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.

Kim Church Talks About Byrd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Jon Sealy, Debut Novelist and Seriously Literary Guy

Whiskey-BaronI've been lucky enough to get to know Jon Sealy recently, right as he is poised to have many people get to know him, too. His first novel, The Whiskey Baron, comes out from Hub City Press on April 1. In chatting with Jon in Richmond and at The Virginia Festival of the Book, he casually mentions basically every great book I've ever read or wanted to read. The guy is serious about literature. See below: his goal of reading one hundred pages a day and writing one thousand words is not only more prescriptive than many writers I know, but also more sincere. He means to become a better writer. I don't know of a higher goal. And, although I haven't yet read The Whiskey Baron, I gather from the stellar reviews that he's already an excellent one. Wiley Cash called The Whiskey Baron, “a simmering powerhouse of a novel.” Ron Rash said it evokes “the pleasures of both mystery novel and literary fiction.” And Donald Ray Pollack called it a “gritty, superbly crafted novel.” I can't wait to read it and am glad that Jon Sealy was willing to answer a few basic questions about his writing process and publishing success:

VP: People are always curious about the origins of a novel and sometimes writers have to say that it just “came to them.” But, I’m especially curious in your case if you thought of this tale because of having lived in the area where it takes place? Did the setting nudge you to write a story there?

JS: Absolutely. This novel is set in a South Carolina mill town during the Depression, and the place and time were both critical for me. As you note, I did grow up in South Carolina, and some of my family members came out of the cotton mills there. I know the area today well, but I was curious to know more about life back in my grandfather's childhood. I've never been sure whether to think of the book as "historical fiction," a term that for me evokes Medieval England or some other completely fabricated era. The 1930s are a complete fabrication for me, being born a half-century later, but the oldest among us actually experienced that era. I was able to talk with folks about life back then, and hear their speech patterns, that sort of thing. It wouldn't be possible for me to do that with a book set even a few years earlier, so I see the 1920s and 1930s as kind of a hinge, where experienced life fades into history.

VP: You have written short stories for some time and had a number published in good places. What led you to decide to write a novel instead of sticking with a form you obvious know so well? Do any of your earlier short stories cover a similar territory as The Whiskey Baron?

Jon SealyJS: I actually don't think I know the short story form that well. I wrote stories in graduate school for a number of reasons. For one thing, it's easier to workshop a story than a chapter of a novel. For another, there's a a kind of cult of the short story among graduate students that I suppose I got swept into. Don't get me wrong; I love reading a good short story. But the novel is the form I live for.

VP: Hub City seems like the perfect press for your novel since it is located in the South, near the mountains. How did you come to find them or vice versa? Was yours a long path to publication or a straight shot?

JS: Hub City is a dream. The organization is a boutique press that focuses primarily on regional literature, but they also have a great bookstore in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Perhaps because they have a bookshop, they know books well and they know the business, and I really feel at home with them.

They've been on my radar for years. They published Ron Rash's first book of poetry, Eureka Mill, in the late 1990s, and they also published an anthology of short fiction, New Southern Harmonies, that included a few stories from George Singleton. I stumbled onto Rash and Singleton when I was about 19 and looked up everything they'd written at that point, which led me to Hub City.

Fast-forward ten years, and I had a novel that was going nowhere with the agents. A former professor suggested Hub City might be the ticket, and here we are. I suppose every debut novelist has a tale of woe about breaking through, but it's all the same story: work, work, work, rejection, rejection, work, work, work, rejection, rejection, and eventually you get a lucky break.

VP: Betsy Teter, who runs Hub City and is a wonderful person and visionary, came up with the terrific idea of helping first time authors launch their careers. Her press only published first novels. That’s just great as a writer is poised for their debut, but then comes the question: what’s next? Do you have another book up your sleeve and any thoughts about the path it might take?

JS: It's true. Hub City does a great job with first novels. Every other year, they run a contest for first-time novelists in South Carolina, and in the off years they publish work from the broader region. By sticking with one novel a year, I think they're able to really give it a go and set the novelist up for a successful career. My job, then, is the what-next. I do have another finished novel, which is with my agent. I think he'll be shopping it around soon, which means my job is actually the what-next-next. It never ends!

VP: And finally, any tidbits of advice for aspiring writers? This is your chance to share your do’s and don’ts.

JS: The business of a novelist is to read a lot and write a lot. Period. I've heard some rules of thumb—like, it will take you about a thousand pages before you get your first short story published—but they all come down to getting the work done. If you set yourself a goal to read a hundred pages every day and write a thousand words every day, five or more days a week, and you make an honest effort to accomplish that goal over ten years, you will probably have a book ready for publication. Everything else is just noise.

China: No Longer of my Mind, but the Real Thing

signI just got back from China. Such a breezy thing to say, and yet it's taken me a lifetime to go. I lived in Hong Kong between ages two to three, was carried through the crowded alleyways on the shoulders of our aged “House Boy,” a Chinese grandfather whom I loved. But, before this trip to Shanghai, I had never set foot on the mainland before. And yet, as I walked down the crowded streets of Shanghai, I felt oddly at home. I don't know the language, knew no more than a few people in a city of 24 million, and yet, didn’t feel one bit ill-at-ease. I had heard that Shanghai is a relatively safe city, but I don’t think that was why I felt so comfortable there.

clothes drying

As I suggested in the Author’s Note at the end of River of Dust, families pass down wisdom and pain in equal measure—an inheritance that translates in ways we don't even realize: for me, that inheritance apparently includes a sense of belonging in China.

In the older parts of the city, which mercifully still exist but may not for long, elders still sit out on stools, eating soup, playing cards, chattering in angry voices that no doubt aren't angry at all, but only sound that way to my untrained ear. Laundry is left to dry everywhere. I wish I’d taken more photos of clotheslines, because the Chinese were wildly inventive about where they place them.

As I roamed these familiar-seeming streets, I had to wonder if China had appeared the same when my father grew up there, or, even before that, when my grandfather arrived in 1907.

Shanghai 439

The new parts of Shanghai are so space-aged and oversized as to be unrecognizable as particularly Chinese. Except, in a way, the view from The Bund across to Pudong seems quintessentially Chinese: showy, shiny and all about façade. We used to call it “Chinese gaudy,” a style that I had assumed went out with the Cultural Revolution, but seems to be reincarnated in the massive city of the future across the river in Shanghai.

