Joining us today at Writer Unboxed is Randy Susan Meyers, whose acclaimed debut novel The Murderer’s Daughters was released in paperback earlier this month and was just named a Target Bookclub Pick. A quick summary: “A beautifully written, compulsively readable debut that deals with the aftermath of a shocking act of violence that leaves two young sisters with nothing but each other—in the tradition of White Oleander, this haunting novel is a testament to the power of family and the ties that bind us together, even as they threaten to tear us apart.” Randy is a wonderful writer, a warm and generous member of the writing community, and we’re thrilled to have her back on the site to share her insights on writing from the “what if”, book tours, and advice for first-time novelists. Thanks, Randy!
Q: The Murderer’s Daughters was inspired by a real event in your life. Can you talk a little about that? Did reality give you a blueprint for the book, or more of a jumping-off point to start the story?
RSM: When my sister was eight, my mother warned her against letting my father into our Brooklyn apartment. He managed to get in and tried to kill her—luckily, my sister was able to get the neighbors. My sister swears I was there (where else would I be at that age?) but I didn’t remember any of it. As the years went by, and my sister fed me more details, the scene rooted in my mind and became my memory also.
Years later, I worked with violent men for many years, men ordered by the courts to the Boston-based Batterer Intervention Program where I ran groups. My clients climbed all over the continuum of ferocity toward women. They bullied, hit, smacked, punched, and broke bones; some had murdered. When asked where their children were during these incidents, almost all answered the same way: they were sleeping.
When talking with batterers and speaking with their victims, I thought of my mother and father. I couldn’t ask my father what happened—he died when I was nine. My mother never liked visiting the past under any circumstances: she hated how my sister and I examined it from every angle, rolling her eyes when we did our usual and made troubles into humorous anecdotes. We didn’t dare ask about the time our father threatened to murder her.
However, I kept asking myself. What if? What if my sister hadn’t been brave enough to get the neighbors? 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.” The Murderer’s Daughters captured the “what if” of my childhood with the knowledge I had of domestic homicide. What was missing, I always thought, was the story of the children left behind. What happens to them? How do they grow up? That’s how my book ended up covering over thirty years of my two narrators’ (sisters) lives.
Q: The book has gotten really tremendous reviews — the L.A. Times called it “all too believable and heartbreaking”, the Boston Globe said “a gripping tale” and “impressively executed”… it must be wonderful to see your work so well received. How do you approach your reviews? Do you read all of them, or have someone filter them for you? And has that changed over the past year since the book’s initial hardcover release?
RSM: In the beginning, I was so afraid, my husband had to “pre-read” them for me—whether they were reader reviews on Amazon or newspaper reviews. One thing I’ve learned is that no writer (if I am wrong, someone let me know!) gets through publishing without reading something negative written about their book. One friend, Robin Black, who wrote a book so beautiful (If I Loved You I Would Tell You This) that it stunned me (and that was lauded by Oprah, etc) was taken to task, I believe by someone at the Guardian, for thanking too many people in her acknowledgements!
I think I’ve become a bit more c’est la vie about the negative. We all have books we love that others don’t, and goodness knows there are books that have been everything but knighted that may not touch us. On the other hand, it always stings and I am certain always will. That is one of the reasons I only write essays on books I love. I figure there are plenty of critics out there ready to say things that will hurt writers—I don’t need to add to the pile.
Q: Which do you like better: writing, or having written?
RSM: I love writing, but most of all when I have finished a first draft. I love revision, the time after the tracks have been laid, when I get to go in and make it, I hope, work. The first draft gets it out. The second one begins to straighten it out. Then comes a more delicate shading. And so on ….
What works for me is writing a sloppy fast first (after I’ve made my notes and outline) linear draft. Then I comb out the plot problems, then character improvement, and then work on making the writing as close to exactly my intent as possible. All of this takes multiple revisions—but, luckily, I love revising.
Q: Thanks for sharing your process. On a personal note, I’m really looking forward to your upcoming reading at WORD in Brooklyn, and I can see from your website you’ve been doing a round of in-person appearances for the paperback launch of The Murderer’s Daughters all over New England. Do you feel like in-store appearances help boost sales, or do you do them for other reasons?
RSM: I can’t really say if it boosts sales as I didn’t do a ton of readings with my hardcover. I took to heart my publicist’s advice that readers don’t flock to hear an unknown debut author—thus, I had only a few in-store appearances. It didn’t seem fair to pull the same friends and family to event after event (except, of course, my husband—it goes with the vows, right?) I did do many events (for fundraisers, especially) and library readings and loved each one of those. I think library readings draw dedicated readers and I always say yes to them.
Now, with the paperback, I’m putting a toe back in the bookstore waters, but only in areas where I know at least a few people who I hope will show up. I like doing readings with another author; it spreads around the fear and pressure.
That said, I know many debut authors who’ve gone around the country (brave!) and read at one bookstore after another and who seemed to do quite well.
Q: But for most of us, as you said initially, the emphasis on publicity seems to have shifted away from in-person appearances and toward the Web. You have a great presence online — writing for Huffington Post, your personal blog Word Love, the group blog Beyond the Margins, and more — how do you manage all that!? Authors often protest that they’re told they “have to tweet” or engage in other social media, and I know people who feel like it takes away time from their writing — but you’ve really embraced it, and it seems like you enjoy it. What’s your secret?
RSM: Perhaps part of my secret is that my children are grown and I am writing full time? Also, I’ve heard authors complain bitterly about having to write posts as they travel across the country to read. I figure I can write a piece, spending 3-5 hours, or I can travel for 2 days, and perhaps reach a far greater number of people through the written word.
I think, in the end, an author should do what s/he finds the most engaging—if it’s reading in bookstores, do that. If it’s tweeting, do that. And if it’s writing essays, do that. Whatever tools you use to let people know about your book, do it with love and passion and it will come through.
My biggest secret, really? Working all the time. I’ve become a bit of a workaholic—seven days a week. Thankfully, I truly love my work.
Q: This will be a pretty obviously self-interested question, but I’ll go for it anyway — do you have any advice for first-time novelists about to launch their debut?
1) Don’t expect anyone (not your agent, editor, publicist, etc) to ‘do it for you.’ A very wise agent (Sorche Fairbank) said something at a Muse & The Marketplace conference that I’ll never forget: No one will care about your book as much as you do.
Energy spent complaining is better spent working hard on your own behalf.
2) Invest in yourself and spend some money on your book if possible. After the writing comes the business end. Don’t count on your publisher providing all the marketing dollars—think of it as owning a small business. When you have a business, you have to put something into it, whether it’s as big as having a publicist, or paying for blog tours, or smaller investments such as Facebook ads.
3) Talk to other authors and find out what worked for them. Go out for dinner, have a drink—find a way to connect. Most of what I’ve learned has been through other authors.
4) Research! Read everything you can on how to promote your book and then cherry-pick what you think will work best for you.
5) Don’t operate in a vacuum. Readers read, and the best way to connect to them is by talking about books you’ve loved. Promote other authors!!
6) Have reading and event outfits picked out way in advance. Find the best combination of form and function. (Seriously!)
7) Plan in some down time. (I am horrible about this and it shows!)
8) Give yourself a break. If you check Amazon every two seconds, so be it. People yelling at you “don’t drive yourself crazy!” will only make you do it in secret. Some of the best advice I got was from Kristy Kiernan, in her post “Official Permission Slip to Insanity.”
Q: Thank you so much! Clicking through to Kristy’s post right this minute.