Discovering new-to-me authors and then connecting with those authors is one of the best parts of being a writer and having this blog. I undercover treasures, these books and these burgeoning friendships bit by bit — and have done so in the case of Ann Weisgarber and THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF RACHEL DuPREE. Ann’s insights and advice are eloquent, yet straight to the point. When I first read her answers to my questions, I got a little dizzy from nodding!
Please make Ann feel at home here at Women’s Fiction Writers!
Orange Prize Nominated Author Ann Weisgarber Says Women’s Fiction Speaks To The Heart And Explains How It Felt To Publish Abroad Before Publishing In Her Own Backyard
Ann: Rachel DuPree is the story of an African-American ranch family in the South Dakota Badlands during 1917. It is told from Rachel’s point of view. She is the mother of five and is expecting a child. Times are rough, and Rachel is faced with making a decision that will forever change her family.
The inspiration for the story began when I was on vacation at Badlands National Park in South Dakota and visited a small museum in the area. I remember very little about the museum other than a wall of old photographs of homesteaders.
One picture stopped me. It was of a woman sitting before her sod dugout. She was alone and she was an African American. I knew about black cowboys, and I had visited forts where Buffalo Soldiers had been posted. But I had not heard about African-American homesteaders.
The photo wasn’t labeled and there was something painfully sharp about that. Her name had been lost. Yet, there she was, looking into the camera. “I’m here,” I imagined her saying. “I have a story. Listen.”
I couldn’t stop thinking about her. After the vacation ended, I researched black homesteaders. I found families throughout the West but these brief non-fiction accounts were dry and factual. The woman in the photograph was not just a series of facts. She knew joy and heartbreak. She had dreams, she had danced, and she had cried.
I paired her with a cookstove I had seen during the same Badlands vacation and began to write.
Amy: THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF RACHEL DUPREE was published first in the UK and France before being published in the US. I’m not sure a lot of aspiring authors know this can happen to an American author. How did this come about? How did you feel about it?
Ann: Amy, I’m glad you asked. I spent about a year contacting literary agents and sent out over seventy-five query letters. When an agent finally agreed to represent the book, I was ecstatic. The agent hunt, I was sure, was the most difficult part of the process. She sent the manuscript to most of the big publishers in New York and within weeks, it was rejected by all. The agent quickly dropped me. That told me the manuscript wasn’t quite ready and I made more revisions. Months later, I read an article in Poets & Writers about an editor with Pan Macmillan in England who was willing to look at work that was not represented by an agent. I had nothing to lose so I sent the manuscript. Eleven weeks later, I heard from him. He wanted to publish the book.
The Rights Department with Pan Macmillan then brokered a deal with Editions Belfond in France. It also sold the audio rights, rights to a book club, and the rights for large print to various companies in England. Meanwhile, in the States, all was quiet. Even my neighbors didn’t know that I had written a novel.
Months after publication in England, Rachel DuPree was nominated for the Orange Prize. It was also nominated for the Orange Award for New Writers. That meant it was double-listed and garnered quite a bit of press in England. It also meant that there was sudden interest in the States. The Rights Department for Pan Macmillan negotiated a deal with Viking (a division of Penguin). Pan Macmillan also gave me a contract for the next two books. Since then, the film rights have been optioned by actress Viola Davis. This was again handled by the Rights Department in England.
Amy: Your novel has won awards and been received with high acclaim — do you feel pressure for your next book to “live up to” this one or do you think of them as two completely separate entities? I guess what I’m asking is how does what is happening with this book affect your writing and your outlook? (I can imagine your outlook is rosy!)
Ann: It’s been a surreal experience. When the book was published in the UK, I flew over to meet my editor and the other people who had worked on the book. I also met with one group of readers at a London library. My editor arranged a “release party” which was a dinner party of five. My husband and I were two of the five. A few days later, I returned home to Texas and that was the end of the fanfare in more ways than one. Sales were sluggish in the UK.
That changed after the Orange Prize nomination and then again when Rachel DuPree was published here. All at once, there were reviews in newspapers, on blogs, and on Amazon. Most were gracious but some weren’t. Rachel was on a few more shortlists and did win a few prizes. It was an up-and-down ride, and I had trouble focusing on the second manuscript. I also had to deal with the expectation factor. No one had any expectations for Rachel DuPree because no one knew I was writing a book. It was different for the second book. I had a deadline along with pressure to write another prize-worthy novel. Much of the pressure was self-imposed. I wanted to do the best that I could.
I recently finished the second book and my editor with Mantle, a division of Pan Macmillan, is pleased. But am I worried about what the critics might say? Of course. Do I know how very fortunate I am to have a contract and an editor? You bet. Many good manuscripts go unpublished. Every day I count my lucky stars.
Amy: You note it took seven years to write your novel — what was that process like for you? How did you NOT lose momentum or enthusiasm for the story?
Ann: This is a question only a sister writer would know to ask. I was teaching sociology at a junior college so I wrote at night, on the weekends, and during vacations. I had months when I had to put the manuscript on hold but the woman in the photograph kept it together for me. Her life, I felt sure, was far tougher than mine. I owed her a story, and I felt her pushing me. Quit? I couldn’t do that to her. At the very least, I had to write a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Having said that, I did have meltdowns. Why, oh why, was I doing this? Other people went to movies during their spare time, they even took vacations without their laptops. I’d stomp around the house and declare that I was a failure as a writer and I was finished with the whole thing. Then about a day later, I’d find myself writing sentences. The woman in the photo had shamed me into starting again.
Amy: How do you define women’s fiction?
Ann: I don’t think that I can other than it is fiction that speaks to the heart. It is fiction that tells the truth. It makes us think, it makes us laugh and perhaps cry. It gives us role models who we wish to be or maybe not be. It is fiction that lifts us and carries us to someplace new, yet familiar.
Amy: What is your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction?
Ann: Never give up. Reach into your hearts and tell the stories that only you can. Don’t worry about trends, platforms, or word count. Publication is not the primary goal. Instead, the goal is to write the best story possible. Publication has nothing to do with being an author. If you are composing sentences, if you are writing stories, you are the author of those stories.
Always revise. You’ll make mistakes, we all do. Erase and begin again. Words are only marks on paper, and words can be erased or rearranged. Ask for feedback, then listen to that feedback. You are the author and you must make your own decisions. But always listen. There may be a kernel of truth in the feedback. I meet every Friday with a writing critique group and when I was working on Rachel DuPree, I had a chapter that I couldn’t get right. I took it back to the group for over three months. “It’s better,” they’d tell me. “But it still needs work.” They were right. When I finally got it to suit me, it was a moment of triumph. Then it was on to the next troublesome scene.
Story telling is hard work but most of us have done far harder things in our lives. We must not allow words on a piece of paper to get the better of us. Rejection from agents and from publishers? That’s part of the process. If we push on, if we strive to perfect each sentence and each scene, we will have achieved our goals. We owe that to our characters and to ourselves. It’s a matter of old-fashioned stick-to-it-ness. You can do it.
Ann Weisgarber was born and raised in Kettering, Ohio, a suburb of Dayton. After graduating from Wright State University with a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work, she was a social worker in a psychiatric hospital. She moved to Houston and attended the University of Houston where she earned a Masters of Arts in Sociology. She taught sociology at several community colleges in the Houston area and lives in Sugar Land, Texas, where her home is two blocks from the Imperial Sugar factory.
In addition to Ohio and Texas, Ann has lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in Des Moines, Iowa. Ann’s next novel, The Promise, will be published in March 2013. It takes place in Galveston, Texas, during the historic hurricane of 1900.