to be ground in a bygone era, far-flung locale, or both, so I’m looking forward to reading Virginia’s novel, River of Dust, forthcoming in May from Unbridled Books.

My debut novel Playing Saint Barbara will be published this spring by High Hill Press.

Where did the idea come from for your book?

Years ago, I read a piece in Poets & Writers that exhorted: write the story only you can write. Ridiculous, I thought, believing it hubris to imagine there was a story out there waiting for me and me alone. At the time, I volunteered at the Houston Area Women’s Center, doing a weekly shift on the domestic violence hotline. The calls ranged from heartbreaking to horrific, and all of them challenged me to empathize with women in demeaning and often dangerous situations that most couldn’t bring themselves to leave. The prospect of writing such a conflicted character intrigued me, but I was leery of appropriating hotline material, even unconsciously, in a contemporary novel. Meanwhile, “the story only I could write” idea resurfaced, and I found myself thinking about my Pennsylvania childhood and stories about my parents’ and immigrant grandparents’ lives in coal mining towns. Everything came together then. I’d go back in time to a landscape I knew well and explore the life of a woman married to an abusive miner, whose violence impacts her and her daughters in very different ways.

What category does your book fall under?

I’d call it a historically based literary novel.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

This question made me laugh, because my daughters have long enjoyed the dinner table fantasy of “casting” films based on my fiction. I’d give the lead role of Clare Sweeney to Tilda Swinton, who so fully inhabits complex women characters, especially those exerting prodigious will to keep their pain from bursting forth and annihilating everyone around them. Liam Neeson has the bulk and workman-like face—not to mention a genuine Irish accent— to play Finbar, Clare’s husband, a miner renowned for his strength. Their daughters: Emily Blunt as dutiful Norah, ever her mother’s protectress; Jennifer Lawrence as headstrong, rebellious Deirdre; and Mia Wasikowska as shy, romantic Katie.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Playing Saint Barbara chronicles the secrets, struggles, and self-redemption of a coal miner’s wife and her three daughters set against a turbulent historical backdrop of Ku Klux Klan intimidation, the Great Depression, and Pennsylvania Mine War of 1933.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

The first draft took two years to write, preceded by two years of research, including three trips to archives in Pennsylvania. When I started to write, I stopped constantly to look up details about daily life from 1929-1941—everything from car models to popular radio programs. I watched old movies, sketching costumes and jotting down slang. I challenged myself to authenticate everything from streetcar routes in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, to the actress on the May 1941 Screen Guide magazine cover. It took five more years of targeted research and countless revisions to produce the final draft.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Two novels that examine historical events through their profound impact on ordinary people come to mind. The focus of fellow Pennsylvanian Kathleen Cambor’s In Sunlight, In a Beautiful Garden is the Johnstown Flood that caused more than 2,000 deaths in 1889. Such historical figures as Andrew Carnegie are characters in the novel, but the book’s heart belongs to the imagined lives and loves of the flood’s victims. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible explores the Congo’s postcolonial struggles through the fictional experiences of a misguided Georgia missionary and his family. Kingsolver also employs a similar structure, devoting each chapter to a different point of view so that events are interpreted by distinctly different sensibilities.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I’ve always been interested in social history and women’s roles in shaping culture. When the ideas for Playing Saint Barbara started to coalesce, the clincher was realizing I knew very little about my grandmothers’ lives.  I’d heard many stories about coal patch life, but when I considered them from an adult perspective, most had an unnaturally rosy glow. I knew there was much more to tell, so I resolved to focus on the lives of Depression-era patch women, about whom little is written. I had to read between the lines while doing research, constantly asking myself how every aspect of miners’ lives might affect their wives and daughters. The more I reflected on this, the more inspired I became to bring those women’s stories to light. While the novel is in no way a family history, writing it gave me a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by my grandmothers and deep respect for their ability to raise families and forge a sense of community under often grueling circumstances.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Early in my research, I was stunned by my mother’s offhand comment: “I remember when they burned crosses on the hill near the schoolhouse.” I had no idea the Ku Klux Klan operated outside the South. Pure serendipity led me to a used bookstore a few blocks from the University of Pittsburgh, where a volume about right-wing extremists in Pennsylvania fairly toppled off the shelf into my hand. The book opened my eyes to the xenophobia sparked by post-WWI immigration and gave me a powerful issue to help propel the story’s narrative arc.

