Author Archives: A. B. Westrick

When a Theater Nerd Writes Fiction: interview & giveaway!

The Mortification of Fovea Munson

Look what’s out in paperback tomorrow (June 4)! The Mortification of Fovea Munson by Mary Winn Heider. It’s LOL funny—the zaniest middle-grade novel I’ve read in years. Author Varian Johnson described it as “equal parts screwball comedy, coming-of-age story, and tearjerker,” and Adam Gidwitz called it “hilarious and disgusting… in other words, exactly what you’ve been waiting for.”

And I’m thrilled to have the author here for an interview! Plus, in celebration of the paperback release, I’m doing a book giveaway. Hop to the end of this post to sign up for a chance to win a copy of The Mortification of Fovea Munson, then come on back to hear what Mary Winn Heider has to say about writing her debut novel. Deadline to enter the giveaway: Tuesday, June 11, 2019, at 11:59 PM.

A.B. Westrick: Hello, Mary Winn! Welcome to my blog.

Mary Winn Heider: Woohoo! Thanks for having me!

ABW: I don’t want to ask the same questions you’ve already answered (I loved the interview Julie Rubini did with you at From the Mixed-Up Files), but we have to start with the bit about you having worked as a receptionist in a (cough, cough) cadaver lab. Okay, so clearly, that experience influenced this novel.

MWH: Oh, for sure. My cadaver lab adventure was the randomest. I ended up working at the lab by accident, and as soon as I saw what an absurd-also-serious-also-bonkers-also-fascinating place it was, it was all I wanted to write about. So I wrote the first draft (plus a few revisions) while sitting in that basement office, in between ordering body parts and assembling suture kits. Eventually, I wound up with more and more responsibility, and the version of the job where I had a lot of down time vanished. But for a long time, I was able to write at the lab, which was awesome for so many reasons.

ABW: Ordering body parts. Uh-huh. I need to pause on that for a second. Yeah. Ordering body parts. That part of the story was great!

Okay, back to the genius of your book—yes, I said genius—beyond the zany humor, which still has me smiling. I loved the way you brought all the details together at the end. You tied up ends I didn’t even realize were loose! For example: tampons in a drawer and frog guts in a middle school lab. You are a master at storytelling. So my question is: how many of these details were in your initial draft, and how many got added later, during revision?

MWH: Ha! So…I didn’t map any of it out beforehand. And in the end, there were a lot more setups and payoffs than I thought I was writing even as I was writing.

My favorite thing is when I’m writing a scene and a character needs something and I realize the answer already exists in the story. So, for example (this includes the mildest of spoilers)—when I was filling Whitney’s office drawers, I tried to make the detritus distinctively Whitney’s, instead of generic office stuff. I thought about everything she might want in her desk drawers, and I included a whole bunch of tampons just rolling around in there. Whitney didn’t strike me as a person who would hide her tampons or be delicate about them. And then, a little bit later when I was after some kind of incendiary material, I had my character look around, and hey presto. We were both pleasantly surprised to find exactly what we needed.

ABW: I was totally surprised. And in awe of your craft! Genius. Really. Not that I’ve ever set tampons on fire, but when I read that part, I could see them burning.

MWH: Details like that are the most fun! I guess really, it’s about mucking around and creating potential. Not necessarily with an eye to how I can come back later to whatever that particular detail is, but really simply, by honoring the world and the characters. If only I were better at plotting, I might be able to plan that stuff! As it is, it’s like a ton of little Chekhov’s guns that I’m tucking in everybody’s pockets and then I’ll see which ones go off.

ABW: Hahahaha. That’s great.

Mary Winn Heider
Mary Winn Heider
Popio Stumpf Photography

MWH: Total theater nerd here. But also, to be fair, some moments are definitely reverse-engineered. Sometimes I’d think, Hey, I can seed this organically so it’s not super random when it appears.

