Publishing Tips

Michele Young-Stone: Finding the Light in the Dark

Above-Us-Only-SkyMichele Young-Stone’s first novel, The Handbook for Lightening Strike Survivors established her as a new and distinct voice in American letters. Her second novel, Above Us Only Sky, is now out and is every bit as original, heartfelt and lovingly written as her first. It is a magical novel about a family of women separated by oceans, generations, and war, but connected by something much greater—the gift of wings. Both novels offer whimsical, imaginative stories that balance danger and the dark side of life with an uplifting spirit. Lydia Netzer, author of the Shine, Shine, Shine and How to Tell Toledo from the Night Skyhas called, Above Us Only Sky “...a raw, beautiful, unforgettable book that folds unfathomable horrors and unfathomable love into a story of incredible power." I've had the pleasure of getting to know Michele when we were neighbors in Richmond. When her first novel came out, I interviewed her, her editor, and her agent at a James River Writers event. Michele has a sparkle to her that is evident in person and on every page she writes. I'm delighted to interview her here.

VP: Your second novel is set both in the present in America and in the past in Lithuania during WWII. I’d love to know how you accomplished your research for the historical scenes. Was that a difficult part of the process of writing for you, or did you enjoy it?

MYS: I enjoy researching. Although reading articles and first-hand accounts of Stalin’s purges was emotionally difficult, it also fed my creativity and my desire to show that in the greatest darkness, some light remains.

VP: So much in the book world today is dictated by marketing strategies. Above Us Only Sky could be marketed as a literary novel, as fantasy or magic realism (because it has those elements), or as an historical novel. What do you think about such labels? Do they work in the author’s favor or are they limiting?

springheadshot2MYS: It’s also a YA novel! I don’t mind labels. I don’t think about them. I write my books and let marketing folks label them as they see fit. I think I’ll always fall under the umbrella of magical realism because I see the world in a magical way. I recently realized that magical realism is nothing more than perception. When I was a kid, I had an imaginary friend named Booby; he lived in the train station in Crewe, Virginia. I also used to cook for the queen of England. Imagination is everything in fiction. My life is magical. I feel God when I’m by the ocean, and I live by the sea. When I write, I impart my worldview.

VP: The Handbook for Lightening Strike Survivors made a big splash when Target chose it for their shelves. Did you feel much pressure as you wrote the second book for it to do as well?

MYS: Yes and no. We writers always put more pressure on ourselves than any editor or agent could ever apply. I was worried about the sophomore slump; I was worried about writing something as well-received as The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, but more than anything, I wanted to keep growing and evolving as a novelist. I wanted to write something grand, reflective of my developing style, but I try not to think about how well my book is “selling”. I try to revel in the art itself, in the book, the ISBN number, the accomplishment of telling a compelling story.

VP: I’m curious about the way your first novel leads into this second one. What elements do you think the two novels share?

MYS: Well, interviewers have pinpointed those elements for me. I never realized that both my novels have protagonists who have major turning points at age sixteen. Both novels tell parallel stories. Both novels have unusual quirky male characters, and both novels explore multiple story perspectives. There are so many similarities, including the theme that art is a form of salvation.

VP: I’m sure your readers would love to know what you’re working on now.

MYS: I am working on a book currently titled G or The Great American Novel, about Gloria Ricci, a young woman who grows up with ghosts after her mother’s twins die at birth. As Gloria searches for love in the 1960s and 70s, she finds it first in another young woman and next in a gay young man, neither route acceptable in American society. The novel spans post WWII America up to the 1980s. It is a story about ghosts and love, about bending versus breaking, and about young girls burning in the 1960s.

VP: Any advice for aspiring writers, or writers who are working to sustain their careers over time?

MYS: Have faith. Write because you love the act. Write because you can’t imagine not doing it. If you want to publish, keep working. Keep trying. The business side of writing is a necessary evil (or not). It’s up to you. If you want to publish traditionally, you’ll have to be part of the ever-evolving world of publishing and wear a less flamboyant and more practical hat. Some people can wear both, and some can’t.

Anjali Mitter Duva’s Debut Novel of Ancient India

At The Muse and the Marketplace writers’ conference earlier this month, I enjoyed an historical fiction panel featuring several authors, including debut novelist Anjali Mitter Duva. Bret Anthony Johnston, author most recently of the brilliant novel Remember Me Like This, offered these words about Anjali’s book: Faint Promise of Rain is a gorgeous book, a story that is at once spare and lush, wrenching and restoring. The characters are so fully realized, so keenly nuanced, that they linger with you long after the last page, like the sweet smell of a recent storm.”

