Jodi Paloni’s Collection Reveals Small Town Life

Jodi Paloni’s linked story collection, They Could Live With Themselves, has been called wise and brave. Quietly observant and written in deceptively simple prose, she explores the hidden lives of the citizens of a fictional Vermont small town called Stark Run. This debut book was runner up in the 2015 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction and published by Press 53. As always, I’m interested in the path to publication for a first book. How did this collection take shape and now that Jodi lives and writes in Maine will that wild and beautiful state become the focus of future work?


VP: Over how many years did you write the stories in your collection?

JP: In a sense, I think the writing of They Could Live With Themselves about a small New England town was in the works long before I sat down to write them. I’ve been “gathering” personal experiences that fed the well of this project for years. That said, I started working on fiction in earnest back in 2010 during my MFA program at Vermont College. I finished the final story about three weeks before publication date in the spring of 2016. “The Physics of Light” was an add-on to the original manuscript. That is not to say that I worked on the book steadily for six years. And many stories originally slated for the book didn’t make it into this collection.

VP: Were you aware that you were writing a collection as you wrote the individual pieces? At what point did you realize it?

JP: Virginia, the thing is, I’m fascinated by the imagined place, Stark Run, which is based on a conglomerate of three towns in real life, places where I’ve lived. After I read and admired Olive Kitteridge, Winseburg, Ohio, and How the Devil Chose New England to Do His Work, and a number of other linked collections about small towns, I wanted to achieve the kind of read that left me both enamored with each individual story, but also left me touched by the greater whole. It came naturally to think about characters in terms of relevance to place. Place was the kernel and the stories grew from there.

VP: Your stories are interconnected, with the same characters appearing in different stories, weaving an intricate web of tales that together create the town of Stark Run, Vermont. Do you feel that some of your characters are more central to the collection than others? And do any of the stories feel more pivotal for the whole book?

Jodi Paloni

Jodi Paloni

JP: That’s a tough question because some characters show up a lot more than others, but others are people who hold the town together, yet hardly appear. Take Maeve Bellamy, the esteemed English teacher. She has her one story, is rarely mentioned elsewhere, but she has taught, or perhaps will teach, almost every character in the book. So in my mind, once we see her, and know her, her presence looms.

I guess if I had to zero in on a central character, I’d say Sky Ryan becomes somewhat of a “rock star” in the collection. He played supportive roles all along. My editor at Press 53, Kevin Morgan Watson, said he wanted Sky to have his own story. So in the final hour, I wrote a story from Sky’s perspective. In retrospect, his story takes on the whole of the collection. His voice becomes the collective voice for the town. I suppose the final story, “The Physics of Light,” is pivotal. Some would say it concludes. Others would say it left them wanting a sequel.

VP: The themes of loss and change are subtly explored in these carefully drawn portraits. I’m curious if there are certain writers you admire for their ability to reveal character in such an understated way?

JP: There are so many writers I admire for a variety of reasons and it’s difficult to pin any one to a particular aspect of my writing. I’ll just say that I love the way in which both Raymond Carver and Alice Munro deal with domestic drama in their stories, though I would never want to insinuate that I’ve achieved their level. Then there are particular stories that slay me: “Araby” by James Joyce, “Immortalizing John Parker” by Robin E. Black, Alistair Macleod’s, “The Boat,” and “Rana Fegrina,” by Dylan Landis. There really are so many great short stories out there.

VP: I’m always curious about how authors of collections chose the order of their stories. Was this a joint decision with your editor? What helped you place them in this order?

JP: The stories begin during spring, the month of May, and go around a calendar year ending the following May. This was purely accidental until I made it part of the plan, making a few adjustments–––nods to weather, a name changed here and there to make linkages linear and logical, etc…I found that becoming strategic in ordering stories was super fun. The collection could have started in September, or perhaps in January. At one point, my early readers all voted on opening with “Molly Sings the Blues,” a story chosen by Pam Houston for Whitefish Review years back. Molly sets the stage for the place, sets a tone, and introduces a few of the players.

VP: I’d love to know what you’re working on next. Will you be venturing into other landscapes or staying close to home with another book set in Vermont?

JP: Well, since writing TCLWT, I moved from Vermont to the coast of Maine. Here, I’m working on a mother/daughter story collection set in Maine, and a novel, also set in Maine. I tend to work on pieces set in the place where I am located. It helps me to immerse in setting and tone.

I can sit in a coffee shop and listen to conversations and find the “place-ness” in the characters, too, if you know what I mean. The trick is I’ve only lived here two years, whereas I had lived in Vermont for twenty-five. I knew small town Vermont, at least some aspects of a particular population.

The good news is I have some “born and bred” Maine readers who have already volunteered to read my Maine drafts and check me out for authenticity, which feels good. They’ve also said that TCLWT could have been set in Maine, so maybe small town rural New England has enough in common to carry me. Best to just “get er done” and figure the rest out later.

Leslie Pietrzyk on How to Build a Writing Life

Leslie Pietrrzyk and I met at the wonderful Virginia Center for the Creative Arts years ago and really hit if off. I enjoyed her first two novels and waited eagerly for the next. But as she describes in this interview, sometimes writing takes longer than we hope—and publishing even more so! But her experience shows there are ways to build a writing life, even when you’re not publishing. Her advice here is spot on and so important. Luckily for us all, she kept writing and her moving short story collection, This Angel on My Chest, won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was published last year. As she describes, she wrote it pretty much on her own. But Leslie is not an isolated writer. Her work is known and much admired. She’s a bright and generous star in the constellation of writers out there today.

Leslie Pietrzyk

Leslie Pietrzyk

 VP: Your two wonderful novels—Pears on a Willow Tree and A Year and a Day—came out some years ago. I read them and admired them both. And for many years, you published short stories in top notch literary magazines. But if I remember correctly, you had a hard time placing a third novel. But then, something miraculous happened: you won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and your stunning collection, This Angel on my Chest, was published this year. That prize is lucrative, well-publicized, and confirms the winner with a good degree of literary respect. So the sudden success of your short story collection must have given your career a great second wind. Can you talk about the fallow periods and the successes in a writer’s life? Is there something that you’ve learned from your experience that would be helpful to other writers about the ups and downs of what we do?

LP: A second wind, indeed! After publishing A Year and a Day, I wrote two novels that weren’t published. I was placing short stories and essays in literary journals, but I wanted another book. It’s tough to work so hard and not feel rewarded, especially when surrounded by accomplished, amazing writer friends. And on Facebook, all we see are the successes, so it feels as though “everyone else” is publishing a book and “everyone else” is having such an easy time of it—even as we understand this is not logical or even true. It can be really tough when you’re in those trenches…tough to get out, tough to keep going.

I’m not sure what helpful advice I have, ultimately, beyond keep at it. Identify the people who believe in your writing and don’t dismiss their kindnesses. Stay part of the writing community; don’t run away in shame or terror. Start new projects: I worked on my literary blog; I started an online journal for previously published work (Redux); I started a neighborhood prompt writing group. Change up your writing—your style, your content; push some boundaries and go for broke. Read excellent books.

Or not. Do none of those things.

I wish there was a clear path through those tough times. I only know what I did, and I’m not sure if what I did was helpful or was just what I did. “Write” is, I think, the answer to any question I face, so in retrospect, I’m most proud of myself for continuing to write.

VP: The impetus to write the stories in This Angel on My Chest seems particularly personal. All stories are somewhat autobiographical, if not in subject matter, than in feeling or thought. But your stories cut close to the bone of your own experience. Can you describe how you came to write them, or what the process of writing them meant to you?

LP: I didn’t really think I would write overtly about Robb’s death; I had written one story shortly after he died (“Ten Things”), and I had written about the grieving process in my novel A Year and a Day, which is set in Iowa and is about a 15-year-old girl whose mother committed suicide and the year that follows that tragedy. So I pretty much thought I was done…until a breakfast conversation at VCCA (where you and I met!!). I was chatting with a poet who was teaching a class about the literature of subcultures, and I thought it would be an interesting writing assignment to try writing about a subculture. In my studio, I scribbled out some ideas and once I saw “young widow support group,” I knew that would be hard for me to write about, and that I must. That story became “The Circle,” and as I was working at it while on the residency, I started keeping a long list of other memories and incidents from that time in my life that I wanted to write about. At the heart of each story was “one true and hard thing” from my experience, so yes, this is a highly personal book.

VP: Writing seems to have been a part of your recovery from loss. And winning the award for this third book must have felt like a great affirmation of your efforts as a writer, but also as a confirmation that when we write from the heart we’re more apt to deeply connect with readers. Your book certainly does that, and has been successful as a result. Does success change how you think about your work? Was there freedom in writing those stories when you weren’t sure they would be widely read? Have your ambitions changed over this period—can you take a breather now, or do you feel more pressure to capitalize on your recent success?

