An Interview with Ann Weisgarber

The PromiseThis week I’m happy to have the opportunity to bring you an interview with Ann Weisgarber, author of The Promise and The Personal History of Rachel DuPree. I met Ann at a conference a few years ago, read her novel shortly thereafter and was delighted by the project’s inception (you’ll read about that in a moment), and completely curious about her main character. Then I found out the subject of her next novel, The Promise, and waited with great anticipation for its release. Set against the backdrop of the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, this novel absolutely will not let you go. The Promise is a 2014 finalist for the Walter Scott Prize in historical fiction, a Pulpwood Queen book-of-the-month club pick, and a 2014 Spur Award Finalist for Best Historical Fiction. Please visit Ann’s website for more information.

1) Tell us the story of how you came to write The Promise. What made you want to explore these characters–and the 1900 Galveston hurricane–in such depth?

When I finished my first novel, I freelanced for a Galveston magazine, The Islander. My task was to write articles about people who had unusual jobs. For one assignment, I interviewed a brother and sister who owned and managed a small grocery store on the rural end of the island. They’d moved there with their parents in 1963, and their stories about rural island life fascinated me. The tap water was rusty and not safe to drink, electricity went out frequently, and there were more rattlesnakes than people.

If that was life in 1963, what was the rural end of Galveston like during 1900 when a massive hurricane hit the island and killed over 6,000 people? That question drove me to the Galveston library where I found very little information about the people who once lived outside of the city limits. It seemed that Galveston’s dairy farmers, ranchers, and fishermen had been forgotten, and that felt like an injustice. The Promise is my way of remembering those people.

2) How did living (at least part-time) at the scene of the 1900 hurricane inform your writing? What kind of research did you undertake, and what fascinated you most about what you learned?

Spending time in Galveston allowed me to watch the pelicans, listen to the surf, and feel the heat of August. I’ve also been through several hurricanes, although not on the island. That’s the last place I want to be during a storm and when the Galveston mayor issues mandatory evacuations, I don’t have to be asked twice to leave. I’ve seen the aftermath of hurricanes and have witnessed the slow, painful process of rebuilding. These experiences helped me write The Promise.

I also spent hours in The Galveston and Texas History Center at Galveston’s Rosenberg Library. There, I saw a photo of the nuns and orphans who lived at St. Mary’s Home in 1900. Another source described the sand dunes on the rural end of the island but in 1900 they were called sand hills. I also found the names of people who died in the storm.

In addition, I interviewed people who had long ties to the rural end and learned that in 1900 the beach was strewn with washed-ashore trees and debris tossed from ships. Someone mentioned that many Galvestonians drank bottled mineral water because the well water had a bad taste. Others mentioned the ridge road. Many of these details found their way into the story.

3) I still find the end of The Promise shocking. Without spoiling the surprise for those of us who haven’t read the novel yet, can you tell us why you made the choices you made? Or do you feel as if the storyline was actually fairly well out of your control?

Initially, the ending shocked me too but after trying other endings, this was the one that felt right. It’s in keeping with historical accounts of what happened at the time of the hurricane. It also reflects the shock many survivors experienced after the storm.

4) The idea for your previous novel, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, came to you almost out of nowhere. Can you tell us that story, then talk a bit about why you’re drawn to these specific historical moments or periods? Do you ever have an inclination to write something contemporary?

You’re so right, Jennifer. The first novel did seem to come almost out of nowhere. It was inspired by an old photograph I’d seen while on vacation at Badlands National Park in South Dakota. The photo was of an unnamed woman sitting by herself in front of a sod dugout. I couldn’t imagine how anyone would attempt to homestead alone but there she was. I was also surprised she was African American. I hadn’t known there were black settlers and homesteaders in the West.

The woman in the photo haunted me. She was alone in an isolated landscape. After the vacation, I found information about black settlers but the accounts were factual and dry. This woman, I felt sure, had a rich and meaningful story. I felt her pushing me to give her a story, and eventually I did. I felt her with me through the entire writing process.

I felt the same kind of push from the people who were on the rural end of Galveston on September 8, 1900. Like the women in the photo, they had been nearly forgotten. These are the kinds of stories that speak to me.

I didn’t realize I wrote historical fiction until someone gave me that label. I’m happy with that since I can’t imagine writing contemporary fiction. I enjoy leaving my modern life and spending time in a different century.

5) Both of your novels have very distinctive female characters. What calls you to write about women’s experience? How do your female characters negotiate their relationship with the men in their lives?

