SusanStinson2Ellen Meeropol conducted this interview with our afternoon keynote speaker at this year’s WriteAngles. Susan will also take part in the panel Not in Polite Company that Ellen is moderating.

Your latest novel, SPIDER IN A TREE, is about the life of eighteenth-century Calvinist theologian Jonathan Edwards. As a contemporary woman, what was it about this slave-owner and revivalist preacher that so captivated your curiosity and imagination?

It really started with the landscape for me. I live just across the road from Bridge Street cemetery in Northampton, and used to walk there a lot and write there, too. I started reading the many beautiful eighteenth-century gravestones and became fascinated with the names and stories of many of the earlier inhabitants of the town. There are two markers there that honor Jonathan Edwards, and many people who eventually became characters in the novel are buried there. One stone marks the grave of Sylva Church, who I later learned had been a slave in the household of Mary Edwards Dwight, one of Jonathan Edwards’s daughters.

So, it wasn’t just Jonathan Edwards. The cemetery led me to a fascination with the whole community during the mid-eighteenth century. I didn’t know anything about him when I started, but found myself very engaged by the power of his writing, as well as by the intensity and influence of his Calvinist religious beliefs. Understanding more about that that felt like getting to the roots of some things so important to the world we live in now. It was very important to me to explore not just his inner life, but the inner lives of others around him, and to look at his intimate, lifelong role as a person who enslaved others in the context of other parts of his life and work.

Tell me something about the kinds of research needed to get inside the character and the times, and to write this novel.

stinsonSpiderinaTreeI spent a lot of time reading his sermons, treatises, and letters. I read his daughter Esther’s journal and his wife Sarah’s account of an intense religious experience, or awakening. I read books and articles about him and the period. I read everything I could find about slavery in New England. I went to the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale, the microfilm room at the New York Public Library, the New York Historical Society, and the Hampshire Room at Forbes to track down unpublished materials, and get insights from others about him. I went to conferences in Budapest and Old Deerfield. I went to church in an eighteenth-century building and to the town where he grew up. I read old cookbooks. I read his will, which listed all of the material items in his household in an inventory. It was an amazing day when I saw that. All his clothes! Everything in the kitchen! Everything. I also rode my trike all over the landscape I shared with him, and took notes on the light, the smells, the plants, the insects, and the seasons. Writing the book took me ten years.

Tell us a little about this book’s journey, after those ten years of writing, to publication.

The journey to publication was actually part of those ten years of writing. My previous novels had all been published by small presses that were part of a great network of publishers, bookstores, magazines, and newspapers focused on supporting writing by women as part of second wave feminism. This time around, I got an agent who had a background as an editor for prestigious magazines. I spent a year revising in response to his feedback. He sent the manuscript out to editors the Monday the stock market crashed, and next thing I knew he was in Publisher’s Weekly making a big sale on a book about surviving an economic collapse, and nobody was interested in my novel about eighteenth-century Northampton. He eventually withdrew from the project.

My book ended up with Small Beer Press, based in Easthampton, where Gavin Grant and Kelly Link publish what they call slightly weird fiction, and which I call amazing. (Seriously, check them out.) Kelly Link, a fantastic writer, is my editor and I couldn’t be happier.

Can you share with us what you’re working on now?

I’m working on a historical novel inspired by the life of Elizabeth Tuttle, who was Jonathan Edwards’s wild grandmother.

At this moment, I’m also doing some final edits on a short essay called “Slow,” about some of my feelings and experiences with working to be present, attentive, and tender to my fat, aging, newly disabled body as I’ve developed arthritis in my knees.

Any final words for the WriteAngles community?

Just that I’m excited about talking to a roomful of other writers about doing our work!

CathiHanauerThe following interview was conducted by Joan Axelrod-Contrada, moderator of the Secrets of Successful Writers panel at this year’s WriteAngles conference.

Why did you become a writer? When did the writing bug first bite you?

In high school, I realized I might have some talent, because I was getting A’s on writing assignments in a really hard writing class while some of the kids who always got A’s in the classes like AP Chem (which I was barely passing) were not. So I was like, Huh. And I even liked writing the pieces, which were mostly stories about my best friend’s Italian Catholic, fun loving, mafia-involved family, with whom I spent most of my time (I later wrote my first novel about them). But I was in no way one of those kids who sat around reading classics or sci-fi series as a teenager or who wrote my first novel at age four. I was much too busy acting like an idiot, being a twirler, playing on sports teams, dating pumped-up jocks, and having fun.

