In SIRENS, Jo Winter’s father is a bootlegger, a middle man for the sale of alcohol. That gets him into big trouble because it means he’s doing something illegal in 1925; and worse yet, he may be hiding something from the gangster he sells to, Danny Connor. Pops’ bad decisions pull Jo and her brother Teddy into the deadly world of gangsters and 1920s violence.
making moonshine during Prohibition
When in January 1920 the 18th Amendment to the Constitution took effect it prohibited the manufacture, transport and sale of alcohol in America. (Not the purchase or consumption of alcohol – that’s important to note.) Prohibition supporters claimed it would create a society that was sober and therefore patriotic and prosperous. No more corruption, lazy workers, or violence.
Instead, almost overnight as alcohol became illegal, people searched for new and sometimes dangerous ways to find a drink. The romantic allure of something forbidden gave rise to a glamorous depiction of mixed drinks and drinking in general.
Al Capone and other gangsters became efficient at transporting alcohol, which resulted in turf wars and deadly raids. Home distillers brewed up alcohol – dubbed “moonshine” – from almost anything, including toxic substances. And “speakeasies” – so called because you were encouraged to speak softly – sprang up all over the country.
Some clever entrepreneurs created bars known as “blind pigs,” where a patron could pay to view a blind pig (what a thrill!) and, oh, by the way, consume a “free” alcoholic beverage (remember, it wasn’t illegal to purchase or consume, just to sell.) Others created fancy jazz joints behind closed doors where admission was only gained by knowing the correct password.
Prohibition of alcohol made it romantic, glamorous, and exciting to drink. Some speakeasies were elaborate constructions. One New York speakeasy went by the name “County Fair,” and was pretty much a set decoration: it was made to look like a fairground, complete with a white picket fence and grandstand boxes for booths.
The exploits of the flappers and the gents who frequented speakeasies were documented by a New Yorker columnist who went by the pseudonym “Lipstick,” and who made speakeasies and their patrons sound enthralling. Lipstick was actually the writer Lois Long, and she was good at her undercover job because she was the quintessential flapper: tall and thin, bob-haired, attractive, and dressed for the job.
Corruption among police and other officials was rampant, mostly because their salaries were so low they were easily tempted by cash offered by the bootleggers. When they did bust a gin joint, they let the patrons go and gave the owners a slap on the wrist, and (after exacting a donation to the “Policeman’s Benefit Fund”) the place would be back in business the next night.
One of the main things that made the 1920s the “Roaring” decade was Prohibition. One of the others was the emergence of the liberated young woman. Lois “Lipstick” Long was the epitome of the modern young woman who went to speakeasies and stood toe to toe with the men around her, drinking alcohol as much as they did and staying out all night. Would she have emerged without Prohibition? What do you think?
In one scene in SIRENS Jo goes to a New York speakeasy. She can see that Melody is “up all night” most nights. So were most young people in the cities, which is one reason they were the Roaring Twenties. What was that all about?
They were the “Roaring Twenties.” It was the decade of “anything goes.” Young girls were nicknamed “flappers” and danced and partied all night long.
We carry these images of the 1920s because they are true. And New York City was a hotbed of the activity that led to these images – it was, from the title of a forgotten silent film of the decade, “the city that never sleeps.”
So many things contributed to the party-on atmosphere of the 1920s that a complete discussion would take a book (and if you’re curious, check out Anything Goes by Lucy Moore.) But several key contributing factors were Prohibition, the rise of the automobile, the birth of the movies, and a reckless, self-indulgent attitude cultivated in books and movies and adopted by the youth.
The prohibition of the manufacture, transport and sale of alcohol by the 18th Amendment that became law in 1920 had the opposite of its intended affect. Rather than preventing people from drinking, it encouraged gangsters to step in to traffic in or “bootleg” alcohol. Prohibition also led to the use of “speakeasies” – underground pubs (often literally underground, in basements) where one could buy a drink. Police officers corrupted by easy money looked the other way when alcohol was involved, and backyard distillers made their own “moonshine.”
Because alcohol was illegal and one had to be “in the know” to find it, the illicit activity was exciting and encouraged daring young people to seek out venues that proliferated throughout New York. One society column, penned by the anonymous “Lipstick” (Lois Long), detailed the shenanigans of all-night parties, speakeasy busts, and arrests. Few took Prohibition seriously, which led to a devil-may-care attitude.
