Sarah McCoy is one of those authors you meet (online) and then feel like you always known her. She’s generous above-and-beyond the writerly call of duty — although I must admit I’ve met only a few authors since starting this blog who aren’t generous in one way or another. Sarah’s advice about taking what she knows and allowing it to “walk its own path” really struck a chord with me, as did reaching into unknown subject territory. For some writers that might mean culture, time and place; for others it might mean something other-worldly; for others it means tackling unusual subject matter or quirky characters.
And that’s when you know someone is imparting good advice for writers — when it’s personal and specific, yet at the same time, universal. (Thanks for that, Sarah!)
Please welcome Sarah McCoy to Women’s Fiction Writers. It’s so exciting to have her here — and to know that her new book will be in my TBR pile this Spring!
Interview with Author Sarah McCoy
SM: I had the opportunity to write my debut novel while swaddled in a wonderful creative writing MFA program at Old Dominion University. The Time It Snowed In Puerto Rico was my thesis work. I wrote it under the mentorship of the incomparable Sheri Reynolds (A Gracious Plenty, Rapture of Canaan, The Sweet In-Between). I learned so much from her and all my ODU writing professors. Within weeks of graduating from the program, my husband received orders for Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. So we packed up our Virginia house and moved 2,000 miles to the Tex-Mex border. I sent out query letters to New York City agents from there. It took nine months to secure an agent and two months to find a publisher. So roughly a year of searching for a publishing home after the manuscript was written and polished in my program. I finally held my first book baby about eighteen months after I signed the contract. Publishing is the tortoise’s race, for sure. While my first book was on the Random House conveyor belt, I was at home writing my second, The Baker’s Daughter.
ASN: We’ve talked a lot on the blog about using real life to influence fiction. What bits of your own real life did you incorporate or tweak for the book? Was it easy to separate fact from fiction?
SM: In my fiction, I use environmental and historical facts to anchor the characters, but I allow them to walk their own paths. So while, yes, my personal connections to Puerto Rico, Germany, El Paso, etc. do influence the landscape of my imagination, I never try to force myself (the author) on my characters. As in real life, sometimes the facts get slightly fictionalized by time and flawed human memory, and sometimes the emotions of fiction ring truer than all the history books. Some authors hold fast to the mantra, “Write what you know.” I believe that works beautifully for some stories, but others ask us to write what we do not know—to dig a little deeper, research, investigate, and step into the shoes of people of a different time or place or culture and discover something new. It’s the author’s calling to have an open mind and a listening ear to what the story is trying to tell us. Not necessarily what we are trying to tell in the story.
ASN: Do you have any writing rituals? What’s the first draft process like for you?
SM: Oh, yes, I have far too many writing rituals. First off, I’m a hermit writer. Some folks are able to write lovely prose in coffee shops, bookstores, libraries, little cafe’s and such. I’ve never been one of them. I must be completely alone, walled up from the world, in my same chair at my same desk with my journal, Post-It notes and cup of tea at hand. I can’t have television or music or phones around. I need quiet solitude to hear every word the characters are saying. It’s a lonely process—a kind of self-exile that baffles some people, but it’s how I work best. I’ve tried being the social butterfly writer—sitting down with other writers at a communal space with serenity music playing overhead, and I can’t get a good word down. My first drafts are messy muddled things. I write out the basic plot in my journal, diagramming the first chapters into scene and summary outlines. I use Post-It notes as action options, sticking them here or there as reminders and ideas that may or may not flush out on the page. These items are my road map, but the writing does the actual driving. I try never to be afraid of the garbage either. I’ve trashed chapters and even whole books. Yes, I have novels no one will ever see because they simply don’t work for me, and I want to be the first to admit that. So, needless to say, my first draft process is fierce. I’m incredibly self-critical. My writing is a kind of crazy romance. It’s manic, frustrating and completely spellbinding, yet even as I bang my head against my laptop, I’m grateful because I love it.
ASN: Can you (will you?) tell us what you’re working on now?
SM: I don’t usually talk about my works-in-progress—not because I’m superstitious but because I view books like babies. They need their time in the womb, safely hidden from even the most loving glances, to grow strong and full. So if we were to put a sonogram wand to my current novel, I could tell you the basic shape and theme. It’s about characters exploring what it means to parent, the various avenues one can mother/father besides the obvious act of being a mother/father. They experience great loss and great joy as they embrace different modes of nurturing individually and together.
ASN: What is your definition of women’s fiction?
SM: I’m a huge advocate of female writers, but to be honest, I’m not sure I buy into the masculine and feminine qualifiers for fiction. A good book is simply a good book. The author’s sex is peripheral. The characters and story are the heart. I aim for men and women readers to gain new understanding and perspective from my novels. I believe that should be the goal of all writers, perhaps even more so for women since critics are quick to label our work. Personally, I’m waiting for the sign to go up on a bookstore aisle reading: Men’s Fiction. Even things up a bit.
ASN: What is your best advice specifically for aspiring authors of women’s fiction?
SM: My advice to aspiring female authors is to never be afraid to reach into unknown subject territory. Go there. Bravely. Write the story that would keep you up at night and would make you sing its praises from the rooftops. Write the story that you’d want your best friend to read, your husband, your mother and father, sisters and brothers, neighbors and coworkers… because they will, and you’ve got to believe that. You’ve got to have your vision set and not be deterred by failures along the way. And most importantly, read! Read as much as your eyeballs can take. You can learn so much from your favorite authors. You’re so wonderful to have me on your blog, Amy. Your readers inspire me. I love empowered women!
Sarah McCoy is author of the novel, The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico. She has taught English writing at Old Dominion University and at the University of Texas at El Paso. The daughter of an Army officer, her family was stationed in Germany during her childhood. Her second novel, The Baker’s Daughter releases from Crown/Random House on January 24, 2012 and is available for preorder. She currently lives with her husband and dog, Gilbert, in El Paso. You can read more about Sarah and her books on her website (www.sarahmccoy.com) or hang out with her on Twitter (@SarahMMcCoy), and Facebook.