Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Summer Reads, Death Penalty Cases and Kittens: an Interview with Stephanie Gayle

As a follow up to Monday’s guest blog, author Stephanie Gayle agreed to answer some questions had by myself and a couple of other readers. If you have any further questions please leave them in the comments below. Also if you have any interest in winning a copy of Stephanie’s book, comment as well. I will draw a winner on Saturday.*

Linsey: Your female protagonist and narrator in My Summer of Southern Discomfort shares a name with Natalie Goldberg, the writer, was that a coincidence? (Or just something you’re tired of people pointing out?)

Stephanie Gayle: This was semi-intentional. I had named her Natalie but she needed a last name. Goldberg met the Jewish requirement and paid homage to the woman who wrote Writing Down the Bones (a fabulous book for writers). Some writers suggested I change the name because of the coincidence, but I refused. I’m obstinate that way.

Linsey: You did a lot of research on the legal system for your novel both on the justice system and on Georgia. Did you have to guard against just dumping in all the info you found or did the infusion of knowledge into the narrative happen naturally?

Stephanie: Sometimes a situation within the narrative would lend itself to this information and sometimes a bit of set up was required, but I tried to work the legalese in organically rather than insert it as exposition to show what I learned about today in law.

Linsey: Natalie prosecutes a death penalty case despite her liberal Yankee background and her father’s civil rights work. What made you decide use the death penalty in her story?

Stephanie: It seemed like the biggest, toughest issue I could put on her plate. I wanted to give her a truly big conflict (because moving thousands of miles away and alienating family and friends and starting her career from scratch was minor conflict, really). Plus the state where she practices, Georgia, has been at the forefront of death penalty decisions.

Linsey: Did your personal research change your own opinions the subject?

Stephanie: No, quite the opposite. Having read about the death penalty’s application and enforcement, I am more convinced that the United States should abandon the death penalty as a punishment. Unlike Natalie, who was always opposed to it, I think I represented the ‘pro’ side in a debate on the death penalty in seventh grade.

The things you do when you’re twelve.

Linsey: I think I was involved in that exact same debate, except it was in Social Studies my freshman year of high school. Oh, the universal school experience. Would you recommend writing programs like that of Harvard’s to other budding novelists? Why?

Stephanie: I only took a few writing classes at Harvard. Both the novel class and the advanced fiction class were excellent. I know people from both classes who went on to get an MLA from the Harvard Extension School in Creative Writing. (They were willing to write a thesis, unlike me.) I think the class’s efficacy is dependent on the instructor and the students in your class. For me, the novel class was invaluable for motivation, critique and making connections with other writers. Aside from cost, I can’t think of a reason not to recommend it.

Linsey: Had you been involved in any other writing programs before the Harvard one?

Stephanie: I took a memoir writing class at Smith College and writing workshops through Grub Street, Inc.

Linsey: Speaking of Grub Street, Inc, I noticed it was mentioned on your bio as well; what is it?

Stephanie: Grub Street is a Boston-based writing center that offers classes taught by amazing writers. Grub also hosts readings, is involved in community-writing projects and holds an annual event called The Muse & The Marketplace where writers, editors, and agents all convene to talk the business of writing. I recently took a Master Fiction class through Grub Street taught by Ellen Litman, which was fantastic. Go Grub!

Linsey: What else are you (and your publisher) doing to help launch My Summer of Southern Discomfort?

Stephanie: Pony rides and free ice cream cones with the purchase of a book! (Kidding). We’ve been setting up local readings, getting the word out to the press (my novel just got listed as a best summer read in this month’s Redbook-bless the person at HC who did that!) I’ve been working locally with Haley Booksellers who are hosting my launch party on Monday. June 25th. They’ve also worked to get my name in local papers (BostonNOW and the Globe) and they’ve papered local neighborhoods with launch party fliers. I’ve been guest blogging here and gotten better about approaching bookstore staff (in a respectful manner, Linsey!) and asking about possible reading or signing opportunities.

Linsey: Regarding your next novel, 1000 Fluffy Kittens, do you know if this cat will be your cover cat or perhaps this one? Just kidding. What are you working on next?

Stephanie: Oh the kitties! Sadly, I didn’t follow my dream of 1,000 Fluffy Kittens. Instead I chose to begin a second novel, set in 1978, about a young woman who takes her parents to court after they have her kidnapped from a community they deem a cult. So I get to read lots about cults and kidnapping and deprogrammers. Next month I’ll begin editing the first draft. That’s the plan anyway.

Linsey: Wow, I think I would rather read about a possible former cult member suing her family than kitties anyway. What novels would you recommend to my readers to check out for their summer reading (after they’ve picked up yours, of course)?

Stephanie: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (How did I come to the David Mitchell party so late? He’s a genius.)

Any of the Peter Wimsey-Harriet Vane mysteries by Dorothy Sayers. (Strong Poison / Have His Carcass / Gaudy Night/Busman’s Honeymoon)

The Lady and the Panda: The True Adventures of the First American Explorer to Bring Back China's Most Exotic Animal by Vicki Croke

This is terrible, because I know I have more recommendations but I’m not at the computer with my ‘books read spreadsheet.’ Yes, I have a spreadsheet. Yes, I’m just that geeky. It also helps because I have a terrible memory and am prone to picking up (or buying) books that I’ve read before.

Linsey: I wish that I was organized enough for a spreadsheet. Currently I rely on my brain, faulty thing that it is. Probably why I needed y’all to help me come up with interview questions. Stephanie actually answered (with great speed) all of the questions posed on her original column, but I’ve copied and pasted them below for those of you don’t necessarily always read the comments.

Chris asked, “Have you ever lived in Georgia or did you just imagine what it would be like?”

Stephanie: 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 freer to creatively imagine Nat's habitat. Though I also did a fair amount of research so that I had authentic details.

Miri asked, “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?”

Stephanie: 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.

Linsey: Thanks again, Stephanie, for taking the time to both interview and guest blog. I can always tell when a guest blog has been successful when my friends make mention of it while surreptitiously glancing around my apartment in search of the ARC to steal. You've garnered more than one comment and I've had to hide the ARC away for safe-keeping so I'll still have something to give away!

If you're interested in picking up Stephanie’s book, My Summer of Southern Discomfort, it will be available Tuesday of next week (according to the neat little widget below).

(The widget is currently experiencing technically difficulties, but if you click on it will take you to an actual working version. Why it is not working here is probably a question for a greater being and the answer would probably be something like 42. This is what happens when I try to get technical.)

*Chris, you’ve already been entered, and Miri you’ve been excluded as requested.


The Druggie said...

For the record, I wasn't planning to steal the ARC, I just happened to notice it. Now, if it happened to end up in my backpack when I go to Africa, I would be ever so pleased. And if not this book, I would love to read about cults and parental abduction! It will bring back happy memories of Persuasion Propaganda and Mass Media, and pizza nights before class.

Stephanie said...

I have created something worthy of stealing! Huzzah! Thanks Linsey, for the opportunity to guest blog and to Chris and Miri for their questions.