I've been holed up in my office for days. I've got deadlines and conference calls and the normally lovely sun that I let shine in my windows, I have had to draw the blinds on as it was insanely hot today! Alas, my sweet husband bought me these daffodils from Trader Joe's to bring some sunshine, without the heat, into my office. I love them, and at $1.29 a bunch, and there are 2 bunches in this picture, I love them even more.
Of course, these flowers look even better in this gorgeous vase that was a birthday gift from my sister. I ADORE it. A great way to bring some cheer to a long work day. What about you? What do you do to bring a little levity and light into your work space?
Another Amazing Author Interview from Amazing Author Caroline Leavitt!
Bestselling author Meg Waite Clayton is not only the creator of a fascinating and riveting new novel, she's also one of the most generous writers on the planet. I was thrilled to read her new novel and even more honored that she's here on my blog to answer my pesty questions.
Both the Wednesday Sisters and The Four Ms. Bradwells deal with the bonds women form with one another, but this new novel also has this riveting line of tension throughout because of the secrets they've kept from one another. Did you have everything mapped out before you started writing or did it come as a surprise to discover you were writing a mystery? Tell us about your writing process.
The dreaded writing process… People often think of writing in terms of “inspiration,” but for me it’s more like going on a mad hunt in the hopes of uncovering something that I can beat on until it makes some small yelp that might turn into words on the page. I read and research endlessly in the never-ending quest for material to shape into story.
My invariable answer to the question of how an aspiring writer should start is Any way you can. That’s the way I start myself. I tend to start writing in my journal on the pretense that it’s nothing, then move to a computer when I have some kind of start.
I don’t often step back and outline or figure out where the story is going until I have something that feels like a decent beginning, because that step toward shaping the novel and finding the ending is often when the whole mess starts to feel like it’s splattering me. If that happens before I’m committed to the story, it ends up in the recycle bin.
I do outline, though, and make character scrap books, too. I use note cards. Lots of note cards. And I do try to find the ending before I get too far along. I can spend a long lot of wasted time writing to a dead end if I don’t map things out.
There is the quote, "what would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?" Do you think women more and more are doing this? Do you think societal pressures keep that from happening more?
There was a lovely piece in the New York Times this morning – in the business section – titled “Keeping Women Safe through Social Networking,” about two online sites where women can report and share stories about harassment they’ve experienced. It’s such a small thing in a way, but I remember as a twelve-year-old – twelve! – having men make comments about my breasts as if my body were public property that everyone had a right to scrutinize. To this day, I’m self-conscious about my body.
As I read the piece, I thought, yes, that will get our stories out there, we’ll feel less alone, but then what?Then I thought of Anita Hill stepping up to challenge Clarence Thomas about sexual harassment. It wasn’t a word we even knew, really. It was just what we put up with to survive as women in a man’s world. We talked among ourselves, gave advice about who to avoid being alone with in elevators and the like, but we didn’t make fusses for fear of what it would do to our careers. When Anita Hill went public I at least was horrified she was destroying hers. Instead, though, her speaking out started a dialogue that resulted in laws to prohibit behavior we all knew was wrong but thought we had to endure.
The end of the quote – from “Käthe Kollwitz,” by Muriel Rukeyser – is “the world would split open.” I think that is what’s happening if you look back over the stretch of the history of the last 150 years or so. But it sure is taking its time. And I do think that slowness is largely due to societal pressures on women.
I love it that you wrote about such four accomplished women and that wonderful line, "Change starts with us," which I wish could be an anthem for every young woman on the planet. All of them grapple with the past and make an important decision about it. So, do you think that the meaning of the past changes when it is brought into the present? Or perhaps it's simply we who change in the way we look at it?
Was it Winston Churchill who said history is written by the victors?
I think the answer to your question, Caroline, is a little of both. We certainly look at, say, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s speech at the first convention on women’s rights these days as the beginning of the fight for a women’s right to vote, which we no longer question but rather applaud. But at the time it was called “the most shocking and unnatural event ever recorded in the history of womanity.”
One of the things I think is changing the way we see things – the change in the role of women – is that more women are writing the history. Does that mean we’re winning the battle? Maybe.
Publishing careers are often a surprise to us writers. Your first novel was a finalist for the Bellwether prize, but it wasn't until your second novel, The Wednesday Sisters, that you really broke out and fame found you. What was that like and how did your writing life change because of it?
“Fame found me” – I like the sound of that! If so, it’s a very modest fame. Let’s just say I’m rarely stopped in the grocery store for my autograph. I was wondering the other day if there was a level of fame at which one could no longer go to the grocery store oneself. And wishing for it!
Honestly, though, the success of The Wednesday Sisters has been glorious. When I started writing the novel, I was despairing of ever getting a second novel published because The Language of Light was selling so “modestly.” I decided if nobody else was going to read what I wrote, anyway, I may as well write exactly what I wanted to read. Having the result be so enthusiastically embraced by readers has allowed me the psychological freedom to write without worrying quite so much about who will read my writing and whether they will like it.
Well … except for my friends at Ballantine. That is another very nice thing that has happened: I now have Ballantine on board to publish before I start writing a novel. That kind of support from a publisher is an amazing boon.
