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I met Heidi Thomas when she was wending her way through Montana on tour with her debut novel, Cowgirl Dreams, and have since enjoyed bandying thoughts with her on the craft of writing and seeing another print journalist break through in the fiction world. Her novel has received strong notices from critics and readers alike. Consider this from a reader on Amazon.com:
It takes the reader into Big Sky country on the back of a strong horse flying over the rugged terrain. I felt that I was there with Nettie experiencing her life and adventures. The descriptions are vivid, detailed, and heart breakingly real as evidenced in the story of little baby Esther. The rodeos and bronc busting found me holding my breath.
Below, Heidi talks about how the novel came to be.
Q: Walk us along the road to publication for Cowgirl Dreams. When did you start writing it? How long did it take get it published?
I started writing it in 1999. It took me about 2½ to 3 years to write and rewrite a few times, then it took until the end of 2008 to be published, so almost 10 years from start to finish. I collected 17 rejections, including two “yes, but it’s not in our budget right now” non-rejections, before Lee Emory at Treble Heart Books took on the project.
Q: The main character, Nettie, is based on your grandmother, and the book started as nonfiction. Why did you switch?
I didn’t really start the book as non-fiction. Before writing a book, I tried writing some scenes based on family history, and I found that I was apparently too close to the characters. I didn’t have the freedom to elaborate, to embellish, to create conflict and make a better story, so that’s why I chose the novel form. My grandmother was not a “famous” cowgirl — she wasn’t as flamboyant as Prairie Rose Henderson; she didn’t win competitions in Madison Square Garden; and for her time, she was just an “ordinary” horsewoman who happened to ride steers in local rodeos. Fiction allowed me to fill in the blanks and ask “what if?
Q: You published with Treble Heart Books. How has the support been? What have you learned about marketing?
Great editorial support, and the nice thing about being with a small publisher is that the author often has more “say” in how the book turns out, both in content and in cover design. I was able to give my ideas about what I’d like to see on the cover, whereas I know that in many cases with large publishing houses, you have no idea what they might come up with and it might not relate to the story at all as you see it.
Most publishers these days (even large New York houses) don’t put out much, if any financial support for marketing, so authors have to do most everything on their own. I’ve read books on marketing, studied the internet, and done my marketing on the “trial and error” basis. You have to get your name out there, so networking via the internet is important — having a website, writing a blog, joining social networking sites, building your “platform.” But it also takes pounding the pavement, talking it up, and driving many miles (as I did on my Montana book tour). It’s fun, though, and rewarding. I’m basically a shy person, but I do have a bit of “ham” in me, so I’m finding that I’m actually enjoying the public speaking, meeting people, and talking about my passion—my book and my writing.
Q: What is the role of the West in your writing?
The West (Montana) is my setting and becomes almost a character in the book. I didn’t set out to write a “Western,” but authors have to have a spot on the marketing bookshelf for a book, so because Cowgirl Dreams was about rodeo and took place in the West, it is labeled a Western.
Q: How do you work? What’s your approach to getting down a draft and then revising it?
The familiar litany “I should be more disciplined; I should have a set schedule for writing, etc” is my lament. With my marketing, teaching classes and editing for other authors, I sometimes put my own writing on the back burner. But I belong to two wonderful weekly critique groups, so that gives me a deadline. I know I have to have some pages to present, and that keeps me going. I guess that working against deadlines stems from my old newspaper days.
Q: What books lit your fuse and set you on a path toward becoming an author?
Oh, I’ve always been a voracious reader from a young age. Zane Grey and Nancy Drew were favorites, of course, and throughout elementary school, I wrote many stories. One teacher told me I had a “wild imagination.” But I read many genres, from classics and literary works to police procedurals and courtroom dramas. I greatly admire the writing of Ivan Doig, a fellow Montana author, and Jane Kirkpatrick, a western historical author.
Q: You do a lot of blogging on writing technique. Do you find that it helps you when you sit down to do your own work?
Yes, it does, actually. I also have taught community adult writing classes for several years. I’ve had many experiences where I’m telling my students about a technique and I suddenly realize that’s exactly what I should be doing in my writing. It solidifies an idea when you have to explain it to someone else.
Q: What are you working on now?
I just submitted my sequel, Follow the Dream, to my publisher, and I am working on an idea for a third Nettie novel. I’d originally planned that the third book in my series would be the next generation, based on my mother who came from Germany after WWII. But I found that the way I ended my second book left it open for another, and it may help me bridge a gap between the Nettie years and the next family story.
Heidi Thomas’ Web site: www.heidimthomas.com
Heidi Thomas’ blog: http://heidiwriter.wordpress.com
Heidi Thomas’ book at Treble Heart Books: www.trebleheartbooks.com/SDHeidiThomas.html
By offering some in-kind work, I persuaded my friend Jim Thomsen to pitch me the questions this time. My previous attempt involved my interviewing myself, and that was just too odd. I think Jim came up with some excellent questions, and I think I came up with some incredibly long-winded answers.
The site is operational now, and has been for a while, but the pace is likely to quicken soon. Once the publisher finishes the cover and some other projects, I’ll build a page just for the book, along with some goodies like a book club discussion guide.
A fresh round of photos should be coming soon, too. The world doesn’t exactly need that, but my threadbare media page sure does.
I don’t plan to begin any large-scale writing projects until November (NaNoWriMo, baby!), but in the meantime, I have to keep the writing muscles limber. So I’ve been batting around some short-story ideas, one of which I saw through to completion this week (more on this in a bit).
Here’s my problem, though: I’ve never been a particularly active writer of short fiction. If I may borrow from my tired tennis parallel, I’m more like Pete Sampras (who rarely played doubles) than John McEnroe (who was great at singles and doubles). And when I say I’m like Pete Sampras, I mean I’m what Pete Sampras would be if (a) he didn’t play tennis and (b) he put on about 150 pounds.
What was I talking about again? Oh, yes, short fiction.
