I’m really glad Dave and I kept our DVD player. If you watch movies and boxsets on DVD you get something that isn’t usually available on streamed versions – the extras, with interviews about the making of the piece, or the casting, or the design, or the adaptation for the screen. Sometimes they’re a bit throwaway, sometimes they’re deep and insightful, but all have a sense of creative energy, a love of the project, a pride in the artform, and a sense of a lot of talents coming together.
Publishing a book is like that too. Perhaps there are fewer people involved than on a movie or a TV show, but there’s still a sense of great and noble effort. Well, I think it’s noble.
That’s one of the things I’m talking about in this interview, with satirical and speculative fiction author Andrew Verlaine on his show Publishing Talks.
Andrew is at the beginning of his publishing journey, with a novel scheduled for 2025. We talk about the surprises he might face in the production process, the different experts who contribute to the polish of a published book, like the different trades in a filmed work. We talk about the constructive nature of editing, how a good editor will help you discover your superpowers and also your blind spots – and then, with luck, open your eyes. And about the finicky and fine work of making something as complex and wondrous as a book, which a person will one day read and experience, will keep on their shelf, will buy for a friend as a gift, and might never forget.
With three novels releasing in a 12-month period, Cynthia Newberry Martin is at a real turning point in her life. She began the novels in the 1990s and at long last they’re ready for readers. But she’s already a strong presence in the writing world, thanks to a blog series she started in 2009 – How We Spend Our Days – of essays by writers on their daily lives. The guest list is huge and impressive. Everyone will find at least one of their favourite authors in there – here’s just a smattering of mine – Alexander Chee, Cheryl Strayed, Jane Smiley, Dani Shapiro.
My first question was this: how did the blog series start?
Shortly after I created my blog, which was called Catching Days after the Annie Dillard quote ‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives’, I wanted to include guest posts. And I wanted them to be linked, not random. For the first 20 years of my life, I was obsessed with French, and I loved a column in French Elle magazine about days in the lives of women. So I thought, what about days in the lives of writers? I called it How We Spend Our Days, also after the quote.
I was studying with the writer Pam Houston at the time, and I asked her to kick things off. That was August of 2009. I’ve published an essay every month since then.
Dipping into a few, I find them supportive and honest about the mysterious act of creating a book from slippery thoughts and urges. What emerges is a belief in the artistic process, even when the writer themselves is uncertain where they’re going with an idea. Taken together, they’re a testament to persistence, the enduring nature of the artistic vocation and the drive to see more in the everyday.
Stop me babbling – you’ve seen a lot more of them than I have. What do you take from the essays?
Babble on, I agree! I love how the writers invite us into their lives, how they at the same time demystify and honour this thing called the writer’s life.
I think the details and obsessions mentioned go toward giving us the confidence to be who we are. And the inspiration is endless —it’s okay to not write every day, to write in the middle of the night, to think about the possibility of a baby, for writing to be out of the question.
Tell me about your most recent release, Love Like This.
Love Like This is the story of a marriage. After 22 years with children at home, Angelina has been counting on the empty house to rediscover who she is, but it turns out her husband Will has been counting on something else. Nine days into their child-free life, he announces he’s been fired and is home to stay. But Lucy is the character who steals the show, I think. She gives the novel its heart.
Why did you choose that title?
I have zero memory about where it came from. It seems to have been there from the beginning. I remember liking that the word ‘love’ could be understood as a noun or a verb – that the title might be imploring readers to love like this OR it might be describing a kind of love.
The cover is so intriguing and striking. What does it enshrine for you about the novel?
Hats off to Jessica Bell for the cover. Love Like This has four main characters, and each has a sort of animal association except for Will who is totally about the house. The pink eyes were all Jessica and brilliant. Angelina so wants to be seen. And I just love the black.
In your work, what themes or curiosities do you return to or worry over?
I’m obsessed with time to myself, as in I never have enough. I grew up one of five, and when I went away to college I requested a single room on my freshman hall. So my main characters struggle with that push-pull between the self and the other — alone vs together, leaving vs staying, here vs gone, freedom vs love. Marriage and long-term relationships put the squeeze on time to oneself and are the perfect vehicles for digging into this.
