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In my first question to Alan Heathcock, the author of the forthcoming short-story collection Volt, I used the word “muck” to describe the messes into which he flings his characters.
Popular word, “muck.” Turns out that Publishers Weekly used it, too, in a starred review of Volt:
Heathcock’s impressive debut collection pursues modern American prairie characters through some serious Old Testament muck. If it’s not flood or fire ravishing the village of Krafton, then it’s fratricide, pedocide, or just plain ol’ stranger killing.
Volt comes out March 1st, from Graywolf Press. Heathcock, who lives in Boise, Idaho, and teaches creative writing at Boise State, was kind enough to field a few questions with thoughtful, incisive answers. Enjoy!
The stories in Volt send their characters into some pretty serious muck. What is it about harrowing adversity that is attractive to you as a writer?
The appeal is two-fold. First, I’m what I call an “empathetic writer,” which has kinship to a method actor. I try to become the character in full, think what they think, feel what they feel. The process of writing then becomes an exploration of imagination, intellect, and emotion for me, and putting the characters through the muck is confronting the things that scare and confound me the most. The process of writing has great value to me. It’s not entertainment, but something deeper. I know that sounds pretentious, but it’s as honest an answer as I can give. Second, harrowing adversity simply makes for good compelling drama. Shaekspeare and Cormac McCarthy, two huge influences, put their peeps through deep, deep, DEEP, muck—I, for one, thank them for that.
One of the things that struck me in the stories is the sense of time. You provide small clues about the general era of each story, but most any of them could be dropped into any modern decade. Was that intentional?
It was intentional. I was trying to let the stories be as timeless as possible, not having the baggage of a certain period adhere itself to the stories. For instance, if a story is clearly set in World War II a contemporary reader might slap everything they’ve ever read/viewed/heard about that era, changing/warping the intended meaning of the story. I set the stories in a hard “now” time, while leaving the general sense of time open enough so that each story delivers the reader into as pure a thematic reading as possible.
Aside from that, I’m also proposing the simple truth that history repeats itself, that the pains of war and crime and grief must be felt again and again and again. In that respect, time period has no bearing on the truths of humanity.
I read an essay in which you wrote that your stories help you figure out the world around you. What did you mean by that?
Things have happened in my proximity that deeply altered my ability to understand the moral truths I’d been taught in school/church/home. For example, I used to visit a small town in Minnesota named Waseca. I had friends who lived there. It was a lovely little town, nice Main Street, beautiful lakes, kind people. In winter, I went ice fishing, which I loved. In summer, we’d take long walks down these country roads, looking out over the still fields, listening to the locust drone. Then, in 1999, a twelve-year old girl came home from school to find a man robbing her house. The man raped and killed the girl, and her parents found her dead body in the house. I visited Waseca about a month after this happened, and the town had changed. My friends, who used to leave their doors unlocked, now locked their doors and kept a rifle by their bed. Waseca felt changed, the air and water were changed. It touched everything. I couldn’t shake the desire to have Waseca returned to what it was, and wondered what could possibly be done to restore the peace. So…I wrote the story “Peacekeeper” as a means of unpacking some of my questions, a bit of grief, too, trying to see if I could find any answers and heel the troubled mind. Again and again I find myself drawn to questions that plague me, and use story writing as a means to root out any possibly insight that might settle my equilibrium just a bit.
The Volt stories are set in the fictional town of Krafton. Did you model it after any actual place? What does Krafton look like in your head?
Krafton started out as modeled after the small town where my mother grew up: Lynnville, Indiana. But I felt confined by having to abide their grid of streets and knobs and flora and fauna, so I started borrowing from places I’d been in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Kentucky, South Dakota, Idaho… My goal with Krafton was always to just let it be a small American town. I’ve found, via the early reviews, that depending on the reader they place Krafton in different regions (the west, Midwest, great plains, southeast), which is fine with me. So it’s Krafton, America, which enables the commentary to not be bound by region, while adhering itself to whatever region the reader supplies.
Volt is your first book. Are you planning to write a novel-length book, or are short stories where it’s at for you?
I’m working on a novel now, though I’ll keep writing stories. My original idea for these Krafton stories was to write a comprehensive moral history of a town, a collection of 30 or 40 stories covering a town from its founding to its present. VOLT is like volume one of four in a series I hope to eventually complete.
You’re a Chicago guy who’s teaching creative writing at Boise State University. How have you taken to living in the West?
