Exploring “The Wednesday Daughters” With Meg Waite Clayton

Since reading The Wednesday Sisters author Meg Waite Clayton has had an impact on me. I’ve written before about how that novel, about friendship and writing, left me reeling with the coveted “I want to do that” feeling. And then I did. 

I interviewed Meg about her third novel, The Four Ms. Bradwells, and met her just a few months later in 2011, years after reading The Wednesday Sisters (more than once). Then, my journalism degree paid off! That interview made its way into the paperback edition of The Four Ms. Bradwells. Two years later, I participated in a panel, as a published author, at Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago—the same lit fest where I’d met Meg. At the time I met Meg, The Glass Wives had not yet sold. 

But no, this isn’t about me, although I hope it speaks to why talking to Meg about THE WEDNESDAY DAUGHTERS was so important to me. Meg has not only provided me with hours of reading pleasure, but with regular encouragement and friendship (and a lovely blurb for The Glass Wives). She is an author and a staunch advocate for women and women authors everywhere. If you don’t know her, haven’t read her (I’m biased, but start with The Wednesday Sisters!), you should. 

Please welcome Meg Waite Clayton back to Women’s Fiction Writers!

Amy xo

2011—Pamela Toler (author, critique partner, and dear friend), me, and Meg. That was a fan-girl day for me. Just ask Pamela. (Although I believe I behaved like a lady.)

2011—Pamela Toler (author, critique partner, and dear friend), me, and Meg. That was a fan-girl day for me. Just ask Pamela. (Although I believe I behaved like a lady.)

Exploring “The Wednesday Daughters” With Meg Waite Clayton

Wednesday Daughters NYTBS CoverAmy: Let’s jump right in! While we know that The Wednesday Daughters is not a sequel to The Wednesday Sisters, how is it similar to its sort-of namesake and predecessor?

Meg: The Wednesday Daughters in one sense explores the fallout from some of the original Wednesday Sisters’ choices. So readers of Sisters may recall that Kath was in a very complicated marriage—and that echoes in the life of her daughter, Anna-Page, especially when it comes to relationships. (But you don’t have to have read The Wednesday Sisters to understand The Wednesday Daughters; you learn as much as you need to know about the background within the new book.)

Like The Wednesday Sisters, The Wednesday Daughters also has a very strong writing angle, in this case explored largely through Beatrix Potter’s writings. And then of course there is the friendship angle, which I find myself dipping into again, thanks to the wonderful friendships I have to draw on.

Amy: Was it difficult to separate the Sisters from the Daughters while writing the book, or did Daughters truly take on a life of its own?

Meg: These friends STARTED with lives of their own. I think the bigger problem was letting their mom’s have some of the airspace!

Amy: In my experience (which is limited) there’s usually a moment or a spark that spurs a bigger idea, whether that idea ever becomes a full novel or not. What was that spark for The Wednesday Daughters?

Meg: I wrapped up The Wednesday Sisters with an epilogue, and thought I was done with their stories. But then I was talking with someone about his children, who are biracial, and it dawned on me that Ally’s daughter Hope would likely have faced the kinds of identity issues many children of mixed race do. Those issues seemed really interesting to explore, and so many readers had asked if I would do a sequel that a “sequel of sorts”—which is the way I like to describe it—that involved the daughters of the original five friends seemed somehow meant to be. 

Amy: Without giving anything away, I was fascinated by the secret code in Ally’s journals, and curious how you came up with this idea, which added another layer of secrecy for the Daughters to uncover.

Meg: One of the things I love about doing research is how many fascinating facts I find—things I could never make up. In researching for this one, I discovered that from age 14 to age 30, Beatrix Potter kept a journal written in a complicated code—almost 200,000 words—the length of two copies of The Wednesday Daughters and then some. That was certainly the inspiration. But I’ll let the reader discover why Ally writes in code.

Amy: What not only drew you to the setting of England’s Lake District, but made it the right setting for The Wednesday Daughters? And of course I have to ask…why Beatrix Potter? (I’ll admit those were some of my favorite parts of the novel, but it always fascinates me to find out an author’s logic, if there is any!)

Meg: Taking people out of their element tends to bring out the best and the worst in them. And the daughters live very demanding lives, so taking them away from home allows them room to consider their choices. It’s a lot easier to question our choices when we aren’t immersed in them.

