The Interview – Part II

Scroll down to read Part I

What was your experience working with Coffeetown Press?
To be honest, I had an in. I knew one of the editors and she made sure that at least my manuscript would be read. Still, I had to wait nearly a month and a half for a reply. But I know another author who sent her manuscript to a smaller, more specialized press and she waited nearly a year before hearing a “yes,” so I won’t complain.

When it came time to edit, the editor in chief, Catherine Treadgold, understood my novel and appreciated the prose and was wary of changing much. At the same time she was a stickler for correctness in details borrowed from the real world and this gives the book a level of professionalism I couldn’t have attained on my own (I am just not careful enough with certain details).  Before she became involved, though, I had a great experience working with Jennifer McCord, another editor, on developmental drafts.

Jennifer would not go into it line for line, but she would let me know if the characters’ motives and actions lined up or she’d frown in response to last minute insertions. Their art editor, their proofreader, everybody worked together to produce a high quality book. This is a for-profit press that publishes four books per month and reads a high number of submissions, but despite being busy they give enough attention to individual authors to fool them into thinking their book and their career is the only one that matters.
What do you know now, you wish you’d known when you started working on your novel?
When I started off I had family stories to work with, and that came with a lot of effort (traveling, interviewing, tracking down a genealogy, looking up historical records) so naturally I wanted to use everything I’d learned, about the village, the farm, the neighbors, the infidelities, the out-of-wedlock children, the politics the history of the region, the literature, the pubs, every word from everyone I’d interviewed. The only thing I kept entirely intact, was a set of stats from an older relative’s little black notebook, all about what he was forced to give to the state-run co-op, proof of the struggle to save the farm (and his own dignity) while not starving to death (not to mention staving off accusations by neighbors who accused him of being a traitor to the cause).

I told a former student, who was struggling with finding the spine of her own novel, there is a feast here, a feast of life that is rich and complex and multi-layered and I don’t want to leave any of it out. And so I spent at least a couple of years putting everything in, until my writing group finally warned me that the story was not emerging and my chapters were reading like a David Attenborough-narrated travelogue and maybe I’d better re-think my strategy. But I had chewed into subject matter that I could not give up on so I got tough and wrote a bare bones story spine and re-did character cards and started over and this time went at it much more deliberately. Still I ended up with at least four chapters that I had to throw away altogether. All of this unfolds over time.

Meanwhile, I’m teaching and writing for magazines. Meanwhile I’m reading the history of torture in eastern bloc countries and my characters twist the story in an unintended direction—the protagonist’s goal became more to bring the bad guy to trial in the European Court of Human rights rather than to pursue his half-sister. It was at this point I began to get frowns from Jennifer (this was pre-contract; she had agreed to help me simply because she believed in the book and was generous with her time and really didn’t want her time to be wasted on a ruined project). This was a Jennifer comment: “If you plan to submit this to Coffeetown, you are going to have to fix it.” She knew I knew what she meant.  I got to work. In eight months I rewrote the entire manuscript. When I finally hit the “send” button (they asked for a Word file rather than a hard copy) I felt dark and desperate. Now what? How could I live without my characters? Their lives had become more urgent than my own over the past ten years.

What did I learn from this? One critical thing: early in the process do a bare bones story spine and then write into the form. Unless you have a lot of time on your hands, you have to give up expecting that readers will be fascinated with your Steno notes. 
Tell us about your new novel, (why Latvia?!) 
Why Latvia. Surface answer, my wife’s family is from Latvia. But my interest is the same as it was for Better You Go Home. Roughly following the spine of the Carpathian Mountains, then farther north up the eastern side of the Baltic Sea, is the heart of what is usually thought of when we say “Eastern bloc” countries. Surrounded on both sides by the strongest and most war-hungry imperial powers the western world has ever known, these highly evolved civilizations have struggled in this pressure-cooker for centuries to preserve their language and their identity, their very existence as cultures.