On your bio page, you describe your ‘crazy years’, when you were working as an editor on several literary magazines, studying for a postgraduate degree and participating in a writing group. Tell me more about the craziness. How long ago was it?
That was mainly 2010 and 2011. It was insane. On so many nights I sat in the corner of a dark room while the whole family watched TV or a movie. I could barely see but was trying to be there and also get my work done, editing one thing after another as fast as I could and with a packet of writing and commentary due every month. I would leave a couple of days after Christmas for residency. I missed New Year’s Eve three years in a row and my anniversary and my youngest’s birthday two years in a row.
Of course, I loved all of it, but my migraines were coming more often, and I was stress eating with no time to exercise. At the beginning of 2012, I had to start saying no.
What is less crazy about your life now?
Actually, with three books coming out in a 12-month period, it’s not less crazy now. Good point.
I’m going to leap on another intriguing line from your bio… a residency at Ragdale, a playroom, a tower and a shower of pages. Do explain.
Ragdale is a wonderful artistic space, peaceful and inspiring. A former country estate complete with prairie, just north of Chicago. The original house and barn were built around 1900. Each of the rooms has a name. The room I stayed in was called the Playroom.
Aha.Playroom with a capital P.
It had steps up into a cupola where you could look out over the grounds. I would work up there, and the work I was doing was revision—I was actually finishing Love Like This. When I was done with a page, I would wing it down the steps with a satisfying flick of the wrist.
Actually, there are so many lines in your bio that I enjoyed. This resonated personally: ‘I want to figure out how to be in the world as I am in my head.’ I always say I’m wild person trapped in a cautious one. Tell me how you’re living on the outside as loudly as you are on the inside.
Before I started writing, I was private and all closed off. Now I’m private but opening up about it. I still think lots of things I don’t say. So much happens in my head. But before, I was trapped up there, tight, guarded. With writing I’m letting the bridge down. I escape onto the page and then into the world. And the more events and interviews I do, the more I speak. It’s a process.
You have another novel coming out soon, The Art of Her Life, which tackles this idea of inner life versus outer – a character who lives more in the world of art than the here and now of family.
The Art of Her Life was the first novel I ever wrote. I started it in the late 1990s when I had a house full of children. The main character Emily needs a lot of time to herself, but there are her two children who need her and the man she loves who wants more from her. Now that I think about it, the world of art was Emily’s starting place for getting out of her head and into the world. And as the paintings and words and life of Henri Matisse swirl around her… well, I don’t want to spoil the story.
I haven’t yet given you the chance to talk about your novel Tidal Flats… let’s do that now!
Tidal Flats was actually the fourth novel I wrote, although it was the first one to be published. At the time I started it, my last child had just gone to college, and I was no longer chained to the house—whoops, I meant to say, I could travel more. I began to spend a week a month in Provincetown.
The novel turned out to be about a young couple, and the big question that spilled onto the page was whether two people who want different things from life could make marriage work. Cass wants a husband who comes home at night, but Ethan’s work takes him to Afghanistan for weeks at a time. Ethan wants children but Cass does not. How can they make it work?
You also write short stories and essays. How do you decide what deserves short treatment, and fiction treatment?
Someone asked me this question at an event a few weeks ago. The first thing I’ll say is that if I have a point, I write an essay. I had to learn this the hard way. That novel is still in a drawer.
The second thing is, I really don’t write short stories any more. The last one I tried turned into Love Like This, and I only started that as a story because I was determined not to write any more novels because they took too long, and I couldn’t seem to get them published. When I feel like all my characters have so much to say and that I can move in any direction, it’s a novel. When I feel floors and walls and ceilings, it’s a short story.
Was anyone in your family a writer or other kind of creative? How did writing start for you?
No one I know of. We were all super left-brained, except for one sister eight years younger than me. I was organised, a list-maker, good at languages. My parents encouraged me in all these activities.
The first 20 years of my life were all French all the time—I learned it, spoke it, taught it, lived it. The second 20 were practising law and raising a family. All the language and law were easy and grew my left brain three sizes. While I’m sure a certain amount of language proficiency was good for creative writing, my right brain/creative side was the size of a peanut.
