Recently, Therese and Kathleen had the privilege of interviewing popular women’s fiction author and wordsmith extraordinaire, Marsha Moyer. Moyer’s first two novels, The Second Coming of Lucy Hatch and The Last of the Honky-tonk Angels caught our attention for her insightful detailing of the human spirit. Here’s what Publisher’s Weekly had to say:
…As the story of Lucy’s psychological and emotional bewilderment and her gradual coming of age develops, first novelist Moyer seduces the reader with pitch-perfect prose fed by an observant eye and a wise heart. If some of the situations are the stuff of women’s magazine fiction, Moyer is capable of sweet and insightful writing about the power of love to transcend grief. The dialogue is sharp and wry, with an authentic country twang, and humor is provided by colorful secondary characters whose only fault is that they’re all excessively decent and kindhearted-but maybe that’s the way people are in East Texas. On the other hand, Lucy’s attempts to reconcile her past and future are realistically portrayed, granting her full dimensionality and emotional resonance.
We spoke with Moyer about her unique work and characters, as well as her sometimes bumpy road to publication. Enjoy!
Part 1: Interview with Marsha Moyer
Q: How did the Lucy Hatch books begin and evolve? Did you always envision them as a series?
A: My original manuscript was 300,000 words long and encompassed what ultimately became The Second Coming of Lucy Hatch and The Last of the Honky-tonk Angels. I never envisioned a series, per se; I just knew I wasn’t done writing about these characters. Happily, I recently received an offer from Three Rivers Press, an imprint of Crown, for books 3 (called Heartbreak Town) and 4 (as yet untitled) in the series, to be published in mid-2007 and 2008, respectively. Depending upon how they succeed in the marketplace, there may be additional books about these characters.
As for how the story began and evolved: I spent 3 months on a writing retreat in far northeast Texas in 1990, and I always knew that I would write about the place someday, even though it took another 10 years for the characters and the story to mesh in my imagination. The relationship I started with was actually not that of Lucy and Ash, but of Ash and his daughter, Denny. The second book (which evolved into Honky-tonk Angels) actually came first; The Second Coming of Lucy Hatch was the backstory. My original plan to publish the whole thing as one big book was dashed after a string of rejections from agents who admired the writing but said it was too long. The manuscript was already divided into three parts, so I decided to collapse parts 2 and 3 and make two books out of it. That done, I was able to find an agent fairly easily, and a few months later she sold the first two books at auction to Morrow/ Avon. It was only after the second book was delivered to my publisher that I realized the story wasn’t finished. And hundreds of emails from fans to my website convinced me that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Luckily, the folks at Crown agree. I’m honestly not sure how many more books in the series there will be. Till the characters stop talking to me, at least.
Q: How difficult was it for you to make the decision to break your manuscript up and offer it as two separate stories? Did it take you a long time to reach the decision to do this, and how long did it take for you to reconfigure things on paper?
A: The idea first came to me, believe it or not, via a famously unboxed writer, Diana Gabaldon. I emailed her knowing she was the self-professed queen of “big, weird books” and told her about the difficulty I was having getting agents to look at my manuscript, and rather than email me back, she picked up the phone and called me. (I still have the answering machine tape with her voice on it!) She was incredibly generous, taking the time to explain how the publishing world had changed in the 10 or so years, at that time, since Outlander had been published, and suggesting that I would likely find success more easily by dividing the manuscript into multiple books.
I didn’t take her advice immediately, but it did cause me to start looking at my manuscript more objectively, and I could see that part one could easily stand on its own. It took almost no effort at all on my part to split it off from the rest of the manuscript. I started sending it out a few weeks after my conversation with the Divine Miss G, and attracted the interest of several agents fairly quickly. Of those who were interested in representing me, I asked, “How do you feel about the fact that there’s a second book, a follow-up?” My now-agent, Barbara Braun, is the one who said, “Great, we can do a two-book deal.” It was one of the ways I knew she was the right agent for me.
Condensing parts two and three of the manuscript into The Last of the Honky-tonk Angels was another matter. It was a lot tougher than I first envisioned, both in terms of shaping the material and in terms of pleasing my publisher. That experience taught me the importance of keeping an open line of communication going at all times with one’s publisher. (More on this subject below.)
Q: What is your writing process?
A: I definitely work best when I do at least a little bit every day. Even on days when I can’t write because of other obligations, I try to find a way to keep the story living and breathing, by turning it over in my head on my daily walks or making notes before I go to sleep at night. I’m sure I’m at least the 500th writer to say this, but writing is like a muscle; you have to use it to keep it in shape. That said, you won’t lose all your tone if you take a week off. I think it’s important to strike a balance between total sloth and blazing a trail so hot you burn out.
Q: How have you evolved personally as a writer? Had you written manuscripts prior to The Second Coming of Lucy Hatch, and how were they different?
