Isaac Fitzgerald of McSweeney’s and The Rumpus fame

Isaac

I’m not known for risk-taking. Rapid change can give me hives. Maybe it’s a mom thing, that desire to protect the nest. But once upon a time and long ago, I got my navel pierced in London on a whim — after trying to do the job myself, and landing in the ER with metal in my gut. ‘Tis true, ’tis true.

Now, in nesty-mom-land, I keep the belly ring as a reminder that there’s more to me than laundry bins and yoga pants. I like writers who celebrate the power of risk, the exhilaration found in leaping. My guest today is a master at scavenging opportunities from uncertainty.

Isaac Fitzgerald is a no-holds-barred writer, the co-founder of Pen & Ink (with a book forthcoming), co-owner of The Rumpus, and publicity director at McSweeney’s. That’s a lot of party hats. In his four years at The Rumpus, Isaac served as site manager, emcee, book club guru, and managing editor. He was Rumpus co-pilot when Cheryl Strayed stepped aboard as Dear Sugar. In every role, he’s worked to show readers “how beautiful things are when you step off the beaten path.”

Isaac also tumbles off skateboards. He reads. A lot. He gives himself tattoos. He juggles impossibilities and makes art out of the splatter. He says of risk, “Try it. You fuck up. You fail all the time. But when you succeed a little, it’s great.”

I need more of that. More leaps. More risks. More beauty on the crooked path. Thanks for the reminders, Isaac —  and welcome to The Hatchery.

~~~

Lisa: I’m a huge fan of Pen & Ink, your Tumblr blog on tattoo stories. My current fave is Anna Schoenberger’s pacman tribute to her Grammie. Each story is a piece of a journey; each tattoo is a glyph along the way. You’ve described tattoos as “permanent ink scars” and your own tattoo philosophy as “No regrets.'”   As a writer, how do you use your scars to make good art?

Isaac: My father kicked me in the head with an ice-skate when I was three. It was completely by accident, but that doesn’t mean that’s not a great opening line. I feel that way about every story I tell — if you start with enough suspense, you can hold anybody’s attention long enough to tell them some boring shit that’s actually true. My father didn’t kick me in the head on purpose, but that scar is one helluva leaping off point for a story that involves a man named Dr. Fox, my mother carrying me into the back of a truck, and blood pouring down my face while I sang “Jingle Bells.”

Lisa: I’d read that tale. Okay, so at forty-three, I’m considering my first tattoo, an infinity symbol, as a reminder of the way life splits and frays and then comes back together, something like the pain and joy of giving birth — to a child, a story, or a self. Thoughts?

Isaac: Do it! Tattoos are stories that we carry with us. Reminders of what we’ve done.

Lisa: Several of your early published essays were risky pieces about taking risks — smuggling medical supplies into Burma, being a bend-over boyfriend. Of your fiction writing, you’ve said, “Mainly I write stories out of a desire to show my personal life, but with a veil.” What do you make of that line, in writing, between risk and safety, exposure and veiling?

Isaac: At the end of the day, all of your writing’s going to piss somebody off. When I wrote that buttsex piece, my father didn’t speak to me for six months. Then he called me and said, “How about them Red Sox?” The point is, the folks that love you and care about you are always going to understand that you want to share your experiences. Eventually. The ones that can’t forgive you? Fuck ’em. What’s the point of telling a story that everyone already knows is the truth, but you pretend like you’re lying? The older I get, the less I think writers should use a veil.

Lisa: As the managing editor of The Rumpus, you helped a lot of writers pull off their veils. Cheryl Strayed started Dear Sugar with you behind the wheel. Your co-workers see you as “a cross between Bruce Springsteen and a cheerleader,” as someone who “always stood behind his writers, championing their work, and encouraging many of them to write about subject matters they’d long kept secret.” Roxane Gay says of you that, “He makes me feel safe about being vulnerable in my writing.”  That’s a huge compliment from a woman who is a powerful writer and editor in her own right. As an editor and a champion of good writing, what’s your best advice to other writers?

Isaac: There’s this quote — I can’t remember who said it. Something about writing like a… motherfucker?

To be completely honest, I think it’s useless for me to give writing advice. Some people say put your ass in the chair X number of hours a day, other people say go out into the world and have adventures first, and everybody says all kind of shit about what’s supposed to help you write more and better. Different things work for different people. Who am I to tell people how to write? That’s why I like “write like a motherfucker.” Because it means write like a motherfucker in your own way.

Lisa: I think I’m always finding my way — it’s changed countless times. You were managing editor at The Rumpus for four years, and it’s been a significant curve in your life. How did those years shape who you are now, and what do you miss about that time?

Isaac: I was so lucky to work with such an incredibly talented group of people. The Rumpus was never going to make anybody rich, but damned if it didn’t make us proud of what we built.

Lisa: In June, you took on the role of publicity director at McSweeney’s. What thrills you the most about this change? What scares you?

Isaac: The same thing that scares me is absolutely what thrills me. It’s an uphill battle to keep people talking about books, let alone buying them. But I’m a believer in what McSweeney’s is about, and has been about since its beginning: books that are as beautiful as the prose that’s found inside of them.

Lisa: Hands down, you are a champion of books, Isaac. Last question — what’s on your desk right now?

Isaac: A warm beer and a CD player/alarm clock with the front ripped off (still functioning). One will go in the sink, and one will wake me up tomorrow.