My hosts at the Shanghai International Literary Festival were friendly and welcoming and I loved meeting fellow authors and learning about their books. My old friends Tina Kanagaratanum and Patrick Cranley of AsiaMedia shared their longtime ex-pat knowledge of Shanghai to help demystify the place. And, on top of more memorable experiences than I can count—an excellent hotel with staggering views, great quantities of Shanghai dumplings consumed at all hours of the day—I also somehow managed to meet and chat with Mick Jagger!

Mick Jagger at M on BundSir Mick was in town for three shows and, on his first night, he visited the beautiful, important M on the Bund restaurant and Galmour Bar where the Shanghai Lit Festival events also take place. (Pictured here is Michelle with Mick at her restaurant on the night of the siting). When we got word that he was there at the bar, several of us sidled over and I ended up standing right next to him. In the course of introductions, he shared some quips about his audience and I asked him how he handles jet lag. As he told me his recipe of sun lamps, Vitamin D, melatonin and water, my mind was screaming: you're talking with MICK JAGGER!

And so I was. Yet it felt strangely on par with the rest of this trip of a lifetime that may very well turn into a hint of things to come. The Lit Fest has kindly invited me back next March to their Beijing site, so the China barrier has been broken for me for good. I can’t wait to return again to that strange, yet familiar, land.

Debut Novelist Elaine Neil Orr Shares the Story Behind A Different Sun

When Elaine Neil Orr's debut novel, A Different Sun, came out last spring, Lee Smith wrote that it "shines in the mind like a rare gem," and Philip Deaver described it as a “beautiful novel, exquisitely written, perfectly complex, true to the past, relevant today, unforgettable.” I was especially curious to speak with Elaine about her book because, like my own novel, River of Dust, it tells the story of American missionaries in a foreign land. A Different Sun is set in Nigeria where she was raised as the daughter of Baptist missionaries. I knew that she had written a memoir about her childhood and was curious why she turned to writing fiction as well. I find her story-behind-the-story especially inspiring. VP: Your novel, A Different Sun, is not your first book. Can you tell us about your previous publication, your memoir, Gods of Noonday?


ENO: Actually I wrote two scholarly books before I wrote my memoir. But let's not dwell there! In my early 40s, I was diagnosed with end-stage renal disease. I was already a full professor at NC State University. The only writing that seemed important to me to write then was the story of my beginnings. For all of my adult life, I had felt an outsider in the US, an exile passing as a native Southerner. In fact, my parents were missionaries and I was born and grew up in Nigeria. As a young adult and graduate student, I thought this was a story to bury rather than to tell. The scandal of colonialism! Baptist missionaries! Oh the horror. But in burying all that I almost lost touch with who I really was. In my illness, my memories demanded their place. I began to write. As I wrote I remembered. Then I wrote more. The dreams began. I almost lost track of where memory stopped and dreaming began. I lived in the world of my writing as in a snow globe. Everything I needed was in that other world of my youth and health and joy: the warmth of West Africa, a particular crystal clear river, the Yoruba people we lived among whose style of life was so graceful, the sound of drums all day and night. I had to do dialysis four times a day but I wrote. I have a strange gratitude for that illness that resulted in two transplants (a pancreas and a kidney) and a new life (that was thirteen years ago). I'm not sure I would have written Gods of Noonday: A White Girl's African Life in my forties or ever if I hadn't become ill. A shock like that takes you down to the very bare essentials. What must I have to live is one question. Another is: what do I want to leave if I'm going to die. The answer for me was: a story that explains where I came from and who I am. There is no more essential question than that: Who am I?

VP: I’m curious if there’s a logical path you took from the previous books to this one? What were you not able to do in your memoir that you are able to do in A Different Sun?

ENO: There was a connection. As I was working on the memoir, doing research everywhere—the family photos, my university library, my childhood writings—my mother gave me a copy of the diary of the first woman missionary to Nigeria. Her husband was a former Texas cavalryman-turned-evangelical! They left Georgia in 1853 and she kept this diary for the three years of their first tour. Because I was thinking in terms of memoir and because in a “mission family” other missionaries are your aunts and uncles, it seemed to me that the writer of the diary was my great great great grandmother, closer to me historically than my biological grandmothers in South Carolina. The diary is very brief. Can you imagine? After living in your Victorian dress all day, searching for your next meal, encountering friendly and unfriendly people, fording rivers by holding onto calabashes, camping at a way-station: this woman pulled out her diary and made a few notes. A few sentences arrested me: “feelings deeply wounded; have been sad all day,” for example. At first, I imagined a creative non-fiction book in which I would imaginatively fill in the gaps. But eventually, I realized that what I really wanted was to imagine this woman’s life as it might have been. I was off and running in fiction and loved it.

VP: How long did it take you to write your novel and was it your first?

Elaine Neil OrrENO: A Different Sun is my first novel. I began it before I ever wrote or published a sentence of fiction. I had to teach myself by attending workshops, going to Bread Loaf, reading the best fiction in the world and studying the craft of the very greats like Henry James and Michael Ondaatje and Marilynne Robinson. I joined a writing group. So I had mentors. But it was a risky project to take on: to dedicate years of my life to a project that had no guarantee of success. I never even took Fiction 101. I’m a little surprised that I undertook it. From start to publication, the book took about eight years. I actually wrote for about five or six years, primarily in the summer.

VP: Novels often have a long, circuitous path to publication. Was your path straight or windy?

ENO: I’ve talked about this a bit: how I started out thinking it would be a book of CNF and then decided to “take the lid off” and write fiction. And of course there were drafts and drafts and drafts. Many generous readers helped me, including Sena Jeter Naslund, Jill McCorkle, Wayne Caldwell, Angela Davis-Gardner, Phillip Deaver, and Susan Ketchin. But the road wasn’t really windy in terms of my goal. It was windy in terms of my apprenticeship. I had to learn how to get characters in and out of rooms, how to figure out point of view (at first I was just all over the place with point of view!), how to find the narrative arc and push ahead! I think that building narrative momentum and keeping tension on the page (almost every page) was the biggest learning curve from memoir to fiction. Memoir can meander some; it can win the reader through the language alone. Readers appreciate style and beautiful language in fiction, but they want a story too.