What is the most rewarding part of being a writer?

Along with working in my pajamas? Getting to explore things that interest me; being able to learn from my work. And being able to read books during the day (in a good year) and feel like it’s part of my job.

The most frustrating?

The lack of financial security, and the constant insecurity about what you’re writing, or that you have nothing to say that’s worthwhile, or that no one would ever get off Facebook or stop texting or tweeting or Instagramming or Skyping or scrolling through their news-feed or binge-watching The Kardashians or The Bachelorette or I am Cate or The Biggest Loser (all of which I have watched myself, btw) to read what you’re writing. The shrinking number of people who read books these days is somewhat terrifying for someone who makes her living as a writer. You used to walk down the aisle of a plane and see a sea of books. Now you see a sea of phones and laptops, people laughing at videos of kittens hanging from chandeliers. Yikes.

Can you tell us about your latest release?

My last novel was GONE, about a mid-life couple where the husband goes to drive the babysitter home and doesn’t come back. Told from both points-of-view, the husband and his wife, it’s about midlife marriage and motherhood, about art and depression and obesity and teen angst and solitude and love.

What inspired it?

Probably at least partly my own life, which, I’m embarrassed to say, pretty much inspires everything I write. I try to answer the questions I have about life – not just mine, but overall – in my novels, or to do in my stories what I might be tempted to do but don’t want to do in my real life – I can play it out in fiction, instead of in reality. So, for example, with SWEET RUIN, my second novel, I could have the midlife affair in the pages instead of in my own marriage. (I call it my midlife crisis novel.) I also try to debunk the clichés, I think. GONE was trying to present the depth and reality of someone, a good person, running from his family life – to make you see his side, as opposed to just the clichéd view that he’s a “jerk” or “selfish” for leaving his wife and kids. SWEET RUIN tried to show the other side of adultery – to make you understand, if not exactly sympathize with, someone who cheats (in this case, the wife). People are so fast to judge, to label things in black and white: this person is good, this one is bad; this one was a jerk, this one is to be pitied. But life is rarely like that. Real life is complicated. The more you know, the less you have to say. I like to try to present some of that complication in my writing.

You’re sitting on the Secrets of Successful Writers panel at this year’s conference. Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re planning?

I think the theme of my ideas about success for a writer, if I have one, is that there is no one answer to What’s the right way to do this; there’s no formula for The Way To Write or How to Succeed as a Writer. It depends on who you are, what your process is, what you’re writing, what your life is at the time. It depends if you have a book contract or not, or if you’re writing a novel or nonfiction, or if you’re writing for your main job, or on the side, or if you have small children, or an aging parent or three to take care of that has to take precedent over your writing. It also depends if you’re the sort of writer who works best writing on a strict schedule in a single place, or the opposite. It depends if you like to work from an outline, or look at a blank page until something occurs.

The important thing is that you do it. Not how you do it, but that you do it. If you want to! If you don’t, you’re not a writer. The only secret to being a writer is that you write. But, just in case that sounds like I just give away all my secrets, I promise to have more for the panel!

What are you working on now?

Finishing an anthology called THE BITCH IS BACK, a sequel to my 2002 anthology THE BITCH IN THE HOUSE. It’s overdue at the moment. Yikes.

Where can we find you online?

My website needs to be updated but first I have to finish this book!

MarthaJohnsonThis interview was conducted by Joanna Brown, panel moderator for Paths to Publishing at this year’s WriteAngles conference.

Why did you become a writer?  

I started writing at 59 in response to huge changes in my life, among them a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Poetry flowed out, surprising me totally as I had never read nor studied much poetry. It was therapeutic and organic for me. Since I had never previously seen myself as a writer, it was ten years and two books before I really accepted that, perhaps, I actually was one. Now I write regularly, mostly to figure life out, and it feels great!

What helped you see yourself as a writer?