Watch for upcoming posts about The Next Big Thing from these emerging writers:

On January 20, novelist and playwright Sam Havens will post on his blog about his recent coming-of-age novel Farr Point.On January 24, Lane Devereux will post on her website about her memoir The Requirements of Love, an in-the-trenches account of coping with her own grave health issues while adopting and raising an abused child who becomes mentally ill.On January 27, Gretchen Havens' interview about Lean on You, her debut memoir, forthcoming later this year from Timberlake Press, will appear as a guest post on Sam Havens’ blog.





Christine Hale is The Next Big Thing

I'm pleased to share here a post by author Christine Hale in response to The Next Big Thing blog share. Chris and I have not met, but I enjoyed her first novel, Basil's Dream and am glad to hear she’s finished her next book. Here’s what she has to say about it: I've been invited into the blog share, The Next Big Thing, by my host for this posting, Virginia Pye. Her exciting novel River of Dust, the story of a dramatic year in the life of a missionary couple in China whose young child is stolen from them by Mongolian bandits, will be published by Unbridled Books on May 14, 2013. I’m grateful to Virginia for the invitation to post here. She’s been a booster for me and my work since she read my first novel Basil’s Dream (Livingston Press, 2009), a story of love and political intrigue on the fabled island Bermuda, which received honorable mention in the 2010 Library of Virginia Literary Awards.

My new book is titled In Your Line of Sight: A Reconciliation. It’s a memoir I’ve just completed and for which I am seeking a publisher. Here are my responses to the questions posed by The Next Big Thing:

 Where did the idea for the book come from?

 In Your Line of Sight: A Reconciliation is the memoir I never meant to write. A dozen years ago, just after my mother passed away, I began helplessly pouring out onto the page my grief and consternation about my parents’ 67-year epic bad marriage and my growing-up years—in Southern Appalachia—as hostage to their emotional violence. This is some dark stuff. But I soon found myself writing wryly comic stories about the tattooing ritual my two children devised to hold our family of three together when they were teens. I mean, who could not write about that? And then there were the stories I couldn't help telling about my strange—and enlightening—experiences on Buddhist retreats, including a rugged pilgrimage to Tibet I almost didn’t survive. I just knew these three very different narrative threads belonged together somehow, because their significance to me was central to each of them. If I could just manage to reconcile their differences on the page, would I make sense in my heart of my flawed self and my crooked path? What that reconciliation required, it turned out, was to see myself as my beloved others see me, while in turn I looked at each of them through clear eyes: the “you” in the memoir’s title refers to a whole set of loved-and-sometimes-lost people with whom I must set things straight.

What genre does the book fall under?

 It's a memoir, a collage of fragments from the three narrative threads. It works like memories do, one sharp recollection leading to another which sets off yet another, with insights sparking amid their collisions.

What actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

 My young self must be played by Natalie Portman as she appears in Black Swan: high-strung, insecure, and unstable, a clear and present danger to herself and others. For my now-self, the one doing the reflecting in the memoir, I choose the indie film actress Catherine Keener, described in a Yahoo profile as a “wry, likeable bohemian.” She played Harper Lee in Capote but I’ve identified with her in many of her more recent film roles:  haggard, vulnerable, roughed-up by living her passions, an almost-beauty memorably marred by her tough edge and irreverent attitude.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

In Your Line of Sight is about how I have come, finally, to see.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

 I am seeking a publisher or representation for this book.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

 The oldest material—the stories about my parents and my childhood—I began almost a dozen years ago. The other two narrative threads developed over the past eight years. It took me about three years—amid other projects and working for a living—to create the reconciliation that is the completed memoir.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

