My guest author today has quite a story to share with us, both about her writing inspiration and process and the book she’s talking about. A quick peek at her bio, and then let’s dive right in!
LENORE HART is the author of eight books, including the novels Waterwoman (a Barnes &Noble Discover selection), Becky: The Life and Loves of Becky Thatcher, and The Raven’s Bride. Two novels have been optioned for film. She’s the series editor of three Night Bazaar fantastic fiction anthologies. A Shirley Jackson Award finalist, Hart has received prizes, grants, and fellowships from arts organizations in the US, Ireland, and Germany. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in numerous magazines and journals. She’s a writer for the Kevin Anderson Agency in New York City, and teaches fiction writing at the Ossabaw Island Writers Retreat in Savannah. Forthcoming is a historical folkloric novel, The Alchemy of Light, from Milford House/Sunbury Press. She lives in Virginia, in a Victorian-era farmhouse on the Chesapeake Bay, with her husband, novelist David Poyer, two cats, and two peahens.
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Betty: What inspired you to write the story you’re sharing with us today?
Lenore: I was in my last year of graduate school, getting my MFA in creative writing, and realized I’d run out of stories to hand in for that semester’s writing workshops. I had a vague idea of a story I wanted to write; a scribbled note that said: “Two elderly sisters live alone in a house on a remote island, and they are angry at each other. It has something to do with a man.” That was all I had at the moment, but classes were about to start. As the mother of a five year old, who was teaching two classes and commuting 120 miles round trip to the university, I felt panicked. When would I have any writing time? So in desperation I spent a long weekend secluded at a friend’s house intending to crank out what I thought would be a short story based on that mingy paragraph. Instead a rather different story came pouring out as if it was being downloaded directly to my brain. My friend Nancy kept me fed, supplied an occasional glass of wine, and made trips to the local library to get me needed research books. I wrote over 37,000 words (about 125 pages) in less than three days. It was a novel, not a short story. And that MS later became first my book-length MFA thesis, and then my first mainstream novel, published by the Berkley imprint of Penguin Putnam in 2002.
Betty: What, if any, new writing skill did you develop while working on this story?
Lenore: I’m not sure it’s exactly a concrete writing skill, but I learned a lot about how crucial it is to stop being self-critical or second-guess myself too early in the creative process – in other words, to listen to and respect The Muse when she comes calling. Otherwise the writer risks sending her away for good to greener, more receptive pastures.
Betty: Did you struggle with any part of this story? What and how?
Lenore: The odd thing about this book is that is was not much of a struggle at all. I revised it only maybe three times in total before I sent it out for submission. I also had several working watermen read it, and they thought it was accurate and moving. But after Putnam acquired it, I expected to receive an editorial letter and revision guidance from my editor there, yet she said she had none. “I believe it’s wonderful as it is now, and I don’t want to tamper with the unique voice.”
Well, I was astounded to say the least. How could that be? Actually, this made me very nervous, even anxious. I don’t really believe in perfection, at least not for us humans. I called her up and asked her to reconsider: wasn’t there anything she’d like more, or less of? Finally she said I might consider lengthening a scene early on at the post office when Annie (protagonist) receives a love letter from war-torn France, which she mistakenly thinks is for her, rather than for her sister Rebecca. I thanked my editor profusely and did just that, feeling much better. I still wonder if she did it mainly to humor me . . . anyhow, I would like to stress that this has not been the experience with my other novels. They all came much harder and required many more revisions. I think I received a truly magical gift with Waterwoman, that first one!
Betty: Which character(s) were the easiest to get to know? Why do you think?
Lenore: Annie Revels, my protagonist. I had a lot in common with her – save for all the time out on the water; I don’t even fish, I get seasick easily, and I have fair skin that burns after about five minutes in the sun! But she was considered too “boyish” and had trouble fitting in with the social mores of her time; wanted more from life but was trapped in isolation, and thus frustrated, and she longed for a partner in life who understood and accepted her. I think those are universal issues many readers can relate to, as well.
Betty: What kind of research did you need to do to write this story?