I admire women whose lives seem uneventful until crises, either internal or external, tear their worlds apart. Somehow, though, they must carry on while looking after children, cooking meals, doing laundry, and holding down their jobs. They may want to fall apart, and maybe some of them do, but most women pick themselves up and find the strength to make difficult choices.

Since my novels take place before the women’s liberation movement, my female characters typically maneuver the men in their lives in subtle ways. Many women had to be cautious since they didn’t have access to money or were unable to support their children if they left their husbands. While writing the first book, I read diaries written by women. Many of them understood they could not make demands of their husbands or ask direct and pointed questions. Instead, they were skilled in applying the light touch and this method often allowed them to get their way.

6) I’m always curious about the process of other writers. Do you outline? Spread notecards around you and create some kind of timeline? Or do you dive right into the story?

I begin with a general idea about the plot and write a one-page summary to give the illusion that I have a plan. Then I make an outline for the first chapter. Once I finish that, I go back and fill in the gaps until the outline begins to read like a story. Then I’m on to the outline for the next chapter.

It usually doesn’t take long before I’ve strayed from the summary, and that’s fine. Nothing is written in stone and research discoveries often change the course of the story.

I’d like to add that I meet every Friday with my writing critique group. We each bring six pages of our projects and the feedback I receive is invaluable. These writers have seen me through both novels, and I hope they’ll see me through the next one.

7) Tell us about your relationship with your novels. Do you prefer one book over the other? Do you have a favorite character? Once the book is published, do you ever reread what you’ve written, or do you close the door on those characters once their stories have been told?

The characters in both novels are dear friends, and I have difficulty parting from them once their stories are finished. Fortunately, I meet with many book clubs for both novels so their stories continue to be part of my life.

Rachel DuPree will probably always be my favorite character. She was inspired by a woman in the photograph that I mentioned in the fourth question. That woman made me become a writer and changed the direction of my life. I will always be grateful to her and for the book she inspired.

8) What can you tell us about your next project?

I’m working on a novel that takes place in Utah’s canyon country during the winter of 1888. The narrator is a 37-year-old woman who helps polygamists hide from U.S. marshals. I’m not all that far along and the plot has deviated far from the original one-page summary so I’m afraid to say anything more.

9) What books are you reading right now? Give us a glimpse of your bedside table!

I’m a fan of your novels and although I finished your latest novel, The Crossing, a while ago, it’s still on my mind. I’ve just started Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. The Promise has been shortlisted along with it for the UK’s Walter Scott Prize in Historical Fiction, and in June I’ll be on a panel with the other finalists. My goal is to read the other five novels.

If I may, I’d like to add that I recently read Juliet West’s Before the Fall which takes place in London’s East End during World War 1. I was spellbound. I was also captivated by Gary Schanbacher’s Crossing Purgatory. Much of the story is set in eastern Colorado before the Civil War. It’s one that I want to reread.

Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

A Day in This Writer’s Life

Many days I’ve spent in isolation, save for the company of my characters. Those days are some of my favorites. I like nothing more–as you know, if you’ve spent any time reading my blog posts–than getting lost in my characters’ heads. But I don’t always have the luxury of entire days to myself. I’m a mother, a friend, a reluctant dog owner. I, too, run out of groceries and cave to invitations of wine, even when I have stories in my head clamoring for release.

And still I make it through. I make it through because I’m always thinking of my work. My characters seep in around the edges of my consciousness, and carry me. They really do.

I thought you might want to know how that works. How this writer’s life fills up with images and phrases and moments stolen from others who will never know that their look, their smile, their particular turn of phrase ended up fodder for inspiration.

My alarm goes off. It’s light outside, but barely. I’m not thinking about my characters at all. I’m thinking about fixing beds and packing lunches and cajoling my child. But then, on the way to the bus stop an hour later, an SUV catches my eye. We’re at a stoplight, and the driver isn’t wearing a shirt. I can tell because his window’s open. Large sunglasses hide his eyes. He’s young. I’m already combing through my characters. Would Adam drive anywhere without a shirt? Hell no. Would James? Maybe… Joel?

I can think of six thousand reasons why Joel would end up behind the wheel of his Explorer without a shirt. And those reasons stay with me through drop-off, through a trip to the bank and a fill-up at the gas station down the street.

Then I’m home. I step in my house and take a deep breath; there’s a whiff of something other here, in this seventy-four-year-old house of mine, and I know there are days when Joel walks through his front door and breathes in the same scent.

Connection: that easy.

Breakfast, email, time to tweet. Last night I happened to stumble across a link to a live show of Soulhat’s, from August of ’91. I watched it over and over, and now I play it again as I post the link on Twitter. I might have been at that show; I know Joel and James were.