And then there was the automobile. For the first time, a young man and young woman could drive away from parental supervision and spend plenty of time alone. This led to a lot of…well, back then it was called “canoodling.” Old-fashioned Victorian attitudes toward sex gave way to uninhibited behavior, and “petting parties” were common.
Popular books and movies only reinforced these attitudes. From The Great Gatsby to The Sheik the code was “eat, drink, and be merry;” “live without regret.” Flappers adopted an almost uniform clothing style that not only set them apart from their elders but allowed freedom of movement and exposed a good deal of skin, and actresses like Clara Bow and Colleen Moore epitomized the flapper in a string of movie successes and in their off-screen lives.
Many other things contributed directly or indirectly to the party-on atmosphere of New York in the 1920s: jazz music, rampant political corruption, increase in the divorce rate, the rise of advertising, the development of cosmetics. Even The Great War and the flu pandemic of 1919 had an impact on this devil-may-care behavior. Regardless of cause, the effect was one of abandoned fun.
And New York City was the epicenter of fun in the Roaring Twenties, all night long.
Kicking Up Their Heels: The Women’s Fashion Revolution of the 1920s
Flappers were defined in part by how they looked. When in SIRENS Jo meets her cousin Melody, she sees the perfect flapper; and when Jo borrows her cousin’s clothes she worries she’s turning into a flapper. But, golly, it was a great look! And it sure beat wearing those horrific corsets.
In an earlier blog post I talked about some of the reasons fashion changed so radically in the years from 1900 to 1925. The war, the suffrage movement, the feminist movement, women in the work force, even cinema, the automobile and advertising – these elements came together to encourage more practical, less restrictive women’s clothing (corsets – gone!)
But what happened in the early 1920s pushed the clothing evolution into revolution. And the greatest proponent and inventor of the new fashion was Coco Chanel.
Chanel was thin, athletic – she was a great horsewoman – and attractive, and she personally favored less restrictive clothing, adopting men’s clothing and the comfortable styles worn by sailors (like boatneck sweaters and espadrilles.) It was her personal taste that women found attractive, as Chanel used knits and flannels rather than silks and taffetas, and she dispensed with frills and ruffles in favor of simple lines that allowed freedom of movement. To make up for the lack of fabric adornment, Chanel introduced beadwork and patterned cloth. It was Chanel’s slim, straight silhouette that became the fashion almost overnight.
Young women in America particularly took to Chanel’s chic new look. Dresses were tubular, with no waist or a dropped waist, and those huge, overdone hats were reduced to the close-fitting cloche. Long hair went out of style – too fussy, too much work – to be replaced by the short, loosely styled bob. Hemlines in about 1919 were mid-calf, but by 1925 had climbed well above the knee. While frills were gone, they were replaced by the “Oriental” look that featured beading on the dresses, and jewelry of beads, bangles, and long strands of pearls.
Because these slender dress styles sporting bare arms and lots of leg look best on young figures, those who dressed in Chanel style were mostly young and thin. And the young women of the 1920s were already pushing against their elders’ formal restraints across society. When women entered the work force during The Great War, they didn’t want to return to passive domestic duties. They needed comfortable clothes, and they needed them ready to wear.
That was the other part of this revolution in fashion: the shift away from elaborate hand-sewn costumes made from delicate fabrics that required lots of care to practical fabrics sewn into practical garments that could be purchased – by an ordinary working girl – off the rack. Technology combined with practicality: a factory could produce many more dresses using far less fabric with the new styles. And a girl could walk into a shop with her week’s wages and walk out with the latest flapper style, and have money left over for entertainment.
Which was a huge part of the 1920s culture. Dancing, drinking, and dating – every self-respecting flapper wanted to be out all night taking in the “scene” and being “seen.” More about that in an upcoming post.
When Women Got the Vote and Left Their Corsets Behind
Both Jo and Lou in SIRENS are conflicted about their roles as women. The men in their lives don’t value them as individuals. In fact, until the 1920s women were really second-class citizens. Here’s some of the context of the women’s suffrage movement:
Wait…you didn’t know that once upon a time not so long ago, women in America couldn’t vote?