Lenore: Again, this novel was atypical for me (as I would find out later.) I had lived on the Eastern Shore by then for about 8 years, and so – as a history buff – I already knew a bit about its past, and about the landscape and people. I had never been out on a waterman’s boat though and knew only a little about the calling (I don’t think it’s a mere “job”). And I am and always have been a stickler for historical accuracy in my work and in the books I choose to read. But again, I was terribly short on time to write, so I got a stack of books about the Shore’s history and about waterman of that period (1900-1921.) And I read them as I wrote, and after I stopped writing, until I went to sleep. When I came up hard against a spot where I needed a particular word or phrase or technical information, I looked it up. But again, it was odd, in that – as I mentioned before – the whole story came so fast and furious, and felt so sure and true as I typed it, I didn’t have to even do a lot of that. It was actually a bit creepy, in retrospect. Almost as if someone was telling me their own story; one they’d waited a long time to have seen and told. I can’t explain it all any better than that – even to myself!
Betty: How many drafts of the story did you write before you felt the story was complete?
Lenore: As I mentioned, three in total. The first draft on the long weekend; a second draft to enlarge on that to meet the required word count for my MFA thesis; and once again before it was submitted to three presses: Putnam, Crown, and one other I’ve forgotten. There was something of a bidding war between Putnam and Crown, but ultimately I went with the former.
Betty: How long did it take for you to write the story you’re sharing with us? Is that a typical length of time for you? Why or why not?
Lenore: Not at all typical. For example, I took five years to complete my later novel Becky: The Life and Loves of Becky Thatcher. Almost four years of reading and research, and the rest spent writing and revising. Other novels have taken a year to two or three years. Waterwoman, when I added all the reading, writing and revisions, took less than five months in total. I do wish it would happen that way again, as with Waterwoman. But so far – not! Maybe a writer only gets one of those “ultimate downloads” in a lifetime?
Betty: What rituals or habits do you have while writing?
Lenore: My most effective ritual is to run away from home while I write the first draft of a manuscript. I have to have quiet in order to concentrate – it’s less crucial at the revision stage — and that isn’t the situation at home! My hideout needn’t be fancy. I’ve written first drafts on a fellowship at a lovely writers’ retreat in Germany, and I’ve written them in a friend’s uninsulated office over his boat shed. It’s just the act of getting away to concentrate and work that’s important.
I don’t have a lucky pen or special computer software or anything like that. I write a detailed synopsis of the novel first, about 7 to ten pages long, so I’m sure I grasp the basic events, characters, and trajectory of the story. Some people (like my husband) prefer chapter outlines, but I get too bogged down in them; a synopsis works better for me. But I do feel some kind of planning tool is crucial, and I reject the idea (which I’ve been told more than once) that an outline or synopsis is too “inorganic” or not “creative.” In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. Knowing as much as you can before you begin is freeing for the writer. Once that guide is in hand, you no longer have to worry “Where is this going?” or “What comes next?” You already know; just look at your outline or synopsis and there’s no excuse for writer’s block (which I think is mostly just the writer’s version of “I don’t wanna get up and go to work today”). A plan frees you to be as creative as you like without worrying if you’re getting too far off track (been there, got the T-shirt) and if you encounter a need for changes, well – it’s a computer file, not a concrete building. Easy to update as needed!
Betty: Every author has a tendency to overuse certain words or phrases in drafts, such as just, once, smile, nod, etc. What are yours?
Lenore: Oh lord, yes. Though mine are so boring I hate to even list them. But here goes: a bit, little, small. As a writing prof I’m well aware of avoiding too many repetitive tags like “he smiled” and awkward, negative-attention-drawing words like “strode” or “torso”. But I just . . . can’t . . . seem to shake . . that darn . . . list! So I go looking for them in my last revision with Find and Replace to stamp them out – yet again.
Betty: Do you have any role models? If so, why do you look up to them?
Lenore: Early on I took writers I met and whose behavior I admired as my role models for how to act like a decent person-slash-author. Ray Bradbury was one; a kinder, more patient, humble or humorous soul you could not find. I felt very lucky to make his acquaintance. Also, when I was learning about the craft early on – a good writer is always still learning — I had mentors who helped me immensely: novelist Janet Peery, short story writer Lee K. Abbott, nonfiction writer Philip Gerard, editor/teacher Frank Green, and of course my husband, novelist David Poyer. We still read, comment on, and line edit every single MS the other produces, no matter how long or short.
Betty: Do you have a special place to write? Revise? Read?
Lenore: I like to write away from home, as I said earlier. It needn’t be a fancy place, but should be a fairly quiet one, or it just won’t work!
I can revise (unless it’s a really complex and long change) pretty much anywhere, including at home, despite cats jumping on me, the phone ringing (mostly telemarketers) and my husband watching loud news-clip videos in the next office.