LP: I mostly wrote this book in secret, which I think was immensely freeing. My long-time writing group was dissolving, so they read only a couple of the stories. I felt that what I was trying to do—link a collection of stories through incident, with each story about a young husband who has died—was kind of an insane project. Who would do this? How could I make such a book work? Because it was such an unconventional approach, I didn’t want to hear voices in my head asking why I was doing this or how it wouldn’t work—or offering their solutions. I guess I sensed that the only way to figure out the puzzle of the book was to write it. That was scary, though, because for much of the time I had no idea what I was doing.

It’s hard for me to speak of “success.” To my mind, the book was a success without the external validation: it was the book I wanted to read after Robb died. Obviously, no book is perfect, but I found my way through the writing and emerged with the book I would have wanted to read after Robb died. But…I loved winning that big prize!

I’m just thinking now that the content of the book is very personal, as I noted, but also because the press takes the book as the judge has selected it, there’s no further editing. So the book is also personal in that it truly is a book written by ME, with very little outside input.

I’m not sure I would ever take a breather as a writer—there’s always another story to explore. And in our secret hearts, don’t we all dream of a shelf of books with our name on the spines? In the beginning, when I was growing up, I couldn’t imagine anything more remarkable than having a book I’d written in a library.

VP: How has being a teacher of writing helped you with your own writing? You have many dedicated students whose work you’ve helped shape. What does it feel like for you when they succeed?

LP: What I love most about teaching is being surrounded by smart people who want to talk about writing. My favorite kind of class is the kind where there are lots of questions, especially the sort of questions that make me think hard and run off to go research the answer for them. I love when I feel challenged by a class that wants to know more and to understand the craft more deeply. (I’m a member of the core fiction faculty at the Converse low-residency MFA program and I teach fiction in the MA in writing program at Johns Hopkins University.)

VP: What are you working on now? And any other advice for aspiring writers?

LP: I have a new novel that I need to re-re-revise for my agent; it’s set in 1980s Chicago, about a complicated female friendship between two college girls. And beyond that, there’s another novel dancing in my head, and I hope to get to that one this fall, when I’ll be in Scotland at a writing residency. (I can hardly believe that’s for real!!)

I love to give advice and could offer aspiring writers a million thoughts. But I’ll keep it simple here and quote one of my favorite writers and writing teachers, Richard Bausch: Write until something surprises you. That’s when you know it’s good.

Why Blogging Takes a Backseat or, the Birth of a New Book!

I can offer the best good excuse from any writer: my manuscript ate my blog! I’ve ignored this blog shamelessly because my writing brain has been elsewhere—in another far-off, purely fictional, land. I’m thrilled to share that I have completed a strong draft of my long-time-coming manuscript, Sleepwalking to China. I’ve sent it off to my agent for the second time. Technically, she’s read it three times, the first being almost a decade ago, but that’s another story. Or perhaps it's the same story. Because while some novels come forth in tidy, easily delivered packages, this one has been birthed slowly over several lifetimes.

But before I explain: here's a visual to prove I’ve been working:


I outlined and and reshaped and outlined some more, using my trusty and colorful 3 x 5 cards. I used them also for River of Dust and Dreams of the Red Phoenix, but this time, they were especially needed to keep my story from sprawling.

There are some scenes in this novel that I first wrote when I was fresh out of graduate school at Sarah Lawrence College, many, many years ago. Those scenes are what attracted an excellent agent to the book in its earliest incarnation. Since then, it has gone through several other agents and many transformations. I cannibalized it to create my debut novel. My second novel was inspired by it, too. So naturally, now that those books are both out in the world, I had to return to this unsolved story.

It’s a novel inspired by my family, felt by me, and yet wholly invented. It’s fiction that has fermented and changed in scent and taste and feel over time: it’s from a good vineyard in a good year. At least that’s my hope as I raise a glass and send it on its way.

Grateful not Griping in Final Days before Launch

In the final days leading up to the launch of Dreams of the Red Phoenix, I'm busy writing. That seems logical, since I'm a writer. But now is not the time to work on another novel, but instead on short guest blog essays, literally hundreds of email invitations, Facebook and Twitter comments and shares. Writing as basic communication is needed at this time. Fielding invitations to do book events. Encouraging old friends and new to come to those events. Sharing whatever bits of wisdom I can offer about books and writing and life on the blogs of colleagues who I now consider friends. I am pedaling as fast as I can on the publicity bicycle that is this part of the writing life. Pedaling and peddling, so I can then enjoy the long coast down hill that will be the pleasure of sharing my second novel. Because as soon as I finish all this communicating via email and social media, I will share Dreams of the Red Phoenix—in person! I have sixteen book events set up and more in the works. Most of them will take place between October 7-November 5. My launch happens in Richmond, Virginia, where I lived for seventeen years until quite recently. Followed by other launch events at Porter Square Books in Cambridge and at the Concord Bookshop in Concord, MA, where I currently live and grew up. I love how homecoming will be woven into each of these settings. I feel embraced already by old friends who I'd love to see and vice versa, whether I have a new book or not. In other words, this is going to be really fun!

But then I hit the towns where I know fewer people, but still hope to see some familiar faces: Providence, Rhode Island, New York and Brooklyn, Washington, DC, Asheville, North Carolina, Greenville and Spartanburg, South Carolina. I feel incredibly grateful to the bookstores and other venues that have invited me. They take a risk on a lesser known writer and I don't want to let them down. I have my talk ready. My readings picked out. My slideshow in the works. I hope to welcome and entertain and connect with any readers willing to listen.

I hear some writers gripe about this public part of being an author. To me, it's all gravy. I look forward to the events, even if only a two or three people show up. Those are two or three people who have given me an their time on a weeknight when they could be home watching TV. And if they buy the book, I'm even more grateful for their generosity.

In the last twelve days before the pub date for Dreams of the Red Phoenix, I'm delighted with my publisher and thankful for their publicist who has helped every step of the way. It's almost time to fly. Or take the train. Time to meet and greet. Time to share. Not just the book, but myself, in a way that is real and honest and enjoyable.

Capturing Memory and Change in Writing


Change. Change. Change. It’s a kick in the pants. It’s good for you. It makes you grow. It’s hard, but worth it. Since deciding to move, I’ve heard or thought of every cliché about change imaginable, and each one rings true.

After seventeen years in Richmond in the same wonderful house, my husband and I recently moved to Cambridge. We raised our kids in RVA, but we live now as empty nesters. We evolved into our adult selves in RVA, and we are now those people we became. I wrote five novels in my Richmond study overlooking the backyard and little fishpond. Now I’m at a desk in a modern home on a narrow side street in Cambridge with a view of treetops and an old farmhouse across the way.

As best as I can tell, the move is good, though hard in ways that pull me up short.

Before moving, I asked our Richmond house painter to remove and preserve the doorjamb where our kids’ heights had been written. In our new home, I stand at a loss in the living room with the strip of wood in my hand. It's pictured here in the back of my car on moving day—too precious an item to trust to the movers. And then again here in my new home, without a wall yet to hang it on.

Because the question is: what do I do with it now? What do we do with our most cherished memories?

That’s where books come in—novels and stories that try to capture the fleeting nature of life. The inevitable losses that are not always sad, and the rising hopefulness that change can create as well.

A close friend sends me sad, yet excited, texts as she drops off her daughter at college. Another friend posts a sad, yet excited, photo of her son as he heads off to his first day of kindergarten.

How do we make sense of the simultaneous optimism and sorrow that accompany each new stage of life? Writers fill the blank page, composers go to their instruments, and artists of a certain ilk pick up their brushes—each of us attempting to wrestle with change.

If I’m lucky, that scribbled-on stick of wood bearing evidence of the past has in it a poem not yet written.

Author and Blogger David Abrams Does it All

After the great success of his debut novel, Fobbit, I wanted to check in with David Abrams to see what he's working on next. I've come to rely on his daily book blog, The Quivering Pen, and when he stopped posting earlier this year so he could focus on his own writing, I grew curious. David is such a vital and generous presence in the literary community, I was intrigued to learn how he manages to do it all--pen books and oversee an important and much-read blog. Here is his answer to the time management conundrum that all writers face: David Abrams--color--by Lisa Wareham PhotographyI'm a people pleaser.

Before you go saying, "Hey, that's great!" let me stop you by saying, People Pleasing has ruined my soul. Oh sure, it's all well and good on the surface: putting others first, altruism, the wisdom of New Testament Bible verses, etc., etc. But all that Others First philosophy means I put my own needs in second, third, or last place. I spend so much time thinking-slash-worrying about what others think and feel and need that it leaves precious little "Me Time." (To my dear wife who might be reading this: please note that I will ALWAYS put you first--just wanted to clear the air on that.) Whenever I am reading another author's manuscript for a blurb, championing a new writer's novel on Twitter, or spending hours writing a Quivering Pen blog post about literary trends, it means I'm not working on my own writing. Don't get me wrong: I blurb/Tweet/blog because I want to and because I feel passionate about what I'm reading. But the truth is, no original words of mine are being written during this time.

So, when you ask how I prioritize my work, my response will probably be: "as an afterthought." Occasionally, I'll go through bouts of creativity where I'll shake off this malignant thinking and get down to work on the manuscript waiting, dusty, in the bowels of my hard drive. The truth is, those one-off periods of inspiration need to be the rule not the exception. I'm trying to get better. I really am.

