I’m thrilled to introduce you to Sonja Yoerg, who’s debut novel, HOUSE BROKEN, is a riveting family saga strewn with secrets. It’s deftly told from three points of view, and that’s no easy task! I was impressed by the distinctness of the three voices from three generations. I loved that HOUSE BROKEN is set in the present. I enjoy historical fiction but have just been itching to read a slew of contemporary books, since that’s what I write. HOUSE BROKEN did not disappoint. Plus, look at the face on the cover! How could I resist?
Please welcome Sonja Yoerg to Women’s Fiction Writers and tell us about your journey to publication in the comments. (When I read Sonja’s answers, I emailed her immediately because I’d queried well over 100 agents as well the first time around.)
Here’s to a productive 2015 for us all!
Debut Author Sonja Yoerg Rises From The Slush Pile After Querying 100+ Agents
Sonja: Thanks, Amy! I’m delighted to have the chance to chat with you.
I am one of the rarest of animals: The Creature That Rose from the Slush Pile. It took about a year to go from finished manuscript to signing a book deal. Finding an agent, as everyone knows, was the hardest part. Might as well buy a fistful of lottery tickets, right? I didn’t have an MFA or any connections, and had never attended a conference. I didn’t even have a critique group! (I do, however, have a husband and two daughters who are not only supportive but excellent readers.)
I queried well over a hundred agents. I scrutinized every word in their replies, desperate for feedback. “Not for me,” several wrote. What could it mean? Surely there was a hidden message in those three words. My spirits soared whenever an agent said something nice. I felt like a fool—shouldn’t a fifty-year-old woman have more self-respect?—but there it was. “Look!” I’d say to my husband. “She said I’m a really good speller!” “That’s wonderful, darling.” He might’ve been more relieved than I was when I finally got an agent.
The Call, by the way, came while I was visiting my sister-in-law and her husband in England. Their house was 400 years old and originally served as the library for the manor down the road. The front door was enclosed by a vestibule where patrons could return their books. Talk about scene setting! When Maria Carvainis called to tell me how much she loved my book, I felt the history of written word surrounding me.
I thought I’d be a wreck while my agent was shopping the book around, but I wasn’t. Maria has been an agent for thirty years and I trusted her completely. It was out of my hands, in any case, which was a relief. After a few months, she’d brokered a two-book deal with Claire Zion at Penguin/NAL. These two women have been incredible champions for my book, and I’m grateful. And lucky.
Amy: What sparked the idea for HOUSE BROKEN? Was it a person, place, thing? Did the story arrive fully formed?
Sonja: I started with the main character, Geneva. She’s a veterinarian—and an expert in animal behavior—and rational to a fault. She thinks there’s a reason for everything and won’t let sleeping dogs lie. Once I fleshed out who she was, I set about making trouble for her. I gave her two slippery teenagers, a husband with a lax parenting style and an injured, alcoholic mother whom Geneva must take care of.
I had no idea where the story would lead and didn’t know the ending until I got there. No one was more surprised by this process than I was. Like Geneva, I prefer my ducks in a neat row, so the prospect of setting out to write a story without an outline was terrifying—and fun!
A few chapters in, I decided I wanted to hear from Geneva’s mother, Helen, so I wrote a chapter from her point of view. A couple chapters later, I began writing from the perspective of Geneva’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Ella. It felt right to give all three generations a voice in the family story, although most of the heavy-lifting in the narrative is done by Geneva. She’s the mom, after all.
Amy: I go through a lot of rewriting and rearranging when I draft a novel (especially the first novel)! Is the book that’s published the book you started writing?
Sonja: Yes, but only because I edit as I go, again and again. I can’t leave a clunker sentence behind and tell myself I’ll fix it later. I have to know the color of the dress, the model of the car, the song on the radio, right then. It can’t be put off. If it sounds distracting, it is. I write slowly, at times painfully so. But I don’t know how to do otherwise. The up side is that most of my little darlings get killed before I get attached to them.
Amy: What part of the publishing process surprised you most?
Sonja: Everything. Takes. Forever. Except when it’s due yesterday.
Amy: What’s your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction?
Sonja: There’s so much great advice out there—including right here on your blog, Amy—that I’m not sure I’ve got something fresh. Here’s what I try to do whenever I sit down to write.
First, I attempt to tell the truth. I try to get past what I think I know about people and relationships and life, and find the unfiltered stuff. If I stop reading a book, that’s probably the reason: it’s skipping along the surface too much.
Second, I push to keep it interesting. Readers will stay with you if you keep them on their toes, and it doesn’t have to pertain to the central storyline. New writers might be wary of straying too far or of complicating the plot but, in my view, boredom is the greater danger.
Sonja Yoerg grew up in Stowe, Vermont, where she financed her college education by waitressing at the Trapp Family Lodge. She earned her Ph.D. in Biological Psychology from the University of California at Berkeley and published a nonfiction book about animal intelligence, Clever as a Fox (Bloomsbury USA, 2001). Sonja currently lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with her husband, and they are often visited by their two college-aged daughter. HOUSE BROKEN is her first novel.
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ SonjaYoerg
Website and blog: http://www.sonjayoerg.com