Thursday, July 03, 2008

Author Interview: Louise Hawes on Black Pearls: A Faerie Strand

Louise Hawes, a North Carolina resident, is the author of two short fiction collections, Anteaters Don't Dream and Other Stories (University Press of Mississippi, 2007) and Black Pearls: a Faerie Strand (Houghton Mifflin,2008). Her novels include The Vanishing Point (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), Rosey in the Present Tense (Walker, 2001), and Waiting for Christopher (Authors Guild, 2006). She is a faculty member of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program.

What were you like as a young adult?

Introverted, achingly self-conscious, and highly romantic. I was the theater-arts, lit-mag kid who ended up, inexplicably, going to the prom with the basketball star. I could barely breathe, much less say a word all night!

(We became good friends and bridge partners after graduation, but I certainly wasn't confident enough to keep up with him then.)

What is it about the young adult audience that appeals to you as a writer?

I never sit down to write and say to myself, "This is going to be a YA" or, "This one's for adults." I go where I need to go, take the emotional journey I need to take.

I've written lots of short stories (and a collection of them) for adults, but most of my work has been focused on the place where my personal issues still resonate -- adolescence.

As a writer, then, I'm drawn to protagonists who are teens, but I can honestly say I don't "write down" for a YA audience. My basic approach is the same for both adult and YA fiction, with the slight difference that I tend to want to empower younger readers. I hope my work helps them realize that, even without a happy ending, they've got the inner resources to deal with this beautiful, angry, blissful, destructive, and thoroughly confusing planet!

Could you tell us about your path to publication? Any sprints or stumbles along the way?

Years ago (honesty compels me to add it was more like decades ago!), I was working in New York City, directing a team of writers who composed sample reading passages for an SAT prep firm. At that time, I'd just completed a draft of my first middle-grade novel, inspired by my young son and daughter. I had also begun sending out a picture book manuscript and was particularly touched by an extremely flowery, verbose rejection letter I received from a well-known publisher. It was highly complimentary and expressed actual distress at "not being able to buy your beautiful, touching book."

One day, as I was reviewing the work of a new hire at the office, I recognized in the reading passage she'd submitted, the very same elaborate writing style that characterized my favorite rejection letter! I asked her if by any chance she'd ever worked for a publisher, and if she had ever had occasion to read a certain picture book submission.

She had! In fact, she told me, she'd been hired to write rejections to the slush pile, but couldn't bare not to encourage the authors of books that moved her.

"What's the slush pile?" I asked, dense and naive as they come. And that's when my publishing education began.

She explained that her house had a strict policy of not considering unsolicited manuscripts and that I really needed an agent.

"Agent?" I asked. (I was an endless font of dumb questions.)

"Yes," she replied, patiently, and proceeded to explain what this intermediary did.

Then and more important, she proceeded to get me one! My new agent didn't sign my picture book, but she did sign my novel, and that was my first publication. A fluke of the luckiest sort!

We last spoke in August 2005 about The Vanishing Point (Houghton Mifflin, 2005). Could you update us on your writing life since that time?

Thanks for asking, she said, fluttering her lashes and grinning to the ends of her face. The Vanishing Point was issued in paperback in 2007, and I adore the new cover--feels like a whole new novel!

In 2006, I finally published my first picture book, Muti's Necklace, the Oldest Story in the World (Houghton Mifflin). It's not the picture book I was working on all those years ago, but it's a story that's very close to me, and I'm thrilled to see it in print.

In 2007, I published a short fiction collection for adults, Anteaters Don't Dream, with the University Press of Mississippi. That led to my visiting Ole Miss as one of the university's John Grisham Visiting Writers, a particular thrill. I got to sit at William Faulkner's desk on that trip and type him a private air letter!

Then last fall, my novel, Waiting for Christopher, was selected as the first Reading Initiative novel at the Mississippi University for Women. I was on campus for a week, did readings and class visits, and got a little rush every time I passed a student or faculty member wearing her "I Read Waiting for Christopher" wristband!

Congratulations on the release of Black Pearls: A Faerie Strand (Houghton Mifflin, 2008)! Could you tell us a little about this new title?

Black Pearls is a collection of dark fairy tales. There are seven pieces in all, each based on an old familiar story, but each told from the viewpoint of a character we heard little from in the original tale. Initially, Houghton Mifflin, the publishers, were going to market it in both adult and YA catalogs, because of the sensual content and the dearth of happily-ever-after endings. But I think they realized that teens are more than ready for dark faerie material.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I've always loved fairy tales, but realized, when I sat down to read them to my children, that this love was more nostalgia than active allegiance. As an adult, I no longer took fairy tales to bed at night or read them for pleasure.

Novels, you see, had come between me and those old, broadly sketched stories. I craved an idiosyncratic human being, an individual character with whose passions and hurts I could identify. So that was the challenge I set myself in Black Pearls: to find a beating heart behind the old archetypes and symbols; to do what I ask of all my students: go deep.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Several years ago, I read a first draft of one of these stories at a Vermont College residency. Everyone, students and faculty, were so receptive and enthusiastic about the piece, I decided then and there to follow up on it. That's the beauty of sharing writing "experiments" with a community of other writers--you find out what works and what doesn't.