Hope, Anna Page, and Julie might have gone anywhere, but the place they were going had to tie to Ally’s life. Hope’s mom was a writer of children’s stories, and I love Beatrix Potter’s books, which I read and reread over and over to my sons when they were young. I didn’t know much about Potter’s life other than that she was from England, but I knew from her writing that she had to be an interesting character.

So I set Ally off on a journey to England to write a Beatrix Potter biography, although she was in fact in search of answers about her own life. I had no idea when I began this novel that the English Lake District would be such a magical place, or that Beatrix Potter would be so fascinating. I spent a few weeks in a very tiny cottage on Lake Windermere and did a lot of hiking in the Lake District. You can soak in Beatrix Potter’s life there every time you step out the door. I also did extensive research on Beatrix Potter’s life and work: visiting Hill Top Farm and her husband’s office in Hawkeshead; hiking to the tarn where she rowed with her husband in the evening; reading her letters and decoded journals; reading biographies of her; rereading her books; and learning about how her drawings were done.

Amy: Your novels center on friendship and family, and the different ways these intertwine, and be challenged.  I always learn something from my characters. Did you learn anything unexpected from Anna Page, Julie, and Hope?

Meg: I did! And lest I spoil any reader’s experience of the book, I’ll hope to let them learn from these friends themselves!

meg360xMeg Waite Clayton is the nationally bestselling author of The Four Ms. Bradwells, The Wednesday Sisters, and The Language of Light—all national book club picks—as well as the forthcoming The Wednesday Daughters (July 2013). Her first novel was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize (now the PEN/Bellwether), and her novels have been translated into languages from German to Lithuanian to Chinese. She’s written for The Los Angeles Times, The San Jose Mercury News, Writer’s Digest, Runner’s World, The Literary Review, and public radio. Her “After the Debate” on Forbes online was praised by the Columbia Journalism Review as “[t]he absolute best story about women’s issues stemming from the second Presidential debate.” An Order of the Coif graduate of the University Michigan Law School, she lives in Palo Alto, California.

You can connect with Meg on Facebook, Twitter, and her website.

Having Advocates (and snacks) Within the Women’s Fiction Community

Friday night I took my almost sixteen year old daughter to GLEE Live (I’ll spare you the 96 pictures).  She screamed. I screamed. She jumped. I jumped.  She fist pumped. I fist pumped.  Our ears were ringing at midnight when our heads hit our respective pillows.

I couldn’t think of anything more amazing.

But, then I went to the Printer’s Row Lit Fest in Chicago. To the Ladies of the Write panel. Now that, my friends, was like writer’s crack. Beat GLEE by a mile.  And, there was no screaming.  A double-bonus.

I went with my in-real-life, good friend Pamela Toler, a non-fiction and fiction author is an all-around awesome sport.  She knows I am not only a reader and writer but a total author fan.  So when Kristina Riggle, Cavanaugh Lee, Beverly Jenkins and Meg Waite Clayton were a few feet in front of us in a classroom, Pamela just let me revel in their awesome authorness.  She may have told me to close my gaping mouth, I don’t remember. If she did, I’m sure it reopened and hit the floor when Meg mentioned that Eleanor Brown was also in the audience.  Pamela and I had just finished talking about Eleanor’s book, The Weird Sisters, about a minute before. (No fear, Eleanor is scheduled to be on the blog soon!)

For about thirty minutes the women on the panel bantered on the definition of women’s fiction, V.S. Naipaul, their writing process, where they get their ideas, how they find their voices when writing from multiple points of view and they gave great advice to any aspiring authors about persistence and perseverance.  They shared the metaphorical stage with generosity, grace and humor.  I doubt Naipaul would have handled himself with nearly as much, if any, class. Nor would he have rocked the awesome accessories and jewelry with such flair.

Frankly, these women were so funny they could take their show on the road.

But within the boundaries of the advice and hilarity, I realized that these articulate women not only wrote books for us to read with characters we could relate to, but as writers of women’s fiction — or however you want to describe their books — they are our advocates.  Of course their books are read by men too — but in having female protagonists in fiction they showcase the breadth of life experience women have, the intensity of emotion, the unequivocal joie de vivre and propensity for action.  They have proven it can be done.  These books sell.  These women (and male authors who write female protags), by writing the books they do, have become advocates for those of us who want to do the same thing.