When I was pregnant with child number three, my family life ate my legal career. While I’d always been a reader, for the years I stayed home with the kids, reading became a lifeline to the outside world. Fast forward six years, when child number four was two years old, and I started to have a few minutes to myself. I thought about going back to practising law. But I didn’t want to do that any more. I wanted to do what they did. I wanted to create magic. I wanted to become a writer.
That is so lovely. What magic are you making at the moment?
Temporarily nothing. All my time is going toward launching the two new books into the world. But last May, when it was time to start developmental edits on The Art of Her Life and then on Love Like This, I was two years into a new novel called The Glove Factory. I currently have a self-imposed deadline to get back to it the Tuesday after Labour Day. When I last worked on it, The Glove Factory was about a librarian turned private investigator (married and divorced three times) who returns to the Cape Cod town where she used to live — which leads her on a quest for the place of the past in the present and the need to make peace with all her past selves.
You’re launching three books in short succession, books you’ve been working on since the 1990s. That’s almost a new phase of life.
I decided I needed to celebrate big-time. I wanted to do something to support indie bookstores and spread the word about other books from indie presses. Indie publishers are great, right? For most of them it’s a labour of love, not profit, which means they have little to no funds to get the word out. So I decided I’d visit at least one bookstore in every state to talk with readers. Not just about my book but also about the book of a local author also published by an indie press. That’s 50 bookstores, 50 writers, 50 books. And these indie-published books are so good! You can find more info about the tour plus the list of books I’ve read and photos here.
When a message pops into your inbox and you think: I know that name. Didn’t I meet him years ago when I was speaking at a self-publishing conference?
I did. And he was still writing and publishing, and building a body of work. His name is Harrison Hickman. He recently started a blog and asked to interview me.
I love how writing is a long game. That years can pass, and a person you met on a creative afternoon pops out of the ether and says ‘Hi, I’m still here, I still do this. I’m working my groove, making my stuff. Let’s talk.’ Isn’t that wonderful?
Chez Morris, we’re divided about AI tools. I’m mildly interested, while Husband Dave enjoys experimenting, just from curiosity. While warming up for a day’s writing, he asked GPT-3 for a description of a character walking along a harbour and posted the result on Facebook.
I started to read, but lost heart after two sentences.
Why? The reason for that interested me much more than the content.
The paragraph was respectably publishable. It even had a whimsical idea, that fishermen were stealing fish from the sea.
But it felt depressingly pointless. It came from a void. There was nothing meaningful or living on the other end.
Novels, memoirs, poetry and creative non-fiction are more than words. They are a bridge to another soul. A soul that notices and feels and has mysteries and questions it needs to share.
If you’re looking for that, AI-generated text is empty calories.
That doesn’t mean it’s not useful. I came across a literary author who used it to write about a deeply personal experience. Which was intriguing.
In an episode of This American Life, novelist Vauhini Vara wanted to write an essay about her sister, who died when she was in college. She never found the right way, so she briefed GPT-3. The AI came back with 100 words about losing her sister, then meeting a guy who made her forget the sadness. Although this wasn’t the direction Vauhini wanted, it showed a grasp of story structure – the essay needed to end somewhere new. She refined her prompt and had several more tries, which became a fascinating discussion between her and the AI. What about this direction? What about this? What do you really want? Finally she realised; she wanted to explore the loss. By briefing and rebriefing, the AI got her there, because it knew millions of examples. Find it here.
Millions of examples
You can’t talk about AI tools without considering what they’re learning from. Work by you and me and everyone we like to read. And not necessarily with the permission – or even the knowledge – of the creators.
Although we all learn our art from the work of others, AI tools are doing it faster. And on a bigger scale.
This is where it gets worrying.
Every day there’s a new and troubling iteration. A tiny example from my Facebook voyages this week – several authors have noticed a clause in their contracts with audiobook platform Findaway Voices, which allows Apple to use audiobook files for machine learning training. You let Findaway distribute your books and they let Apple train AIs on them.