Anyway, my struggle is that my ideas tend to be sprawling, and short stories — because, you know, they’re relatively short — tend to be tight. In other words, I find the form challenging, which is fun in its own special way.
I submitted my completed short story to Stone’s Throw, an online literary magazine edited by Russell Rowland. Stone’s Throw is actively seeking submissions of short fiction, poetry, art and reviews, so if you have something to offer, please consider tossing it in.
Now, it’s back to trying to tame the next idea that bubbles up. In the meantime, I would love to hear tips from folks who are more confident in the form. If you have any, drop ’em in the comments section (or consider writing a guest blog post).
On my bookshelf, right in my line of sight, is a compendium, The Best American Short Stories of the Eighties (cover image above). I think I’ve found tonight’s reading material.
Kristen Tsetsi’s novel, Homefront, takes on the unsteady terrain of the military deployment, from the perspective of the one who has to wait at home for it to end, one way or another (and it’s the another that’s particularly harrowing — more on that in a bit). Tsetsi clearly has struck a chord. Check out her blog post on the hesitating military wife and her mother-in-law who approached Tsetsi at a book signing. Or see what the readers have to say at Amazon.com. And then get back over here and see what Tsetsi herself has to say.
Q: Tell us a bit about “Homefront” and how it came to be. What sparked the idea? How long did you work on it?
First, how it came to be: I wanted there to be somewhere out there a literary approach to the deployment experience, something that would force readers to experience it in a way they never had before: as if they were living it. There is (and was) a shortage of at-home war novels that (a) aren’t a “You Can Do It” book (b) weren’t about someone else’s personal experience with managing a household with a spouse deployed or (c) didn’t have something to do with religion and/or families.
I wanted the focus to be solely on the experience between two lovers. There’s a lot of media coverage of soldiers coming home and hugging their children (those videos are powerful) and of the suddenly single parenthood that accompanies a deployment–both important and relevant subjects. But they’re not the only subjects. You would think, based on what we typically see, that there are only two elements to a deployment: the Soldier, and the Family.
But what about the Couple? It’s not as if someone is simply taking an overseas job for a year. When the service member leaves, they’re going somewhere people are trying to kill them. Joseph Dilworth Jr., who reviewed Homefront for the online entertainment magazine he publishes, Pop Culture Zoo, said it perfectly in piece of his review:
Homefront is ultimately about life and how we choose to deal with loss and grief, even when those we are mourning are still alive.
Of course, that line by itself makes Homefront sound like a manual on mourning, or a grief counseling book, and it’s anything but that. But, essentially, that is a large part of what makes waiting through a deployment so complex, so passionate, so effing unbearable. You do feel like you’re mourning, in a way, because any second, the person you love most could be killed. (This is true in everyday life, in a way… we could get hit by a car, struck by lightning, a small plane could fall on our house … but in everyday life, people aren’t putting themselves in a situation that will make them mortar targets.)
Look at, or imagine, the person you love most, whose friendship you cherish more than any other, and then try to imagine possibly never seeing them again –starting NOW. However bad that feels, multiply it by reality and hold onto it constantly for a year. Or more. You still probably won’t be able to imagine — without reading something that gets inside of it, or without experiencing it first-hand — how that can affect your life. That’s why I wrote Homefront. So you are able to imagine it, and so those going through it know there’s something out there that gets them.
As to how long it took to write: about a year. I started, got halfway into it, and started over completely. Homefront began in third-person, and no matter how long I pressed on and tried to force it to work (it’s really hard to give up 80 single-spaced pages), it was just too distant a POV for such an intimate story.
Q: A writer writes what she knows, and you certainly know the terrain of waiting out a deployment. How did you balance your very emotional attachment to the subject with the need to write with a clear-eyed view of it?
I don’t think I even gave serious thought to writing about it until after Ian had been home for several months. For a long time after he came home — and this was strange, to me — I couldn’t talk about what it had been like without getting emotional about it. It was very, very easy to cry about things for a while. Let’s just say my ability to handle sensitive subjects with the emotional stability of a normal person had diminished substantially during his deployment, and it takes a while for something like that to go away, for a person to build back up to reacting to things reasonably.
Ian had been home for a year by the time I started writing Homefront, which left his deployment far enough in the past for me to be able to separate myself from the factual details of my own life during his absence, but still close enough so that I could, simply by closing my eyes, go right back into that year of … well … back into that year. (There’s really no good “of” word…that year of what? That, too, is why Homefront had to be written … it takes a novel to show someone what it’s like. You can’t tell someone. No adjectives do it justice.)
Q: At what point and why did you decide that you would publish it independently?
After sending out a number of query letters, I heard from a few agents that it would be hard to sell. I think I heard “no market” (which is obviously untrue) from one agent, and another said she absolutely loved the book, but that it was just too risky to try to sell literary fiction from an “unknown.” I didn’t give up on queries — I continued to send them after I decided to take an independent approach — but I did decide that what was important was the book being read. With or without publishers, service members were going to Iraq and Afghanistan, and the people they left behind continued to go through that hell. I wanted them to have the book, and I wanted everyone talking about the war from a political point of view — and disregarding, or being oblivious to, the very real people involved — to have a perspective that would enhance their opinions. Which is not to say knowing people involved will change political opinions, but there should be as much empathy as possible for those whose lives are affected (or ended) by calculated political decisions.
Q: What sort of responses have you gotten from people who have lived the life as a military spouse/significant other?