You also mentioned the frog from the science class. He came along in a much later draft. Early on, there were no classroom scenes with Fovea, and when I went to add one, I wanted to make it feel like it fit in thematically. I tossed in the frog, and I won’t spoilerize him too much, but I’ll say that he surprised me, too.

ABW: That frog—too funny. Not at first, actually, but in the end, I laughed out loud.

So it sounds like the novel went through a lot of revision. How different does your final version look from your first draft?

MWH: The final version is a lot longer but also way more focused. There was originally a wild goose chase sequence with food trucks that my wonderful beta reader Rachel Hylton gently suggested was irrelevant and ought to be cut. But Grandma Van wasn’t in the earlier drafts, and neither was the museum of holography—both of which feel like crucial parts of the story now.

I love cutting. I love breaking things open. They are the most exhilarating parts of revising for me.

ABW: I’ve never before heard a writer call the revision process “exhilarating.” I love that! And kudos to you for listening to your beta reader and taking her feedback to heart.

Now, let’s return to the early stage. When you set out to tell Fovea’s story, where did you begin? Did you do character sketches? What was your entry point into this whacky story? What was the first scene you wrote?

MWH: I’d decided I was going to set a story in the lab, and then I gave myself some space (not in front of a blank page) to think about how it would open and what the voice would be. And out of the blue, I heard Fovea’s voice, introducing herself as the bouncer of the cadaver lounge. That bit became the opening—but you haven’t read it because it doesn’t exist anymore! It wasn’t right, ultimately, but it was exactly what I needed to get into the story. It was all voice, and that set the tone for me.

ABW: Oh, interesting. Thank you for sharing that. You’ve reminded me of a post I did years ago about a character who helped me get into a story, but later I cut her from the manuscript. It’s helpful to hear that you cut an early version of the opening. Good stuff. It’s all part of the process. What other insights or words of wisdom do you have for aspiring novelists? What might you tell them about the craft?

MWH: I’d tell them what I needed (and still need) to hear! The best thing they can do is keep trying to fail better. I didn’t really understand how to do that until I went to grad school at VCFA. I failed at so much there! It was the best.

ABW: The MFA program at VCFA is outstanding!

MWH: I think being cool with failing was the moment I actually became a serious writer. Because then it wasn’t about the failure anymore; it was about what I learned and how I could do better next time.

ABW: Oh, great answer. Brownie points! Yes, fail better. (And a shout-out to Samuel Beckett for first coining that phrase. “Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”)

MWH: Heck yeah. Theater nerd to the death.

ABW: Haha. Okay, before we wrap this up, I have to ask about your parents. You open The Mortification of Fovea Munson with your main character bemoaning her parents’ dark humor, and I noticed that you dedicated the novel to your parents. So tell me… were they the source of your sense of humor? (Or the cause of some middle school moments of mortification?) How did growing up with Karl and Malie influence your writing?

MWH: Oh, there is so much of my parents in the book! They are sneaky hilarious, and my brothers and I all got a lot of our sense of humor from them—so many of my favorite moments are sitting around the kitchen table with them, all of us laughing until we cry. I’m sure there were also some mortifying parental moments in there, because that seems pretty essential to growing up, but the truth is, I was the kind of kid who really fixated on my own disasters, so the mortifying times that stick out to me now are the ones I was responsible for myself.

ABW: Some day I want to meet your parents. Okay, final question. How long did it take you to write this story, and what are you working on now?

MWH: It was six years from beginning to end. The first three and a half years were pretty focused, and after that, it was mostly copyedits and waiting. These days, I’m working on another middle grade book that takes place in the same Chicago-not-Chicago world.

ABW: Thank you so much for doing this interview, Mary Winn! I learned a lot and laughed a lot.

Readers who want to know more about Mary Winn Heider should check out her website, and follow her on facebook, twitter, and instagram. And if you do check out her social media links, be sure to say so in the Rafflecopter below. Each entry is a chance to win a copy of The Mortification of Fovea Munson. (You can log multiple entries by returning to the Rafflecopter on different days.) On June 12, Rafflecopter will randomly choose a winner, so be sure to enter by June 11, 2019, at 11:59 PM.