It was quite a transition. The west is vast. VAST. Time and distance are very different in the west. The people aren’t as direct as they are in Chicago. But I’ve grown to completely love the west. Boise, Idaho, is an absolutely amazing place to live. It’s growing like crazy and crackling with energy. In a small way, being part of the growth in Boise connects me with what the pioneers who founded the west must’ve felt, the feeling of being able to effect a place, to put your mark on a land and culture. And the west has some of the world’s most stunning landscape. Idaho is a wonderland of beauty, and beauty hardly touched when compared to everything back east. I’m loyal by nature, but I sincerely love the west, and I’m extremely proud to be a Literature Fellow for the state of Idaho, and Writer-in-Residence for the city of Boise. And everybody back in Chicago hits me up for Boise State football t-shirts and hats—ha. Go Broncos!
Let’s talk process: When do you write? How do you balance it against work, being a husband, being a dad?
We (my family and I) treat my writing like it’s my full-time job, which it is. It teach one or two nights a week at Boise State, and other than preparing to teach I’m working on my writing Monday through Friday, from the moment I get my three kids off to school to the moment they get home. It helps that I don’t have any hobbies (ha). I read, write, watch movies, follow my kids around to all their activities, sneak in a date night with my wife every now and again, and that keeps my life full and productive.
I grew up in a working class area in south Chicago, and I often think of my friends back home who are pipefitters or police officers or office stiffs, who have to go to a job every day, week after week. With them in mind, it’s easy for me to stay disciplined to doing my work—if ever I have the urge to put my feet up on the desk, I just think of them looking in on me, totally disgusted by how soft I’ve become, and that stokes me to get back at it.
What are some of the books that influenced you? Who or what lit your literary fuse and made you want to become a writer?
Lord of the Flies by William Golding, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, The Crucible by Arthur Miller, the stories of Flannery O’Connor, Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories, The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck, Taking Care by Joy Williams, Upon the Sweeping Flood by Joyce Carol Oates, Emergency by Denis Johnson, the stories of John Cheever, Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, Kentucky Straight by Chris Offutt, to name a few. But, really, for me, there’s Cormac McCarthy and then all the rest. McCarthy’s books were a revelation to me, were everything in style and story I ever wanted. My top ten books would be dominated by his titles. His novel The Road is the one of a few books I consider to be perfect.
Your publisher, Graywolf Press, has released some great story collections — yours, Refresh, Refresh by Benjamin Percy, Ghosts of Wyoming by Alyson Hagy, among others. How was the publication experience for you?
Graywolf Press is the best publisher out there. Period. I could throw numbers at you to prove it, but if you talk to any author in the wolf-pack, they’ll echo my sentiment. The editors are extremely talented, the sales and promotions crew thorough and dedicated and charismatic. I hear authors published on other presses complain about not being a part of the process, or having quibbles about their book cover or lack of promotions or not being able to get answers from their publisher about this or that. I’ve really felt that with each step Graywolf has included me in the process, cherished my input, given me their best guidance, and championed my book in the marketplace, all with grace and great effect. My book is succeeding both critically and commercially in ways I hadn’t imagined, and I credit Graywolf for enabling that to happen.
As someone who nurtures young writers, what are you seeing from the next generation of storytellers?
I occasionally hear someone lament the lack of imagination coming out of writing programs, but I don’t see it in my classes. I have youngsters writing stories from a myriad of styles and genres, with great variances in thematic content, all with powerful execution. These young writers have grown up with great access to information, have been barraged with stories from around the world, and have been reared in a great time of war and turmoil. They’re filled with stories, brimming with great thoughts and intense emotions. It’s an amazing thing to witness as young writers find their voices and use drama to express their passions in the written word. Time will tell, but I think we’ll see some truly great books in the next ten years or so.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received?
Do not look beyond yourself for validation. Learn your craft to the point you understand the values of quality. Then look inward, and be brave enough to take yourself seriously. The moment you decide to take yourself seriously, to look inward, you will stop imitating others and become original.
A last-minute change to the schedule:
Tomorrow (Friday), I’ll be taking part in a Q&A at author Carol Buchanan’s blog. Carol is the fabulously talented author of God’s Thunderbolt and Gold Under Ice, two books you should definitely read. And, as it turns out, she slings some pretty good questions, too.