I thought I was halfway to the cure at the beginning of this year when I nailed up the shutters on my blog, The Quivering Pen, saying that I needed to Blog Less, Write More. So long, and thanks for all the fish.

That golden period lasted for about four months. I tinkered around on the novel--long overdue to my editor--which I've been trying to write for two years, and I started three short stories, which remain in tattered fragments on my computer. I did a lot of staring out of my office window and distracted myself by reading books by Michael Chabon, John Kennedy Toole, and Emily St. John Mandel which I'd been putting off for far too long. I drank multiple cups of coffee, I stared out the window, I tinkered.

Then I snuck back to the blog like an adulterous husband drunk-dialing his mistress in the middle of the night.

My problem is that in addition to being a People Pleaser, I'm also a card-carrying member of the Procrastinator's Club and am professor emeritus at the College of Spread-Too-Thin. I take on too much and end up doing none of it to perfection.

I suspect I'm not alone at these clubs (I see several of you nodding your head in sympathetic recognition). It's comforting to be in a society of many, I suppose--but warning lights are flashing red right now: comfort leads to complacency, complacency is the first rest stop on the highway to hell.

I'm sorry, but I must leave you now. I must get to work--the selfish, ego-driven work of writing my own damn words. How to get there? I don't know, really. The creative life comes with no owners manual, no instructions to insert Tab A into Slot B. Giving up the blog, saying "no" to blurb requests, taking a Twitter vacation--those aren't the remedies (I've already tried all of those things). Sleeping less and rising earlier in the morning? Maybe, but I'm already throwing off the covers at 4:30; don't know if I can crack open my eyelids any earlier than that. Making the novel-in-progress the first thing I turn to in the morning? That's a start. Better time management? Of course.

If I'm honest with myself, if I look the mirror man in the eye, I'd have to say that the best first step is moving past the fear: the fear of failure, the fear of letting others down, the fear of wasting time at the keyboard. Instead, what I really need to be afraid of is failing to please myself. That's it. From now on, I'll try to be a Me-Firster.

Just as soon as I finish this blog post...


David Abrams is the author of Fobbit (Grove/Atlantic, 2012), a comedy about the Iraq War that Publishers Weekly called “an instant classic” and named a Top 10 Pick for Literary Fiction in Fall 2012. It was also a New York Times Notable Book of 2012, an Indie Next pick, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, a Montana Honor Book, and a finalist for the L.A. Times’ Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. Abrams’ short stories have appeared in Fire and Forget (Da Capo Press, 2013) and Home of the Brave: Somewhere in the Sand (Press 53), anthologies of short fiction about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Other stories, essays and reviews have appeared in Esquire, Narrative, Salon, Salamander, Connecticut Review, The Greensboro Review, Consequence, and many other publications. Abrams earned a BA in English from the University of Oregon and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. He retired from active-duty after serving in the U.S. Army for 20 years, a career that took him to Alaska, Texas, Georgia, the Pentagon, and Iraq. He now lives in Butte, Montana with his wife. Visit his website at: www.davidabramsbooks.com

Author photo by: Lisa Wareham Photography

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.

Novels as Ultimate Expression of Free Speech

In his Commencement speech at Dickinson College earlier this week, author Ian McEwan, spoke about the importance of free speech: "Let’s begin on a positive note: there is likely more free speech, free thought, free enquiry on earth now than at any previous moment in recorded history (even taking into account the golden age of the so-called ‘pagan’ philosophers). And you’ve come of age in a country where the enshrinement of free speech in the First Amendment is not an empty phrase, as it is in many constitutions, but a living reality."

He went on to say..."The words associated with Voltaire (more likely, his sentiments but not his actual phrasing) remain crucial and should never be forgotten: I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

His argument for free speech is strong, but for me the most compelling aspect centered around the role of novels to help us understand differing points of view—a necessity in a divided world.

IMG_2053"In making your mind up on these issues," McEwan said, "I hope you’ll remember your time at Dickinson and the novels you may have read here. It would prompt you, I hope, in the direction of mental freedom. The novel as a literary form was born out of the Enlightenment, out of curiosity about and respect for the individual. Its traditions impel it towards pluralism, openness, a sympathetic desire to inhabit the minds of others. There is no man, woman or child, on earth whose mind the novel cannot reconstruct. Totalitarian systems are right with regard to their narrow interests when they lock up novelists. The novel is, or can be, the ultimate expression of free speech."

In 2013, Scientific American reported that researchers at The New School had found evidence that literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling:

"Literary fiction...focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships.... This genre prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues. This psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom. Although literary fiction tends to be more realistic than popular fiction, the characters disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes. They support and teach us values about social behavior, such as the importance of understanding those who are different from ourselves."

As I complete a third novel set partially in China during a distant time period, I am again reminded of the correlation between exercising the muscle of the imagination and an overall feeling of empathy, not just in the reader as he or she absorbs a novel, but in the writer who creates one. Compassion seems to be a natural bi-product of literary sharing: that delving inward that creates a bond with others.

I know my life is made richer in meaning, and more daring in action, because of the novels I have both read and written.

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.

Learning from Authors as Scholars of Writing

Screen shot 2015-06-08 at 9.57.25 PMLast weekend, I ventured into the literary heart of my soon-to-be home city. Boston’s Grub Street is known nationwide as a excellent place for aspiring writers to learn every aspect of the craft and art of writing. Their annual conference, The Muse and the Marketplace, is certainly impressive, though not intimidating, because the staff and volunteers go to great lengths to welcome participants. I met writers at the beginning of their journeys, first time authors, as well as highly respected editors and agents. But the highlight for me was talks given by two seasoned and brilliant writers who I think of as scholars of writing. Here are a few tips gleaned from them.

In her workshop, Roxana Robinson, author most recently of the moving novel, Sparta, described how successful literary fiction shares five key elements:

  1. A new world that entices the reader to see even the familiar as different and new.
  2. Beautiful language, which doesn’t mean flowery. Each sentence must have a rhythm of its own. A clear voice and point of view create a bond between writer and reader.
  3. Sympathetic, though not always likable, characters, whose humanity is accessible.
  4. Conflict, which is essential, otherwise the story dries up. Conflict brings characters to life.
  5. And finally, change, which can take place in the reader, not always in the characters. The reader must be changed in some way. Without that, there is no point.

Emotion, Robinson stressed, guides fiction writing. We write because something moves us. Passion, rage, fears, or joy drive the writer forward.

Charles Baxter, author of novels and short story collections and two important books on the craft of writing, spoke articulately about so many aspects of writing that I can only distill a few of his ideas here. He focused on how writers create momentum to move their stories forward and keep readers caring about the characters.

To achieve this, he described Request Moments, when characters have something asked of them by other characters, or even by God, which they have no choice but to accept. Hamlet and Macbeth both begin with Request Moments that then propel the action forward.

Another dramatic catalyst is what Baxter called The One Way Gate. These are moments in a narrative when your character can no longer turn back and must take action or come to a new realization. Sometimes a minor character can push the action forward by saying what no one else will say, or by revealing motive or intention of the other characters.

The Ticking Clock also propels the action forward. How long do the characters have to do what they need to do? If the timeframe is infinite, there is no dramatic tension. Sometimes The Ticking Clock can be subtle—the brief mention of grey hair in Chekov’s Lady with the Lap Dog helps to explain why the protagonist’s feelings are suddenly more complicated and fraught than ever before.

Baxter’s talk was wonderfully rich with references to great literature, as was Robinson’s, who posted her favorite examples of great novels on Facebook. While I loved the whole conference, I was especially grateful to these seasoned authors, who reminded me, and I think others, of the most profound reasons why we write.

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)

Reading as a Writer

As I prepare to move out of our house of seventeen years to a much smaller one, I need to narrow down my library. Although the move isn’t for months, I've started to look at my bookshelves with a critical eye. Some shelves hold poetry collections from high school and undergraduate years. The bulk of the others are fiction: novels and short story collections arranged in no particular order, crammed side by side or tucked every which way. How had I not noticed what a mess my books had become? IMG_1959I hadn’t noticed because my bookshelves aren't for show. They are receptacles for books I've read and, for the most part, will never read again. Although I hadn't noticed it before, and it's a sacrilege to admit, my bookshelves might as well be trash bins or garbage heaps, because in most cases when I’m done with a book, I’m done.

Once I faced this hard cold fact, I suddenly felt liberated to say good bye to old favorites. In a frighteningly short period of time, I started to pull titles off the shelves and stacked them into boxes to take to my local used bookstore, Chop Suey Books, for some cash. They would surely want these brilliant titles I had once loved. As I packed away Brick Lane and The Beautiful Ruins, Her Fearful Symmetry and The March, The Weissmans of Westport and Florida, I remembered how much I had enjoyed and admired each one, and yet I didn't need them any longer.

