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“What Did Your Book Teach You?” A Wisdom-Filled Q&A with Four Authors

[1]A couple years ago in Tucson, I had the pleasure of sitting down to supper with a remarkable handful of author friends: Jean Kwok, Edan Lepucki, and Scott Turrow. We’d traveled across the miles for a book festival and had spent the day at our various speaking events. All were exhausted, slightly sweaty, and hungry, which lent both a familial and illusive vibe to our gathering.

The restaurant was western themed: colored lights had been strung between red pepper skeins; the walls were a rainbow of Mexican tiles; a giant Long Horn skull hung over the entrance. The building was a local icon and had once been the town’s signature hotel. We sat inside away from the patio crowd despite our knees banging into one another under the table. Intimate was the word we whispered. That didn’t bother us. Our waitress had an Annie Oakley drawl and was quick and skilled on the pours. Mariachi music played faintly from a jukebox.

I couldn’t tell you what we ate or drank, though I know we did because our table was full of empty dishes in the photos. While substantial, the meal wasn’t what filled us. The company did. For hours, we talked of our writing, our business, our loved ones, those we admire, and our dreams for the future. As storytellers, it’s important to listen, too. To stop supplying the narratives and allow our own creative cup to be replenished by others. I loved hearing how each friend came to write and publish and be; what they struggled with then and now; and most importantly, the path they saw ahead.

It’s an incredible gift for a writer to find a group of peers she both admires and trusts. I’d go so far as to say that it is an essential of being a progressive author— an author in progress—the art of communal learning.

Scott and Jean shared a piece of cake for dessert. I ate all the whipped cream off Edan’s chocolate mousse. We drank coffee and laughed until the place was about to close up. Scott, being the gentleman that he is, picked up the check, and we left. Writing quills blown to the four winds.

Since then, each of us has given birth to a new book. (In Edan’s case, a book and a baby!) So I thought this might be the perfect opportunity to get the gang back together. In spirit, I’m bumping elbows with Edan and spooning off her plate. Jean and Scott are across the table kicking our shins and lifting glasses. That’s the beauty of our craft and friendship: all we need do is write, and we are together again.

So pull up a chair, friends, the three questions on the virtual table are:

1) What did your first book teach you?
2) What is your current book teaching you?
3) What do you hope to have perfected by the end of your career?

Jean Kwok [2]

Q1: What did your first book teach you?

JK: I was completely clueless when my debut novel took off. I was running behind, trying to figure things out like: how to tweet and how to unfreeze my face when someone took a photo of me. The public aspect of being an author was foreign territory. I’ve learned to concentrate on my interviewer, regardless of how many people may be watching or listening, and to try to give thoughtful, real answers. A seasoned publicity director told me something so simple that has helped me time and time again: “When you get out there, remember to smile. Don’t get stiff. Let people know you’re happy to be there.”

In terms of craft, I had a lot to learn as well. I had always been concerned with the flaws and passions of my characters, but I am much more aware of the technical details of my story now: how old are my characters at every point; what season is it; which day of the week; what are they wearing. I’ve learned that the more solid my fictional world is, the freer my imagination is. I’ve moved from using Word to Scrivener, which makes it much easier for me to deal with a 400-page document and all of the accompanying files.

But perhaps most importantly, I learned to love and admire my readers. They are generous, critical, and smart. I used to write only for myself, but now I write for my readers as well, trying to make sure that their journey through my work is a pleasurable, meaningful one.

Q2: What is your current book teaching you?

JK: I’ve just finished my third novel: a drama set between Europe and the U.S., following the women of a Chinese immigrant family, a mother and two daughters. It’s about what happens when one daughter mysteriously disappears and a series of family secrets begins to emerge.

It’s a book about how hard it is to truly know another person, even someone you might love very much. It’s about jealousy, passion, loyalty and most of all, love.

I had to try to use all of my skills to the utmost in order to write this book. In terms of craft, I was concerned with the two timelines an author always has to keep in mind: A) the order in which events actually happened; and B) the order in which those events are revealed to the reader. Since my new book is told by three different women as they unravel a mysterious disappearance, I was very aware of what information was revealed when so that we could follow along as the mystery evolves. Each woman’s voice is also unique, shaped by her own language and culture.

So I was especially concerned with narrative structure and voice in this novel and I could never have written this book at the beginning of my career.

Q3: What do you hope to have perfected by the end of your career?

