Author Interview: Advice From New York Times Bestselling Author Patti Callahan Henry: “Understand Why You Are Telling This Story”

Idea of Love_COVER (1)Did you ever come across someone and there are just so many coincidences you can’t help but acknowledge and celebrate them? Not only was I a reader of Patti Callahan Henry’s books, but then I found out we had the same publisher. And the same editor. And that she was born in Philadelphia, like me. So, how could I resist another opportunity to share Patti with all of you, to celebrate her eleventh novel (ELEVENTH NOVEL OMG OMG OMG), THE IDEA OF LOVE. Today, Patti shares her insight and expertise on finding your story and giving it life, and how she approaches novel-writing. I can’t write a book or a story or an essay without understanding WHY it’s a story I don’t want to tell, but need to tell. At some point my characters take over, it’s their story after all, but hearing this from Patti re-emphasizes that women’s fiction (at least the kind I want to write) comes from a well, and it’s our to reach inside and bring out whatever is there.  Please welcome Patti Callahan Henry back to WFW! 

Amy xo

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A WFW Book Review: THE STORIES WE TELL By Patti Callahan Henry

There are several reasons I wanted to read THE STORIES WE TELL by Patti Callahan Henry.

I’ve loved every book of Patti’s.

She lived in Philly until she was about 12 (so we’re technically related).

We share an editor (THE Brenda Copeland) at St. Martin’s Press (also making us technically related).

Another reason is that while steeped in editing my second novel—GASP—I didn’t read much. What better way to get back into reading than with a sure thing? That’s what you get with Patti. A sure thing. THE STORIES WE TELL did not disappoint me in any way. It’s a layered family story, it’s complex, the language is lovely, and it’s easy to read. Combining those elements is not easy though. I used to think that “easy to read” was a criticism, but have come to realize it is a compliment. When an author can sweep you away with her characters, details, dialogue, and story, that takes some SKILLZ, folks. There is depth in the delightfulness of this book. There’s hope and there’s heartache.

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Author Patti Callahan Henry Doesn’t Think About Labels, She Focuses On Her Stories And The Craft Of Writing

How was I lucky enough to read an advance copy of AND THEN I FOUND YOU by Patti Callahan Henry? We share an editor—the wonderful Brenda Copeland at St. Martin’s! And then, as luck would also have it, not only did Patti write a work of fiction laden with truths that hit all the right notes for me—family history, a little romance, a hopeful ending—but she is a very kind and generous author. Our paths and lives have criss-crossed without us knowing, which is what I like to think of as more than a coincidence— perhaps a wink or  reminder from the universe that there are always new wonderful people (and new books) right around the corner. And maybe they’re not completely new after all.  It’s inspirational for me to get to know an author who has NINE published novels to her name. Did you read that? NINE!  One of the best parts of this blog is that we get to learn from others. You’ll learn a lot about writing, women’s fiction, and what Patti thinks of labels, below. 

Please welcome Patti Callahan Henry to Women’s Fiction Writers!

Amy xo

Author Patti Callahan Henry Doesn’t Think About Labels, She Focuses On Her Stories And The Craft Of Writing

Amy:  Congratulations, Patti! Today is publication day for AND THEN I FOUND YOU, your NINTH novel! I read an advance copy of your book, as well as posts and your essay, written with your sister, about the origin of this novel, which is based in truth.  It’s about a woman who is found on Facebook by the daughter she placed for adoption.  Did you have any qualms about bringing real life into your fiction in such an intimate way?

Patti: Thanks, Amy! Pub day is always exciting no matter how many times we have one. This book was the most personal I’ve ever written, and yes, I had many qualms about writing it. But in the end, it has been the most satisfying journey. I started trying to write the True (with a capital T) story and found it nearly impossible. It was my sister’s intimate story to tell. So what I did was sit down with my sister and tell her how the novel wasn’t working, how I thought she needed to write it as a memoir. And together we decided that what I would do was take the emotional truths of the story, the synchronicities and the reunion, but change the names, states, ages and facts. After that discussion, I started over. And as a novelist, Amy, you know how hard it is to begin-again just when you think you’ve finished. But begin-again I did. And then thirteen-year-old Katie fell in love with Jack on the first day of spring and the novel started there….