Writers read for particular reasons. At least I do, although often that reason remains vague at the time. I appreciated the humor and voice in The Weissmans of Westport; the structure of an elaborate ghost story in Her Fearful Symmetry; and how love infused the opening sections of The Beautiful Ruins long before the two lovers ever meet. When I read each of these books, I was searching for some lesson about writing, and in each case, I found it.

Although I can't always put a finger on why a book works for me at a given moment, when it isn't working I'll jettison it without pause. I've never been able to be a member of a book group because I need to read what I need to read when I need to read it. I think that sounds a little selfish, but I wonder if many writers feel this way: secretly self-involved as we troll through other titles and consciously or unconsciously steal what we can.

The books that I'm keeping on my shelves when we move are the ones that for some reason I can't quite part with. Most are classics: Madam Bovary, The Good Soldier, Plainsong, In Country—because I have read and reread them and may do so again. I need to have those books around on the off chance I imbue their lessons by just having them near.

A friend asked if the act of purging my bookshelves was depressing. Didn't it make me face the impermanence of our efforts as writers? She has a point, but for some reason, I'm finding it heartening to notice the endless stream of titles that we absorb and then leave behind. Every book I give away has meant something to me. It gives me hope that my books can enjoy the not so small privilege of being on someone else’s bookshelf—even for a short time.

A Premier Publisher of Rich Literary Quality: Unbridled Books

I am honored and proud to be an Unbridled Books author. In their Indie Spotlight column, Ploughshares literary journal focuses on the co-publishers of Unbridled: Fred Ramey and Greg Michalson.

Here is how the interview begins:

With my editor, Greg, and Cake!

With my editor, Greg, and Cake!

“Unbridled Books was founded in 2003 by co-publishers Fred Ramey and Greg Michalson, who together have more than 50 years experience in publishing plus a terrific track record for finding and promoting literary fiction that sells in the commercial market. Self-described as an independent publisher focused on producing books that are “moving, beautiful, and surprising,” Unbridled’s list is an international patchwork of well-told tales set everywhere from Cuba to Iceland to Afghanistan, as well as America coast-to-coast. For the Ploughsharesblog, Ramey and Michalson share the secrets of their indie success as well as what makes a writer Unbridled.” Check out the rest at Ploughshares Indie Spotlight.

My editor, Greg Michalson, says he had “a blast” working on my book. I had one, too, working with him! The man knows how to make a book stronger and I've learned so much from him. Here we are holding an incredible cake version of River of Dust!

Bonnie ZoBell on her Story Collection, Book Trailers and More

Lionel Shriver, author of Big Brother: A Novel and We Need to Talk About Kevin offered high praise for Bonnie ZoBell's recently published collection of short stories: “In clear, lucid prose, What Happened Here evokes a haunting sense of place—calling up a California you don’t often read about, with Californians you don’t often meet.” I’m delighted to have the opportunity to ask Bonnie about her path to the publication of this beautiful work.

VP: Your collection of stories, What Happened Here, came out in 2014, and just prior to that in 2013, you published a chapbook called The Whack-Job Girls. You’ve also published short stories in literary magazines for years. Can you talk about how these magazine and chapbook publications helped lead you to book publication? What path do you recommend for writers who are working in the short story genre and want to eventually publish a full collection?

BZ: It’s a funny story, Virginia, but after years of not getting a book published, Press 53 accepted What Happened Here the very same month that Monkey Puzzle Press accepted The Whack-Job Girls—May of 2012. I'd been writing novels for some years, none published, mind you, though each had an agent, and since I was feeling really down and out about all that, I went back to story writing for a while. I learned how to write flash fiction and did some more writing of longer stories.

So I can’t say that publishing the chapbook helped me to publish the collection, though that was my intent. However, publishing so many of the stories beforehand was a huge help. Most publishers really care about how visible you are these days since I'm sorry to say but it's the writer who does most of the promoting of her own book in our era. Kevin Morgan Watson at Press 53 was introduced to me by a fellow P53er at an Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference, and he already knew of me because I was on Facebook and I always posted stories I got published. Also, I'd bought and read many Press 53 books because I think he has great taste in picking beautiful collections. All of the stories except for the novella in my book were already published, so I think that helped. And it would have been fine with Kevin if I'd published that, too, but that was the last piece I finished and I was still making changes right before it went to print.

All of the stories in the fiction chapbook The Whack-Job Girls were published when I approached Nate Jordon at Monkey-Puzzle Press. I think that helped, plus a friend who had published there let me use her name, which certainly didn’t hurt.

When I was researching presses to send each book, I saw there were places that didn’t want too many of the stories already published, but the large majority of them think it’s fine and say that isn’t what makes them choose a book anyway. I can't help but think having at least some of them already in print does help, though, because publishers are taking a chance on you, and if you've already been validated by other publishers, that might help them think they’re making the right choice.

Now, with most of my stories published, I’m going back to one of my novels because I have some new ideas about improving it.

Besides the above, I would recommend that story writers who want to get a collection published note where authors they admire and feel their own work is something like are being published. Those would be good leads on where to send stories. Writers conferences are a great way to meet magazine editors, book editors, and agents. The cheapest way to go is one that's not too far from where you live so you don't have to pay too much for travel on top of conference fees. And there are other ways of meeting editors. You could email one of them and tell him or her how much you like one of the books that press has published. No editor or agent gets tired of hearing that.

VP: You’re also great at making book trailers. How did you come to focus on them? And what do you think are the benefits of making a book trailer? At what stage should an author make one? (I’ll put a link to yours, if I can figure out how, and if that’s OK with you). 

BZ: I’d better quickly admit that I didn’t make them. I paid people to make them, though I helped a lot. I'm a very visual person, so I like seeing these, and they can help promote your book. I’m told they're not very hard to make, but I didn’t have time, so I researched and found several people who are artistic and not very much money. Believe me, at the high end you can pay a lot of money for these. You can find How To articles all over the Internet if you want to make one yourself. Sometimes I think the very homemade-looking ones are the best of all. You can see what Mark Budman has to say about making your own here in the article "An Insider's Look at Book Trailers."



My two real book trailers are very short as they’re meant to be for someone quickly looking through the Internet. The one for What Happened Here is only three minutes, and that's considered long by some. John Ray Gutierrez at Big Burrito Media is the person who helped me with both of my book trailers, for the chapbook and the collection. He's very reasonably priced. I never actually met him. We did it all via email and telephone. He had me record (with my iPhone!) the different characters (friends and sisters) speaking their parts. If you want to read more about that experience, you can read the article I wrote about it here, “From Printed Page to Moving Picture: Looking into Book Trailers, Part 1.

Another person who makes book trailers, who is also reasonably priced and who has done work for friends who've been very happy with her is Kim McDougall, who is now at Castelane. You can read more about her here, "From Printed Page to Moving Picture: Looking into Book Trailers, Part 2."

Then a talented friend, Melanie Peters, who has done some publicity for me and who also lives in San Diego, came up with the idea of interviewing neighbors in North Park, where I live and where What Happened Here is set. The novella has at its forefront the crash of PSA Flight #182, which smashed right into the neighborhood in 1978. Since North Park is a character itself in the book and since many people here are still unsettled by the crash, we wanted to video neighbors whose family and friends were affected as well as what they like about the neighborhood. This video is fourteen minutes.

I don't think it’s worth making a video for your work unless you have a book or a chapbook coming out. Then it can help you promote.

VP: Your collection, What Happened Here, consists of not just short stories, but also a novella. Did you know in advance that the collection would contain both genres? How did you decide to write a novella? Were you tempted to make it either shorter and into a short story, or longer and into a novel?

BZ: There are also a couple of pieces of flash fiction in What Happened Here. I didn’t know in advance that the title story "What Happened Here" would turn into a novella. It just got longer and longer and turned into one. I meant for it to be a story, but I liked where it was going as a novella so I kept at it. I think I did wonder at one point if I had enough to make a novel out of it, but I just didn't. It turned out to be the perfect novella length, though people definite a "novella" in different ways.

VP: You have received fellowships to a number of artists’ colonies, including Yaddo, McDowell and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. You’ve also received mentorships to the Tin House Writers Conference and completed your MFA from Columbia. How do you think these shared residencies and learning situations with other writers and writing faculty helped your work? Was one experience especially helpful in the creating of your collection, What Happened Here? I’m curious if you have thoughts about how to be a part of a writing community? 

BZ: I'm very grateful for all of the experiences you mention. For many years San Diego was a kind of literary wasteland, so from the minute I finished getting my bachelor’s, I craved interaction with other writers. I went to Columbia’s MFA program the following year. When I first got in, I told them, oh, I really can’t go to New York. I've never been east of Utah. But then I decided to do it, and I’m so glad I did. Not every MFA program is good for everyone. There were people who left Columbia while I was there, but it was great for me. It’s a big program, so I always felt like there was someone I could talk to and relate to. I was pretty unhappy to get into the graduate dorm rather than getting a Columbia apartment—I’d already been living on my own for years. However, it turned out to be a blessing because then I got to meet a lot of other people I liked who weren't in my program. It’s good to have that balance.