 It's similar to Abigail ThomasSafekeeping and Two Dog Life (Harcourt) in that it’s fragmented and non-linear, with the story told partly through expressive gaps and silences. It resembles Mark Doty’s Firebird (HarperCollins) because it approaches the quintessential memoir question, who am I?, by means of iterative, vertical delvings into memory. And it has in common with Brenda Miller’s Seasons of the Body (Sarabande) a braided or collaged shape and some lyrical moments.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

 Many, many writers of memoir—both published authors and students I’ve worked with. The most succinct way to explain this might be to paraphrase the essence of Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: what matters is not the facts of your life but the truth you make of it in the telling.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Where else are you going to find a book that marries the grit of a dysfunctional and abusive childhood in Appalachia to the exoticism (and grit) of Tibetan Buddhism by means of the weirdness (and gritty exoticism) of mother, daughter, and son getting tattooed, together, for Christmas, in a Tampa strip mall? You've got to see this to believe it.

Please check out these three emerging writers I’ve invited to appear in The Next Big Thing:

On January 15, Peg Alford Pursell will post on her blog about her novel in short-short stories, Blow the House Down.

Also on January 15, novelist Marian Szczepanski will guest-post here on Four and Twenty about her first novel Playing Saint Barbara, due out from High Hill Press in Spring 2013. It chronicles the struggles of Irish and Slovak immigrants to the soft coal region of southwest Pennsylvania during the Great Depression, via a tale of a miner’s wife, her three daughters, and a saint’s day pageant.

 On January 17, look for memoirist Christine Cutler’s post on her blog, about Abandoned Houses, the story of her journey to find herself among the myriad abandoned houses of her grandmother's birthplace in a tiny Italian village.



The Next Big Thing

As it turns out, it’s fun to share not just the work but the work behind the work, which is the gist of The Next Big Thing. The highly prolific Meg Pokrass invited me to participate. Meg writes flash fiction and short stories, has been an editor at BlipMagazine  (which now seems to be called New World Magazine) and has a new book Happy Upside Down coming out from Press 53. The Next Big Thing is a blog share in which writers…well, share…about their upcoming books or current projects. Below are my answers to some basic questions: What’s your book and where did the idea come from for it?

My novel is called River of Dust and it’s coming out from Unbridled Books on May 14, 2013. I first conceived of it while reading from my grandfather’s journals about his missionary years on the tundra of northwest China. I spent five years writing over twenty drafts of a multi-generational, one hundred year story of an American family with ties to China. Eventually, I scaled back that project to tell just the story of one dramatic year in the life of a missionary couple whose young child is stolen from them by Mongolian bandits in the opening scene. Somehow because I’d been working on the material for so long, it only took 23 days for me to write the first draft of River of Dust. A friend and mentor wrestled it out of my hands and sent it to her editor at Unbridled who called me a few weeks later. It all happened crazy fast, but of course, that was after years of work. And all the while, I had in mind my grandfather’s descriptions of the eerie beauty and loneliness of that landscape.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? After seeing Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln, I can picture him as the Reverend of my novel. He’s tall and upright, has a dry wit and ends up at his wits end. He’s so incredibly good, he could no doubt play the Reverend’s wife as well. Or Grace could be played by any number of ingénues, so long as she doesn’t mind getting dirty and can rise to her fate with dignity.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre and who or what inspired you to write this book?

Around the time I was reading my grandfather’s journals I also read Gilead, and then several years later, Home, both by Marilynne Robinson. Those two novels were unbelievably beautiful, as was Tinkers by Paul Harding, especially in the way that they captured American thought and belief from an earlier time. They showed how time itself was made of a different substance in the pre-modern mind. River of Dust attempts to capture that earlier mindset as well.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

I ask you, what other book, besides The Bible, combines religious questioning with at least one beheading, lice and serious quantities of dust?

Check out three more terrific emerging writers as they participate in The Next Big Thing:

On January 3, 2013, A.B. Westrick will post on her blog about her debut novel, Brotherhood, to be released in the fall of 2013. On January 5, 2013, Patty Smith will post about her upcoming novel, The Year of Needy Girls, on her blog, Blue Adirondak Chairs. Also on January 5, Christine Hale will post on 4 and 20 about her memoir, In Your Line of Sight. Her first novel, Basil’s Dream, was Honorable Mention for the Library of Virginia Award in 2011. It tells a dramatic, insightful story set in the political world of Jamaica.