Amy:  The idea of writing nine novels, for me, is not only exciting, but daunting.  How does it make you feel? Did you know when you wrote your first book that you’d be prolific?

Patti: No! I had no idea I would take my story/book/reading obsession this far! I had a goal: to write a novel. And when that goal was accomplished, and the novel wasn’t published, I decided to try again. After my first novel (but the second book I wrote) was published, I understood that I wouldn’t stop writing. I had no idea if I would keep being published, but the writing would continue. It still does. I know I won’t stop. I can’t.

Amy: Is there a particular character or characters from any of your novels that hold an extra special place in your heart and memory?

Patti: They are all like family, which sounds hokey, but isn’t. For varied reasons, some characters won’t leave me alone. Amy and Nick Lowry in Losing the Moon seem to be a fan favorite and people write to me about them, and I often wonder how they are doing! Catherine in Between The Tides comes to mind because she was right next to me for the seven years it took to write, rewrite and mend that book (this was the first book I wrote, but the fourth published). But my main character, Katie, in And Then I Found You has settled herself directly in the middle of my heart. Her bravery and kindness far surpass my own qualities and I adore her.

Amy: Can you tell us what you’re working on now?

Patti: I don’t have a title. Or let me rephrase that—I have about sixteen titles for the new work. It is about a woman (artist, wife and mother) who must find the truth between two stories about the same event in a single night….

Amy: The term “women’s fiction” comes up against a lot opposition, of and its writers can take a lot of slack. What’s your definition of women’s fiction, and does that label bother you?

Patti: I mostly don’t think about these labels, but focus on my stories and the craft of writing. I don’t look under “category” when choosing my reading or even my own writing subject. I choose a book when the storyline sounds interesting, no matter the genre. But if I must define “women’s fiction” I would say that it is a genre with a “female protagonist who must make choices in her life that will forever alter her life.” In my novels, those choices are emotional, internal and come with great struggle. For me, love is an integral part of every story, and not just romantic love, but sister, child, best friend, etc…  I have no idea if this definition is accurate, but it works for me. The label, whatever it is, doesn’t bother me. I write to tell a story, not find a “good enough” label.

Amy: What is your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction? (Or, let’s say, for about-to-be-published authors of women’s fiction?)

Patti: My advice for aspiring authors of any kind is always the same: Read. Write. Read. Write. Take classes on story structure, writing and publishing. Read On Writing by Stephen King and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Read all genres. Write every day. Read. Write. Go to writing conferences. Meet authors and editors and agents. Follow authors, editors and agents on twitter and Facebook. Read. Write. Read. Write. Go to author readings and ask questions. Read. Write. Read. Write.

Amy, it is so fun talking to you. And I so look forward to your new novel THE GLASS WIVES.

All Best

Patti Callahan Henry

New York Times bestselling author Patti Callahan Henry has published nine novels: Losing the MoonWhere the River RunsWhen Light Breaks,Between the TidesThe Art of Keeping SecretsDriftwood SummerThe Perfect Love SongComing up for Air and the upcoming And Then I FoundYou—which will be released by St. Martin’s Press in April 2013. Hailed as a fresh new voice in southern fiction, Henry has been shortlisted for the Townsend Prize for Fiction, and nominated four different times for the Southeastern Independent Booksellers Novel of the Year. Her work is published in five languages and in audiobook by Brilliance Audio.

Henry has appeared in numerous magazines including Good Housekeeping, skirt! magazine, South magazine, and Southern Living. Two of her novels were Okra Picks and Coming up For Air was selected for the August 2011 Indie Next List. She is a frequent speaker at fundraisers, library events and book festivals. A full time writer, wife, and mother of three—Henry lives in Mountain Brook, Alabama.

