Recently I answered a few questions for Gef Fox’s Den for Dark Fiction about the impetus for writing my latest novel, Sugarland; writers who inspire me; and my least favorite writing advice. I thought I’d post an excerpt here.
What was the spark that made you sit down to write Sugarland?
I was listening to an early piece of jazz—“Si Tu Vois Ma Mere” played by the great Sidney Bechet, and I realized I was imagining a story in the back of my mind. A woman was walking down a cold, winter road looking for something or someone. That’s all I knew.
How long have you been toiling away at your craft, and how have you found your progression as a writer thus far?
I’ve been writing since I was about five years old, only back then it was with crayon on wallpaper. Since then I’ve graduated to paper and even sometimes computer.
My first published book, 12 Bliss Street, was a mystery, which I think is absolutely the best genre for a new writer to cut her teeth on, since writing a mystery really teaches you how to build up a plot, and prepare (and exploit) reader expectations. In mysteries, every plot point is a development of something that has happened previously. There’s no wandering (even if it seems, at times, like there’s no clear direction). That’s good practice for any kind of writer.
As I move into historical fiction I find that, whether my novels include crime-solving or not, I want the plot to move fast and have a lot of twists. But every twist has to have its own logic within the story. You have to make a case for it. Sometimes I think that writing is a lot like being a lawyer.
Who do you count among your writing influences?
Dickens, definitely, for his sense of fun and his amazing characters.
What’s the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?
I studied with a teacher who used to say, “Never go into a character’s head or heart.” This lends distance to the story, in my opinion, and makes it much harder for readers to care about or engage with the character.
I also dislike this advice to new writers: “If you can do anything else, do it.” Sure, writing is hard and can be frustrating and you may not succeed with your project. But I think if you want to write (even if you can do something else—William Carlos Williams sold insurance) you should try! Why not? We’re not all of us going to be Toni Morrison, that’s true, but being creative is an activity that is rewarding in and of itself. At least, I think so.
What kind of guilty pleasures do you have when it comes to books or movies or whatnot?
I love Patrick O’Brian, all his sea-faring tales. Reading read him and reading Jane Austen is like eating comfort food.
What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future?
My next book will be coming out in 2017; it’s tentatively called THE FLOATING THEATRE, and takes place on a riverboat theatre on the Ohio River before the Civil War. A socially awkward costume designer gets caught up in the Underground Railroad— that’s all I’ll say. 🙂