Selene – Thanks for agreeing to an interview, and welcome to The Horror Tree. First, tell us a bit about yourself.
Lenore – I’m a fifth generation Floridian, though I now live in Virginia. I grew up in a rural area near a small town outside Orlando, just as Disney World was being built. We had lots of pets — cats, dogs, fish, turtles, birds — and of course plenty of water moccasins and alligators in the lake out back. This was back in the days when parents didn’t keep such a close eye on kids, so we often ended up basically swimming with these critters, too. Maybe that’s why I’m so comfortable around and relate to all sorts of animals, wild and tame — maybe more so than people, sometimes! Anyhow, I went away to college, studied art and literature and writing and a little law, then worked in various jobs. Including, but not limited to: the wardrobe department at Disney World, a golf-resort waitress, a nomadic county poet (yes, that’s a thing), a librarian at a hospital for the criminally insane, and in a large somewhat dysfunctional printing company. Then, finally, I ended up as a writer, educator, and editor.
Selene – How long have you been writing, and how did you get your start?
Lenore – I learned to read early on, at age four, which in retrospect might’ve been a sign! Instead, I thought I’d eventually be an artist, a veterinarian, or (later on) maybe a lawyer. By the time I got my undergraduate degree at university, though, I’d already published a few poems. I got accepted into the Artists in the Schools Program, funded by National Endowment for the Arts and state arts council grants. I taught in Lake County, Florida, for two years visiting public school classrooms to conduct writing workshops, from kindergarten all the way up to twelfth grade.
But gradually I grew less satisfied with writing short things. My poems, which had almost always been of the narrative variety, grew longer and longer– quite unwieldy, really! And it gradually dawned on me that I might have been meant to be a novelist, too. Meanwhile I’d taken a master’s degree in library administration, and was hired by the Florida State Hospital, to manage two libraries in the Forensic unit, where the patients with mental health issues and criminal charges were housed. And it was a long drive back and forth to work, on a mostly two-lane rural road, so that was where my first novel, BLACK RIVER, began as a story I told myself, in my head, because the radio of my vintage Karman Ghia was broken. So initially it was just road trip entertainment for me!
Selene – The first thing I noticed about your work is that you write both under your own name and under a pseudonym. Since this is the Horror Tree, why is your horror writing under a pseudonym, and how does working under a pseudonym differ from your other work?
Lenore – I finished and then revised BLACK RIVER for several years, while I worked at that hospital, then at another library job, and then at a printing company managing a typesetting and art department. I got married, then divorced. I started dating a novelist who introduced me to an agent. He sold my manuscript, after two more revisions, to the third house he showed it to, Putnam, in 1991. The same novelist (who later became my husband) said to me, “Now you need to decide what name you’re going to use.” I was confused. He went on to explain that he had begun his writing career in science fiction (short stories and novels) but gradually decided he wanted instead to write historical, sea novels, and thrillers. But it was at first a hard sell, because publishers saw him as sci fi only.
So he suggested if I still meant to also write poetry and maybe one day other types of fiction, I might want to choose a name just for the horror genre. Then I could do it all yet keep the genres separate and avoid any confusion about what kind of writer I “had” to be. Plus, with the growing emphasis on sales tracking by publishers since the 1990s, if one line went belly-up, I’d still have the rest.
It made a good deal of sense. So I chose to use my middle name, Elisabeth, and a family name, Graves. Which seemed appropriate. And I ended up, to date, only doing two full-length, flat-out horror works. The rest of my books vary: Some are reality-based, some convey a vague but chilling sense of the supernatural in a subtler way.
Selene – Much of your work is historical fiction, set in the past rather than the present day. Why does writing about the past appeal to you?
Lenore – For a lot of reasons! First of all, let’s be honest: We would not really enjoy living in the past. No matter how people sigh about “The Good Old Days”, the truth is, it was a lot worse than the world is now: disease-wise, with no cures; socially restrictive; violent and backward about racial issues; constricting for girls and women, and so on. If we could meet a nineteenth century person today, we might not like them much, and they would be shocked and appalled by us! Still, it is undeniably fascinating to imagine what it must have been like to live in past eras. It feels romantic, mysterious, even fantastic: a world ruled by kings and queens, a place where people still believed in dragons and feared witches, or traveled by sailing ship or horseback, and wore strange-looking clothing, and life was short and so much more, well, dangerous than now. So much could be at stake simply for wearing or saying the wrong thing, for not being pious enough, or for trying to achieve a goal that wasn’t deemed “suitable” for your class or gender. What would that be like? How would we cope if suddenly yanked back in time, like Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court?
