Kath and I have read our fair share of books for Writer Unboxed, and I’d be hard-pressed to name one I didn’t enjoy. But while on a family vacation recently, I decided to read something just for me. I chose The Wishing Box, a debut novel by author Dashka Slater, for it’s promise of a lyrical story with magical realism, a true escape.
I loved it.
Dashka Slater leaves the fingerprints of a poet on every scene (“Fate is a snake and her body is longer than forever. Her skin is cool and has the texture of tiny beads. She slithers this way, that way, with her face in the future and her tail in the past. It’s easy to get caught up in her coils.”). She’s also written a fine story–about a single mother and her fortune-telling aunt, and what happens when a wish is made, and a wish is granted, and a father’s past slithers its way into their present.
Ironic, maybe, but I had to ask Dashka for an interview. And I’m happy to say she agreed.
Part 1: Interview with Dashka Slater
Q: What’s the premise of your adult fiction debut novel, The Wishing Box?
DS: It’s a sort of a comic take on The Monkey’s Paw. Two sisters, whose father disappeared when they were children, construct a wishing box and wish for his return. The law of unintended consequences prevails and many changes are set in motion.
Q: I thoroughly enjoyed this book! Can you tell us a bit about how it came to be and what inspired it?
DS: There were many triggers, but one was the ads you used to see in the classified section of newspapers – “Thank You St. Jude for Favors Received.” They got me thinking about wishes, and the magical rituals we all perform to try to control our fates. Omens, superstitions, and questions of free will and destiny have always been fascinating to me – most of us simultaneously believe many contradictory things about whether or not we are in control of our lives.
Q: What was your process for writing The Wishing Box? Did you have a clear idea for what you wanted to produce ahead of time? Are you a plotter or a pantser? And how long did the story take for you to complete?
DS: My process then and my process now are very different. The Wishing Box was my first novel and I was really making it up as I went along. I started writing and kept writing and the plot emerged somewhere after the first 200 pages. Many serendipitous things happened along the way – when I went to the anthropology library to research Zapotec culture (one of the characters is a Zapotec Indian from Mitla, Mexico), I found a book written about Mitla in the exact time period of my novel, which included a passing reference to Zapotecs locking images of saints in a box to get a wish – the inspiration for the book’s wishing box.
It took me ten years to write the Wishing Box, both because I had no idea what I was doing, and because I was also working full-time as a journalist, producing about 130,000 words a year, a pursuit not very compatible with writing anything else.
Now, I’m much more organized in the way I work, and do plot things out ahead of time. But there’s still a lot of stumbling around and writing my way into the plot and the characters. I keep hoping I’ll find a more efficient way to work, but so far I’ve found no good substitute for generating a whole lot of words and deciding later which of them I want to keep.
Q: What unique challenges did The Wishing Box pose for you, and how did you overcome them?
DS: The biggest challenge was that my first completed draft was enormous – about 700 pages. To publish it, I had to cut it about in half, which made it a much better book. It took a couple of months of focused work to do, but it became like a puzzle – figuring out how to whittle the book down to fighting weight while still keeping its lush, lyrical style.
Q: The Wishing Box is told from two points of view-that of Julia, a single mother, and of her aunt Simone. Both points of view are first-person narratives. Did you consider other options? Why did you make the choices you did?
DS: Oh yes, I considered – and acted upon — many other options. The very first draft – which I never finished – was written from the point of view of the other sister, Lisa. And the big unwieldy version of the book had chapters written from the point of view of other characters as well, including both Lisa and the mother, Carolina. But a friend and co-worker, the wonderful writer and editor Linnea Due, helped me see that the multiple narrators were getting in the way of the story. In the end, Simone and Julia felt like a good compliment to each other. Julia is the person to whom everything in the present happens, while Simone is the one who can explain all the stories behind the stories.
Q: Did you find the story’s magical realism difficult to market? How do you generally classify the book?
DS: I just call it fiction, or literary fiction, but I do think it’s fair to classify it as magical realism. There’s a bit of chick lit to it as well.
As for marketing, you never know why editors make the choices they do, but I was lucky that my editor at Chronicle, Jay Schaefer, was a big fan of Latin American literature and got the magical realist influences right away.
Q: What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about the publishing industry since your book deal?
DS: That you really have to do your own promotion. I thought my job was to write the book and then someone else would be in charge of telling the world that I had. I’m still trying to master the art of self-promotion, but with each of my books I’ve gotten a little bit better at it.
Q: Can you share any tips for self-promotion? Which promo efforts have you found most effective? Which are your favorites?
DS: I’m never really sure what works and what doesn’t, but I do try to have a good social networking presence, keep my websites up to date, and post somewhat regularly to my two blogs. I do a lot of public appearances both at bookstores and at schools and libraries, and I take great care of my mailing list, trying to find a balance between keeping my listees informed and annoying them with too-frequent updates. I also promote independent bookstores in every way I can — linking to independents rather than Amazon for instance — because unless you’re already a best-selling author, it’s the independents who really have the power to put to your book into the hands of readers. And if you call an independent bookstore and ask to do an event there, they’ll be a lot more interested in what you have to say if they know that you’re not sending your business to the chains.
Q: If you could retrace your steps, would you be able to identify a point or time when you turned down the path to successful publication? What is it?
DS: Landing an agent was a big one, because I am a writer who prefers writing to marketing. It’s very easy for me to write things and then simply leave them on my hard drive, never even bothering to print them out. Working with Dorothy Allison was another – I won a writing contest, which had as its prize participation in a writing workshop that she led. She is a marvelously generous soul who seems to have endless room in her heart for aspiring writers. Her encouragement made me feel confident that I had written a “real” book that might have a future in the real world.
Come back next week for part two of my interview with Dashka Slater, when we’ll discuss her other writerly roles–including being a children’s book author.