Train them to do what? Probably many harmless and useful things, but one of them must be to narrate audiobooks instead of an expensive human. And authors aren’t given the choice to keep their books out of this great experiment, which will probably make a lot of money for a corporation somewhere. Legally, those are derivative works and the original creators have a right to share in the proceeds. There’s more about it on Victoria Strauss’s blog, Writer Beware.
This clause isn’t new. It’s been in Findaway’s small print for years. One author found it in a contract she signed in 2019. There may be countless other rights-grabs we’ve unknowingly agreed to over the years, or been opted into by publishers who released our work. Or our work is probably being used anyway, whether there’s a contract or not.
The use of creative work without permission is becoming normalised because it’s impossible to stop. The moral boundaries to it are breaking down. That’s not a healthy trend.
We can’t stop the machine
But could we protect works in copyright? Is it too late? Perhaps not. A few years ago, websites used to post cookies on your devices, whether you liked it or not. Often you didn’t know. Now you have to agree to it, and though it’s maddening, you can refuse permission if you want to. (I always refuse, just because.)
If that can be done, creators could be asked for active and expressed consent and could opt out.
I’m not sure what good it would do, except to reinforce the point that creative work is a skill, a craft, a service and a business.
Books will be written by AI, but…
There’s a cynical view that AI could create the pulpier kinds of novel where readers want procedure or plot or iterations of tropes. (Do those readers really exist? I can’t comment. It’s not my world.) There will be literary AI experiments. Collections of poetry. Probably memoirs, just because. (Though who would pay for a memoir written by AI? You could just generate one yourself, free.)
There will be breakout sensations. AIs might entertain us with a whacky fresh juxtaposition, like the fish being stolen from the sea. Some of the output will be weird or moving, because it’s monkeys with typewriters. And also because the reader supplies some of the meaning in a work, often without realising how much they are doing. But they usually do that because they think there’s a guiding purpose, an answer to find.
Non-creative people sometimes tell me there is nothing new under the sun. I disagree. There are new things, all the time. Although we all – AIs and people – learn on what has been done before, that’s just the start. Then comes the work. And the art and the craft. We experiment and refine until we find the way to express our own truth, a truth from our unique complications and depths, the new thing that’s worth saying, and for readers is worth reading.
And so I contend that in certain artforms, and that includes creative writing, you can’t cut out the expensive human.
Alexis Paige is a writing professor with a string of impressive credits for her essays, memoirs and literary editing work, but her latest book, publishing in February, is subtitled How To Make A Messy Literary Life. I was intrigued. Here are all the questions.
Alexis, let’s begin by talking about your literary life as a whole. Your career has always been writing – local newspapers, public relations and a number of teaching roles in the writing world. However, you describe your early years as anything but stable – ‘a peripatetic childhood shaped by loss and dislocation’. Did commitment to writing come from constant change?
My career has indeed been committed to writing, but I don’t see that as a direct response to any instability I experienced as a child. Not because there isn’t a connection; rather, I feel too close to my own life to see it with any distance or clarity or conviction.
Combat pilots use this wonderful, tactile expression to describe flying at very low altitudes to avoid enemy detection: nap-of-the-earth. This is how I think of myself, as a speck lodged in the nap of my own life.
In any case, I don’t have a good sense of how others perceive me (does anyone?), but I feel more inner turmoil than I show. A student who read my first memoir— Not A Place On Any Map, vignettes of my childhood, adolescence, and 20s to early 30s—remarked that the book did not square with his image of me as an energetic, good-humoured professor, a ‘success story’. It shocked him to learn that I have struggled with depression and anxiety, with substance abuse and PTSD, and that my confidence and competence are tinged with a darker sensibility. As Walt Whitman writes in Song of Myself, ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’.
I think we all contain these multitudes. But still they take people by surprise. That could be a discussion in itself.
So what did that early life look like?
We moved around a lot: I was born in Chicago, my younger brother in Phoenix, and when my parents divorced in the early 1980s, my mother went to Texas, and my brother and I to live with our father in New Hampshire. I had plenty of stability in many respects; at the same time, my life seemed quite different from my peers who spent their lives in one house and one town.