VP: Can you tell us a bit about A Different Sun? I’d love to know what you feel most succeeds in it. What you can tell works. It’s great practice for us writers to look at the positive in our work!

ENO: The novel begins in Georgia with a young Emma Bowman, daughter of a plantation owner. She has an unusual friendship with an old “saltwater” African slave who lives in a cabin behind her house. When she is still young, he is unjustly punished by Emma’s father. This moment is her awakening to evil in the world and the first trigger in the plot. Later Emma marries Henry, who has come to her home town looking for a wife to accompany him on his African mission. Three months later, they sail. Most of the novel occurs in what is now Nigeria, in the region occupied by the Yoruba people where I grew up. The young couple’s fragile beginnings are quickly tested. They lose a child to malaria. Henry is an adventurer. He’s forever traveling, his heart intent on converting the “Mohametans.” He also suffers bouts of serious illness, sometimes accompanied by hallucinations when he is “out of his head.” Emma wants to settle down and create a home. When they move further inland, Henry hires an assistant, a young Yoruba man, educated, handsome, and Emma’s age. She is drawn to him yet highly perplexed by her feelings. So we have a triangle: a beloved but sometimes belligerent husband, a smart young woman in a new world, and an intelligent black man whose appeal is unfathomable. A lot can happen here and it does!

VP: Now that A Different Sun is out, how’s it going? Are you doing lots of book events? In what types of settings do you particularly enjoy sharing your novel?

ENO: I did a book tour that sort of went on and on because I wanted it to. I love independent bookstores. Book clubs are also wonderful because everyone has already read the book and we can have a real discussion. A Different Sun was the book-in-common for fiction students at the Spalding University Brief Residency in Writing Program in Louisville in May 2013. I loved meeting with sixty brilliant young writers to talk about my first novel. I’ve had great fun at book festivals: the Atlanta Journal Constitution/Decatur Book Festival and Southern Festival of the Book, for example. It’s been wonderful to be hosted by NPR-affiliated radio shows. I’m getting ready to go up to Vermont for New Voices 2014, a local event that’s gained a national reputation for bringing in half a dozen writers each year to showcase their work. I’m so grateful to have been invited to all of these venues.

VP: Any last anecdotes or insights you’d like to share with aspiring writers and your interested readers?

ENO: Read the best writers; read writers from the past. Read Faulkner and Hemingway and Wharton. Read writers from the country where you are setting your fiction; know the literature of that place. Do enormous amounts of research. It’s fun and you fill your mind with images and learn so much about land and culture. Even though I had grown up in Nigeria, I took three trips back to trace the journey of my characters. It was astonishing to me how I saw differently—because I was looking for clues to my story. One day I stumbled into a sacred baobab grove. It gave me details and ideas for my novel that I never would have found in any other way but by going there. Fiction writing is treasure hunting. Clues are everywhere but they are especially rich in the places where your story is occurring. Dig an inch and you’ll strike gold.

Hemingway’s Havana: An Invitation to the Imagination

VPye with HemFifty-three years after the Revolution and with Cubans still suffering from poverty, depravations, and an uncertain future, Havana evokes the imagination with its tangled history and complex aura. I can see why Hemingway loved this place where past and present weave an ongoing story that’s best understood after several strong mojitos. The country feels fecund to the point of rotting. Old buildings in Havana have been crumbling for decades; elaborate Colonial facades crack and fall daily. Wild vines envelope the shells as sunlight pours in where roofs once shaded. A beleaguered past reveals itself in those deteriorated structures, as well as in the architectural details that have lasted, and in the antique American cars that still function with 300,000 miles on engines built and rebuilt.

Those cars, which we've all seen in photos, aren't just a tourist attraction, but a way for their owners to make a better living than the twenty-dollar-a-month salaries paid by the government to three quarters of the population. Tips from tourism, the black market, and money sent from relatives overseas are among the only ways to get by.

Artists and writers who sell their work outside the country are better off than most—outranking doctors and lawyers and what’s left of a professional class. But, I'm not a political scientist or an historian, so I'll leave it to others to describe the economics of this tiny county which has three currencies.

Instead, I was struck by how Cuba beckons the imagination and invites creativity. Hemingway knew it. He lived on the island for close to thirty years, drank in the Havana bars and then, at the insistence of his new wife, moved out from the center of town to what is now part of the dilapidated sprawl. (More about Finca Vigia and the Hemingway Collection is pictured here: The Ernest Hemingway Collection)

His house sits on a shaded hill and from his turret writing room with windows on all sides, he would have watched over the city he loved and the sea beyond. Now, tourists line up at the threshold of the main house and lean in the open windows that line the porch.

We're no longer allowed inside and while I thought that would bother me, it didn't. In a way, it just added to the feeling that this was a pilgrimage culminating with the supplicants gazing in at the ghost of our deity, as embodied by the Big Man's floral reading chair, his many crowded bookshelves, and all those African big game heads peering back.

I was left more than a little speechless by the sight of his two typewriters. Up in the many-windowed turret sat a simple desk and on it, his tiny war correspondent's typewriter. I could imagine his large fingers pecking out For Whom the Bell Tolls on those stiff black keys.

Hem's typewriter and magic African animal fur rug

And then, even more moving, was his second Remington—none too large, either—sitting atop one of his bookshelves, so that when he stood at it, he faced a white, imperfect plaster wall. No view of the sea. No view of the garden. Just that wall before him.

As he wrote, he planted his bare feet on an African animal skin. Its brown fur is matted and threadbare now, and it isn’t very large. If he happened to lose his balance—which, hung over as he often was, he very well might have—he would have stepped off and onto the cool tile floor. He believed the animal skin brought him strength, clarity, and the mojo to write. Clearly, it did.

He had escaped the noise and bustle of Havana, not to mention the lure of the bars, to find something like peace in that cool, quiet house. Biographers can describe how his marriage was going to hell, or how his liver was being pickled, or he was entangled with Castro, or the FBI, or both.

But, his place and the whole island, feels to this day like a paradise for the mind—haunted and inviting and rich with stories not yet told. Fellow writers, book your trip.