So check back here next week for another story behind the story.

Fantastic Debut Novelist Interview #1: Virginia’s Own Lydia Netzer

Did you happen to notice that of the fifty-three fiction and poetry books chosen as Notable in 2012 by The New York Times seven are debut novels? That seems like a pretty high percentage to me. Promising “new” writers are everywhere—which is great! But as I can attest, “new” writers often have long and interesting back stories behind that first book publication. I love those stories, which is why I plan to interview debut fiction writers over the coming months before my own debut novel, River of Dust, comes out in May, 2013. Here are the newbie novels chosen by The Times: Alfie The Unseen by G. Willow Wilson; Billy Lynn’s Half Time Walk by Ben Fountain; City of Bohane by Kevin Barry; Fobbit, by David Abrams; A Land More Kind Than Home, by Wiley Cash; The Starboard Sea, by Amber Dermont; and The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers.

And, don’t forget one more stellar debut novelist on that list: Virginia’s own, Lydia Netzer, author of the surprising and beautiful novel, Shine, Shine, Shine. The Wall Street Journal called it “decidedly weird and entirely winning” and The Boston Globe said it was “luminous” and “lyrical” and “lovely.” I’ve been out for a glass of wine with Lydia and I’d have to say the same is true of the author herself. She, like her novel, is a gem.

Shine Shine Shine

Virginia: Congratulations on your novel Shine, Shine, Shine making The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2012! The success of this first novel is fantastic and so well deserved. It’s a brilliant book that I can’t recommend highly enough.

Because of my own complicated story leading up to book publication, I am curious about the path that got you here. How long did you work on Shine, Shine, Shine and what were the biggest bumps in the road you had to navigate?

Lydia: It took me 10 years of work to write Shine Shine Shine. That counts many months of pouting, thinking, many words thrown out, and other novels written and revised and thrown out and pouted about as well. The biggest bumps in the road were also bumps in my uterus—child #1, child #2, bless their little soul-sucking hearts. I wouldn't have been able to write the book without them, but often I was not able to write with them.

The death of my mother in 2004 was also a major bump, that ultimately got incorporated into the book. I couldn’t write about it with any level of control for about five years after it happened, but once I was able to manage it, and fit that piece into the puzzle, the book was done soon after.

Virginia: You are good friends with some super successful novelists whose acclaim came years before your own. Can you share with us how you used that circumstance not to throw in the towel, but to propel yourself forward?

Lydia: Oh, I threw in the towel multiple times. I wrote an essay once about how everyone I knew was catapulting themselves to glorious heights in writing and publishing and I was traipsing through my house picking up underpants and flushing toilets, in a stupor of dishwashing soap, toddler television, and elastic waist pants. After I had thrown in every towel I had, and somehow my novel kept stubbornly resurfacing, I realized that my circumstances were my own, my choices had been my own, and that self-pity and stagnation weren't really that attractive, as I got older.

Then there was the fact that my friends never gave up on me. I was very very lucky to have kind and generous friends who propelled me forward, and when I was finally done with the book and had something to show, they were very good at helping me get a leg up in the business.

Virginia: How different is it working your next book while also tending to the audience you have created with Shine, Shine, Shine? You’re active on Twitter and Facebook, and do events all the time, not to mention being a mother of young children. How’s the multi-tasking going?

Lydia: It’s been absolutely manic for a solid five months. I homeschool my kids, which makes it all even more insane. We did an enormous amount of school in August with the idea that in September and October I would be traveling a lot, and that I would also be finishing a draft of book #2. Somehow November also got eaten by travel and various projects. So in December, with the holiday madness in full swing, we have had to also get back on track with our full spectrum of school work, oh, and revise that book I finished in October. Which is going great—please tell my agent.

Twitter and Facebook, for me, often happen when I’m away from the computer. I’m always tucking things away to post on Twitter or Facebook later, so that when I have a bit of time to sit down, I already know what I’m going to say. Or I’ll Tweet or comment on something from my phone while I’m waiting for the kids at karate or in a violin lesson. That part of this job is a lot of fun for me. I love to be engaged online and interact with people via words.