Summers and holidays were in Texas with my mother, and later, Boston. By the time I was 10 I could navigate airports with a competence that made me resent being assigned a chaperone. By the time I was a teenager, I knew how to figure out any subway, rail, or bus system, and could drive an old standard transmission truck off-road in the mountains of New Hampshire. I had this feeling of always moving between worlds, each with different customs and codes. I was comfortable in both worlds, but always happiest sitting in the window seat to the next place.
When did you choose writing, how did you choose writing, and why did you stick with it?
Sometime in my latter high school and early college years. While I had always been a devoted reader, my early English teachers were pinched taskmasters, obsessed with sentence diagrams and grammar (for which I am not ungrateful, but that’s another sidebar). They weren’t writers; they were subject experts. Writing is a subject, sure, but it’s also an identity, a way of being, a way of thinking, a means of exploration, a way of making meaning of experience, a noun and a verb.
In my last year of high school, I took a course in journalism and one in women’s studies—and writing began to click for me in a new, exciting way. These teachers were artists themselves, and that meant something, though I’m not sure I understood that at the time. There was an exchange of recognition perhaps; the more they saw in me a writer, or a thinker, the more I saw it in myself.
Was your family artistic in any way?
One of my cousins is a sublime photographer, another a gifted dancer, one aunt a talented painter. My paternal grandmother played piano on the radio with her sister on vocals—everything from boogie-woogie to standards of the 1940s and 50s. My brother is a talented singer-songwriter and musician.
But more than artistic, I would describe my family as big readers and conversationalists. My dad, brother and I were our own little debating society. Extended family gatherings were rhetorical athletic events (my dad was one of 12 children, and I have approximately 40 first cousins), with everyone jabbing and sparring, making cases for this or that, spinning yarns, playing cards, and filling up rooms with smoke and laughter.
That’s wonderful. Do they have room for one more?
Let’s talk about your latest book – Work Hard, Not Smart: How To Make A Messy Literary Life. Why messy?
For me writing is a messy activity. In 25-plus years of doing it, it hasn’t gotten any easier, or tidier. You have ideas and images and gestures and space junk zooming around, and that’s before you even get into the chair. The writing hasn’t even started. The real writing happens when I yield this unwieldy consciousness to the writing itself. In his essay On Writing, William Stafford said it so much better: ‘A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.’
I recognise that well. I start with a compulsion and a muddle, which torments me until I’ve spilled it roughly onto the page. Then I feel calmer because I have it fixed, it can’t get away. Then I can question it properly, see what bothered me so much about it.
My new book is partly a reckoning with, or perhaps an ode to, this—the muck and slog of the act of writing itself. The book dives into some granular concerns of craft, which is why I settled on calling it a craft memoir. By messy, I suppose I mean it’s a thing one never quite gets right. I recently re-read Anna Karenina, and I thought to myself, once again, that it is the most exquisite, perfect work I’ve ever read. But Tolstoy was probably still fiddling with semicolons or dialogue tags or something long after it was published.
Work Hard, Not Smart is a craft memoir of my life both off and on the page (and in the classroom), with linked essays on everything from writing with and about mental illness and addiction, to writing about rape in the age of Me Too, to writing about race and incarceration.
Before I quit drinking at 30 (I’m in my mid-40s now), I got into a terrible drink-driving car accident in Houston that resulted in a protracted felony case and trial in which I was facing prison because a woman was injured in the crash. In the book, I spend a chapter puzzling out how to write this complex story for another book that I’ve been working on for a long time. The more I wrote about the experience, the less I wanted to write a merely personal story of redemption, or whatever. Not that there’s anything wrong with redemption. It’s just that I am more interested in writing about the racial dimension of my experience as a white person reckoning with America’s racist criminal justice system. This is a much larger story, one that remains beyond me, and its difficulty is what I discuss in the Ars Poetica chapter.
The book is also about the messy enterprise of becoming a writer, being a writer, over the long haul. This encompasses career and life choices, literary citizenship, careerism (or anti-careerism), and other vexing concerns like time, and how to get enough of it. Years ago, I asked the poet Charles Simic how I should go about becoming a writer. ‘First,’ he said, ‘you will need to get a job—any job—that pays money.’ I didn’t see it this way in the moment, but now I think it’s the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten.
It’s the advice we’d be most disappointed to hear, but we all learn its value.