China of My Mind Starts a Lively and Moving Conversation

On the next to last day of 2013, my essay China of My Mind came out in The New York Times Draft Opinionator blog and prompted over a hundred posts. Perhaps that's routine for that column. The Times, after all, has such a wide reach. But, for me, it was the most immediate gratification I’ve received as a writer. Suddenly, all sorts of readers from my hometown of Boston to the far reaches of Nepal by way of Saint Louis and San Francisco had something to say to me. But before I share the feedback, I’d like to summarize my piece, in case you haven’t read it (though I recommend you do!). It asks a question: do I need to go to China to write about it? I answer by saying, “Of course not!” because I didn’t to write River of Dust. I cite several literary authors on the power of the imagination. My first writing mentor, Annie Dillard, told us to read about a place instead of visit it. Alexander Hemon said, “Expertise is the enemy of imagination.” My essay is a rallying cry for that very power: of the mind to bring together disparate influences as we create. I reminisce about my connection to China—the Chinese objects d'art I grew up with, the novels about colonialism that I read, as well as my grandfather's journals from his time in China. They all melded together to help me create River of Dust.

The responses to China of My Mind generally divided along two lines. Those who said, “Good Grief! How come you have waited so long to visit China? It is not like trying to visit North Korea!!!” Or, “Virginia, do yourself a favor. Spend a few thousand to get yourself to China for a visit.” Versus those who argued the opposite: “Kafka never went to Amerika.” Or, “You can do anything you like, it’s fiction.”

I was delighted to see that the question sparked a conversation—one that went off track in a number of posts, but still, was a good one. I had the strange sense that I was overhearing people talk about me at a party. I stood quietly in the corner as they exchanged repartee, which only once or twice turned snarky: “I wonder if I could review Ms. Pye’s book without reading it?”

I found it exhilarating to have initiated a conversation that people felt strongly about. Some defending experience, while others stood up for the imagination.

But more moving than even those were the emails I received from readers who must have taken the time to come to this blog, then to my website to track down my email address. Over the next week, I had exchanges with readers in Spain, Nepal and nearby North Carolina. A genuine friendship developed with an erudite scholar and a true thinker in Spain.

But the email that touched me the most began like this: “Thank you for your beautiful essay of ‘China of My Mind’ on New York Times, whose immense kindness, deep understanding of people and places, and silk-tender femininity brought me almost to tears...These wonderful elements actually help me understand better why America is so vibrant, charming and strong...BTW, I was born in Tibet, grew up in the rugged fringing land of Gobi and farmed there during the ‘cultural Revolution’....  I’m American now, I love both countries. People like yourself make a place and a country loveable and lovely and hopeful. Thank you, I mean it with my whole heart.”

When a writer writes, they do so for a lot of reasons, but one of them is the hope to somehow reach out into the world and meet people half way. The feelings of isolation and loneliness that can a person to write are contradicted by the hope of connection that writing provides. This reply from the reader who came from the Gobi and now loves both China and America is that gift that I’ve waited for as a writer. To know that when I reach out, someone else’s hand is reaching back. Thank you, to that one reader, but to The New York Times as well, because its reach is vast and its arms wide. I’m glad to be part of the conversation.


Year End Writing Redux: Departures Essay Reposted

Photos from iPhone (100)The TSA attendant hands my children back their boarding passes and before they shuffle over and start to remove their belts and shoes, they look back and wave. “It’s OK,” my teenage son mouths through the glass as his college-aged sister blows a kiss and offers a smile. “They’ll be fine,” my husband says as he takes my hand. I press my fingertips to my eyelids and realize it isn’t our kids I’m worried about. It’s me. Our son and daughter are leaving the family vacation early, as we had planned it, while my husband and I stay on for another week at the rental cottage up in Maine. The kids are old enough to manage on their own back home; old enough to have anticipated in advance that one week with the whole family would be just the right amount of time.

As we head toward the lone escalator in the Bangor airport, I find myself watching people saying their farewells on the threadbare carpet. I see a somber young man in desert camouflage kiss his girlfriend goodbye. A gangly preteen twirls a cheerleader’s baton with pink plastic ribbons on the ends and calls for her daddy to watch one more time before he steps beyond the stanchion. A young mother helps her father pry his grandson off his leg. The toddler cries and the mother tells him they’ll visit again at Christmas, no doubt a vague eternity to the boy. How, I wonder, do people manage the everyday heartache of leaving?

I remember my father idling in our station wagon in front of Logan airport as my mother and I hugged goodbye on the sidewalk. In my twenties, I was leaving again, far too soon, she said. She brushed back a few tears and complained that they never saw enough of me anymore. I felt a surge of longing as I pressed up against her. Some part of me ached at the thought of saying goodbye to my childhood, but then I pulled myself free. Without pause, I turned and hurried into my new, young life.

My husband and I walk out into a drizzly Maine morning. Almost immediately, the kids call and say their flight’s been delayed. We decide to kill time near the airport: before we drive the hour and a half back to our rental house on the coast, we want to be certain that they are safely on their way. The rain comes in great sheets and we call the airline many times over the next six hours, first to learn about the grounded plane’s mechanical failures, and then about weather delays up and down the East Coast.

We also exchange texts with our children who sit waiting at their gate. They watch movies on their computers and read from their summer book lists. Each time we contact them, they tell us the latest updates, that they’re doing all right. They eat vending-machine snacks and manage. They’re more independent now, with all the glamour that entails. Despite the inconvenience, I sense they’re relishing their freedom. So long as the flight isn’t cancelled altogether, they’ll be fine. The last thing they want is to return with us for another night. We all agree it was a great vacation together, but the kids have places to go now. They’re ready to be on their way.

Years ago, when I had turned from my mother and dashed into Logan, I couldn’t bear the sight of her missing me before I’d even gone. I didn’t yet grasp what she must have already sensed: that even though we would continue to see each other regularly for visits and vacations, this was an ending. I hated the pained look in her eyes and so it seemed best to leave quickly and without a fuss. Back then, with no cell phones, I couldn’t send a text to reassure her that I’d made it to my destination. I might not even have called home for several days. The break was clean and allowed us to experience it separately, and alone. I understand now, it must have been miserable for her.