VP: It was great meeting you at The Muse and Marketplace in Boston. I gather you’ve been involved with Grub Street for some time. What have you gained from being part of a writers’ organization? How has it helped you as a writer?

AMD: I owe so much to Grub Street. Honestly, the workshops, the instructors, the camaraderie I gained from that organization are what enabled me to take the leap and turn my writing into more than just a hobby. In 2007, I took my first workshop at Grub. It was Lisa Borders’ ten week Novel in Progress class. There were twelve of us, all writing our first novels, all doing so while juggling jobs, children, life. I was mid-way through my first draft, just starting to admit to myself I was writing a book. That summer was my first experience in showing my writing to perfect strangers, people knew nothing about me, and very little about the setting of my book, 16th century India. It was a tremendously validating experience. Of course my chapters needed work, but the class, and the instructor, genuinely enjoyed and admired many aspects of my writing, and provided tremendously helpful feedback. They made me believe I could do this.

When the class ended, I was afraid to lose the camaraderie and the feedback. It turned out I wasn’t the only one. I’d hit it off with another participant, Crystal King, writer of historical fiction set in Rome, and we decided to continue to meet, on our own. That was the start of a fabulous writing group that grew to include two more members, Jennifer Dupee and Kelly Robertson. We have been meeting every two weeks for seven years now, and we go on an annual writing retreat in June. These women have become dear friends, and have seen me, and supported me, through the entire writing and publishing journey. And I met them all through Grub Street classes.

Then there’s the annual conference, The Muse and the Marketplace. I met my agent there in 2010—in fact, that year I met two agents who both offered to represent me—and for the past two years I’ve been honored to be a presenter as well as an attendee. The conference is like a shot of writing adrenaline for me. I get to let go of all my other responsibilities, immerse myself with my “tribe” of literary folks, meet up with old friends, make new ones, learn from craft and business pros, and now, share some of my own learnings. I feel very fortunate to be writing in the Boston area, where there’s such a strong literary community.

PHOTO: Penny Lennox

PHOTO: Penny Lennox

VP: Your novel, Faint Promise of Rain, is set in Rajasthan in 1554. How did you decide to write a novel set in India?

AMD: I am half Indian, and grew up going regularly to India. In 1985 we lived there for a year, and traveled a lot. One of our destinations was Rajasthan, a desert state in the Northwest part of the country. It is a magical place, truly. Citadels and temples rise out of the sand, the sky is a searing blue, the textiles are jewel-toned, the history is colorful and full of legend. When I returned there with my husband in 2001, I felt that magic again, and I knew I needed to set a story there.

That year, I also began my study of kathak, one of the classical dance forms of India. Kathak is a storytelling art, and its history parallels that of India. With origins as a devotional dance practiced in Hindu temples, it was brought into Muslim courts and became an entertainment art under the Mughal Empire. It flourished, in part in courtesan circles, until the British outlawed it in the 1860s. After some decades underground, it resurfaced as India resurrected its national arts during its struggle for independence. Today, it’s a dynamic, mesmerizing art form performed on stages around the world.

What I learned through studying the dance and co-founding a non-profit dedicated to it led to a desire to write about it. And as a branch of this art form has roots in Rajasthan, there it was: the story I wanted to write had found me. I set Faint Promise of Rain during a time of transition in Rajasthan, at the start of Muslim rule in India, and am now working on Book 2, which takes place at the end of the Mughal Empire and the start of British rule.

VP: Was it very difficult to research such an early time period, or did you find it liberating to write a story set so long ago?

AMD: It was, as you suggest, rather liberating. I did a lot of research, of course, but there’s not very much written about that period of time in Jaisalmer, the town in which the story is set. I did a lot of reading about that time period in general, about the Mughal Empire, about the legends and myths relevant to that part of the world. Part of my research had already been done by the time I started writing: my visits to Jaisalmer. The images and impressions of the city were vivid in my mind, and the fact that it is a historic site and very protected means that not much has changed, physically, inside the citadel. No cars are allowed, very little construction is possible. If you remove the cell phones and power lines, the city looks much the way it did 500 years ago. Much of my research ended up being about the dance itself, including the kinetic experience of studying it, being on the dance floor, learning the movements. What was most difficult was ensuring that I had the fauna and flora right; that I didn’t use expressions or words that had not been coined at the time, that type of thing. But with access to so much via Internet, all this is feasible.

VP: You’ve done a great job of sharing your novel with a broader audience. Can you offer suggestions to writers at the beginning of their publishing journey?

