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

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!

~ Amy

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

Amy: Would you tell us a little bit about THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF RACHEL DUPREE and how you got the idea for the novel? 

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.

25 thoughts on “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

  1. Amy, I don’t know how you manage to find such wonderful authors to feature on your blog. But I’m glad that you do!

    What a fascinating journey to publication and afterward for Ann. Once again, it proves the power of persistence. I look forward to reading this book.

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  2. Ann, congratulations on your success.

    I am just finishing my Masters in Creative Writing at Winchester University in England. Last year Will Atkins, former Acquisitions Editor of MacMillan New Writing, came to speak to our class. He was, of course, the editor who wanted to publish you. He spoke very highly of your book during his talk. I meant to read it then, I will now!

    Amy, I agree with Suzanne. Keep these inspiring authors coming!

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  3. What an inspiring post! I’ll have to read this one occasionally to motivate myself to “keep on truckin,” as we used to say back in the day. It reminds me that all things are possible. Thanks Amy and Rachel (which also happens to be the name of my main character!)

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  4. What an interesting path to publication, Ann! Congratulations for getting out those 75+ agent queries and persisting so Rachel’s story could be told. It’s inspiring to share the journey and fortitude to publication … thank you Ann and Amy for making it possible to read about encouragement and success!

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  5. I love the idea that you found a story in the photograph of a forgotten woman. It’s inspiring. I also love that you never gave up!

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  6. What a completely fabulous interview, Amy and Ann. The motivation for your story, Ann, reminds me a lot of Jessica McCann’s novel, All Different Kinds of Free: the main character in her novel also had the same untold story, lacking in the history books. And Jessica felt the same tug and pull over the years to tell Margaret’s story.

    I also love your stick-to-it-ness and the fact that you found a way to circumnavigate the local publishers, at first, but still land the coveted homeland contracts. It always astounds me that words often are not simply taken at their merit — that a contest prize, a chance occurrence, an introduction to an editor, or some other obscure event are sometimes the only things that get a good manuscript noticed. But as you say – the point is to keep writing. Keep writing for ourselves, keep writing stories, keep pushing, keep trying.

    The book sounds absolutely captivating (says someone who has been mystified by the Badlands when traveling through on vacation).

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  7. An excellent interview, Amy. Ann, your novel sounds wonderful, and I appreciate your candid responses to the struggles. Certainly there are many, but the rewards, I hope, are worth it all. Congrats!

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  8. Amy, thank you so much for the interview. I’m thrilled to be here and feel that I’ve found a home on your blog. Writing is hard work, and we all need to help one another. Many thanks
    for your gracious support.

    Downith, you’ve met Will Atkins, my beloved editor! He was the person who gave me a chance. He was willing to publish an American story that had been rejected in the States. He stood up for a writer who had assumed a voice very different than her own. If I was able to find an editor like Will, the same will happen for you. Congratulations on earning your degree. Well done!

    Melissa, through the blog world, I’ve met Jessica McCann and read her lovely book. I’m pleased that in your mind’s eye, you’ve linked me to her. That’s a high compliment.

    Holly, what a surprise that you have relatives in Kettering. I’m going to be there the end of the month visiting my in-laws and attending a few events at Wright State University where I went to college.

    Thank you all for your comments. We’re in this leaky boat together, holding hands as we face the blank page and put words to our imaginations.

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  9. Oh Thank you Amy and Ann for shedding light and hope to those of us who are still sitting at our computers in the face of yet another rejection, ripping the guts out of our stories and mending them back together. Today you filled me up with something that feels like hope.
    Congratulations, Ann, on your second novel. I can’t wait to read the first! Warmest wishes, De

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  10. What a great interview, Amy and Ann. And what a fascinating story about your road to publication. Just goes to show there are a million different ways to get there. You just have to stick with it, as you said. I read Rachel Dupree last year. It is among my all-time favorite books and it was Christmas gift to several people on my list last year. So happy to hear you have another book coming out next year, and hope you’ll have more to come after that.

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  11. Hi Amy and Ann. Great interview! I met Ann at the 2009 HNS Conference in Chicago, where she signed her book and we talked at length. She’s as gracious in person as she is in this interview. Her novel is fantastic too! Not sure if you remember me Ann, but congratulations on all your success. Wow it seems a small world sometimes!