~~~

Isaac Fitzgerald has been a firefighter, worked on a boat, and been given a sword by a king, thereby accomplishing three out of five of his childhood goals. He has also written for The Bold Italic, McSweeney’s, Mother Jones, and The San Francisco Chronicle. He is a co-owner of The Rumpus and publicity director at McSweeney’s.  Follow him on Twitter.

Traveling in Art, with Jennifer Lyn King

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l played the violin for seven years, from 4th grade to 11th. I was never very good. I liked playing — just not enough to really practice, to commit that measure of myself that would take me to another level.

Music wasn’t writing, and my heart belonged to words.

Now, I know writers, I know musicians, and I know photographers and graphic artists. Each discipline takes practice, patience, and a commitment to the skin and bones of it, to the grit of working through and working out. Nothing easy.

Yet my guest today, Jennifer Lyn King, is a writer and a photographer and an artist. She’s a wife and the mother of three boys. She has a degree in mechanical engineering, and she’s modeled on the runways of Paris and New York City. She plays the piano and the viola, and she tried out for the Olympics in synchronized swimming in 1988. Now that is practice, patience, and commitment. Nothing simple.

Jennifer blends her experiences into a rich and enriching whole. Her years as a model allow her to write about the “gap between perceived reality and actual reality,” the necessity of taking risks, and the importance of real beauty. As a photographer, she uses the lens to slow down and discover the wonder and vibrant colors all around us. As a mother, she offers similar wisdom on finding balance and the importance of free time. Her love of books and reading led her to become a founding member of the fabulous website, Great New Books.

Jennifer and her family recently moved back to the United States after living in Prague for four years. Her travel pictures will inspire you to pack your bags and hit the road — or boat or plane. (Check out: My 12 Best Photographs of 2011, Prague’s Spires and Magical Golden Lane: A Photojournal, Italy’s Amalfi Coast: A Photojournal, and Prague, Charles Bridge, and Sunrise in Fog.)

Jennifer believes that “Life is an adventure, full of beauty,” and she puts that motto into practice, everyday. She asks, “what does it mean to seek out more than the mediocre, more than what is expected, more than the norm?” and then she provides a compelling answer: “A well-lived life isn’t always about sitting back and finding the comfortable position. It’s about seeking out the things that make us tick, fuel our spirits, and stretch us to become the people we are made to be.” Her words and photographs inspire me to rethink my settled limitations. I am delighted to welcome Jennifer to The Hatchery.

Life in Prague as an Artist & Writer,  by Jennifer Lyn King

When I was very small, I loved to watch my grandmother play the piano. She could play anything by request—she had the rare gift of playing by ear. At age five, I decided I, too, wanted to learn to play the piano. I bought a set of four plastic busts of the classical composers at a garage sale, which I kept with me wherever I went. Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, and Mozart became my early heroes.

I did grow up doing other (more normal) things besides collecting statues of dead musicians, but I continued with the piano, and took up playing the viola in fifth grade. I have always loved music, in addition to reading and writing, painting and photography.