Patti Callahan Henry grew up in Philadelphia, the daughter of an Irish minister, and moved south with her family when she was 12 years old. With the idea that being a novelist was “unrealistic,” she set her sights on becoming a pediatric nurse, graduating from Auburn University with a degree in nursing, and from Georgia State with a Master’s degree in Child Health. She left nursing to raise her first child, Meagan, and not long after having her third child, Rusk, she began writing down the stories that had always been in her head. Henry wrote early in the mornings, before her children woke for the day, but it wasn’t until Meagan, then six, told her mother that she wanted “to be a writer of books” when she grew up, that Henry realized that writing was her own dream as well. She began taking writing classes at Emory University, attending weekend writers’ conferences, and educating herself about the publishing industry, rising at 4:30 AM to write. Her first book, Losing the Moon, was published in 2004.

You can find Patti on her website, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

Debut Women’s Fiction Author, Shelle Sumners, Shares Her Unexpected Path To Publication

Just when I think I’ve asked all the questions and heard all the answers — enter my editor-and-publisher-sister, author Shelle Sumners.  She’s full of wonderful advice, interesting stories, and a few surprises.  Shelle’s novel, GRACE GROWS, is like that as well. While her main character, Grace, has expectations of herself, works hard at her job, and is in a relationship, Grace’s journey in the novel is how the expectations, needs, and wants for oneself can change…and how it’s never to late to follow a new path in life, work, and love. 

Please welcome Shelle Sumners to Women’s Fiction Writers!

Amy xo

Debut Women’s Fiction Author, Shelle Sumners, Shares Her Unexpected Path To Publication

Amy: Shelle, congratulations on the upcoming release of your novel GRACE GROWS on October 30th!  What are you most excited about with the release of your debut novel?   

Shelle: Thank you, Amy!

First of all, there’s the daily, thrilling realization that I wrote a book and it’s being published! And also, I’m excited because Grace Grows is very unusual—it’s a novel with an accompanying soundtrack of songs that are part of the story. My husband Lee Morgan wrote the songs, and truly, they are amazing. In the book they read as lyric poetry that Tyler Wilkie has written for Grace Barnum, but they are also actual, recorded songs, that readers can download and listen to. My publishers have been excited about this, too–the Random House audio book has portions of the songs woven throughout the spoken narrative, and both the audio book and the St. Martin’s Press enhanced e-book will feature an MP3 of the song “Her” (my favorite!). So, Lee and I are both looking forward to readers experiencing this multidimensional, multimedia creation of ours.

Amy: Is there anything you’re nervous about? 

Shelle: I am surprisingly calm, perhaps because I’m doing a lot of knitting.

Amy: Obviously you were doing many things (like most of us) while writing, submitting, editing and publicizing your novel. How did you organize and balance your time and commitments?

Shelle: While I was writing the first drafts of Grace Grows, I was working full time as a program coordinator at a church in Princeton, NJ. I’d come home at night and write for two or three hours (my husband made dinner a lot), and I spent chunks of weekend time writing, when I could squeeze it in. I have a wonderful daughter who always, always came first, but who was also very patient when mom was writing. By the time the book was being published and I was revising it with my editor, I was recovering from a health crisis and had to give up my job (more about this later in the interview), so I was able to make editing the novel my main focus.

Amy: We are all so glad you’ve recovered, Shelle — and that writing and editing was your safe place through the bad times.  Can you share with us what you learned about writing through the good and not-so-good times?   

Shelle: When you’re writing your first draft, just do the work and don’t worry about whether or not you’re being brilliant. Just write. It will turn out that some of what you create will be very useful, and some you will discard. I think of the first draft as the time when you are making the raw material, the “clay” that you will sculpt and refine in the second draft and then polish in subsequent drafts (and there may be many). Fun fact: The final, published version of Grace Grows was my eleventh draft.

I used to subscribe to a daily email of Buddhist wisdom, and one day I received this scripture in my inbox:

Soundtrack cover for GRACE GROWS

Having applied himself

to what was not his own task,

and not having applied himself

to what was,

having disregarded the goal

to grasp at what he held dear,

he now envies those

who kept after themselves,

took themselves

to task.

–Dhammapada, 16, translated by Thanissaro Bhikku

I printed this out and pinned it to the bulletin board over my computer. I reread it constantly while I was writing, and it helped me keep going. Writing is my task. My bliss. I did not want to come to the end of my life and know that I had not at least tried to grasp at what I held dear.

