Writing is a trip. Too often, it’s a version of that dream where I forget to pack my underwear and I miss the flight to Rome. Again. My writing self plays mirror to that bungling dream traveler. A little bit lost. A little bit hopeful. Disarranged. Trying.
I am grateful for help along the way and, in particular, for the practical wisdom and generosity of my guest today, the writer Therese Walsh. For the last few years, she has been my calm captain’s voice, the one who tells me to fasten my seatbelt because we’ve hit turbulence. But we’ll all be fine.
Therese knows turbulence. If you haven’t read her essay on how she got her agent, go ahead and do it now. Really. It’s powerful inspiration. Her journey toward publication was neither straight nor easy. There were obstacles. She persevered. She refused to give up on her story, even when it meant “scrapping 99% of the work and starting over.” That’s fearless.
As a reader, I’m grateful she kept that faith. Therese’s first novel, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, is a literary feast of magical realism and myth, interwoven timelines, and a deft balance between first and third person POV. Scrumptious. Her second novel, with the working title The Moon Sisters, promises to be equally stunning.
But even before she published Moira Leahy — before she finished revisions, or found her agent, or signed a publishing contract — Therese and fellow author Kathleen Bolton founded Writer Unboxed. Seven years later, WU has become the go-to site for writers — a map and travelogue and guide book all rolled into one.
Therese has written eloquently about layers of inspiration, ways to jump-start your creativity, and believing in yourself as a writer. She’s tackled fear, second novel survival, middle-of-the-book sag, and too much pathos. She’s brought practical wisdom (and a touch of magic) to character quirks, “writing by ear, by gut, and by instinct,” and relishing those moments when we know why we write and feel blessed inside the journey.
Therese Walsh is, of course, a talented writer, but she is also a generous and compassionate one. That rich faith she had in Moira Leahy? She shares it, often and without reserve. It is a faith in writers, in writing, in the stories that must be told. It is a faith that has sustained me more than once.
Welcome, Therese. And thank you.
In The Last Will of Moira Leahy, Maeve says, “‘Not everything in life can be measured or accounted for by the five known senses.'” This is certainly true in the novel, where the keris, dreams, ghosts and “twin speak” play a significant role in the story’s development. In order to move forward, Maeve must open herself to the unknown. I see definite parallels between that journey and your own journey towards publication. As a writer, how do you react to uncertainty and risk?
What a great question, thank you! Honestly, I am very much like Maeve in that when uncertainty is tied with high stakes, I have a tendency to “stall out” and/or sputter rather than move forward with good grace. I had a challenging time, for example, pushing through the draft of my second novel, The Moon Sisters. The book had to be written, as it was a part of a two-book deal—and trust me, I know how lucky I am to have had it!—but I squinted over the glare of high expectations for many, many months, and just couldn’t seem to see the story.
Another way people react to stress is to express themselves, of course, which Maeve did through her exhaustive study of language. I expressed myself through my writing. Though The Moon Sisters is the story of sisters traveling through West Virginia in an attempt to fulfill one of their deceased mother’s dreams, the story of my publishing journey is there as well, like a hidden second skin.
Stories within stories are a key element in The Last Will of Moira Leahy. Three of these tales in particular seem to fuel the structure and themes of the novel — The Five Chinese Brothers, the pirate heroine Alvida, and the drummer-boy ghost of Castine. I know you’ve written about gathering inspiration from music and art, but how do stories, especially old stories — myths, legends fairytales — fuel your creative process?
I think there’s something to latching onto stories that already exist—like by understanding the bedrock of those stories you already have a handle on what your story will be at its base. That bedrock also provides something to drill. By examining old stories with fresh eyes, you may find new things that can be said of them, new ways in which they might be referenced. And I like that. I love that, actually. (It also hearkens back to my years as a health writer, how I’d need to find a fresh spin to write about something that had already been covered a hundred times. Finding that new bit was the task, the trick, and the key to writing fresh nonfiction.) So I like to dig. I like to find gems in the bedrock, and I like to cash them in for all they’re worth.
Are there similar bedrock stories in your second novel? Can you give us a sneak peek into one of them?
For The Moon Sisters, I did lean on the lore of will-o’-the-wisp lights; these “foolish fires” appear over bog lands and represent things we chase after even though there’s no hope of catching them. That, at least, was present for me since the first page of the first draft, even when the story itself seemed like my own personal “foolish fire” and that I’d never be able to catch it. A novel by Albert Camus plays a large role as well, but I didn’t realize the importance of that book until later.
