We’re dipping our toes into something a little different today, my Women’s Fiction Writers friends, and I promise you’ll be pleased!
One of my Book Pregnant cohorts, Amy Franklin-Willis, is joining us today to talk about taking over ten years to write a novel and finding her story (and voice) in a male main character. I’m also thrilled to debut Amy’s fabulous video that explains why THE LOST SAINTS OF TENNESSEE is the perfect books for book clubs. Don’t forget to watch at the end of the interview.
But for now, please welcome Amy Franklin-Willis to Women’s Fiction Writers!
Author Amy Franklin-Willis Talks About Finding Her Voice And Embracing Book Clubs
Amy: Welcome to Women’s Fiction Writers, Amy. And yes, I feel like I’m talking to myself. Luckily, I’m an expert at that, so here goes. First we’ll get this out of the way: THE LOST SAINTS OF TENNESSEE doesn’t fall under the genre of women’s fiction, so before all my women’s fiction peeps get all bent out of shape, please tell us, what your novel (now out in paperback, YAY) is about.
Amy FW: It’s a story about how the mysterious drowning of his twin brother severs Ezekiel Cooper’s ties to his family and forces him to leave his hometown of 42 years in an attempt to find his way back to himself and, ultimately, to those he loves. The narration alternates from Zeke’s voice to his mother Lillian’s voice. The book follows three generations of the Cooper family and traces the relationship between siblings, between mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, divorced spouses still in love with one another, and really old dogs.
Amy: I loved TLSOT when I read it last year. I found it to be heartfelt, real, and hopeful. But from a fellow writer’s perspective, I was fascinated at how you were able to capture the voice of Zeke so skillfully. Many women’s fiction writers write from the male perspective too. What were your challenges in finding Zeke’s voice? When did you know you’d nailed it?
Amy FW: When I began writing Lost Saints over ten years ago, Zeke’s character worried me the most. I was doing two things I’d never done in my writing before: 1. Chose a first person voice 2. Chose a male protagonist.
Zeke also complicated matters by being a very quiet character—he is a man who expresses himself through action rather than words and when I first met him (as the reader does) he was completely shut down emotionally after enduring an extended period of grief over the loss of his twin.
I created the character of Tucker, the old dog who belonged to Zeke’s brother, as a foil for Zeke—to give Zeke something to do, something to love in the early pages of the story since he’s incapable of complex human interactions.
When I finished the draft of the book, I was blessed to attend a writing retreat with the amazing Dorothy Allison. This was the first “outing” of the book and I was scared people would say Zeke was not a convincing character and that I had failed miserably to create a believable male voice, etc., etc.
During the critique session on my book, a fellow writer said those exact words about Lost Saints.
My cheeks flushed, I couldn’t breathe, and I felt like everything I’d worked for might have been for naught. Until Ms. Allison intervened.
She took off her large glasses, shook her mane of hair and stared directly at me. “I am an award-winning author and I am telling you this–you’ve written a compelling male voice. He’s believable; the book is believable. It’s real.”
And that’s when I knew I could do it. No matter how strange and foreign it might feel to me, it was the way the story demanded to be told.
Amy: Women’s fiction, as a genre, is misconstrued and misunderstood. What about for THE LOST SAINTS OF TENNESSE? Did you face any publishing or reader obstacles or opposition writing what I’d call Southern family fiction, or even Southern literary fiction? Were there any misconceptions about your novel? If so, feel free to set the record straight right here!
Amy FW: When I felt brave enough to start talking to agents at writers conferences about Lost Saints, I noticed two things. If I said the word “literary,” their eyes glazed over. When I began to describe the story, they stopped me when I reached the part about the main character being male. They didn’t believe a woman writer could pull it off.
I remain conflicted about the designation of “literary fiction.” It has some negative connotations: style over substance, low sales, elitist. And I feel very strongly that my work is accessible, that you don’t need a graduate degree or any degree, for that matter, to enjoy my book. I want to tell the reader the story, not show the reader what kind of writer tricks I can do.
But I like the positive connotations literary fiction can have—that care is taken with language and that the voice will feel authentic and true. The same can be said, of course, of any other genre. My publisher Grove/Atlantic felt Lost Saints straddled at least two categories since they called it a “hybrid” of literary/commercial and that feels more right to me because I was trying to tell a good story—the goal of commercial fiction—well.
The designation of “Southern fiction” has been wonderful. There are so many readers in this country who continue to hunger for stories set in the South. Coming to the attention of those readers was helped, in great part, by Pat Conroy’s endorsement of Lost Saints.
I live on the West Coast now and there is a small contingent out here that assume my book is all MoonPies and “honey-chiles” and hoop-skirt wearing Scarletts. Which, of course, it isn’t. Well, there are MoonPies. J
Amy: How does it differ launching your paperback from launching your hardcover a year ago?
Amy FW: I’m only a couple of weeks in to the paperback being out in the world so I don’t have much experience under my belt yet. One thing that appears to be helping get the word out and increase sales is my outreach on Facebook. I had a goal of growing the “likes” on my author page on Facebook before the paperback launched and I did that through FB ads targeted at Pat Conroy fans and it has worked really, really well. I’ve got a whole new passel of “likers” who are BUYING the book and talking with me about it on the page. I doubt most of these folks would have found the book otherwise.
Book clubs are also hugely important for paperbacks so I’m doing all I can to get the word out that I love visiting book clubs—either in person or via Skype. I made a video about the top 5 reasons books club should pick Lost Saints and that’s about to post—it’s silly but informative, at least that was my intent! I was thrilled to be a March bonus book pick of the divine Kathy Patrick of Pulpwood Queen fame, fairy godmother to debut authors everywhere.
Amy: What is your best advice for aspiring authors whose books might fit into different genres or don’t fit into any particular box at all?
Amy FW: The more places you can “cross-promote” your book, the better. If it’s a romance set in the South, great. You can access Southern fiction fans and romance fans. If it’s a thriller/romance/international setting, you’ve got core audiences for each of those categories. You may see possibilities that your publisher does not—it’s much easier for them to have one category to place your book in and market the heck out of it there.
I always believed Lost Saints would do well with male readers and it has. About a third of my reader mail is from men. So, I promoted it on Father’s Day as I great gift for fathers, sons, brothers, etc.
Now, if you’ve written that completely original book that doesn’t fit in to any particular box, you have a challenge. You have to make it easy for an agent or publisher to say “yes” to your book. You have to make them believe there are enough readers out there who will love it and make it worth the publisher’s investment. Find books that are as quirky or cross-category as yours that did well. Position your book in a similar way.
If you believe in your book, if you have reputable folks in the industry give you positive feedback on it, then don’t give up. Keep revising. Keep making it better. It took eight years and 30 rejections before Lost Saints sold.
Why should you choose THE LOST SAINTS OF TENNESSEE for your book club? Find out from the author!
An eighth generation Southerner, Amy Franklin-Willis was born in Birmingham, Alabama. She received an Emerging Writer Grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation in 2007 to complete The Lost Saints of Tennessee, a novel inspired by stories of her father’s childhood in rural Pocahontas, Tennessee. Atlantic Monthly Press, a division of Grove/Atlantic, published The Lost Saints of Tennessee in 2012; paperback was released in February 2013. It was an “Indie Next” Selection and a Vanity Fair “Hot Type” Pick. Franklin-Willis now lives with her family on the West Coast. You may find her on the web at Amy Franklin-Willis and on Facebook at Amy Franklin-Willis, Author.