I’ve been teaching for thirty years full-time. It’s very nice in the summer or whenever I have time off to attend colonies or workshops and get to be around other writers for an intense period of time. There are more writers in San Diego these days, I’m happy to report, but it's still nice to get away. I’d advise anyone to do it. There’s a very nice sense of community, you meet other writers you can stay in touch with forever—this past summer a friend and I who met at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts some thirty years ago realized we both had new books out and ended up reading together in North Carolina. I’ve also continued trading and critiquing work via email with people I’ve met. At conferences you have the opportunity to work with very well-known and gifted writers. I’ve heard people say getting to conferences fairly often is as good as getting an MFA, and I think there's some truth to that.

You can also start your own writing groups where you live. A lot of people are very grateful to find these. If you and a friend start one and decide just what you want in a writing group, then you can shape it however you like. You can interview writers, have them send work in first (we usually sent potential members our work, too, so they could decide if it was what they wanted, too).

I don’t know whether I could ever pick out just one conference or colony that helped me the most because at different times I needed different things. Colonies are wonderful for finding quiet to dig in and get a lot of work done. But I’ve gotten invaluable feedback whatever fiction I’m working on at the time from writers at conference.

VP: What advice do you have for aspiring writers that you may not have touched on in this interview? Any words of inspiration that have helped you over the years? 

BZ: No matter what type of writing community you find yourself in—academic, conference, or your writing group—I do think it's important to get feedback and learn how to really hear it before you send your work out. That's the main thing I hear editors and agents talking about, and I think they're right. You have to be able to accept criticism and make the writing better. You would have eventually figured it out yourself, but feedback speeds the process up. It's also very important to embrace your own voice. You want YOU to be in the writing more than anything else. That doesn't mean you can't listen to criticism, but that you have to be able to consider it while retaining your own voice. That's the most important aspect of your writing.

Tips from a Pro: How Sheri Reynolds Writes

Some years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sheri Reynolds at the James River Writers Conference, in Richmond, Virginia. In preparation, I read a good handful of her novels. I was so impressed with the ease of her language, the charm and quirkiness of her characters, and the depth of her stories. She is a natural-born writer, not unschooled, but with a strong affinity to the Southern oral storytelling tradition. Wherever her magical novels come from, I always look forward to reading them! In honor of her return to the JRW Conference in October, I wanted to ask Sheri a few questions about her writing process. VP: You are the author of six novels, which is very impressive and wonderful. I’d love to learn about your process. You mentioned to me that the next novel is still in your head. I’m curious how you take it from there to the finished manuscript?

Homespun-WisdomSR: I’m the author of more than six! I’ve got six published, though, and I’ve submitted number seven. I’ve written a lot of novels that never made it into the world, and really, they shouldn’t. They’re books I needed to write to figure something out—practice books or experiments. So I’ve written probably a dozen novels—and published six so far, with number seven, The Cordial Grave, just turned in to my agent. 
VP: What role does revision play in your process? And how are your agent, or other readers, involved?

SR: I teach full time at Old Dominion University, so I write very little during the regular academic year. Most of my writing happens in the summers and, at this point in my life, it takes me two or three summers to draft a novel and another one or two to revise it. But I revise as I go, too. When I’m writing, I generally start the day reading what I wrote the day before and fiddling with it, filling it out, choreographing scenes I’d sketched in. Then I write forward. So I do some revision and some new writing each day.

At the end of every day, I read what I’ve written aloud to my partner, Barbara, and she responds–letting me know what kept her interest and what I should reconsider. She’s a psychotherapist, so she’s especially good at getting a beat on characters and whether they’d feel or say what I’ve described. So she hears the book piece by piece. Then I also have a few dear friends and readers who see the manuscript when I have it in a near-complete state. I only send it to my agent when I think it’s finished. (And then, of course, she tells me that it isn’t—and off I go again revising...)

SReyn10-14VP: At the upcoming James River Writers Conference, you’re teaching a workshop on how to control pacing in a piece of writing. I wonder if you can talk about how you think of that issue in your own work?

SR: I don’t think of it at all when I’m actually writing! But I study it in the works of other writers, and from them, I become aware of moves and strategies that I might try out one day. It’s like dancing, you know? When I’m writing, I’m not in an analytic mode. I’m imaginative, creative, wide open. (What a feeling, yeah? Wish I could stay there.) Later on, when the draft is finished, I go back and examine different scenes or chapters and try to be aware of whether there’s anything excessive or boring or redundant. I want to be sure the important scenes are fully developed and that I’ve stripped away anything that was there just to get me as a writer from one place to another.

VP: And how do you sustain the pacing of your career as a writer? What works to keep yourself producing novels at the pace that suits you, while also juggling work and relationships?

SR: Well, I don’t know that I do a very good job of it, but basically, I’m a professor during the academic year, a writer during the summers, and I try to put my relationships with my intimates above everything else, always. I don’t really see all the pieces of my life as separate. I’m comfortable now with the understanding that when I’m teaching (and not doing much writing), my characters and ideas are marinating. I also keep a little notebook in my car so that I can always play with my characters whenever I’m waiting for a train to pass, or stuck in traffic. And I look forward to being in the airport because I make airport time my secret writing time.

VP: What advice do you have for aspiring writers today? 

SR: Educate yourself. Find the best practitioners of whatever kind of writing you’re doing and study their works to improve your own skills.

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.

Debut Novelist Kristen Harnisch’s Perfect Summer Read

Debut novelist Kristen Harnisch’s The Vintner's Daughter came out not long ago in Canada and more recently in the US. Booklist called it, "a story of perseverance and transcending one’s past," Kirkus Reviews suggested that, "Wine aficionados and fans of romance and historical fiction will drink this in,” and bestselling author Adriana Trigiani had this to say: "Lush and evocative, this novel brings the Loire Valley and its glorious vineyards to life in a story that will delight readers everywhere. Enjoy with your favorite glass of Merlot.” Sounds like a perfect summer read to me!

And for further confirmation, check out David Abrams' My First Time column with Kristen on his brilliant book blog, The Quivering Pen.

As always, I was curious about the story behind the story, especially because The Vintner's Daughter straddles two countries and two types of publishing ventures:

VP: In your author bio, your publisher mentions that your family left France in the 1600s and emigrated to Canada. Your novel,The Vintner’s Daughter, explores the Old World and the New World through the lens of vintners. I wonder how your family’s background influenced your novel’s subject? Did you have firsthand family documents that sparked your imagination? 

KH: Absolutely. With regard to my French-Canadian heritage, I have a family tree—researched and written by a Benedictine monk cousin in the 1960s—which traces my grandmother’s ancestry back to Louis Hébert, one of the settlers of Quebec. Although I don’t believe any of my ancestors were winemakers, their journeys from their homes in Normandy and Paris, and eventually their emigration from the St. Lawrence River Valley to western Massachusetts in the1800s, sparked the question: What is it like to leave the only home you’ve known and arrive homeless in a foreign country? In The Vintner’s Daughter, I wanted to answer this question through Sara Thibault’s eyes.

My Irish grandfather also set sail for New York from Ireland in 1921 at the age of nineteen. The ship’s manifest from Ellis Island bearing his name, address, and a note indicating that he was detained in the hospital with the mumps, were the inspiration for Sara and Lydia’s arrival scene in New York. I wanted to recreate, in part, what my grandfather experienced upon his arrival at Ellis Island. His name is etched into the wall there, and every few years I hop the ferry over to the island, to find his name again and remind myself of the sacrifices he made so future generations could thrive.

VP: Tell us a little about the arc of your novel—does your female heroine’s story parallel your own? 

KH: Sara Thibault, the female protagonist my novel, possesses a strong, innate understanding of who she is and what she wants at age eighteen. I didn’t at that age, but I do now at age forty-three! Yet, there are similarities in our stories. Early on, Sara defines herself as part of her family’s legacy: her father is a master winemaker, and she will follow in his footsteps. Yet, when her mother sells their vineyard to a rival family, and a violent tragedy compels Sara to flee to America, she is forced to redefine her identity. In my twenties, I also experienced this shift—from defining myself as part of a family unit, to perceiving myself as an individual, capable of making my own way in the world. I think most women experience this coming-of-age moment in some form or another. Sara also experiences great loss, and unfortunately, after my younger brother passed away three years ago, I have come to intimately understand this pain. Losing someone so important changes how you move through the world. This notion is also reflected in Sara’s story.

VP: Often the path to publishing a first novel is long and circuitous. I’d love hear how you came to write and eventually publish yours?

KH: My path to publishing was definitely long and circuitous! I began researching the story for The Vintner’s Daughter in 2000, after a trip to the Loire Valley sparked the idea for a novel. Over the course of the next thirteen years, I took several online writing courses, researched French and California wine history, read nineteenth-century wine trade papers, consulted a master winemaker and reviewed old documents at the Napa County Historical Society. There were many starts and stops along the way!