As the rain continues and we wait for our children to take off, the pain I had blithely tried to avoid back then revisits me full force. My children are departing and my parents are gone now, too. My father died five years ago, but this is our first summer trip to Maine since my mother’s death a half a year ago. As we ate lobster, took invigorating hikes and viewed glorious sunsets from rocky shores, I had a searing urge to tell her all about it. As an adult and a parent myself, I had called her often, especially from wherever we traveled, to reassure her that we had made it and were having a good time. Our kids stranded in airport limbo would definitely have been worthy of a phone call mention. My mother found pleasure in our happiness, or felt concern for our concerns, even when we were far from her. Now, with my own children poised to leave, I appreciate her generous, long-distance attention more than ever. I also understand that she had had little choice. She had to learn to love me from afar.

With her gone, I’m beginning to fathom that I must learn to love her from the greatest distance of all. I notice that without her, and without the kids, I feel rudderless. I hadn’t realized that the ropes that tied me to my mother also helped me set sail in the first place. Because I counted on her to be my pole star, I came and went with some ease.

In our last phone call on New Year’s Day, I told her about the special dinner we’d had with friends the night before. She seemed distracted, even disinterested. I asked if she was feeling tired. “Oh, yes,” she said, “very tired.” Before I could inquire further, she added, “I have to go now.” We said we loved each other as we always did, and then said our goodbyes. When I hung up the phone, I told my husband that something was wrong. My mother had said, “I have to go now,” as if someone on her end of the line was insisting on it. Twelve hours later she died.

The sorrow of departure is woven into family love, although I had wanted to avoid feeling it for as long as possible. My children don’t experience it the way I do, but perhaps they will someday with their own children. I hope to keep them tethered to me, although with a rope that will necessarily stretch longer and grow finer with each next step they take.

Their flight finally leaves Bangor after dark. Later that night, they text and tell us that they made it home. I reply cheerfully, “Great. Have a good time!” From this distance, it’s the only choice I have.

"Departures" first appeared in Brain, Child on November 4, 2013. You can see it with a different photo of my children at:

What A Literary Life Really Means

This week, news came out that a group of scientists has proven, once and for all, that reading literary fiction increases one’s ability to empathize with others. For some of us in the writing biz, that’s a no brainer. Still, it’s nice to have our sense of things confirmed. The scientists explained that literary fiction, which shows the interior life of characters, teaches us how people think. Commercial fiction, which they contend focuses more on action, doesn’t achieve this. Over the years, I’ve heard writers and publishing professionals define these types of writing, but never with such authority. Perhaps it helps to be outside the world of books to see it more clearly.

These days, I’m so in the midst of a "literary life"—writing or reading, attending conferences and festivals, meeting fellow writers and publishing professional—that I can forget why I do this in the first place. It makes me wonder, what does a literary life really mean?

Last night, the car radio helped me remember the answer. I sat in my driveway in the dark and listened to the BBC World Service report on literary happenings around the globe. Not a reading by Salman Rushdie in some hallowed, ivy-covered hall. Not interviews with Jhumpa Lahiri or Dave Eggers on their latest books. But instead, reports from distant outposts—villages and hamlets way off the beaten path. And each brief story illustrated the power of literature in a deeply powerful way.

In Somaliland, children crowd around and elbow each other to get their hands on books. This remote region of a war-torn country has set down their guns. Adults and kids alike sit with their heads bent over books. For obvious reasons, their favorite is War and Peace.

In Afghanistan, women write their stories—tales that are uniformly horrific and yet they’re eager to share them. Near the end of the interview, though, a teenage girl says she is tired of women writing stories of rape, incest and murder. It is time, she declares, for them to instead write a new history of their country.

A different reporter visits Shakespeare & Company on the Left Bank in Paris, a bookshop crowded, floor to ceiling, with books. Joyce and Stein, Hemingway and Camus, all hung out here. The warren of rooms feels more like a library than a store, a sacred setting of literary history. (I remember my first visit there at age eighteen and have been thankful each time I’ve returned to find it unchanged.)

Mules laden with books make their way across rough terrain to Argentine villages, offering a popular mobile lending library. In Kenya, schools are mobile as well, so that nomadic sheepherding tribes can learn to read and write. In the sandy soil, sheep droppings are used to spell out the alphabet.

In the South Pacific, an elderly British trader is forced to finally toss away his books: Captain Cooke’s travel diaries, Robert Louis Stephenson’s volumes, Robinson Crusoe, James Michener, and dozens of others, have all been ravaged by humidity and bugs. The old trader says, You have to know what you’re up against here. His ruined books seem to illustrate what he means.

And in a city square in Morocco, one of the last dozen storytellers in the country shares a scene from A Thousand and One Nights. For over 1,000 years, stories have been passed down in this way. In a country with a 40% illiteracy rate, the tales are now being digitally recorded and saved for posterity.

These are the stories of literary life that I want to try to remember the next time I check my Goodreads account or Amazon author page. Books, as the scientists have now proven, help us understand the human heart. In settings where life is harsh, that understanding is crucial. Here in the comfort of home, it offers a vital life line to what matters as well.

Debut Author David Samuel Levinson: A Publishing Odyssey and Other Hard-Won Wisdoms

David Samuel Levinson's debut novel, Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence, came out from Algonquin Books last spring to high praise. The brilliant novelist Caroline Leavitt called it an, "extraordinary, shocking, funny novel about writing, art, fame and mystery," and Entertainment Weekly noted its "great melodramatic scenes, full of delicious prose." If there is such a thing as a typical first novel, this isn't it: as another reviewer put it Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence is a "smart, page-turning genre bender." David and I have become fast friends since our books came out at the same time and I was thrilled when he agreed to share his writerly smarts with us here: VP: Because my first novel had a long back story behind it, I often assume that other authors have gone through similar trials and tribulations to reach publication. Apparently, that’s not always the case. But, in your instance, there’s a true saga that led to the eventual publication of your fine first novel, Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence. Can you share the publication story behind the story?


DSL: Everyone has his own journey to publication. Some journeys are easier than others. Mine was atypical, and here's why: back in 2007, my agent sent the manuscript of ALBTS around to the big publishing houses of NYC. A few editors were interested and there were calls set up in which I spoke to them on the phone. There was a small bidding war and in the end I went with an editor at Harcourt (before the merge). She had a solid reputation for being a good though ball-breaking editor and she had a successful track record with first-time authors, so I thought, Why not. Besides, I couldn't pass up the amount of money she offered. I'd been living on about $12,000 a year in New York and while my advance wasn't ginormous, it was enough to change my life for the interim. I could finally take a breath and relax, or so I thought.

