Therese here. Today’s guest has been a part of the WU community for forEVER: debut author Julie Kibler. Julie’s journey has been extra special to me not only for that reason, but also because I introduced her to our agent (w00t to Elisabeth Weed). For months I’ve watched in gleeful awe as love for Julie’s story spread across the world; to date, rights to publish her book have sold in SIXTEEEN countries, many via auctions and preempts. It was also recently named an IndieNext Pick.
Why the fuss? Here’s why.
Calling Me Home, which releases on February 12th here in the U.S., is a phenomenal debut. I was lucky enough to receive an ARC, and was immediately sucked into the high-stakes world Julie created–the story of a white woman who falls in love with a black man in the 1930s, in Kentucky–as well as the way she wove together that story from the past with one in the present, when that same white woman travels to a mysterious funeral as an 89 year old.
Said Publishers Weekly of her book:
Kibler, in alternating first-person narrations, delivers a rousing debut about forbidden love and unexpected friendships …”
The often prickly Kirkus adds:
Kibler’s unsentimental eye makes the problems faced unflinchingly by these women ring true … Love and family defy the expected in this engaging tale.”
I’m so glad Julie’s with us today to talk about her journey to find “the right book” to write–a process that isn’t always straightforward.
When the Right One Comes Along
The experts warn writers against potentially fatal errors in subject choice. Don’t write to a trend, they say. Don’t try to predict the next big thing. Write what you know. Write the thing you’re passionate about. This is sound advice. I’ve also learned that you’ll probably “know that you know that you know that you know” when the right one comes along.
I started writing seriously in 2005. By seriously, I mean I woke up one Sunday morning, perched on the bar stool in my bathroom where I apply makeup and style my hair, and recorded the idea for a novel that had jumped me before I ever got out of bed. I had characters, I had setting, I had plot, I had conflict, I had turning points. I had a story. And I’d never taken a fiction writing class other than a creative writing workshop that mangled my confidence in college.
I told my husband, “I think I’m going to write a book.” At the time, I was completing my master’s degree, working part-time at my internship, part-time at freelance editing, and I had three school-aged kids. My schedule was, in a word, insane. Yet what had simmered below my surface from the time I was a kid who loved nothing more than burying my head in a good book had finally bubbled up. I couldn’t deny it. Maybe it had something to do with the relatively new stability in my home, in spite of the insane schedule. For the first time, my family life and support system enabled my brain to do what I’d wanted to forever.
That idea wasn’t the one. I fiddled with it, then decided it had been done too many times. I still have those notes. I reread them with a touch of nostalgia at times. They weren’t “the one,” but they were the seed that grew into what was.
I read everything I could find on writing fiction—an MFA in a box of books. I decided I needed to “write what I knew,” and started again. I wrote close to 50 thousand words that were raw, that were true, and were probably terrible. I’ve never had the guts to look back at those.
By then, between school, the kids, and late night writing sessions when I should have been sleeping, I had burned out. I wanted to quit. But another idea clobbered me over the head. I thought, “Oh. THIS will be FUN.”
I believed a middle-grade story would be entertaining, and surely I could finish it. I did, more or less. I attended my first writers conference, including a read-and-critique session with an agent. She was kind and encouraging, but she was also realistic. The idea had been done. My 12-year-old character sounded 20. The manuscript needed a LOT of work.
I put it away. Writing middle-grade fiction was not fun for me, and contrary to what some might assume, it was not easy.
But during other conference read-and-critique sessions, I read some snippets of other things. The reactions were good. I realized I needed to be writing what I wouldn’t be able to put down. I couldn’t put Jodi Picoult’s books down. I loved how she explored social issues from every angle. I loved the relationships between her characters. I hung onto her every word when I saw her speak to a packed auditorium. I thought, “I should do that.” My former initials were JP. It seemed like fate.
The result was the first adult manuscript I completed, revised, and queried to literary agents. I had good feedback from critique partners. I researched hard, worked hard, and thought it might be the novel that saw a bookstore shelf.
Except, I was not Jodi Picoult.
I’d been taking online classes with Writer Unboxed contributor Barbara O’Neal (Samuel). I loved her ability to breathe enchantment into seemingly ordinary situations. At some point, I wrote a monologue for an assignment. My father had recently told me my grandmother fell in love with a black man when she was young. It rocked my world. My grandmother had been moody and not especially fond of children. She confused me. Learning this opened a new window on my worldview. Now I knew why Grandma had been so unhappy: She had lost her one true love. The little I knew inspired that one-page monologue from her perspective. I shared it with the class, then put it away while I continued working on other manuscripts.
But something was becoming clear from Barbara’s classes and my learning process: I needed to be writing about what made my blood boil, what made me sit up and take notice. What I couldn’t stop talking about. My soapboxes, for lack of a better word, became clear:
The challenges of single parenting.
Faith, hope, and love.
The manuscript I’d written and queried dealt with a single parent and the assault on her deaf teenager. It fit several of my soapboxes, but the story still lacked my personal thumbprint. I was trying to be a writer I wasn’t. While querying, I had started another Jodi Picoult-esque story. But now something else was calling me. I’d written forty thousand words but kept hearing this other voice.
It terrified me.
It was my Grandma again. It wasn’t that she was scary. It was that I knew nothing of her true story beyond that one detail. I knew nothing, really, about 1920s or 1930s Kentucky. I was from Kentucky, had lived there as a kid, visited the Cincinnati metro area growing up, and yet, I was pretty clueless about the region. I had a child’s eye view. I did not believe I could write this story. I tried to ignore her and continued querying the other story.
Finally, I acknowledged I probably wasn’t going to get an agent, much less sell the story I’d pinned such high hopes on. But the bigger realization was that it wasn’t the right one anyway. I put it away, along with the other half-finished novel, and explored this new idea more seriously.
In a month, I conjured up characters, a narrative outline, and small bits of writing—notably, the first two chapters and two of the final chapters of Calling Me Home.
And I was still terrified.
I was writing a naïve, impulsive 16-year-old girl in love with someone she could never hope to spend her life with, given the era and setting.
I was also writing the voice of a 36-year-old single mother. A black single mother. A hairdresser. One with a stubborn smoking habit.
I have been a teenager in love.
I have been a single mother.
But there was so much I had no experience with. Did I have any business writing it?
But Grandma said, “Keep going.”
And soon I remembered what I was writing about. I was writing about the things that had long burned within my heart, the things that made me sit up and take notice, the things I couldn’t stop talking about: Racism. Marginalization. Single parents struggling to find a place in a world that caters to pairs. Maybe most of all, the role of faith and hope when it comes to love.
I wasn’t, in many cases, writing what I personally knew. But I was writing what I knew to be true. What was right and what was wrong. What has changed and what still needs to change. How we are all so different—and so much the same.
Little by little, I also recognized I was writing a story unlike any I’d tried to emulate.
This one was really and truly mine.
A little more than a year later, I had an agent. Within a few months, we sold Calling Me Home to St. Martin’s Press at auction, as well as translation rights to several foreign territories in preempts or auctions—beyond my wildest expectations.
I know this won’t happen for every writer in precisely this way (trust me, I pinch myself daily), but I believe keeping your ear to the ground, learning and listening, mining the things that really drive you and get your heart racing—even if it takes a few tries—is the way to find the “right one.”
And all I can say is, when the right one comes along? Don’t let it get away. (Ironically, this is something my characters talk about in Calling Me Home, too!)
That’s what was true for me, but what about you? Are you writing the right story? How can you tell? If you’re published, how did you know?