JK: I think that many of us are drawn to writing because we love voice and that was certainly true for me. But as I learned more as a novelist, I had to deal with character, pacing, narrative arcs, themes, and symbolism, as well. It’s like I’m juggling and every time, another ball gets added. I hope that someday, I’ll be able to keep all of those balls in the air.

Edan Lepucki [3]

Q1: What did your first book teach you?

EP: Well… my first book isn’t the one I ended up publishing first. This book was called The Book of Deeds and it was an extremely dark novel about a sixteen-year-old girl, her best friend, and the violence they come to inflict on those around them. I still have a special fondness for this weird, little novel; and after four years of writing it, and one year of racking up rejections from every editor in the galaxy, I learned that sometimes you just have to do writing that the world won’t read. I learned a ton from writing this book: the pleasures and limits of the first person; how thorny the retrospective narrator can be; how to balance two time frames, and how to weave them together; and on and on and on. No one can take those lessons from me. The book was flawed, I understand that now; looking back, I’m relieved it didn’t get published because I wasn’t ready, I had a better book in me.

When I started what would become my first published novel, California, I felt free to write what I wanted to write because I didn’t think anyone cared. Of course I despaired over this, but it was also liberating: I had only myself to please. That in the end, has made me a more bold and fearless writer.

Q2: What is your current book teaching you?

EP: My current book, Woman No. 17, which has only been out since early May, is teaching me so much!

One, I’m learning that readers are smarter than I am—that they can reveal my own characters and themes to me through our conversations, their reviews, and so on. For me, a central joy of being a published writer is interacting with perceptive readers and finding new ways to talk about and understand the story I wrote.

Two, I’m learning that what I call a “complicated” character is for others an “unlikable” character. This occasionally wounds me (does it mean I’m unlikable?! Dear God, no!), but it also has gotten me thinking about what I want from my fictional characters. In the end, I simply long to be captivated by characters, and to feel like their desires and pasts and conflicts are complex. With Woman No. 17 I’m learning to own this reading predilection, and to stand by my characters, no matter how flawed, vicious, reckless, or even self-absorbed they seem.

Third, I’ve learned to finally, finally, finally, stop checking my Amazon sales ranking. It’s an opaque number that changes hourly, and no one seems quite sure what it’s measuring. Frankly, I’ve made myself crazy looking at mine. But I haven’t checked in about two weeks, and I’ve got to say: I feel much better!

Q3: What do you hope to have perfected by the end of your career?

EP: Honestly, I don’t want to have perfected anything, because perfection is at odds with the novel, in my opinion. The novel as a form is free-wheeling, sometimes nutty, and you can write one in so many different ways. I want to spend my career challenging myself formally and taking risks—I’d love for each of my books to be different from the last but to also feel like they’re mine, that only I could have written them. My goal is always to write novels that are at once smart and deep, and also entertaining and absorbing. I hope by the end of my career I can lean back in my rocking chair, my faced etched with a zillion wrinkles, and feel content that I’ve done just that. I guess I do want to get better at enjoying the publishing process—to feel more relaxed and grateful about the whole thing. Maybe it’ll get easier—but will it remain exciting?  I hope so!  Sigh—I have a lot to learn…

Scott Turrow [4]

Q1: What did your first book teach you?

ST: I will exercise lawyerly privilege and interpret “first book” with multiple meanings.

The first book I tried to write was a novel I began the summer after my freshman year of college. I had discovered, to my amazement, that Amherst College did not offer creative writing courses, which you might think I would have checked on before enrolling, since I was fierce about saying I wanted to be a novelist. So I wrote that book on the theory that it was the only way I could learn to be a novelist. And I was essentially right. Writers write. Those who do are writers and those who merely think about what they want to write, or just hang out with writers, or only go to readings or even creative writing classes, without writing much, aren’t writers. That freshman novel was widely rejected. But I got a nice note from the Editor in Chief at Farrar Straus & Giroux, Michael di Capua, who advised me to go on to “the next novel you will surely write.” Even that sustained my dreams.

The first book I published, One L, about my experiences as a law student, was a pure fluke. I wrote my agent to tell her, somewhat shame-facedly, that after 5 years involved with the Creative Writing Center at Stanford, including teaching there, that I was abandoning academic life, but not my literary dreams. To prove the latter point, I offered the observation that I hadn’t found a good book about the day-to-day experiences of law students. A contract followed without so much as a phone call before the document appeared in my mailbox.  After writing four unpublished novels, I was astounded and realized then what has only become truer as the years have gone on: the great break of my literary career was going to law school. Lessons? Many. But you will never succeed in the arts if you can’t take a punch. Get back up. And keep going.