Here’s a little story that gave me chills. I had been working on my first draft, and I was probably about 75% through it. I had developed a character by the name of Orin, the oppressive grandfather of the Moon sisters. Orin is deceased, but he’s left a legacy of pain and emotional chaos behind, and that is explored via old letters throughout the story. So at this point in the draft, I needed one of the sisters to recall taking one of her mother’s old college books and reading it. I looked at my own bookshelves, and hit upon a section of novels by Albert Camus. Camus was one of several philosophers I studied in a class on existentialism in college. I loved the class, and really latched to Camus’ ideas, so I’d purchased several of his novels but I hadn’t read all of them. I chose a novel from my shelf that I hadn’t yet read called The Plague. What caused chills was realizing that The Plague is set in an oppressed and oppressive city named Oran, a city whose name could’ve been Chaos. Things like that happen to me all of the time when I’m writing; I see them as little signs that I’m on the right path. As you can imagine, I leaned into that connection, and the role of The Plague evolved in later drafts.
When you and Kathleen Bolton started Writer Unboxed, you were working on revisions to Moira and did not yet have your agent, Elisabeth Weed, or a book deal. Did you envision the site growing as it has? How has the community of WU pushed or challenged you as an author?
We had absolutely no intention of creating a community when we first began Writer Unboxed in 2006. We were simply interested in starting a blog, just like every other writer at the time. The goal was to grow it, though, and use it as our platform if/when we eventually sold our novels. (By the way, I don’t think the term “platform” was floating around the ether in 2006—not the way it does today.) Neither of us could’ve imagined what WU has become, but we’re both aware that it took a community to build it.
I receive as much inspiration from WU as any of our readers. Just when I hit a lull or feel alone, I’ll read an essay by one of our contributors or guests and feel recharged. I’ve also had a few beta readers directly from the WU community read versions of The Moon Sisters, and these people pushed me as an author in a different way—they pushed me to consider new and specific angles for my story, and challenged me to be a better writer. I’m extremely grateful to them for this.
You’ve shared some tantalizing snippets of The Moon Sisters — ghost lights, a family saga, blindness, synesthesia, and a wild West Virginia setting. You’ve also described the project as “ambitious” and challenging. What kept you going on this novel? Was there an essential element — a particular character or kernel or truth — that fueled your faith in the story all along?
Oh, I wish I had something sexy to say here about how much I loved my characters, how they pulled me along by the hair like I was their cave bitch and they were my man, but it simply was not like that. I had a challenging time with these characters. I had a challenging time with the plot. I had a challenging time with structure. Every part of it was stuck in the tar of my own fear of failure. But you know what? That fear of failure kept me going. That was at least half of my fuel. It’s a hard, hard fuel, but it worked.
I will say that one of my critique partners had crystalline eyes and was able to see what the story really wanted to be after that first hard draft. Once I recognized that she was 100% right, that knowledge kept me going and was certainly a healthier and more productive fuel.
In a great interview with Amy Sue Nathan, you shared that it took a “full draft of Olivia Moon [The Moon Sisters] before I understood what it wanted to be when it grew up—and then I had to rewrite it.” Moira Leahy had a complex, non-linear structure and a doubled point of view. What were the biggest structural challenges for you in writing The Moon Sisters?
The biggest structural challenge for me has to do with a piece of the book that ended up being cut. My original vision for The Moon Sisters involved a story within the story—with other characters, other goals in a mini-book—and these two stories were meant to converge in a very unusual way. After struggling for many drafts with this story-within-a-story element, my current editor urged me (gently, bless her) to let it go. Once I did that, the remaining parts were able to gain a spine, and grow even stronger. It was the smartest cut I’ve ever made, and honestly I owe it all to my editor.
Okay, the last one is quick and easy: clean desk or messy?
Define “clean.” Because I really do know what’s in each of those piles, I swear it.
Therese Walsh is the co-founder and manager of Writer Unboxed, an award-winning website and online writing community. (Among other accolades, Writer Unboxed has been named by Writer’s Digest as one of the top 101 sites for writers every year since 2007.)
Therese’s debut novel, The Last Will of Moira Leahy (Random House), was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2009, was nominated for a RITA award for Best First Book in 2010, and was a TARGET Breakout Book. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, will be published by Crown in March, 2014.
She was a researcher and writer for Prevention magazine before becoming a freelance writer and eventually turning to fiction. She has a master’s degree in psychology.