Soon after I’d signed with my agent, April Eberhardt, in January 2013, Harper Collins Canada offered me a two-book deal. By December 2013, when they announced that they were going to publish The Vintner’s Daughter in Canada in June 2014—ahead of schedule—I was elated. Yet, we had no U.S. publisher, and we were running out of time. I asked my agent about She Writes Press, a partnership press in Berkeley. I belonged to their 23,000-member online writing community, and had heard about their recent successes. Luckily, April knew the publisher well. She pitched my book to Brooke Warner, requested a summer publication date, and we signed!

VP:The Vintner’s Daughteris having success with a conventional large publisher and also through self-publishing. Can you share your perspective on self-publishing? I’m curious if your opinion about that route to publication has changed over the years.

KH: This is an exciting time to be independently published! I’m so grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to work with the expert editorial and creative teams at Harper Collins Canada, but I’ve learned so much through my partnership with my US publisher, She Writes Press. This new partnership-publishing model appealed to me because She Writes Press only publishes projects of high literary quality, and they offer traditional distribution through Ingram Publisher Services. This means that Ingram sales representatives actively market my book to Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, etc. and libraries across the country, just as they would a traditionally published novel.

Regardless of which indie path you choose—partnership, DIY (self), or assisted publishing—I believe you can achieve great success if you strive to offer the highest quality novel to your readership. According to Hugh Howey’s latest Author Earnings report, indie-published authors are now earning 39% of e-book Kindle royalties, as compared to Big 5 authors’ 37%.This is exciting news!

VP: You are Canadian by background, but grew up in New England. Your novel first came out in Canada and now in the US. How has straddling the different countries been for you as an author? 

KH: My ancestors are French-Canadian, but I was actually born in Maine. Having a book published in Canada and the US (and in Hungary and the Netherlands very soon) has been an interesting cultural study. The Canadians are so welcoming, unfailingly polite, and refreshingly flexible. Just like the United States, Canada has a vibrant reading community. I truly enjoy the interaction with readers through the Harper Collins Canada website, the She Writes online community and through social media.

VP: I also see from your blog that you have a strong interest in parenting issues, and especially the idea of  “inspiring moms.” Can you explain what that means to you?

KH: I love being a mother to three children, ages 13, 10 and 5. However, I know how often we moms set aside our creative aspirations to care for our families. Whenever I have time, I like to write blog posts about moms who are pursuing their creative interests while raising a family. For example, my friend Anne Wells, founder of Unite the World with Africa, travels to Tanzania every year to advance women’s health, education and microfinance programs there. Another friend, Scarlett Lewis, who tragically lost her son Jesse Lewis in the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting, has created The Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation and is working to introduce a curriculum of compassion in our US schools to encourage children to choose love over hate. These moms, and many more, inspire me to forge ahead, along my own creative path.

VP: And lastly, do you have any advice for aspiring writers who have a first novel in them?

KH: Yes, I’d like to share two thoughts. First, make sure your novel is well edited. Your manuscript should be free of grammatical errors, should hook the reader by the second page, and should continue to be a “page-turner” from that point on. This seems obvious, but in fact, it takes time and many rounds of edits. Based on feedback from an editor friend and twelve beta-readers, I revised my manuscript seven times before I began to query literary agents. After 23 agents rejected my queries, I revamped the manuscript again, and the 24th agent, April Eberhardt, offered me representation. Patience and persistence are key!

Secondly, imagine your book’s success. Visualize holding your finished book in your hands. What colors do you see? How does it feel like beneath your fingers? Can you smell the fresh ink when you flip the pages? Allow yourself to feel the excitement of that moment! Don’t listen to anyone who does not support the vision you have for yourself and your book!

(Kristen's author photo is by Alix Martinez Photography)

Hawking My Wares

Win a free copy of River of DustTo enter, leave a comment here. Share the link to this post on Facebook or tweet it on Twitter. Two winners will be randomly selected on Friday, June 13.
When Bill Wolfe invited me to write a guest post for his blog, Read Her Like an Open Book, I was excited to do it. He had generously reviewed River of Dust and interviewed me, but now he wanted me share my thoughts on any topic related to writing. In the year since my novel came out I’ve experienced so many things for the first time—all the wonderful rewards of being an author, and some of the anxieties, too. In my essay, I decided to share my impressions of my first ever book signing at Barnes & Noble. Since the piece appeared on Bill’s site, I’ve heard from several more experienced authors that they refuse to do signings any more. It’s just too excruciating, not to mention time consuming, to literally hawk their wares. I understand that, but I found the experience to be pretty eye-opening and rewarding in its own way, not that I’m eager to do it all the time. But I did feel that I learned something, which I’m happy to share here:

Pye at B&NOn a recent sunny Saturday in May, I sat at a table just inside the door of a Barnes & Noble in my hometown and hawked my wares. I’d done book events at the two indie bookstores in Richmond, and was now happy to be hosted by the community relations manager at the B&N nearest me—a friendly, tattooed man who’d recently moved to Richmond from Brooklyn, where he’d also sold books. I was touched when he said he’d read my novel and thought it was excellent. Booksellers have so many books to read, and I was honored that he’d taken the time to read mine. He seemed excited to have me at his store, and I overheard him telling shoppers and other B&N booksellers that he loved my novel and they would, too. In other words, he wasn’t just a nice guy, he was doing his job. As I sat at the table they’d set up for me, I quickly realized that I must now do mine, too.

Being a writer today requires a skill set beyond what’s needed to create a book. As it turns out, you also need to be able to sit attentively for hours in public and smile in a welcoming, inviting way at strangers. I don’t believe that at any moment I actually leered at people, though I did occasionally catch myself leaning too far over the table as shoppers entered the store, hoping, unconsciously, to draw them magnetically towards me and the stacks of my novel, River of Dust, displayed on the table.

If a shopper came within, say, three feet of the table and so much as snuck a peek at my book, I launched into a description—gauging the intensity of my pitch according to whether they stood their ground, inched closer, or backed away. Body language is remarkably clear: when someone’s not interested, they simply leave.

Not many folks did that, though, because they were basically polite and decent, and once I started to talk to them they tended to move closer. They seemed to feel at least as awkward as I did about the whole business. They began to touch things on the table: my stacks of books, the bookmarks I had arranged in a pretty fan, my little pile of business cards, searching, I sensed, for a way to anchor themselves.

Perhaps this is a good moment to mention that a fascinating cross section of America walks through the doors of a Barnes & Noble on a sunny Saturday afternoon in May. Friendly people, most of them, but also some fascinating bookish types who appeared to have gone there on intensely bookish missions. Others hovered through the store, their fingers grazing the book covers, but never picking one up. As odd as some people seemed, I felt predisposed to like them all since they were ostensibly readers and on a beautiful spring day they had chosen to visit a bookstore.

When a customer did finally stand before me, I beamed up at him or her (more often her), and began: the book is set in China in 1910, the story of an American missionary couple whose toddler child is kidnapped, lots of adventure, opium dens, but also about faith and belief, different world views, differences between East and West, deep and yet fun, serious and yet something else, a lot else—and with each sentence and phrase, I felt my novel decomposing in my hands like a wad of pulp in the rain. What I really wanted to say to them was that the only way to know what it’s about is to read it.

But instead, as I spoke, I assessed their moment-by-moment level of interest: if the mention of something exotic like an opium den seemed to catch their attention, I’d throw in hints of a traveling circus or a beheading, or an aside about Rudyard Kipling and Colonial literature. If they seemed more engaged by issues of spirituality and faith, I described my characters’ wavering devotion; if the cultural differences between East and West sparked their interest, I’d embroider with some improvised riffs about the U.S. and China today.

As I spoke, I realized this is how people sell things, any things, all things. This is what we do in our country: we size one another up, figure out what the other wants, and then do our best to offer it. That may seem incredibly obvious, but that thought, that very concept, had not previously been in my repertoire as a writer. Some writers write what they think the market “wants,” but I’ve never deliberately done that. I suppose we’re all influenced by the commercial tides around us and create accordingly, but that’s never been my conscious intention.

But now, I was a salesperson for the imagined world I had created in my novel. And although I was new at this, it turns out I sold a good number of books that day and had a good time doing so. I liked talking to strangers. They were smart and funny and respectful and told me what books they had enjoyed reading recently and what they didn’t like in a novel.

When I mentioned the kidnapping at the start of my story, one woman threw up her hands and said it sounded too terrifying and real for her to read. No matter that my kidnappers were Mongolian bandits on the northwestern plains of China in 1910. Another woman, after I’d gone on a little too long describing my story, quietly explained that she only read SciFi and Fantasy.

Then there were some readers who interrupted my sales pitch mid-course to say mine was exactly the kind of book they loved and they wanted to buy several copies. I was just as curious to ask these readers how they knew they loved it as I had been to ask the SciFi/Fantasy woman why she never read anything else.

An old adage started to come to mind: there’s no accounting for taste. And there was no predicting it, either, although I tried. I did my best to profile each incoming customer. I picked out the readers I was sure would be interested in River of Dust, but just as often as not, they never even wandered over to my table. Whereas the ones who seemed least likely to engage with me ended up eventually buying a copy.