And in life, we all need advocates.

A close friend reminded me recently that we all really need advocates in our careers — a person who knows you and your abilities, someone who sees your strengths and understands your weaknesses and will not only encourage and push you, but go to bat for you.  That really made sense to me.  So I thought about it.

How do we find an advocate in the women’s fiction community?

Of course, an agent and/or an editor is your advocate. 100%!  But what about an advocate within the writer and author realm? Writers need other writers, right?

I believe in order to have an advocate, you must first be one — without an agenda, without a motive other than to help.  Clichés might not belong in fiction, but on the blog, they’re fine and dandy. 😉  You get what you give. What goes around comes around.  Don’t blog because you want readers, blog because you have something to say. Don’t critique a manuscript because you want to be critiqued, do it because you want to help someone be a better writer.  Don’t push someone to help you, help someone else and when you least expect it, someone will be there to help you. And don’t put the cart before the horse.  Pay it forward.

Generosity of spirit breeds generosity of spirit.

Forget about yourself sometimes.  That makes people remember you.

For example, Meg was kind enough to mention the blog and her interview here, and also that the interview is going to be included in the paperback edition of The Four Ms. Bradwells, which I knew and am over-the-moon about.  I also feel lucky that Pamela and I got to hang out with Meg and Eleanor after the panel (Kris headed home :-().  If you have never been to Panera Bread with one of your favorite friends and two of your favorite authors, I highly recommend it.

What struck me as we sat and chatted and other authors came by, sat a spell and left, is that these folks have each other’s backs and read each other’s books.  They certainly work their tushes off on their own books and promotion but when surrounded by their colleagues and peers it was all about the other person.  No one was the better-selling author.  In a small group, there was little distinction between published and not-yet published for most of us.  Experiences and comments and questions were equal.

As authors steps ahead of me, they have paved the way.  They are my advocates simply by doing what they do and by being generous with their time and energy and insights on this blog.  And you know what?  We are their advocates by reading and buying and talking about their books.

Of course, Pamela, who allowed me to stand next to both Eleanor and Meg in the photos, and to giggle (without admonishing me) as she took my arm and led across a busy street and to the train, clearly wins the prize.

Pamela Toler, Me, Meg Waite Clayton, author of The Four Ms. Bradwells, The Wednesday Sisters and The Language of Light

Pamela Toler, Me, Eleanor Brown, author of The Weird Sisters

Women’s Fiction Author Meg Waite Clayton Talks About Ensemble Novels, Being Organized and Writing What No One Expects

When I interviewed Meg Waite Clayton I feigned composure (I hope) but was as nervous and excited as a twelve-year-old girl at a Justin Bieber concert.  When I’m inspired by an author, I sometimes wish I could climb inside his or her brain for just a few minutes to get the real scoop on how they do what they do.  I don’t want to be anyone else but myself.  I don’t want to write like anyone else but myself. But the opportunity to understand the genesis of another person’s creativity, and how she works, is really amazing.

To preface this interview, and for the sake of this blog, an ensemble novel is one where there is more than one main character.  Where, if you will, a group of characters shares center stage.  Think of a play or a musical where the last curtain call is two actors on stage together, holding hands, taking a bow simultaneously and then each stepping aside to honor the other because they were equally important to the story and to the audience. Yep, just like that but in a book. 

Thanks to Meg for the many gems below.  To aspiring women’s fiction authors, I hope you’ll all take time to read this interview and then read one (or all) of Meg’s books with a newfound insight on how they came to be.  And don’t forget to lasso some of these writerly treasures and make them your own.  

Women’s Fiction Author Meg Waite Clayton Talks About Ensemble Novels, Being Organized and Writing What No One Expects

ASN:  Your novels fall under the women’s fiction umbrella. What do you think of the label “women’s fiction?”

MWC:  It troubles me because there is no companion men’s fiction. It’s this whole idea that if it’s about women, it must be only meant for women, whereas if it’s about men then everybody can read it. But fortunately, for those of us who write novels about women, the great bulk of novel readers are women.