 

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Telling the Truth: Slavery’s Descendants

A.B. Westrick holding Slavery's Descendants

My essay “So Many Names” is out this week in an anthology from Coming to the Table: Slavery’s Descendants: Shared Legacies of Race and Reconciliation, edited by Dionne Ford and Jill Strauss (Rutgers University Press).

It’s an honor to see my words among so many thoughtful pieces, but there’s no honor in being a descendant of enslavers—generations upon generations of them. Instead, there’s a lot of shame, and that’s what I reflect on in this essay.

It’s hard to write about shame. Along the way, I revised my essay repeatedly, and moreso than with fiction, the writing process felt like therapy. At times, I trembled. I cried. But I put truth into print, and that felt good. I revealed facts that I imagine some of my relatives would prefer I’d left buried. Some might say to let bygones be bygones and embrace what’s good and noble in our Southern heritage. But one of the goals at Coming to the Table is “researching, acknowledging, and sharing… [history] with openness and honesty,” and with that, I’m all in.

I yearn for America to evolve from the hypocrisy of our founding fathers into our stated ideal that all are created equal. My roots are Southern, but I grew up in the North and have heard Northerners deflect criticism, essentially ducking their complicity in our racist past (and present) by blaming the South. Many would have us believe that in order to heal from the wounds of slavery, we must continue to shame Southerners and those who live in small towns in the midwest, like Ferguson, MO. But that sort of spin lets off the hook everyone in every city with a low-income housing project and every suburb where African Americans have at one time been red-lined out. It’s a denial of the systemic nature of the problem of racism in America.

In this anthology, while many essays have a Southern flair, others reflect on slavery’s reach from New England to Oregon. This is an important book, and I hope it will inspire more folks to work toward racial reconciliation and the transformation of our society.

If you’ll be in central Virginia this coming weekend, please join me, Bill Sizemore and Karen Stewart-Ross for a conversation about Slavery’s Descendants:

Saturday, May 18, 2019
6:30 – 7:45 PM
Chop Suey Books
2913 West Cary Street
Richmond, VA 23221

Funding for the production of Slavery’s Descendants was provided by Furthermore, a program of the J. M. Kaplan Fund.

And P.S.—The New York Times featured Chop Suey Books a few weeks ago. All of us in Richmond are pretty proud of that, but then, we’ve known for years what a great place Chop Suey is.

Craft Strong Secondary Characters: interview & giveaway

Speechless

After reading Adam P. Schmitt’s debut middle grade novel Speechless, I was… speechless. No, really. I was. Seriously. Toward the end, through a secondary character named Sofia, Schmitt crafted an unexpected turn, and I marveled at the story’s depth. (No spoilers here. You’ll have to read it!)

I loved this novel, so I went looking for Adam and begged for an interview. Turns out, I didn’t need to beg. He said, “Sure!” And that means—lucky you! One reader will win a copy of Speechless. Hop to the end of this post to enter the giveaway, then come on back to hear how Adam crafted such a great book. Deadline to enter: Tuesday, April 30, 2019, at 11:59 PM.

Adam, welcome to my blog! I’m so glad you could share some thoughts about craft.

Adam P. Schmitt: Thanks for tracking me down.

ABW: I want to ask about the wonderful secondary character, Sofia, but we’ll get to her in a minute. Let’s start with the unusual setting and comic voice. Most of Speechless takes place in a funeral home. Even though a kid has died, you manage to make the story funny. So here’s my question: the book jacket reveals that you got the story idea while attending the funeral of a former student. Was humor a part of your initial idea, or did you work in the funny parts later? (If I were to ask your students if you’re a funny teacher, would they say YES?)

APS: Oh, yes…humor was always going to be in the mix. I knew this was going to be a heavy-ish book for the middle grade audience and it was very important to me that the book had balance. I also wanted to reflect what I think happens at so many wakes—joy. Continue reading

The Greatest of All: Love the Process

“To win the game is great, to play the game is greater, but to love the game is the greatest of all.” Last week, when I hit this quote in the middle of The Prodigy: A Novel by award-winning sportswriter John Feinstein, I thought, Yes! You could say the same about writing! And I went looking for the source.