That evening when I got back home, exhausted and exhilarated from my efforts, I told my high school-aged son that I’d sat at a table in Barnes & Noble for three hours and talked to strangers. For some reason, he took that moment as an opportunity to mention that he would never be interested in work that involved sitting at a desk all day. I said that seemed like an overly simple way to decide what kind of work to pursue in life. Think of all the jobs that precludes, I argued: no reading, writing, computing, teaching, being a professor or a banker (not that anyone in our family has done anything remotely that practical); in other words, no white collar work at all. None of that.

Right, he said, I know.

You know? How do you know?

Because, he said, that’s who I am.

All day I’d been trying to wrap my mind around the business of what we like and why we like it. Who we choose to be when we walk through the doors of a bookstore and make our selections. How we stake our claims and show our interests, our passions, and conversely, how we know what does not interest us at all. Why we either veer towards the table or away from it. Perhaps it’s as simple as that’s who we are. And apparently, the number one lesson in salesmanship, parenting, and even in writing is to be OK with that.

River of Dust, I know with great certainty, is not only the type of book I like to read, but precisely the book I wanted to write.

Interview About Writing and River of Dust on the Read Her Like an Open Book Blog

It’s real work running an active blog and I admire Bill Wolfe for the job he's doing on his site, Read Her Like An Open Book. His premise is simple: he reads and reviews only books by women authors. In some cases, he interviews the authors, or asks them to contribute their own short essays. I was delighted when he asked to interview me and was also super pleased with his review of River of Dust as well! I hope you'll link to it and enjoy his wise reading. But, here I'll share the interview, which I thoroughly enjoyed doing with him: Virginia Pye’s debut novel, River of Dust, was published last year to acclaim by critics and fellow writers. Inspired by her grandfather’s missionary work in early 20th century China, Pye transformed his journals into a compelling story of a young missionary couple whose child is kidnapped by Mongol nomads and the life-altering effect it has on them. River of Dust was published in paperback by Unbridled Books on April 15.

BF: You’ve been writing for quite a while, but River of Dust is your first published novel. Was that intentional? By which I mean, were you primarily a short story writer and then decided to write a novel? Or did you write some novels which, for one reason or another, remain unpublished?

VP: I have to admit that I laughed out loud at your first question, Bill. Here’s the short answer: no, it wasn’t intentional to write five unpublished novels before River of Dust.

But, strangely enough, now I’m almost glad that my writing career has transpired this way. I came out of the Sarah Lawrence MFA program with a novel to sell, and an excellent literary agent tried her best with it. Then, over the years, another excellent literary agent tried to sell several other novels. As often happens, the timing wasn’t right—either the market or the work wasn’t ready. Had the stars aligned and some of my earlier novels been published, I’m sure I would have been proud of them, but in the end, I think River of Dust is more accomplished than any of the earlier books because I learned a lot by writing them.

I wrote short stories all along as well, and sent them off to literary magazines where some were taken. By the way, if you’re aiming high, short stories are as difficult to place as getting a book published.

I actually ended up writing River of Dust in a very short period of time, because I’d been thinking about the ideas behind it for years, and because, as I said, I’d gotten better at novel-writing through practice. The earlier books took years, but River of Dust was written in a burst of energy and was a breeze by comparison. Something clicked, and I dove right in and let the fast-paced story carry me forward. It was more fun to write than anything I’d ever done before, because I’d gained enough confidence to really let my imagination take flight.

BF: Tell me about the inspiration for River of Dust. I know your grandfather was a missionary in China and your father was born there. What fascinates you about China and the missionaries’ work there?

VP: Growing up, I tried to avoid thinking about my family’s missionary background. I didn’t want to claim it in any way because, as someone who came of age at the end of the Vietnam War, I understood the destructiveness of American imperialism. And yet, China was in my background. Two generations of our family had lived there and I lived in Hong Kong for a short while when I was very young. I also grew up in a house filled with Chinese furniture and art. As a kid, I would gaze into sepia-toned photos of my grandfather seated on mule back on that arid Chinese plain, or my grandmother surrounded by Chinese children in a dusty courtyard. Who were those white people, I wondered, and how on earth did they think they belonged in that strange, other world?

Years later, when my parents moved out of the house where I grew up, I took it upon myself to cart my grandfather’s papers back to my home in Richmond, Virginia. I started to read his journals and his reports to the American missionary board. Mixed in with his calculations of costs for supplies and lists of recent converts, were also his descriptions of the setting and the people. It turned out that he wrote beautifully, even poetically, about the Chinese landscape and those who lived there. I started to enjoy his wry humor and fluid prose, and although his sense of superiority was apparent, it was also clear that he genuinely admired the Chinese.

My earlier, unpublished novels tended to revolve around American women of various ages who, over the course of their dramatic tales, wrestled with what it meant to be privileged. Those stories dealt with the ways that racism and classism separates people; they asked how can we ever reach across and make a real difference to anyone?

As I read my grandfather’s journals, I realized that he, too, had wrestled with such questions. As a person of privilege—which, incidentally, all white people are in one way or another—how do you reconcile your advantages in a world that is harsh and cruel to so many? In other words, how can we be truly good, not just appear so?

The missionary setting insists that white characters face those kinds of issues. Because I’d grown up with China in my consciousness, it felt familiar—although I’d never been to the mainland until earlier this spring, after River of Dust was published. But the province where my grandparents and father had once lived in northwestern China seemed like a logical place to set my story.  

BF: River of Dust seems to be many books in one. It’s a suspense novel about a parent’s search for a kidnapped child, a character study of a clergyman having a crisis of faith, a travelogue of sorts about Americans in rural China circa 1910, a fish out of water story, and an examination of a young marriage. How did you manage to combine all these threads into one seamless story?

VP: My first goal was to write an engaging story—one that had a plot and some intrigue to keep the reader involved. But I love character and try to explore ideas through character. What makes this literary fiction and not, say, highly commercial or genre fiction, is that larger ideas and themes are woven into the story. My goal was to make those different elements seamless, so thank you for that compliment. I wouldn’t have been happy writing just a good story, or a simple character study. And I certainly wasn’t interested in writing a treatise on issues of race, or something like that. The fiction I admire tries to meld all those elements together.

                    I wanted the Reverend to be a witty character—intentionally or unintentionally—and someone who faces a true crisis of conscience.

BF: Reverend Watson is a good man, but he is prone to tunnel vision and susceptible to many of the temptations that pose a threat to lesser men. I found his spiritual crisis and ensuing journey to be a compelling story. What was your intention with this aspect of the novel? What makes the Reverend tick?

VP: I wanted the Reverend to be a witty character—intentionally or unintentionally—and someone who faces a true crisis of conscience. I think his creation was most directly influenced by the colonial literature I’ve read over the years: Maugham’s The Painted Veil or Kipling’s The Man Who Would be King, both novels that I love, which show male characters flawed by hubris. You could say that the Reverend ends up illustrating the downfall of the white man, though hopefully his travails are individualized and unique.

BF: As the Reverend’s wife, Grace is an effective foil: domestic while he is adventurous, emotional while he is intellectual, a young soul to his old soul, physically weak and often ill while he is a larger-than-life presence. And yet she turns out to be more than she (and the reader) first suspects. Can you talk about what you were exploring in her character and in her marriage?

VP: I think of Grace as a naïve ingénue at the start of the novel. As a girl of that era and class, she was not raised to deal with the harshness of reality—especially not the realities of the rough landscape where she winds up. But the more difficult her story becomes, the more she must reach down into her soul and find strength. Today, a young girl is expected to grow up and support herself, but back then, it was more routinely assumed that a woman would be taken care of. This story shows what happens when a girl with that type of upbringing must learn to finally make her own way in the world and the difficult decisions she must face.

                    I let my imagination go and decided not to try to set my story in a real place, but instead created an allegorical China.

BF: The characters of Mai Lin, Grace’s “lady-in-waiting,” and Ahcho, the Reverend’s man, nearly steal the story. I enjoyed the way in which they represented the Chinese people, yet were not alike. Describe the important roles they play in the book.

VP: I didn’t want to presume to be able to tell the full stories of the Chinese characters, but thought that their perspectives were needed to reveal the naiveté and ignorance of the Americans. Ahcho and Mai Lin have a better sense of what is going on around them than their American employers. Gleaning a hint of their broader understanding of their country helps the reader to realize that the Americans don’t know the full story. That the two main Chinese characters have such different perspectives from each other adds another layer of understanding for the reader, I hope, and underlines the concept that there are no definitive answers to the questions posed by the story.

BF: How did you manage to capture such a strong sense of place despite never having traveled to China?

VP: I’m not sure, except that I did look closely at those old China photos, and I read my grandfather’s journals, and recalled some of my father’s childhood stories. But mostly, I let my imagination go and decided not to try to set my story in a real place, but instead created an allegorical China—one that exists only in my mind and now on the page. Once I gave myself permission to not stick closely to research or aim for precise imitation, I could then create a harsh landscape that serves as a main character in the novel.

                     I tend to be able to write for hours and have to make myself stop and take breaks.