A: I wrote several “practice” novels before I launched into the one that became The Second Coming of Lucy Hatch and The Last of the Honky-tonk Angels. They were self-indulgent and immature, full of the usual mistakes that most beginning writers make. Fortunately, I knew they were self-indulgent and immature and made no attempt to get them published, and a few years ago during a move I threw all but two of them away. I always felt that I would know when I was ready to send my work out into the world. As a result I saved myself much of the early rejection most writers go through at the hands of agents and publishers. The downside of this is that I was in my late 40’s before my “first” novel was published. I don’t regret the decision, though. It isn’t the right path for many writers, but it was for me.
Q: You touch on an interesting point: do you think age is an important factor for editors and agents when they’re looking for new talent?
A: I’ve heard stories of older writers feeling out of touch with the publishing industry because many of the agents and editors are so young, but that hasn’t been my experience. I think as the population ages, the market for stories about older, more complexly nuanced characters will expand. Maybe chick lit will be replaced with crone lit! I say, bring it on.
Q: What do you do to prevent or get through writer’s block? Do you have any inspirations you rely upon?
A: Reading books by other writers I admire (or discovering new ones) is the best thing for getting me unstuck. I’m not one of those novelists who doesn’t read fiction while writing it. I don’t worry about other writers’ influences sneaking in; I think I’m secure enough in my own voice that I can take the inspiration I need without giving in to the urge to imitate. I also have a handful of writing friends whom I see periodically for lunch or drinks, to bitch and moan and to shore each other up. Fortunately most of us are in different places in the process at any given time, so those who are just beginning a new book and are full of giddy, positive energy can act as cheerleaders to the ones who are dragging through revisions or struggling to meet a deadline.
Q: Are you a plotter or do you let the characters take you for a ride? If the former, how strict are you about sticking to the plan, and how do you do it? If the latter, how do you keep your characters reigned in?
A: I never know the plot when I begin a novel. I generally have a starting point and at least a vague sense of where I want the characters to end up, the lessons I want them to learn, or an effect I want to convey, but almost everything that happens in between is a surprise to me. As for keeping the characters reigned in, I haven’t found a reliable way to do that yet! I spent two years re-writing Heartbreak Town, to the tune of probably 2,000 pages, before I ended up with a version I liked. But I won’t be able to indulge myself that way with book 4, because I simply don’t have the time. Publishers’ deadlines have a great way of forcing you to focus.
Q: Will you try any new techniques in an attempt to blaze uninterrupted through the next book?
A: The “new” technique I’m going to start trying (any day now) is one immortalized by, I think, the director Oliver Stone, who said: “Writing = ass in chair.” The only solution for me is to start churning out pages. At some point panic sets in, and my deadline starts to loom, and then (and only then) can I really settle down to write.
Though these interviews were originally posted one week apart, we’ve recently pasted them together for your reading convenience! Below is part 2 of WU’s interview with the fabulous Marsha Moyer!
We recently had the pleasure of interviewing women’s fiction author, Marsha Moyer. Missed part 1? Check it out here. Moyer’s first two novels, The Second Coming of Lucy Hatch and The Last of the Honkey-tonk Angels, have struck a chord with many for their realism and lyrical nature. Read an excerpt of Lucy Hatch at Amazon.com here to see for yourself, then come on back and read…
Part two: Interview with Marsha Moyer
Q: Once you’ve decided that a particular scene needs to exist in your story, how do you decide how it should be told (from whose point of view, what setting, the level of conflict, etc…)?
A: Hmm. I gave this a lot of thought, and even asked a few writer friends about it, and we all agreed that this isn’t something we decide, but a thing the characters or the story dictate to us. It’s just instinct. If I didn’t have it, I doubt I’d be a writer, because I’m too lazy to spend a lot of time figuring things out.
Q: What’s the best idea you’ve ever had about one of your stories that didn’t occur to you until AFTER you’d taken a break from the manuscript? Has this ever happened post-publication, and if so, what might you have written differently?
A: The biggest thing I wish I’d thought through a little more thoroughly was the name of the town in which my books are set, Mooney, TX. I chose it very spontaneously (I was mulling over what to call the place when a friend by that name walked into the room), never dreaming at the time that I would still be committed to it six years later. There’s nothing really wrong with it; I just wish I’d chosen something a little more, to use Denny’s favorite new word when she first meets Erasmus, melliflous.
Q: I just love the old soul kinship that Denny and Erasmus share. I’m sure they wouldn’t have an easy road together—an interracial couple in an old Southern town—but will we be seeing more of them in books 3 and 4?
A: In Heartbreak Town, 7 years have passed since Honky-tonk Angels, so Denny’s 21 years old now, blazing her trail as a musician and in all kinds of man trouble. Erasmus appears sort of off-screen in that book–Denny’s been temporarily blindsided by a handsome devil named Will Culpepper–but he’ll be back in book 4, when both Denny and Erasmus return to Mooney to try and sort out the complications in their lives and find themselves looking longingly at their early relationship.
Q: Do you use a critique group, and if so, how do you sift through ideas to choose what will work for you?
