How did you get started writing?
In seventh grade, my teacher, Mrs. Brown, asked us to keep little “writing journals.” One day she asked me to stay after class. I was terrified. I thought I’d done something wrong and was now in huge trouble. I spent the whole class worrying over what I could have done to earn the punishment of staying after. I trudged to the front of the classroom and said, “You wanted to see me?” She pulled out my writing journal and told me I was a beautiful writer and that I had talent. No one had ever told me I had talent, of any kind, in my entire life. It was a big moment for me.
Later, in tenth grade, another teacher told me I wasn’t much of anything special. He told me I’d never be a writer. I started writing my first book out of spite toward him. That book went on to be published and won the best fiction award with my first publisher.
So I guess you could say I got started because of others: one who told me I could and another who told me I couldn’t. It’s a good lesson to beware who you listen to.
How long did it take you to write your first book, and what was it like getting it published?
I wrote the first sixty pages of my book when I was fifteen, then I got lost in the story and didn’t know where to go next, so I fiddled with it for several more years. Fiddling isn’t the same thing as writing and it took a long time to finish the novel. During that time, I had to grow up and get some real life experience. I was twenty-four when I finished it. Wow, that sounds horrible! Nine years? I’m sure glad it hasn’t taken that long for any of the others! Getting published wasn’t as easy as I’d thought. I received three rejection letters that sent me to the depths of despair, and then a fourth letter saying yes. That first publication was a great stepping stone for me—I don’t think I could have moved forward as a writer and improved in that area of my life without that first taste of validation. I never would have been able to handle the vastness of the national market without it.
Your young adult novel My Not-So-Fairy-Tale Life deals with a young woman’s decision about whether or not to give her child up for adoption. How did you get the idea for that story and what was it like researching and writing it?
My Not-So-Fairy-Tale Life is actually a spin-off from that first book I wrote when I was fifteen. One of the characters in the book was horrible. My aunt called me one day and said, “You made Suzie so bad. You really made me hate her. It would really show some real skill as a writer if you could write a book about her and make me love her.” The idea fascinated me and I began Suzie’s story.
Writing Suzie’s story and doing research to make it as realistic as possible was heartbreaking. So many women find themselves in situations similar to Suzie’s, and they feel so entirely alone. I wanted to show them they weren’t alone—that there is a world of people waiting and wanting to help. There were many times where my husband would come into the room to find me sobbing over my manuscript. He’d ask what was wrong and I’d blubber about just how sad the story was, and how it just broke my heart. He’d then, with a look of absolute confusion, say, “You do know you’re making this up, right? You do know she isn’t real and that all these sad things aren’t really happening and that because you’re making them up, you can take them out if you think they’re too sad.”
He still makes fun of me over that. But I couldn’t have changed the story. Being the author doesn’t mean I’m in control of the things my characters do. I also cried a lot while writing Eyes Like Mine. Cried and laughed. What fun is any story if you can’t do a little of both?
What kind of feedback have you gotten from readers on My Not-So-Fairy-Tale Life as well as your other novels?
My Not-So-Fairy-Tale Life and Eyes Like Mine have received the best feedback, and they deserve it the most, so it’s fair. Both books tap into raw emotion and humanity at its best and worst. I am always amazed by the e-mails from people who walk away from these books feeling like I’ve written their own personal stories. Eyes Like Mine is a little more exciting for me because the fan e-mails all profess a desire to learn more about ancestry and to work on genealogy. I love genealogy and it’s exciting to be able to share that love while entertaining and connecting with the reader at the same time.
You’re currently working on a fantasy series and a science fiction series for young adults. How has this experience been different from previous projects?
I love reading science fiction and fantasy. Because of that, it’s only natural that I gravitated toward writing it as well. Writing fantasy and science fiction isn’t really all that different, but it allows a creative flexibility that writing contemporary fiction doesn’t have. In contemporary fiction, I am bound by the rules of the world we live in. In fantasy or science fiction, I am bound by the rules of the worlds the characters live in, but I get to make up the rules of those worlds. It is awesome to build societies with histories and legends. The book I’m working on now has such a rich heritage and backstory that I’ll very likely have to write that into its own book. These genres allow me to tap into myths, legends, and mysteries that fascinate me, and allow me all the wonder of exploring the possibilities of “what if…?”