Here’s where I’ve been so far on my virtual book tour, and where I’m going in the coming week:
Monday, January 24: A Word Please
Tuesday, January 25: 5:01 blog
Wednesday, January 26: The Book Inn
Thursday, January 27: Straight from Hel
Monday, January 31: Cherie Newman, host of the excellent “The Write Question” on Montana Public Radio, will give me the keys to her blog of the same name and let me hold forth on what it means to write in and of Montana.
Tuesday, February 1: My friend Jim Thomsen will host a Q&A with me in the form of a Facebook note. The interview will be simulcast on two authors’ blogs: R.J. Keller’s Ingenious Title to Appear Here Later and Kristen Tsetsi’s From a Little Office in a Little House.
Wednesday, February 2: One Book at a Time blogger Page Eberhardt will host me for an essay on where stories come from, as if I have any idea.
Thursday, February 3: The fellas over at 3 Guys, One Book will let me pitch in with an entry in their ongoing series “When We Fell in Love.”
Friday, February 4: I will wrap up at Coffee, Books and Laundry, hosted by Melissa Vasquez, where I’ll write about balancing readers’ expectations with following the muse wherever she leads.
There will be giveaways of signed books at every stop, so please follow along and throw in an entry.
Last night at Parmly Billings Library, I presented a workshop called “Igniting the Novel Inside,” geared toward folks who’ve always wanted to write a novel but haven’t quite started or finished.
It’s a big topic. Any of the areas we briefly touched on — cultivating an idea, preparing to write, writing, staying on track, rewriting — would be worth a workshop unto itself. We had about 15 hardy participants who were generous with their enthusiasm. I thank them for forgoing “Survivor” and the Country Music Awards, and special thanks to assistant library director Dee Ann Redman for inviting me to do the session.
As we’re knee-deep into National Novel Writing Month, I have to ask: What are you working on? How’s it going?
National Novel Writing Month and I are in Splitsville, the outs, we’ve sold the house and gone our separate ways, we’re footloose and fancy free, we’re at D-I-V-O-R-C-E.
Now, don’t get me wrong. In the first week of the annual event of literary frenzy, I’ve plowed under nearly 11,000 words on my new project, a terrific jump-start that will serve me well in the coming months as I lurch toward the first-draft finish line. And I’ll always be thankful for NaNoWriMo for launching my debut novel, 600 Hours of Edward, in 2008. Further, I plan to write on every available day for the remainder of November, just like the thousands of people who are having a monthlong love affair with their keyboards. (After November and all the hoopla pass, I’ll still be writing daily. It’s what I do.)
So it’s not that I’ve taken up with another lover. It’s that it’s no longer useful for me to meet the demands of this particular lover (specifically, her insatiable need for words — at least 50,000 of them by the end of the month). This project of mine will require more contemplation than that, and the chains will be moved in more peripatetic (I love the word “peripatetic”) bunches — 500 words here, 247 there, 3,000 or so on the occasional all-day dash. I’ll reach 50,000 words in due time, and beyond that, I think, will lie the end of the first draft.
See, something happened between NaNoWriMo 2008 and NaNoWriMo 2009: I wrote a second novel. Principal writing took me about three months. Rewriting and revising took me a couple of months after that. I enjoyed that pace. It worked for me. And now I realize that given the choice between the mad dash and the purposeful march, I’ll take the latter. Every time.
Make no mistake: I’ll finish the project I started for this year’s NaNoWriMo. But it will be on my terms, not hers. NaNoWriMo, this year and probably in years to come, is a project starter for me now, not a means of filling a quota.
