I love, believe in and support the camaraderie of the women’s fiction community, so when Randy Susan Meyers, author of THE MURDERER’S DAUGHTERS, suggested that Eleni Gage would be a great fit for Women’s Fiction Writers, I took the recommendation to heart. Randy was instrumental in helping me and cheering me on for several years before I even signed with my agent. She always believed I would find an agent and then an editor — and she was right! And of course, when it came to recommending Eleni — Randy was right as well.
Please welcome Eleni N. Gage to Women’s Fiction Writers!
Author Eleni N. Gage Shares Her Thoughts On Women’s Fiction, Writing and Exploring Themes That Fascinate You
Amy: Your novel, OTHER WATERS, is about “seeking — and surviving — love in all its forms.” Can you tell us more about the story?
Eleni: Sure! Maya Das is a psychiatric intern living in Manhattan when her father calls to tell her that someone in India has cursed their whole family. As a modern woman—and a doctor—she doesn’t believe in curses, but when something terrible happens to each member of her family, she decides to travel to India to reverse the curse, save her family, and try to figure out how to build one identity when two very different cultures are pulling her apart.
That trip is also an attempt to heal her broken heart; along with trying to carve out her own place in—and in between—the U.S. and India, Maya is trying to discover who would make the right partner for her as she navigates these different worlds; does she really love her non-Indian college boyfriend or is that just a relationship of comfort? Would the Indian man of her parents’ dreams solve all her problems or create more? While this novel isn’t a romance, Maya struggles with the question of who she’s meant to be with, as many of us do or have at one time. But it’s not just romantic love that preoccupies her; she also wrestles with all kinds of love—the loneliness and exultation of loving two countries at once, the strengthening, but sometimes suffocating, love of family; and the ever-elusive love of one’s self, which may be the most difficult love to find.
The first part of the novel takes place in Manhattan, the second part in India, and the third back in New York. For a hint of what’s to come, check out the book trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A4eEZ9rhpVY
Amy: You’re a well-published travel writer and the author of a non-fiction book, NORTH OF ITHAKA. Why — and how — did you make the transition from non-fiction to fiction?
Eleni: NORTH OF ITHAKA is the story of the year I spent living in the Greek village where my father was born and my grandmother was killed, overseeing the rebuilding of my grandparents’ home, which had fallen into ruin after the Greek Civil War. Writing that was a personal quest; I was trying to resolve my own family curse, the one my grandmother placed on any of her descendants who returned to Greece, the country where she had suffered so much.
I loved living in that village and writing about it. But you can only write about yourself for so long! And I’d always wanted to try my hand at fiction. Novels are my favorite thing to read, so I wanted writing one to be my next challenge. But writing a travel memoir was a natural extension of travel journalism for me, whereas I suspected that I lacked the skills to write fiction, having only written nonfiction before. Also, as a freelance writer, who makes her living writing articles, I suspected I wouldn’t have the discipline to sit every day and work on something no one was paying me to write, a novel which wasn’t guaranteed to ever be published. I needed to use that time to write pieces that would pay the rent!
So I decided to keep working as a freelance journalist but to quit my in-office job (I was the Beauty Editor at Peoplemagazine) and get an MFA. I reasoned that the classes would teach me the skills I needed to write fiction, and the deadlines would force me to work on the manuscript. And if no one ever bought the finished product, at least I would have learned something and earned a degree which would enable me to teach—something I love doing. So I set about making the switch very practically. But I love both genres, and want to keep doing both. The book I’m currently working on is a novel, but I recently started blogging at theliminalstage.com, which is a bit like writing a mini memoir each week, so that I’m actively engaged in writing nonfiction as well.
Amy: How was the process different writing and publishing these books? And after a career in non-ficiton, what are your thoughts on the fiction community both in real life and online? Were there many surprises?
Eleni: So. Many. Surprises. I thought that writing fiction would be easy-breezy, that I’d sit in a café making up brilliant dialogue and typing away with perfectly manicured nails, the mind of Jane Austen in the outfit of Carrie Bradshaw. I did a lot of research for my memoir—I kept extensive journals, and read everything I could find about the area. And I worried a lot about offending the people I’d written about—the risk of writing nonfiction is that your characters can, and will, talk back to you. Given all that, I thought writing fiction would be much, much easier. I was wrong.