Until the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1920, women in this country had no voice. No say in politics. No choice in leadership. Yes, that’s right – not even 100 years ago women were completely dependent on the men around them to make their choices for them.
(Just think about this, though – there are still many places in the world where women still have no vote, no choice, no freedom. We Americans are the lucky ones.)
Some states – like those in the West, where there was a shortage of women – encouraged women to settle by granting them the right to vote at the state level. But the right of all citizens to vote in any election in America without regard to gender was not granted until the passage of the 19th amendment.
Until the First World War (The Great War, 1914-1918) most young women in the lower classes worked “in service” – as maids or cleaning staff for the wealthier classes, while upper class young women were expected to marry successfully and raise children. A middle or upper middle class young woman working in an office, or teaching, or clerking? Unthinkable. But during the war, while men were away at the front, women went to work to make up for the employment shortage. When the war was over, women stayed in the work force rather than return to domesticity. Women in the work force spoke up about working conditions and health care and that paved the way for suffrage.
When President Woodrow Wilson announced that The Great War was a war for democracy, women took this as encouragement and began an even more active campaign for the vote, by picketing the White House and protesting in Washington for equal rights. Women had been involved in the suffrage movement for most of the early twentieth century, but the war catapulted the suffrage movement forward to success.
And corsets? Those horrifying undergarments were a form of social control. A study of tight lacing of corsets in the late 1800s showed that a corset could contract a woman’s waist by between two and six inches. And the pressure the corset applied to a woman’s body could be as high as 88 pounds, crushing the internal organs. Yikes! Women were so confined that they were unable to move, breathe, or digest properly. Early feminists made it their mission to convince women to abandon the corset, and the war sent women to work, and work required more freedom of movement in unrestrictive clothing, and so the corset faded (thank goodness) into history.
Interestingly, women who worked for the suffrage movement and considered themselves feminists took umbrage at the young women who would be called flappers in the 1920s. Early feminists thought the Chanel-inspired loose clothing styles and looser moral standards of flappers were a sell-out to the cause of equality. Early feminists might have shed their corsets, but they didn’t necessarily buy into the flapper behavior or the shorter skirts and hairstyles. The early feminists wanted to be taken seriously, and, really, how could someone who dressed in a frivolous costume that barely covered her bare skin be serious?
As a follow-up to my research on SIRENS (Penguin, 2012) I wrote a series of ten articles that summarize different aspects of the 1920s. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting them here so that they’ll be available in my archives. Here’s the first in the series…
Home From World War 1: Returning From the “Great War”
In SIRENS, Jo Winter’s most pressing internal problem is the whereabouts of her missing older brother, Teddy. He returned from his stint in World War 1 damaged by “shell-shock.” Here’s a bit about what that means:
The end of the First World War in 1918 was a time of great social and economic transition that led directly to what made the 1920’s “The Roaring Twenties.”
Soldiers who fought in the First World War, then called “The Great War,” and survived came home with devastating injuries to both body and mind. Over four million Americans served in the First World War, and served under ghastly conditions, facing for the first time in battle heavy artillery, machine guns, and poisonous gases.
And while these physical traumas were terrible, the internal traumas may have been far worse. PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder – isn’t a new thing. Called “shell-shock” at the time of the Great War, the damage inflicted psychologically on soldiers serving in the war was unanticipated. Men in the 1900s were expected to be “masculine” and repress their emotions. Crying and breaking down were behaviors thought unacceptable, and were often cited as reasons for placement in insane asylums. Doctors, and the public, had no way to understand the experiences of these soldiers, and they were treated indifferently at best and punished for their behavior at worst.
The end of the war for these returning soldiers could not mean a return to “business as usual”, even if that had been the hope. Technological advancements, urbanization, and immigration led directly to the social upheavals of the 1920s. With so many men serving, killed in action, or returning disabled in body and mind, women had been needed in the work force, and they were reluctant to return to domestic situations, which served to strengthen the cause of women’s suffrage and independence. This independence was evidenced by the adoption of less restrictive clothing and shorter skirts and the fad for shorter hair that was easier to manage.
Movements like pacifism, isolationism, and spiritualism grew following the end of the war as people sought to retreat from the horror. And the need for relief from the emotional traumas of the war may have contributed to the “anything goes” atmosphere that prevailed in the 1920s. Advertising, commercial manufacturing, the rise of the cinema, and the automobile promoted “new” and “more liberal” ideas that conflicted with the traditional thinking American soldiers left behind when then went off to fight.