More email, some copywriting for a friend who’s launching her website later this month, then lunch with author Susan Michalski. We meet at South Austin Trailer Park & Eatery, because we’re obsessing about tacos and Topo Chico. I’m well aware that Torchy’s opened in 2006, after Adam moved to Seattle. I wonder if James has ever been. Sue and I talk about our work and nothing but our work for an hour: what we’re writing, who’s reading what we’re writing, what it’s like to watch a photographer shoot a scene that we’ve written. I envy the fact that she needs only a few hours of sleep a night: how much more could I write if I slept less than six hours?

I know how much. I’ve done it before.

Back home my terrier screams at the neighbor’s dog as I sit down at the table on my back porch. I want to string some colored lights around the railing like James does in The Crossing, but I can’t find an electrical outlet. I post something on my Facebook author page, a question about who would be more likely to see a psychic, Joel, James or Adam. I scroll through my email again, fill out an enrollment application for school for my son, message a friend of a friend who wants me to tutor her daughter in creative writing. I have one hour left to get in my yoga practice before I have to run to the store and then head back to that bus stop. Yoga: today I tie my hair in a ponytail at the nape of my neck, where Joel would tie his.

I wouldn’t say I spend my entire yoga practice in Joel’s body, but I’m there for more than a breath.

I head to the bus stop. I have a convertible of my own and I put the top down on the way. Joel had a convertible, back in ’95. He doesn’t talk much about the wind in his hair in The Crossing, but he does in book three. The music I play as I’m driving has James written all over it, especially “February Stars” by the Foo Fighters.

I pick up my son. He wants an entire meal at 4:30, and a water balloon fight in the backyard. He has way better aim than I do. By the time we’re finished I’m soaking wet and have to leave to tutor another student. I drop my son off at a friend’s house in Hyde Park, not too far from my house, and just blocks away from where James rented that garage apartment in graduate school. I’m tempted to drive up Avenue G, to see if I can spot the place. Instead my eye’s drawn to two men walking along the sidewalk to my left. I notice them just as they reach a place where hedges on either side of the sidewalk grow tall enough, and curve inward enough, to form a tunnel. So cool. I want to know what they’re doing in there, what’s being said. I want to know which of my characters would disappear into that tunnel, but I really don’t have to think for long.

It’s Joel and James. Of course.

I tutor. I pick up my son. He wants more food, and book time, and help falling asleep. I end up answering emails on my phone: I’m trying to get on a panel at the Texas Book Festival, and author Ann Weisgarber wants to update me on the interview questions I sent her. My friend has questions about her copyedits. My marketing expert needs me to write up a description of a special project I’ve undertaken. I feel like I should take advantage of the hour I have before sleep overtakes me to write a bit, but I’m not sure I’m in the right mental space. I spend my time texting with various friends. I like connection.

By midnight I’m done. I fall asleep thinking of that guy in the SUV this morning. I liked his arms. Where can I work that in?

Somewhere. Undoubtedly. At the very least it’s in my head.

Where I’m always writing, even when I’m not.

Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

An Interview with Susan Michalski

Today I’m happy to introduce you to Susan Michalski, author of Safe Distances

Safe Distances

and the upcoming novel, Stellar Navigation. I met Susan through a mutual friend, and when I read her first novel I was struck by the similarities in our themes: trauma and repression, memory and betrayal. Though her fiction falls under the YA umbrella, she doesn’t shy away from adult content. Her upcoming novel, Stellar Navigation, is due out this summer.

1) Tell us how the idea for your Geodesy Series came to you. How long has this story been taking up your mental space?

I had this idea years ago, like in my thirties, about twins who had gone through an enormous tragedy that triggered psychic powers and they would go out on the astral plain and find others like themselves and lure them into this sort of messed up little commune. I actually wrote that book too, but it was horrible, and I knew that there was no saving it because the plot was so thin. Then years later the plot of SD came along with Sage, so I went back and stole the twins from that book, made them younger, and focused the story on surviving trauma rather than perpetuating it. I have always loved young adult fiction and since I am totally a young soul, that genre was the perfect fit. As far as mental space, I have been living with this story for a decade, but I didn’t get serious about researching PTSD and parapsychology experiments until maybe 2010. I started the character journals that summer too, so I could develop really distinct voices and personalities for each of them. The back stories of characters emerged from the journals. Essentially the characters told me their stories. Weird. I know.

2) Describe for us your relationship with your characters. What made you want to write more than one novel about them?

