I hope all of you in the path of Superstorm Sandy are safe — and that you have power, internet, chocolate, some of your favorite people around you — and I hope you have books! It might be a perilous day on the East Coast, but for author Juliette Fay, it’s also an important day — the publication of her third novel, THE SHORTEST WAY HOME. Juliette shares with us what she thinks of the fact that her book is labeled women’s fiction even though it’s about a man, how she allows her ideas to simmer for a year before she writes them, and what it’s like to revisit characters from her first novel, SHELTER ME, in THE SHORTEST WAY HOME.
Please welcome Juliette Fay to Women’s Fiction Writers!
And of course, stay safe, my friends.
Author Juliette Fay Says Worry Less And Write More
Amy: Congratulations! Today is the release of your third novel, THE SHORTEST WAY HOME. Would you tell us a little bit about it? I know the story revisits the setting from your first novel, SHELTER ME, but isn’t exactly a sequel. Can you explain? And what is it about the setting and characters that drew you back?
Juliette: The Shortest Way Home is about Sean Doran, a nurse who’s worked in devastatingly poor areas around the world. He’s at risk for Huntington’s Disease—his mother died of it when he was young—but like many who are at risk, he has never wanted to be tested to find out if he has it, too. To avoid the possibility of passing it on, he’s never married or had children.
Sean makes what he thinks will be a quick trip to his hometown of Belham, Mass, also the setting for Shelter Me. There he finds that his elderly aunt who raised him, his sister, and his nephew are having a crisis of their own. Sean is drawn progressively deeper into the family drama, and finds it harder and harder to leave.
The reason I set it in the town from Shelter Me is that people often ask for a sequel to that novel. Unfortunately, I just don’t have an entirely new story with those same characters to offer. And I didn’t want to trump one up, because a bad sequel is more than just a bad book—it also has a way of ruining your memory of the first book.
I decided to set The Shortest Way Home in Belham, and used some of the characters from Shelter Me, so the reader would know, peripherally, how things worked out for them. As a result, Cormac the bakery owner, who was the cousin of Janie, the main character from Shelter Me, is the best friend from high school of Sean, the main character from The Shortest Way Home. Cormac was one of my favorites, so it was really fun to write about him again. The two stories are connected but stand alone, too.
Amy: Has your process for writing a novel changed since SHELTER ME and your second novel, DEEP DOWN TRUE? What have you learned between book one and book three? (and yes, we have all day!)
Juliette: I wrote Shelter Me without any idea if it would ever end up on a bookstore shelf. There’s a certain amount of freedom in that. You just write want you want to write with no sense of an agent, editor or readership looking over your shoulder.
With Deep Down True, I felt the pressure—it was internal more than anything else. I had to work hard to shut it out. Also, I was promoting Shelter Me, so it was like having two jobs, and a bit distracting. My editor for Deep Down True did a lot of trimming, and at first I was resistant. But she was (mostly) right, and it was a crash course in getting rid of anything extraneous. I learned to write cleaner and clearer. In the end I was very grateful.
When I turned in The Shortest Way Home, my editor joked that I had learned the lesson so well, she had almost nothing to do! A little clarifying here and there, a little buttressing this theme, trimming down that one, but generally her edits were fairly minor. It was so satisfying.
Right now, I’m almost done with book four, and I hope she’ll find that I’ve continued to hone the skills she’s taught me.
Amy: How did the idea for your novels strike you? What was the inspiration?
Juliette: A writer has to live with a story for a long time—for me, a year or more. So while none of my books are autobiographical, they’re all about things that intrigue or worry me: the sudden death of a spouse and learning how to be a single mother; how female friendships can get stuck in a middle school cycle of trust and betrayal, and how we always have that insecure middle schooler inside us; living with the threat of an incurable terminal disease.
My inspiration for The Shortest Way Home was a friend whose mother had Huntington’s. This was before the test was available and I watched my friend live with the terrible uncertainty of not knowing if she might have it, too. When she found out she didn’t, her life changed. She started looking at things with a sense of permanence. I was fascinated by this, and wanted to explore it through a story—not about her, but about a character dealing with a similar experience.
Amy: We’ve talked about this a few times on WFW, but how do you think books with male main characters fit under the women’s fiction umbrella?
Juliette: I think they fit fine. It’s not like readers of women’s fiction don’t want to read about men.
But maybe there’s a different question you’re asking: how does the gender of the writer affect the way a book is labeled, regardless of the gender of the main character. If that’s what your wondering, and if I’m being completely honest … I think that if someone in possession of a set of testicles had written this book, it would be called general fiction. After all, it’s not just about a man—it’s about a single man with no children. But since it’s ultimately a family drama, and I have ovaries, it’s called women’s fiction.
Amy: And this leads us to…what is your definition of women’s fiction? And does the hullaballoo surrounding “the label” bother you?
Juliette: I think of women’s fiction as family drama, and I wish they’d use that label instead. But the women’s fiction label doesn’t really bother me, because a rose is a rose. Happily, there are a lot of people who want to read family drama/women’s fiction—and, hey, I’m here to help.
What bothers me is that sometimes it’s assumed that women’s fiction isn’t as well written or serious as other categories, despite the fact that there can be gorgeous prose and weighty subject matter found in women’s fiction, just as there can be some bad verbiage and fluffiness elsewhere. Every genre has a wide range of both writing style and “seriousness.”
All this is to say, the label itself isn’t so bad; it’s the assumptions that aren’t always helpful.
Amy: What is your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction?
Juliette: My best advice is to be a really good friend to yourself. A really good friend would be encouraging yet honest, would kick you in the butt when you’re getting lazy or being a fuss pot, and would make you take yourself seriously, but not too seriously.
Let that really good friend be the voice in your head. Let her drown out the voices that sound like critics or the growing laundry pile or that one mean English teacher you had high school.
That really good friend (who is you) would say: Worry less and write more … so stop talking to yourself and get going!
Juliette’s latest novel, The Shortest Way Home, is due in bookstores on October 30th. Her first novel, Shelter Me, was chosen as a 2009 “Book of the Year,” by the Massachusetts Center for the Book, an affiliate of the Library of Congress (which makes it government-related, right?) Her second, Deep Down True, was short-listed for the Women’s Fiction award by the American Library Association. She lives in Wayland, Massachusetts with her husband and four children.