It’s going to be obvious that I kinda love Randy Susan Meyers.
Randy and I “met” on Twitter. I knew of her, peripherally, through the online writers’ group Backspace, but it wasn’t until Twitter that I felt a true sense for who she was as a person. Generous. Smart. Kind. I was happy to become one of the many supporters who flocked to purchase her debut novel, The Murderer’s Daughters, earlier this year. The book was so compelling, such a rich character study, that I read it slowly, savoring phrasings and technique. In read it so slowly in fact that I didn’t leave Randy much time at all for answering my interview questions. Despite the time crunch, Randy responded to all of my questions with full-bodied answers, sharing what she knows about the craft and the business of fiction.
See, I told you I’m biased. But it’s not without cause. Randy is fantastic. Her novel is fantastic. This interview? Fantastic. Enjoy!
Interview with Randy Susan Meyers, part 1
Q: What do you answer when people ask, “What’s your novel about?”
RSM: The Murderer’s Daughters tells the story of sisters Lulu and Marry Zachariah on their journey to overcome the damage of family violence after witnessing their father murder their mother.
Q: The Murderer’s Daughters can’t have been an easy book to write—the story about two girls, the people who desert, disappoint, and scar them; and the lives that unfold following those earliest understandings of love, commitment, and forgiveness. Why was this, for you, the story that needed to be told?
RSM: When my sister was eight, my mother warned her against letting my father into our Brooklyn apartment. Years later, as adults, when my sister and I began exploring our childhood in the way siblings do—comparing scars and recollections, piling up wrongs and shining up the funny stories—my sister said: “Remember when I let our father in the house and he tried to kill Mom?”
She swears I was there, but I didn’t remember it. As my sister fed me more details, the scene rooted in my mind and became my memory also. I heard my father sweet-talking his way in. My mother’s screams echoed. However, I kept asking myself. What if? What if my sister hadn’t been brave enough to get the neighbors like my mother screamed for her to do? What if the neighbors hadn’t pounded upstairs? What if the police hadn’t come in time? What if my mother had died?
Writing is like that for me, a series of “what if” after “what if.” When my sister and I were young, after being forced to turn out the lights, we’d pretend to take imaginary books off imaginary bookshelves and ask each other: what are you dreaming tonight? Somehow, my waking dreams were always part nightmare; giving the truth that macabre twist we all fear. The Murderer’s Daughters is from that childhood shelf.
Q: Lulu and Merry were very different girls; one grew up challenged by her unforgiving nature, while the other felt safe only with men who were inaccessible to her—jailed, in their own ways. Were their personalities difficult for you to capture? Was one girl harder to pin down than the other? Did either turn out differently than you originally expected?
RSM: Neither Lulu nor Merry’s personality was hard to capture vis a vis vision—but putting Lulu on paper was the more challenging task. Merry enacted the trauma of childhood in louder and more dramatic ways: she drank, smoked, chose the wrong men and slept with too many of them. Lulu drew inward, became closed and secretive, was terrified of making mistakes in her life and trusted few people. I was aware that having a quietly terrified character wearing a bulletproof front did not mean I should write opaquely or bulletproof my prose! Thus, I was challenged to show how Lulu’s neuroses enacted in a way that I hoped captured the readers’ imagination.
Merry surprised me in the end, in as much as she found far more strength than I’d supposed, while Lulu’s inability to let go was more intractable than I’d thought.
Q: What is your process? Plotter or pantser? Day writer or night? Regular writer or spurt writer?
RSM: My husband calls me a ‘lunch-bucket’ writer. I go off to work each day and brook few excuses having built myself a rather merciless boss.
I can’t work without an outline. My outline process is an affair of stages:
1) Write a stream of consciousness ‘overall’ view of the book.
2) Sit with a stack of index cards filling out one after another with potential scenes.
3) Put those scenes in order.
4) Write it up as a skeleton outline.
5) Fill in the skeleton about 4-6 chapters ahead.
6) Sketch main characters and important minor ones.
7) Start writing!
