Friends! How are you? Are you weathering what I hope to be the last leg of our international health crisis with at least a scrap of sanity still intact? If so, you’ve done well. I’m thinking of you. I hope home is a safe and loving place which gives you true shelter. Brighter days are ahead.
In the meantime, talking books and stories is a great way to stay off a ledge, SO–today on the blog, sticking with the idea of answering oft-asked book talk questions (I’m homeschooling my kindergartener and preschooler while lugging my six-month-old through it all, so my Zoom talks are few and far between at the moment) I thought I’d tackle one of the guaranteed questions every author is asked when they release a story about people and the tangled webs we weave into the world: is this based on your own life? Which parts are true?
As a reader, these questions itch at me as well while I’m feverishly turning pages–this feels so real—Ms. Author MUST have been a dog surfing instructor IRL! Well, maybe. Possibly even often. But what I think drives our need to know the real stuff is a desire for some sense of kinship with the book and author through the power of story–i.e. the universal struggles we share are what bind us (you’ve heard me go off on this before.) Perhaps we’re looking to give credence to our own life experiences, to the notion that emotional memories have lasting value. I’ve noticed that the memoir writing workshops in the writer and publisher alliance I’m a member of seem to be consistently filled, often with waiting lists, which isn’t necessarily the case with classes of other ilk. I think as a species we’re searching for meaning and purpose, however subconsciously, and fascinated by the idea of funneling that into art.
Now, sliding my soapbox aside, here’s a quick rundown of the major inspirations and goals I set for myself while writing each of my published novels, chronologically, starting with GRIT. I’ll post the rest in the coming weeks. If you’re here, and still reading at this point, I can only assume you’re at least somewhat interested in my books, or a writer yourself, looking to see how others get the job done; either way, I hope this will satisfy some questions about the nature of truth and fiction in my stories:
Where It Came From: I’ve spoken a lot since 2017–a LOT–about GRIT. It’s the book I’ve been asked to talk about most, even after I’d released three more, and despite the fact that, sales-wise, the novel was barely a blip on the book world’s radar. I attribute all the speaking invites to the fact that I still live just outside Hancock County, Maine, the setting of GRIT, and readers–including myself–love to recognize locales and place names in a book; it creates a more personalized reading experience. Also, critics were incredibly kind, and I’ll always be grateful for the award noms/wins my debut received. Experience has taught me that there are two things which can clear a path through the publishing world: sales or big awards. It can be damn hard to gain any visibility for your book or career when you have neither, I can attest.
This business is tough. Not being a whiner here, merely speaking from the extreme ups and downs I’ve been through in the few short years since I was first published. Try to think of another common profession where your talents are up against not just those of professionals around your country of residence, but the WORLD, literally. Where promotion and sales are almost completely out of your hands, where your voice is just one of hundreds of thousands in one release season alone, screaming all at once to be heard, straining to pull down those few coveted literary awards, to get the attention of readers, booksellers, librarians, anyone who can help spread the world about your stories. Where sometimes quality of writing is the very last thing that matters when it comes to success, advance size, or job security. This seems to be the exclusive realm of artists. Musicians, graphic artists, actors–all have to fight this hard, sucking up crushing disappointment and frustration along with moments of dizzying excitement and highly emotional reward.
GRIT happens to be the first book I ever wrote about an area of rural Maine outside Bucksport across the river from where I grew up. It also happened to be the one which caught the interest of my amazing agent and an equally amazing editor at HarperCollins. Coincidence? I’d like to think not; I’d like to think being true to myself eventually paid off. Previously, I wrote mostly gothic romantic suspense or paranormal spooky novels for teens, only one of which ever saw publication. The story of a small-town, big-hearted, rough-around-the-edges Maine girl raking blueberries one August whose struggle to understand her identity as a “bad girl” comes to a head along with the reveal of her darkest secrets was a quick 9-month breeze to write, and ridiculously freeing. I followed two of the oldest writing rules out there: I wrote what I knew, and I wrote a book I saw a need for, a realistic portrayal of a fifth? six? generation Mainer like myself, not a transplant from another state or a vacationer with an idealized view of what it means to live in Vacationland year round.
That said, protagonist Darcy Prentiss is not me. Not even loosely based on me. I had the opposite of a bad girl reputation in my small high school, though I was far from Miss Congeniality or any teacher’s favorite. I never raked blueberries myself, though my brother did, and my mom worked in a blueberry packaging plant for a time. I’ve worked plenty of other short-lived, low-level jobs, so I used those experiences to inform the research I did. I hope the next section sheds light on why I set out to write the story the way I did, what I hoped to achieve as a writer.
Writerly Goals: For me, GRIT was about capturing a very specific first person narrative voice, and being true to a setting I know well. I could already hear seventeen-year-old Darcy’s good-natured, no bullshit, down-to-Earth tone in my head before I began, but putting it down into words is another matter, and plenty of times I needed to stop, go back, and bang some of the “formal” out of my prose in order to stay consistent. This book had a large, important family cast which forms the strong heart of the story, so I had to do a lot of shaping and refining so that each character was distinct and memorable. I miss Nell and Aunt Libby the most.
Writing the setting was more enjoyable than I’d ever expected. I’d set so many books in fictional towns in states I’ve never been to, places I wanted to go but couldn’t speak about with any real intelligence; this time, I went hog wild with description, sifting through my memories from childhood right up to present day in order to offer a lush, three-dimensional image of blueberry barrens at high noon in the dead heat of summer, full of humming insects, scent of dry grass, ripe berries, GREEN, an endless sky of thin-scraped blue.
The final two twin themes I wanted to portray through Darcy struggles are:
1) The idea of families casting certain members into roles set in concrete, which I think happens a lot. Being forever seen as the “smart” one or “hard” one, the rebel or angel, creates unfair pressure and resentment between siblings or parents, especially as we grow and become our own people, independent of the family unit. I thought it could be fun to write a character who was right on the verge of casting off a much-hated moniker as a troublemaker, revealing the truly pure spirit within her, who very few people had ever given her credit for, perhaps herself least of all.
2) I wanted to try to blast through the slut-shaming double standard applied to women viewed as promiscuous, which we’ve seen creates a dangerous, toxic environment for our young women and men coming of age; for everyone, really. This is part of what makes sexual violence possible, even permissible. Darcy is ultimately sex-positive, but she’s struggling with the reputation she’s been labeled with, and also the aggressive response some men have when you’re seen as easy.
I hope readers find these themes and elements effective and satisfying; it was certainly a fulfilling experience writing it. It allowed me to see the place I come from a bird’s eye view and gain a new appreciation for it. For me, GRIT will always mean vibrant summer, youthful energy, and fierce devotion. Thanks for listening.
A link to a song I love which dovetails nicely with the book – Summerlong by Kathleen Edwards:
NEXT POST: THE DOOR TO JANUARY