We can really only get a taste of past worlds in books or films. I’ve really wanted to know, ever that since I was a small child reading books like Little Women, or Jane Eyre or King of the Wind or Black Beauty, or works about King Arthur and Morgan Le Fay. I’ve written about more-recently vanished times, like the 1950s in Florida and 1920s in coastal Virginia. I’ve also covered 18th century pirates and the War of 1812, and tried to put myself in the place of real historical figures, like Virginia Clemm — Poe’s young wife — or to figure out how The Adventures of Tom Sawyer would have been different if it had been told instead from Becky Thatcher’s point of view.
I think my interest in part also stems from an affinity for the underdog. In the case of the retellings, I wanted to know how it would different events would have appeared from the viewpoint of a person who was NOT in control of the original story, who was less powerful or even slighted by the original author. As (I felt, even as a child) was the case with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, where, due to Twain’s Victorian male sensibilities, and his wife’s religious fervour (he let her edit out anything in his manuscripts she didn’t approve of) poor Becky had really gotten short-changed, reduced to sighing and weeping into her apron for most of the book!
Finally I came up with my own vehicle for sampling a bit of ALL the times in the world, when I created the The Night Bazaar. It’s a themed supernatural and dark fantasy anthology about a time-traveling bazaar of antiquities, oddities, rare objects, fortune-telling, potions and strange, sometimes erotic or dangerous services. There is a special section for the Fae, since they only mingle with humans on their own terms. The Night Bazaar appears for one week only in a particular locale, always in a different spot, and ordinary humans can only come by invitation (which always arrives in various weirdly creative ways). It’s headed up by Madam Vera (who is me, of course) as she opens with a piece about the current bazaar, then that thread is picked up and unfolds in a collection of stories by other writers, until she finally closes down the tents and booths, and the Bazaar steals away to another time and place.
Volume one was set in present-day New York City. Volume two, which is due out in October 2019, takes place in 14th century Venice. Great fun!
Selene – Here’s a question that gets asked frequently. Where do you get your ideas?
Lenore – The answer is, I get ideas all the time, everywhere, during my waking hours and even at night, especially in those moments between falling asleep and just waking up. I get far too many ideas for any one mortal person to have the time to ever actually write about them all. Not because I’m some sort of literary genius. Far from it! But, I think, because I am so very curious, even nosy, and more than willing to venture places (literally and figuratively) I am probably not supposed to go. I think the people who are asking me this question at conferences and workshops also have plenty of ideas, too. They just don’t yet recognize them as such. There are really only a handful of plots at the heart of ALL human stories: The coming of age story, the (any gender) hero’s adventure, the revenge plot, the marriage/romance plot.
So get over the paralyzing idea that you MUST make up something totally new, because in terms of plot it’s all been told before. What makes a story uniquely yours is HOW you tell it, with what characters, in what setting and time period. Also, there are hundreds of ideas all around you: at work, at school, on the subway platform, in those bizarre little new items on the internet or on page 6 of the paper, in a puzzling conversation overheard in a diner. What did it mean? That’s what I’m always wondering, and then, gradually, a new story comes to me, and — I’m off!
So my advice is: become an eavesdropper, loll around in bed in the mornings, and then make notes, and stare at things lot (but discreetly, of course) and just let yourself go.
Selene – Let’s talk about research. In order for the past to seem authentic, research is a must. Now, I’m a lazy researcher myself (Wiki page? Got it!), so I’m always interested in others’ approaches to getting the details right. We live in an “information age,” where the slightest inaccuracy will never go unnoticed. What’s your approach to researching your stories?
Lenore – Research is one of my great loves. It gives me permission to order lots of new books about something I need to know more about (and maybe a few extra volumes on other things too, just in case.) I think the ultimate in research, though, is to go directly to the original source. Often this can involve meeting with and interviewing a person who is famous, or infamous, or just one who knows how to mine silver in the middle of the Nevada desert, the way it might have been done in 1870.
Of course this approach may sound crazy in the age of the internet, but there is nothing more riveting than talking to a person who’s an expert at something or has incredible tales to tell of an exciting life in a time now past, or of experiences you, the writer, will never have, yourself. And the amazing thing is that people are flattered and excited to be asked about their lives, and about what they do. They will try very hard to tell you all about it, what it was like, and be happy to do so.