I love this question because I do have a relationship with each of them, just like the “real” people in my life. Sometimes I love them and root for them, and sometimes they tick me off and make me want to scream at them to wake up and smell the espresso! Sage is the character I most relate to. I think I kind of blow through my life, sucking the marrow out of every experience like she does. I never judge or let some societal norm keep me from being open to love on lots of levels. The downside is that, like Sage, my decisions aren’t always the wisest or the most thoughtful. I get Sage and I love her openness and hate her foolishness. Elena is like my best friend, the one who sees all the beauty in life even though her naiveté is maddening at times. She is like a luminescent moth in a pitch dark forest, real and ethereal in a way I wish I was, but can never be, so I just want to be near it to breathe it in. I will save the boys for the next question, but I have both maternal and sexual feelings for both of them. I just love guys and their otherness (I know you get this). They are like these miraculous, strong, gorgeous beings that have such an intense vulnerability that is so unlike feminine vulnerability. The cool thing about my characters is that they each represent an element. It wasn’t exactly planned, but once I noticed it, I brought it out as much as I dared. So Sage is Earth, Elena is Air, Finn is Fire, and Ethan is Water. Their relationships play out much the way the elements mix, too. Wild the way the subconscious contrives all that. That’s the magic of being a writer, just saying.

3) You know that I adore Finn, and Ethan makes me crazy. How have your other readers responded to your characters? Do you have a favorite?

I love that you love Finn and hate Ethan. In fact I channeled some of your hatred into Dr. Robineau in Stellar Navigation when she calls him spoiled and stubborn. As for others, I would say, to the person, every reader prefers one or the other, and the split is about 50/50. Oddly, it’s the mothers of boys who hate Ethan the most. I think that’s why I love him the most. He is my favorite character, though the hardest to write, probably because his story arc is the widest. He is the most damaged and therefore has the longest journey to take. Plus I just want to take care of him and make it all better. He won’t let me, luckily, because that would be a really boring story. Finn is the fave of all the single ladies. What can I say? He is HOT! What girl can resist the bad boy? Not me. That’s for sure. My male readers all want to BE Finn so they choose him over Ethan, too.

4) You write a damn good sex scene. Do they come easily to you? How have your readers responded?

For all the writers out there hoping to write a sizzling sex scene one day, listen up. This is THE secret. Have sex with lots of people: boys girls older younger gentle and rough. Then stop for a LONG TIME. The only way to write great sex is to know what it feels like and to feel like you will never have it again in the flesh. Too much detail, I’m sure, but detail is key. If you feel that depth of longing, you will experience (and write) every tactile, aural, visual, nasal, and (What is the adjective for taste?) taste detail that leaps vividly from your memory. One of my largest groups of readers is men between 30 and 60. I’m sure you can guess why they like the book so much.

5) We have some similar themes in our writing: trauma, memory and repression, to name a few. Why do you feel drawn to these topics?

Another great question. Trauma shapes us in ways that scientists are only beginning to understand. It changes the brain chemistry, altering the essence of who we are, for better or worse. Trauma gives us a choice: let it make me stronger or let it destroy me (though the choice may be programmed before we are even born). I think people who are made better, faster, stronger through trauma are ABOVE the rest of the population in some way. Something about earning stripes comes to mind. Memory is another one of those great unknowns. My interest in it stems from growing up with 7 siblings, and though we grew up in the same house and lived the same events, it never fails that we remember them in vastly different ways. Our minds are not video recorders that capture facts in the form of memory. Instead the mind is like a sculptor and the event is the clay. The memory molds and morphs the event to suit our needs and it never stops, so a memory of my 11th birthday today might be miles from what it will be when I am 70. And yet, memory to us is REAL and hard to the touch. We stake our lives on it quite literally sometimes, never grasping that memory is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. Repression is the sculptor turned magician, because he takes what is there and makes it seem to disappear, but it resides all along in the lining of the sleeve just waiting to fall out and reveal itself. The stuff of great stories real and imagined! Book four, Finn’s story, deals with that in spades.

6) How do you categorize your fiction? Do you consider yourself more of a Young Adult writer, an Emerging Adult writer? Who reads Safe Distances?

I categorically refuse to categorize my series! But I did ask a librarian to take a stab at it. Geodesy Series is NOT “Emerging Adult” or “New Adult” fiction largely because that very emerging genre space is occupied mainly by romances. And while Safe Distances has some romantic moments, the story is really a mystery of histories, and the other two installments are more action/adventure/mystery with very little romance. I don’t really fit well into the YA space either, which is becoming a landscape of post-apocalyptic revolutions, horror stories, and supernatural romances with a sad cancer story or two thrown in for good measure. Again my books are none of these, but the characters age from 17 to 21 in the series and the themes appeal to a similarly aged audience, I think. YA also has some really specific rules that I break, too: no sexual content beyond kissing and no swear words, but any amount of violence is AOK. (Meg Cabot breaks these rules too, so I am at least in good company). So the verdict is that the Geodesy Series is young adult fiction for older teens and above.