The spouses/significant others who have taken the time to write me about it have said … well, here — I’ll let them say it:
“I have read the book three times since it was released. I keep going back to this story because it makes me feel understood. And given the present state of things, it is a comfort to be understood, and to know there is an opportunity for others to understand what they may never experience.” — Beth K., Fort Rucker, AL (Army wife)
“My husband is currently in Iraq and … everything in the book was so incredibly accurate. From coming home after he left and not wanting to touch any of his things, to feeling guilty about any moment of happiness. Wondering every few minutes I didn’t think of him, if that was the moment he died. It’s so morbid, but it’s nice to realize I’m not crazy and everyone feels that way.” — (Anon. – this was a private message sent via MySpace mail)
“As the spouse of a soldier who spent a year in Iraq, I must say that Tsetsi caught the feelings perfectly and I’m amazed that you can translate feelings of that magnitude into words.” — Christina Evans, MT
Soldiers, too, have had strong reactions. One Iraq veteran said he had no idea what his wife was trying to explain to him about waiting for him until he read Homefront. Another, an Afghanistan veteran, wrote, “Homefront’s story, and message, is one that a great percentage of the American Population (at the very least), SHOULD read and try their hardest to understand.”
The group is made up of a number of indie writers/publishers. (I say ‘a number’ because it’s not static.) The books we’ve listed at Backword haven’t been picked up by traditional publishers, but even so, they’ve received exceptional reader reactions, some decent media coverage, and wide critical acclaim. Our aim at Backword Books is to first present the idea that as bad of a reputation as self-published/indie writing has, there IS good indie writing available. We’ve all seen great indie films, heard outstanding independently released albums, and we’ve seen exceptional artwork by painters who work on the street with their canvas and brush. Why should it be any different with writers?
Backword Books’ other goal is to work together as a united group to market and publicize our work. Without publishers, this is no small task. Publishers mean marketing money, distribution, and automatic clout. We have none of that; we’re left to do it on our own. The more quality writers and creative thinkers we have working together, the louder our collective voice.
Q: What have you learned about book marketing as an independent? And, the more pressing question: Would you do it again?
What I’ve learned: try everything — the worst anyone can say is “no.” Be not afraid! And, be prepared to get sick of yourself and, quite possibly, disgusted with yourself. (Unless you’re comfortable throwing your name and your pitch at a lot of people … I’m not.) Also, expect it to be very, very time- and thought-consuming, this marketing.
As to whether I’d do it again, yes. I’m, of course, hoping for a publisher for the book I’m writing now, but if I don’t get one, I don’t see any reason not to self-publish. What a waste of time it would be to write and edit a book only to stuff it in a drawer because a publisher doesn’t want it. With today’s technology, a publisher isn’t necessary to get a book to people. Indie publishing is limiting (it’s not easy getting in bookstores, and a number of influential reviewers won’t look at self-published writing, which means a huge audience isn’t hearing about your book, etc.), and I’d rather have a real publisher, but I also want people to read what I’ve written. Why bother, otherwise?
Q: What is your ideal environment for writing?
One with no people in it.
Q: What’s on your nightstand? What do you read for pleasure?
For pleasure … hmm. That’s tricky, because I have that nasty tendency to lift styles if I read something while, or right before, writing, so I’m careful about what I read and when. While writing, I’ll read the minimalist writers I love because I’ll enjoy the book and try to learn from it at the same time. If I’m nowhere near writing anything, I’ll read something just plain fun, like Nelson DeMille or Richard North Patterson. In high school, I always had a mystery in my bag — King, DeMille, or Koontz, mostly — and I still think they’re a lot of fun.
Q: What are you working on now?
The Year of Dan Palace, which is the story of a man who, after a catalyst, determines he has to get what he wants out of life while he can. What he wants, specifically, is the love and forgiveness of his ex, April. Unfortunately, he goes for what he wants at the often painful (sometimes amusing) expense of those around him.
Kristen J. Tsetsi’s blog: http://kristentsetsi.wordpress.com/
Homefront listing at Backword Books: http://www.backwordbooks.com/2009/06/13/homefront-by-kristen-tsetsi/
Homefront, Amazon.com listing: http://www.amazon.com/Homefront-Kristen-Tsetsi/dp/0615139906/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1246373153&sr=8-1
Homefront, as a free download from Scribd: http://www.scribd.com/full/17752710?access_key=key-2jd8vcqwcl2xy3p8h4vm
TV interview with Kristen Tsetsi: http://www.wsmv.com/video/20387411/index.html
A question posed last night by a Facebook friend: So where do you start, outside characters on a page? The eternal question, I know …
This was my answer:
1. A vague idea, generally built around a character or a couple of characters.
2. A clear idea of how it starts.
3. A clear idea of how it ends (true story: In both cases, I’ve known what the last line of the book was going to be when I sat down to write).
Now, that last part is a bit unusual, from what I gather. Stephen King, for instance, believes that a writer should never know what the story is going to be and instead should sit down and let the story go wherever it wants. I have no standing to argue with Stephen King. He is the man. But twice now, I have known what the ending will be.
However, in both cases, my vague idea has undergone a pretty serious transformation in the course of setting down 80,000-plus words. With the most recent one, in fact, the biggest twist to the story occurred to me halfway through, prompting me to rewrite the beginning and a good deal of the middle. Even the ending was different from what I expected when I started, but the last line — which in many ways compelled me to keep thinking about the idea and finally commit to setting it down — remained.
Finally, I’ll say this: Some writers disdain outlining. Some writers spend as much time on the outline as on the novel. I made countless attempts at writing novels and never succeeded until I used an outline. Mine are crude, just a few scattered thoughts to keep me on the path, and as I indicated above, not rigorous enough to keep me from changing my mind as I go. I simply don’t know how I could manage to keep the pace and story arc moving at the right speed without one.
So, really, that ends up being the answer, both to the question you asked and to the larger question of how does one finish: any way you can.
I suppose every writer needs someone in the field with whom he feels a deep kinship — a sounding board, a confidante, a pull-no-punches straight talker who is walking the same path. For me, that’s Jim Thomsen, an aspiring novelist and true-crime writer based in Bremerton, Washington (an hour’s ferry ride west of Seattle). Nary a day goes by that we don’t check in on each other, and we’ve shared our highest hopes and deepest fears about what the future holds for us in this nutty business. (My wife says he’s my boyfriend, which is silly; Jim is too tall for me.)