ASN:  What do you like most about writing a novel with an ensemble of characters?

MWC: My first novel, THE LANGUAGE OF LIGHT, was not an ensemble in the way you think of it, although it does cover four characters in depth. THE LANGUAGE OF LIGHT is very centered around one of the characters as opposed to being evenly balanced between several characters. One of the things I found is that I craved is that balance.  That’s why, I took that approach with THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS. It allowed me, as an author, to explore more possibilities. I can’t hang a  bunch of problems on one character or that character tends to get weighed down. Whereas, if I have a few different characters then they have something in common they’re exploring and have their personal concerns. It gives me a lot of freedom to explore things I’m interested in. I really like that.

ASN: So when you set out to write THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS you knew it would be an ensemble novel?

MWC: I did. Before I had anything else, I had the title THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS and having the title suggested the book would be centered on more than one person.  Since I have only brothers, I understand that sisters are very complicated, so I knew from the start it was going to be about friends — and I knew I wanted the story to be balanced among the friends.

ASN: Do you take the same approach with your newest book, THE FOUR MS. BRADWELLS?

MWC:  Yes, THE FOUR MS. BRADWELLS is the same approach.  There are four friends who first meet in law school who come together in the present when one of them is a nominee for the Supreme Court.  It’s very much an exploration of the decisions they made as young women together and the separate paths each one of them have taken. So, it’s definitely an ensemble novel.

ASN:  I find ensemble novels very appealing.  You write them – do you also read them?

MWC:  I do. I’ve seen it in Ann Hood’s books. J. Courtney Sullivan’s COMMENCEMENT is written that way. Certainly Karen Joy Fowler’s THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB is an ensemble novel as well.

ASN: What do you think is most appealing about ensemble novels?

MWC: From a reader’s standpoint, it gives me a number of people to connect with. So the possibility of finding someone in the novel to identify with and to stay close to as I’m reading the novel is expanded. It allows me to consider characters less like me but in the context of at least one character with whom I can strongly identify.  As a reader, I like to strongly identify with one of the characters.  I find it a more engaging read that way.

ASN: How do you keep these ensembles of characters organized so that you can write about each of them separately and as a group?

MWC: The answer to that is: every way I can! One of the things I find very helpful for writing an ensemble novel is a character scrapbook.  It is, quite literally, like your high school scrapbook or a scrapbook from your childhood.  It’s collections of all sorts of bits that help me define that character. It often starts with pictures I’ve torn from magazines.  I start with the physical, but it’s not one picture of a person, it tends to be one person’s eyes and another person’s nose and another’s physique and another’s wardrobe choices all put together on the page.  For THE FOUR MS. BRADWELLS because one of the characters is a poet, there is a poem that I identify with each of the characters and the poet character identifies with them as well. There are also things nobody needs to know — like what their offices look like or what their cars look like or what their childhood boyfriends look like — but it helps me to flesh out the character in a way that makes them feel real to me.  They need to feel real to me for me to make them feel real for the reader.  I also add snaps of dialogue and continue adding to the pages of the scrapbook as I go along.

I also use outlines and flow charts.  One of the things I find useful about a flow chart is set up by chapter and character, is that you can see if that, perhaps, you haven’t written touched on this character’s story in four or five chapters.  It’s a very helpful visual aid.  Also, in my office, I surround myself with inspiring, thought provoking pictures

ASN:  Do you see benefits to these visual aids beyond helping you stay organized?

MWC: When you need choices and you need details, I think — or hope — it comes more easily because you have a real sense of the character.  You can describe something about her the way you would about your best friend. Your characters, in a way, become your best friends, at least for the time you’re writing about them.

ASN: You are so organized, it’s a little overwhelming for someone like me, who’s not. (Meg was very gracious when I admitted to not being nearly as organized as she is. She believes it is very important to be organized.  I’m working on it.)

MWC: I don’t even think of it as being organized as just being in the game.  The more ways I have into a manuscript each day, the easier it is to get into the manuscript.  And this has evolved over time.  For my first novel I outlined and my husband did a flow chart for me because there were pacing issues and it helped me with that.  That’s where I got the idea to use flow charts. But I didn’t do character scrapbooks for that one, although I did do character sketches. THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS was the first novel where I used a scrapbook.