Amy: We share the same St. Martin’s editor, Brenda Copeland, but everyone’s writing, editing, and publishing experience is different. Can you share a bit of your journey to publication and some of the most surprising events or realizations? 

Shelle: Surprise number one: I used to think I was an actor, but it turned out I was a writer! I had been a theater major in college and spent my twenties in New York and Los Angeles pursuing an acting career, but by the time I was thirty this was no longer creatively satisfying. I needed to try something else. I had always been a good writer in school, so I wrote a short, experimental, not very good play. Then I became obsessed with an idea I had for a movie. I bought Syd Field’s screenwriting workbook and taught myself how to write a screenplay. With that first script I got a literary agent, and it was optioned by a Sundance Film Festival–winning producer, but it was never made into a movie.

I wrote two more screenplays. Then, in a writing class, I met a very talented writer who happened to be a former book scout for movies. She read one of my scripts and told me that I really should try writing a novel. I’d been putting it off, but I worked up the courage and spent a year novelizing one of my screenplays. Not long after I finished the first draft of that novel, I had a dream about this young man and woman who, for some reason, were together at a waterfall. They were so in love, but there were obstacles. It was very early morning, still dark out, but I sat up in bed and wrote many pages of notes. Their story just flowed out of me.

About 18 months later, I gave the Grace Grows manuscript to my friend from writing class. She read it and asked if she could send it to a close friend in New York who is very connected in publishing and film. That wonderful woman read the manuscript and offered to take it to literary agents, and that is how I got my fantastic agent, Laurie Liss.

Laurie and I worked on the manuscript for several months, and then she took it to publishers and within about a week sold it to Brenda Copeland at St. Martin’s Press.

I’ll briefly mention here that the sale of my book closely followed another life-changing event: The day after Christmas, 2010, I had a stroke. A stroke. Yes, I am too young, and this was completely unexpected. What happened was I accidentally tore the lining of my left vertebral artery, and a blood clot went to my brain. So, during the months that I worked with Brenda on my Grace Grows edits, I was in physical therapy for muscle and balance problems caused by the stroke. What a blessing it was to have something so wonderful, so dreamed of, happening alongside something so difficult. It helped me stay hopeful and positive.

Amy: What is your definition of women’s fiction?

Shelle: Stories that affirm women and invisibly connect us when we collectively read/experience them.

Amy: What is your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction?

Shelle: Just try to tell a good story.

Shelle Sumners lives and writes in Bucks County, PA. Her debut novel Grace Grows is a Featured Alternate selection for Doubleday, Literary Guild and Rhapsody Book Clubs and is being published internationally. It has a companion soundtrack of phenomenal original songs that appear in the story, written and performed by her husband, singer-songwriter and Broadway actor Lee Morgan.

Twitter: @ShelleSumners

You can pre-order GRACE GROWS! Click here!

What More Could You Wish For Than An Author-Friend Who Wrote Fabulous Women’s Fiction? Irony And A Book Review!

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One of the best parts of being an author is knowing, and in some cases being friends with, the people who are actually writing books that are being published.  I would also say that one of the strangest things about being an author is knowing, and sometimes being friends with, the people who are actually writing books that are being published.

I can go crazy trying to decide which books to read.  While I make it a point to read my closest author-friend’s books, I can’t read every book of every author I’ve connected with or even know in real life.  I do buy most of the books, and share the information I know, and add each one to my growing TBR list and pile.

But when your friend sends you an ARC (Advance Reading Copy, sometimes known as a Galley), and you know you’re going to feature her on Women’s Fiction Writers on her launch day (August 7th) — you cross your fingers while you crack the spine and simply pray you like it.

And my prayers were answered when I read WHAT MORE COULD YOU WISH FOR by Samantha Hoffman — fellow Chicagoan, St. Martin’s author, and Brenda Copeland-ite.

I met Samantha Hoffman because we share a publisher and an editor and then learned also share a love of Chicago, good wine, and good food (do not take these similarities for granted).  And lucky for me – and everyone else – these are some of the things showcased in her soon-to-be-released novel. And while I’m not in the habit of reviewing books per se, I just couldn’t wait to type the praises of Samantha’s book.