You were recently diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). How did this change things for you?
My own mind suddenly felt less unsolvable. There was a name for it. There was a name I could quibble with, anyway. It became less a thing to resist and more a feature I could lean into. I was diagnosed when concepts like neurodivergence and neurodiversity were becoming more mainstream, and this helped a lot too. ADHD was simply a different way of being and thinking—one even with some creative advantages, like hyperfocus when interested, for example.
And how does one define ‘normal’, especially in creative people? We train ourselves to do things that require a high level of concentration, practice and persistence, we follow impulses that are mysterious to others and often inexplicable to ourselves… we make connections others do not…
The title of my book is an inversion of the cliché “work smart, not hard,” a nod to my own growing acceptance of ADHD as a kind of divergent-thinker magic. The book arose from this, which made me want to run out and tell other like-minded creatives what I wish I knew early in my writing life: that not all who wander all are lost. You can learn to rely on yourself, to go your own way, and to make a writing life that fits you. The essay form is especially elliptical, so having an elliptical thinking pattern is an advantage there too.
Meanwhile, what’s this picture of you with – gasp – travel writer Jon Krakauer?
For my 25th birthday, my dad took me to a Himalayan Foundation dinner in San Francisco. We had both read a lot of mountaineering books, including Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, which is a harrowing account of the 1996 Everest disaster, not to mention a timely polemic about the phenomenon of big mountain tourism.
I know it well! I read it several times while writing Ever Rest. If I open the pages, I fall into it again.
I love all of Krakauer’s work (he’s SO good with nouns!), and he was a speaker at the event. After the speeches and dinner, as things were winding down, Krakauer was suddenly free, and I saw my chance. I practically tackled the poor guy, but he was very gracious and kind and his eyes were dazzling—full of life. My father was ready to capture the moment on film.
It’s a memoir in vignettes about my childhood and early 20s. This was the time when I moved around most, first with family, and then by choice. The locus of the book is also trauma itself, in particular, my first trip abroad, to Italy, where I was raped. My life thereafter spun out in painful, predictable ways. I reported the rape, nothing happened, I felt re-victimized, I drank, I drugged, and I stuffed down the assault (and others) to the deepest recesses I could find. The book is an attempt at mapping the spin out and what happens when it all comes back up.
Your website describes a few hair-raising escapades including a short spell in jail. Tell me about hellraiser Alexis. Is that a fair description? Are you still a hellraiser?
Hellraiser, I’ll take it! I do think it’s a fair description. I’m not as much an obvious hellraiser as I was in my 20s, I have more to protect and lose now. But I still have a rebellious disposition (even with myself), and I hope to be raising hell for a good many years to come.
Do you write fiction at all?
I haven’t written fiction, but I never say never. I read and teach a lot of fiction. The short story is one of my favourite forms. In my early years as a baby creative writer (a poet), I did publish a few poems. This occurred around the millennium, when publications were still print, largely, and mine are now long out of print now, thank god.
What are the hallmarks of an Alexis Paige piece in terms of concerns, curiosities and style?
I love this question, but I have no idea. I have no aptitude for this sort of self-appraisal.
I love this answer. We can’t always figure ourselves out – as you said earlier.
I’ve always been driven by an insatiable curiosity. A few years ago, I became so obsessed with underwater treasure hunting that I contemplated studying engineering at the college where I teach writing, not because I wanted to do any engineering, but because I wanted to better understand marine engineering so I could read more about it. For the last few years, I’ve been on a World War II tear that started with a book on Churchill. So, I have these interests that ostensibly have nothing, or little, to do with my field, but they’re all connected on some crazy loop that makes sense to me.
Your essays are published in several literary journals. You’ve also edited the journal Brevity. What does a journal editor do, aside from assessing submissions?
Allison K Williams just wrote this super helpful piece for Brevity about this very topic, so I want to second everything she says in this link.
I’ve worked as a journal editor at a few places—most recently at Brevity—and the role can be different at different places. At Brevity, most of my work was reading and rating submissions—sometimes offering commentary if I loved a piece or if I felt my rating could benefit from explication (this wasn’t feedback for the submitter, more part of an internal conversation about what we loved, liked, didn’t like, or had questions about). I didn’t work directly with writers on revisions; I believe that happened at a higher editorial level, but Brevity gets such incredible work, so many publishable riches, that most accepted work requires little editing. At other journals, the Stonecoast Literary Journal where I was the creative nonfiction editor during my MFA program, I not only read submissions and managed our wonderful readers, but I made publication decisions and worked with writers on revisions and edits.
Do you have any submission tips to offer authors?
Many writers send out tons of work to lots of places. I’m not opposed to this, but it’s not how I work. I don’t send out anything until I’m really done with it, probably to my own detriment. I have trouble turning loose of even one sentence. And I rarely submit simultaneously. I send out one piece at a time, to one place at a time, one that’s been carefully researched. With publishing, I’m either risk averse, or a serial monogamist.
What’s the most common reason for rejection?
I can only speak for my niche experience. Some rejections occur because the piece is not the right fit (eg it’s a piece of reportage submitted to a journal that doesn’t publish reportage), some are because it’s not the right timing (eg it’s wonderful, but we just published an essay about infidelity). Most rejections, in my experience, occur because the submission is unfinished, it needs work on a beginning or ending, it needs one thread tugged on a bit more, it needs to be edited, but it’s close. Maybe it’s good, really good, but not great. It’s so subjective, of course.
Tell me about your editing work, both as a freelance and for Vine Leaves Press.
I do some copy editing, but mostly developmental editing, both freelance and for Vine Leaves. At VLP, development editing is with a manuscript that has been accepted for publication, so it’s about refining the work and making it the best version of itself. Editing is so satisfying to me because it’s so much easier to see the issues and possibilities in work that’s not my own.
It certainly is. It also tunes up our own awareness. Speaking of your own work, what are you writing now?
I’m in flux. I’m on the book launch, but I’ve been tinkering with a couple of longform essays that detail the grief and fear of the last few years—not only life in a global pandemic, but also some personal griefs and fears. I had a hysterectomy a couple of years ago because of health problems, my husband had a serious injury and recovery last year; he shattered his arm. We lost two dogs. So, I want to work on those; whether they’re one-offs or part of a book of essays, I don’t know yet. I also need to finish another work-in-progress, my jail memoir, which I believe is close but needs one more revision.
Just before we recorded this episode I’d been chairing a roundtable at a writing conference. I was struck by how our books come together from fragments. Snippets of inspiration and research; structures that reveal themselves in pieces which we join together like a jigsaw puzzle; snatches of voice that suggest characters or perhaps the narrative tone of the entire work; the contributions from beta readers and editors later on; the way we might be pleased with certain parts but have to sweat over others. Books are long haul; they come together from so many directions. This creative process is what we’re talking about in today’s episode.
Asking the questions is independent bookseller Peter Snell. Answering them is me!
It’s been a while since I’ve had an Undercover Soundtrack guest, but that doesn’t mean it’s muted forever. I’ve been writing, and the soundtrack collection for my own book is almost as tall as its namesake (Everest). Meanwhile, I’ve bumped into a few people who would be perfect guests and this week you can meet the first of them – SD Mayes. Her novel is called Letters To The Pianist, which you’ll probably agree makes her the perfect first act for the second act of this series. Letters To The Pianist is set in the London of World War II and draws heavily on the author’s own family history. Music was a route map for the key emotions of the characters – from fantasy escape, feelings of teenage inadequacy and the feelings of wild abandon that come from communion with an instrument. Hop to the Red Blog to hear more.
I’m addicted to those pieces in Saturday newspapers where authors show us round their writing rooms. The walls for Post-Its, the arcane but essential talisman on the desk, the flop-and-read area…. even if we all know that half our work probably happens in snatched scribbles at the Tube station, or in our heads while watching a film.
Anyway, here’s my own contribution, first written for the Authors Electric blog back in 2012. I’m sure some of the piles of notes have waxed and waned, but the general geography of where everything lives is the same. Writers are creatures of habit, I guess.
My desk is an old dining table. It has been with my husband longer than I have.
He didn’t acquire it by choice. Years before I met him his mother found it by a skip. She delivered it to Dave ‘in case he’d find it useful’. He didn’t, because he didn’t need two dining tables. So he put it in the box room. Then I moved in.