Having my darkest fears, desires, and fiercest loves read about and scrutinized by strangers on Goodreads is new, forcing myself to be publicly neutral on politics is new, balancing time on sales with time on production is new, doing Q&As about writing, both online and in person at festivals and book clubs—that’s new! But the overprogrammed schedule? That’s how my husband and I have been living our whole lives. It’s why we work, together. I have always operated as close to maximum capacity as I can physically tolerate, so the multitasking is not a new experience for me.

I think, I hope, that I can do this. I know for a fact that I love this job.

Write Early and Often

On the first day of an undergraduate writing class, Annie Dillard said that in order to write well we should toss out our houseplants, get rid of all pets, and forget any plans for a future spouse or children. I ignored the details of her advice but the gist of Annie’s message was the best I’ve ever received about writing. She was offering an urgent, artistic command to write at all costs, on all days, in every setting, and at every stage of life. The best teacher of writing is the act itself. The only way to become a better writer is by persisting at it, even when faced with rejection, lack of an audience, or boredom with our own ideas.

First drafts can be awful junk and lead a writer to despair. But there is almost always the whiff of a good idea buried underneath. It takes time to ferret it out through the complex, multi-layered process of rewriting. And when that happens, the reward is strangely beyond measure.

So, my advice is simple: write always and often, even in the face of inevitable discouragement, but in a household alive with plants, pets and people you love.

Determination, Inspiration and Selling a Book

River of DustOn May 14, 2013 my debut novel, River of Dust, will be published and I will have the incredible satisfaction of finally getting to share my work more broadly than ever before. Twenty-five years ago, one of the best literary agents in the country represented my first novel, but was unsuccessful at selling it. Since then, two more of my novels have been represented by agents, but remain unpublished. Over the past quarter century, I’ve lived in three cities, raised two children and have written a total of six novels. I’ve persisted at my craft, rising most days to write, even though I had no audience. But, River of Dust, wasn’t written in a dogged, determined way. Something completely surprising happened to bring this novel to fruition and onto the bookshelf. Before writing River of Dust, I had worked for five years on another novel called Sleepwalking to China. Over two dozen agents ended up reading it, several more than once, because the premise of the book was intriguing enough to engage them. Sleepwalking to China told the story of three generations of an American family with ties to Asia: the grandfather and grandmother were American missionaries in northwest China; the father grew up there and returned as a Marine at the end of WWII; and the son ended up in Vietnam at the fall of Saigon. And yet, the story was told by the daughter, a lost sixties radical who winds up adopting a Chinese child and returning to the land of her father and grandparents. The agents and fellow writers who kindly agreed to read the manuscript all found strengths, but also, something wasn’t quite right about it. It just wasn’t working as a whole.

After twenty-one drafts, some quite different from each other, I set the book aside and over about nine months wrote an entirely different novel set in contemporary Richmond, Virginia. But, the larger, more ambitious Sleepwalking story kept calling to me. I managed to get some crucial help with it by consulting an editor and fellow novelist, Nancy Zafris, who is now a good friend. She told me what I had feared and suspected: my big, generational novel was in fact two novels instead of one. With her assistance, I determined that I should simply tell the story of the grandparents in China in the nineteen-teens. I would take the first twenty-five pages of the longer book and focus on a plot that would take place instead all in one year, 1910.

I sat down on April 1, 2012 and wrote this new novel at a fevered pitch. The Sleepwalking book had been in my mind for at least five years, but this new novel was made up of altogether newly envisioned scenes. All of it was fresh and the conception of it felt more alive than anything I’d done in a long while. After five dogged years of work on the previous novel, I flew into writing River of Dust. On April 23, 2012, I finished a first draft. Twenty-three days to write a novel: unheard of!