For you stat-heads, here’s a look at my day-by-day chain-moving in NaNoWriMo 2008, when I wrote the entire first draft of 600 Hours of Edward. The first number is cumulative word count. The number in parentheses is the change from the previous day:
- Nov. 1, 2008: 5,763 (5,763)
- Nov. 2, 2008: Off
- Nov. 3, 2008: Off
- Nov. 4, 2008: 11,183 (5,420)
- Nov. 5, 2008: Off
- Nov. 6, 2008: 13,721 (2,538)
- Nov. 7, 2008: 16,963 (3,242)
- Nov. 8, 2008: 20,439 (3,476)
- Nov. 9, 2008: Off
- Nov. 10, 2008: 23,085 (2,646)
- Nov. 11, 2008: 27,293 (4,208)
- Nov. 12, 2008: 30,744 (3,451)
- Nov. 13, 2008: 34,558 (3,814)
- Nov. 14, 2008: 39,886 (5,328)
- Nov. 15, 2008: Off
- Nov. 16, 2008: Off
- Nov. 17, 2008: Off
- Nov. 18, 2008: 43,846 (3,960)
- Nov. 19, 2008: 51,811 (7,965)
- Nov. 20, 2008: 54,816 (3,005)
- Nov. 21, 2008: 60,837 (6,021)
- Nov. 22, 2008: 63,957 (3,120)
- Nov. 23, 2008: Off
- Nov. 24, 2008: 73,208 (9,251)
- Nov. 25, 2008: 79,175 (5,967)
About the highlighted dates:
Nov. 2-3: When I tell people now that I wrote nearly 80,000 words in less than a month, there’s an assumption that I did nothing but write. Not true. I took ample time off — eight full days, in fact. But when I was at the computer, I was punching the story down the field. To write 50,000 words in 30 days, you need to average 1,667 a day. That first day’s work bought me some time off immediately.
Nov. 15-17: I remember these days well. Angie and I went to her folks’ house in Fairview, and I remember feeling great relief about two things. First, I would make the 50,000-word mark. I had half the competition left and was nearly 80 percent of the way there. Second, and more important, I knew I would finish the story. By then, I was living inside it.
Nov. 19-22: I didn’t get the idea that I would finish the entire first draft inside the month until this stretch of days. That nearly 8,000-word effort on the 19th allowed me to clear the 50,000-word mark and succeed at the competition. But it was the next three days — bringing a collective 12,000-plus words — that moved the finish line into view.
Nov. 24-25: I don’t care who you are, writing 15,000 words in two days borders on insanity. I’m amazed that what I put down was semi-cogent. In any event, I hit the two best words of all during that stretch: “THE END.”
Here are a few more stats:
Over the 25 days, I averaged 3,167 words per day, whether I wrote or not.
The 17 days of actual writing up the average to 4,657/day.
In the first 10 writing days, I averaged 3,989 words.
In the final seven writing days, I averaged 5,613 words.
Now, about word counts: They’re only one way of assessing a story, and a pretty superficial one at that. Of far, far, far greater import is what the words are and what kinds of sentences, paragraphs and chapters they build. But if you’re giving NaNoWriMo a whirl, your word count should be your focus. The whole point is to get on down the road. Rewriting is for the second draft.
We’re just a couple of weeks from NaNoWriMo 2009, and I’ve blocked out some time today to start drafting the outline of the project that I plan to launch in November.
I’ve already done something that I didn’t do for 600 Hours of Edward (soon to be published) or Gone to Milford (hopefully to be published): I wrote character sketches of the major players — their motivations, fears, physical attributes, personalities, backgrounds, etc. With the first two novels, I felt that I knew the characters fairly well before I ever dropped ass into chair, and though they surprised me along the way, their DNA was much as I imagined it to be.
With the new project, there’s much more of a sense that they will reveal themselves as we go. My sketches were intended to give us a starting point.
In previous posts, I’ve written about my minimalist approach to outlining. That, too, is likely to change, at least for this project. The plot that is gestating in my head has enough ins and outs that I’m going to need a more involved guiding document. The great likelihood is that whatever I come up with now will change later on. That’s fine, even preferable. The goal for today is to build a crude map. I can wander the story’s countryside later.
On November 1st, I start writing. That’s also the day that 600 Hours drops.
It’s going to be a hell of a month.
Wyoming native Ron Franscell is a literary adventurer. The longtime newspaperman has three published books to his credit and three more working their way through the convoluted pipelines that lead to publication. Along the way, he has told stories of brothers forged by war and common experience, a journalist’s attempt to clear a man’s name no matter the cost and a shocking crime that affected Franscell in the most personal of ways.
He’s also a contributor to In Cold Blog and a man generous with advice and fellowship with up-and-coming writers. Many thanks to him for taking part in this Q&A:
Q: Your debut novel, Angel Fire, was picked by the San Francisco Chronicle as one of the 100 best novels of the 20th century West. How many times was it rejected on the road to publication?
ANGEL FIRE was rejected 38 times before it was finally published by a small publisher in Alabama. Editors tended to say they loved the plot, the characters, the writing, the voice … but the book simply wasn’t commercial enough. By that, I now know they meant “we can’t justify the risk of publishing a first literary novel by an unknown writer.”