Any war impacts the generation that lives it and the decade that follows it, but the changes in society following World War 1 were rapid and extreme. It would have been a tough homecoming for those soldiers.
(Check out the fashions in the Downton Abbey image. The designers of that show have it right. Austere, severe, and probably uncomfortable.)
Writing a great query letter is an art, but once you’ve created your synopsis, you’ve got the bones. Here’s the rest of the story:
Your synopsis forms the basis for your query letter.
Almost all queries today are email cover letters; your manuscript or pages are sent as a Word attachment – but these are requirements you should establish first as some houses still prefer your pages in the body of the email and rarely do houses or agents ask for hard copy. Note also whether the editor/agent prefers pages (usually the first 10-20) or the full manuscript. Never send something from the middle of your novel.
All editors and agents will specify their requirements for submission, so follow those exactly.
The norm today is multiple submissions are acceptable as long as you notify the recipient of your intent. My advice is to limit multiple submissions to 3-4 agents/editors in each round, and if you should hear back in the positive let the others still considering your submission know that you have interest right away. Also, the norm today is that if you don’t hear back in three months, consider your work rejected. Not nice, not fair, but that’s what it is.
Here are the fundamentals of query letter writing:
Should be no longer than a single typed page. Seriously. Shorter is better.
Should be addressed to the individual editor/agent. Check spelling, check your facts. Find out what the editor/agent has previously edited/agented because you will tell them why you believe your work is a good fit for them.
Your opening sentence should be short and to the point: “I submit FAR CRY, my 75,000 word young adult romance set in contemporary Indochina, for your consideration.”
Follow this with your pitch sentence: why you have chosen this editor/agent for your work: “I’m submitting to you based on your work with Joe Smith and his acclaimed young adult contemporary romance, LET LOOSE THE DRAGONS, one of my favorite novels of last year.”
Your middle should be your synopsis or a reasonable facsimile thereof. This is where you really pitch your story, with an enticing, engaging summary based on your synopsis. Don’t go into details; leave the editor/agent hanging and wanting more – you are pitching your concept and selling your book.
Your ending summarizes your previous publications if any, and your professional writing related experience (i.e., membership in SCBWI or other professional organization, MA/MFA from wherever, whether you are/have been a teacher or librarian). Non-writing related experience need not be mentioned.
Don’t tell the editor/agent that your mother/aunt/children/students loved the story.
Don’t go on and on with gushy personal feelings.
Do sound professional, serious, and educated.
After sending this out for a couple of rounds, if you’ve had no interest, revise and try again. Good luck!
Today on the blog I’m pleased to host an interview with Darlene Beck Jacobson, whose debut middle grade novelWHEELS OF CHANGE is an inventive look at a window of history as the car was making its debut. Here’s just a bit of the great review Kirkus gave the novel:
“Twelve-year-old Emily loves helping her father in his barn; she even dreams, in futility, of becoming a blacksmith like her father’s beloved employee, Henry. She and her best friend, Charlie, ponder such things as gender roles, women’s suffrage and “horseless carriages.” She dutifully tries to become a lady even while working on a secret that uses her “masculine” skills. As the year progresses, Henry falls ill, and Emily and her family are subjected to the uncertainties of changing times as well as some nasty treatment from white supremacists. Resemblances to To Kill a Mockingbird are strong, especially during a tea party hosted by Emily’s mother. A nice touch: Throughout much of the book, Papa teaches Emily—and vicariously, readers—new vocabulary words. The strength of the text lies in Jacobson’s ability to evoke a different era and to endear readers to the protagonist. The prose is straightforward and well-researched, heavily peppered with historical references and containing enough action to keep readers’ attention.”
Now, here’s Darlene:
Hi Darlene! Please give readers a synopsis of WHEELS OF CHANGE.
Racial intolerance, social change, sweeping progress. It is a turbulent time growing up in 1908. For twelve year old Emily Soper, life in Papa’s carriage barn is magic. Emily is more at home hearing the symphony of the blacksmith’s hammer, than trying to conform to the proper expectations of females. Many prominent people own Papa’s carriages. He receives an order to make one for President Theodore Roosevelt. Papa’s livelihood becomes threatened by racist neighbors, and horsepower of a different sort. Emily is determined to save Papa’s business even if she has to go all the way to the President.
