You have two forthcoming young adult novels one of which, The Cherished, will be published in Winter 2023. In The Cherished, a girl visits an old farmhouse she inherited from her grandmother and encounters a surprising, dangerous past. Could you tell me more about this book? What inspired you to write on this subject?
I was certainly inspired in part by having moved to Vermont. I’ve never lived in such a rural area. I am so taken with the landscape and buildings and farms, and also the strangeness of so much uninhabited space. I never understood till moving here how starved of nature I’ve been. This fascination ended up figuring into the book’s setting.
As for the story itself, I’m not sure where it came from. It’s kind of funny how the whole thing began. I had met with the editor of Skinner Luce, and he informed me the publisher wouldn’t consider the sequel because SL hadn’t made enough money. That was a blow. He suggested I write another book and if that did well, then maybe. He said one of the other authors he worked with had faced a similar dilemma, had come back with five other ideas, they’d chosen one together, he’d written the book, and it was coming out in the fall.
This was hilarious to me. Who has five ideas for novels just kicking around? I sure didn’t! I thought I’d just write the next SL book anyway, but the truth is, it’s hard enough to write a book not knowing if it will ever be published; it’s a whole other thing to write one knowing for sure it’s just going to sit in your drawer.
So I took on the challenge. I figured I didn’t need five ideas, I just needed one. There followed some perplexing months of ‘trying to have an idea,’ which I don’t think worked. I think the idea just came, the way ideas do. I remember when, but not how or why: I was trying to fall asleep in a hotel in Quebec City, and one of the seminal scenes of the book was suddenly alive in my mind. From that nugget came all the rest. That was June 2016, so it took about four years, working on and off, to send the first solid draft to my agent. That’s a record for me!
As with Skinner Luce and so many of my other works, the themes in The Cherished revolve around coming to terms with the past and finding where you belong in the world. The story begins when a 16-year-old girl inherits her grandmother’s farm in northern Vermont. Her only memory of the place is from a trip she took with her dad when she was little. Something terrible happened during that visit, but she can’t remember what, and her dad died before she ever found out the truth. When she finally goes back, she finds out the terrifying reality about the house, who her dad really was, and who she herself is meant to be.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
Having my own schedule and living in my imagination. Caveats: I only have my own schedule because I’m lucky enough to have a partner whose income more than suffices. Also, there is torture in the writerly existence—inevitably, at some point, I’m wandering around the house in a state of despair and wondering out loud whether I should have been something else and what is the point of writing and the book is awful and I should smash the computer to bits. But I do enjoy having my own schedule and living in my imagination.
What do you consider your greatest achievement personally or professionally?
The first thing that comes to mind is that moment when I shredded my book and embarked on transforming it into another piece of art. This represents an intersection of personal and professional—they are completely intertwined. It is really hard as an artist or writer not to be weighed down by self-doubt, concerns about career and success, anxiety that you might perish without ever having achieved your dreams, and, worst of all, the fear that you are somehow failing your own purest artistic self – and worst-worst of all, the dread that there is no meaning to anything, anyway. Imagine feeling all of that at once. That was me, that day. So that action of shredding was a really big deal for me. And it led to so much that would never, ever have happened had I not hit that breaking point. Whenever I feel any sort of anxiety welling up around writing, I think back to Re/Vision and all the amazing good that came from that moment. I remember that while it is, for sure, frustrating not to get shown or published, it’s just not what actually matters in the end.
Has it been a straight path for you, or do you feel you have been tested along the way to achieving the goals you’ve set for yourself? Can you talk about what some of those challenges have been and how you’ve surmounted them?
It hasn’t been a straight path at all. I always knew I was a writer, but it took a long time to get where I am today. I’m acutely conscious of just how lucky I am. For every writer like me, with a nice two-book contract with a major publisher, there are thousands who are equally deserving and qualified who might never get a single thing published. It’s sobering and humbling. The market is capricious and cruel, as much as it can be generous and uplifting. I was lucky to have The Bullet Collection published, but it was no guarantee of future publication, as I’ve described above. There have been tons of challenges over the years. There were times I had to put aside writing and take soul-numbing jobs in order to cover costs when my husband was out of work, or times when I couldn’t write or do anything artistic because I was lying fallow (as I now think of it), or times when anything I produced just somehow kept getting rejected. The rejection letters can become almost unbearable in tone—it does help to shred them and stick them in a book arts installation! I’ve learned, over time, to trust that things will come around again. You just have to keep at it, if it’s what you want to do, regardless of the outcome.
What are some of the most important lessons from your professional experience that you would like to share with the class of 2022, our next generation of St. Stephen’s graduates?
I think I’ve already shared them! Rather than being redundant, I’d rather close with some advice that I’ve relied on over the years, from none other than Marcus Aurelius himself. I made this quotation into a miniature change-pocket book, that’s how much it means to me. I highly recommend keeping a copy of Meditations on hand, whether you’re an artist, writer or, really, anything.
“Do what nature demands. Get a move on – if you have it in you – and don’t worry whether anyone will give you credit for it. And don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic; be satisfied with even the smallest progress, and treat the outcome of it all as unimportant.”