One of the rejecting houses was Berkley. So it was pleasantly surprising after ANGEL FIRE’s first printing of 3,000 sold out within a month and Berkley swooped in to buy the paperback rights to a book it had rejected in manuscript.
At writers’ conferences, you’ll hear editors say they yearn to sign the next Hemingway. Nice line. But in fact, they would likely reject the next Hemingway, since the first Hemingway changed everything. Publishing is a risk-averse business, despite its carefully tended risk-loving façade. If those editors were more honest, they’d say they want somebody else to take a risk on the next Hemingway so they can go out and find somebody who writes just like him if he becomes a bestseller.
Q: Your books — Angel Fire, The Deadline, The Darkest Night — fall into many genres, among them literary fiction, suspense and true crime. How difficult is it to move from genre to genre?
I accept that each genre has its unique conventions, but a story is a story. In fact, I believe deeply that every great story contains the same literary DNA, bits of every other story we’ve ever told.
In my books, I didn’t start out by choosing a genre; I chose a story. I didn’t set out to write a literary novel, a mystery and a true crime. To me, in the beginning, ANGEL FIRE was merely a story about two brothers in a close, necessary relationship; THE DEADLINE was inspired by a dream that caused me to ponder my own cynicism as a newspaperman; THE DARKEST NIGHT rose from a post-9/11 flight back from a reporting assignment in the Middle East, as I suddenly remembered another day, another time when my world changed in a single moment.
My upcoming projects continue this odd anti-trend. I just finished a nonfiction about an extraordinary road trip with my son to the Arctic, where we sipped a cocktail containing a mummified human toe and spent the longest day of the year under a sun that never set; an exploration into the lives of 10 survivors of mass killers; and a fun guidebook to more than 400 outlaw-related sites all over Texas. There’s also a screenplay haunting me.
But a word to the wise: genre-jumping is not the path to riches. Agents and editors will publicly advise writers to write what’s in their hearts, but publishing is a risk-averse business and they’re most interested in what has already succeeded for somebody else. Those same experts will sternly warn that there’s very little chance of publishing anything anyway … so it seems to me a writer should do what he wants to do and hope his agent is versatile and devoted. If I fail at publishing, at least I fail telling stories I want to tell.
Q: Your book-writing career sprang from a newspaper career. How did journalism help prepare you for the literary world, and in what ways did you have to make adjustments?
The transition has been made by so many writers, such as Hemingway and Twain, it might seem natural, but it isn’t. I believed it would be like shifting gears in a car, where the transmission is set differently for shorter and longer trips. I saw book-writing as just a longer trip. No problem, just shift into gear and settle back.
I was wrong. Much of what we learn in journalistic storytelling is anathema to longer writing, especially fiction. In a newspaper, we’re taught to distance ourselves from the material, to put our emotions in a box, to write short, fabricate nothing, write fast, and put the most important thing first. A novel would be very short if we put the most important thing first! But everything is fabricated, the revision is endless, and the story would be empty if it wasn’t filled with an author’s emotion.
Think about it: a poet, a songwriter, a news anchorwoman and a technical writer are all wordsmiths and each tells a kind of story — but none of a news anchorwoman’s skills make her a natural poet . . . none of a songwriter’s talents suggest he could write a good technical manual. We have many storytelling modes, and each requires special proficiencies.
My fiction has benefited from the authenticity of my newspaper writing, and my newspaper writing has benefited from my development of a more distinct voice and confidence in long fiction. They are blended most inextricably in narrative nonfiction like THE DARKEST NIGHT, where I Tell a true story with some of the tools in a novelist’s toolbox, such as foreshadowing, dramatic pacing, dialogue, and a more literary flourish.
My heart will probably always be in newspapers. I got into this business in the salad days of newspapering, the Seventies, when reporters conducted themselves like knights and readers trusted us to speak truth. Newspapers can do what books have seldom done: Change communities for the better. The pendulum has swung to a different height now, and the craft sometimes is its own worst enemy, but I still believe people want honest, good people to tell them what’s happening just beyond their view. In the Cyber Age, we might see the death of newspapers-on-paper, but there will always be a need for honest, good people to observe and report what is happening. The Internet, as it exists now, can be a seedy and untrustworthy place, and I believe readers will eventually seek out the farthest corners of that vast “library” for information they can trust.
Q: The West is a common bond among all your works. What is the West to you, and how does it shape your art?