Some of your new books are written for the national market. How does writing and publishing in a national market differ from your experiences writing and publishing in the Mormon market?
I made a vow a long time ago, before I even had children, that I would never write anything that I’d be ashamed to have my daughter read. So it isn’t like I have to edit myself more for one market than another. I start with a character or idea and follow the path that character or idea leads me, whether I’m writing in or outside my own culture. So as far as writing goes, nothing’s really different—publishing, however, has been different. In the national market, it’s important to have an agent. In the local market, an agent would not be of much use. I am genuinely grateful for my agent and all she does to help my national career. She has been invaluable in guiding me through the national market and helping me to understand how things work.
How has being involved with LDStorymakers influenced you as a writer?
LDStorymakers has been my own personal writing Shangri-La. They are cheaper than paying a therapist and more effective, too. They influence me in every way for the better. I’ve made some of my very closest friends through writing and LDStorymakers. These are the people who cheer me on when I succeed, mourn with me when I fail, and offer to help hide bodies for me when I’m angry. They are the first to learn when I have news of any kind—be it good or bad. We trade manuscript edits. They save me from embarrassing myself in print and offer me insights into writing, publishing, and marketing books. I don’t think I would be who I am today without them. I can never repay them for all they are.
How do you balance your work, church, and family responsibilities with your writing?
James Christensen has a painting called the “Balancing Act.” Sometimes I think of that painting when I feel like I’m juggling too much and laugh at the appropriateness of such a painting—hoping I don’t accidentally drop a teacup full of piano practices, or a plate of Boy Scouts. When I’m at book signings, I always have at least one person confess his or her desire to someday write a book “when I find the time.” I have found that people make time for whatever is important to them—whatever that may be. Writing is my important thing. I am happier when I’m moving forward with a book. I’m a better wife, mother, church member, neighbor, friend, and worker when I’m writing. Writing is important enough to make time for in my life.
Even if I only progress a little bit each day, even if I can only write one sentence, that’s a sentence more than I had the day before. I can always find at least fifteen minutes a day—fifteen minutes of writing a little at a time.
It’s amazing what you can do a little at a time if you’re consistently doing it every day. I can write a whole page in my fifteen minutes a day. By the end of the year I have at least 300 pages—that’s a whole book!
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Don’t give up. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Giving up is easy; not giving up is hard. Some days you might have to make the decision to not give up several times.
Write one book, work on getting it published, and then while you’re waiting for responses from publishing houses, get busy and write another book.
Jessica Day George is one of my favorite authors and dearest friends. She has a stack of rejection letters. Obviously, those publishers and agents were insane, because everything she writes is amazing. She is a great author.
Lots of great authors get rejected before they are discovered. The gatekeepers of agents and slush pile readers are human, after all. They have bad days and different tastes.
A rejection really isn’t personal. It feels personal, but it isn’t. Of course it hurts. Cry yourself to sleep if you have to, eat your favorite comfort food, and get over yourself so you can get back to what’s important—the writing.
How do you see your work as a writer helping to build the kingdom?
I think we each have gifts that we bring to the table of humanity that can lift each other up. I can’t cook, sew, paint, sing, or do anything else like that. I can’t provide those things for myself, but am glad to be able to enjoy them when others use their talents. Writing is something I can bring to the table and share with everyone else. If we all bring out our talents and lay them on the table for everyone to share and partake in, we all walk away full.
As a young woman, some of my first real connections to the gospel were through books other authors wrote about LDS characters. Through those novels, I was able to find my own place. I am grateful to those authors for helping me on my journey to gaining a testimony. I hope, if even in some small part, that I can provide that same experience for someone else.
Other than writing “until they pry the pen from my cold, dead fingers,” do you have any other goals or dreams as a writer that you would like to see fulfilled before you die?
It used to be the goal to be published. Once I got there, I found I’d made lots of friends in the writing world whom I wanted to be with—doing whatever they were doing. Some of my very best friends are authors, and I can no longer imagine a life without them. I write to have the excuse to be where they are, to not be left behind as they move forward in their careers.
Oh yeah, and I still want to win the Whitney and the Newbery…and I want to be on the New York Times Bestseller List.
So, dreams are definitely still out there. I think everyone needs to continue growing in dreams, otherwise where is the adventure of progression? ❧