Thursday, April 26, 2012

Authorsday Fran Grote

1. Do you plot or do you write by the seat of your pants? I definitely write by the seat of my pants. I’ll start a book or story with the scene that inspires me, which is almost never the first scene. Whenever other scenes or even scraps of dialogue occur to me, I’ll write them down too, whether or not they’re out of order. My only rule is to never ignore inspiration. I’ve had to pull the car over to scribble down notes, and some of my greatest frustrations have been trying to figure out what it was I scrawled on the back of a napkin or somebody’s business card or whatever piece of paper was handy at the moment. Once I start to see the shape of a story, though, I will keep a running outline of what I think the eventual structure will be. When I finish my first draft it’s very much a mosaic – lots of lovely pieces that need to be fit together to make a whole. So I’ll print each piece on a separate sheet of paper and then storyboard. Using my running outline, I’ll start laying the sheets out on a table or the floor. Then I’ll move things around until the sequence flows in a way that makes the most sense to me. 2. What drew you to the subject of Fire in the Henhouse?
I have a background in psychology, and I’ve always been fascinated by people whose behavior is right on the edge of acceptable. I also really love how so much of what ends up being important in our lives starts out as coincidence. That’s how I got started writing Fire In The Henhouse. I do a lot of travel for my day job. A few years ago, I was on a three week trip to China and ran out of things to read. I was pretty homesick and lonely, so I decided to make up a story for myself about the kind of hometown where I’d like to live, a place full of snarky, funny characters with bad habits. I love reading dialogue, so the early version of Fire In The Henhouse was a light-hearted story about this town full of people giving each other a hard time and getting all tangled up in each other’s lives. Then, just as I was finishing up what I thought was my first draft there was an incident at my son’s school where an awful tragedy was very narrowly averted. That made me think hard about how people deal with the unexpected when it tears into their lives, and how much someone can bear when they have the support of friends. That all got worked into the eventual book. 3. What was the best writing advice someone gave you? “Butts in seats.” In other words, if you want to be a writer you have to make yourself sit down and invest the time in writing. Going to readings, taking classes, workshopping – those are all valuable ways to improve your craft. But if you don’t sit down every day and write something, you’re never going to achieve your goal. My rule is that I must write for half an hour each day. Sometimes even that isa tough commitment to keep, especially when you’re not “feeling the muse”. But once you get started you sometimes find yourself on a roll and by the time you’re done you’ve got a few pages of new material. Make your writing a discipline. Think of yourself as a weightlifter of words and ideas. If you don’t stay in practice your writing is going to get flabby, and a little bit of writing every day will do better for you than several hours plastered to your computer followed by days of silence. The second best piece of advice I got was from the same person --- “kill your darlings.” That means no matter how wonderful a phrase or even a whole scene is, if it doesn’t progress your story or it’s not in the voice of your characters, it has to go. 4. What was the worst? Did you know it at the time? My book is 474 pages long. When experienced writers and workshop leaders heard that they were horrified. The common wisdom, I was told, is a first novel should only be about 90,000 words, so I should divide the book into two books and sell it as a series. I finally gave in and divided it. Shortly after I did, an executive editor at a major New York publishing house asked to see it. I sent her the “first half”. She kept it for several months before rejecting it, saying it just didn’t feel complete somehow. I then sent it to a book doctor who said pretty much the same thing, that it felt like the resolution was missing. That’s when I finally realized that you need to present your story in the way that’s right for it, no matter how different that may be from what’s considered standard. 5. If you could ask your readers one question, what would it be? With life being so busy, what does a book have to offer you to make it worth your while to read it? And how can you tell which books will offer you what you’re looking for? I know, that’s two questions. My characters didn’t get their habit of bending the rules from nowhere… 6. Tell me one thing about yourself that very few people know? Shortly after I turned forty I developed a life-threatening tumor. Forty didn’t seem all that young to me until I suddenly realized that might be as far as I was going to get. I was desperate to figure out what was wrong with me, but I had the kind of medical insurance that seemed good until I needed it. It took nearly a year to get approval to see the appropriate specialist. By that time the tumor had caused serious multi-system damage. I had to have disfiguring surgery and then go on massive doses of steroids. I went into the hospital an energetic, vibrant professional and mother of four, and came out deformed, disabled and dependent on others for everything from tying my shoes to remembering my phone number. I had lost most of my memories of the years preceding my illness. Because I refused to settle for anything less than full recovery, most people who know me have no idea my family and I went through this. I will always grieve for the years of my kids’ childhood that are lost to me, and the years I spent feeling like Quasimodo. But this illness taught me to be grateful and unafraid of any challenge. My kids were young when this happened, and though this has left its scars on them too, they have grown up with the grace, humor and courage you can only get from being a survivor. 7. Describe your book. Fire In The Henhouse is set in a small town full of the kind of funny people who take themselves way too seriously. They’re all very eager to poke into each other’s business, completely unaware that they have some pretty funny habits of their own. Maggie Rifkin, a recent widow with a teenage son, moves into town, telling herself she doesn’t want to get involved. But nobody is about to let her stay on the sidelines. The reader gets so deep into the life in town that when the unexpected happens you’ve got to see how it turns out. I’ve had readers tell me they stayed up way too late two or three nights in a row because they had to see how things end. (And if some of the settings in the book remind you of Doylestown, that just might not be a coincidence.) 8. What do you consider your strengths in terms of your writing? I focus hard on creating characters the reader would want to know in real life. My characters aren’t always nice, but they’re always people you’d want to have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine with so you can hear what kind of zany adventure they’re planning next. And I use humor. Lots of humor. I like to make people laugh out loud. I also love to drop clues so that the reader has those wonderful “Aha!” moments when they see how things fit together. 9. What do you consider your weakness and what strategies do you use to overcome it? I have a tendency to over-write. I put too much on the page, and have to constantly remind myself to trust the reader’s imagination, to only give enough description and detail to get the picture started, leaving the reader fill in the blanks. My process for managing this is to take my first draft and go through it, eliminating everything that’s repetitive or redundant. Once that’s done, I go through a second time and eliminate anything that can be inferred from something else. And then I do one more pass and speed up the flow of the story, making sure I’m not taking too long building up tension before events happen. After I think it’s finally ready, I give the draft to some friends to read – not other writers, just friends who are serious readers and who won’t be afraid to tell me the truth. And then I listen to their concerns and rewrite again. 10. What three things would you want with you on a desert island? A computer with internet access, a very long power cord and Richard Branson’s American Express Gold Card (which he hasn’t noticed is missing). “Clever banter and a flair for over-the-top scenarios…a debut novel brewing with tension, lightened by warm humor.” – Publishers Weekly Set in the fictional town of Dooleysburg, PA Fire In The Henhouse turns an unflinching eye on the little insanities of people who believe they are in charge. Local celebrities include a cross-dressing car dealer who doubles as the town mascot and a police chief who had to get his own juvenile record expunged. When widowed Maggie Rifkin returns here with her fourteen-year-old son and her New York attitude, she only wants to leave her past behind. But there is no such thing as anonymity in this quirky town, and when sudden tragedy strikes the thread of destruction might well unravel all the way back to Maggie’s childhood secret. Grote creates a memorable cast of flawed characters who mire themselves in hilarious situations. But the outrageous fun illuminates a landscape that contains struggle, transition and finally, proof that life can be both flawed and full of love at the same time.

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