Awarded the 2015 Jesse H. Jones Award for fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters
Named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the Best Fiction Books of 2014
Linear Reflections Author Q & A
1. When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
I had the usual childhood aspirations of becoming a ballerina, a singer, a swimming mermaid in the underwater theatre at Aquarena Springs-- our local tourist attraction. I sat around strumming a guitar and morbidly droning “The House of the Rising Sun” and “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”. Of course it turned out these professions required some talents I didn’t have. Nobody ever asked me to “play that again.” But when I would write something, people usually seemed to like it. So I started going back to that well. Eventually writing became a drive instead of a past time. Then it became a passion. Now I think it’s the best career on earth.
2. Was it difficult to get your work published?
I still have all the rejection letters from my first novel. Eleven of them. Not only have I kept them, I’ve apparently memorized them. I can quote whole passages. Jackie Onassis finally bought that book for Doubleday, as well as my second novel. She was a wonderful editor. Things were easier after that.
3. What influences in your life led you to begin writing?
My mother reading aloud to me and to my brother and sister when we were kids—that was the greatest influence. She read to us long after we were able to read for ourselves. It was a lively family time together and often very cantankerous, as you might imagine, as we all listened in on each other’s stories with various levels of understanding, and there was a lot of discussion about the stories. I was fortunate to come from a family of booklovers. My father was a great reader and could quote poetry so that it sounded like music. He quoted Sandburg, Browning, Tennyson. My maternal grandmother gave us so many books for Christmas that she lost track and often gave numerous copies of the same book to the same grandchild. I have two gorgeous sets of the Bronte novels that she gave me on consecutive Christmases. She never gave us toys--only books. I guess it’s no mystery how I came to feel so at home with books.
4. What is your inspiration?
Life. Stories. Country Western songs. Weather. A certain innate nostalgia for the past.
5. Did you go to school or college to learn more of your craft?
I went to Baylor University for two years and then transferred and graduated from Rice. At Rice I took a creative writing class under a terrific writer named Max Apple. He was an inspirational teacher and the class involved a great deal of thoughtful analysis about famous writings as well as our own fledgling attempts. Nevertheless I’m inclined to believe that most good writing isn’t born from instruction. The great writers in history certainly didn’t come out of creative writing programs. They came out of nowhere. Out of some mysterious happenstance of DNA. The ability to write, I think, is primarily a gift—and I don’t say this with any arrogance. There are plenty of gifts I didn’t get; storytelling just happens to be one I received some amount of.
6. Do you write because you want to or because you feel you have to?
It’s certainly a drive. It’s not always a draw. There are days I just loathe the thought of it. Writing is confounding, confusing, disorienting. It requires a lot of concentration. But when I go a few days without doing it, my fingers get restless. I start to talk to myself. I wouldn’t be happy if I couldn’t write. It keeps my mind ticking; it makes my heart pound. I find it extremely exciting.
7. What is it that draws you to your genre of writing?
Stories. I write both contemporary and historical fiction: my last book involves both. I love having the framework of history, but the research required to understand a period of time well enough to use it fictitiously is just mind-boggling. I’m always reluctant to plunge into the past like that, though I love the research once I’ve started, and I love the way it fuels the story. You can pluck dramatic moments off of any page of any history book. Prop these up and arrange them into a structure, and they become the framework for a story. With contemporary fiction, you’re on your own in a very wide and uncertain world. You don’t have the same kind of structure. But nor do you have to learn as much in order to make the scenes authentic.
8. How does your family relate to your creativity?
My family is supportive in every imaginable way and never begrudges the time I spend writing. Not only do they value books, they actually like what I write. Sometimes they critique for me. My sister is a poet and has a great ear for language; my mom used to be an English teacher and is a strict grammarian as well as an avid and smart reader. My dad was always my inspiration; for many years he was the one I wrote to impress, but he is deceased now. My husband can always spot at least a dozen excess words on any page. My brother and his family, as well as aunts, uncles, cousins of all degrees and “removals”—they all show up at my signings and give me confidence. My kids are still fairly oblivious to my writing; they’re too young to read my books at this point—though my son is almost old enough. But there’s really no reason my kids should be too impressed; what they see is their mom spending a lot of time at her desk. It’s not like I’m out fighting fires.