For several years, I participated in a Amherst Writers and Artists writing group, and learned from the other participants that my writing mattered. The facilitator respected my voice, encouraged me, and ultimately served as my editor. Beyond that, those who read my published books, found them both moving and useful. Several local published poets confirmed that my musings qualified as “poetry.” When the then poet laureate of Northampton agreed, I finally relinquished my reluctance to identifying myself as a writer.

What characterizes your writing?

I call myself a life journey guide, and notice that over my life much of what I have enjoyed is making sense of my own journey in public, inviting others to make sense of theirs, and teaching and coaching.

What are you working on now?

Two projects are calling for my attention. Different approaches to the same theme. 1) I’ve been blogging about my transition into elder hood for four years. Those posts may need to see the light of day as a Volume III of MUSING ALONG THE WAY. 2) Sitting in the middle of my third and perhaps final chapter of life has been a powerful experience. I want to encourage folks to find ways to talk about this gift of longevity in service to living fully all the way to the end.

How do you support your writing life?

Writing at the moment of inspiration supports and furthers my thinking, as does the designing and facilitating of programs, at HCC and Genesis Retreat Center, on conscious aging. I also lead an informal open discussion at the Holyoke Council on Aging on Third Chapter Conversations: Living Fully, Aging Gracefully and Dying Peacefully. I gather insights from all these conversations.

How can we find you online?

My umbrella site links to the sites that house the activities of my late-in-life mission to promote third chapter conversation and preparation. Or, for a quick look at the books, go here. I’m a solo-ager. So when I’m gone, my books let you know I was here.

AnnaBowenThis interview was conducted by Joanna Brown, panel moderator for Paths to Publishing at this year’s WriteAngles conference.

When did you realize that writing was going to be an important part of your life?

I would say that it was in my mid-twenties when I began writing poetry. The difference I felt in that experience of writing was one of entering into a relationship with writing. I had never before felt that emotionally engaged with words. There was a feeling that the writing and I belonged to each other, it was as if finding a missing part of self that had been waiting to emerge. Expressing self in this creative intimate way was different than anything I had experienced previously. This relationship with writing was further nurtured in my thirties when I began journaling, and simultaneously felt inspired to take a short story writing course. This led to my writing “She Fit Just So” a short story that evolved into my novel HATTIE. In a nutshell, my journey as a writer began when writing captured my heart and spirit.

What do you do in your daily life that supports your writing life?

The most important thing I do is to stay connected to my intuition and my imagination; the creative spirit that is held within. Even though I struggle with establishing a regular writing practice, I try to live and think creatively. When I find the time to write I trust and welcome the voice that comes from within, or from outside of self. I try not to let the inner critic detour the flow of my words. I am often surprised by the direction my writing takes; how the piece unfolds, how creative doors open, how I move into the rhythm of my craft, and discover new paths on the map of my writing life. No matter what I’m writing about, I frequently weave in some form of relationship. I believe this encourages a sense of closeness between the reader and the piece of writing.

Your independently published novel HATTIE received numerous awards and many positive reviews. What do you think contributed to your novel’s success and connection with readers?

I think the awards recognized HATTIE’s literary merit and unique writing voice. Many readers tell me that they felt like they were in conversation with Hattie, that she was like a friend, and she stayed with them even when they were finished. I think this is because of the first person narrative, the spirit of the character, and my style of writing which tends to be down to earth and non-linear. I write about life, about those things that most people can relate to, and with an understanding of the situation that is being described. I also devoted quite bit of energy and time to marketing HATTIE, to talking about my novel, to an online presence on the web with an author’s website, being active on Facebook, and to distributing my cards and postcards wherever I went. I travel quite a bit and would insert a HATTIE postcard into the airline magazines. Because of its literary style HATTIE has also been popular with book clubs. When I completed the manuscript I decided to add a discussion guide at the end of the book with book clubs in mind.

Are you working on any other writing project at this time?

I have had several ideas for another book including finishing a children’s picture book that is nearly done. I am presently enrolled in a Creative Non Fiction MFA program. This experience is helping me understand what my next project might be. At this point, as a writer I see myself is as a messenger of stories that come from both my heart and spirit, and from the Universe. I have come to recognize that, no matter what genre I write in or what I write about my goal is to have my writing take one on a journey and to write in a way that makes readers feel more of themselves; to look deeper into the many layers of who we are. I want my writing to stir mine and readers’ minds, hearts and spirits.