I didn’t know what to expect.  When I get a book – and I apologize to everyone who has ever written jacket or backcover copy (eh hem, me, and my editor, last week, eh hem) I rarely read it.  I pick up a book or I download the sample and I dive in. I usually have no clue what it’s about and have taken the word of a friend or been lured by delicate, whimsical or striking cover art.  Crafy titles can grab me as well.  And WMCYWF has it all.

I’d say that Sam’s book falls neatly into a category I made up myself. (Ah, the wonders of having your own blog, y’know?)  It’s women’s fiction with heart, soul, and a romantic tint.  Romantic? Absolutely. More than a romance? Absolutely!  Get ready for eloquent turns of phrase.  Well-crafted insights.  Laugher. Tears. Resolution.  Wonder. I related to and adored Libby Carson, the main character, even though she spends a modicum of time and energy choosing between two men.  Sometimes that would make me roll my eyes.  Ok, most of the time. But Samantha tells this intricate love story with such deference to the realities of Libby’s life — which isn’t all fabulous — that I was empathetic toward Libby immediately, and felt she was very relatable.

Before I read the book I told Sam I thought the cover represented an important birthday – I had read Sam’s back cover and knew that her protagonist, Libby, turned 50 at the beginning of the story. Halle-freaking-luyah!  Nothing against the 30-something or even the 40-something crowds but being closer to 50 than I am to any age other than 49, I do enjoy a book about someone who is already checking off a new box on surveys and getting obviously misdirected AARP mail – as am I.

I don’t read a book based on any age-bias – but this just made the book different from many I’ve read.  And just as I relate wholely to many books with protags of all ages, you needn’t be anywhere near 50 — above or below — to enjoy this book.

And when I finished the book (in less than two days) I knew exactly what the cover meant. It meant that Libby’s life was overloaded.  That she was overwhelmed.  Thinking too much.  Doing too much.  And just like a cupcake loaded with burning candles – if something isn’t done about that soon, whether it’s blowing them out and eating the cupcake or dousing the whole thing and throwing it into the garbage (what a waste) – there needs to be action or there is going to be a big metaphorical fire.

Hmmm.  Feel the tension?  Me too!!

And, how many of us haven’t felt overwhelmed or overcooked or under appreciated?

WHAT MORE COULD YOU WISH FOR is the perfect book to take on a trip (take Kleenex too) because 1) time will fly and 2) you’ll accomplish reading the whole thing, and 3) it’s a feel-good book.  It’s also a smart book with a protagonist making difficult choices in both common and uncommon situations – and I’m partial to books like that because they make me think.  What would I do?

When I finished the book I pre-ordered three copies to give as gifts – and because I’ll see Samantha, I’ll have them signed.  Another perk of having author friends, indeed.

I’m only sorry you have to wait until August 7th to read WMCYWF but Samantha will be back to talk about her experience writing her novel and having it published (wait until you hear that story!) and talk about (or maybe even show us) the sights around Chicago featured in her book.  For me, that may include walking shoes and a cab ride or two – for you, that is sure to include amazing insights and fun and more about Samantha Hoffman’s book.

Truly, what more could you wish for?

Amy xo

To learn more about Sam and her book, check out her website by clicking here.

To pre-order a copy, which is a fabulous way to know you’ll have the book asap: check out your favorite independent bookseller, BN, or Amazon.

How Much Truth Is In (My) Fiction? Or…what do you mean it’s not about you?

My all-time favorite story about being a writer is from the day my first column was published in the Chicago Tribune in December 2007.  It was a piece about holiday cookies.  No recipes, just a story about the diversity of holiday cookies and how they don’t kvetch about being on the same plate. You get the gist.  My  friend’s mom read it, called her and said, “I didn’t know Amy was a baker!”

My friend replied, “Amy’s not a baker, Mom.  She’s a writer.”

As you can imagine I’ve been talking a lot about my writing since Friday when news of THE GLASS WIVES and its premise about a woman, compelled to live with her ex-husband’s widow in order to save the home she loves, all while scandals erupt in their suburban paradise, became public.

Point of fact – I am a divorced mom in a small town whose children’s father passed away many years ago, and obviously people who know me personally, know this.

So, what’s the first question people who know me ask?

“Is this book about you?”

