Monday, June 18, 2007

Guest Blogger Stephanie Gayle on Writing a Novel on Southern Discomfort

Way back in May, Stephanie Gayle was kind enough to drop me an email regarding her first book, My Summer of Southern Discomfort, and ask about the possibility of guest blogging. As I do with all possible guest bloggers, my first question was about the topic of the book:

Today is Monday. The calls do not come as before. Weeks elapse between them, and when I answer the phone there is no overlap of voices, only my mother's. She spends much of the conversation avoiding mention of the pink elephant trumpeting in the middle of the room.

The pink elephant would be my defection to Georgia. When I telephoned with the news of my imminent relocation my father asked, "Georgia, as in the Republic of Georgia by the Black Sea, or Georgia as in the Peach State?" He hoped I meant the former because that Georgia promised unique opportunities to advance the democratic cause of justice. What could Georgia, former land of the Confederacy, offer?

Convicting arsonists and thieves in Macon, Georgia, was never Harvard Law grad Natalie Goldberg's dream. The pay is abysmal, the work is exhausting, and the humidity is hell for a woman with curly hair. But when a steamy romance with her high-powered New York boss went bad, Natalie jumped at the first job offered, packed her bags, and headed south.

Natalie's leftist Yankee background brands her a conspicuous outsider in this insular community. Her father, a famous civil rights lawyer, refuses to accept her career change—or talk to her. Her best friend begs her to come back home, and Natalie keeps thinking she sees her former lover everywhere.

But Natalie's not completely alone. There are a garden-obsessed neighbor, a former beauty queen–turned–defense attorney, and a handsome colleague who has a nervous tic whenever she gets near. And then there's a capital case that has her eating antacids by the truckload.

Yep, it's going to be one heckuva long, hot summer. . . .

Oh my, I thought, this should be good. A thought obviously echoed by Booklist who called Stephanie's novel a "finely crafted debut novel, Gayle evinces a superb mastery of character development, rendering Natalie's various crises of faith with empathic authenticity, endearing humor, and enviable grace."

Needless to say, I took Stephanie up on her guest blogging offer as well as the opportunity to let y'all (and myself) ask her questions about the novel and her Harvard novel writing class for a chance to win an Advanced Reader Copy of My Summer of Southern Discomfort before it is released next week.

Thank you for joining us today, Stephanie.


Linsey has invited me to tell you a story about how I wrote my first book, My Summer of Southern Discomfort.

Actually, to be super specific it's my second book. I wrote my first book in college. It lives in my closet because it's not fit for anyone to read but my mother (who still asks me when I'm going to publish it. "Never, Mom. Never.")

I began writing My Summer of Southern Discomfort for a class I was taking at Harvard called "Writing the Novel." That sounds like a joke, but it isn't. Most people in the class were a lot further along in writing their novel, whereas I hadn't begun mine until just before class began. That led to me begging to go last for chapter submissions.

Writing the first part in a workshop setting proved helpful.

I began the narrative with Natalie Goldberg, an order obsessed overachiever whose life has undergone radical changes lately. When I told my classmates I intended it as a three-person narrative they said, "Don't do it. We like Natalie. Stick with Natalie." I listened. Good thing.

I knew Natalie would be a lawyer. I love law, but never wanted to, you know, go to law school and practice. I got to practice through Natalie, who prosecutes a capital case. In writing the book I read a lot about Georgia criminal law and the death penalty. It was fascinating, depressing stuff. After one tough week of looking at bullet injury photos and reading descriptions of how the electric chair kills you (precisely) I resolved to title my next novel 1000 Fuzzy Kittens. That sounded like happier subject material.

My writing instructor urged us to create plot outlines, maps, guides to our books. I may have created one, but I didn't follow it. My writing is always running after my characters.

I love tension and conflict. Poor Natalie. Just when she's start having a good day I'd rain down more troubles on her. That said, some of the easiest, best writing (I think) comes in the conversations she has with people she's feuding with: her partner, Ben, or her father.

It took my nine months to complete the first draft. I kept a KitchenAid timer on my desk. I get restless in my room. I'll stop typing, stretch, or go into my closet and sort clothes, or dance around. I realized this "time" was not "writing time." So I put an hour on the timer and every time I stopped writing I hit pause. When I began writing again I'd hit start. An honest hour of writing was often two hours real time. I spent another few months working on the second and third drafts. Between drafts the manuscript sat in my closet. All told it was three years between beginning the manuscript and selling it.

The best part of selling the book? Only two people had read my completed first draft. So hearing my agent, and editor, who had read the final version say, "I love Natalie" was wonderful. Not that getting paid wasn't nice. My best friend immediately asked, "Can you quit your job?" I thought for a second and said, "Nope. Health insurance. I need health insurance." Practical-minded Natalie would have been so proud of me.


Chris said...

Stephanie- That was really good. I'm glad to hear that it took you 3 yrs, it gives me hope.

Have you ever lived in Georgia or did you just imagine what it would be like?

Jesse said...

If any of you are in the Boston area next week - we'll be hosting a release party for My Summer Of Southern Discomfort at Redbones in Davis Square, Somerville.

More details about this book, author and release party can be found at

Stephanie said...

I never lived in Georgia. I chose it for legal purposes (and because it has Piggly Wiggly stores). In part, I wanted a place where Natalie would be out of her element and a place with which I didn't have so much familiarity that I couldn't imagine it. I'm afraid if I set it where I live(d) I would have been tied to facts and what I know. This way, I was a bit more free to creatively imagine Nat's habitat. Though I also did a fair amount of research so that I had authentic details.

Chris said...

That makes sense!

Miri said...

I live thirty minutes south of Macon, and I think I might know a beauty-queen-turned-defense-attorney. Seems possible enough. It sounds like you've captured our area of Georgia fairly well.

I hope you included something about mosquitos. They're almost as bad as the humidity. (Just kidding. They usually tie.)

I'm going to have to read this when it comes out. Our bookstore's very signing-friendly, too. ;) People love books set in their area. So if you're ever on a tour...

Okay, onto a serious question. How was the Harvard writing class formatted? What kinds of things did you do, exactly?

And how many agents did you query before you found the one for you?

(I'd like to disqualify myself from the ARC drawing, please, Bookseller Chick. I'll be buying it when it comes out anyway.)



Stephanie said...


The Harvard writing class was structured like most workshop classes. We'd read chapters submitted by our peers and then discuss them at the next class. We submitted 3 chapters per cycle as I recall. Our instructor, Stratis Haviaris, would also lecture briefly about novel structure, point of view, and tips on writing and publishing. The caliber of writers in that class was astonishing, and represents some of the best work in progress I've read. Stratis also insisted we get an agent, which leads me to question #2.

How many agents? You know, I have a spreadsheet somewhere. I think it was around 40 or so. I'd gotten some requests for full manuscripts in the very early query stages, but they all came back as "no"s. In the end, I think I have the right agent, so I'm glad I didn't get the first agent I asked.

By the by, what's the name of your bookstore, Miri?

Miri said...

Ah! That sounds interesting. Similar to the way my critique group was formatted last year, actually. (Now we just do whole novels.) I hadn't heard of colleges offering classes like that. Pretty cool.

Our one bookstore (we're such a depraved town) is a Books-a-Million, but there are at least three of them between us, Macon, and the surrounding area. I'm sure I could get to whichever you happened to drop by, if you ever happened to drop by one. (Please keep us updated!)

Thanks again. 40 agents...sounds about right. (Haven't started the whole querying thing yet, but friends and relatives have.) Perseverance pays off and all that.

Should probably stop babbling now.