AMD: Anyone who publishes a book these days undoubtedly learns a lot. My main advice to pass on to writers just beginning their journey is this:

“To thine own self be true,” as Polonius tells Laertes in Hamlet. Write the story you want to write, how you want to write it. Seek out the publishing experience that makes the most sense for you and for your personality, be it traditional, partner publishing, self-publishing. Don’t do things just because you feel pressure that you “should.” Focus on activities that give you energy, and try to avoid those that suck it away.

Think creatively. There are a lot of new opportunities out there, for publishing, for marketing. Those who get noticed, other than producing great work of course, are those who break the mold a bit, do things that people don’t expect.

Become a part of a literary community, and be a literary citizen—through classes, with a writing group, by attending literary events, by supporting other writers, by buying from bookstores. There is tremendous energy and inspiration to be gained through this, and in addition to benefiting the entire community, these activities help build a writer’s network. And as any newly published author will tell you, a network is key.

Elizabeth Evans on Sustaining a Writing Career

PHOTO: Steve Reitz

PHOTO: Steve Reitz

Elizabeth Evans’ fourth novel, As Good As Dead, is a compelling, suspenseful tale about a friendship between two women writers. Charlotte and Esme become best friends while at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but jealousy and competition lead to a betrayal that ends the friendship. Twenty years later, their connection is revived and proves even more destructive than before. Bharati Mukherjee has called Evans “a masterful storyteller,” and the exquisite psychological tension in this novel shows us why.

VP: As Good As Dead vividly reveals the experience of young writers in graduate school who must navigate their insecurities and jealousies, as well as their deep and meaningful connections to each other. I’m curious if their experience was at all similar to your own at Iowa? Have you ever tried to write about the young years in a writer’s career, or did you need the distance of time to capture it?

EE: It was good for me to be at Iowa, to be with other people who believed—as Charlotte put it—in the importance of making “one sentence after another do what you wanted them to do.” In some ways, however, my experience was quite different from that of Charlotte and Esme—and the rest of my classmates: I started out in the Iowa Workshop as a twenty-five year-old divorcee with a tiny child at home. I was like Charlotte in some ways: I am half-deaf and very shy, which meant that I could feel isolated. Yes, I sometimes suffered from resentment and insecurity—Why did so-and-so get that prize? Why did I get so drunk at that party?—but I trusted absolutely that I was writing stories that I needed to write and giving the stories all that I had to give. This probably explains why no workshop criticism that the stories received ever rocked my sense that I was doing the right thing.

(Also, during my second year, I worked with teachers who were very excited about my work, and that was awfully nice.)

As for writing about the young years in a writer’s career—I can’t say why I didn’t ever do it before. I wrote about my experiences in my journals, but it didn’t occur to me to write a story about young writers and the Iowa Writers Workshop until I needed those elements as fuel and setting for the drama of As Good As Dead.

VP: You’ve received wonderful accolades for your writing—including an NEA Fellowship, the James Michener Fellowship, and a Lila Wallace Award, among others. I’d love to know more about your path towards publication. Did you identify as a writer when you were a girl? At what age did you start to receive encouragement?

EE: Even as a little kid, I felt that poetry mattered. I memorized poems and tried my hand at writing my own at a fairly young age. It seemed like an essential activity. My older sister and I used to go to the library to find poetry books, and after I showed my sister some of my own poems, she showed them to her best friend. Their praise—and some praise from my mother, too—gave me a boost. In high school, I had a very small, very informal creative writing class, and the teacher said that I had talent. In college, I won awards for writing fiction and poetry.

VP: What role do you think your awards and institutional support has played in helping to shape your career?

EE: I like to think that I would have kept at my writing without the awards. Making money and being famous—those weren’t big draws. It was the creative process itself, and, then, ultimately, the act of completion: distilling something from the confusion of life and containing it in such a way that, like fuel in a lantern, it provided illumination. I think there is something to what Eudora Welty said, though, that writing was a bit like making jam. You made some and people said, “Mm, that’s good,” and so you make some more.

VP: In your Acknowledgements, you thank your daughter for being a good reader of your drafts. I’m curious about your process. At what stage in the creation of a novel do you share it with others? Who else in addition to your daughter gets to weigh in?

EE: I always take a story or a novel absolutely as far as I can before I show it anyone (I endorse Frost’s idea that we have to be “secret in order to secrete”). My husband is my first reader. He’ll almost certainly suggest some worthwhile changes. After I’ve incorporated those, I will show the work to a few trusted readers. This will invariably mean more edits. My agent doesn’t see the work until these steps are completed.

VP: I’m sure you’re terribly busy with book events, but I wonder if you’ve had time to start on the next novel. If so, can you share about it?