The answer is no.

But, I realize (now) that it is a reasonable assumption to think the answer is yes, even though everyone who knows me knows that I don’t live with anyone besides my kids and our dogs and in the book the main character lives with her ex-husband’s young widow.

I realize (now) that it is a reasonable assumption to think the answer is yes even though me + scandal = me +  roller coaster. Not. gonna. happen. in. this. lifetime.

I realize (now) that it is a reasonable assumption to think the answer is yes even though the book blurb states the main character needs to save her home. The only thing that needs saving around my house is the growing pile of laundry.

It IS reasonable to think that the story is my story.

I also think it’s reasonable for me to think you’ll believe me when I say it’s not, so I’ll explain.

Truth is a springboard for fiction. (Word choice thanks to genius, non-writer bff)

Or, like my dear author friend Randy Susan Meyers said about her amazing book, THE MURDERER’S DAUGHTERS:

“No. It’s not me — it’s nuggets of all my fixations blown up into a world of crazy.”

Yeah. Like that.

I mined my own life and plugged in a thousand “what ifs”  and the result is THE GLASS WIVES.

It was a fun and creative, if not exhaustive, process as I discovered I loved writing fiction.

When writing fiction that is believable emotional truths are essential — so the fact that I have wonderful friends and family enabled me to write some characters that aren’t so wonderful at all.  Knowing what it’s like to have a best friend for thirty years enabled me to write a friend who’s willing to drop someone like a hot potato.  I have many friends who have sisters, and my main character has a sister.  It doesn’t mean I wish I had a sister instead of a brother, it means I used the truths in my life to create a world that doesn’t exist.  You know, like JK Rowling but without Hogwarts or magic or Voldemort or spells.  Ok, nothing like JK Rowling, but I did see an interview with her where she said that because she’d lost her parents she was able to write about Harry being an orphan.  It doesn’t mean she wishes she was an orphan as a child or felt like one or thought she was magic.

Fiction is a compilation of emotional truths that writers stretch and mold to fit the needs of a particular story.

For example, I’ve lived in ranch houses for the past eighteen years or so.  My characters live in a two-story colonial.  I promise you I do not wish that my house had a second floor, but it was fun to IMAGINE creaking stairs, kids jumping off the steps and landing with a thud, what might be at the bottom of the steps.

Another nugget of wisdom passed onto me by Randy is this:

“I recently read in The Nobodies Album, a novel by Carolyn Parkhurst, the butter that I can finally put in the cookies, a phrase from Parkhurst’s the main character, a writer, who muses: “There’s an analogy I came up with once for an interview who asked me how much of my material was autobiographical. I said that the life experience of a fiction writer is like butter in cookie dough: it’s a crucial part of flavor and texture — you certainly couldn’t leave it out — but if you’ve done it right, it can’t be discerned as a separate element. There shouldn’t be a place that anyone can point to and say, There — she’s talking about her miscarriage, or Look — he wrote that because his wife has an affair.”

I hope I never forget the phrase (and that I always give proper thanks to Ms. Parkhurst) the butter in cookie dough. What a perfect capture for fiction — taking the elemental issues with which one struggles, giving those problems to one’s characters, and kneading those thorny emotional themes that haunt into the thoughts, minds, and actions of those characters until, hopefully, you can beat that sucker into submission.”

It’s exciting to know that my novel will be published and my words read. I hope that all of you reading this and everyone you know will read THE GLASS WIVES and maybe think a little differently about the composition and meaning of family.

I wrote and published essays and articles for years before even attempting fiction.  I never even made up bedtime stories for my kids because I didn’t think I could.  Now I’m at a point where I don’t write much non-fiction anymore (if you discount this blog, although I’d rather you didn’t) because my life is like any other life. I’m living it. It’s personal – and it’s pretty much the day-to-day existence of a working single mom with a kid in college and a kid in high school and two crazy dogs and a pile of laundry. Or six.

I’d rather write believable fiction by combining my experiences with my imagination, insight, intuition and research to create people, places, events, problems and solutions that don’t exist but that could exist.

Does the fact that I don’t want to write about my life mean I’m boring?

I think it means I’m an author.

(OMG, I’m an author!)