A fun Q&A has been circulating around writers’ blogs of late. Each person answers questions about their work-in-progress then tags other writers to do the same. I was honored that Ann Mah, author of Kitchen Chinese and the forthcoming food memoir Mastering the Art of French Eating, thought to tag me in “The Next Big Thing.”
While I rarely do these sorts of chains or talk about works-in-progress (makes me so nervous!), I thought I’d take the plunge and tell you a bit about my novel. Plus, I love sharing the love; I’m excited to introduce you to some writer friends.
What is your working title of your book?
WHEN THINGS WERE GREEN
Where did the idea come from for the book?
When starting any piece of writing, it’s usually an image or a small detail that arrives first for me, not an overarching idea.
I was walking through Harlem one day and overheard some teenage girls gossiping. One said: “she’s pregnant and never even had sex.” Well, wow, how does that happen?!
I wondered about those girls and their beliefs and knowledge of the world. I went home and immediately wrote a scene, though what came out featured a young girl in a small town in Georgia in an era before I was born.
I came to learn the young girl was Esse and then I got interested in her daughter, Ceiley. What would it be like to grow up with a mother who claims you were immaculately conceived? Then a stranger came to town, a handsome man in his thirties with something troubling him from his past. I said hold up, who is this? I want to know about him. And hang on, why is his mother Elizabeth so sad?
That’s how it happens for me. I can’t explain the workings of the subconscious, but I try to follow where it leads, put the pieces together. I sit with characters until they start to tell me their stories. And let’s just say there’s a lot of talk in small towns and plenty of folks eventually opened up.
What genre does your book fall under?
Literary fiction/Southern fiction.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
In 1977 Greer Michaels returns to the small southern town of Banning, Georgia after sixteen years of exile to care for his dying mother – and confront the haunting secret from his past.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Any casting directors want to help? I have an ensemble cast! Esse, Elizabeth. I need a curious and sassy teenager to play Ceiley and maybe a young Nicole Kidman for Caroline. Greer, I believe, is an undiscovered talent. (Though I wouldn’t complain if Shemar Moore took the role. And yes, I just spent too much time surfing the web for gorgeous actors).
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Oh, if only the crystal ball would tell me! I have been querying agents; getting close, but no cigar. I’m excited about trying the small press route, as there are a ton of great independent publishers out there. Self-publishing isn’t off the table, either, as blogging has taught me how much I love DIY and interacting directly with readers.
Mostly, though, I don’t want to be too impatient. I thought the book was finished, but I’m stepping back and taking stock. Does it need more work or have I not found the right advocate yet? I have to make sure the book really is ready and trust that it will find its way into the world if it’s meant to.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I’m an incredibly slow writer, one who polishes each sentence as I go. Every new word feels as if I’m “inching forward in the dark.”
What that means is that I’m editing all along, so it’s hard to even define what a first draft looks like for me. One of my MFA advisors – the wonderful Clint McCown – reminded me that I may take a long time getting words onto the page, but that I need far fewer drafts given my method. I just have to accept I’m the tortoise, not the hare.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
When people hear that it’s a novel set in the South in the 1960s and 70s, they immediately think of The Help. Race and societal issues play a role in my novel, too, but my characters are contending with different sorts of personal wounds.
One agent told me there were traces of Home by Marilynne Robinson in my story and another said the tone and subject matter was “reminiscent of Toni Morrison, though did not feel in any way like an imitation.”
Well, hot dang! I would never in a million years compare myself to those amazing writers, but it sure was nice to hear! (Softened the eventual rejections, too.)
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I don’t sit down with any sort of conscious agenda. The girls I overheard really did provide the initial spark and I went from there. There’s a lot of mystery involved.
I usually don’t know what I’ve written until I have a full draft. It was quite moving when one of my beta readers told me the main takeaway she got from my novel was resiliency. The characters suffer, but in the end she felt a sort of redemption. I didn’t set out to write about human resiliency, but if that’s what shines through, I’m glad as I believe in that so strongly.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Some readers figure out pretty quickly the truth of Greer’s past and for others it comes as a total surprise. It could be interesting to see what camp others fall into. I think both experiences provide tension: the suspense of not knowing – or of knowing before Greer does and having to watch him face it.
As a last note, I’m personally in love with Greer. But I’m willing to share him.
If you’d like to read the first few pages of WHEN THINGS WERE GREEN, feel free to click here.
I’d love to know what you think!
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Now for the really fun part. I get to “tag” a few writers who will answer the same questions. Looking forward to hearing about their work!
Jodi Paloni, pal from my MFA program, whose short story “The Third Element” recently won second place in the 2012 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest.
Sarah Seltzer, another Vermont College buddy, and journalist. Her first published story “Empty Nest” recently appeared in Joyland. It’s great!
Sophfronia Scott, another of the VCFA fam, though I’ve only ‘met’ her online so far. She’s an author, speaker, and writing coach with quite the impressive resume.
And finally, some reader love: I know Amy Kortuem exclusively through this blog! I’ve gleaned she’s working on a memoir – Paris plays a role. Did I mention she’s a harpist?
Tagged writers, feel free to answer the same questions above and pass it along!