This odd fact has seen me, and my husband, who is also a novelist, riding around with cops in a police car while not arrested — or talking to FDR’s personal physical therapist — or taking notes while walking through the caves Tom Sawyer got lost in — or discussing a 1920s lynching with the guy who documented it, or mock-firing the missiles on a nuclear submarine. Or touring the back rooms of the White House, or discussing embalming techniques with an undertaker, or autopsies with a medical examiner. This is a great way to capture an actual setting, as well.
Of course, sometimes you can’t talk to the people you need to, barring a really good séance, because they died a few hundred years earlier. Then I look for personal journals accessible at museums or libraries, or online. Or well-documented nonfiction works. But I also try to use materials from the actual time period, if possible, in order to get everyday details right. For instance, to get a sense of where the Poes lived, I visited all their former houses which were still in existence, in Richmond, Baltimore, and New York. I got permission to sit down on the bed in the attic bedroom Virginia Poe died in. My first novel, Black River, contains a lot of Florida folklore and root medicine and local history I got mainly from talking to older folks who still lived in the area where I set my fictional town of Abaton.
Then there’s dialogue. How did people talk to each other, way back then? Some historical writers make the mistake of either assuming that people in the nineteenth century talked as we did, with contemporary terms and slang, or they do a 180 in the other direction, and figure they must’ve sounded very formal and proper, like their letters and speeches of the era. But that’s wrong, too. Like people of all times, probably since the beginning of time, they had their own natural speech, little sayings, and slang words they used in informal conversations. Where to find that though, before it would have been recorded in audio or video formats? Well, one great source I found for current slang and natural, informal terminology, while writing Becky, was copies of the actual newspapers created for soldiers on both sides of the Civil War, which were full of then-modern slang and even jokes they’d have told. Don’t even ask, you’d definitely NOT laugh at most of them!
Also, I do use Wikipedia too, which can yield some fascinating material. But I tend to double-check what I find there with other more formal or original sources, since wikis aren’t really edited or overseen in any concerted way for accuracy. I also use official sites like those put up by historical societies and medical schools.
Selene – Many of your books are set in Florida and the South. Dare I say, Black River (the only one of your books I’ve had time to start reading, sorry!) could even be considered “Southern Gothic” in its mood and setting. How do you decide where to set your stories, and is there something special about Florida?
Lenore – Yes, I think it’s fair to call Black River Southern Gothic, at least in its setting and some of the characters. Another fun fact: it is actually a zombie novel, though I didn’t really plan that or think of it in that way at the time I was writing it, in the late 1980s.
That Florida is my primary setting, at least early on, speaks a good deal to the saying, “Write what you know.” I am a fifth generation Floridian, and even back when I was a teenager I could see how the old part, the jungle-like wildness and tropical danger, the mystery and rough elegance of the state was slipping away, paved over and supplanted by theme parks, beach condos, and gigantic tourist hotels. Sure, I like a good theme park too, but it is hard to see the lush green place you grew up in and loved to roam, the wild oak hammocks and orange and avocado groves, being turned to hot black asphalt and gray prefab concrete.
So I deliberately set out to preserve a small slice of that fading place in stories, and those turned out initially to be horror novels because that’s what I liked to read: Good horror stories. (Plus, my mother always claimed there was a “recessive horror gene” that cropped up in our family from time to time. Guess I got it.) I also wrote a coming of age novel set in 1950s and 1960s Florida, Ordinary Springs, which isn’t horror, but does have some pretty gothic and interesting Florida characters, like a Seminole gator hunter, a pregnant teenage runaway protagonist who escapes from a girl’s reformatory, a couple who own a retro roadside attraction which features a morose little black bear who cries a lot, and a twelve foot gator who performs as “The Jumping Jaws of Death” three times a day.
The thing that I think typifies ALL my work, including the ones not set in Florida, is that they pretty much all are set in a landscape on or overlooking or surrounded by water — which is kind of the world I grew up in. That only dawned on me about five novels in, though. Florida for centuries has always been a haven for explorers, fugitives, con men, nature lovers, the chronically ill, rich weirdos, strange religions, oddities, carnivals and circuses. There is no dearth of material and characters there. In terms of story, it’s a writers’ paradise!
Selene – Further to this, are there general themes you like to work with, or some kind of thread that draws your work together? Water seems to be a recurring one, and ties between the past and present.