8) Adjust outline as needed; move ahead to fill in further chapters in skeleton outline.
9) Keep running color-coded excel sheet to track:
a. POV used in each chapter.
b. Setting used (to avoid boring reader to death!)
d. What I will need to fill in (such as resolutions to sub-plots.)
e. Notes to self.
I’m a daytime writer—the earlier I start, the happier I am, though family considerations usually preclude beginning before 8:30 in the morning. On the weekends I might begin earlier. I usually work 7 days a week—though certainly not entire days!
Q: What percentage of writing is rewriting for you?
RSM: Plenty! I try to go straight through a first draft (unless I sense a large change brewing—such as POV or first person vs. third—then I try to catch it early.) I love revision and plan on at least five or six full drafts:
1) The revision where I deal w/large chunky changes.
2) The revision where I make it good enough for fellow-writers to read and comment.
3) The revision I do after receiving comments.
4) The revision where I think I am done, but find out (after my agent or most-trusted-reader reads it) that I am not.
5) The final-almost final revision.
6) The polishing revision.
Forcing myself to let the manuscript get ‘cold’ between revisions is very important for me.
Q: What was the most challenging aspect for you while writing The Murderer’s Daughters, and how did you overcome it?
RSM: When I wrote The Murderer’s Daughters, it was my third (+) manuscript. The previous ones had been very close to being sold, but I pulled them back from the agent before she sent them for a second round (after Round 1 rejections) believing the book I’d begun working on was a better one.
Having done that, and then having parted ways with that agent, I worried that I’d made a mistake. What if I never get another agent? Should I have stuck with the first books? I worried that I’d given up on them and on the agent too soon.
I overcame it by 1) listening to the good advice of my husband, who came at it from a very pragmatic business-like attitude, and 2) Knowing that The Murderer’s Daughters was striking a sweet spot in me and I should trust that feeling. But turning away from years of work was an agonizing decision—though ultimately a right one.
Q: June is a month of “best craft advice” here at Writer Unboxed. What is your best advice regarding the craft of writing?
RSM: Marry your imagination and talent with good practices. It took me awhile to understand that while I loved to write and had a penchant for it, I didn’t have the tools and skills to bring it to fruition. I set out to learn everything I could about craft. Mainly it was a self-taught curriculum, reading every book I could lay my hands on (with a highlighter in hand and my keyboard close by, to write up simple reminder lists of what I learned.) I kept at this until (I hope) most of the lessons learned became second nature.
I’ve written a post about books I found most helpful—this might be useful for others looking to build their ‘writing library.’
Q: What were the five best things you did for yourself that eventually led to the publication of The Murderer’s Daughters?
RSM: 1) Joined a tough but loving master novel workshop under the leadership of Jenna Blum.
2) Allowed myself to let go of my ‘practice’ novels and move forward
3) Intertwined these two ideas: I took all readers off my shoulders + didn’t choose any subjects I knew I couldn’t approach with true authenticity.
4) Found an agent whose sensibility matched mine.
5) Set strict guidelines and schedules for myself.
Q: How long had you been writing before The Murderer’s Daughters sold? What was your journey to publication?
RSM: Mine is not a straight road! I co-authored a book (nonfiction) when I was in my twenties, (Couples With Children by Virginia Deluca and Randy Meyers Wolfson.) That contract and book came quickly and got great reviews, but we knew nothing about promotion, etc, and then before we could rev up, my marriage melted and all my energy went into raising my daughters and paying the bills.
While I wrote during the next two decades, I couldn’t or didn’t make it front and center. Work and family took most of my energy—the rest I foolishly spent on bad boyfriends.
In about 2004 I faced my love of writing head-on and vowed to bring it to the top of my list. Instead of bad boyfriends, I had a good husband. My children were grown. Work no longer grabbed at me with the same intensity and I was able to cut back. I gave up many of the small pleasures in life and placed the goal of becoming a published novelist on top.
Told you she was terrific. Read part 2 of my interview with Randy Susan Meyers HERE.