I met my editor for the first time in August of 2007 at her house in upstate NY. We had a grand time, smoking cigarettes and drinking ice tea at a picnic table in her backyard. I liked her a lot. We discussed my novel, going through it page by page. But then halfway through it, she set it aside and said, "The rest of it needs a thorough rewrite." To make a long story short, I spent the following year rewriting and rewriting and rewriting—all of it to her specifications. Each chunk of pages I sent her were met with stony silence, then absolute dismissal. "You're rushing," she told me once in an email. She was right about that, so I slowed down and took my time. But even this wasn't good enough for her. My last correspondence with her was in May of 2008. Ultimately, the contract was dissolved and I went to Chuck Adams, who was kind enough of buy the book from Harcourt. I say kind enough because ALBTS might never have found another home had it not been for Algonquin. So the book I wrote is the book that was published, more or less. I'm thrilled with it and I'm equally thrilled that I'm with Algonquin.

VP: Through that experience with your first editor, you had to stand by your vision of your novel. Do you think that you learned something not only about publishing, but about yourself as a writer that will be helpful going forward with future books?

DSL: Oh, did I! Mostly, what I learned from all of this is that even if you spend ten years laboring over a book, it can still go out into the world and do nothing. ALBTS is a very ambitious first novel. It's also a book that's kind of out of step with all the other novels around it. First, it's a book about writing, writers, and publishing—three very big no-nos in the industry—and second, it's very self-referential and metafictional. It's a serious book about about serious things. In the 1800s, you could get away with writing about writing and have the end result be serious. In today's world, writing about writing and writers has to be sarcastic and funny if it's going to be met with any kind of exposure. Every book about writing that's been written in the last twenty years, save but a few, have been ironic and funny and light-hearted. I wanted to cross genres, so I wrote a mystery/thriller that used literary tropes. I wanted to twist the genre up and come up with something different, even new. It was an experiment I set for myself and I love the outcome. It's quite Nabokovian, or so I've been told, but I'm afraid that no one really knows what to make of it at bottom. It's a novel about novels, about ideas, about literature. But it isn't slight or light-hearted and it doesn't pander to the reading public. It's a novel about integrity, about where stories come from and who has the right to them and what happens when you steal a story from someone else and make it your own. In this day and age, I thought this was a perfect theme to tackle, given the amount of stories circulating on the internet, etc. But again, I'm afraid this topic just isn't as interesting or riveting as werewolves, zombies, and vampires. So to answer your question: I'm going to keep writing the novels I want to write because there's really no rhyme or reason why this book sells and that book doesn't. The writing seems almost superfluous to the buzz and hype that occurs around certain books. Once a book gets the NY Times stamp of approval, it's all set to exceed expectations and then even some of those books don't go anywhere. Basically, it's a total crap shoot and lots of luck and so you only have yourself and the novels you write to count on.

VP: The actual writing of Antonia took you many years. Can you describe how your manuscript changed and improved through those drafts? How did you use other readers in your process?

David LevinsonDSL: The book was a total mess to begin with, as most first drafts are. Catherine was much older and the style of the writing was fairly stilted, Henry Jamesian. I wanted to write a 19th-century novel and set it in the present. I showed my writing group at the time a couple of chapters and they all said the same thing—it need a facelift. So I gave it a facelift. I made Catherine much younger and I updated the language to make it more germane to the current culture, because of course it's your job as a writer to please everyone but yourself. Haha. But something began to happen when I began to shake the dust off it. It entered a different phase of life, younger, more vibrant, and I thought, I can still write a 19th-century novel because I'm dealing with 19th-century themes and people. All of my characters long to live in a different era, an era before television and the Internet (the book is set in 1991, long before cell phones and the Internet), an era that was far more simple and more connected. I find that our era is so fractured and discombobulated that it's no wonder certain books flourish. They reflect the culture in which we live. Well, I wanted to write a novel that reflected a culture in which we don't live. Even though it might have a similar look and feel to our current millennium, it isn't. It's otherworldly, even old worldly, and the characters in the novel behave as such.

I didn't use other readers in the process, actually. I just gave it to my agent, who then sent it out. Everyone has an opinion about this or that plot or this or that characters and since the book was mine, I thought my opinion counted the most. So, no readers for this one.

VP: Was your first book, the fine collection of stories, Most of Us Are Here Against Our Will, an easier ride—both in terms of the writing and the publication? Did writing it prepare you to write Antonia or do you have other novel manuscripts in your draws that did that instead?

DSL: MOUAHAOW was a much easier ride, yes, and that's because I never wanted to write a novel. I feel far more comfortable in the short form and think I'm pretty damn good at it. I think the topic and themes in ALBTS mirror my frustrations about having to write a longer work, when in reality all I have ever wanted to do was to write short stories. I hate writing novels, actually, and find them ultimately tedious and boring. I like reading them, but I don't like writing them. They take, well, look how long it took me to write Antonia? I don't have that much time or dedication to give another novel. So I'm pretty sure I'll write my next one in ten days and be done with it. And yes, like every other writer, I have a couple of novels that are decaying in a desk drawer. They didn't help me one iota in writing Antonia and I learned nothing from them. Don't be fooled—writing a novel and finishing it doesn't mean that you've unlocked the key to a successful strategy for writing novels at all. It just means that you wrote one. Every novel is different. Every novel comes with its own interiors and its own ulterior motives and it's up to you to tame the fuck out of it before it gets away from you. That's what a novel is to me—an untamable beast that a publisher buys, smacks a dollar sign on, and pushes into the world. Sidebar: I love how it goes from a work of art to a work of commerce in a matter of seconds. It's amazing that shift in thought and design—the spectacle of it all is something I try to nail down in ALBTS. You begin as this unknown person at a desk and you end up having umpteen conversations with your editor about covers. The whole racket is insane!

VP: What advice do you have for aspiring writers these days? What should they not do?

DSL: The only advice I have for aspirants is this: be confident in your convictions or be eaten alive.

VP: So, what are you working on next?