Lenore – Yes, water seems to be almost a setting/sense of place default for me. I don’t choose that aspect first, intentionally, but most of the stories do seem to come that way — wet! Maybe it’s equal parts that it feels familiar — I grew up on a very large lake, and spent a lot of time on the sandy shore, or out on it, in boats — and that water is so useful in fiction in terms of imagery, in terms of introducing a new arrival by sea, like a fleeing stowaway (a young escaped slave boy in The Treasure of Savage Island) or a danger (like picaroon pirates, also in that novel). It can isolate your protagonist, simply by being there as an uncross-able obstacle, or with bad weather like a mega-hurricane, as happens to poor marooned Liana Fowler in Devil’s Key. And the ties between past and present — that theme is huge, I think for many writers. How do we survive an abusive past and overcome a terrible upbringing by a dysfunctional family? How can we live with and maybe begin to address the wrongs done to others in our names, in the past? IS the past even past, or more like a continually cycling weather front? There is no better way, probably, to make a character sympathetic and understandable than to give them baggage. Because we all have it!
Selene – Let’s look at character creation. How do you go about creating your characters for each story? In particular, how do you take a character with some basis in the literary or historic past (namely Becky Thatcher or Poe’s cousin Virginia Clemm) and make it your own?
Lenore – The characters are usually the part of the story that comes to me first. It’s often the situation I see they are in that then brings into clearer focus the rest of the story — the conflict, the plot, the setting and supporting cast. For instance, around 1999 I kept getting an image of two old ladies living alone in an old house on an otherwise-deserted barrier island in my part of the state (coastal Virginia.) But why? I wondered. Why are they even there? No kids, no husband, no family. They are trapped — willingly or not — in some sort of symbiotic relationship, but how did that come about? I was in my last year of getting my MFA in creative writing and needed a new plot for a novel-length thesis, as I had run though all the old short stories I’d squirreled away and had been pulling out and dusting off, revising and bringing to my graduate writing workshops. So I clung to the persistent Old Ladies Idea. I had a teaching job and a five-year-old daughter as well, so in desperation I hid away for a three-day weekend at a friend’s house and wrote the first draft of a novel (about 100 pages.) To my surprise, what came pouring out as if by dictation was not the story of these old ladies, but rather their prologue — a tale of sibling rivalry between two sisters who live alone with their depressive mother and waterman father on an island, and so have only each other for distraction, or for envy and resentment — one pretty, one plain; one lazy, one hard-working. And then — the father unexpectedly dies. Now who will support the family? It’s real archetypal Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale stuff at the heart of the plot, and that was my graduate thesis, my first hardcover book, and my first book-length work that was not a horror story. Well, mostly!
When I look at reimagining someone else’s classic character or supporting real-life person, it’s for a different reason that’s almost more like score-settling. I felt like evening up the score for Becky Thatcher, because when as a child I’d read Tom Sawyer I was outraged. What real girl stands around in a pinafore and ringlets weeping into her apron like a stupid little ninny? Come on! Of course, I had been what we then quaintly and somewhat pejoratively called a “tomboy”: a girl who hangs out as much or more with boys as with the girls. Who climbs trees and collects strange insects and stray animals and goes on adventures in the woods or the orange grove as long as she can get back by suppertime. One who dislikes playing with dolls unless she can take them out on the beach and get their clothes dirty sending THEM on adventures too. So much later, when I was on a cross country vacation with my family and we passed through Hannibal, Missouri, I made myself unpopular immediately by simply asking at the Twain museum what the town had done with the slave auction block. Because it all had all just seemed so . . . sanitized, historically speaking. And as we were driving away after visiting the famous caves, my husband said, “I don’t think anyone has ever written about what happened to the other characters in Tom Sawyer. If you were to write a novel about one, who would it be?” No need to mull that over. “Becky!” I blurted out. “Because she would’ve been a real person, not a weeping little ninny.” And so it began — four years of research, including reading all of Twain’s works, all the biographies about him, all his collected letters, and all about slavery- and Civil-War-era Missouri. Then I had Becky’s path follow Mark Twain’s journey out West, so next it was everything about the Sierra Nevada silver mines, and then all about 1870s San Francisco, and Panama and on and on — just goes to show, be careful what you wish for!
Selene – Your husband, David Poyer, is also a prolific author and writing teacher, like yourself. Do you and he ever collaborate, and do you think it’s easier or more difficult being married to a writer?
