In this installment of my Author Up Close series, I share a Q&A with debut author Catherine Adel West. Catherine and I are social media friends, and I’ve been impressed with the way she has navigated becoming a debut author during this unprecedented time. Her novel, Saving Ruby King, which Kirkus calls “a multilayered love letter to South Side Chicago’s African American faith-based community,” tackles the complex topics of faith and family and the secrets that can bind or break them.
Saving Ruby King debuts on June 16, and even in the midst of a busy launch, Catherine took the time to offer great advice to writers about making their query letters stand out, researching genres, and publishing during a pandemic.
GW: One of my favorite parts of this series is hearing author origin stories: the stories behind what propelled them from people who only thought about writing, to people who actually wrote and either queried or published a novel. What’s your author origin story?
CAW: It took me five years from beginning to end to write the rough draft of Saving Ruby King. It was the first book I ever wrote. Originally, it was a short story idea, and at a wedding I was speaking to an old college classmate, and she suggested I write a book. I had NO experience, but I had two degrees in journalism and figured how hard is it to write a book? Turns out it’s incredibly hard to write a book. Go figure!
Saving Ruby King started out as a hobby, became a passion, and soon turned into an obsession. Once I finished what I thought was the final draft (turns out I had at least 10 more versions to go), I began querying. At first, I didn’t know what I was doing, but luckily I had fantastic friends in my corner who are also writers. They helped me further hone my story and develop my query letter. One friend, Kevin Savoie, was instrumental in helping me navigate the querying process. I had many close calls with agents, including an R&R, and was feeling discouraged when I decided to again participate in #DVPit—a contest for POC/marginalized writers—in April 2018. After an offer of publication from an indie press, I notified the other agents with whom I had full manuscript requests, and Beth Marshea of Ladderbird Literary offered me rep, and I happily accepted Beth’s offer. It took me nine months to land a literary agent.
I went with Beth as she had such a passion for my story, and I knew I could always trust her to have my best interests at heart. After a round of edits, we went on submission and my book was acquired by Park Row/HarperCollins within six weeks!
From writing to publication, I’ve had astounding highs and lows, but I’m so grateful for where the journey has led me thus far.
GW: Agents receive dozens of queries during any given month, so when they make a request for more pages, it means you’ve done something right. What do you think made your query stand out, and what advice would you give authors who are currently querying?
CAW: I believe one of the things that made my query stand out was the concise passion with which I spoke about my story. I didn’t do a deep dive into my characters and their motivations. I simply stated who my characters were, their relationships, and the stakes.
Having good comparable titles can engage prospective agents and signal you know your book well. And make sure the agents you’re querying represent your chosen genre.
Lastly, make sure your word count matches the genre you’re writing in. Don’t try and write a 200,000-word fantasy/sci-fi debut. Research your genres. Research successful query letters, and if you have agented friends who don’t mind, ask them to read your query letter before you send it to your top choices for literary representation. These steps can make all the difference.
GW: Saving Ruby King, deals with heavy topics, religion being one of them. Why these topics, and as you were writing, was there anything pushing you forward or pulling you away from telling the story?
CAW: All humans deal with religion—either the estrangement or inundation of it. How does this shape the people we become? This theme was important to explore, but more than that, the examination of black father/daughter relationships (which aren’t highlighted enough) was also important for me to write about. I wanted to explore what religion can do to families along with the darker impulses of the human heart. It was cathartic in that it helped me diagnose certain issues I had with my own father.
I’m pretty at peace with what I’ve written, so there wasn’t anything pulling me away from the story. If there are people who are religious or people I love that may not agree with how I’ve written this story, then that is something they’d have to reconcile with themselves, as my art is always open for interpretation. But, seldom am I moved one way or the other with someone’s dislike of it (cue NeNe Leaks ‘I said what I said’ gif).
I thought finishing the story would somehow give me a peace with familial relationships. I’m not sure I was successful in that journey, but I got one helluva story out of it in the process, and I suppose that’s all I can ask.
GW: Release dates are often scheduled years in advance, and your debut is slated for a June 2020 launch, in the midst of the world learning how to live with Coronavirus. How has this affected your plans for your launch? How have you had to adapt to the changing publishing landscape that’s occurred as a result of the pandemic?
CAW: For me, the main difference is having to do my launch virtually, though I plan on having a physical launch later this year when it is safe enough for us to do so. I’m pretty social, so being on Zoom or Instagram Live isn’t anything new to me, and I really look forward to reaching way more people virtually than I’d be able to in a physical launch or other events. I have a really good team behind me at Park Row and they are having great success with virtual launch events, so I’m not particularly worried about it and am really looking forward to talking to people about Saving Ruby King in a few weeks.
Catherine Adel West’s novel, Saving Ruby King, drops on June 16, 2020. To learn more about Catherine and her novel, visit her at www.catherineadelwest.com.
To read about the other authors featured in the Author Up Close series, click here.
Now it’s your turn: what advice would you give querying writers, and how are you handling writing and publishing during the pandemic?