DSL: I'm working on a novel tentatively titled, When Noah's Raven Came to Town. It's my September 11th novel. That's all I can say.

Megan Mayhew Bergman

Birds of a Lesser Paradise made a splash when it came out in March, 2012. It’s not easy to be noticed for a debut novel, more of less for a short story collection which tend to have a smaller readership, so the positive reception by The New York Times and other reviewers was noteworthy. It didn’t hurt that the first story in the collection, which also happens to be one of my favorites, had been included in The Best American Short Stories 2011. Polly Rosenwaike in the Times explained why these pieces work brilliantly and are so memorable: “We want stories to stir our desires. We also want them to lead us to places we don’t recognize and build us a temporary residence there. Bergman provides alluring glimpses into the strangeness, the ruthlessness, of the animal kingdom.” And, I might add, of the human heart as well. I'm honored to be speaking alongside Megan at the James River Writers Conference on October 19-20 in Richmond, Virginia. In advance of that always-wonderful event, I wanted to get to know her better. I’m delighted to share here an interview with Megan about how Birds of a Lesser Paradise came to such rewarding fruition.

VP: Your debut book publication is a collection of short stories. I wonder what drew you to that form and if you’re still as intrigued by it now as you were when you first started writing?

MMB: Perhaps it’s my southern heritage—I grew up with the sound and length of a sermon in my head, a short narrative with a sucker-punch, a focus on sound and distillation. When I was a student, Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty spoke to me from the page, and it was a language I knew. Plus, there was my dad spinning yarns at the dinner table. My inner framework for stories is short, and it’s often southern and sound-oriented.

I love what the short story can do. There’s a mix of freedom and constraint, a bigger burden on the line. For me, it’s all about getting to the heart of the matter, learning how to scour the reader’s soul in twelve pages or less. Hemingway’s first collection—In Our Time—does this for me. There’s a powerful mix of restraint, killer sentences, and brutal stay-with-you imagery.


Justin Torres wrote a phenomenal short novel, We the Animals, and when interviewed about it, he wrote: “I wanted the book to feel a little claustrophobic. I wanted the intensity of concentration. My parents used to buy canisters of frozen orange juice concentrate in bulk and my brothers and I would sometimes spoon the orange stuff into our mouths like ice-cream, not because it was delicious, it wasn't, but because it was intense.”

That intensity is what I love about a lot of short work—it often has characters, and the world for that matter, by the throat.

I think like a short story writer.  We tell short stories all the time:  at the dinner table, in a eulogy, in a song. There’s urgency there. Tell me what matters, tell me now, and make it count.

VP: Over how long a period did you work on Birds of a Lesser Paradise? At what stage did you realize you had a collection-in-the-making?

MMB: I worked on a lot of these stories in my head before they landed on paper. Most of these stories spilled out of me across three years, but the last few came at a very intense time in my life, a period of six weeks I call my Cosmic Bitch Slap. I gave birth to my first child, my husband graduated from veterinary school, his beloved mother died of cancer, and we sold our house in North Carolina and moved to Vermont. It was a period of radical change, and the birth-death continuum was right in front of my eyes. Things that had mattered before no longer mattered. I was thirty pounds overweight, my hair fell out, and I was depressed. I decided right then that I was going to pick myself up and become the kind of woman my daughter could look up to. Another daughter later and I’m still working on that, of course.

During the Cosmic Bitch Slap, material landed in my lap. It choked me. I had profound feelings, a sense of post-traumatic enlightenment as I was walking barefoot in circles around the pasture, cradling my colicky, screaming daughter, missing my own family and my mother-in-law.

As a mother, I saw the human-as-animal. No—I felt it. I saw primal beauty all around me, and I wanted to honor it. The last line of my first story, Housewifely Arts, captures everything I learned those six weeks, everything I wanted to put into my first book, everything I knew to be true.

VP: What was your path to book publication? Your stories had been published and received awards. I wonder if that helped you to find an agent and then a publishing house?

MBB: I do not suffer from visions of grandeur—quite the opposite. The hardest thing for me was (is?) giving myself permission to make art. I was listening to a doctor friend play guitar in his garage a few years back, and I thought—I like listening to him play and sing. He’s not playing because he thinks he’s Eric Clapton or Thom Yorke. He’s making music because he enjoys it, and we take pleasure in the sound. I told myself: MMB, just make art.  Make it as good as you can and don’t worry about who it’s for or how it will sell. There are worse things you could do with your time.

Making art is a gift, and even if we just practice it and don’t offer it up for commercial consumption, it helps us process the world, and helps us become better patrons of other artists.

After I had 4 or 5 good stories out in the world, the agenting inquiries started. I also had some generous mentors and MFA professors who helped me connect with good people.

My agent, Julie Barer, is a magnetic, brilliant, high-energy spirit, and she guided me through the publication process so well, and connected me with a team of editors at Scribner (Kara Watson and Sam Martin) that really understood Birds of a Lesser Paradise. I couldn’t have asked for a more generously-supported debut.

It’s important to find a team who gets you, who understands what you want for yourself and your art and helps you get there. I’m a southerner who lives in rural Vermont. I have goat poop stuck in the soles of my shoes and cat hair on my sweaters. I have kids I want to get home to when I’m on book tour. I get lost in big cities. My team knows all those things and plans accordingly, finds the ways to bring the right people to my book. I’m still lost in a sea of gratitude about all that.

VP: You’ve sold your next book, a novel, to your same editor. I’m curious how you decided to write a novel instead of stories?

MMB: I like challenges, and I have three or four ideas for novels that I’m dying to put out into the world. Of course there’s a learning curve for me structurally, but I’m up for it. I need to write these stories; that’s all I usually need to know to give myself permission to pursue a project. If I don’t get them down on paper, they’ll drive me crazy in my imagination. Writing these books will be a release!

It’s the same for stories, really, and I am always writing short stories, and I imagine I always will be.

VP: Can you offer any advice for aspiring writers who hope to publish a book?

You’re never as brave as you are with your first book. When I wrote my early stories, I never thought many people would read them. I was a little reckless. And sometimes that recklessness gives itself over to a more authentic-sounding voice or narrative, instead of an overly-precious, overly-contrived, taking-myself-seriously voice. Beginner’s enthusiasm is contagious on the page sometimes. There’s energy there. You’re excited to be doing what you’re doing.