9. What advice would you give new writers that may help them to achieve their goals?
Find someone who has a good sense of what’s “working” in your manuscript and what’s not, and who can advise you without crushing your own sense of what the story is supposed to be. Learn how to take the criticism without getting defensive, and to weigh it pragmatically. Try to be objective rather than sentimental about your work. Think of it as fluid—“fixable”. Whether or not it’s brilliant or even passable at any particular moment in its development is not the issue. The issue is how to make it better.
10. They say that every story has already been told. How do you make your stories fresh?
I’ve never understood that saying. Or the one about history repeating itself. History never repeats itself. It’s all new. There are infinite numbers of stories out there for the telling. No one on earth is living the same life as another person before him. No two people presently alive are living the same life. Why would characters be doomed to that kind of repetition? If, as a writer, I fall into that trap and start retelling old stories, then I’m lacking imagination. I’m certainly not lacking options.
11. Do you feel that it is plot or character that drives a story?
My stories have a lot of plot. I want the reader to wonder at every page what’s going to happen next. But it’s the characters that fuel the plot. I try to invent characters the reader can care about. If the reader doesn’t care about what happens to the characters, then the plot is irrelevant. When I’m writing a story, I grow to love my characters; I become attached to them. I’m always a little heart-broken when I finish writing a book, as my characters are the people I’ve had my morning coffee with for years, and I miss the daily contact.
12. What would you say is the biggest hurdle you've had to face in the literary business, so far? How did you manage to overcome it, and what kind of impact did it have on your writing?
Just getting the first book published. But I think the rejections did me good. They forced me to see my work as a craft to be hammered on and flattened and reworked rather than as something fragile and susceptible to forces beyond my control. Writing is a matter of discipline; it’s a matter of work. The inspiration and whimsy come in fleeting, unexpected moments, but they aren’t what I rely on. I rely on my ability to analyze and improve—and these abilities come largely from having been criticized.
13. Do you find that the writing process has gotten easier
for you with each project, or has it gotten harder?
Easier. It has taken a while, but gradually I’m becoming a more efficient writer. I still make a lot of mistakes and do a lot of re-writing, but now at least there are times when I actually figure out that a route is wrong before I go tooling off down it.
14. What is the one question you have always wanted to be asked, and never have been? And, of course, what is the answer?
Oh, I’m wracking my brain here. Just drawing a blank. Seems like your questions have pretty well covered things!
15. Out of all of your own tales, which one is your favourite and why?
I’m presently closest to The Night Journal, as that’s my most recent book and I’m happy that readers seem to like it so much. But I still think my second book—Promised Lands—is the best written, as far as language goes. I think of it as my more complicated, less easily understood middle child. It isn’t as popular, but offers a lot of hidden gifts.
16. What are your hopes for the future where your writing is concerned?
I hope to write seven or eight, possibly nine good books in my lifetime. I think that’s enough; it’s a career. I hope my descendents will like my books in the future. This would connect me to them.
17. Are you currently working on a new project?
Yes, I’ve just started writing a book set in Texas in the 1960’s and the present day. It involves a violent tragedy and how it plays out, forty years later, in the lives of three of the victims.
18. Tell us about your latest release.
The Night Journal takes place in two time frames—the 1890’s, depicted in the journals of Hannah Bass, and the present day, in which the excavation of a dog grave on the sight of the old family home near Pecos Pueblo in New Mexico exposes a sinister discovery that casts doubt on everything recorded in the journals. Hannah’s great grand-daughter, Meg Maybry, a contemporary career woman who has until now refused to have anything to do with the overshadowing family legacy, is forced to go to New Mexico and confront the past and the questions left unanswered by the journals. In the process, she makes some surprising discoveries about herself. The book is part historical fiction, part mystery, and part contemporary drama and explores the question of what it would be like if we could actually reconstruct the lives of our ancestors, and see these people as they were and not as they have come to be represented by a record that is necessarily faulty and depleted by time.