Margaret Dilloway has two novels to her credit, How To Be An American Housewife, and The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns — and she also has a lot of inspiring words that are not inside those novels which you’ll find below. It’s such a learning experience to read what works for other writers, how they find the time, channel the energy, find their ideas, and how they stay sane through the process.
I think Margaret Dilloway’s got it right — she embraces the chaos!
Please welcome Margaret to Women’s Fiction Writers!
Margaret Dilloway, Author (and Aspiring Samurai), Talks About Writing Up-Market Women’s Fiction, Being Nice To Everyone, And Embracing The Chaos
Margaret: It’s about a high school biology teacher, Gal Garner, who’s an amateur rose breeder. She spends hours creating a new type of rose, the Hulthemia, and hopes one day to get it produced by a big rose company. She’s got a very methodical personality, and on top of that, Gal’s one of those people who lets people know the truth– the whole, blunt truth– which sometimes gets her into trouble. She’s also dealing with a lifelong kidney disease, and goes to dialysis every other day.
The kidney problems have affected all other areas of her life. One theme I explore is how it affected her family dynamics while she was growing up. It’s difficult to parent when one child’s in the hospital all the time. Her sister Becky has had lifelong problems with addiction, and she and Gal are nearly estranged. When Becky sends her daughter, Riley, to live with Gal, Gal has to readjust her life to make room for this other person. This kid who looks like an adult, but needs a lot of parenting.
One sidenote about the Hulthemia rose: it’s an open-faced rose that’s been being developed for the consumer market for more than 200 years. The man who assisted me with this book, Jim Sproul, was the first person to get it into the marketplace this season.
Amy: Was the process of writing this novel different than writing your first, HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE? Can you share a little about how you write a novel?
Margaret: I don’t think any two novels will be the same for me. With HOUSEWIFE, it took me forever, because I wrote in a vacuum– I didn’t know any other writers and editors, or have any idea about story structure.
When I started ROSES, I was much more educated– I’d worked with a fabulous editor on HOUSEWIFE, who had very high standards. I started with an outline, but as I wrote, the story began to veer away from the outline. The ending’s entirely different than what I’d imagined.
ROSES took a few months of research and mulling, but when I finally sat down and committed myself to writing, the whole thing took about six weeks and required very little editing. I think this novel is going to be an anomaly.
I guess my advice is: be prepared, write an outline, but feel free to not follow it!
Amy: I love the tagline on your website: “Embracing the Chaos.” That seems like a smart motto! How do you embrace the chaos in your own life? (assuming it’s chaotic — aren’t they all?)
Margaret: “Embracing the Chaos” is sort of my mantra, because you’re right, all lives are chaotic. That was my hardest lesson to learn as an adult– how to be resilient, roll with the punches. (What do you mean, things won’t always work out perfectly??) My husband and I seem to be magnets for big, dramatic chaos. For example, my husband’s been hit by a car twice, and had to have his neck fused. We sold all our stuff and moved to Hawaii for a job, then sold it all again and moved back 18 months later, starting out with nothing twice.
On a smaller scale, we like to take on just a *little* bit more than we think we can handle. So that’s probably why we had a third kid, why he was an Army Ranger, why I’ve tried to devote myself to writing without success being a sure thing.
Amy: What is your favorite part of being an author? And yes, what is your least favorite part?
Margaret: My favorite part is interacting with readers. I love meeting people, and I love receiving positive letters from readers. I’ve had women write to me telling me I helped change the relationship with their mothers because of Housewife. That feels great.
My least favorite is all the business-y stuff. Being an author is like running your own small business– you need a “brand,” and that kind of thing doesn’t come naturally to me. I’ve had to learn a lot.
Amy: How do you define women’s fiction?
Margaret: When you say, “women’s fiction,” I think of something called, “upmarket women’s fiction,” which is a sort of commercial women’s fiction. To me, that means that there’s a female protagonist who’s dealing with a life problem, which are often part of a larger, bigger theme; and has a plot that moves along pretty fast. And it has well-written, complex characters– at least, I strive for that.
Women’s fiction sometimes tends to be code for, “light fluffy stuff about women’s lives that nobody takes seriously because they’re women,” which makes me all shades of mad. Women’s lives are important, and our experiences and opinions are important. There is excellent, affecting women’s fiction that makes you think differently about your life, and changes your worldview.
Think of the painter Mary Cassatt, the Impressionist who was the first one to take the lives of women seriously, who painted women in their everyday spheres. The male art world didn’t care about women or their silly little lives of motherhood and domesticity. But she treated women’s lives as a subject as worthy of paint. I want to be the Mary Cassatt of women’s fiction.
And I also want to be the Norman Mailer of women’s fiction, because I want to get into fights.
Not really, on that last part. Though I am half-Irish and have a quick temper, and my mother came from a samurai family, so you never know.
Amy: What is your best advice especially for aspiring authors of women’s fiction?
Margaret: Read widely outside your genre, write everyday, and don’t give up. I think the difference between me and others is I kept picking myself up and going forward. It’s really hard to do, so try to have people who are cheerleaders.
Have a life outside of writing, because, for most people, success is not a trajectory that goes upward forever and ever– it usually at least levels out. You need to not have all your self-worth tied up in that.
And be nice to people, even if they aren’t nice to you.
Margaret Dilloway is the author of the critically acclaimed novels, The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns, and How to Be an American Housewife, both published by Putnam Books. Entertainment Weekly called Roses “an exquisite little novel,” and Library Journal said it’s, “a captivating study of how love and understanding nurture our lives.” Housewife got four out of four stars from People Magazine, and was a finalist for the John Gardner Fiction Award.