The West is heart-earth to me. Out here, the landscape shapes us as much as we shape it. Landscape — and by extension, weather, seasons, space and climate — makes Western literature unique, and often plays a role in any story. These things are all part of the algorithms of our simplest decisions, from going to the market to planting a tree. And how come we never hear something in Manhattan described as “weathered”?
I grew up and have worked in small western towns, and I love the texture of a place. The simple image of a small-town water tower on the cover of ANGEL FIRE piques the memory banks of anyone who grew up in a place where the water tower loomed over everything.
West Canaan and Winchester (the setting in THE DEADLINE) are composite places, cobbled together from memory, imagination and reality. Everywhere and nowhere. They bring together many of the things that characterize small, high plains towns, from the courthouse lawns, to the balky back doors of rural movie houses, to the intimacy of this tiny settlement surrounded by nothingness. I seek familiarity when writing about a small town, and in small towns I find the most resonant memories and emotions.
Q: It’s safe to say that publishing is a bit chaotic these days. How can writers, particularly aspiring writers, best prepare themselves for what they’re facing?
It’s impossible to predict what the book industry will be doing next week, much less next year when a newbie will finish his first book. All a writer can do is improve his odds by making all the right moves. Too many variables go into the process of writing, pitching, contracting, marketing and selling a book. You cannot time the market, you can only get lucky.
But you can improve your odds, first and foremost, by writing a good book. Without a good manuscript, you lessen your odds of publication significantly. And every move you make after -30- [the newspaperman’s traditional symbol for “The End”] will improve or lessen your odds. The right agent, the right proposal, the right editor, the right time … on and on. If you did every single thing right, then your odds of publishing your novel are slightly better than 1-in-1,000. Woo-hoo!
Persistence is probably the most valuable quality a writer can have. One must persist in the writing, even when the Muse is off masturbating. One must persist in the process of finding a home for the book, in spreading the word, in showing up time after time (even when the bookstore didn’t prepare), and keeping the tiny spark alive so you can start the whole process again tomorrow. If you’re a would-be writer who isn’t up to the literary equivalent of an iron-man triathlon, stay on the porch.
Q: What is your ideal environment for writing?
At home. In my office. At my desk. In my chair. Usually morning.
Q: Any writer who has done an event or a signing has a story of abject of loneliness at the table. What’s yours?
I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. In dozens of book events, I’ve only had one skunking. This small-town bookseller put the wrong date in the calendar, posted no signs or calendar listings, and left a teenager in charge of the store for the entire weekend. Nobody came in the store for two hours … and when I say nobody, I mean not a single soul crossed that store’s threshold that day. I left feeling that it wasn’t a lack of popularity on my part, but an impending bankruptcy on theirs. (Writers are exceptionally talented at such rationalizations.)
Q: How do you define validation as a writer? Is it the process itself? Holding the book in your hands? Reviews?
It’s when a reader comes up to me or writes letter and tells me how one of my books touched her in a memorable way. For me, this has always been an intimate contract between me and readers. Agents, editors, booksellers, publicists, reviewers, media are all necessary in delivering the book to a reader’s hands, but when the reader completes the circle and tells me something marvelous about one of my stories, that’s when I know I told a good story.
Q: Someone tells you he/she wants to write novels. Your advice is?
Write. Just write. Until you have written, nothing else is important.
Ron Franscell’s Web site: www.ronfranscell.com
The Darkest Night on Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Darkest-Night-Sisters-Brutal-Innocence/dp/0312948468/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1253297486&sr=8-1
Jennifer August’s debut novel, Her Dark Master, was released just days ago and has quickly racked up all sorts of good buzz. Whipped Cream (seriously, you can’t make this stuff up) gave it four-and-a-half cherries and said “Her Dark Master combines intrigue and suspense with pulse-pounding erotica, ensuring a reader squirms in their seats while they remain on their toes.” Night Owl Romance went with four-and-a-half out of five hearts, observing, “Intertwined within the Victoria and Lord Corwin story-line, the author has also peppered the novel with a mystery concerning blackmail and provided a glimpse of how the custom of arranged marriages, could potential leave a young woman with a very unsuitable choice in husbands.”
Obviously, I’ve ventured outside my usual genres here, but Jennifer has a great publishing story and some great insight into the various levels of the romance genre. And then there’s this: She’s a high school classmate of mine, though I must concede that I didn’t remember her when I stumbled across her profile on Facebook. That says nothing about her memorability or my advancing age and much about the size of the Richland High School Class of 1988: 620 members.