BF: When the Reverend arrives in China, he finds that some Chinese have adopted the new faith, but most people are uninterested, highly skeptical, or even hostile to this strange religion and those who have come from America to spread it They are faced with more pressing, life or death matters. This aspect of the plot forces the reader to consider both forms of faith in a new way, particularly to look at Christianity from the eyes of a non-Christian/non-monotheist. How did you get into the mind of an early 20th century Chinese peasant and capture their worldview so well?

VP: It wasn’t difficult for me to imagine a skeptical response to these foreign missionaries. I think that came fairly naturally. I’m not sure how I managed to translate that into the Chinese characters, but I did. What was harder for me was conveying the true beliefs of the Reverend. My grandfather writes in his journals as a zealot: he proudly shares his list of converts on any given day or month. The conviction of his beliefs is much harder for me to imagine, whereas the non-believers I somehow instinctively understand.

BF: I was pleased to see Grace develop into someone who was more than just a dutiful wife, dying for her husband’s attention and approval. Without giving anything away, what motivated you to have her grow in this way? Were you concerned that some readers might find this evolution too modern for the time and place (despite the fact that history is full of examples of women like Grace)?

VP: I think her story is believable: some girls in all eras have been raised to not consider themselves capable in the world, particularly girls raised with privilege who are kept in a “gilded cage.” The story of girls growing stronger as they face hardship is not uncommon in literature. Madame Bovary, for example, wanted to live in the precious world of her romance stories, but Flaubert makes her literally trudge through mud to show how real her world truly is and how she must contend with it.

BF: What are you working on now?

VP: I recently completed a new novel set in China in 1937. It tells the story of an American woman and her teenage son living there right at the moment when the Japanese occupation turns to actual war. The mother is not someone well prepared to deal with it, but deal with it she must! She winds up with the Communists and even manages to meet their leader. As the situation around them grows more dangerous and violent, the reader wonders if she and her son will get out of that warring country alive.

I’m also completing a collection of short stories that I’ve been working on for literally decades. My stories accumulate slowly and I finally realized that I have enough for a collection, so that’s what I’m working on right now.

                     I read all the time, often more than one novel at once, and I especially focus on contemporary fiction.

BF: What is your writing routine? Where do you usually work, when, how, etc.?

VP: I write pretty much every day, usually in the morning, though sometimes I’ll grab a free minute later in the day. The last few years have been very productive for me. I have several projects going at once and have no problem finding the energy or focus to write, so I just jump in each day. I’ve gotten in the habit of lighting a good-smelling candle before I start to write and the sound of it sputtering and the sight of it flickering provides me with some company and nice energy. I tend to be able to write for hours and have to make myself stop and take breaks. I’m pretty immersed these days.

BF: What have you read recently that impressed you? What are you reading at the moment?

VP: I read all the time, often more than one novel at once, and I especially focus on contemporary fiction. I just finished Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, which I really loved and admired. That’s a book I wish I had written, probably because its characters felt so familiar to me. Now I’m reading Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World. I like novels about art and artists. Several artist and art collector friends and I have recently started an impromptu book club to read novels exclusively about art and artists. We started with The Goldfinch, then read Rachel Kushner’sThe Flamethrowers. I’m not sure how long we’ll keep this up, but it’s a very fun way to bring together art and literature.

Other books recently read: The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver; The Whiskey Baron by Jon Sealy; The Lighthouse Road by Peter Geye; Bones of the Inland Sea by Mary Akers; Man, Alive! by Mary Kay Zuravleff; The Geometry of Love by Jessica Levine; A Different Son by Elaine Neil Orr; Out of Peel Street by Laura Long. All of these, I realize with true delight, are by new friends—fellow writers I’ve met through the process of having a book published. I might just like that aspect of sharing my work best of all.


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Debut Novelist Jessica Levine on the Story behind A Geometry of Love

GeometryJessica Levine's The Geometry of Love comes out this week and is already making a splash. Booklist gave it a starred review and called it "an outstanding first novel." As their reviewer explained, the story "charts the love triangle between Julia, Ben, and Michael as all three search for the answers to life’s most heartfelt questions. Spanning 1987 to 2004, the novel’s scope and sweeping character arcs will appeal to fans of Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings....Julia’s emotions, insecurities, and pleasures are laid bare and recall Isadora Wing in Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying." That's super high praise, indeed, and well deserved. I'm excited to share this brief interview with Jessica about her fine first novel: VP: I'm always interested in the story behind the story of a debut novel. Is this truly your first completed novel, or, like so many of us, do you have others tucked away in a drawer?

JL: I would say this is my first publishable novel, and yes there were others before it. I wrote a first novel over twenty years ago, then put it in the drawer for a decade while I did my doctorate in English. When I went back to it, I found myself adding new layers to each character and new complications to each plot element. So there's a sense in which The Geometry of Love contains several geological strata beneath it.

VP: How long did it take you to write this book and I'd love to hear about your path to publication?

JL: Because there were many versions over several decades, my simplest answer would be, "A long time. A very long time." The last two rounds took around six years. My agent, April Eberhardt, submitted the novel to dozens of publishers. When they rejected it, she encouraged me to think about publishing with She Writes Press. I went to an information meeting that SWP held about a year ago in Berkeley and was very impressed with the women authors who spoke about their books and their experiences with SWP. The next day I decided to sign on. One of the wonderful things about SWP is that there is a sense of community among the writers that I don't think can be found elsewhere, either in traditional or self-publishing.

Jessica Levine

VP: I'm curious about your relationship with your literary agent, April Eberhardt. I'm curious how you found each other and if there's anything you'd like to share about how she worked with you on this novel.

JL: I met April in February of 2008, at the "agent speed dating" event hosted by the San Francisco Writers Conference. She requested my manuscript, read it, and gave me some pointed feedback. Although she saw me as "a strong writer," she found that some of the pacing and characterization was "out of the step with the times." (I can quote because I saved her early emails). It was the most honest, painful, and useful criticism I had ever received; it made me realize that I had been too influenced by the literature I'd been steeped in during graduate school: Henry James, Edith Wharton, the French realists. At that point I began implementing some of the lessons I'd learned in studying screenwriting, and I undertook a complete rewrite that aimed for vivid characterization, momentum, and dramatic scenes. I also changed the point of view from the third to the first person.

Three years later, in 2011, I returned to the San Francisco Writers Conference and ran into April who asked to see my manuscript again. She read it, fell in love with it, and asked to represent me. She had reservations about the ending of the story and encouraged me to think about changing it. I wrote a new ending, which we both liked more than the first. I am fortunate in that April is not only a wonderful agent, but also an astute reader.

VP: Your novel spans several decades and takes place in several cities, which makes me wonder where you have lived and if you find that you write about your home city while still there, or if it takes leaving a town to then look back on it and write?

JL: It was Hemingway who suggested he needed to leave places in order to write about them. At the beginning of A Moveable Feast, his memoir of life in Paris, he wrote, "Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan." Certainly geographical or temporal distance can help distill the essence of a place; however, personally, I don't find it necessary. The New York in The Geometry of Love is the city I grew up in and lived in again briefly in 1980 and then 1990. However, the second half of the book takes place in Northern California, where I live now. Writing about Berkeley and San Francisco was a way of celebrating this extraordinary place I now call home. In short, unlike Hemingway, I am happy to write about a city, whether it has been a past or a present home.

VP: Without giving too much away about your plot, I think we can say that it's about love coming to fruition after a period of time. Do you think you could have written this book when you were in your twenties, or have there been lessons that life has taught you that you needed to experience first?

JL: I definitely couldn't have written this book when I was in my twenties! For example, with age, I have come to appreciate people who have a broad emotional range and to accept that the more we open ourselves to expressing our positive qualities and emotions, the more we may also find ourselves expressing the negative. In my novel, I explore a related theme that has always fascinated methe way the search for perfection in a mate can create a block to finding love. Julia hesitates to choose Michael, who is passionate and her "muse" artistically, because he can also be depressive and difficult. It takes her a long time to understand that truly inspiring people are frequently "mixed bags." In the process she also develops resilience. This growth is about embracing what Carl Jung called the "shadow" aspect of ourselves and others. Ultimately, loving both the light and dark aspects of another human being helps us love both the light and dark aspects of ourselves.

VP: And finally, any words of wisdom to our readers about the process of writing and the vagaries of publishing? This is a chance to remind us of anything you've learned that will help us keep hope.

JL: I see writing as a place where you can be authentic, perhaps more authentic than anywhere else. Words are extraordinarily precise tools for describing inner and outer worlds and in a novel, you can use your imagination to explore your vision, life experience and obsessions to your heart's content. At the same time, assuming you want to be read, you have to be ready to make adjustments and concessions to your readers. These may be in order for the nuts and bolts of the story to make sense or they may be in order to resonate with a target audience. Throughout the process, the important thing is to circulate your work among readers whose judgment you trust. Writing a book is a little bit like dancing: you take lessons, practice your steps alone at home, but in the end you hope to go to the ball and find partners to dance with.