The upper Baltic countries, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, small and without large populations but strategically important to both Germany and Russia, were for several decades subsumed into the Soviet Union. Latvians could be punished with exile or death (the two were synonymous anyway) if they so much as waved a Latvian flag. In Riga, in schools, they were forced to speak Russian. The Soviets, starting with Stalin, embarked on a campaign to ethnically cleanse Latvia of Latvians and replace them with ethnic Russians. How did they survive? Songs.  Music. The heart of their cultural heritage. They sang folksongs the Russian speakers couldn’t understand then mistranslated in order to avoid punishment. Folk songs kept them alive. Song Festivals became their only way of honoring their culture while waiting, futilely as it turned out, for the Western allies to push the Soviets out. How does this translate into a story? Why not just write history? I have a character in mind.

He is a composer. His parents are Latvian, but they escaped post-WWII and eventually found themselves in Philadelphia. My protagonist feels Latvian but was educated in America, but his music, a mix of Latvian folk and jazz riffs and modern minor chords, has no audience in America where the only way to make money is to write scores for musicals or scores for film soundtracks. He does not want this meaningless life, considering the struggle his parents fought just to survive. He wants to live and teach and compose and have the music that honors his parents’ struggle celebrated in Latvia, where it would mean something, a great deal, even. And he is very good at what he does. 

He has followers. His music is produced and performed in Latvia. My story kicks in when he goes to Riga for the Song Festival. His composition is being featured at the opening event. His goal is to leverage this notoriety to secure a teaching position at a prestigious music academy in Riga, so that he can buy an apartment and stay and raise his daughter there. He runs into trouble. The government figure he must please in order to pursue his goal is an ethnic Russian of his parents’ generation, a notorious man with “red hands.” To make matters more difficult still, he has a brother living in Riga who has an agenda of his own that does not include cooperating with “the Pig” as our antagonist is fondly known. Enough. Now I have to write the story.

The impetus for me is this enormous curiosity I have for understanding, attempting to anyway, the generation of adults whose parents were victimized by the mid 20th century’s horrific events. My wife did not grow up in the same world I grew up in.  She went to Saturday school. Music was more important than anything except education itself in her home. Saving Latvia was the unstated goal of every dream her parents held for her and her siblings. Was this merely an overlay to a mild suburban upbringing? I don’t think so. Her search for identity is much more complex than mine. I am convinced that her experience is more typical of our generation than my own (at least a generation removed from such horrors), yet that experience is seldom written about.
Final Words of Wisdom
In today’s publishing world it’s easy to grow cynical when you look at what succeeds, at what sells. I won’t name specific examples. I bear them no grudge. As the editor-in-chief at Coffeetown Press put it to me, those writers subsidize publication of literary fiction, which, as we all know, can be a hard sell. A brief anecdote. Soon after publication of my novel, Better You Go Home, I attended a library centennial event in a small town about an hour outside of Seattle. I was under the impression I was to be part of a panel of local authors speaking to the value of libraries, which I was happy to do.

What none of the six of us “local” authors had been told was that a touring celebrity had been booked as the keynote speaker, and that he was there signing his new children’s book and that we would be hidden upstairs in the book stacks where curious attendees would theoretically seek us for wisdom and book signings.  At least two of the other authors had NY Times bestsellers notched to their credit, but no matter. You can probably imagine how the evening went.

Driving home in the dark and rain up a lonely highway having sold no books and having signed no signatures, I began to wonder why all this fuss about writing well mattered, if the result was this. Home that night at my son’s bedtime, bemoaning my fate to my wife, I had to listen to my nine year old chastise me for being a wimp. “Dad, if you’re going to let that get you down then maybe you should think about not being a writer.”

Nothing like hearing a simulacrum of your own wisdom flung back at you. I knew he was right, but I brooded. Why do I work so hard for every line? Not two weeks later, a radio interviewer had not only read my book, but quoted back some of my favorite lines and totally got it, what effect I’d been striving for, and when we both got off the phone at the end of that live interview, I am ashamed to admit this, I cried. What I had written, and the way I had written it, had mattered to someone. That’s when I had my delayed insight moment. What you write about, and how you write about it, matters.  Your reward comes in doing the best job you know how and being willing to fail, but to fail well. If your integrity as a writer pours into your work, you will find an audience to whom it will matter. I believe this. Even if it is an audience of one. One who cares, who is moved, that’s a pretty good start.

Check back Jan 1 for the next Spotlight!

Elena Hartwell

Author and developmental editor.