In 2009, when my husband and I found out we had a chance to move to Prague, Czech Republic, for his job, we immediately jumped at the opportunity. For me, living in and traveling throughout Europe with my family seemed like a dream come true.

And it was, all four years.

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Prague is an artist’s, writer’s, photographer’s, music lover’s paradise. The history goes back as far as the 400s A.D., and Prague and former Czechoslovakia have impacted the world for centuries.

I walked around with my camera and captured as much of Prague as I could, both traditional shots and ones from off-the-beaten-path, which were my favorites. I attended as many musical performances as I could, which were world-class. And, I made a habit of painting and writing about as many things and experiences as I could while we were there—the inspiration never ends in Prague.

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But Prague’s incredible influence on world arts became personal about halfway through my time there.

I toured the Lobkowicz Palace within the Prague Castle with my family one Sunday, and could not believe what I saw. The Lobkowiczes, an incredibly kind and humble family whose kids went to school with our kids, have recently reacquired their family property after it had been taken by the Nazis and then the Communists. One of their treasures is Beethoven’s manuscript for his 5th Symphony, which is now on display inside their Palace. The 7th Prince Lobkowicz, their family ancestor, had been the patron of the musician Ludwig von Beethoven. In return for the support, Beethoven dedicated his 3rd, 5th, and 6th Symphonies to the Lobkowicz family. Inside the Lobkowicz Palace inside the Prague Castle, his actual work is on display, alongside manuscripts of Haydn, Mozart, and Handel.

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One night long not long after my first tour of the Lobkowicz Palace, I pulled out my viola and began to play a piece of music I’ve had tucked inside my viola case since 10th grade (a few years ago … ahem). I happened to read the top of the page, which I’ve seen for years, and discovered Beethoven had also dedicated the music I’d played for so long to the Lobkowiczes. I couldn’t believe it.

I recently read a quote by Leonardo da Vinci that says, “Art is the queen of all sciences communicating knowledge to all the generations of the world.”

Yes. Art matters. It connects us all, mysteriously, touching our lives in ways we cannot fully perceive.

In Prague, I walked the same cobblestone streets and perhaps sat at the same tables in cafes as artistic legends like Kafka, Mucha, Mozart, and Dvořak. Their work lives on not because they were famous or wealthy at the time of their creations, but because others believed in them and their work and helped to support them. Art connects us to other places and times. For those of us who create, we need to believe in our work. We cannot know how our creations may touch someone, now or in the future. Art is important.