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  12. I just loved this — and I so relate to your “second novel angst” — our first novels are written for an audience of one – us – (of course we hope for more, but still . . . ) and then when they are published, the stakes are raised – we understand the process more, what can happen and what does. The best thing I ever did was not to read reviews and that freed me to write the next novel and the next and the next.

    So, here is to more novels for you – and congrats on your success with ” . . .Personal History . . .”

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  13. Judy calls this an inspiring post ,and she’s right. I’m inspired by the comments. Amy, you’ve brought together those of us who aspire to write.

    Hello, Jessica! It’s wonderful to connect to you again and many thanks for your continuing support. Ellen Marie, what a treat to see your comment. Of course, I remember you. The NHS conference (Or is it the HNS? I always get it wrong but at any rate it’s the organization for those of us who love historical fiction) was a blast and and when it was over, I eased the disappointment by spending an extra day sightseeing in Chicago. How’s the writing progressing? If you’re like me, you’ve worn the print off of the Delete key.

    This business of putting words on paper is tough but so are we. Regardless of the outcome, we tried. I’ll see how the second book goes. I’ve done my best.

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  14. Loved reading this interview, and I added The Personal History of Rachel Dupree to my Nook this afternoon. Can’t wait to read it! Ann, we’ve got a few things in common–Pan Macmillan and Belfond are my publishers, too, I live in Texas, and my novel, which comes out next year (feels like forever), has one POV who is an African American woman. Oh, and part of my story takes place in Ohio. (Cincinnati/Newport area) Sounds like we need to connect at some point in real life. I can’t wait to read this book!

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  15. Oh Ann, I’m touched that you remember me! The HNS conference was my first ever and I’ll never forget it. I remember our conversation so well. You were such an inspiration! I’m hoping to go to HNS conference in Florida in 2013. Will you be attending? The writing is going well 🙂 My novel “The Plum Tree” will be released from Kensington in January 2013. I know Amy and Julie Kibler (above) because we’re in a debut writers’ group together. That’s why I made the comment about it being a small world sometimes. LOL It’s so great to connect with you again!

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  16. What a great interview and what inspiring answers! I write and read a lot of historical women’s fiction and I often feel inspired by visiting places and seeing local photographs that seem to be bursting with a story to tell.

    Thank you, Ann, for sharing your journey to publication. I look forward to reading your novel.

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  17. Ann and I share(d) the same Macmillan publisher, Will Atkins, and it was he who sent me a copy of Rachel. I devoured that book, then read it again, and loaned it to several friends and family members. It is now dog-eared with love. I then had the great pleasure of meeting Ann and Rob during their stay in London for the 2009 Orange Prize festivities because my novel was launching that week and they showed up to help me celebrate.

    Ann, it was such a lovely surprise to see you here on Amy’s fabulous blog. I can’t wait to read The Promise. I just wish it wasn’t a year away from publication.

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  18. Amazing is one of those words that is a little thread worn with use, but what the heck. The connections on the blog are amazing. Julie, were we twins in another life? Many congratulations on landing deals with Pan Mac and with Belfond. You’re in great hands and when the editions are released, you’ll consider yourself one very lucky writer. As they say in England, hip, hip, hooray!

    Ellen Marie, “hips” go to you too. Congratulations on your deal. You’ve worked hard and you never gave up. The coming year will be one that you’ll never forget. You said the magic words: HNS and Florida. Sign me up. Any other takers? Kimberly? We could have an Amy Sue Nathan blog conference/reunion.

    Maggie! I’m thrilled to hear from you. I must say that Beachcombing is a terrific novel, and I was delighted to attend Maggie’s release party in London. By the way, her party was much bigger than mine and the lobby at Pan Mac had stacks of Beachcoming on display.

    Again, Amy, thank you. This is so much fun.

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  19. Thank you Ann. That would be great to have an Amy Sue Nathan blog conference/reunion. I just realized Priscille Marcille Sibley commented above too. Amy, Julie & I know her also. We could get lots of people to sign up!

    Congratulations again on your success Ann. Really hope to see you in Florida next year!

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  20. I absolutely loved this book and thought it was one of the best novels about black people I have read and I’m African American.

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