ASN: You were a lawyer before you became a novelist – what prompted you to write fiction?

MWC: The better question is, what prompted me to go to law school?  I always wanted to write fiction. I was a huge reader growing up and it was my dream to become a novelist but nobody I ever knew in my life growing up was any kind of artist. Becoming a novelist would have been like being able to leap tall literary buildings in a single bound — something I didn’t think I was capable of doing. I went to law school because I didn’t know what else to do, and I practiced law because I thought I would be good at it and it would give me a nice paycheck and it was something to do.  But it was really a conversation I had with my husband where I confessed that if I could do anything in my life, my dream would be to write novels.  And he said, “How will you know if you don’t give it a try?” His vote of confidence and support has meant a tremendous amount to me.  And it’s very much what THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS is about — how much we all need that kind of support in our lives.

ASN: Many of the readers of this blog are writing their first novel or trying to get their first novel published.  What’s a lesson you learned from your first novel?

MWC: One of the things I learned writing my first book, THE LANGUAGE OF LIGHT, is that it makes sense to go forward in the draft and not reread what I’ve written as much as possible until I get to the end of the first draft. With the first novel I spent months revising the first one hundred fifty pages and then in the end I deleted about one hundred of those. So, there was all this finely honed prose that ended up on the cutting room floor.  Because it wasn’t until I got to the end of the novel — and this is still true to a large extent — that I knew what it was really about and what the important things in it really were. Once I had a sense of that, it was much easier to revise with an eye toward bringing out the things that are important and discarding the things that are not.

ASN: Do you make notes for yourself as you write about things you want to change when you go back to page one?

MWC: I put notes to myself in square brackets to remind myself of things I want to change.  Then I can do a search for a square bracket in order to make those changes. I learned when I was practicing law that if I don’t have a list of things to do, I forget to do them.

ASN: Can you share with us what you’re working on now?

MWC: I signed a contract with Random House last fall for a new novel to be published in 2013.  It’s also an ensemble novel — a follow up the THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS.  It follows three of the daughters of the characters from that book. I’m having a lot of fun with it.  It’s interesting to explore how some of the issues that the Wednesday Sisters faced in their lives are echoed in their daughters’ lives.  It allows me further exploration of the Wednesday Sisters themselves without having a story that focuses on them having another transformative moment at the same time, which seems pretty improbable to me. But it is really nice to revisit those old friends and it has been fun to take their children into adulthood.

ASN: Did you ever consider writing an actual sequel to THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS?

MWC: I have had so many requests from readers for a sequel but it was not something I’d ever contemplated.  The epilogue to THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS brings the reader into the present, so it doesn’t leave a lot of room for flexibility for other stories in the interim.  I think I did that in some ways to shut off the possibility of a sequel. I think that most characters do not have multiple stories that will keep the reader interested in the same way the first story does. But I like the idea of having a whole new cast of characters to explore in the comfort of their familiar mothers.

ASN: What’s your best advice for aspiring women’s fiction authors?

MWC:  The best piece of writing advice I’ve ever gotten – and it’s not just for writers of women’s fiction at all – comes from the author Tim O’Brien whom I was fortunate enough to study with. To paraphrase, he said, “use extraordinary actions by your characters to illuminate ordinary emotions.”  When he said that, a scene from his novel, JULY, JULY, leapt into my head. It gave me the permission to go beyond the things we would expect people to do and explore the possibility of things people might do even though those things are a little more out there.  Doing that allows readers to have a catharsis they wouldn’t otherwise have.  It was a liberating piece of advice for me.

Meg Waite Clayton is the author of the national bestseller, THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS, THE LANGUAGE OF LIGHT, which was a Bellwether Prize finalist, and the THE FOUR MS. BRADWELLS (Ballantine, March 2011). She’s also hosts the blog, 1st Books: Stories of How Writers Get Started, which features award-winning and bestselling authors sharing stories about their paths to writing and publishing. Her short stories and essays have been read on public radio and have appeared in commercial and literary magazines. She’s a graduate of the University of Michigan and Michigan Law School, and lives with her family in Palo Alto, California. Visit her on the web at www.megwaiteclayton.com.