A year later, I had five more stories to show my editor at Houghton, Kate O' Sullivan. She asked me for one more, and she was right. The last tale, a version of the story of Lady Godiva, is a tribute to how storytelling changes us, and I love it as the end note of the collection.

Both Kate and I very much wanted this collection to be illustrated. We both remembered the books of our childhood, and the wonderful illustrators who brought them alive--artists like Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Kay Nielsen, and Maxfield Parrish.

We also realized that Rebecca Guay, who had done the lush illustrations for my picture book, would be wonderfully suited to these darker, grownup tales. There's a sensuous, romantic lyricism in her work that reminds me of both Rackham and Aubrey Beardsley. We were delighted when she agreed to do the book, and a year later, her gorgeous cover is winning us new readers every day.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

In most of my writing, I start with a character and let him or her lead me to their story. In this case, though, I wanted to be true to the source tale, so I had to work backwards--that is from story to character. None of these tales are contemporary; nobody speaks "American" in these stories; all the old symbols and events from the original tales are included. But in most cases, I had to back so far up to find the beginning of my character's story that the source tale is not evident until readers are well into each piece.

My protagonists, you see, are not the main characters from the old stories; those familiar heroes and heroines play secondary roles in Black Pearls. My version of "Snow White," for instance, is told by one of the dwarfs; "Cinderella" is narrated by the prince; "Rapunzel" unfolds from the witch's point of view. As a result, I've had to change a lot more than the title of each story.

That's because the old character's happy ending might mean the new one's total despair. On the other hand, an old character's loss could mean a new one's victory. That tangled web, that interconnection is, I think, one of the themes of the collection.

It's a loop the reader completes, by comparing the familiar version of the fairy tale in her or his head, to the one in the book in front of them.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

Ask questions. Ask for help. Believe in your writing enough to grow it. A great way to do this is by joining a writer's group or an MFA program.

No one, at least no one I've ever met, can be objective about his or her own work. You need the support of a community of practice and the feedback from eyes and hearts you trust.

What would you say specifically on the topic of writing faerie tales?

So many students come to me with fantasy pieces or fairy tales they've written, and too often this work is missing humanity. It's heavy on action and plot, but light on that beating heart we all look for in fiction.

When I ask the authors why, they usually reply, "Oh, that's because it's fantasy."

Whoa, Nellie! Fantasy and faerie worlds require the human connection just as much, perhaps more, than other stories. Readers need a bridge between their world and the book's, and the best bridge of all is a fully developed, deeply felt character.

You're a writer who also teaches writing. Could you briefly update us on your teaching history and current endeavors?

Recently, I took several years off from teaching at the Vermont College MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. I spent some of that time dealing with family issues and some teaching in various venues (especially in Mississippi, as you just heard, and at women's workshops in Maine and North Carolina, as well as at a fiction program in Kentucky).

This July, I'm thrilled to be coming home (and that's exactly what it feels like!) to Vermont. I've learned I need the stimulation of a writing community and the excitement of holding my students' newly published books in my hands each year!

I thought I'd write more without such "distractions," but in fact I get more done when others around me are creating and sharing and spreading the good word!

What does teaching teach you?

I've often been down, reached a low point where it seemed to me there was nothing new under the writing sun. And then, out of nowhere, a student's work will knock my socks off, and I'm a believer again.

Plus, there's no denying that teaching gives you the precious opportunity to practice what you preach. How could I ask my student writers to ground their fantasy in the human heart without anchoring mine there as well? That's, essentially, how Black Pearls was born.

What do you wish all of your students would take away from your time together?

The same things I do: encouragement, faith in the work, and the knowledge that you have a story to tell and the tools to tell it with.

How do you balance your writing against the responsibilities of being a published author (contracts, promotion, events, etc.)?

Not very well at all. I simply can't walk and chew bubble gum at the same time. Sometimes I think I love readings and promotional events (the ex-actress in me is a big ham). But then, when I see how little my regional events boost national sales, I decide I'm best advised to focus on writing.

The final word on all this isn't in, but I'm realizing that the best way to maintain balance is not to worry about it; I can do both, or not do both, but I definitely don't help either by fretting and angst.

What do you do when you're not writing or teaching?

I enjoy yoga and meditation--okay, make that, I need yoga and meditation. They're non-negotiable. I also love sketching, scrabble, being outdoors, and it looks like that ham part of me has found a new outlet in a NC-based stand-up venue called The Monti (www.themonti.org).

Most of all, though, I thrive on visits with my two children, who are now grown with kids of their own. I'm always astonished and delighted at how my son and daughter "turned out." Even if they weren't related to me, I'd want to count them among my friends. They and their families keep my life grounded, remind me what really counts.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I'm working on a fantasy novel, whose central character is a witch's daughter. And a second picture book. Neither is finished, but I hope at least one will be a wrap before the year's out.

Oh, and Rebecca Guay and I are talking about turning some or all of the stories in Black Pearls into a graphic novel. I'd love to know what your readers think about this idea. All feedback welcome!

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