Author Squared: Tatjana Soli & Meg Waite Clayton
Meg Waite Clayton
Two Authors chat about writing, books, and everything in between...
MWC: I can't tell you how many people I've told about meeting you on the bus up to Sewanee, Tatjana, and finding that not only were we in the same workshop, both working with Tim O'Brien, but also that we were both writing novels about female photojournalists at war. Were you as terrified of working with Tim as I was? My husband shamed me into it, saying if I was writing a war novel (which at the time I was) and I wasn't woman enough to risk serious feedback from such an amazing writer on the subject, perhaps I should turn in my pen. Or my keyboard, as the case may be.
TS: Terrified wasn't the word for it. Not only was I having difficulties writing a first novel — and worrying if I could do it — but I was writing about a subject that was very far from my own experience. This was Tim O'Brien's war, and let's face it, he has arguably written the best novel about that war. So I had doubts times a hundred. He's a pretty no-nonsense teacher and in the private conference I did what I always advise my students not to do — I asked him if I should trash the whole thing. If he had said yes, I would have burned (more dramatic than deleted) the manuscript and not looked back. The manuscript had serious structural issues, but he said stick with it, work it out if it's important enough to you. He gave me permission to use the material which is something I badly needed. I owe him an intangible — he gave me the courage to continue. It still took another five years to get the book published.
Okay, my turn. Meg, you impressed me so much with your attitude. You had already published a novel, but you were there to learn, no "I'm a published author and you aren't." I remember asking you something like, well, what do I do if I can't sell this book? In my mind, this meant I couldn't sell any future book. You said, write another! You are now publishing your fourth novel! What's your advice over the span of a career, for creating a body of work? And this is my personal question because I'm envious, how do you manage being so prolific? Give us an idea of your schedule.
MWC: I about spit out my coffee over a piece in the New York Times the other day suggesting that in the e-book era authors need to write two novels a year. I am such a slow writer. And even when I open my finished books, I can see so many things I could have done better if I'd just taken a little more time. So I don't feel prolific and I certainly don't feel body-of-workish. I still have so much to learn. And the blank page still terrifies me. Once I've got a first draft — no matter how terrible it is — I come to writing so much more easily.
I have these rules for myself for writing first draft. I used to say "8:00 to 2:00, or 2,000 words." When my sons were young, that was my writing schedule, accommodating their school schedule. I'd drop them at school, then sit down and write until I had 2,000 words or the clock clicked over to 2:00 and it was time to pick them up. If I had 2,000 words by 10 a.m., I could do whatever I wanted for the rest of the day. But if I had 2,000 words by 10 a.m., really I would never get up; the lit gods are really smiling on me when I'm writing that quickly, and I like to please them.
I see in retrospect how the limited time I had when I started writing helped me build a discipline. I remember when Nick started preschool and I had three hours three mornings a week just to write — what a luxury that was. Now, with my sons off at college, I wake up thinking about writing and make myself coffee and dive in, sometimes as early as 5 a.m. I take a break to read the paper with my husband, and then work till 2:00. I try to keep moving forward and get a first draft as fast as I can. I make notes for what needs to be fixed as I go along, but I don't usually do the fixes until after the first draft is done. I work longer hours when I'm editing. And still I can't produce a book a year, much less two.
I wrote my first two books without being under contract, my second two under contract. I have mixed feelings about writing under contract, but I do work faster under fear of deadline. How about you?
TS: Two novels a year is crazy. Okay, maybe if you are doing genre where the plot is fairly predictable but still. No. My goal is to have a novel out every two years, and I consider that extremely ambitious. See, I'm already trying to weasel my way out of it! A new book out every 2-3 years. Every project is so different in terms of time. If a book requires mountains of research, the months can really add up.
I've experimented with everything in terms of writing rules: in the morning first thing, a certain number of hours, a certain word count. I always tell my students that you have to learn your own creativity clock. All of us work differently. After breakfast, I get myself to the desk. Rough drafts at most three pages a day, six days a week. 2000 words a day, Meg!? Now I'm really jealous. In the past, when I tried to do, say, five or seven pages, I found the quality towards the end suffered. Then the next day was spent fixing the previous day's mess. The other scary thing is that I'd be empty the next day, and it would be hard to start up. Three pages is my magic number to give it my all, but still have fuel for tomorrow. When it comes to revision, eight to ten pages is doable. For revision, I use a trick I learned from Ellen Sussman in an article she wrote. I set a timer for an hour (she did 45 minutes which was too short for me), then take a break of twenty minutes. During that break, I always do something physical— housework (the glamorous life of a writer), exercise, or food (that's always a good one). I did lots of baking last summer. I try to do four hours a day of revision.
This all sounds so basic, but I find you have to trick yourself, or reward yourself, to spend time in the seat. I'm a great procrastinator, and of course much of that is due to fear. Fear that the writing won't match what's in my head. Fear about finishing it and having it go out in to the world (Will my friends, editor, agent, readers like it?). Keeping it at home until it's perfect (as if that will ever happen) is a great temptation. Writing a novel is about an accumulation of days as much as anything else.