7) Tell us a little bit about your writing process. Do you furiously write for hours and then revise, or do you deliberate over every word? Do you prefer writing longhand or do you need your computer to really get in to your story? Do you write mostly at night or during the day? And (I always love this question) what do you snack on while you’re working?

Back in the day I needed an hour to get in the mood with candles and wine (like courting sex), but now I can do it on the fly for ten minutes while I’m waiting in the traffic line to pick up my kid from school or in my work cubicle at lunch time. (Like quicky, baby-making sex after 10 years of marriage – it gets the job done). I am only half-joking, really. So I spend a good deal of time at the front end getting to know my characters. The plot comes to me like a bolt of lightning all at once with a profound headache that follows. I take that and break it into “scenes” like it’s a movie in my mind. Then I jot down the director notes (dramatic goals for each scene: mood, plot, forward, character evolutions, funny moments) with an opening hook and a closing zinger for each chapter. (This changes a bit as I roll forward, but it gives me some rails to ride on). Then I just go chronologically. I live the events of the story in my mind while I’m walking, running, showering, cooking, driving, breathing (sometimes the events don’t make it into the novel but they happen anyway). Then as soon and as fast as I can I get that part of the story in writing. I move back and forth each time I sit down to write, honing a part I already wrote and writing new material too, even if I only have ten minutes and I only get one sentence written. The going back gets me back into the scene and the moving forward moves me forward. The bottom line is that because the movie is always playing, I am desperate to get it down on the page. It eats at me until I do. Also I NEVER EVER stop at the end of a chapter or book. I get at least a third of the way through the next chapter or book before I revise the one I finished. This is because of what I like to call the faucet principle. As long as the faucet is running (even if it is only at a ten minute trickle some days) then the pipes can’t freeze up. It’s all about inertia. A writer in motion tends to stay in motion; a writer at rest tends to get blocked and depressed. Revision has to wait because it exists in a different realm in my brain, and if I turn on the part that is good at revision, the part that is good at creating immediately turns off, and you know what happens to the flow then. I never eat when I write. It’s too intense for me. It would be like eating when I’m running. But I do drink, anything anyone else serves me. Getting up to get a drink is out of the question.

8) I know you’ve done some photo shoots of scenes from both Safe Distances and Stellar Navigation. What has that experience been like for you?

OMG! It has been like bringing the novel to life. I can only imagine the elation of having a novel brought to life in a movie or series. The kids who I found to become the characters are nothing short of perfect in so many ways, and my photographer (one of the first people who read my book) gets the vision in his soul. He is a real artist with all the emotion and sensitivity that this kind of project calls for. I also have a composer writing a score for the book trailers too. Lots of pieces to make come together, and even though it has been time consuming, it has inspired me in my writing in ways I never imagined. On kind of a crazy note though, I have a tough time sometimes when I’m interacting with the kids, separating the real person from the character. I might be having a conversation with Jeremy, the pedicab driver with a philosophy degree, but my heart is talking to Ethan. It freaks me out a little.

9) How soon will we have the next installment (and can you give us a teaser)?

My goal is to have Stellar Navigation out by my birthday at the end of June. I am past the halfway point, and I tend to write faster and faster as I get into a book. With Safe Distances I wrote the last 250 pages in less than 10 weeks, and I only have maybe 150 left to go on this book. As for a teaser, I will tell you that Stellar Navigation is Elena’s story and it is all about power and weakness and how they are ultimately illusions. Like SD, SN is a mystery of motivations. WHY? WHY? WHY? is what the reader will ask again and again. I have some amazing new characters to love. Cayde is a fourteen-year-old, hyperactive, telekinetic, black boy with a goofy sense of humor and the sunniest of outlooks in the face of great darkness. His foil is a nineteen-year-old girl named Jordan who is all about the dead, who she writes to on a black wall with an awl. The there’s Jamie, the mentor, who shows Elena her power despite his weaknesses. The crossing-character is Dr. Caroline Robineau. I’ll let you figure out if she is evil or good. The through theme from Safe Distances is the deep and dark secrets that all the characters keep and eventually reveal with devastating consequences. Maybe you will like Ethan a little more this time around, but he does take a dark turn. It was inevitable. Wasn’t it?

Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved