What is your favorite book?
My number one all time favorite is Ulysses by James Joyce.
I also love The Quiet American by Grahame Greene, The Shining and The Stand by Stephen King, The Passion by Jeanette Winterson, A Woman of Substance by Barbara Taylor Bradford and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Octavian Nothing and Feed by M.T. Anderson. Winger by Andrew Smith. Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli.
I grew up on a mixed diet of mass and class, and I still read that way. I hate it when people apologize for what they read. Some bestsellers aren’t exactly literary. So what? They’re fun and rip-roaring. Who instituted the book police and why do we have to answer to them? Grrrr!
What is your favorite movie?
There are so, so many.
The Silence of the Lambs. Capote. Brokeback Mountain. Matchpoint. School of Rock. The Remains of the Day. Howard’s End. Born into Brothels. Richard III (Ian McKellan’s). 25th Hour. The Secret of Roan Inish. The Black Robe. The devastating and astonishing War Dance. Superbad. And Caddyshack. To name but a few.
I used to be a big fan of horror movies, but not anymore. I watched 28 Days Later when it came out on DVD and got so scared, I’ve sworn off the genre for life. 28 Days Later broke the cardinal rule of zombie engagement – they made the undead speedy. There should have been a warning. Rated R for Running Zombies.
What fictional character do you most identify with?
I love so many characters, but there’s one character I feel especially close to – Clarice Starling, from Silence of the Lambs. Because like her, I am – to quote Hannibal Lecter – a “well-scrubbed, hustling rube”.
Where and how do you write?
I write in a room in my house in New York’s Hudson Valley. I usually have a pot of strong tea and a bar of dark chocolate for company and courage. I plot and plan and scheme and dream in longhand, but I do the actual writing on my computer.
Why do you write?
Because I love words and stories so much.
Because I would be grief-stricken every day of my life if I couldn’t write.
Because I’m obsessed and compelled.
Because I’d be utterly useless at anything else.
Do you ever think about doing anything else?
When the writing is hard, yes.
And the writing is hard every single time I sit down to do it, so I think about doing something else a lot. Mostly, I’d love to run a coffee bar or a tea house. Something where you get to talk to lots of people all the time and be around chocolate cake. Sometimes I think I’d like to be a forensic pathologist, because it looks so cool on TV, but I know I’d throw up on my shoes at the first whiff of a dead body. I’d also love to be a farmer, to raise chickens, grow potatoes, to be a painter, to restore wrecked houses, run an animal sanctuary, go back to journalism, open a second-hand bookshop, and become president so that the country could finally be run properly.
Luckily, a writer gets to do all those things through her characters. So I guess I’ll stick with writing.
What advice do you have for young writers?
There’s only one thing that makes you a writer – and that’s writing.
Writing – any kind of writing: journals, term papers, letters to your grandmother – will hone your ability with words. As you keep writing, you’ll learn how to do more with less. You’ll get a feel for simplicity and elegance, when to let rip and when to hold back, and how the subtle art of suggestion can lend incredible power to a paragraph or scene. These are all things I still struggle with. I have a tendency to overwrite, but when I do nail a scene, I can sense it, and it’s a tremendous feeling.
Reading is also incredibly important. It shows you how other writers do it, how they succeed and where they fail. Whether it’s a novel, a newspaper article or the copy on the back of a cereal box – it’s all writing. Someone had to think about it and make choices. It’s your job as a reader to decide how well the author did. You may not be aware of it, but every time you get lost in a story, or intrigued by a magazine article, you’re also picking up pointers on structure, plot, and style. I couldn’t afford to go to grad school, or take a workshop when I started trying to write, so I used what was available to me – good books.
Another crucial key to writing is finishing what you start. Lots of kids, and older people, too, tell me that they have so many stories started. Started is good. Beginnings are good. But you have to finish. Finishing is what makes the difference between ideas and books. Force yourself to sit down at your desk – glue your butt to your chair – and work through the problems. It’s very important. It’s very good discipline. It forces you to see an idea through from beginning to end and to do the hard work of bringing the various threads of the story together in a satisfying way. Do this and you’ll become more confident in your ability to tell a story. The problems of structure and plot and narrative drive may not get easier for you – they certainly haven’t gotten any easier for me and I’m on my eleventh novel – but with experience and a bit of confidence, you’ll become braver about facing them…and besting them.
Lastly, listen to your own thoughts and feelings very carefully, be aware of your observations, and learn to value them. When you’re a teenager – and even when you’re older – lots of people will try to tell you what to think and feel. Try to stand still inside all of that and hear your own voice. It’s yours and only yours, it’s unique and worthy of your attention, and if you cultivate it properly, it might just make you a writer.
How do you do your research?
For me, research is more an art than a science.
I usually start out with a good, general history of the time period I’m researching to give me a solid grounding in the era. Then I roll up my sleeves and get dirty. I visit archives, libraries, museums, and historical societies to try to dig up as many primary sources as I can.
Diaries. Memoirs. Oral histories. Census records. Tax records. Photographs – tons of old photographs. Newspaper articles. Paintings. Old clothes. Old books. Menus. Bills. Magazines. Letters and postcards. I need to see all of these things, as they all help me clasp hands with people from the past, and understand them, and fully inhabit their world.