Lenore – Yes, David is the really prolific writer in the family, with almost forty-five novels (and fifty short stories and countless nonfiction articles) published in various genres, over four decades. He also teaches graduate-level creative writing at the same place I do — The Maslow MA/MFA Creative Writing program at Wilkes University in northeast Pennsylvania.
As for the question, “Can two writers exist in the same space, and also be married to each other, without serious injury or death resulting?” — I have found the answer to be yes, absolutely. I know a few other couples who seem to feel the same. But of course, there are also the famous blow-ups and partings we read about. Jonathan Franzen and Valerie Cornell come to mind, and the lop-sided success and envy and god knows what other sorts of assholery that destroyed their two-writer marriage, documented in memoirs published by both. And this situation is not, of course, limited to the writing profession.
That has not been my experience. Quite the opposite, actually. We are each others’ first readers, seeing manuscripts in progress and offering advice and editing assistance long before a “real” editor sees the later draft. We travel together and teach together and have sometimes written short pieces together for magazines like The Writer. One often helps the other solve a plot problem on the way down our (very long) lane to the mailbox. And if anyone is shuddering in the throes of a sugar coma right now, let me add that it’s not rosy every second. We have our moments of contention like any other couple. We don’t always agree on everything. After all, we live and work in a house together most of the time, aside from the odd writer in residence gig away from home. We’d have surely killed each other several times over by now (hmm, could that be a new zombie novel for me?) if we didn’t try hard to get along and to be supportive of each other’s work and to NOT look at a success by one as a lone endeavour but as a sort of group effort. I think maybe in the end that is the key: If you want to have a relationship that isn’t toxic, you simply can’t feel envy and resentment in a business that is so often and powerfully driven not by all your hard work and great education and dues-paying and experience, but frequently merely by sheer LUCK. You have to have a strong sense of humour, and to genuinely wish the other person success — not just to be focused on “I’m a fucking artist. What’s in it for me?”
We’re headed to Crete this fall to do research and write a mythological fantasy novel together, from alternating viewpoints, which is a first for us that I’m really looking forward to!
Selene – Am I understanding this correctly? You had novels published with other publishers, and then you started your own publishing company, Northampton House Press, and have re-issued your books? How do you find the process of being a publisher, versus “traditional” publishing?
Lenore – I’ve published to date about 8 books (adult, YA, and children’s) with various publishing houses, including (in the U.S.) Putnam, The Penguin Group, and St. Martin’s Press. Also, various presses in other countries like Fredhois Forlag and Egmont Boker in Norway and Flavia Sala in Brazil. Two novels, Devil’s Key and Waterwoman, have been optioned for film, though not yet made, alas! But in 2010 David started toying with the idea of a sort of writer’s dream project: What if you could get the rights to some older, already-published books reverted back to you, ones that might be out of print now, ones which the older and wiser and better-writer you feels maybe a tad embarrassed by, and rewrite them and put them back in print with the terrific cover you really wanted all along? Well, by 2011 he had started doing this, with his first three or four novels, and he found out there was actual demand for them. This was meant to be just a small experiment, mind you. Then it dawned on us that we had friends and colleagues with really great but now out of print work, so we started publishing some of those, too. Well, and THEN a few of our MFA students had written fantastic stories, but in the tight and still-contracting NYC market were getting no traction on publication. So suddenly we were publishing new authors, too. To date we have only published reprints of our own older work, with the exception of the aforementioned Night Bazaar fiction anthology, of which I am editor. We are both contemplating contributing a story to the second volume, though, which will be published next year.
We both came to this from a background of traditional publishing, with the “big” houses. So it was a real learning curve. I must say I gained a lot more empathy for the hard — perhaps I should say continual — work that is involved in putting out a book, especially when you are basically a two-person operation responsible for all phases of the publication process! At this point we have about 32 authors, and I am the primary editor and social media person. David takes care of the business end, including contracts, specs, and dealing with design and printing. Our daughter, an artist and book designer who has worked for a number of presses, including MacMillan, sometimes does our covers. We also use freelancers for design, and more rarely, for evaluating submissions or light editing of manuscripts.
