Kristen Lippert-Martin Talks About her Debut, Tabula Rasa

Kristen's Young Adult novel, Tabula Rasa, is out this fall and receiving great notices. A mother of four, a self proclaimed geek, and a former literary novelist who decided to take a different path, Kristen shares the story behind the story here. I'm looking forward to meeting her at the 2014 James River Writers Conference in Richmond, Virginia, in October. Hope you'll join us there! VP: On your website, you offer a humorous and encouraging video about how you overcame the early rejection of your novel, Tabula Rasa. I love stories of authors surmounting the difficulties of the trade. Would you share your pre-publication story here?

Tabula-RasaKL-M: Oh, boy. Sometimes I think I’m doing no favors to aspiring writers sharing my path to publication. It’s a cautionary tale! I wrote at great length about the six months that preceded my book deal here on my blog, but I’ll condense it to this: I graduated from my MFA program intent on writing literary fiction. I wrote two full-length manuscripts and had so, so many close calls with interested agents during that time, but I remember the moment I just gave up. I was walking with my daughter, who was two at the time, rushing to the post to actually mail a manuscript to an agent. Here I am, practically dragging my kid by the arm across the street in order to get to the post office before it closes and I don’t know…it just struck me in that moment. That was my epiphany. What the heck am I doing this for?

After that, I stopped writing for about five or six years before deciding to take my writing in new direction, namely young adult. And after that, it was a couple more years of crushing disappointment and frustration until I got an agent and then—yes, I hate to say it—even more disappointment and a manuscript that was on sub for a solid year and ultimately failed to sell. That’s when I started working on what would become my debut. I believe my youngest was two or three months old at the time I started Tabula Rasa. I must have been insane for starting up a new project then, but somehow, in my sleep-deprived state, I was able to get a full first draft completed in about six months.

Wow. I feel like I should buy everyone a drink after giving this answer, just to cheer everyone up. Alas, writing is hard, and getting published is even harder.

VP: Your novel is categorized as a YA Sci-Fi Thriller. Have you always written in that genre? I’m curious if you were writing YA while at the Columbia MFA program? 

KL-M: Here’s a little known fact that I’m divulging publicly for the first time! I earned my MFA in nonfiction writing. At the time I went off to grad school, I entertained visions of writing essays and long-form journalism pieces for the New Yorker. Basically my two years in grad school ended up being a huge re-direction for my writing. One of my professors told me that usually he recommends novelists make a move toward nonfiction, but I seemed to be heading in the other direction. Then, of course, I finally pivoted toward writing YA. What contributed to that change was the grand realization that, duh, perhaps I should try to write what I truly enjoyed reading rather than what I thought I should be writing.

As for the science fiction, yes, that’s been a big part of my work since transitioning to YA, but the thriller part—nope. Tabula Rasa was my first attempt at writing a thriller.

VP: You’re a mother of four children and yet you find time to write. Both seem like heroic acts to me and together they seem especially herculean. I wonder how you do it? 

Head Shot 1KL-M: I just get up every day and do the best I can to move my stories along. Sometimes I write a few sentences. Sometimes I just take notes. But I’m always, always trying to kick the ball down the road a little further each day. Some days it’s simply not possible—like over the summer, when everyone is home from school. I suppose my superpower is being able to work in short snatches and still hold the thread of a story together.

That being said, believe me, there are plenty of days when I just want to shout, “WILL EVERYONE PLEASE LEAVE ME ALONE FOR JUST FIVE %$#*&! MINUTES?!!” Other than cutting gems for a living, I can’t think of a job that is less compatible with having kids underfoot. Kids are focus-slayers, for sure.

VP: I also wonder how being a mother helps or hinders writing for a YA audience? Do you try out your work on your children before sharing it with your agent or editor? 

 KL-M: I haven’t at all, mostly because I worry that it would put pressure on them to like something. I think my writing has always been at the periphery of their awareness, and that’s the way I wanted it when they were very young. One time I got a rejection that sent me reeling and I ran to the bathroom so they wouldn’t see me break down. I hope that I did a good job shielding them from my sad, bad days as a writer.

VP: At the James River Writers Conference, (in Richmond, Virginia, on October 17-19, 2014) you will be on panels and speaking with many aspiring writers. What advice would you most like to offer them as they pursue their own paths to publication?

KL-M: Protect your creativity. And what I mean by that is do whatever it takes to maintain the joy of creation. That means finding supportive people who get what it’s like to pour your heart and soul into writing; taking breaks when you’re feeling low; recognizing that struggling is the norm and just decide to struggle with style. Resiliency is a learning process. I would never, ever have believed that I would be someone who could go through all the disappointments I endured on my way to getting published, and this is my proudest achievement in landing my book deal: I didn’t give up. And the reason I didn’t give up is because I kept the joy in my work and that joy allowed me to cultivate the humility I needed in order to improve.