Living in Prague for an extended time will always be one of the great privileges of my lifetime.

 ~~~

Jennifer is a writer and author who loves to read and share great books with others. She’s recently moved back to the USA after living for four years in Prague, Czech Republic. She enjoys photography, oil painting, tennis, and traveling with her husband and three sons. She is currently at work on a novel set in New Orleans and coastal Italy. For more about Jennifer, visit her website and blog at http://jenniferlynking.com and http://GreatNewBooks.org, a book recommendation site she helps to run. She can also be found on Twitter @JenniferLynKing.

Interview with Donna Decker

Donna Decker

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am very lucky. Once a month, I get together with a group of women who inspire awe. They are artists, writers, educators, researchers, business women, chefs and mothers. Smart, brave and tough, they set any room to buzzing. I regularly give thanks for their presence in my life. These women raise me up.

My guest today, Donna Decker, is a key part of this group. Donna is a writer and a professor of English at Franklin Pierce University. She contributes to Ms. Magazine and has completed her first novel. Whip-smart, indomitable and funny as hell, she does not back down from a fight. More than once,  she has gifted me with strength when I’ve most doubted myself as a writer, a mother, a woman trying to be whole in a world that is not always eager for me to succeed.

As a blog contributor for Ms., Donna writes about the stories — personal, cultural, political — that we “must tell, or go mad or die.” Her essays challenge the status quo, the business-as-usual inertia that leads to the endless vetting of Frazen, the iniquities highlighted in the VIDA count, and, more broadly, the bill of goods that tells young women that feminism is over, unnecessary, kaput. She is not afraid to shout, to remind women that we don’t need to hobble ourselves in “stiletto sprint footraces,” that date night is not a cure for spousal abuse, and that “feminine decorum” is a cozy, noxious trap.

Our stories become a power in the telling, in remembrance, in what we seek and claim and honor. Donna’s current manuscript tells the story of the 1989 Montreal Massacre, the brutal murder of 14 female engineering students at the École Polytechnique. It is a story that must be told, and she will tell it with ferocity and courage and stunning eloquence. We will not forget.

All of Donna’s writing, her teaching, her mentoring — her life — puts a spotlight on “the dangers that lurk in failing to startle.” The dangers of complacency, of willful blindness and amnesia. I am honored to have her as a guest today, to be inspired. Please welcome Donna Decker to The Hatchery.

***

Your novel tells the story of the 1989 Montreal Massacre, a chilling and horrific series of events. I know you’ve done an enormous amount of research for this book. What startled you the most as you uncovered the details of these killings?

So many things startled and alarmed me while I was researching and writing this book. Crazy as it may sound, it was not even the cold-blooded murder of fourteen women that was the most horrifying. It was the vocal support for the murders after the fact. On talk radio in the days after the massacre, men called to say they admired the killer for having the guts to do this to “feminists.” One man called a Montreal columnist (who was on the “hit list” the killer left behind – a list of women he’d wished he’d had time to kill) and told her that if she wanted to interview the dead killer, she could interview him: he felt the same hateful way about feminists. In 2009, just days before the international conference on the Montreal Massacre, police feared for the safety of conference attendees (I was among them), and they arrested a man in Montreal for inciting violence against women (and for having a weapon) because his 100-page blog praised the killer for his actions, dubbing him Saint Marc and asking readers to lock and load on the 20th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre.

That “knife edge of mere fact,” as Adrienne Rich terms it, was tough to endure. Dwelling in that explicit hate, reading the misogynist blogs, realizing that there is still so much more hatred of women than I had ever known – that made for some long days. Often during the research and writing my soul had to look away for a time.

In my School Shootings Seminar for first year college students, our discussion of the Montreal Massacre led to a days-long, intense dialogue about the way the killer ejected the 51 men from the classroom, then lined up the 9 women and shot them. The question with which the seminar grappled was the one all of Canada tackled in the weeks and years after the actual event: should the men have stayed, protected the women from the armed man? We considered every viewpoint carefully and respectfully, and we came to no consensus.

The upside of these startling moments is that each day I renewed my commitment to tell this horrific story from the perspective of the women, not the haters. What was it like to be an engineering student in 1989, one of the 15%? What was it like to have your sister or your daughter go to school and never come home? These were the stories that I wanted to hear, so I wrote them, relegating the details about the murderer to footnotes (literally!).

What has been the most difficult part of this project for you?

Finding time to be in the writing process in the way I know works was the most difficult. During the four years I’ve been at it, I had one semester-long sabbatical and four summers. Those were luxuries. I was disciplined about my writing time, and I was able to linger in silence long enough to really work out a sentence or a thought or a revision of a chapter. All of that came crashing to a halt each August when the semester started to boot up. I found I could not work on the novel in any meaningful way during the school year. My obligations kept me far too busy. I am most fortunate to have the kind of job that allows the summers “off,” so that I can work at my writing.