A: I was in a couple of critique groups before I got published, when I was trying to learn how to make a novel work, and in all honesty, they hurt more than helped. Many of my friends are in groups that they’ve been with for years and find them immeasurably supportive and helpful. I guess I was unlucky, because I ended up with the egomaniacs and the sadists, and it soured me on the group approach.
That said, with Heartbreak Town, I was really struggling to pare down the manuscript to a workable length, and I finally asked a trusted friend who’s about to publish his 5th book to read it and give me his comments, and I don’t know where I’d be right now if he hadn’t been so generous with his advice. My agent and her husband, who works with her, are also invaluable to me as early readers; they always give me their feedback before we send something out. As for what ideas to use and what to discard, this is somewhat like the question above about deciding what POV to use; I’ll listen to critique and consider anything, but ultimately I have to trust my instincts about whether something works or doesn’t.
Q: I love the characters in your series. They are so fresh to me, gritty-real and fun to be around. How did you “build” them?
A: It wasn’t a conscious decision, but something born out of frustration with the kinds of books I was reading, especially women’s fiction, in which the characters seemed so lifeless and clichéd. My influences are primarily from literary fiction, writers like Larry McMurtry, Tom Pearson, Jane Hamilton. I was astonished to discover myself embraced by the romance community, because I’d never even read a romance novel before I wrote Lucy Hatch. I just thought I was writing a funny, quirky love story set in a small rural town. I’m primarily interested in family- and small-town dynamics, not just what happens between boys and girls. I like humor and irreverance. I like things a little bit skewed. I think the themes of my books will get “bigger” as my career progresses; at least that’s my hope.
Q: How did your story become embraced by the romance community? Did agents suggest your story leaned romance? Was it marketed that way?
A: It was aimed by my agent at mainstream publishers of women’s fiction and marketed by my publisher toward women, so I suppose its inevitable that the romance community would find it. The romance genre is so much more diverse than it used to be. Many of the romance magazines and web forums have distinct categories now for women’s fiction, and most of them ended up reviewing my books in that arena.
Q: What are your thoughts on the critical differences between romance and women’s fiction?
A: I wish we didn’t have to have designations at all, because I think the minute you slap one onto a book, it’s compromised. I have a good male friend, a writer with whom I’ve done a number of signings and speaking gigs, who’s a big fan of my work and always leaps to my defense by saying, “I don’t see why you have to call it anything but literature.” But if you’re a woman who writes about interpersonal relationships, you’re probably going to find yourself staring at the label of “women’s fiction” at some point. It’s unfair, because no such stigmatization exists for men. I just finished a wonderful book called A Little Love Story by a writer named Roland Merullo, and I remember thinking when I picked it up that a woman could never put a title like that on a book without risking getting branded a romance novelist. But this was, as the title says, a love story, about a man and a woman, written by a man, apparently published and marketed as literary fiction.
Q: What has the road to publication been like for you? Has it been difficult waiting to hear about publishers for your third story?
A: I was incredibly naive and ignorant about the publishing world when I sold my first two books. I thought a big contract with a major publisher meant that I had it made, that all I had to do was just had to sit back and wait for my brilliant career to unfold. To have things turn out somewhat (ahem) differently was a rude awakening. But the fact is, I wasn’t prepared then, mentally or emotionally, for success. I’m a lot more savvy, and realistic, about the business now. Also a lot more grateful to be here, still hanging on.
Q: It sounds like you had a wildly bucking learning curve here. Can you share any pearls with us? What should a writer do after selling those first few books?
A: Be a shameless self-promoter. Visit bookstores, get to know the managers and sellers. Set up a website and communicate with readers. Be as pro-active as is humanly possible in marketing your books yourself. And, as I said earlier, do everything you can to cultivate the relationship between yourself and the people at your publishing house: the editors and assistants, the publicists. Don’t be passive or invisible. Make them want to work with and for you. They have a whole stable of writers vying for their resources and attention; give them a reason to invest their time and effort in making your books a success.
Q: Now that the third Lucy Hatch book is completed, what will you work on next? Are there any new characters or story concepts demanding your attention?
A: Obviously my priority at the moment is the fourth Lucy book, since I’m under contract. Beyond that, I have two books, both stand-alones, in various stages of completion. Like my others, they’re character-driven, small-town stories, but they’re broader in scope than the Lucy books, and will feature both male and female protagonists.
Q: What book would you like for everyone to read?
A: The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter. Such a hard question! It’s like “What one book would you take with you to a desert island?” ONE BOOK?!?!?
[Note: Moyer also loved Something Blue by Jean Christopher Spaugh.]
Q: Do you have any specific advice for writers who want to write out-of-the-box stories?
A: Always write the story that’s in you crying to be written, and don’t worry about the marketplace. Trying to figure out what publishers want is a useless proposition (luckily, that’s what agents are for) and will only make you crazy. If a story is well-crafted and if it comes from the right place, whether it’s your heart or your groin or the mole on your left shoulder, it will probably resonate with some publisher, somewhere.
THANK YOU, Marsha Moyer, for a great interview. We wish you all the best with your continuing series and look forward to reading the next installments!