Writer and friend Colleen O'Brien recently tagged me in her post for The Next Big Thing, a blog chain in which writers interview themselves about a project-in-progress. Here are my answers to the ten questions.
Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing:
What is your working title of your book (or story)? It's tentatively called "Ode to Purgatory," but the plot has shifted so much over the past eighteen months that I'm not sure the title even applies anymore. I still dig "Ode to Purgatory" on an objective level, though -- because it refers to the idea that "purgatory:" i.e., biding your time and carrying on while things aren't good, or you're not in a place where you want to be while you work to get to the other side--the working and waiting and figuring out--is actually a gift. It's the opposite of immediate gratification. And whatever else this story is or isn't, I'm pretty sure that at it's core, it's still about that.
Where did the idea come from for the book? The story idea came straight from setting, and the setting came from a barista in a Chicago bakery I frequented years ago. The bakery itself had meaning for me; it was a Polish one my family had gone to for decades and it was newly gentrified. The barista was talking about this small ghost town in southern Illinois he'd visited the past weekend. He described the town as feeling medieval because it had levees and floodgates completely surrounding it. I immediately went to work and Googled it. My fascination was because it was so perfectly in sync with things I wanted to explore about my own hometown, an Indiana rustbelt town bordering Chicago but psychologically isolated and worlds away from the arts, culture, and beauty I craved. I soon learned he'd been talking about Cairo, on the very tip of the southern Illinois peninsula, and the story just cracked open from there.
What genre does your book fall under? Literary fiction. At least I hope. During the rough draft phase, let's just say my writing is REALLY rough, and in those moments it feels like bad children's literature. But then, I dig into the language, explore metaphor and hone my dialogue and it does get much better with each draft.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? Honestly, it feels like jumping the gun/ jinxing the project to even consider this. I'm 90 pages into the story and still learning about the characters.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? A young woman with a singular sense of smell begins to suspect an ecological disaster is headed for her southern Illinois commune.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? I'm still deeply engaged in the creative process, so I don't want to make the mistake of thinking too much about the audience or marketing, rather than the work itself. That said, I imagine it ending up with a small-to-mid-size publisher who'll see my vision and let me use an illustrator I love. Maybe someplace like Akashic Books? Back Bay Books? Curbside Press? Featherproof Books? Dzanc Books/Other Voices? Verse Chorus Press? Chiasmus Press? Red Hen Press? But, you know, if Random House or Penguin came knocking, and wanted to have a conversation, I'd entertain that. I plan on scoping out small presses at this year's AWP Conference in Boston.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? I've been working on this for the past 2 years, (since Winter 2011), but honestly, much of that time has just been making mistakes, exploring, figuring out how to take on such a huge project in the first place. It's only in the past 6 months that I've laid out a solid outline of the project, gotten serious about mapping my setting, etc. I'm working steadily on it now, and plan to have a full first draft by June 2013, which means writing about 4 pages per day for the next four months.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? I AM VERY UNCOMFORTABLE PUTTING THE BELOW BOOKS IN THE SAME PARAGRAPH WITH MY STORY. That said, Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping is a gorgeous novel that I admire deeply and that story also has a female protagonist seeking to escape an isolated, stifling landscape. Also, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Kate Chopin's The Awakening, for the coming-of-age aspects of those novels. And, people who know the plot of my story say I should check out Arcadia, a commune-centric novel by Lauren Groff.
Who or what inspired you to write this book? I had a story I wanted to tell about overcoming inertia to leave behind the worlds you've known, propelling yourself into unknown arenas, and discovering your community, all things I relate to as a result of growing up as an awkward, self-conscious/shy, secretly bookish person in the industrial, sports-crazed, non-arts-friendly town where I was raised.
What else about your book might pique the reader's interest? Since the story is set on a radical flower farm that produces essential oils and natural botanical perfumes, I'm having a great time exploring and writing about those interests. I don't think I'm alone in being fascinated by the sense of smell and how it affects our memories and experiences. Also, Cairo itself is so fascinating. It's a ghost town now, (see above photos), but it's loaded with rich, historical details. It was an important Civil War location, and it was supposed to become a metropolis in the early 1900s. But it never really resolved its post-Civil War racial issues, and now it's crumbling and decrepit, with a population under 3,000. What's bizarre, though, is that a huge percentage of the town is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Next up, (in alphabetical order):
Mairead Case is a Chicago-based writer, editor, teacher, and grad student with recent work in The Unified Field and at Bright Stupid Confetti.
Nashville-based Todd Dills is the author of the 'Triumph of the Ape' (2012) collection of shorts and the 'Sons of the Rapture' (2006) novel, and he edits and publishes THE2NDHAND online magazine.
Susannah Felts is a fiction writer, freelance writer, teacher, and the author of one novel, This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record (Featherproof Books, 2008). She was awarded the Tennessee Arts Commission's Individual Artist Fellowship in Fiction for FY2013, and was named a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers' Conference, 2012. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband and daughter.
Rob Funderburk is a visual artist in Chicago. His work extends from gestural sketch illustration to large site-specific installations, art prints, and publication design.
Megan Stielstra is the author of Everyone Remain Calm, a story collection, and the Lit Director of Chicago's 2nd Story storytelling series.