Saturday, February 15, 2014

Interview with...Laura Wiess

Laura Wiess has been commended by critics and readers for giving the world extraordinary heroines, including Meredith (Such A Pretty Girl), Sayre (Ordinary Beauty) and now Rowan (Me Since You).

1. When did you first realize that you wanted to become an author?

Actually, the Big Moment of Clarity was the moment I began to wonder if I actually could ever become a published author. That was not only thrilling but also hugely terrifying.

I grew up with a mom who loved reading, and who read to me right from the beginning. We had library cards for multiple libraries and we checked out bags full of novels to read every week. So I grew up loving the adventures I got to go on with the fictional heroines. And, of course, when you read a lot, it follows that you begin to write, if only to enjoy weaving language and creating characters and adventures of your own.

I wrote fiction in grade school and throughout high school, sharing it with family and friends. Creative Writing was my one easy A. Still, I never even thought about trying to take it any further. Writing was something I did everyday because I loved it, because it was necessary. It was never anything I thought about putting out there for a professional to judge, and perhaps find lacking. Yikes. Beyond that, I believed that authors were brilliant, magical, mysterious people who lived an exalted existence, one far beyond anything I could ever attain, or even imagine.

And then came the day I made what has turned out to be the most magical, nerve-wracking, exhilarating and satisfying decision of my life. I was reading through this YA romance story I’d been writing just for fun, and I distinctly remember stopping and thinking, You know, Laura, you can write for friends and family forever and that’ll be it… OR… (and here’s where my heart started pounding and I broke out in a cold sweat) You can see if you have what it takes to write something good enough to maybe get published.

Gasp. Wait: Take my tender little pieces of prose away from the family and friends who always applauded them (Of course they did. They loved me, and would have applauded anything I created) and send them out into the cold, cruel world to an anonymous editor with a stack of a thousand other anonymous pieces on his/her desk, and who would judge my stories on their merit alone? Are you KIDDING?

It was a terrifying thought because…well, what if my writing actually stunk, and my whole life had been spent skipping around in blissful ignorance, thinking I could write good stories when in reality, my family and friends had just been jollying me along? What if I was not only bad, but truly awful? Could I ever write again, even for myself, knowing I sucked?

Happily, the more stubborn part of me surfaced fast and shoved the fear away long enough for me to make a plan of action. (I love plans of action.)

First, I went to the library and took out every book I could find on how to craft fiction. Books on characterization, themes, creating tension, formatting, language, story rhythm and structure, how to submit, where to submit to, etc.. The best (and most astonishing) part of that was finding out how much I didn’t know about writing fiction. (I mean, I was a beginner and just because I could catch a football didn’t mean I’d automatically get to play in the Superbowl, right? Right. It was a humbling and very useful realization, and came in handy when the rejections started pouring in later.)

So, I started writing constantly and trying to dig deeper each time, learning to set the work aside for a while so I could go back and reread it with fresh eyes to see what didn’t work. Learning there was such a thing as a first draft, and that a first draft is where you get to pour it all out, unedited, and that it should never reach the public. That draft is yours to go back and work with, to mine and restructure, rewrite and strengthen. That it could take a year or two or seven to write one book, whatever your process is, and it could still stink in the end and never be published. That this was the chance you had to be willing to take. Writing came with no guarantees.

When I started, I had no clue as to how much you have to love writing to spend all of your free time for weeks, months and years searching for the right words to express the scenes you see and hear and feel inside of you, how much you have to love your main characters to make them real, and to want to spend so much time with them. How you have to let them fall and hurt themselves, so you can rise beside them when they pick themselves up again, wipe their eyes and take another step forward.

I didn’t know that to write ‘real’ I would have to find a way to feel what my characters felt, see what they saw. I had to learn to trust them and not turn away, or try and sweeten things up when the story or the emotions got painful or ugly.

Finally, after months and months (and months) of racking up dozens of rejections, I had my first short story accepted for publication in a literary magazine. Oh, the pure gold of that moment. I was paid in contributor’s copies, but it felt like a million dollars.  

I didn’t care that my ratio of acceptances to rejections was maybe one in thirty. That was good enough for me. Who cared about those other twenty-nine carefully written but rejected stories, when one had actually made it? That acceptance meant everything.