I was a private scribbler, a manic creative. The box room became my study and the table my playground, with a computer and a litter of notes. Short stories, a tinkered-with novel, naive submissions. Gradually commissions happened. My prose left the house as printouts and disks and returned as proofs and then real books.
The table and I had become serious.
It was not a lovely beast. Not just because of the haloes from hot mugs, the cigarette burns and the grooves from children’s scribbles. I’ve never seen wood that looked so like Formica. I sanded and painted the top, in a paler tone of the smoky lilac on the walls. The table’s legs were neither substantial nor retro spindly. But painted black they became svelte stilettos. Dave made me bookcases, also in black.
There isn’t much else in the room. In one corner is a Nepalese cushion, to be used for reading and for plotting out books on index cards. The cushion is a hypnotic-looking mandala with red tasselled corners. (Tasteful neutrals make me cross.)
Beside the monitor is a stack of CDs, chosen to witch up characters, places and scene moods for works in progress. Pens are crammed in a box that once held Laurent Perrier champagne. Leads and USB drives live in a distractingly hip Michael Kors sunglasses case (a charity shop treasure). Something, one day, will find a home in the tiny cylindrical box inscribed with the word Pride. Papers, cards and a quill from a pheasant’s tail sit in a wooden chest – a gift from a friend who died one Christmas in a car crash.
Between these fixtures are notes. Pictures, too, of random strangers I’d cast as my characters.
At the moment there are five or six books evolving on that desk. If you took a stop-motion film you would see them multiply, spread and vanish like the seasons.
Like the narrator of My Memories of a Future Lifel I’m a martyr to RSI. If Dave has to sort out a problem with my computer he curses the kneeling chair, the joystick mouse and the gusseted ergonomic keyboard.
The computers have come and gone. Relics gather, CDs and notes arrive and leave. But the foundling desk has been under it all from the start, through much discovery and the paperdrift of many books. And here it still is. I think it might even be older than I am.
We love hearing what alumnae are up to. Would you write a few words for our magazine, with advice to current pupils? Not in sport, obvs.’
What would I have liked to know at that age? I remember my main worry was what I would do in the outside world. I dearly wanted a life that was creative, but I had no artistic family members or role models to show the way. How would I become the sort of person who made an art my profession?
Obviously skills would be necessary, but I think it starts before that; a crusade at an intrinsic, instinctive level.
So this is the advice I’d have appreciated.
First, follow your interest.
In my day, the school was housed in three handsome old houses, joined by their gardens. Our classrooms had tantalising remnants of their times as family homes – stucco ceilings and fireplaces, which I would gaze at, daydreaming.
The maths room was in a small Gothic building and was particularly delightful. Outside its window was a set of grassed-over steps that led to the original front door. I had no aptitude for maths, and anyway those old rooms suggested mental exercises that were much more beguiling – to imagine the people who had lived here, with their own dramas, before it was a school.
After a few years we moved to new classrooms with breeze-block walls and my maths improved considerably. But that old building started me on a lifetime habit to roam in my imagination. It also gave me an abiding love of lost places – which still entertain me today (you’ll certainly see evidence of that in Lifeform Threeand Not Quite Lost).
My second tip is this: make your own rules.
In those days, English O level had two papers, one of which was an essay. Our teacher advised us to avoid the story option. ‘Because no one does the story well,’ he said. I was a quiet, law-abiding pupil and took every instruction seriously, but this was a maxim I couldn’t follow.
All that term, I turned in story after story, as I always had, and the teacher didn’t mind at all. When it came to the O level, the examiners didn’t mind either. Sometimes when you defy the rules, you find your true path.
My guest this week began her novel as a NaNoWriMo project, appropriately enough for this time of year. But its true seeds were at a gig in the late 1990s where an eight-year-old fiddle player stole the show. Years later, the author sat down to power through a manuscript idea for NaNoWriMo. She used songs of the 90s and early 2000s to take her mind back to the night with the fiddle player, but nothing would make the words flow until an album of Tibetan chants popped up on her music library. She found the zone. She is Leslie Welch and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.