Plaque at the Palestra in Philadelphia

Thanks to Feinstein, I found it right away at the Palestra, the University of Pennsylvania’s fabulous basketball stadium. This is a photo of the plaque that greets visitors just past the ticket booth.

Every month I search for blog topics related to writing, and this month—March—how serendipitous that I happened to be reading a sportswriter’s novel! Basketball lovers everywhere are celebrating March Madness.

And the Palestra? Tug on my heartstrings. I grew up outside Phillie and my brother was a starter on our high school team (back then, the Spectrum was the arena where high school basketball championships were played). But I’m getting off track…

Feinstein’s novel is about a teen golfer, not a b-ball player.

And I don’t play golf.

Or basketball.

But here’s the thing: Feinstein has crafted a sympathetic protagonist, a difficult dad, and a compelling plot. And I’m hooked. Continue reading

Hard Work and Literary Dreams

Meg Medina

Meg Medina
Photo by Petite Shards Productions

Last month when friend, colleague, fellow Richmonder and partner in literary dreams Meg Medina won the Newbery Medal for her novel, Merci Suárez Changes Gears, I cheered. Then I cried. Then I danced around the house, giddy with excitement, planning how to break the news to my husband.

But the second he walked in the door, before I managed to say even a word, he announced, “You’ll never guess who I just heard interviewed on NPR!”

That night, we clinked glasses in honor of Meg and her whole family.

We don’t write in order to win awards, but when awards happen, we dance. And the whole family dances! For years, Meg’s husband and kids showed up at every one of her book parties. They hosted writers at their house and community events in libraries and book stores. When Meg had to be away from home, traveling to speak at schools and conferences, her family made do and cheered her on from afar.

Merci Suarez Changes GearsA decade ago, Meg and I were on staff at James River Writers, Richmond’s literary nonprofit, where we helped plan and present bookish programs and an annual writing conference. Meg was always something of a visionary while I was more of a nuts-and-bolts, details-and-logistics type, and together (and with help from lots of other writers and book-lovers in town), we pulled off some great programs. (Just saying!)

Meanwhile, we wrote like crazy. In 2013 when Meg’s novel, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, was about to launch, I interviewed her here on my blog. Meg taught me the value of bringing heart into my writing, of getting out of my head and into my body, of writing scenes that felt honest, even when honesty felt awful. Continue reading

The Humility to Keep Trying

Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver
Photo by Annie Griffiths

In a recent essay in Publishers Weekly, “5 Writing Tips,” author Barbara Kingsolver said, “[Writing is] a project of balancing the audacity to do this work, and the humility to keep trying until you’ve gotten it right.”

The humility to keep trying.

I like that. And Lord knows, I’ve kept trying!

An unexpected value of blogging once a month is the ability to track the evolution of my writing. When I re-read my June 2013 post about killing a few darlings, I had to smile. Back in 2013, I remarked that I’d drafted 22 chapters. I can now report that after multiple darling-killing sessions, I’ve cut every one of those first 22. And I don’t say this to whine! I say it because it’s true and I appreciate that I needed to write them to get the story to a place that works; they don’t belong in the final version. Continue reading

Writing with Friends: the 85K Challenge

Writing is a solitary activity, but we don’t have to do it alone. I exchange 25 pages a month with a critique partner—a goal that motivates me to get scenes out of my head and onto the page. It’s a great relationship (every author needs a critique partner or writing group—just saying!), but in addition to our exchange, for 2019 I’ve signed up for…

85K90 logo

The 85K writing challenge: write 85,000 words in the first 90 days of the year. That’s approximately 1,000 words a day. Sounds daunting, but like I said in my October post, it’s only 4 double-spaced pages. Piece of cake. And the words don’t have to be beautiful. They just have to be out of my head. Later, I can pretty ’em up.

