There is so much interesting stuff (technical term) and honest, inspiring advice in Erika Marks’s interview below that I’m not going to waste to much of your time or my space telling you how we met online and how Erika has always been interested and supportive of this blog — and me. Reading Erika’s answers was like chatting with a friend, so I decided to carry-on the tradition from the Valentine’s Day post and use first names instead of initials. It’s a little less formal and just seems right — especially today!
Please welcome Erika Marks to Women’s Fiction Writers!
Women’s Fiction Author Erika Marks Shares Her Journey to Publication, Her Indiana Inspiration, And Advice On Persistence, Politeness and Patience
Amy: When I read a book I often find myself wondering how on earth an author got the idea for their story. Your book, Little Gale Gumbo, is set in Maine, but is about a family that has deep roots in the South and superstition (to oversimplify). Can you tell us a little bit about the story and how these characters came to life for you?
Erika: First things first: Thank you so much for having me here, Amy! Having been a reader of your blog from the beginning, it’s truly special to be a guest.
The story…Would you believe the idea for LITTLE GALE GUMBO came to me in the back yard of our old house in Indiana? I envisioned a man reminiscing about the two women (sisters) who he hadn’t seen in forever but whose impact on his life haunted him. At that point, it had been three years since my husband and I had had to evacuate New Orleans (where he’s from and where we were living) after Hurricane Katrina, but I still missed the city terribly, and I was very much still processing our abrupt departure from a place that I loved deeply. Out of that continued longing and that sense of wanting to preserve the pieces of my husband’s and my life there, I began to reshape that initial imagery of the three characters (who ended up being Matthew and the sisters, Dahlia and Josie) to include the rest of the cast of LITTLE GALE GUMBO. Curiously enough, even though food was always a huge part of the story, the setting of the island café didn’t take shape for several drafts, but once it did, so many other things fell into place. It really did become an anchor for the story and the characters.
There’s no question that Camille exemplified the sentiments I imagined so many people who were forced to leave New Orleans after Katrina had felt, being thrust into a strange new place with little but their history and, in Camille’s case, her Creole recipes, her jazz music, her strong belief in voodoo and her devotion to her daughters. Those pieces of New Orleans travelled with her, and served not only to give her purpose in a foreign land, but also provided a way for her to ingratiate herself and spice up a cold climate.
Amy: And, what came first, the idea or the drive? Meaning, did you always want to be a novelist — or did the story and characters make you want to become published and see your book on bookshelves and e-readers?
Erika: Amy, that’s such a great question. Honestly, I remember from a very young age seeing writing and being published as intertwined. I recall seeing Ally Sheedy’s children’s book (she wrote and published it at something like 13 and under the name Alexandra, I think?) in my local library and I was about that age and thinking, Hmm…I want to do this too! I knew I loved to write but I always wanted to write with an eye towards my stories being put out into the world. Having written over 13 manuscripts before selling LITTLE GALE GUMBO, I can say my thought process has long been the drive first, and then the characters followed.
Amy: Will you share a little about your journey to publication and what the post-publication experience has been like?
Erika: It has been a long journey—a wonderful one!—but a long one. Twenty years, in fact, from the time I submitted my first manuscript (a genre romance called Seasons of the Heart; the title was by far the best part of the thing—cringe!) to the time I got a two-book deal from NAL. Along the way, I tried lots of other genres (horror, sci-fi among them) before settling into my true comfort zone in women’s fiction and I think that made all the difference. Once I found a voice that I could settle in to then I was able to give the mechanics of the craft the attention it needed.
What amazes me most looking back is how the process of submissions has changed. I remember when lots of houses took unsolicited, unagented manuscripts. I remember the days of typing out materials and waiting weeks and weeks for those SASEs to come back. I also remember many lovely, hand-written responses (that I still have, of course!) from agents with morsels of advice and encouragement. I was, and am to this day, so grateful for them.
And then there’s the whole aspect of social media and this idea of building a platform as a fiction writer—something I think all of us who wrote fiction in the pre-internet world never had to think about. But like so many things in the contemporary writing business, I have come to see this development as a wonderful opportunity to engage readers and other writers. In other words, to build a community in what very often feels like a one-man show on a desert island. I am so grateful for that aspect of social media.
Amy: Can you (will you) share with us what you’re working on now? And, will there be gumbo? 🙂
Erika: I’d love to share! I actually just sent off the manuscript for my second novel, THE MERMAID COLLECTOR, which is due for release in October and I’m really excited about it. It’s the story of a coastal town with a mermaid legend. But on the eve of its annual mermaid festival, two brothers mysteriously arrive to claim the town’s historic lightkeeper’s house, and their appearance sets into motion both romance and revelations for the town’s residents, in particular a free-spirited woodcarver named Tess whose belief in life’s magic is a way to cope with a past heartbreak.
Amy: What’s your definition of women’s fiction?
Erika: Stories that speak to the needs and the dreams and the challenges of women and the people they love. Having just finished writing a novel where the male lead is almost as prominent in the story as the female, I never once felt as if I wasn’t writing women’s fiction when I was immersed in his scenes or in his head. Quite the opposite, I think women’s fiction is lucky in that it can encompass a lot of views and plots and voices, so long as the core of the story is relatable to women’s lives.
Amy: What is your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction?
Erika: To always keep writing, keep reading, keep submitting. And remember, no matter the zillion numbers of people who are using social media, publishing is still a small community. Courtesy and professionalism are often as well-remembered as your writing by agents and editors. Keep track of which agents offer to see your new project and follow up accordingly. I met my agent through a generous agent at another agency who I queried five years ago and subsequently showed her my projects as I finished them. While they were never a good match for her needs, she and I built up a lovely rapport so that when a project came along that she did feel strongly about (though her list was already full) she referred me to another agent. These relationships take time. Nurture them and be patient. Learn when to put away a project and start on a new one; agents want to know you have more than one story in you.
(Oh, goodness—was I supposed to just give one piece of advice? Sorry!)
Erika Marks is a native New Englander who was raised in Maine and has worked as an illustrator, cake decorator, and carpenter. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband, a native New Orleanian, and their two daughters.