The most important advice I have for aspiring writers is to be a good literary citizen. Read constantly. Buy most of your books from independent bookstores. Support a few of the journals you want to publish your work—that’s only fair.

Consider giving your time to one of your favorite journals as a reader—many of them need volunteers, and it’s a great way to take the pulse of the slush pile. I’ve done this a few times, and man, the slush pile doesn’t lie. I formed so many writing philosophies reading the slush pile—you realize the sheer importance of first paragraphs, the danger of wind-up. The themes and character prototypes you think are tired you’ll see are REALLY tired, and you’ll never convince yourself you can get away with a Manic Pixie Dreamgirl. You’ll also be inspired by how many good stories there are in the world, how many great writers. And that makes you work harder to distinguish yourself. It made me wonder, what do I have to offer the world? What makes my words worthy of a reader’s time? When you can answer those questions, you may have a book.


David Abrams: Debut Novelist and Literary Citizen Extraordinaire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming Home to Several Cities

There's a lot to be said about the importance of coming from somewhere. Being of a particular place. Right now, I'm very much of Richmond, Virginia. On Tuesday, May 7, I'll hold my Book Launch Party here. This morning as I listened to my local NPR station, I heard my name announced along with the details of that party. I shouldn't have been surprised, but I am. Both by the miraculous fact of launching a first book, but also by being noticed for it in my hometown. Style, Richmond's excellent weekly alternative paper, has run a preview of River of Dust and the high-quality glossy monthly called Richmond offers a Q & A with me. I gather that our daily paper, The Richmond Times Dispatch, will post a review of River of Dust next weekend in their Books Section. I am immensely grateful for this coverage because it will encourage people to read my novel, but also because it helps me to see quite plainly that this city is my home. Wonderfully enough, though, five days later, I travel to my other home: Cambridge, Massachusetts. I'll be doing my first ever Book Talk at the Center for International Studies at MIT. That may seem like a strange place to start a novel's book tour, but it makes perfect sense. My father, Lucian W. Pye, taught in the Political Science Department at MIT for more than forty years and I will be speaking in the Lucian Pye Conference Room. I'm truly honored and touched to be doing my inagural event there.

In the evening of May 10, I'll do a second event at Back Pages Books in Waltham, the next town over from where I grew up in Belmont. I can't wait to see the friends and family who come out for it, and can't imagine a better homecoming. And maybe that's the point: like many people, I have many homes. I've lived in Hartford, New York and Philadephia, and have family in Washington, DC, so when I visit those cities and share my work there, I'll feel welcomed home, too. Having moved a number of times, I realize that I could live just about anywhere and make it work. The joy, though, is when you realize you've set down real and lasting roots, even long after you've moved away.



A Culmination: First Bookstore Reading and High School Reunion

On May 10, I return home to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for my high school reunion. My four closest girlfriends from that time will also come in from across the country: from Tucson, Chicago, New York, and one who stayed in Cambridge. And me, I’ll travel from Richmond, Virginia, where I’ve lived for more than a decade. For years we’ve kept up with each other’s lives through conference calls, group emails, and the rare gathering at a beach house or in one city or another for non-stop talk marathons. This time we’re combining our small group reunion with the full school affair. Now, at this point in our lives, we see that life has had its ups and downs for each of us in our own way, and any false hope still alive at earlier reunions of being spared difficulty is gone with the years. Instead, we can now fully relish our shared past and honor the kids we were by having some drinks, laughing a lot, and maybe even dancing. I feel especially excited this year because I return home having accomplished what I hoped for most as a high school girl: the publication of my debut novel, River of Dust, which comes out the very same week as the reunion. The timing invites more than a little self-reflection and thankfulness. It was with these girlfriends that I first shared my bookish self. When we wandered around Harvard Square looking for boys and good finds at used clothing stores, I carried Anne Sexton’s poems in the back pocket of my jeans. I quoted Denise Levertov and Sylvia Plath to anyone who’d listen. To their credit, my friends didn’t tease me, but instead seemed to know before I did what my life’s goal would be. I am moved that they’ll be with me at my first bookstore reading of River of Dust to be held at Back Pages Books in Waltham, just down the street from our high school.

The Harvard Square of our childhoods was dotted with new and used bookstores. I remember wandering into them with a sense of great anticipation, and then easily losing myself in the aisles. There is still nothing as satisfying as picking up an unfamiliar book and leafing through its pages, becoming acquainted with new authors by serendipitously plucking them from the shelves. I remember wiling away hours in the Harvard Book Store, something that luckily one can still do today as that store continues to be a home to both writers and readers. Just a few years ago Back Pages Books owner, Alex Green, opened his store in the likeness of City Lights Books in San Francisco, where the Beat poets first congregated. He’s given a great gift to the City of Waltham by envisioning an independent bookstore as a community center, a place to inspire the next generation of high school kids looking for books they didn’t even know they wanted to read, let alone to write. I’m honored to hold the first reading of my novel there, and deeply satisfied to be accompanied by my supportive long-time friends and classmates as I read aloud my own words, adding my voice to the many voices of that literary corner of the literary state of Massachusetts.

One Month Till Book Launch!

Richmond is bursting with blooms in that crazy way it happens here in April, and I am every bit as wired and beaming. One month from now, we'll finally get to celebrate together the launch of my debut novel, River of Dust. If you are anywhere near Richmond, Virginia, on the evening of May 7, I hope you'll get off the highway and come on by. The book launch party is to be held in the simple and elegant rooms of the Candela Gallery, a fine art photography gallery that always has excellent work on the walls. Kelly Justice from Fountain Bookstore will be selling copies and everyone is welcome to inbibe, eat Chinese food from Sticky Rice, hear a brief reading from River of Dust, followed by a book signing.

A few days later on Friday, May 10, I'll be in Cambridge, Massachusetts where I'll be honored do a book event at M.I.T. in the Lucian W. Pye Seminar Room, named after my father who was a long-time prominent professor in the Political Science Department. I will be touched to see his former colleagues and students, and to meet a more current crop of China watchers.

On Friday evening, May 10, I'll be at Back Pages Books in Waltham for my first book store reading. I hope you can join me at one of these joyous inaugural events!