Unlike NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, which takes place in November, the 85K90 challenge continues through the year, encouraging writers to edit and revise after finishing the first draft.

Julie ValerieJulie Valerie, the founder of @85K90, says, “Our goal is to write 85,000 words in 90 days every January, February, and March.

“Our mission is to embrace the writing life throughout the year by advancing the practice of productive writing from the first word to the first reader. Writers who follow the five productivity cycles embedded in our 12-month calendar can easily produce one novel per year. Continue reading

What is your beacon?

author David L. Robbins“What is your beacon? The light your novel will shine into the world?” asked author David L. Robbins when I ran into him at last year’s annual holiday Brew Ho-Ho (books and beer!).

I didn’t have an answer. I could have pretended I hadn’t heard him (after all, the room at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery was cavernous and loud). I could have drifted into the mob. But David looms large both in height (6’5″ I think) and personality, and anyone who knows him knows he’s not the kind of guy you drift away from. David has a presence in Richmond, a drive, a sense of forward momentum, an earnestness that unsettles—he’s a force unto himself—and on that day he was asking me to dig deeper.

“Why does your book matter? Why should anyone read it?”

Oh, my. I’d come for the fun literary scene and the fabulous beer (I love Hardywood’s Bourbon Barrel Sidamo) and hadn’t anticipated this challenge. But there I was with an intense man whose fiction has won awards and been adapted for screen and stage (his website includes excellent advice for writers, by the way), and he’d asked a simple question. I was tongue-tied. Continue reading

Write 1,000 words a day

Clay McLeod ChapmanAt this month’s James River Writers conference, author, actor and screenwriter Clay McLeod Chapman told attendees his daily goal is 1,000 words. On some days he hits 1,000 within an hour and on others it takes all day.

Sounds like a lot, but 1,000 words is only 4 double-spaced pages. And the words don’t have to be beautiful, Chapman reminded us. They just have to be out of your head and onto your page or computer screen. You can’t revise a blank page, and we all know novels come together during revision.

Inspired and fired up to write, I tried the 1,000 words business on my first day back from the conference. Before this, my approach was simply butt-in-chair: show up at the page for 6 hours a day and your novel will (slowly) emerge. It’s worked for me, pretty much. It’s a decent approach. Continue reading

Collaboration: Do’s, Don’ts, and a book giveaway

Last year I asked a friend if she’d collaborate with me on a novel, and she didn’t say YES right away. She tilted her head and thought for a moment, clearly trying not to frown. “I don’t know what this collaboration would look like,” she said, and I said, “Me, neither! We’ll have to make it up as we go along.” Now three months and three chapters into the story, we’re making up lots of stuff. This is the fun stage.

But what if we disagree over the way the story should progress? What happens when we have to revise? I started wondering how others have made collaborations work.

Every Shiny ThingAnd that led me to co-authors Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison. Their novel, Every Shiny Thing, came out from Amulet Books earlier this year. It’s a great read—heartwarming and authentic—and I asked them to share some Do’s and Don’ts and tips about collaborating. They said, “Sure!”

But before we get to the interview, hey, I’m giving away one copy of Every Shiny Thing! Hop to the end of this post. to enter the giveaway, and come back for the interview. Deadline to enter: Tuesday, Sept. 18, 11:59 PM.

A. B. Westrick: Welcome to my blog, Cordelia and Laurie!

Cordelia Jensen & Laurie Morrison: Thanks for inviting us!

ABW: I want to pick your brains about writing Every Shiny Thing. Help me out! I hope my colleague and I can craft a novel as engaging as yours.

Let’s start with your process. You’ve told the story in alternating points of view, and I know from other interviews that Cordelia wrote Sierra’s chapters and Laurie drafted Lauren’s. Did you ever deviate from that set-up? Did you edit each other’s drafts, and if so, how did that go? If one of you read something in the other’s writing that didn’t sit right with you, did you phone? Email? Text? Make a comment in the margin of your shared Google doc? Continue reading