Q: How long did this book take to write?
A: That’s one of the questions people ask me most often, which surprises me! At any rate, there’s not a simple answer to that question. Back in 2002, I worked at an environmental consulting company, with scientists who would go out into the field on various jobs. One day, a wetlands scientist came back from a trip to Whittier, Alaska. He came into my office (he already knew I liked to write), and told me that in Whittier, almost everyone in town lives in the same building. He suggested that I should write a story about the concept. The idea was born.
And it percolated and grew in my mind for a very long time. For years I thought the book was going to take place in Alaska, and I was waiting for the opportunity to visit the state so I’d better be able to write about it. The opportunity never came up, though. Finally I decided to move my little town closer to my own home. I needed it to be somewhat remote, though, so I moved the town to an island. (And by the way, Dogwinkle Island does not actually exist, nor does the town of Wishing Rock, no matter how real they may be in my mind!)
Anyway, skip forward to 2009. After a series of deaths of family and friends, one very unexpected, I found myself looking at mortality and my own future and legacy. I’d always wanted to write a book, but had always been putting it off, in part, I’m sure, due to my own fear of failure. But I finally decided that the only way to know whether I could do it would be to try. I didn’t want to get to the end of my life and wonder, “What if?” I took a long hard look at my finances, quit my job, and started writing.
In total, the book took about nine months to write. (Yes, I know! And yes, it was my baby!) I’d say in that nine months, about three to six were hard-core writing. Four or five full rounds of editing took up several more months to a year, and continued right up to the day before I uploaded the book for publishing. As someone told me, in writing nothing is ever finished; you just reach the deadline.
So that’s the long answer, then. 🙂
Q: Why didn’t you want to go with a traditional publisher?
A: I did want to go with a traditional publisher, but that didn’t work out (read: everyone rejected me). I’m not easily deterred, though, when I get an idea in my head. I wrote a whole book, and I didn’t want to just put it away! When I first started looking for an agent in March 2010, friends and family would occasionally suggest self publishing, and I’d balk at the idea. But over the last several months, self (independent) publishing has really undergone a transformation. The stigma is going, if not gone. I finally decided that I wanted my book out there enough that I was willing to publish it myself, if that’s what I had to do. And I’m an optimist, so I figured of course I’ll be successful! While everyone else is debating the pros and cons of traditional publishing vs. independent, I decided to stop talking about it, and just do it. I’m glad I did. It’s definitely a ton of work – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise – but I love the learning process and I love having control of my own destiny.
Is self publishing for everyone? Probably not. Every author will have to make that decision for him or herself. Like I said, it’s a ton of work. But I’m glad this path chose me.
Q: Why the e-mail format?
A: I started writing the book in “regular” format, and got about 20,000 words in (that’s a little less than a quarter its final length) but was struggling. I went on a mini-vacation, and on the plane I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (an excellent book, if you haven’t read it). That book is written in the format of letters, which was so accessible and readable. I thought, “This is it! This is what I want for my book!” But my book is modern, so I decided on e-mails instead. I went back and re-wrote everything I’d written to fit the new format, and it worked so much better for me. Some (many) of the e-mails in the book are longer than the e-mails that many people write, but believe me there are people who write such tomes (myself among them). I didn’t want the book to become choppy with too many short notes.
The format definitely provided some challenges, though. There’s a sort of paradox in the story: Everyone lives in the same building, and yet they’re communicating via e-mails. Shouldn’t they just be going down the hall and chatting? So I had to really work to juggle the whereabouts of my characters, making sure they were traveling or otherwise away from each other, to justify their writing to each other.
The fact is, this is the world we live in. No matter how well connected we are to the community we live in, all of us have connections around the world. People move away, travel, meet online, and it’s easier than ever to keep in touch. This book would have been impossible twenty years ago; it would have taken too long for all these letters to be sent back and forth. But now, communication is instantaneous. I love how that builds the sense of community and closeness.
Q: Which of the characters is you?
A: I love all my characters so much. In writing this novel I learned a lot about where characters come from. First, there’s a difference between “inspired by” and “based on.” None of the characters is based on anyone, but some are inspired by people I know. I think all of those people know who they are. I’ve had a few people ask if a certain character or part of the book was based on them or directed to them, but unless I’ve told them it was, then any similarities are coincidence. It makes me happy that some of the experiences and situations in the book resonated so much with people that they felt a personal connection to them, but those experiences and situations weren’t directed at any one person.
However, in the end, every character is a part of the author. They have to be. We can only write what we know. Authors have to be able to empathize with their characters to make them believable. Even if I base a character on someone else, I’m only able to write my perception of who that person is, and my perception is based on my own experiences and understanding. E. L. Doctorow said, “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” Totally true. When I’m writing, I don’t have to agree with myself; I don’t have to come to a tidy conclusion. One character can have one opinion, and another can have an opposing opinion, and I can argue with myself but not have to decide for certain where I stand. I can stay open to learning. I love that.