It’s also important for me to physically spend time in the place where a story is set. Sometimes I’m talking to people, asking them about their experiences and feelings. Other times I’m looking at old buildings, walking old streets, figuring out where characters worked and lived. Sometimes I’m sitting in a pub, listening to the rhythms of local speech, studying faces and body language, or watching the Thames flow by. Always I’m trying to see and hear and smell what my characters would have seen and heard and smelled.
It’s important to me that the history is there, in my novels, and that it’s correct, but I want it to feel seamless and smooth, natural not intrusive.
I love to research and if there were no such thing as a deadline, I’d probably never stop. I don’t know how to explain how I know I’ve done enough, but I do know I can’t start writing before I feel sure and easy in whatever time period I’m writing about.
How did you get published?
It took me a long time to get my first book published. There were many days when I thought it would never happen.
I worked on my first novel, The Tea Rose, for ten years. I had a day job at the time, so I wrote very early in the morning and on weekends. There was a lot of ripping up and starting over. A lot. When I was at a point where I thought I had a saleable manuscript, I wrote to a slew of literary agencies, and luckily, the agency I wanted to work with most also wanted to work with me. My agent, Simon Lipskar at Writers House, praised the manuscript, but it had flaws and he was not shy about pointing them out. Thank God. Writers get one crack at any given editor, and the work had better be the very best it can be when that editor reads it. Simon’s comments and criticisms were initially hard to hear, but they made my book better. It took me over a year to rewrite the book and fix the problems. It took Simon another year to sell it. I was a first time author and historical fiction was not in vogue when he was pitching it. There were a lot of rejections. A lot of disappointments. And then…magically…there was a sale. Simon, who is book smart and street smart and as tenacious as a bull terrier, called me at work. The advance was small, he said, but the editor was wonderful and she was with a major house. That night, I drank champagne and danced on my dining room table. I had finally become an author.
I wrote a whole essay on this. Click here to read it.
How do I get published?
First and foremost, write a good book.
Once you’ve done that, find an agent. Yes, you do need one. Most publishing houses are swamped with unsolicited manuscripts and most editors have no time to read them. Some houses won’t even accept them anymore. Instead, they depend upon literary agents, with whom they have relationships, to know what they’re looking for and to send them good, polished manuscripts.
To find an agent, I consulted the Writer’s Market guide, which lists agencies and their agents, and gives a bit of info on who and what they represent. I also read Publisher’s Weekly, a weekly trade journal with columnists who report on literary deals and the agents making them. The Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators can also be helpful, if you’re writing for kids. Read, research, do your homework. Educate yourself as much as you possibly can. When you’ve decided upon an agency you’d like to approach, write a stellar pitch letter. And I do mean stellar. A pitch letter tells the agent about your work and invites him or her to read a sample. It should be brief, mistake-free, and utterly compelling.
There are many guides, like the Writer’s Market guide, that can give you tips on how to write a pitch letter. You can find them in the publishing reference section of your local bookstore, through your library, or through online bookstores. Spend time on this. Write and rewrite your pitch letter until it’s perfect. Agents, like the rest of us, are busy people with demanding jobs and lives. You only have seconds to capture an agent’s attention with your words, so make those words shine.
When you’ve found an agent, get a thick skin. You’ll need it, for he will have criticisms. Nobody’s work is perfect; everyone can use constructive comments. Your agent is presumably smart and talented – after all, that’s why you chose him, right? – so listen to him. You both want the same thing – the best possible book. And when the book is sold and you have an editor as well as an agent, listen to him, too. Be open. You don’t have to make every change that is asked for, but you must understand why the change is being asked for before you can decide whether or not to make it.
A word on money – reputable agents do not take money from you until they’ve sold your work. After a sale, they charge a percentage of the gross, usually 15%. For foreign sales, the domestic agent will typically charge 10% and the foreign agent 10%. Agencies usually charge for expenses as well – things like postage, printing, etc.
Within an agency, you may work with several agents. I have one agent for my adult books, another for my children’s books, and I work with a foreign rights agent as well.
Choose your agent wisely and well. This is an extremely important partnership – one that will affect you artistically and financially. This person will become at the very least a business partner – and possibly an editor, advisor, sounding-board, confidante, and if you’re as lucky as I’ve been with my agents, a friend.
Lastly, keep faith with yourself. We all read about the writers who wrote their first novel in two weeks, sold it in ten minutes, and hit the bestseller list in five seconds. They are the exceptions, not the rule. Writing is hard. Publishing is hard. The book world is, in my opinion, the very best one to be in, but it’s also a business and as such is challenging and competitive. You need to be tough to weather the inevitable rejections and setbacks. When trying to get published, stubbornness is a virtue. Cultivate it.
And as Winston Churchill said, “Never, never, never give up.”
I wrote a piece a few years ago about how I got published — it’s here.
What do you do about writer’s block?
I don’t really believe in writer’s block. If I get stuck, I know it means I haven’t thought hard enough about a particular problem. At that point, I leave my computer screen, get paper and a pen, and start writing out questions. Like, Why is this scene boring? Why is this character flat? Or even, Why does this chapter stink? The answers start coming….kind of like from a Ouija board…and eventually I see what’s wrong and get myself unstuck.
What don’t people know about you?
I wish I had a kanagaroo. Many kangaroos. I love Edinburgh and Reykjavik. I hate ziplines and trapezes. I’m in awe of people who can knit.