Owing mostly to the fact that my aspirations aren’t as wide-ranging as Jim’s (more on this later), he’s enjoying a front-row seat as I stumble through my first publishing experiences, no doubt meticulously taking notes and promising himself that he won’t be nearly so stupid. His time is coming, so we’ll find out soon enough.
Q: You’re neck-deep in a true-crime book and a suspense/thriller novel. Tell us a bit about each project and how you find time to balance them.
OK, first things first. The true-crime book is a collection of stories about people who have committed one big crime in their lives — including murder — and been caught and taken their punishment. Along the way, they’ve cleaned up their lives and maintained largely spotless records. Some have retaken their place in society; others have satisfied themselves by being leaders of their prison societies. With the passage of years — and in most cases, decades — comes their belief that they are no longer the people they used to be, the people they were when they committed their crimes. But either they can’t get a parole board to go along with that, or, if they’re out of prison, their felonies dog them in dozens of ways — they pop up every time they apply for a line of credit, or a mortgage, or a lease or a job. They can’t bear firearms, they often can’t travel out of the country because they can’t get a passport, and often they can’t vote as well. One guy I’m writing about simply wanted to cast a vote in last year’s presidential election; as he put it to me, with a tear in his eye: “I cast my first vote for LBJ. I cast my second vote for Barack Obama.”
Anyway, in Washington state, where all these stories originated, there’s only one way to get your rights restored, or to get your felony off your record, or to get out of prison before your sentence is up if the parole board has said no and you no longer have any avenue of adjudication in the court system. In Washington, the court of last resort is the governor’s office. When you petition the governor for relief, your case is heard before her handpicked Clemency and Pardons Board. They hear your case and make a recommendation to the governor one way or the other. The governor is then free to decide as she wishes, when she wishes.
My book collects a dozen of the more compelling stories drawn from the last decade of board hearings. It’s very research-intensive, and as such has been slow going for the last several months.
Sorry, that was a long description. Guess I flunked Elevator Pitch School.
The fiction work is spread among several projects. One is a mainstream suspense novel set on a fictional island in Puget Sound, with a 30-year-old small-town newspaper reporter — a female — as the protagonist. Another, started last November during NaNoWriMo, is more of a hardboiled crime noir tale about an estranged father and son who reunite and bond over a single night amid an ever-growing pile of dead people. I’m also tooling here and there on a handful of short stories.
How do I balance them? Very schizophrenically. It shames me that at age 44, I am in many ways no more disciplined than a 6-year-old with ADD who’s off his Ritalin. I’m far too whim-driven for my own good, and often each’s day productivity is determined by what I feel like doing at a given moment. Some days that turns me into a perpetual dabbler, doing a little of this and a little of that, and not often “moving the chains,” to use a favorite idiom of yours, in measurable and meaningful fashion. It’s not that I don’t have a work ethic; it’s that my work ethic has no work ethic. I work hard, but not necessarily so smart.
What gets me past that is fear. I’m so scared of failing, or not finishing, that I often force my way through my self-imposed roadblocks like a frightened bull. That fear comes from the fact that I don’t float very high above the poverty line, and one big setback — like losing my job, which is a very real possibility — could pull me under. (It also, apparently, causes me to mix metaphors like mad.) I don’t have much money saved, I don’t have family that can help me out very much, I don’t have a safety net of any kind. And I’m not a subscriber to the myth of the romance of poverty. I don’t need to be rich, just able to take a shower and have a quiet, dry, warm space to call my own. All I have to keep me there is my talent, and my only talent in this world is writing.
Q: You have deep working relationships with well-established authors, like Gregg Olsen, and with some of those who have tread an indie path. How does providing penetrating analyses of others’ work benefit yours?
Somehow I see my own mistakes more clearly when I see the same one made in the works of others — a tendency to bog down in details or backstory, or to shoehorn in too many characters, or bridge my big scenes with trite boilerplate. And often what I take away is what they do right. Gregg, for instance, is a fairly disciplined writer with a good sense of pacing, and it’s somehow easy for me to compare my work to his and see how mine comes up short. He keeps his plots on track, and that makes me think about how mine often lost lost down the side roads of my subplots, for instance. I tend toward a lot of expository backstory, for instance, and he is good as mixing in the background his readers need with forward-moving action.
In short, seeing what he leaves out of his work teaches me what to leave out of mine, and often what makes the difference between good literature and bad is what you leave out, not what you put in. That and other lessons are the same ones I learned in college when I was taught to read literature with a critical eye; somehow those lessons got lost over too many years of pure pleasure reading. In recent years, I’ve gotten a lot better about reading for pleasure and for form and function at the same time. Doing so has made me not only a better reader but a better writer.
Q: We’ve talked privately about the “quiet desperation” of a writer. What does that mean to you, and how is it brought to bear on your work?
We’ve talked before about my belief that artists have what I call “overdeveloped interior lives.” What that means in this case is that when we suffer what others might see as a minor or moderate setback — say, the realization that you and a longtime friend are growing apart — it takes on the apocalyptic proportions of operatic, Shakespearean tragedy in our heads. As a result, a lot of us are a bunch of gloomy, moody fucks, and it gets in the way of not only our writing but our ability to navigate through the exterior writing world.
In my case, my Shakespearean tragedy (maybe more Eugene O’Neill) is that I have literally spent decades trembling in fear of my talent, which is strong but more than a little scattershot. And that’s led to a fear of being successful that’s outpaced, until recently, my fear of failure. In my twenties and thirties, I lived subconsciously by the paralyzing idea that I couldn’t fail if I didn’t try. And that was made worse by the fact that I DID try in all that time — I have several boxes filled with spiral-bound notebooks bearing my half-finished and barely-began stories — but that I gave up the minute I made a single misstep. Then I would berate myself for fooling myself, however briefly, that I could possibly be any good or get anywhere with this writing racket. Then sink into a funk that sometimes dragged out months, drowning out any contrary opinion with empty distractions. It’s a freaking wonder that I never seriously took to drink. I suspect I’d probably make an excellent alcoholic.