I love stories like yours that are set on the cusp of change. What inspired you to choose this particular time period and the shift from the era of carriage to car?
There were two family facts I discovered while researching my family tree. One was that my paternal grandmother’s father was a carriage maker in Washington DC at the turn of the Twentieth Century. The other was that grandma received an invitation to a reception held at the White House by Theodore Roosevelt. She attended that reception and met TR. The story grew from there.
While I was doing research I discovered just how much change was taking place during this time period in history. The more I looked, the more I realized how frightening it must have been to many people. I wanted to show how change affects us all and can bring welcome and unwelcome things into our lives. It’s up to each of us to decide the importance of those changes. We can’t stop change–it still happens all around us. But, if we make it work for us, we can see a better outcome.
Emily is a strong character. Do you generally begin with character or with plot?
I usually gravitate toward characters first, trying to find something special or unique that makes that particular character stand out. I also enjoy where the characters take me in a story; it is often to a place I hadn’t envisioned. Plot is always more difficult for me. I generally need several rewrites to flesh out plot elements. With WOC several plot elements were expanded or added after the manuscript was accepted.
You have several important subplots (in particular, Henry’s). Please tell us about them and how they came to be.
Henry was always part of the story. I wanted a character that was unexpected for the time and place, yet real and meaningful to Emily and her family. I doubt that a person of color like Henry would have been employed by my great-grandfather; but it seemed important to make that happen.
The rights and gender roles of girls and women became more fleshed out in rewrites than in my original version. The subplot with William and the mouse was also added later, as was the thread buying scene, and Emily building a miniature carriage for Papa. It amazes me how an editor – especially one who also writes, like Marissa Moss my editor at Creston Books – can make a suggestion that takes my mind in a whole new direction. I love that part of the revision process.
Do you have anything new in the works?
I have two projects actually. The first is a PB titled TOGETHER ON OUR KNEES about a little known abolitionist and suffragist, Matilda Joslyn Gage. The other is an MG historical set in a Pennsylvania mining town during Prohibition.
Here’s Darlene’s charming trailer for WHEELS OF CHANGE:
Darlene’s stories have appeared in CICADA, CRICKET, and other magazines. When not writing, Darlene enjoys baking, sewing and tea parties. She also likes hanging around forges watching the blacksmith work magic. She’s never ridden in a carriage like the one in the story, but hopes to one day. Her blog features recipes, activities, crafts and interviews with children’s book authors and illustrators. She still loves writing and getting letters. Check out her website at: http://www.darlenebeckjacobson.com or on Twitter: @dustbunnymaven
WHEELS OF CHANGE is available on AMAZON, Barnes & Noble, Indie bookstores, or on the Creston Books site: www.crestonbooks.com
If you read my “Synopsis” post, you’ll see that you’ve already got a start on crafting a logline. But we’re going to take it a step further.
A logline is a one-sentence summary of your story. Think about a movie poster, with its brief but compelling summary, or the cover grab of your favorite best-seller. Those are loglines. And why do you need one? In part because you may experience an elevator moment.
Now, a caveat. If you go to a writer’s conference, whether SCBWI, local or national, or any other, you will encounter agents and editors. Since the basic premise of all world behavior is “be nice” it follows that you will not, no never, ever, confront an agent or editor with an unsolicited pitch. As in never. Do I need to repeat?
(There’s a not-so-apocryphal story in the industry about the editor who was in the ladies’ when someone slid a manuscript under the door of her stall. Think she bought it?)
However…you may find yourself in a friendly conversation, in a hallway, over breakfast, or even in an elevator, when, after getting to know you at your nicest (ahem) an editor or agent may say, “What are you working on?”
This is when you need a logline. Not a full-on pitch (that’s a longer item, for another time), but a one-sentence-can-be-told-in-30-seconds-or-less summary of your story. You can use it in that elevator moment, and you can use it in your query. Honing a good logline will also help you focus on what’s most important about your story.
The best loglines are brief and gripping. Here are some examples:
In the 17th Century Caribbean Sea the roguish yet charming Captain Jack Sparrow joins forces with a young blacksmith to rescue a governor’s daughter and reclaim his ship.