I can and do read anywhere, though my favorite spots are on the back screened porch, which overlooks a tidal creek just off the Chesapeake Bay — and in bed at night before I go to sleep.
Betty: Many authors have a day job. Do you? If so, what is it and do you enjoy it?
Lenore: For many years my day job was teaching creative writing, mostly in colleges and universities, sometimes as a visiting professor or writer in residence. Previous to becoming a full-time writer, in Florida (my natal state) I was a librarian, in such varied settings as a state mental hospital’s forensic unit; at the Florida Department of Commerce, and finally in 25-branch public library system in Jacksonville. Later I was fiction faculty in the country’s largest low-residence MFA program for 16 years. I have been (and still am) core faculty at the Ossabaw Island Writers Retreat, an excellent workshop and retreat-based getaway for aspiring authors that crams a lot of information about how to succeed in a short stay, while also offering a gorgeous unspoiled setting on an undeveloped Georgia barrier wildlife island refuge. I also have a community-based writing workshop at a local arts center which has been ongoing for 27 years now. I’m happy to say that a good number of my students there have been quite successful: receiving publishing contracts, including with NY houses, being finalists for or winning literary awards, receiving conference or retreat fellowships, and even becoming Amazon bestsellers. I still teach the local workshop because I do enjoy teaching, seeing them improve and become skilled writers, and I like helping beginning writers start out on the path to publication well-prepared!
Betty: As an author, what do you feel is your greatest achievement?
Lenore: Being able to keep publishing – poetry, short stories, and book-length fiction – nonstop, since my college days in the late 1970s! I feel very fortunate indeed to have the craft of writing shape and inform my whole career.
Betty: What is your favorite genre to read?
Lenore: Oh dear. A hard question, since my tastes are very eclectic and tend to evolve over time. I read mostly novels, story collections/anthologies, and memoirs. But my favorite genres, fiction or nonfiction, usually draw heavily on either fairy tales, folklore, or mythology to inform their themes, plot, and underlying structure. Those old, archetypal stories are both a big side interest, and a big influence on my own work.
Betty: Success looks different to different people. It could be wealth, or fame, or an inner joy at reaching a certain level. How do you define success in terms of your writing career?
Lenore: Definitely the joy option, as with other aspects of life, even though there are always low points. But I would celebrate still being able to keep at it, over three decades later. And – though I’ve been known to carp about how hard first drafts are, since my favorite part is revision – the fact that I never grow tired of the process, and have been able to make it work as my primary career for so long. The unhappiest writers I’ve met went into writing feeling sure they’d get fabulously rich, probably right away, with their first book. As if – especially these days! They probably should have gone into a field that more readily assures such a goal. For that kind of success is the exception, not the rule, in publishing, an industry in which success is also heavily dependent on sheer luck. But even if I never made another cent from writing, I would still be a writer. It’s not really even a choice for me, but rather an essential and basic part of my existence! And I’m very satisfied with my fate.
Even as a child in 1920s Virginia, plain and boyish Annie Revels had everyone’s role in life figured out. Everyone’s except her own. Her mother was sickly and needed to be taken care of. Her little sister Rebecca was remarkably beautiful, while Annie was not. Her father was a waterman, a free-looking life Annie deeply envied and could’ve had, if only she’d been born a son. But a waterman wants no women aboard his boat; it’s bad luck.
Tiny, remote Yaupon Island knows nothing of the partying, gin-soaked Roaring Twenties which grip the rest of the country. The Revels family depends on the coastal waters to make their living, and tragedy is always only a bad storm away. As Annie notes, “In order to live on the Shore, you need to understand that good weather always follows bad.” But when her father dies suddenly, it falls to Annie to take his place aboard the oyster boat and support what’s left of her family. Out on the water, she’s free for the first time. It seems Annie’s found a life she can enjoy, even if the watermen around there shun her. Then one day, stuck on a sandbar, she meets a handsome hunting guide named Nathan. And finally, against her better judgement, she takes him home to meet her mother and sister. His presence in that house of women upsets the family’s uneasy balance, bringing joy – but also discontent, jealousy, rivalry – and ultimately, tragedy for them all.
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Lenore, you’ve had quite a diverse and impressive career! Thanks for sharing The Waterwoman with us—I’m adding it to my TBR now. I’ve always been in love with and fascinated by the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia, so this sounds right up my alley.
Award-winning Author of Historical Fiction with Heart, and Haunting, Bewitching Love Stories
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