Today, I still torture myself — not over what I do or don’t do, but HOW I do it. In my world, that represents earth-shattering progress.
Q: Like a lot of us, you’re paving the way for two possible paths in publishing: the traditional route and the indie route. What do you see in publishing that is guiding your approach?
Pure pragmatism, which also represents earth-shattering progress in my world. Pragmatism reinforced by reality.
I am more than 90% certain that my true-crime book will be a self-published endeavor. That’s because the book simply is too regional in scope to attract and agent or a major publisher — and I was flat-out told as much at the recent Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference I attended.
So my plan is to write my book my way, get a kick-ass cover design and have my friends help out with story vetting. Then I’ll hire a professional “book doctor” and a professional copy editor so my book goes through just about as much torture testing as one put out by a mainstream publisher. Then, I’ll either publish via one of the top-of-the-line print-on-demand outfits out there, like Lightning Source, or find the financing to put out a run of at least 5,000 through a quality printer. Once that happens, I’ll knock myself out trying to sell 5,000 copies in six months by doing whatever it takes — social networking, public appearances, pimping myself to any reviewer or friendly media outlet I can get on board. If I meet that goal, then, if I feel there’s still more readers to tap in the Pacific Northwest (my chosen market), I’ll then go to a reputable Seattle or Portland publishing and house and say, “Hey, I walk the talk … how about walking it with me from this point forward and making some money together?”
With my fiction, I see mainstream publishing as the more desirable route. I believe everybody who says it’s harder to make a go with self-published fiction as opposed to nonfiction, and I don’t see the problems of regional limitation that impair me with my nonfiction book. Suspense and mystery are perpetually hot fiction niches in nationwide publishing, and while my books are set in the Puget Sound region that I know and love, I think their characters and themes have universal appeal. I think I have a pretty fair chance of landing an agent with a good work of fiction, and from there a good chance of landing a publisher with coast-to-coast reach.
Q: True crime, perhaps more than any other genre, runs a wide gamut from slapdash crap to high art. How do you balance literary concerns with giving readers the crunchy, pulpy, voyeuristic goodies they expect?
Inspired by the high standards of my original mentor, the late Jack Olsen, my stories are ones primarily of character and motivation against a backdrop of horrific doings, police process and judicial proceedings. I’m gambling, much as Jack and many other great true-crime authors I admire, that readers primarily want to know why as much if not more than they want to know how. The pulp goodies will be there without being overstated, because I find a story that’s written from, say, the police reports and court records of case to be tedious if they don’t offer any insight into the people behind them. But they will be there as a framing device for characters and motivations, and that’s where my background of two decades as a newspaper editor and reporter (one who often covered cops and courts) comes in handy. I know how to do research.
One way I ensure this high standard is this: I won’t write any story in which I am denied access to the main character or characters. Without their unique insights and memories, I might as well be practicing stenography. That the publishing industry sometimes rewards such flat, colorless bottom-feeding is to the discredit of everyone who aims to do a little better in this genre. I wish Jack Olsen, who died in 2002, were still around, if only because he made a prominent cottage industry of calling out these hacks in the press and putting them on the perpetual defensive. If I gain one-fiftieth of his stature, I just may do the same.
Q: You read voraciously, across all sorts of genres. What is it about suspense/thrillers that makes it your preferred genre when you put on your writer’s hat?
I love better understanding the dark side of human nature. Every since I was a little boy, when I inhaled the Hardy Boys and Tintin and Encyclopedia Brown and Three Investigators books, I wanted to understand what makes bad people do bad things. Or, even better, what makes good people do bad things. I think what drew me to my true-crime project was the chance to come full circle with those childhood obsessions — almost every story involves good people going bad, and them morphing into bad people doing good.
I think it’s all in an effort to sort through the moral ambivalence that dwells inside me to some degree. I mean, I lie sometimes. I’ve stolen before. I’ve cheated. I’ve sometimes fucked over other people. I think I’m much more good than bad, but there is bad in me and I want to understanding it so I can keep a firm lid on it.
Apart from that, I think sociopaths — people with no conscience or empathy, but smart enough to be able to fake them when necessary as social camouflage — are just about the most interesting people in the world. Statistically, it’s believed they make up 3 to 5 percent of us, and that means that the odds are that we’ve known at least a handful during the course of our lives.
Haven’t you ever known somebody who charmed you, wrecked you and just couldn’t seem to feel bad about it — or worse, deflected that reality by making you feel bad about thinking bad about them? Haven’t you tied yourself in knots wondering what makes such people tick? I know I have. Now, I have excellent sociopath radar (or maybe I just think I do), and try to hold them at telephone pole’s length while I watch and study them. If an author’s good, it’s people like this that populate their tautly told fiction and hold my fascination. And fortunately, there are dozens of authors who have not only grasped the nature of such people but have a first-rate ability to plop them into a potboiler of a plot. I gobble up those kinds of books like a lovelorn woman scarfs up chocolate.
I find myself wanting to write fiction that fascinates me as I write as much as I want it to fascinate others who might deign to read it. Both my novels-in-progress are populated by characters of incredibly flexible morality who still manage to operate without too much discomfort within their own personal codes of ethics. And frankly, as I write, I find myself excited to find out what they think and do and feel next. To me, they are living and breathing human beings who have chosen me as their life-support systems. Writing these stories is almost too heady an experience to sustain too long at any one stretch.
Q: Who, if anybody, helps you shape your work? Do you have a writing group? Trusted friends?
A few friends, no group. I need to expand myself in that regard, for sure. I probably put too much trust in my own instincts, and I’m probably a little too thin-skinned about it when people challenge the products of those instincts.
Q: You’re intent on breaking through in true crime and fiction. What lessons have you taken from others who have successfully made that daunting leap?
