River of Dust

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.

David Abrams: Debut Novelist and Literary Citizen Extraordinaire

David Abrams’ debut novel about the Iraq War, Fobbit, was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2012 and a Best Book of 2012 by Paste Magazine, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Barnes & Noble. It was also featured as part of B&N's Discover Great New Writers program and has received much well-deserved love and attention. But I first came to know David because he is such a kind and encouraging literary citizen. Before River of Dust was published, he invited me to contribute to his blog, The Quivering Pen. I wrote for his “My First Time” column in which writers describe their first experience with success, or failure, in writing and publishing. For someone who is relatively new to the world of publishing himself, David has a way of shepherding the less experienced along with him. Perhaps it's his military past that taught him to think about the whole and not just himself, or perhaps it's because he is a father who has raised three children he calls "the small apple orchard of my eye." But in any case, I'm grateful to him for his support and friendship, and I know that many other authors feel the same way. In this interview, I ask him about his experience before his fame with Fobbit. As you might expect, he encourages aspiring writers to "stick with it and believe in yourself." VP: Your readers know that you served in Iraq and that your wonderful novel, Fobbit, is set there. But, I’m curious about your background as an aspiring writer before and during that time.

DA: I like to tell people I was born a writer, not a soldier. Military aspirations were the farthest thing from my mind in the mid-1980s when I joined the Army. I was the proverbial 98-pound weakling, timid, preferred the solitude of books, that sort of thing. At the time, I had a bachelor’s degree in English, a rewarding (if stressful) job as a reporter for a newspaper in Montana, and a couple dozen poems and short stories published in literary magazines with microscopic readerships. I was convinced that, given enough time and circumstances, I could write the next Great American Novel. Such are the pathetic dreams of young, struggling writers. I had ambition, but I also had student loan debt, grocery bills, and a third child on the way. So I joined the Army and was soon indoctrinated into the world of straitjacketed writing for the military. For the first years, I had a lot of fun writing feature stories for the military base newspapers—writing which tapped into my creativity—but it wasn’t long before I was confined to drier writing for reports and technical journals. I compiled training plans and got really good at doing PowerPoint presentations. All this time, in my off-duty hours, I continued to work on my fiction—stories that were deeply influenced by Raymond Carver, John Updike and Flannery O’Connor. I got a lucky break when one of them was published in Esquire but that was about as big as it got back in those days. I earned my MFA from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks while I was working full-time in the Army, squeezing intense writing jags on my thesis between field training exercises in sub-zero weather. In a way, I always felt like my job in the Army was my “sideline” and that writing was my real career.  Such was the state of my life in 2005 when I deployed to Iraq with the 3rd Infantry Division. I was, in a way, primed to write something like Fobbit.

 VP:  I saw in another interview that you had correspondence with your agent while over there. You sent him pieces of writing about your experience. For many writers, getting that first agent can be a huge challenge and a dream-come-true when it happens. We all want to have a literary partner and hope that our agent will become that person. It’s lovely to imagine you sending off your writing to your agent while in Iraq. Can you tell us how that came about? And how working with that person helped shape the book you came to write? 

DA: First of all, I need to send out a song of praise for Nat Sobel. As an agent, he had faith in me for nearly six years while I was working on Fobbit. It’s incredible to think he kept me as a client for all that time without having anything in hand to sell. It’s kind of a touching love story, actually. As soon as I arrived in the combat zone, I started keeping a journal. It was a creative record of everything I saw, heard, experienced—I just poured everything into it in a daily brain-dump. At one point, I sent a few of those journal entries to my friend (and now Dzanc Books publisher) Dan Wickett. He posted my Baghdad diary to his blog, Emerging Writers Network. Nat Sobel, legendary agent of Sobel-Weber, happened to read what I wrote and contacted Dan who then played match-maker. So, picture me there in that internet café on Camp Liberty after a long day at work, opening up my email, and seeing a message from Nat Sobel saying he was interested in my work. My head immediately inflated to the size of a hot-air balloon and I went around strutting like a cock-of-the-walk. I had a literary agent! Life was good, I immediately felt bullet-proof there in that combat zone. Surely no harm could come to me now that my writing career was finally on its way. Nat and I continued to correspond with each other that year. He was the one who planted the seed of Fobbit in my head. Early on, we both saw that writing a straight memoir about my time in Baghdad wouldn’t add much to an already-overpopulated field of Iraq War memoirs. Near the end of my tour, Nat wrote to me: “I've come to believe that only in fiction will this insane war finally reach an American reading public.” I went back to my trailer that night and started noodling around characters invented whole cloth out of my imagination, placing them in some real-life situations with which I was familiar. 

VP: So did you write Fobbit while there or when you returned? I’m curious when and how you had the time to work it and how long it took you to write? Would you say that yours was a straight path to publication or were there hairpin turns along the way?

DA: As I mentioned, Fobbit grew organically out of my journal—like a new green shoot sprouting out of a tree limb—so in one sense, the novel started the day I set foot on Iraqi soil. While other soldiers went back to their “hooches”—their trailers and tents—after work and played Xbox or cleaned their weapons or hung out with members of the opposite sex, I went back to my room and wrote for two to three hours. It was good therapy—that and reading a crapload of books that year—everyone from Elmore Leonard to Cervantes. I stole my writing time in snatches, little sips of time during the day and late at night. Fobbit the narrative didn’t really get going until the very end of my time in Iraq, and I really went to town on it once I returned stateside. Like most of my writing projects, it had its ebbs and flows, periods of time when it languished and I made sorry excuses for not sitting down at the keyboard on a daily basis. For the most part, though, I think Fobbit’s path to publication was pretty straight. Once Nat and I were happy with the final draft and he started shopping it around, it went pretty quickly, at least by my standards. Grove/Atlantic came back with an offer less than a month after Nat sent it out, which is pretty amazing to me.

VP: I can’t resist asking the question that must come at all writers who write about war: do you, like Hemingway, feel that people need to have major life experiences in order to have something to write about? Or, do you agree with Eudora Welty that, “a quiet life can be a daring life as well, for all serious daring starts from within?”

DA: Would I have written Fobbit if I hadn’t actually gone to Iraq and been immersed in the day-to-day reality of war? Probably, but it wouldn’t be the same book. It wouldn’t have that intensity of truth. I would have been guessing (and probably guessing wrong) at the things I actually experienced. That being said, I just spent 20 years working on a novel about a midget who gets a job as a stuntman in 1940s Hollywood. I’ve never been a midget, never lived in the 1940s, and only spent two days in Hollywood as a tourist—but somehow I was able to pull it off. On the whole, my life has been pretty boring, bland as a cardboard cutout—no running of bulls, no deep-sea fishing off the coast of Cuba, no hairy-chested Hemingway adventures—but I do have plenty of unexplored worlds in my head. That’s where I find an interesting life to write about.

VP: What advice do you have for aspiring writers who strive to have their debut novel published?

DA: It took me nearly 30 years to get a novel published, so I suppose saying “Stick with it and believe in yourself” might not be what most beginning writers want to hear. I can certainly understand the desire to have something published now and not decades from now. Lord knows that was my dream and frustration for 30 years. In all that time, though, I never stopped believing someone somewhere would be interested in my writing—it couldn’t be that bad, could it? You have to have faith in your work—especially in those dark, lonely days when it seems like no one else does. Eventually, if you keep writing and keep pushing against the tide of negativity and rejection, something will happen. And if it doesn’t, what’s the worst that will have happened? You’ll have brought some beautiful words into the world, even if they’re only beautiful to you.

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.