Key moments were challenging, as well. I had to consciously work to keep my spirits up when, for example, the sister of one of the massacre victims told me about going to the engineering school the night of the murders and learning of her sister’s death, and later, reading her sister’s  autopsy report. She was crying. I was crying. And that sadness lingered. I had to allow it to be there for as long as it needed to be then to move on and to understand that I was honoring that deep human sadness by way of writing that story for that sister.

Perhaps the worst day of all was when I shot a Ruger Mini-14, the weapon used by the Polytechnique killer. I am an inveterate researcher, and I felt I had to know what it felt like for the killer to shoot that semi-automatic rifle, what it might have felt like to be one of those fourteen on the other side of that gun. My partner John is a gun collector and happens to own a Ruger Mini-14 ( I do recognize the irony in this.). One sunny morning, wearing a blue cotton Laura Ashley nightgown and pink rain boots (these details remain crystal clear to me), I went out to his back acre (he lives on a farm), where he loaded the gun with a  banana clip (as the killer had done in order to maximize the bullet count), donned ear covering, and shot the gun at a paper target. Then it was my turn. Never have I done anything so foreign to my experience. I had to hold the gun high, butt it against my shoulder and ear, and then lean into the target. My entire body wanted to resist leaning into that target, though it was paper. “Release the safety,” John said, and I did, and I leaned in, and then I had to stop. I put the gun down, removed the headgear, and cried till my body ached. It was the leaning in that did it. The killer had to lean into those young women. He had to pull the trigger for each round he shot. There was nothing easy or automatic about these murders: it was a conscious decision to squeeze off each round. And I, in my Laura Ashley and pink boots, could not lean in because the paper target I was aiming at looked like fourteen female engineers.

In addition to your writing, you are a teacher and a mentor. What’s the most
important lesson you’d like to convey to the students in your classes?

Hands down, the most important lesson I want my students to take away from my classes is to have empathy for other people. This is not easy, but it is the work of the English major. One reads literature in order to dwell in the experience of another, to meander around in the brain and heart of a human being in a way that is impossible in real life even with our most intimate others. Literature enables us to think more broadly, more deeply, and more generously.

Can you name one or two topics you’d like to tackle in future blog posts for Ms.?

Sexism in the literary world; rape on college campuses and as a tool of war; the prevalence and popularity of the anti-intellectual character; brave and extraordinary women/feminists.

Who was your role model growing up? Who is your role model now?

The Sisters of Saint Joseph were my role models growing up, all through high school in fact. Nuns get a bad rap, but I must say that the nuns I had were smart women who taught us to be kind and socially conscious and to work hard. They were the first ones to teach me that God created everyone equal. I loved that immediately, and immediately discovered that not everyone felt this way. Those nuns planted a seed that grew me into an activist for social justice.

My role models today are women of courage: Texas’s Wendy Davis of recent filibuster fame; Gloria Steinem and Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood who never fail to challenge the status quo in creative and brilliant ways; and my friends, real women who endure loss and illness and inequity and dark nights of the soul and still manage to get up for another day.

I have two young daughters, ages 6 and 9. They are spunky, irreverent, math-and-science loving hooligans. What are the greatest obstacles they will face? What do we need to change today in order to preserve the feisty spirits of our daughters? What do we most need to teach them?

Ahhh…what a wonderful question. I, too, have two daughters, 27 and 25 now, and a son who is 21.

We need to do exactly what Wendy Davis did in Texas. We need to claim our own voices and to teach our daughters to claim theirs – even if it means standing up to scary people and even if it feels uncomfortable. We need to teach them to learn to think critically about the world rather than swallowing it wholesale. When my daughters were little, we told stories about our day at the dinner table. Whenever I would tell a story about a female student, both girls would immediately ask, “is she pretty?” I would never answer that question. I would say things like: she is very bright; she wears purple Converse sneakers; she writes with a Hello Kitty pen, but I would never answer the reductive pretty question because that is not how I wanted my daughters to give value to girls.

We preserve their feisty spirits by letting them pick their own mismatched outfits, by fostering their interests in pottery and ice hockey and political analysis. We need to hold up a stop sign to those who would mold our daughters into anything other than what they would be: kind, intelligent, curious, and strong girls. While they are too young to advocate for themselves, we do that for them, teaching them all the while, that they are loved and valued for just being little feisty girls.

Thank you, Donna. As always, you amaze and inspire.

***

Donna Decker is Professor of English and women’s studies at Franklin Pierce University. She is the mother of three children, a Ms. Magazine Feminist Scholar, occasional columnist for The Berkshire Eagle (in Pittsfield, MA).

Q&A with Therese Walsh

(C) 2008 Jon Reis All Rights reserved (607) 272-1966

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 Sistersghost 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.

Nina Badzin, “I Need to Write That Down”

Badzin200I’m a worrier, through and through, always fretting the “what if?” It’s not my best quality. But it also draws me toward writers who ask a different sort of question, those who wonder “why not?”

Sometimes, I think we have to learn our bravery, like a lesson or a song. I’ve learned a lot from Nina Badzin. She makes an art of courage. Her essays mark out paths toward a full and balanced life. A life of voice, and truth, and zest. A life that doesn’t cower. Continue reading