In a dystopian future where one segment of society rules all teen girl Katniss Everdeen takes her sister’s place in a televised game to fight to the death.
Let’s list the components you need:
genre (this can be implied as in the second example above)
your protagonist’s main problem
your antagonist (again, can be implied)
the goal/consequence of failure
Put these elements together in a sentence that speaks to the high stakes of your story and you’ll have your logline.
Each time I attend a writing conference I’m reminded that one of the trickiest things to do correctly is write a synopsis. And yet the synopsis forms the basis of a query, so the more powerful you can make your synopsis, the better your query.
I’ll post on queries soon, but I’d like to give you a worksheet on synopses here. This worksheet will hopefully guide you through the steps you need in order to craft the strongest synopsis of your work.
Keep in mind that much of what drives your story lies deep inside you, so don’t try to do this simplistically. Get to the heart of your story, and not only will you have a better synopsis, you’ll discover things that will inform all your work. And it follows that a great synopsis – which is ideally a paragraph – will contain the nuggets of that most precious of all sentences, the logline. And the logline will arm you for the elevator moment. (More on queries, loglines, and elevator moments -check here.)
Okay kids, this novel is an incredible read – moving, mysterious, and deeply engaging. It is not for the faint of heart, nor for the easy-reader; it’s a novel for those who love to think and be prodded out of their comfort zone. I devoured it in a single day. Lindsey Lane’s debut YA THE EVIDENCE OF THINGS NOT SEEN (out now from Farrar, Straus, Giroux) is a not-put-down story of the disappearance of one Tommy Smythe, a brilliant if odd teen. Here’s a portion of the School Library Journal review and summary: “The story unfolds through interviews with witnesses, scraps of scribbled notes from Tommy himself, and private moments between seemingly unrelated people. Tommy’s disappearance is at the forefront of some stories, at the back of others. Chapters are arranged by lead-characters or items, some more hard-hitting than others, but the picture of a small border town caught up in a mystery and bound by its secrets is an intriguing one that Lane does well. Some chapters do deal with more adult subject matter (drug use, teen pregnancy, racism, prostitution) and adult language is prevalent throughout, but isn’t gratuitous. Give to fans of Holly Goldberg Sloan’s I’ll be There (Little, Brown, 2012) and Todd Strasser’s Give a Boy a Gun (S. & S., 2002).” Full disclosure: Lindsey is a dear friend. I’ve admired her work for as long as we’ve known one another – almost ten years! And we are agency mates, clients of Erin Murphy. I couldn’t be more pleased. Now, not only do we get to hear about this beautifully written novel, we’ve got a surprise – the first appearance of the novel’s trailer! Here’s Lindsey: Please give readers a synopsis of EVIDENCE OF THINGS NOT SEEN.
Instead of writing a synopsis of EVIDENCE, I’d like to debut my book trailer on your blog (yay!!):
I was sucked into the story right away, and I confess that one reason was that Tommy is such a strong presence even in absence. How did you come to feel about Tommy?
I’m glad you felt Tommy’s presence strongly. Originally, he showed up in one of the stories when the novel was linked short stories that all occurred around this patch of dirt by the side of the road called the pull out. It was my critique partner Anne Bustard who said, “I think this particular story might be a bit bigger.” That’s when I went back in and did a floor to ceiling kind of renovation of the book and Tommy became a thread through all the stories.
I love the multiple points of view, the interweaving story lines. Did you write this novel in a linear fashion?
Do you mean did I write it from start to finish with a beginning, middle and end? Nope. When it was linked short stories, I wrote them one after another. Boom. Boom. Boom. But after I had the piece of Tommy going missing, I had a time frame so I had to weave each thread in relation to the moment he disappears. That’s all when I added in the first person sections of the kids who knew Tommy. Gradually, I found that what I was doing was writing around the negative space. If you have something or someone who goes missing, what remains is cast in sharp relief. Even if Tommy wasn’t part of another character’s life, his absence still affects that character. Like, when you lose your keys, you are kind off course looking for it and all the people you ask if they’ve seen them start looking and they go a little off course. Or worse, when your child wanders away from you at a store and you and everyone around you goes into a freak out until you find her. So if the center of a story goes missing, everything wobbles. I wanted all the stories around Tommy to have that feeling that life is just a little bit off course.