The irony is that I chose to write about a community—Indian-Americans—and a country—India—which isn’t my own. So I ended up doing even more research for my novel than I did for my memoir. And I didn’t realize that while nonfiction involves looking at the material you’ve amassed and deciding what’s relevant for shaping the story you want to tell—a skill I practice all the time as a journalist—fiction involves the extra step of first making up all the material in front of you, the character’s backstories, the events that happen, and then discarding half of it. It’s basically twice the work for me. And now that OTHER WATERS come out, I’m just waiting for people to object to how their community is portrayed, or to see themselves in a character and complain. That said, I so enjoyed the experience and I got so wrapped up in the characters. So, bottom line: fiction is not the easy flight of fancy I thought it would be for me. But it’s totally engrossing and addictive to write.
As for the publishing of both books, so much has changed in the six or so years that elapsed between the publications. There are now so many more ways to communicate with readers—and other writers—thanks to twitter, facebook, and all manner of social media. A great surprise—and delight—for me was discovering how much less of a solitary profession writing has become. I’ve been amazed at how many resources and supportive communities there are online for writers—this blog, beyondthemargins, writerunboxed, to name a few. There are so many women writers who are eager to nurture and advise each other. (And yes, so far the online communities I’ve found have been female, although a lot of the independent bookstore heros are male; I wonder why that is?) Writing/publishing really is starting to feel much more like a team effort, which I love. And then the engagement of readers is so much more profound now; everyone’s posting reviews and emailing and it’s so gratifying to have that interaction, to know that other people thought about and cared for your characters as you did.
Amy: What is your definition of women’s fiction?
Eleni: Interesting question. I suppose I’d have to say fiction written by women. Because any broader description—writing about identity and personal relationships is one thought I had—could also be used to define a work by any number of male authors. I don’t see a lot of difference between some of my favorite works of what has been identified as women’s fiction and books like Freedom by Jonathan Franzen or The Privileges by Jonathan Dee, both of which center around family dramas and romantic relationships. It strikes me as odd—and unfair—that when men write about families and relationships it’s seen as a commentary on our society and the world in which we find ourselves living, and when women do, it’s considered very domestic and for women readers only. (Although, truth be told, it’s my understanding that most readers of all types of fiction are women. Perhaps there’s a biological imperative there; maybe because have traditionally been nurturers, it’s easier for us to empathize with the characters in fiction? But what do I know? I’m not the psychiatrist, Maya is!)
Amy: What’s your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction?
Eleni: Write to explore the themes that fascinate you—for me those are immigration, identity, folklore, and the conflict between faith and science—so that the writing is its own reward. Write with a few ideal readers in mind, and write for the experience of doing so, and you’ll never be disappointed. In fact, you’ll often be delighted at the interactions you have; there’s nothing more gratifying than learning about your own work from someone else, a reader who saw a theme or a thread or an idea in it that you were too close to the material to spot. I can’t imagine a more fun, satisfying job than writing. But it is a lot of work for very little financial reward for most of us (I’ve always had a day job, whether it’s teaching or freelance writing, along with working on my books). So if you’re looking to become rich and famous, I think becoming a reality TV star is a much better way to go.
The daughter of a Greek father and a Minnesotan mother, Eleni Gage grew up in Athens, Greece, and Worcester, Massachusetts, and has always been fascinated by cultural rituals and traditions. That interest led her to study Folklore and Mythology at Harvard University, and, eventually, to earn an equally practical master’s degree, an MFA in Creative Writing, from Columbia University. Now a freelance writer and editor whose travel articles have appeared on the covers of Travel+Leisure, T, Budget Travel, and Town&Country Travel, Eleni has also contributed to Real Simple, Martha Stewart Weddings, the New York Times, Parade, and The American Scholar, and held staff positions at Allure, Elle, InStyle, and People magazines. She is the author of the travel memoir North of Ithaka and the novel Other Waters, and she blogs at theliminalstage. com. Eleni and her husband live in Miami Beach with their daughter.