But the biggest change has been all the direct contact I have with readers, and how delightful that has been. It requires time: answering emails, social networking, and visiting book groups in person, by phone, or on skype or googlechat. I also get asked to do charity fundraisers quite a bit, often for causes to benefit girls and women and/or literacy; I accept whenever I can as my small way of chipping in to making this world a better place. It’s an amazing treat to get to connect in person with readers. That has been the biggest surprise for me, how much readers reach out to me, and how delightful interacting with them is.
What's up next for you?
I’m working on a sequel of sorts to The Wednesday Sisters. No doubt there is a line in some earlier interview in which I state unequivocally “never,” but I got so many request from Wednesday Sisters readers for one that I started noodling the idea. I found I was quite interested in following some of their daughters, specifically Kath’s oldest Anna-Page, Ally’s Hope, and one of Linda’s twins. The novel focuses on the daughters, but their stories can’t be told without reference to their mothers.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
You should ask me what my main writing fuel is. That would be chocolate. I’m partial to Sharfenberger extra dark.
Or what I’m wearing on book tour? Pearls! (In honor of the gorgeous Four Ms. Bradwells cover.) Also a stunning silk scarf by designer Camilla Olson, who also designed a suit Ginger wears in chapter one of The Four Ms. Bradwells.
Whether I lived in the same room at the University of Michigan law school as the Ms. Bradwells did? I lived in N-32 – the smaller one that Betts and Mia live in. My law school boyfriend lived in one of the suites like the one Ginger and Laney share.
Or who designed my amazing website. The answer is Ilsa Brink, and you can see what an artist she is at www.megwaiteclayton.com.
Thankfully the sun is shining again in L.A. and my energy is buoyed a bit by the blue skies. I mean I love the rain for writing, but that felt like a lot of rain.
Lately I have been starting to think about the new novel. I know, I know, my debut novel's latest revisions are still being reviewed, but I also know that for me, when a project ends it is good to have another one lined up. It is hard right now to even imagine going back to those beginning pages of a novel, where I have no real idea what it is that I am writing, just that there is a phrase or image that keeps whispering to me to follow it. Especially after all this structured screenwriting, to venture into the wild unknowns of the novel is more than a little terrifying...and thrilling. I think I will just keep my ears open to the whispering and see where it takes me.
This is something that I am loving right now. It's a handy writer's tool called Writeboard. Writeboard is part of a larger program that I often use when working as a freelance copywriter with clients, called Basecamp. These are software programs that create a place for you and your collaborators to work together in cyberspace. You can dialogue back and forth, upload documents, make to-do lists and set time lines and goals that have built in reminders, to one another. You can mark up each others documents, you can log on and work anytime of the day, and you can keep it organized all in one neat space. I love it, because it is so organized, and it keeps things professional. There is no need to write an email every time I have a question, and if an idea comes to me later, I can simply add on to it, without resending the entire document. I also love that I don't have to pester anyone about looking at my work. Basecamp will send an email to all involved letting them know that changes have been made and to go and see them.
If you are someone who works online a lot or who collaborates, I can't recommend this program enough. And no, I didn't get paid to advertise it, it just makes my life so much easier, and anything that makes writing easier, I have to share!
But today is Monday, and I am back at it. Revising, re-outlining, returning correspondence and getting back to my normal schedule!!
I baked so many scones the other day, that I thought for sure I'd have to freeze them. Alas, no such luck. When I am this busy at my desk, I get pretty single minded about my food and will eat the same thing for lunch as I did for breakfast. In other words...scones...with yogurt and fruit.
I am up to my eyeballs in script revisions, and am trying to get as much done as I can before my folks come for a visit next week, and before I got back to outlining my other script. For the first time ever I think, I am doing all the easy revisions first and saving the harder major rewrites for later. Normally I would go in sequence, but I decided that I just don't have the time to get hung up on trying to fix something. I need to keep moving. So, if I didn't have a fix for something, I made a note and of it and moved on. I don't know why I didn't think of this sooner.
Alas, I am still at my desk, but calling it quits soon for dinner. Although I am going to make myself cook something. I mean I can't have scones for dinner too...or can I?
Revising means I spend a lot of time at my desk and little time moving. This also means that I am often snacking and when not snacking, looking at cookbooks and dreaming up new recipes. Needless to say, revising may not be good for my waist line, but it is an exciting time for my taste buds!
Well, then this email from Daily Candy, couldn't have arrived in my mailbox at a better time! 40 Food trucks will gather this Sunday, in downtown L.A. 40!! Just think of the options! Better yet, sample them. Check out www.truckitfest.com
Ellen Meeropol's House Arrest is well...arresting. Heidi Durrow calls it "a compelling debut" while Julia Class raves that it is “smart, provocative, and moving." I want to thank Ellen for answering all my pesky questions here.
What particularly impressed me about House Arrest were all the moral choices going on. Both Emily and Pippa have to make a choice about whether or not to break the law, for their own reasons. How do you go about crafting a character?