You know, Tommy would say that I did write the novel in a linear fashion because I wrote it in linear time whether or not I went back and shifted the structure of the book. That’s the kind of guy he is. I feel his presence every day. I probably always will.
The notes are brilliant, allowing us to see not only more deeply into Tommy’s way of thinking, but they connect the story of his disappearance with the physics of dimensional possibility. Was that something you came up with early on?
Almost as soon as Tommy showed up in my imagination, I knew he was a bright geeky kid who was a little bit off socially. Once his absence was a central thread, I started keeping Tommy’s journal. I wanted to know the way he thought. I wanted to know who he was. What I discovered was this brilliant kid who was in the middle of having his mind blown by particle physics. I knew his journal was important but all that I included in the manuscript that sold to FSGBYR was that little snippet at the beginning, which is still there. My editor Joy Peskin loved it so I included a bit more when I did a revision for her.
I believe I recall that this novel was inspired by true events. Is that correct? If not, where did it come from?
In the category of truth is stranger than fiction, I was double checking facts and I called the Blanco Chamber of Commerce because I set EVIDENCE in that neck of the Texas Hill Country in a town about the size of Blanco and I needed to check a few facts. I told the woman who answered the phone what my book was about and there was this long pause. “We had a boy that sounds just like your character who went missing a few years ago.” Then my side of the phone went silent. Turns out the boy came back but he had whole town in an uproar for a couple weeks. Wild, eh?
As for the stories in the rest of the book, they aren’t real but they are inspired by real events. For instance, when I interviewed Karla Faye Tucker on death row many years ago, I couldn’t stop thinking about how her story had led her to kill someone. Like where did the stitch in the fabric of her life break so that the whole tapestry unravels one very bad night? She haunted me until she showed up in this book.
Truth and factual events captivate me. Then I like to go back and look at the why and how of it. I’m a sucker for epiphanies. I love the aha of life.
That’s an amazing story. We were at Vermont College of Fine Arts together, a memory and friendship I cherish. Was any of this novel a part of your Vermont College experience?
When I graduated from VCFA, two stories–Comic Book and Lost–are in my creative thesis. But what was really important about the VCFA experience and this novel was faith. Faith in my writing. Faith in following and developing an idea. Faith that my ideas were worthy. I don’t know if I could have found that faith without going to VCFA. Every month for two years, I leaped off a cliff and sent my advisors pages and pages of writing. Each month, I made those pages better with tools in my writer’s toolbox. The VCFA experience was pivotal in my development as a writer and certainly this book.
You know the title of this novel comes from a quote in the bible about faith: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” In way, this book is a result of that faith in myself as a writer.
What’s your typical writing process? Plotter, or pantser?
Hmmm, I bet I’m going to write every book just a little bit different every time. Even though, I probably pantsed my way into this novel, I held each thread in my head before I wrote them down. I knew where I was going with each section. I knew who the characters were.
On the next book, I purposefully journaled for quite a while. I figured out the characters, the backstory, the crisis and the climax. What was most important was finding the inciting incident. It is the moment that makes the story unravel to an inevitable conclusion. I think of backstory as the hand of god. The reader will believe one coincidence at the beginning of the book. I try to make sure that one coincidence will make all the dice in the hand of god fall on the table. Gradually. Inexorably. Fatalistically. Lovingly. (I have to absolutely love my characters.) After I finish drafting and let it rest, that’s probably when I will do that hard work of making sure it hangs together on the arc of a plot. I do like to write intuitively when I’m drafting but I’m holding the story in my head so I have a map of where I’m going. If writing a novel is like a road trip, then I’m all about the surprises along the way in the first draft. I still get to the destination because I have the map but I’m stopping at cafes and pull outs and overlooks all along the way.
What are you working on now?
The working title is Inside the Notes. Here is the inciting incident: A young girl arrives in Boston. First time away from home. She is staying with a couple near the music conservatory where she is studying for four weeks. As she is unpacking, the clock radio in her room clicks on (the coincidence) and she hears men’s voices reading poetry and letters. It is a prison radio show. The girl knows her father is in prison for killing her mother when she was two years old. It is the first time she has considered he might be real and have a voice. The journey begins.