Deadlines used to frighten me. With my first book, I literally worked day and night to make the deadline. On the second book, in addition to adding a bunch of new material, I had to travel for promotion on the first book. I wasn't going to make the deadline, and I told my editor that. She was wonderfully understanding, and I'm happier with the book because I took that time.
So, Meg, you definitely do have a body of work. You've gone deeper into the material of The Wednesday Sisters with the upcoming The Wednesday Daughters. Is this intentional or serendipity? Does an idea just grab you, and you go for it? How many novels are percolating in the back of your mind right now? How has the writing process changed for you from the first one till the latest?
MWC: I didn’t say I GET 2,000 words a day! Most days, I’m watching the minutes tick over to 2:00 so I can call it a day. I also wander from my desk regularly. I don’t set a timer, but I’m considering that now. Generally, I’m going in search of coffee or chocolate. The good news is new research suggests it’s much healthier to stand or walk for a minute every 20 minutes or so, and that chocolate is not only full of anti-oxidants, but may even help you loose weight!
On The Wednesday Daughters … I actually thought I’d closed the door on a sequel to The Wednesday Sisters with the epilog in that book. But I pitched a new book to Ballantine that, in synopsis, anyway, sounded very like Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector, which Dial (like Ballantine, a division of Random House) was releasing later that year. They asked me to toss out other ideas, and one I came up with was a sequel of sorts involving the daughters. It was almost an afterthought, but they loved the idea, and I loved the idea of exploring something that was both familiar and not.
One of the big differences in the process for me now is that when I wrote my first novel, I had no clue where an idea for a second would come from, or if it would come at all. So I was loathe to let go of the first. Now I want to chuck the one I’m working on for the new book idea standing at the edge of the dance floor, waiting for the music to change. I wish I could write faster, or there were more hours in the day.
I LOVE the title of your new one, The Forgetting Tree, and just can’t wait to lay eyes on it. It looks like it might be very different from The Lotus Eaters?
TS: Chocolate to lose weight! That’s all I can concentrate on. I’ll take a quick trip to the kitchen and be right back… Okay, that was nice.
I laugh when you write that you had no clue where the second novel would come from. I was exactly the same. I thought maybe I didn’t have another novel in me, which is another scary thing people say, along with the idea that it is normal to get writer’s block at some point. Once someone plants these ideas in your head, they become self-perpetuating. So even though I’d written many short stories, after The Lotus Eaters I felt drained. Now I know that’s normal. I also know that no matter what you are writing, you should always have your antenna up for the next story.
When my first novel was finally under contract, I could think of nothing else. It felt sacrilegious to already be thinking of or writing the next book. All the people wiser than me (and they are many, including you, Meg) kept asking what was next. That question was exactly the right one — the greatest gift you can give yourself as a writer is to always be working on the next project.
The new book is very different than the first one. I had just finished my MFA and had the post-graduate blues. I wanted to set myself very different challenges than I had the first time — I didn’t want the research burden of another historical novel. After writing about war, I wanted to explore the lives of women. I wanted to narrow the action to take place mostly in a single location. These kind of arbitrary boundaries sometimes force you to push a story to a level you might not have gone to otherwise.
Book clubs often ask me if I’m going to write a sequel to The Lotus Eaters. You are kind of doing that with your next book, The Wednesday Daughters. There is a revisiting, but also moving on. Are you enjoying that process? What’s been unexpected about it? Finally, should we throw a big blowout bash when we’ve both published book number FIVE?! Of course I’m joking, but I also would never have imagined us having this conversation back on that bus going to Sewanee, would you? I never mind the hard work because I feel so lucky to be doing what I love.
MWC: Revisiting old friends in fiction turns out to be much like revisiting old friends in real life. Writing The Wednesday Daughters has been something like sitting down to talk with you, Tatjana. Familiar and comfortable, but also amusing and fresh. And “unexpected,” as you suggest. One of the unexpected things was how the daughters — young children and very minor characters in The Wednesday Sisters — are surprisingly formed as characters there. It’s much like you say about developing The Forgetting Tree: when you limit the choices in some ways, you open up your time to explore more deeply what is there.
Mac jokingly proposed that what I should write next is “The Wednesday Wedding”! We laughed, but I did find myself thinking… And I have learned never to say never in this world because honestly, like you, I never imagined I would be as lucky as we both are now.
And no joke about #5! Although maybe saying that will jinx us.
One of the luckiest things about being a writer, of course, is that I get to read some amazing books even before they are published. And with that, I propose we close this conversation so I can open The Forgetting Tree and dive in. The only question I have left is how many swanky awards it will collect!
TS: And I’m looking forward to The Wednesday Daughters next summer. It has breakout bestseller all over it.
Tatjana Soli lives with her husband in Southern California. Her New York Times bestselling debut novel, The Lotus Eaters, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a New York Times Notable Book, and won the 2011 James Tait Black Prize.
Meg Waite Clayton is the author of The Language of Light, a finalist for the Bellwether Prize. Her stories and essays have appeared in Runner's World, Writer's Digest, and literary magazines. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and was a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers' Conference. She lives in Palo Alto, California, with her husband and their two sons.