If you have registered for the conference and are mailing a check rather than paying by PayPal, we ask that you do not include other items with your check such as your proposal overview (for meetings with agents) or your submission to the Agents Panel (“The Hook”), etc.

The reason for this request is that our Treasurer is the person who is taking checks, while our Registrar is a different person and is handling the various optional activities associated with the conference. She will instruct you on how to send your submissions.

Thanks very much for your cooperation.

gabrielSquailiabyBillWrightThis interview was conducted by Ilya Parker, panel moderator for Extraordinary Seeds at this year’s WriteAngles conference.

When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?

It was kind of an always thing. I remember thinking up books as young as seven or eight. I had my mother transcribe my first attempt, because she was a newspaper editor and typed impossibly fast. As I went through elementary school I got more serious and mapped my first fantasy world. Then I picked a random kid and had him draw a line on the map: the hero’s journey. Then I built the plot around it.

Okay, how long did it take you to write DEAD BOYS?

DeadBoysIt depends on what you consider writing. I had the idea for the world in 2000, but the first draft was absolutely awful, with nothing worth keeping. I kept kicking the idea around, and years later I tried what I call the William S. Burroughs version, which had the physical comedy that ended up staying. The final version took me a year and a half, full time. Then my editor and I pulled it apart for about four more months. So depending on how you calculate it, it’s either fourteen years or almost two.

Are you working on DEAD BOYS II?

No, what I’m working on is a cousin, but not directly related. The seed of the idea came from what would have been DEAD BOYS II, but I decided not to do anything further in the “Land of the Dead,” at least for now. This one is inverted, with living characters. This story uses life and vital organs to talk about death and mourning, whereas DEAD BOYS is a book that is pretending to be about death and is really about life, about how to deal with existence.

You have been writing your whole life and your first novel just came out about six months ago. You’ve made the transition from writer to published author. What are the differences?

I’ve seen two things happen simultaneously. On one hand I have a lot more confidence. My psychic water level has risen, the doubt has quieted. At the same time, I don’t think as highly of myself or my work. It used to feel more like I was a misunderstood genius. Now it feels like I’m very, very fortunate to be allowed to write books. The criticism that I levy at myself hurts less, while seeming more valid.

Has it changed your writing practice?

In terms of the writing itself, it’s not as if I’m sitting down and feeling the eyes of many readers scrutinizing what I’m doing. I’m mainly thinking of how it sounds to me. I read everything aloud. If it sounds like garbage, I throw it away. The difference, in terms of process, is that after I’m done, I just don’t regard it as finished anymore. It used to be that I’d write something, I’d polish it, and I’d consider that the finished product. Almost as if I was challenging the world to disagree with what I had done. It was hard for me to believe any editor was going to find any fault with it. [He laughs.] That is a form of arrogance that has been smacked out of me in the best possible way.

What are your goals moving forward?

I have no idea what kind of books I’m going to be writing five or ten years from now, and I like that. Right now my goal is to see what happens when I produce more quickly, when I’m less precious. What happens when I produce a book every year or two? The writers that I’d like to emulate tend to be prolific. That’s what I’m more interested in right now, instead of laboring over perfect works, or shooting for a really wide audience.

I’ve noticed you are very active on Facebook. I’ve seen poetry there. Are you a poet as well as a fantasy novelist?

I have what Lawrence Ferlinghetti termed poetry seizures. I write poetry for extended periods and I can’t stop. Then when it’s done, it’s done. I don’t miss it when it’s gone, but when it’s there I can’t turn it off. The reason that I put everything I did on Facebook over those two years or so was because my focus was on being accessible as a writer and as a human. It made sense to me to try to appeal to people directly as I could, and composing explicitly for status updates seemed like as good a way as any.

Do you have any favorite interview questions?

Not yet. I’ve gotten used to the questions people ask when I’m at Barnes and Noble, foisting my books on strangers. What’s interesting is that those questions tend to be the same in a single bookstore, but they change from one to the next. In Albany everyone wanted to know how long it took, while Kingston was more philosophical.

More about Gabriel.

Author photo by Bill Wright

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