In any case, I’m glad to know her now and happy for her success. Here’s more about how she broke through:
Q: Tell us about Her Dark Master. When did you start writing? How long did it take? What was the road to publication?
My very first attempt at writing came about when I was 16 years old. I devoured series romance novels and the bigger historicals from authors like Kathleen Woodiwiss and Jennifer Wilde. One day, I decided I could do it too, which is howI think most authors start their careers. Unfortunately, I had no real clue about writing. By the sweat of my brow, I cranked out 32 handwritten notebook pages of a really dreadful romance. I still have it, just to remind me. I’ve been seriously writing since 1997. In that time I’ve finished 14 manuscripts and started countless others. Her Dark Master was the 13th book I wrote, and oddly enough, 13 has always been my lucky number.
In the romance industry, we have a national organization called Romance Writers of America and within each state, as well as online, there are local chapters. I belong to several such chapters, as well as non-romance writers’ groups. A lot of these chapters have contests where the final judges are usually acquiring editors or agents. I entered HDM into one of these contests, it finalled, then won, and the editor requested it. She bought it within a few weeks.
Red Sage bought my book in December of 2008 and it was released as an e-book on Sept. 1 of 2009. The intervening months were spent with an initial revision letter, followed by line edits, the cover and finally proofs. It alternated between passing quickly and dragging on. Especially the last two weeks of August!
Q: Break down the romance genre. Are there levels of, for lack of a better word, steaminess?
Steaminess is a great word! There are legions of levels within the romance genre. There are sweets, where the sexual tension is apparent between the hero and heroine but no actual “on-screen” lovemaking is witnessed. At the top level is the extremely erotic — which is what I’d classify my book as — where readers pose as voyeurs and get to see every single aspect of lovemaking, written in graphic terms. In between is a wide range of levels depending on lines, readers and authors. These books run the gamut from just above sweet, where we might get a little more action and glimpses into the bedroom, to full-fledged lovemaking that’s not quite as graphic as an erotic novel. There is literally a taste of romance for every reader out there. Romance novels have expanded and adapted to what the readers demand, while ensuring the core of the story always remains the relationship between the main hero and heroine, or in the case of yet another evolving genre, the hero and hero. Or the hero, hero and heroine.
Q: An indelicate question: What’s your approach to writing sex scenes? Do you plot them out, or just go with the moment?
I have to say my sole plotting of sex scenes is “Sex here. Hot, super hot or nova” on my plotting board. For me, the characters dictate the way the love scenes go. More often than not, I’m just along for the ride (so to speak!). I know who they are before I start writing and I know their temperaments and experience levels and definitely their tastes in what turns them on, but when it comes time to actually write the scene, I just let the words pour out of me. I am very visual, so I usually “see” the scene in my head and work fast to get everything down on paper. I try to get the whole thing down in one fell swoop, then go back and make sure all the body positioning and emotional reactions are fully logical and engaged. It’s actually a very delicate operation and probably one of the things I spend the most time on. Of course, they’re wickedly fun, too, so it’s not a hardship!
Q: You write with a historical bent. How much research is involved?
When it comes to accuracy, I really try to get all my facts straight. I have a ton of research books that are specific to the romance industry, as well as more obscure works that might have one or two bits of useful information I might use one day. Of particular importance is ensuring when you bend history that you don’t break it. Readers do not like that. They’ll forgive some stuff, but if I made the Prince Regent king three years before he actually ascended, I’d lose my credibility. It’s a huge trust factor with the readers, and I don’t want to risk messing that up. But research is actually fun. I can get lost in the past quite easily and for hours on end. I’ve been tossed from the library at closing time more often than I care to admit.
Q: What sort of environment do you require for writing?
I’m a creature of habit. I must be at my desk with either a sporting event or music playing, a candle of the pumpkin spice variety burning and the lights on in order to write extensively. If I need to do revisions or line edits, I work from printouts, which is archaic but I find more stuff that way. I always carry around a notebook and favorite pen just in case I get inspired and need to jot something down, but for actual book writing, it’s gotta be in one place — my glass desk.
Q: Romance fans are among the most enthusiastic readers out there. What has your interaction with readers been like?