The spark for this book was a short article in the Boston Globe about a nurse who was assigned to monitor the pregnancy of a cult member. Her patient was under house arrest pending investigation of the death of a child living in the cult. It captured my interest so I clipped the article and put it in my “ideas” folder. A few years later, I still occasionally found myself wondering what it would be like for a nurse to build a therapeutic relationship with a cult member, with some whose health beliefs were so different from her own, and decided to explore the story. In my imagination, the nurse and an Isis cult member became friends and the novel’s ethical dilemma developed from that friendship. I had no idea where the narrative would go, but I knew the conflict had something to do with the care-giving relationship and with prejudice against the cult.
When I’m crafting characters, I often imagine them Thumbelina-sized, sitting on my shoulder and whispering their secrets into my ears. Perched on one shoulder, reserved home-care nurse Emily told me about her childhood in Maine, how she lost her parents because of their political activism, and how she believes that living by the rules will keep her safe. On the other shoulder, Pippa revealed what she discovered about her father, and why she had to leave Georgia, and how the Family of Isis welcomed her.
A sense of place and the natural world are important to the way my characters grow. House Arrest is set in the Forest Park neighborhood of Springfield, Massachusetts, where I lived for many years, and on an island off the coast of Maine, where most of my fiction takes place. I work surrounded by hand-drawn maps and elaborate family trees, grounding my characters in our shared imaginary world.
You come from a background of nursing which infuses this novel. How different is Emily from you?
I worked for many years as a pediatric nurse and nurse practitioner, particularly with children with spina bifida, the condition that Emily’s beloved cousin Zoe has. I never did home care, so I had to learn from colleagues in that field. I have worked with patients from different cultural backgrounds, people who have wonderfully varied ways of looking at health and illness, and I’ve always been fascinated by those differences.
Emily is not based on me (for one thing she’s half my age) but aspects of her character are drawn from young people I have known whose activist parents made choices that had terrible consequences for themselves and their families. Emily is haunted by her parents’ actions and frozen in her own life. Nursing is a way for her to connect with people and she’s good at it.
I read that you didn't begin writing fiction until your fifties. Why not? And what jump-started your desire? What was that like?
Some days I wish like anything that I had started writing much earlier. That way, maybe I wouldn’t be publishing my first novel and applying for Medicare at the same time! I’ve always read a lot, and I often thought about writing fiction. For many years I scribbled ideas on napkins and corners of the newspaper and collected them in that “ideas” folder. But it wasn’t until 2000, when I was planning a two-month “sabbatical” so that my husband could write his book, that I realized that it was a perfect time for me to jump in too.
We rented a cottage on that island off the coast of Maine that I mentioned before; there I met my muse and she literally changed my life. I wrote all the time. Three years later, I entered an MFA program and then I took early retirement from my nurse practitioner job. Re-inventing myself in my fifties was both humbling and exhilarating. Regardless of my age and my past life as a competent profession, I was a beginner again, free to experiment and make lots of mistakes. It continues to be a terrifying and liberating experience.
The novel talks a lot about forgiveness, and how whether we actually should forgive. Do you think there ever is anything that is unforgivable? Should compassion rule us more than our laws?
I don’t really have an answer for that question, Caroline. Whether or not to forgive something that feels unforgivable is such a personal decision. If I wanted to tell people how to live, I’d write essays or self-help books. As a person and a writer, I’m fascinated by situations in which well-meaning people make questionable decisions that have awful consequences and novels let me explore those stories, with made-up characters. For my characters, sometimes forgiveness is the only way to heal.
Can you talk about your writing process?
I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer. I start with a character, or a scene, or sometimes an image, and follow it to see where it takes me. I write at the computer, in a very messy office strewn with books and papers and magazines and folders and notes and maps and photographs. I’ve never made an outline, although I’ve often wished for one. I once heard E.L. Doctorow say that for him writing a novel is like driving on a dark road at night, with only your parking lights for illumination. You can only see ahead a short distance, but that’s all you need to keep going. I’m working on my third novel manuscript now and am just beginning to trust the process.
Another part of my process is having multiple narrators. I love reading books that offer the story from several points of view, and that seems to be the way writing narratives develop for me as well. The stories that fascinate me often involve complex perspectives. I enjoy developing my novels by alternating between four or five characters, taking turns sitting on my shoulders and opening their hearts to me.
What's obsessing you now in your work and why?
No matter what I’m writing, my obsessions tend to poke their nose into my characters’ business. In general I am obsessed by the way family legacies shape our lives, and by the interplay between our actions, especially relating to political activism, and the consequences of those choices.
Right now I’m working on a manuscript about a university professor who is kidnapped and taken to a civilian detention center on an island off the coast of Maine for interrogation. This is new territory for me and this book is frightening to write. One of the multiple narrators is a guy who believes that torture is warranted to protect national security. It’s enormously challenging to try to inhabit this character in order to write his scenes.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
You didn’t ask me what the biggest surprise has been so far in the debut of my first novel. My answer would be the generosity and bigheartedness of other authors (like you!) and by readers. Publishing literary fiction is such a difficult business; there are so many books and so little space for “success.” But I’ve been amazed by the welcome from established authors, by the support, the blurbs, the suggestions, the camaraderie, and the generous response by readers. Thank you!