One notable exception: in the novel, one character tells a story about an eagle and a rabbit. As many have guessed, the story is the kind of thing that you just can’t make up. That actually happened to someone I knew, a friend who died very suddenly several years ago. Including that story was a sort of tribute to him and his memory.
Q: Why are your characters all so nice? That’s not realistic.
A: Nope, it’s not. On the other hand, I like positive people. I work really hard to keep negativity out of my life, so why would I put energy into writing about negative people? I wanted to create a community that I would love to be a part of, and in such a community, I’d be surrounded by friendly, supportive, interesting people. I am sure some will criticize that, and I’m certainly not arguing with them. Yes, it’s unrealistic. But my book isn’t intended to be representative of real life. It’s intended to be a book you feel good about, entertaining and fun. And further, I avoid conflict in real life so I don’t have much basis to write about it! 🙂 In book two I may work on stretching my writing a bit to see if I can add in some more suspense and conflict. I’m sure it would add interest. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m aware this book isn’t perfect. It is perfectly itself, though; it does what it was supposed to do.
Q: What is a dogwinkle, and why in the world did you name an island after it?
A: I had such a hard time with naming people and places in my book. I recently was talking with another author, who told me names just come to her so easily! I wish! Most of my main characters went through a name change or two. Ruby was not Ruby for the first half of the time I was writing, and Ed went through at least two name changes. Even Wishing Rock wasn’t Wishing Rock until after the first or second full edit of the book.
As for Dogwinkle, I needed a name for an island. My first thought was to name it after my niece and nephew, but everything I came up with sounded so formal. So I did a search on “Puget Sound marine animals,” found a page and started going through the list. I hit on dogwinkle and knew instantly that was it. I should say, I knew that was it but I still had my doubts. It wasn’t until my writing group told me that I had to change the island’s name that I knew I couldn’t. That’s its name, like it or not.
A dogwinkle is a predatory sea snail. Don’t read anything into the fact that it’s predatory. Aside from being native to the area, what a dogwinkle is has little to do with why I named the island that. It’s the sound and feel of the name that I like. Dogwinkle. How can you not like the word dogwinkle? Even better, technically the island is named after the “frilled dogwinkle.” It’s a fun name. It fits.
Q: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
A: Where to even begin! I’ve learned so much over the past two years that it’s impossible to sum it all up. I guess that’s one thing: Regardless of the outcome, the journey is worth it. So if you’re thinking of writing a book, do it. Just do it. You’ll definitely learn some valuable lessons about yourself and life along the way.
I would also say that I don’t believe in writer’s block. That’s not to say that there aren’t times when I’m stuck – but I believe those times are when I’m letting inner critic and inner censor rule the page. Authors are tasked with incredible vulnerability; we say the things that everyone else thinks but won’t give voice to or admit to thinking. It can be really uncomfortable to put those things on paper. But I think when we start to fear judgment, that’s when we get blocked. I challenge you to find me a writer who has nothing to say. Impossible. We always have something to say. We just have to learn to trust what’s coming out of the pen or the keyboard, and not edit it until the book or article or essay is written. A writer’s words have a life of their own. They know what order they’re supposed to come out in. Trust them.
The other thing I’ll say is, write what you want to write. Don’t try to figure out what the market wants; don’t try to write “the next” anything. Write the first of your own book. That’s the only way it’ll work. In an interview with The Guardian, Philip Pullman said, “How many people did we hear, in 1996 or thereabouts, saying ‘We wish someone would write the first Harry Potter book! No one’s written about Harry Potter yet. We wish they’d hurry up’? One of the reasons for JK Rowling’s success was that she didn’t give a fig for what people thought they wanted. They didn’t know they wanted Harry Potter till she wrote about him. That’s the proper way round.” I couldn’t agree more!
Q: What’s next?
A: I always intended for Letters from Wishing Rock to be the first in a series. I love these characters and want to know more about what happens to them. Which means I have to write it! With such a varied cast, the possibilities are endless, and I’m hoping to stay with these people for a while. Plus, since I have to keep my characters apart in order to make the letter format work, that means I can incorporate travel into my research. That’s no coincidence – I planned that very carefully! Writing and travel are two of my main loves.
I’m also interested in a few non-fiction ideas. The topics of happiness and living one’s passion are fascinating to me, and I think one day I’d like to write a book about these concepts. Especially happiness. I have a few ideas where I could go with this, but right now it’s all still marinating in my head. And, at some point I’d like to write a book of humor essays. Humor is hard to write, though. You can’t force it. I need to practice a good bit before that book is ready, I think!