I had done it.

I had become a published author.

2. What inspires you to write? How do you come up with story ideas?

Well, I really love that no one is ever only what we see, or even what they show or tell us of themselves. There is always more. I want to know why we do what we do. The choices we make. What we defend, what we surrender. Motivation intrigues me. I like shining a light into dark places, seeing who is huddled there and discovering what they’re dealing with. I want explore that small, burning ember of hope that keeps each of us going…and what happens when it goes out. I love when my characters make me cry. That’s when I know their struggle is real enough to go straight into my heart and change the way I look at life.

I guess I write to try and understand different life experiences and points of view, and for me it all starts with a character. Once the main character becomes a real person in my head, with a voice and a life of her own, it’s her story and I’m just running along behind her, typing like crazy.    

3. In some of your novels, like "Ordinary Beauty" animals play a huge role in your stories. What are some of your favorite animals and/or pets?

I’m an animal lover and try hard to practice it without prejudice, so yes, I’ve been known to catch field mice bare-handed to move them before my cats get them (field mice are very sweet and when they’re in your cupped hands, safe, you can feel their little hearts beating with fear. They came inside because they were hungry, and why would I ever want to hurt someone who is only trying to live, just like me?) I’ve caught flying squirrels and bats in the house and released them outside, petted opossums – nature’s most wonderful vacuum cleaners and cute as buttons – shared my patio with a very tolerant skunk and my garden with shy, insect-eating snakes. (And my woods with rattlesnakes, who do their best to warn you away with a polite rattle, which I very much appreciate.) I try to do no harm, and so the deer are welcome to their portion of my flower beds and the bears to basically whatever they want, lol. They’re hungry. I’m not. I don’t mind sharing.

Beyond wildlife, it’s dogs and most splendidly, cats. I’ve spent a lot of time feeding, catching, spaying, neutering and gentling feral cats, and it’s one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done. Being consistent enough to earn their trust, starting out as a potential threat (in their eyes) who is only there to curse or chase or hurt them, and over the months demonstrating your reliability and intentions by speaking soft and low, by not challenging them or expecting too much, too fast, by extending a hand and holding still for as long as it takes for that first tentative sniff -- a huge gesture for a frightened, wild animal – by showing them, slowly but surely, that the hard world they exist in can be softer, that there is kindness and food and warmth and…

Ha, there it is again.

I can’t help it.

I’m a huge fan of hope.

4. Which authors and/or books have inspired you?

Inspiration comes in so many different forms. I’ve read books so moving and beautiful that they’ve left me not only in awe but also frustrated because I knew I’d never be able to write like those authors, and books that actually cheered me to think I could do better, and got me writing with a determined eye to keep improving. So happily, inspiration runs the gamut.

I do have a short list of books I reread every so often that remind me of the necessary story components and somehow provide the structure my brain needs to start writing again. They’re all comfort reads; some make me laugh, some I very much admire the skilled characterization, some keep the stories moving fast and reinforce the importance of pacing. Things like that. I love each one of them and their characters, and it’s kind of a bonus prize that they serve a dual purpose.

5. Is there any advice you would like to give to any aspiring authors?

Keep reading. Keep learning. Find a character or an issue you’re passionate about, one that seizes you and just won’t let go, and explore it. Study the craft of writing. Be willing to rewrite, over and over again to make the story the best and most compelling it can be. Don’t be afraid to go deep, to excavate layer after layer to get to the truth of your character, your story, your work. Trust the process. Get used to spending lots of time alone, mulling, what iffing, creating. Sometimes you’ll tear your hair out because the scene isn’t working, sometimes you’ll shiver with pure exultation because it is. Make us laugh, make us cry, make us FEEL. Give us the best that you’ve got, so we can laugh and cry with you. And most of all, if you love to write, keep going because in the end, it’s all about the story.

Thank you so much, Ruth, for your kindness and for being such a wonderful host. It’s been a pleasure talking with you!

Thank you, Laura for this privilege to interview you and your amazing stories! 

Laura's new novel "Me Since You" will be released on February 18 
For more info on her and her other novels visit her website. 
Here is my review for Me Since You

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