Determination. Persistence. And that hard to come by third element had finally bestowed itself upon me: inspiration. All three elements were needed to make this book and I suspect are needed to make any book. And, the crucial help of others. All those emails back from agents with their thoughts on how to revise; all the comments from fellow writers and friends about the previous manuscript had educated me. And then, importantly, the brainstorming consultation I did with Nancy opened up my mind to re-create the story altogether. It gave my imagination license to go wild.

And, even more crazily, the novel that my editor at Unbridled, Greg Michalson, accepted for publication was that very first draft. My twenty-three day effort was what finally sold, a fact that feels hard to reconcile with all the discipline and rigor I had brought to my career prior to the writing of River of Dust. My twenty-one drafts of Sleepwalking to China weren’t better than this crazy first draft that Greg chose. It makes no sense, and yet maybe that’s the point: it took all those years of sweating out the earlier novels, revising and revising books that were never published, for the one quick book to sell. With Greg’s help I have since revised and improved on that first draft, but I still consider River of Dust my miracle book: mystifying to me and a total joy.

As I return to the second part of the original Sleepwalking to China now and hammer it into shape as its own new novel, I am trying to coax the lightness of inspiration to remain. Writing is not all about hard work. While it’s been satisfying all along, now the real fun begins.

Lighthouses Along the Way

River of DustThe galleys of my forthcoming debut novel, River of Dust, just landed on my doorstep and I don’t yet know half of what that means. Sure, I grasp that I now get to see what my book will look like as I comb the pages sentence by sentence. But beyond that, what does the future hold for both my book, and me? A few weeks ago, my friend Meg Medina, author of wonderful Latino-inspired and inspiring books for young people, said that being an author is different from being a writer. I scoffed. For decades I have taken myself seriously as a writer and treated myself as a professional, although I didn’t yet have a novel published. I know about getting up every morning, going to my desk and carrying projects to fruition all on my own. I have six novels under my belt, and have published short stories and poems. But, I’m beginning to sense Meg is right.

The book world these days is an amazing and exciting place, filled with constant activity and change. It leaves me breathless, and I only glimpse a tiny corner of it. But, by becoming an author, I seem to have traded in the constant worry over whether I would be published for a different worry: how to keep up with the maelstrom of social media, on line book review sites, book blogs, and other author venues? Authors need expertise in marketing, publicity and self-promotion. Everyone is networking, or, to think of it more positively, making friends and colleagues, all the time. I enjoy it. I genuinely want to keep up with Book Riot, The Rumpus, GalleyCat, The Millions, Bookslut, Goodreads, The Book Lady’s Blog, and dozens of other book-related sites, not to mention Twitter and Facebook.

I’m beginning to think that the distinction is that writers have the luxury to worry about whether their work is any good, whereas authors mostly worry about whether they’ve done enough each day—each hour—to keep up with fellow writers and the reading public.

A few weeks ago, I started stressing about getting blurbs for my novel. The question seemed to be: just how annoying was I willing to be to authors whom I admire? It’s not a fun thought. But then something shifted in my thinking, and I decided to play around with it. I might not ever even send the notes, so I aimed high. I wrote to Jane Smiley and Marilynne Robinson. Annie Dillard and Ha Jin. Allan Gurganus and A.S. Byatt. And there are others to whom I’d still like to write: Michael Cunningham, Penelope Lively, Alice Munroe, Edward P. Jones, and more.

These letters felt absurd—who was I to bother them?—so I decided to just go for it and tell famous authors how their works have served as beacons, veritable lighthouses, to me as I braved the frustrating and often boring waters of writing for decades. Their novels inspired me to keep going as I sloughed along with my unpublished books.

In the end, my letters to the famous authors were thank you notes. I even stood in the hot sun in Washington, DC, at the Library of Congress Book Festival for an hour and a half so I could hand one to Marilynne Robinson in person. Kind of nuts, I know. But I wanted to thank her face-to-face. It felt like something an aspiring writer would do.

Or perhaps it’s what all writers have the privilege of doing, even when we become more established authors ourselves. We always need the example of other authors to help remind us of why we write. At all levels of expertise, we rely on the inspiration of others to keep our own work strong.

Because, in the end, as it was at the start, it’s all about the work—even as we learn the overwhelming new tricks of our trade.