Honestly? Sometimes I long for the old days, when I only had to write the freaking books and show up to the signing events and read my own reviews. Instead of spending most of my time on editing other people’s manuscripts and logging in to begin the time-consuming round of social media posts needed to promote our list. But then I look at all the wonderful books we have published, that feeling goes away. We publish novels and nonfiction, we even have a budding middle grade and YA line called Overdue Books. Some of our publications have won international awards. They get good reviews, even from sources like Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly. When I think of all that, I feel less bad about the two novels and three short stories I have in progress that for lack of writing time are STILL not done, LOL.
Selene – In addition to writing and teaching, you also run a publishing house. How do you manage your work schedule, and what advice would you give someone about time management?
Lenore – Haha, boy did you come to the wrong place! Well, maybe that’s a bit too harsh on myself. I do get a lot done over the course of a day, but sometimes it feels otherwise, since there’s always more to do at our house . . . and you left off the list that I also sometimes act as a book doctor. Unless I can get figure a good way to get out of it, haha!
But seriously, if I had to offer advice to someone who’s having trouble finding the time to write, it would be two words: Run. Away. Seriously. That’s how I got several of my novels written. Because while it sounds great to work at home, there are pitfalls too. Just since I’ve been working on answering these interview questions, there have been approximately 23 telemarketer calls, a tree trimming service working for the electric company has knocked on our door four times, both cats have meowed and one has clawed my legs when I forgot to fill the kibble dispenser, and I’ve had to treat a bad case of black mould in the AC vents. Plus field a long phone call from a bookstore about what’s happened to an order it turns out they never actually sent to us. At least my daughter is grown now and quite self-sufficient, so I don’t have to worry I’ll get absorbed in writing a story and briefly forget to pick her up from school. (Note to Social Services: This actually only ever happened one time, I swear.)
But back to running away. The only way I get any of my own writing done these days is to leave the house and go away. It can be as far off and exotic as a trip to another country (I just did a short story while we were in Germany in May) but more often it means either going to a writing retreat like the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, which is about five hours away. Running away has also been as unglamorous and simple as simple as hiding out in a sympathetic friend’s boat-building shed, or house sitting for folks we know who’re out of town. When I’m alone and don’t have to cook, clean, answer the phone, apply tea tree oil to the ductwork (thank you for that wonder product, Australia!) I can write up to 7000 or 8000 words a day. THAT’S how I get things done.
You probably really meant to send this particular question to my husband. David has a very orderly routine that involves getting up, having coffee, and then writing every morning, if necessary into the late afternoon, six days a week, until he gets a minimum of 1000 words done each day. Often it’s like 2000 or more. He is the shining example of an impressive writing schedule we all can hope to aspire to, when we grow up.
Selene – Do you find your work as a teacher and/or editor has influenced your writing, or changed your perspective on writing at all?
Lenore – Absolutely. By keeping in contact with beginning writers, I learn things every day. I have to help them solve plot and character problems. To learn how to plan, research, and write a complete, fairly coherent novel in the limited amount of time you have in a degree-seeking program. In return, dealing with all the problems of writing at all levels still has made ME so much better a writer, simply by necessity. It has also made me a very awesome editorial threat. I can evaluate, pinpoint, and solve pretty much ANY story problem now — including some of my own — in record time! I think it has also made me more patient and empathetic. When I was first learning how to be a novelist, I learned a lot from a few generous working writers who made time to show me useful things, like how to line-edit and revise. Those were good experiences. I would never want a student of mine to have some of the bad experiences I also had, as a fledgling writer in college. Instead I would hope they looked back on our time spent together (Wilkes is more a one-on-one mentoring, rather than a classroom-based, program) and feel like the time they spent with me helped them become a better writer, one who’s prepared to compete and survive in the constantly-evolving publishing and literary world. And that in turn they will get out there and continue to pass the favour on.
Selene – An interesting debate that’s come up here and there is if a writing degree really helps a writer. One side seems to think that you can’t get published without one, and the other side says, in a nutshell “Write good stories and send them out.” What do you think, given the cost of an MFA degree?
Lenore – I don’t think it’s mandatory; it depends on your own desires, and what you want to do with your life. Do you think you might want to teach writing, especially at the college level? Then by all means, get the MFA, or some other relevant terminal degree, or you will be marginalized and underpaid. Or are you already a teacher of some sort, and you need an advanced writing- or English-related degree to advance in your profession? By all means get the MFA or an MA. Or maybe you are a retiree or someone else with the time and money, and simply want to have the ultimate writing degree as a valued achievement? Go for it. You’ll be a better writer and probably even a better human being, no question.