Just that it works; that fears of “damaging the brand” of an author simply haven’t proven to be true. Gregg Olsen’s doing fine, for instance. Not all my readers may cross the previously mentioned Rubicon between my fiction and my nonfiction, but that’s OK. People like what they like. As long as I put myself in a position to get their fair consideration, I will be able to sleep well at night.
Q: What question would you ask of fellow writers who are trying to make a go of it?
1. Do you feel you are doing what you’re meant to do with every molecule in your being?
2. Have any good platform-development or promotion tips to pass along?
Jim Thomsen’s blog: http://jimthomsen1.wordpress.com/
The idea came to me when I was considering the short story. This ditty may be nothing more than a manifestation of my mind’s odd need to make comparisons, no matter how absurd. But bear with me for a moment:
When I ask you to think about John McEnroe (let’s assume here that you have at least a mild acquaintance with professional tennis), you no doubt picture him as a singles player: three Wimbledon titles, four U.S. Opens, showdowns with Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors and a predilection for berating chair umpires. And why wouldn’t you remember him that way? That’s what made him famous.
Similarly, if I ask you to think about Stephen King, the novels come to mind: Carrie, The Stand, Christine, Misery, Cujo, Pet Sematary — on and on (the guy is ridiculously prolific, so I’m not naming them all). Again, perfectly natural. The novels made the man famous.
But here’s the thing about John McEnroe: For all his wondrous talents as a singles player, he may be the greatest doubles player ever. During his heyday, in the ’80s, the best doubles team in the world was McEnroe and whomever he deigned to play with (Peter Fleming mostly). The guy was ranked No. 1 in doubles for 257 weeks, a record. He’s so good at it that he won a doubles title in 2006, at the age of 47.
So it is with Stephen King. The novels made him famous and fabulously wealthy, but his prolific writing of short stories and their unflagging excellence make him as good as we’ve seen at the form. Check out the list, and if you have a spare weekend, grab a collection (I’m partial to Night Shift and Skeleton Crew, but that’s just me) and disappear inside it. You won’t be sorry.
To get a sense of Joshua Mohr’s wonderful debut novel, Some Things That Meant the World to Me, and its protagonist, a 30-year-old man named Rhonda, consider a snippet of the Publishers Weekly starred review:
To withstand the frequent absences of his alcoholic mother and her boyfriend’s abuse, Rhonda imagines his childhood home in Arizona as a living thing, where rooms stretch and move, and desert wildlife wanders the halls. The disturbing narrative engine — Rhonda’s renaming and reimagining of the world around him to fit into his damaged logic — keeps the story creepily moving as it touches on homebrew prison wine and Rhonda’s friendship with his childhood self, little-Rhonda. Mohr uses punchy, tightly wound prose to pull readers into a nightmarish landscape, but he never loses the heart of his story …
In an article titled “A Faithful Grope in the Dark,” Mohr wrote expansively and persuasively back in May about his decision to cast his lot with a small, highly regarded literary press (Two Dollar Radio). More about that piece and Two Dollar Radio in the Q&A below.
Q: Where did the idea for Some Things That Meant the World to Me come from? Have you known people like Rhonda, your main character? How did you get into his world?
The novel started with an image of a broken home, a home that’s literally broken: its rooms drifting away from one another like the separating continents. Broken homes aren’t just well tread territory; they’re trampled! So my task became finding a new way to talk about them. How can you surprise your reader while immersing her/him into a familiar setting? The idea of shattering the structure seemed like a fun way to worm my way in.
Then I was standing out front of a bar one night, and I looked down the block and saw a man standing over a woman and choking her. It was disgusting and scary; I yelled and ran toward them and pushed him off of her. I felt drawn to write about this moment of emergency and constructed what I thought would be a short story. But as the weeks went on, I thought more about combining these two tentacles: maybe the man who interrupted the violent episode toward the woman could have had violence in his own past, and maybe the broken home could be a vehicle to explore this collision of past and present.
This is really a coming-of-age story. We don’t often think of coming-of-age tales being about adults, but the book’s main character, Rhonda, is thirty and this is definitely a time of redefinition, of understanding the world in a new way. It’s fascinating how humans reanimate the ghosts of our lives by dwelling on them, that intersection of past and present; we allow them to haunt us; we empower memory by fixating on scenarios long since gone in space-time but very much alive in our brains. And if those wounds are ever cauterized, what then? That question is a big part of the novel.
Q: In “A Faithful Grope in the Dark,” you detailed your reasons for ultimately publishing with a small press, Two Dollar Radio. What sort of response have you received?
People love “sexy” stories. People love to hear about the first-time novelist who gets a six figure advance and now wears nothing but fur coats and slurps champagne from supermodels’ bellybuttons in Saint-Tropez. And I wouldn’t have turned down that path had anyone actually offered it to me.
More often than not, though, people’s experiences with publishing their first books are much less sexy. My agent tried to sell my novel for over a year, and all the major houses turned it down; some expressed interest in picking up my book if I agreed to tone down certain macabre themes, but I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I castrated my own story. It’s very Faustian, in that sense: we have to weigh those tempting, nefarious offers, but hopefully in the end, our loyalty is to our own aesthetics instead of chasing publishing contracts. Because there are no guarantees of what will succeed versus flounder in the marketplace whether you publish with a large or small house. And if that’s the case, why would you compromise your artistic vision?
So I didn’t take some kind of “moral” high ground, shunning the larger publishing houses and seeking out an indie house. My agent and I searched for a shop that had a vision similar to ours, that loved Some Things that Meant the World to Me and didn’t want to water down the meat of the story. That was 2DR.
The essay about “deciding” to publish with 2DR has put me in touch with all kinds of people. I’ve loved hearing other writers’ feelings on the topic, their own circumstances trying to crack into this weird business. This might be a total rationalization—I’m not self-aware enough to know for sure—but I think the whole big house vs. small house debate is actually pretty moot. Writers shouldn’t concern themselves with that stuff: just write a kick ass book. After that, all we can do is heave it at the wall and see if it sticks. We have limited impact over how it fares once it’s on the shelves.