Q2: What is your current book teaching you?

ST: The book I’m out promoting, Testimony, has been an odd experience. I really liked the book while I was writing it, and I loved the process. But it’s only now that I’ve gotten some distance that I recognize its challenges. I was so confident that I could handle learning about the International Criminal Court, the Roma people, and the Bosnian War that I gave almost no thought to the possibility of failing as a writer with the novel. Weird in retrospect. I should have been scared to death.

Q3: What do you hope to have perfected by the end of your career?

ST: To this one I have no answers. I think dreaming of perfecting anything is probably misleading. You change as a writer as you age—energy level declines and knowledge increases. Both facts have an impact. Personally, I’m pleased that I’ve never let myself off the hook, never said, “This book isn’t that good, maybe I’ll do better next time.” I’ve always tried to do my absolute best by the time I let go of a book.

Turnabout is fair play…

Sarah McCoy [5]

Q1: What did your first book teach you?

SM: As Scott rightly put it, the term “first book” has wobbly interpretation. The first novel I ever wrote was a train wreck. I only let one person (my trusted first reader to this day) look at it. I received more than a few well-deserved rejection letters on its behalf. One woman, agent Molly Friedrich, took the time to talk to me on the phone about my writing. She told me she saw potential, but it was buried beneath immature defects. It stung pretty bad. But it also gave me hope and direction. I quit my job as a public relations coordinator and enrolled in graduate school for my masters of fine arts in creative writing. The book might’ve been a major flop, but it was an invaluable lesson for me: writing isn’t a lightning bolt of stardom. It’s hard work—grueling, ceaseless hard work. You’ve got to be willing to get punched in the gut, face, fanny, and get back up. Not once but over and over.

The first book I wrote that was published was The Time It Snowed In Puerto Rico, my thesis novel to graduate from my MFA program. What did I learn from that book? Shoot. Everything. It was three years of daily labor: workshops with fellow writers, reading classic literature, studying narrative craft, doing comparative papers, teaching (and learning much from!) my freshman writing students, and writing my novel in the nuggets of free time. It was intense, but I wouldn’t change a minute. It taught me the truth: God-given talent is beautiful but without putting in the sweat, aptitude alone won’t produce success.

Q2: What is your current book teaching you?

SM: The book I’m working on now is called Marilla. It’s the story of Marilla Cuthbert, the adopted mother of Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables. How very much this novel has already taught me, and I’m not even through writing! I’m sure more lessons are on the way.

One thing I’ve learned through the process of coming to write this book is that it’s important that we (writers) be willing to write the story that needs writing now. This may mean that we shelf another story we have on our hearts. I wrote an entire other novel that has been published internationally but will not publish to English readers for the time. Marilla comes first.

I’ll be honest, that was a tough pill to swallow. I spent many long hours contemplating my own ego (“I wrote this other novel, it should publish next!”) versus the comprehensive good of each story. It’s been a humbling process of realization that it isn’t one book or another that matters. What matters is that we, authors, write the stories that call our hearts and minds, even if they aren’t published in the time we expect, even if they never see a printing press. We write to create. We create to live. We live to write. It’s a circle we must accept or the nature of it will grind us like grist.

Q3: What do you hope to have perfected by the end of your career?

SM: I’m a perfectionist who doesn’t believe in perfection. So does that make me a sadist or a realistic with an OCD affliction? You tell me. What I hope is that by the end of my career, I will have said something through my books that sparks a light of recognition, consideration, and change in someone. I hope I will have written stories that are remembered long after I’m forgotten.

Your turn to join our discussion:

1) What did your first book teach you?

2) What is your current book teaching you?

3) What do you hope to have perfected by the end of your career?

About Sarah McCoy [6]

SARAH McCOY is the New York TimesUSA Today, and international bestselling author of The Mapmaker’s Children [7]; The Baker’s Daughter [8], a 2012 Goodreads Choice Award Best Historical Fiction nominee; the novella “The Branch of Hazel” in Grand Central [9]; and The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico [10]. Her work has been featured in Real Simple, The Millions, Your Health Monthly, Huffington Post [11] and other publications. She has taught English writing at Old Dominion University and at the University of Texas at El Paso. She calls Virginia home but presently lives with her husband, an orthopedic sports doctor, and their dog, Gilly, in Chicago, Illinois. Connect with Sarah on Twitter [12] at @SarahMMcCoy, on her Facebook Fan Page [13], Goodreads [14], or via her website, www.sarahmccoy.com [5].