But if your goal is to simply write novels, or memoirs, or whatever, especially rather as a sideline or avocation, rather than as a living, you can reach it in other ways. You can take individual writing courses from a college or arts center, join a good writing workshop, study all the craft books and read, read, read — because that is what it takes — all on your own, if you’re that kind of self-starter. But if you eschew all of these things, and don’t take the degree and don’t read the texts and don’t do the work of writing and rewriting over and over, in order to learn the craft well, then you can’t really be a writer who’s equipped to compete in the current marketplace. Why not? Because you don’t know how. And you will be competing against thousands who actually do.
That said, the MFA can definitely help in a number of ways a self-taught program may not — IF it is an active, up to date, and well-connected program staffed by actual working writers, that is. There are also worthless and even harmful or scam programs out there, so shop carefully! Most programs will teach you the writing craft, of course. But after you graduate, they’re done — and you’re on your own. What do you do next? How do you make sure your poems or short stories will be published, or how do you get your manuscript to an agent? How do you start your writing career at all? A good program will also prepare you for the business end, too; it will teach you all the steps you’ll need to take not only to write well in a genre, but how to then get your finished novel into the hands of someone who will appreciate and publish it. It should also give you important contacts in the writing world before you even leave the campus — access to agents, editors, publishers — and teach you how to pitch your work to them, and what materials you need and how to present these in a submission.
If you don’t take an MA or MFA, you can fulfill some of this yourself by going to conferences or independent weekend or weeklong writing workshops, and hopefully meeting and talking to the same sort of contacts. My main point here is, you can’t effectively become a traditionally-published writer while working in an isolated vacuum — not anymore. There’s too much competition, things change too rapidly, and the contracting nature of the larger publishing houses and the fact that agents are inundated with submissions makes both harder to get to, now. Sure, you can be the Emily Dickinson of novelists, and hope someone notices you toiling away in your lonely attic window — good luck with that! Or you can be proactive and get in a good program OR create your own and make the necessary industry connections that will give a better shot at getting published the way you want to be.
Selene – Other than to take writing classes or a degree in writing, what advice would you give someone who’s just starting out?
Lenore – First, understand that being a writer for publication is a job, like being a doctor or lawyer or accountant. (Only infinitely more fun, of course.) The people who succeed are the ones who took it as seriously as their counterparts in the other professions. It’s not a hobby, like crocheting — and I’m not knocking crocheting; I can’t hook a potholder to save my life. Writing is more complex, though, and requires more steps to get it right, and you are competing with a lot of other people whose potholders — I mean manuscripts — are getting better all the time, too. So if you really want to write, take it seriously, no matter who is going to ultimately publish your work — Simon & Schuster, or you yourself, on CreateSpace. Learn how to write, study and read in your field of interest, work at it as hard as you can to become the best writer that you can be, in whatever genre it is you want to work in. Then you can be proud, rather than shudder at the sight of the work in later years.
It’s also true that you can just toss about forty or fifty thousand different words together, never mind whether they make sense or not, and pay Amazon to create what looks like a book. Then proudly show it to family and friends and throw it up with the two million or so other self-published works online each year and hope to get noticed. But that impulse-driven, I-want-it-now 21st Century instant-product approach seems more like role-playing — Look, Mom, I’m an Author! — rather than being a serious, professional, working writer. So you probably need to decide, at the beginning, which one it is you want to be. Then you’ll know how to proceed!
Selene – Thanks again for this interview! Do you have anything else you’d like to add, or talk about here?
Lenore – Gosh, are there any words I haven’t used yet? Hmm. I guess I would say, realize that if you live with non-writers, they probably will never understand why you want to shut yourself up in a room, alone, and bang away at a keyboard like a maniac instead of watching Netflix. At best they may try to be supportive, or at least benignly tolerate your obsession. At worst they may try to sabotage you. If you really, really want to write, you will have to be firm about it. Dedicated. Don’t listen to anyone who tries to trivialize or mock you. They don’t get it, and probably never will. Make time for your family, of course! But also make clear that at some point during the day, or the week, you’ll have to go write, uninterrupted, even if all you can carve out is half an hour.
In the end, the only person you need to impress, or answer to, is yourself. The Writer.
Thank you so much for your time, Lenore. If you would like to find out more, you can find Lenore via the following links:
Facebook @LenoreHartAuthor and @ElisabethGravesAuthor
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