Q: A lot of authors who have gone the independent route — and a lot of those still plugging away at trying to find an agent and break through with the big publishers — can relate to your publishing story. Having made it through and casting your lot with Two Dollar Radio, what advice do you have for them?
The thing I find myself saying the most often to students is simply this: do the work. There are constellations of reasons why we can’t write—I’m tired, I’m sick, I’m overworked, etc. And these are cogent excuses; I’m not diminishing their clout at all. But at the end of the day, either you do the work or you don’t. If you want to write a book, write one. Is it easy to spend sunny days locked indoors with our rough drafts? Of course not. And how do you find the energy to come home and stare at a computer after sitting in front of one all day in your cubicle? Do you really want to skip that cocktail party and rewrite chapter eleven? There’s a certain level of sacrifice (masochism) that comes with this writing thing.
Once the book is written and we search for agents or wait to hear feedback from editors at publishing houses, it’s vital that we have distractions. Writers can’t just sit around and wait to hear reports. I’ll try and only speak for myself here, though I know plenty of writers that fall in a similar category: I’m a fragile manic narcissist. When I get a good review, I’m on cloud nine. And when I was getting shot down by editors, I wanted to pull the covers over my head and not leave the house all day. I wish someone had helped me escape some of that self-importance, helped me keep the experience in a better perspective. In the end, I’m not curing cancer or doing AIDS research, I’m writing a book. Yes, we should take our craft seriously, but it can’t be the end all be all.
So find ways to distract yourself—work on the next novel or story collection, learn to blow glass, take up pole dancing. Anything to get you out of your own head.
One last tine of advice comes courtesy of Pablo Picasso, who said, “The chief enemy of creativity is good taste.” That’s so fucking wise I tattooed it on my arm.
Q: What is your ideal environment for writing?
Ideal environments are more a question of when than where for me: I’m an insomniac so my best work gets done between midnight and 5 a.m., in the hours liberated from cell phones and emails and “real world” responsibilities. Sometimes, I think I’m better suited for my imaginary worlds anyway. Real life confuses me.
Another way to think about a writing environment is the way in which writers approach their own terrains on the page. For example, I’m always working on two novels at once—one further along that needs cleaning up, tinkering, late-drafting issues, etc; then there’s always another mired in the painstaking early draft process. Each flexes different muscles in my literary-brain, so when one isn’t clicking, I can focus on the other. I find having these options alleviates some pressure, makes it easier for me to find the gusto to enter one of the projects and that flexibility keeps me generating pages/making progress.
Q: What books lit your fuse when you were deciding to become a writer?
I came to reading later in life, faking my way through book reports throughout junior high and high school. Then during my senior year, we were supposed to read something I’d deemed boring and stilted—Jane Austen, I think—and I turned in another bogus report. My teacher called me on it, told me he’d flunk my ass if I didn’t make this right. Then he handed me a copy of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and told me I had a week to write a report on it. I read the book in one sitting. It blew my fucking mind. I had no idea writing could be so vibrant and wild and reckless. I thought literature was stodgy, bourgeois, and Vonnegut’s book blew away any misconceptions I had about the wanton opportunities that are there, waiting like closed doors to get kicked in.
Q: How much marketing and promotion do you take on? How much help has Two Dollar Radio given you?
I try to make myself as available as I can, taking advantage of the 21st century’s forums, primarily Facebook and Goodreads. Earlier you asked about my essay on the Rumpus about publishing with 2DR, and I must have been contacted by fifty or so people through Facebook, thanking me for telling a story that’s more relatable than the six-figure advance fairy tale. People need to hear that there’s a community of writers out there, and we’re all struggling to tell stories that aren’t “palatable” enough for the pigeonholes in the big houses. But there are still places for us to tell those stories, and those stories can still find large audiences.
2DR has been very helpful with marketing and promotion, as helpful as I think they can be. In the end, the thing I love about their outfit is also our biggest hurdle in terms of getting the book out there: they don’t have a marketing department. So on one hand, that’s fantastic in terms of us writing and editing an acerbic subversive book; however, it means that there isn’t a team of people whose entire jobs revolve around pimping the novel. It puts more of an onus on all of us, makes it more of a grassroots, do-it-yourself deal.
Q: You teach writing classes. From the trenches, what do you see? Are you seeing some truly talented folks?
I teach fiction writing through UC Berkeley’s public arts program and also through a boutique shop in San Francisco called The Writing Salon. I love teaching. It’s a blast, and the fact that someone pays me to sit around discussing the minutia of narrative construction is laughable: I’d do it for free. Teaching is an amazing gift, and each new class forces me to articulate complex details about storytelling… and through these articulations, I’m learning more about prose.
Q: What’s on your nightstand? What do you read for pleasure?
I’ve been rereading Salinger this summer: Catcher in the Rye and Franny & Zooey. If any aspiring writers are bemused about the concept of voice, which is really just another way of categorizing a novel’s personality, Salinger is one of the best. He thrusts you right into his characters’ psyches and it feels like they’re whispering their stories into your ears. I love books like that: when I get the sensation that the narrator is sitting on the barstool next to mine, spilling his/her sordid sad exciting secrets.
Q: Your next book, From a Fragile Galaxy, is coming out next year. What is it about?
I’ve recently changed the title of the second novel to Termite Parade and it will be released in June 2010. These first two books are installments in The Heresies Cycle. It will be three novels total—I’m finishing the third now—and while each is sovereign, they have a shared geography, concentric imagery, and overlapping characters. They’re investigations on the different ways that people who are supposed to love one another often belie those affinities.
Some Things deals ostensibly with familial definitions of love; Termite Parade is more about sexual/monogamous love; and the third book will be more sociopolitical, though hopefully it’s more interesting than the word “sociopolitical” implies. They’re all set in San Francisco’s Mission district, in late 2007.