EE: I am very close to finishing a novel about a man who gets stuck on an island in Canada with the adult-daughter he scarcely knows. I don’t think I should say more (see Frost, above).

VP: What advice would offer an aspiring writer today? Do you think it’s a good idea to get an MFA? What else is crucial for writers to know now?

EE: While social media may be important for marketing your work, it is not crucial to your development as a writer. It would be good to locate a few good readers who will give you honest, careful feedback on your work. If you can’t find a few good readers in your community, consider an MFA program (despite comments to the contrary, I’ve never seen evidence that MFA programs homogenize student writing).

It is crucial that you write often and read great literature. We all need lots of exposure to good sentences and well-built stories. Reading the best works will help you learn how to read your own work as if you did not write it; only then will you have a good sense of when your work fails or succeeds.

(Elizabeth's author photo by Steve Reitz)

Kim Church Talks About Byrd

ByrdI've loved getting to know Kim Church, whose debut novel, Byrd, came out earlier this year from Dzanc Books. I've admired Dzanc for years and have enjoyed every book I've read from them, so I wasn't surprised to discover that Byrd is a beautifully written, honest story that follows the arc of a woman's life from the time she meets the cool guy in high school who winds up fathering her child, to when she's an older woman, looking back on her decision to put that child up for adoption. I was most struck by the subtle way Kim gets inside her characters' heads, especially her protagonist, Addie. I was eager to ask her some questions about how she wrote Byrd: VP: I’m so happy for you that Byrd has received such fine recognition. I wonder if you can share with us your path to writing this wonderful first novel and to its publication?

KC: Thanks, Ginny. Years ago a friend told me about a woman—an independent, single, capable woman—who had an unplanned pregnancy in her thirties and decided to give up her baby for adoption. I was fascinated. How had she made the decision; how did she live with it? I didn’t press my friend for details, but I couldn’t stop wondering: how would it feel, being mother to a child who would forever be absent from you, by your own choice? I’d never come across such a character in literature. So I wrote one.

It took me ten years, off and on, to write Addie’s story—five to write the first manuscript, five more after I realized I had to start over. It took several more years to find and agent and a publisher. Not a short project, this book. But writing it taught me how to write a novel. And I ended up with the right agent, and she found the right press.

VP: Byrd is set in North Carolina, where you live. I wonder if some elements of it are autobiographical, or if that was a concern of yours—to both write what you know while also creating afresh?

KC: I borrowed details from places I’ve lived or spent time, but I took extreme liberties. I invented and changed and rearranged details to suit the story. (Sort of like when my husband and I were in New York staying in a nondescript building in a neighborhood we weren’t familiar with. A movie was being filmed nearby, and on our first day, while we were out, the filmmaker changed all the street signs.)

One thing I love about writing fiction is how it teaches you to see even the most familiar places through fresh eyes. To pay attention to things you ordinarily take for granted.

VP: Your novel is written in short sections interspersed with letters and asides. I wonder if you can talk about the structure you chose to tell this story. It seems to fit your characters perfectly and I wonder if you were trying to capture something about memory and loss.

Kim Church, author of BYRDKC: The structure evolved from the story. My first draft was a linear first-person narrative from Addie’s point of view. When I began to revise, I realized first-person didn’t work: Addie doesn’t know enough to tell the whole story. So I—gulp—started over, writing from every point of view I could think of. At the same time, I didn’t want to lose the intimacy of first person; I wanted to keep Addie’s voice—which I did through her letters to Byrd, her absent son. The book ended up with a fairly intricate structure, but it worked, at least for me. It gave me access to the whole story. And, as you say, it also led me to think more about missed connections and missed opportunities and the slipperiness of memory and just how little people actually know about each other.

VP: In the months since Byrd came out, I’m sure you’ve been busy with social media and events, but I’m curious what you’re working on next?

KC: I’ve started a second novel set during the Gastonia textile strike of 1929, a defining and shameful episode in North Carolina labor history that never gets talked about. I grew up in this state; my paternal grandparents worked in cotton mills all their lives; yet I knew nothing of the Gastonia strike or the much larger general strike of 1934 until long after their deaths.

VP: Any last thoughts for aspiring writers? This is your chance to offer a pep talk or any unexpected tips.

KC: What I’d say to aspiring writers: read, write. Write and write and write until you know who you are as a writer, until you recognize what’s unique and authentic about your voice, until you’ve figured out how you work. Then trust yourself. Have a reader or two you can trust, too, because you can’t be right all the time.

The other thing I’d say is, things usually work out. Maybe not exactly when or how you’ve imagined, but if you keep at it, if you can figure out what’s yours to write and write it as well as you can and keep yourself open to possibility, something good will come.

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.