Q: When did you start writing?
Although I’ve always loved to read and make up stories, early on I dreamed of becoming a visual artist. In high school, an advanced writing course stoked my interest in writing. At sixteen, I wrote a weekly column for the town paper. That column was my first paid writing job. I earned about a dollar a week.
Q: Was there a particular person or writer who influenced you?
When my siblings and I were kids, our mom read to us every day. For me, that was a magical time. Playing, I would re-enact the stories or make up my own. Once I learned to read, I read constantly and insatiably. Reading has become a lifelong habit, and a source of relaxation and joy.
Every book I read—whether it inspires me to improve my prose, deepens my thought process, or gives me new ideas or ways of looking at an issue or problem—changes and influences me.
In college and grad school, I had the good fortune to study under wonderful writers and teachers—notably Oliva Blanchette, Margot Livesey, Jessica Treadway and Christopher Tilghman, who shared their insights and advice, shaped my philosophies, and taught me to trust my instincts and believe in myself. The Reverend James A. Woods, S.J., guided me and gave me the space, room, and confidence to grow.
Q: What part of the day are you most productive?
Writing is about sitting down at your desk and doing the work. Initially, like most beginning writers, I wrote when the urge struck. I had to be relaxed; in the right mood, whatever that means. Typically, I wrote early in the morning, before my family woke, or late at night. But I learned quickly that waiting for the so-called “muse” is a hopeless proposition. Now, I write almost every day. If I’m blocked, I read for a few minutes. Reading relaxes me, shakes out the cobwebs, gets my mind working. If I realize I’m reading in order to procrastinate, I force myself to put down the book and push myself to write.
In the past, I insisted students write every day. I realize now that rules are counterproductive. The right way to do anything is the way that works for you. Life interferes with the best laid plans. You can fight it or go with it. I try to go with it. Which does not mean I always succeed.
Q: How have other jobs shaped your writing?
All writing prepares you for other writing. Habits I developed writing marketing copy assist me in writing novels. When I wrote feature articles—which I loved, because I enjoy talking to people, hearing their stories—I’d review my notes, weed out the irrelevant info and then figure out how to shape the rest of the material into an interesting story. With fiction, we imagine plot, but the process—finding the heart of a story, shaping the arc—is essentially the same.
Teaching forces me to look closely at students’ writing and figure out what’s working, or isn’t. The process taught me to articulate craft technique in a way that’s both interesting and clear. And my students are so bright—they constantly challenge me to push boundaries, to work harder.
Q: What is the most difficult part of writing?
The hardest part of writing, hands down, is rejection. You’ve got to look at a rejection slip, take what you can (if you’re lucky enough to receive comments), and then put it behind you. If I have any talent at all as a writer, it’s that I am doggedly persistent. Because writing requires vulnerability, the willingness to lay yourself bare, put your feelings and ideas on paper, rejection can be demoralizing. But I refuse to give up.
My parents deserve a hundred percent of the credit for this. As kids, once we committed to an activity my siblings and I were forbidden to quit. In eighth grade, I wanted desperately to quit Girl Scouts. On meeting days, we had to wear our uniform to school. This was the ‘70s, when kids were first allowed to wear jeans. A scout uniform was totally dorky, beyond embarrassing. Too bad for me—no how, no way would my parents sanction my quitting. At the time, I resented my parents for forcing me to stick it out. But the rules that seemed, at the time, a cruel form of torture turned out to be a gift.
Q: How do you make time for your blog, new projects, and family life?
Honestly, I struggle to find balance. Occasionally, if I’m clicking, I accomplish a lot. Most days, I muddle through. I’m a very slow writer, so a blog post can take me hours. When anyone contacts me, I like to respond thoughtfully, so I spend a lot of time answering messages. As a result, I’m almost always behind. I think it’s a matter of knowing what and when to let go. I constantly struggle with this.
Q: What advice would you give new writers?
Believe in yourself. Writing is a lonely profession. Most of the time, unless you’re an avid networker, you’re alone with your work. The loneliness can wear on you, cause you to question yourself. Small workshops, a few supportive writer friends, can provide the solace and encouragement all of us need.
Publishing, historically a tough industry, keeps getting tougher. Advances are lower than ever, and, particularly for a first time author, landing a book deal is like winning the lottery. I used to think the cream always rose to the top. Maybe it does, but not always while the writer is alive. I know many wonderful writers whose first, second or third books, really good, strong works, were rejected. To deal with the rejection, open your laptop, day after day, when it seems as if no one gives a hoot, as if the stars are misaligned, to continue to write, put your best foot forward, you have to believe in yourself.
Q: For those who are hesitant about the Indie (independent) publishing world, what advice would you offer?
Publishing your book, putting it in the hands of readers, is an amazing experience! As the industry evolves, more opportunities are opening for indie authors and old stigmas are falling away. To maintain stride, we need to put out quality books. This means taking our time, waiting until our books are polished—properly edited, proofed, and formatted—to publish. When we’re writing we get close to the work, making it difficult to spot problems or inconsistencies, so critique partners and professional editors are tremendously helpful.
Indie publishing is exciting, but it’s also hard work. Cherish your friendships. A community of supportive writer friends can encourage and sustain you when your confidence flags.
Above all, believe in yourself. Don’t ever give up. You can make your dreams happen!
Q: What was your favorite book as a child?
As a young girl, I loved fairytales. The stories spring to life in your imagination and transport you to faraway places. They also sneak up on you. You think they’re about the prince and the princess or the children. They are, of course, but they’re also about life. They teach important lessons – what it means to be honest and giving, to be a good person. I still love stories with a vision – stories that provide insight or invite philosophical questions.
As a teen, I loved The Exorcist. By today’s standards, the story is tame, even ordinary. At the time, The Exorcist was a shocking literary sensation, banned in some places. I’ve always been a rebel. I was not a drug user like 16 year-old Leah, the title character in my novel, nor am I a risk-taker, but I hate conforming, being told what to do. Although a voracious reader, I skimmed most of the classics forced upon us in school. Being forbidden gave The Exorcist a deliciously sweet edge. I also loved Exodus, a glorious book by Leon Uris, about the birth of the nation of Israel. It was, to my mind, the first truly important book I ever read.
Q: What’s your favorite book as an adult?
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. This powerful, masterfully written novel drops us into a dismal, post-apocalyptic world, where humans are reduced to animal instinct; for inhabitants of this world, murder and cannibalism are a means of survival.
Within this brutal environment, McCarthy gives us an elegantly rendered father and son. Traveling the road, starving, the man and his son face excruciating hardships, which they meet with dignity and grace. Dying, the man says to his son: “You have my whole heart. You always did.” That line has stayed with me – as have so many other stark, tender moments.
If you have a question, I’d love to hear from you.