You’ve totally hit the nail on the head! Romance readers are genuine, fun, bold and supportive. I’ve received e-mails and posts from all around the country since the release of my book. They’re all complimentary and ask about the next book (soon!) and inquisitive! They ask how I came up with a plot point or how much is real life and how much is pure fantasy. Since my book is available only online, I haven’t had the opportunity to do anything face-to-face public, but I’m working on it.
Q: What do you read for pleasure?
My ultimate pleasure read is The Belgariad by David Eddings. It’s a sword and sorcery fantasy series, and I just love it. Other than that I read romance novels, usually historicals, but I’ve been getting into a lot of contemporaries lately. I like mysteries and fantasy, but not a lot of horror. My imagination is too vivid!
Q: What lit your fuse and convinced you that you wanted to write?
When I was little, I used to make up stories all the time. As I grew older and started reading, I became fascinated by how random words could come together to create compelling stories. In high school, I was encouraged by my English teachers to try creative writing and always did well on it. I also did a lot of “changing” books in my head. If I didn’t like the way a scene played out, I totally changed it in my mind. I had a lot of support from my family, too, who pushed me to give it a whirl. In fact, my brother is the one who really got the ball rolling. He bought me a ticket to a local writers’ conference and the rest, as the cliche goes, is history. I’ve lived in my own land of make-believe for so long, that it’s nice to have it appreciated by others!
Q: What are you working on now?
Currently, I’m writing the sequel to Her Dark Master. It will be the story of Tori’s brother Ryder. After that, I’ll feature another character from the book, the mysterious Mr. Wolffe.
Jennifer August’s Web site: http://www.jenniferaugust.com/
Purchase link for Her Dark Master: www.eredsage.com
In the days since, the idea has sat on my head and grown tentacles, and in my experience, that’s the true measure of a notion that will be fleshed into something larger. I’m not ready to say that it’s absolutely the next novel I write; the process of getting from here to there is fraught with all kinds of peril, and it’s not until I’m about halfway through a draft that I have any confidence at all that I’ll finish. I have a 27,000-word effort from earlier this year that’s still sitting in a file. I looked at it a couple of weeks back, and I’m just not feeling the magic — and yet, I’ve taken it so far that I can’t bear to let it go. So I’ll let it continue to sit, and maybe somewhere down the road, it will speak to me again.
So, then, what I have now is an idea and a certainty that I’m going to try to turn it into something more.
And, as of this morning, I have some character sketches — 500-or-so-word descriptions of the major characters, their motivations, their fears, their physical and psychological attributes. It was great fun to sit down and do those, to breathe a little bit of life into the people now populating my head. I now have some places to start and to revisit when I begin dropping them into a narrative in November.
In a few weeks, I’ll start outlining a story, using the minimalist method that has served me well so far. If NaNoWriMo works for me the way I’m expecting, I’ll be well down the road to a first draft by December. Fingers crossed.
I’ve made no secret about the role Jim Thomsen plays in my writing life — and, I hope, the role I play in his. He’s my confidante, my consigliere, the guy who helps me filter ideas and is simultaneously encouraging and brutally honest. Last night, as he and I chatted online, something happened that illustrated just how beautifully this partnership often works.
I feel compelled to share it here.
For the sake of preserving my proprietary idea — I’m dead certain this will be the next story I undertake — I’ll be vague on some of the details. But I hope the moment of inspiration, one that would not have occurred had Jim and I not talked, will be preserved.
Amid a wide-ranging discussion, I told Jim about a local character here in Billings, one who isn’t widely known but is distinctive among certain downtown denizens. He has a compelling backstory — to the extent that I know it — and some interesting habits and mannerisms. As I went through all of this, Jim suddenly says, “Now that is a guy begging to be fictionalized.”
I was thunderstruck. I had never even considered it. But once the seed was planted, associated ideas started flying into my head, like a magnet drawing in scraps of metal. I instantly envisioned a friendship between a character based on this guy and a character in a short story I just completed. Supporting characters sprouted up like crabgrass in my mind.
I started tossing these ideas into the chat window, and Jim says, “Wow. Now you really have my wheels spinning.”
And then I got a little territorial (in a joking way): “Hey! Fuck your wheels. This is my story, hoss.”
The intervening hours between last night and now have only solidified and expanded the original idea. I now have the story I want to launch during this year’s NaNoWriMo competition. I’ll start on character profiles and outlining later this week. Principal writing commences in November.
And so it goes.
Who, if anyone, helps you focus your ideas?