I’m hoping to put the three novels out in three consecutive years because I imagine they work best like circles in a Venn diagram, and too much time off between the introductions of each circle might undermine my tension, my subtext. That’s the plan, anyway. After that, insomnia or no insomnia, I’m going to take a very long nap.
Joshua Mohr’s Web site: http://www.twodollarradio.com/sttmtwtm.htm
Some Things That Meant the World to Me, on Amazon.com
Russell Rowland’s first novel, In Open Spaces, introduced readers to the fictional Arbuckle clan (very loosely inspired by the decidedly non-fictional Arbuckle clan) of southeastern Montana. The book, which earned critical raves and climbed onto the San Francisco Chronicle’s bestseller list, spans three decades of a family’s love, infighting and tragedies, from the early 20th century through World War II. His second novel, The Watershed Years, picked up after the war, in a time of bounty for the Arbuckles, even as some old rifts are opened anew. Through both books, Rowland’s muscular, well-calibrated prose shines through. If you’re a student of perfectly set sentences and wonderfully told stories, read Rowland’s work.
On a personal note, I’ll forever be indebted to him for reading my work and offering encouragement and direction that I badly needed — something that he continues to do to this day. I thank him for that, and for this:
Q: In conversation and in your recent Red Room piece, you’ve essentially said that a good many publishing success stories are backed up by a pile of rejection. What’s your advice to someone who keeps hitting that wall?
There’s really only one answer to that question, and it’s the same for everyone … keep writing. You can network and kiss ass all you want, and it may eventually pay off, but it won’t matter if what you have to show for your efforts is crap. And of course, it’s different for different writers. Some writers don’t care about putting crap out there, so they just focus on making the right connections and marketing. That’s never been my thing.
Q: Your novels, In Open Spaces and The Watershed Years, draw heavily on the influence of a ranch that remains in your family. What’s your best advice about taking from family stories to create fiction?
This has become a touchy subject, more each year. If I had it to do again, I would not have used the family name in my novels. Although I made it clear that these books were fictional in my introductory comments, and with every opportunity I had to talk to anyone in the family, most of the people who have been offended haven’t talked to me about it. They’ve told someone else. And I’m not calloused enough to feel okay about that.
Q: Where and when did it all click for you, that writing fiction was what you wanted to pursue?
I was a late bloomer by some standards. I started reading like a maniac when I quit drinking in my twenties, and when I discovered Raymond Carver, and his slice-of-life stories, it seemed like something I might actually be able to do. So like a lot of people in the eighties, I started cranking out Carver stories. I had no idea how hard it is to write like that. And of course, it wasn’t really my voice. So I was in my thirties before I ‘discovered’ my own style.
Q: Walk us through your writing process. Do you have a dedicated portion of your day to work at it? Who is your sounding board? How do you know when something is ready to start shopping?
I’m one of the lucky few who don’t need to have a routine to get motivated. Writing is a complete obsession for me. So I have no routine. I write when I can squeeze it into my day. Lately that’s been a lot less than I like. But I’m working on things I really love, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I used to show my stuff to a lot more people before I submitted it than I do now, and I recently realized that I need to remedy that. I don’t think my second novel is nearly as good as my first, and I think that’s why. I relied way too much on my own judgment on that book.
Q: You and Lynn Stegner are shepherding an anthology on the changing identity of the West. When is it coming out? Where did the idea come from?
The anthology is scheduled for next spring, and it’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been involved with. The idea started to germinate when Lynn and I were on a panel together two years ago at the Montana Festival of the Book. A lot of the questions we fielded that day were about the ‘Western identity,’ and it got me to thinking about what the hell that means. About a year later, I went to another festival in Wyoming, and that same theme kept coming up in different panels, in various contexts. I finally thought I’d ask around and see if any of the writers I knew were interested in writing about this topic if I put together a collection. The response was pretty overwhelming. Everyone thought it was a great idea, and when I approached Lynn about it, I was thrilled that she agreed to collaborate. Thanks in large part to her, the roster has grown to include Larry McMurtry, Louise Erdrich, Jim Harrison, William Kittredge, Gretel Ehrlich, Tobias Wolff … about sixty writers in all. And the essays I’m getting cover a wide range of approaches to this topic. I think it’s going to be a very interesting collection.
Q: As someone who helps young, up-and-coming writers hone their talent, what advice do you have for those who are starting out? What mistakes, in general, are they making that they need to throw off?
Well, again, I think ‘keep writing’ is the best advice. As far as mistakes, I think a lot of people focus on getting an agent, and they’re thrilled if anyone agrees to represent them. But finding the right agent is a lot more important than just finding one. Also, trying to figure out what’s going to sell can be soul-crushing to a writer. Writers need to write what they’re passionate about or they’re going to be complete phonies. And learn to rewrite, no matter how you have to go about it. Rewriting is at least 75 percent of what I do, and I’ve learned to love it.
Q: What’s on your nightstand? What do you read for pleasure?
I’m reading Tears in the Darkness by Michael and Elizabeth Norton. I started it because my friend Ben Steele is the focal point of the story. But I’ve been blown away by the research they did to tell the story of the Bataan Death March from every perspective … Japanese, Philippino, all of it. It’s a brilliant piece of writing. I am planning to read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as soon as I finish this.
Q: What are you currently working on?
I just finished the prequel to my first novel, but I’m not happy with it. So I’m setting it aside while I focus on the anthology. I’ll pick it up in a few months and start revising it.
- Russell Rowland’s Web site: http://www.russellrowland.com/
- In Open Spaces, Amazon.com link: http://www.amazon.com/Open-Spaces-Russell-Rowland/dp/0060084340/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1250144878&sr=8-1
- The Watershed Years, Amazon.com link: http://www.amazon.com/Watershed-Years-Russell-Rowland/dp/1931832862/ref=pd_sim_b_7
- Autographed copies through Rowland’s Web site: http://www.russellrowland.com/ordering/