“It was much easier to write a novel when I knew the high points of the story structure in advance.”
It is such a pleasure to have Holly for Author Interview Friday. I read her novel, Sleeping Tigers and fell in love with her style. I instantly felt I had Holly as my cyber-friend and look forward to meeting her in person when she comes to Florida to speak to our local writer’s group, Marco Island Writers. Please welcome Holly Robinson.
Joanne: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? Was there a particular inspiration to get started?
Holly: I always tell people that I never “meant” to be a writer—I majored in biology because I was planning to become a doctor—but, when I look back on my childhood, I must have been somehow preparing to be a writer all my life, because all I did was read! Pretty much every home movie starts out with some big pair of adult hands taking a book out of my own hands, and me blinking like a mole at the camera.
Joanne: Do you have a background in writing, or did you take any special writing courses that helped you along the way?
Holly: While I was in college, I discovered my passion for writing by accident through an elective in creative writing. From there, I realized I needed a deeper understanding of literature and the craft of writing, so I applied to MFA programs. I ended up earning my MFA in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where I got a good foundation in American and British Literature and, more importantly, participated in fiction writing workshops where my work was critiqued by both other students and my professors. I learned a lot in those two years. Afterward, although I didn’t publish any fiction right away, I managed to carve out a career as a freelance writer. I now write essays, columns and articles for national magazines, and I am a ghost writer for celebrity memoirs.
Joanne: Are you published through a traditional publishing house? If yes, how did you find your agent and publisher?
Holly: My road to publication has been a long and winding one! I found an agent through my thesis adviser in graduate school. With his help, I sold The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter: A Memoir to Random House in 2009; the book came out in paperback the following year. I still hadn’t managed to sell any fiction, so I self-published my novel Sleeping Tigers in 2011. About two weeks later, my agent called to say he’d sold my next novel, The Wishing Hill, to NAL/Penguin. I nearly fell out of my chair! I was doubly blessed when NAL/Penguin made an offer on my next novel, Beach Plum Island, on the basis of a synopsis. That novel will be published in April 2014.
Joanne: Author Jennie Nash was quoted on Writer Unboxed that she reads other novels to study structure. Do you follow a structure pattern such as staying in chronological order, or alternating points in time or different POV’s?
Holly: Like Jennie, I always take notes when I’m reading novels I really like, so that I can see how a writer creates a certain effect. The point of view or chronology you choose definitely has to work in concert with the kind of book you’re writing. For instance, if you’re working on a thriller or paranormal, it’s often very effective to write in first person to pull the reader into the action in a more intimate (and terrifying) way. However, if you’re working on a novel with a broad generational or historical sweep, you’ll probably want to use multiple points of view and write in the third person, so that you have more flexibility in writing descriptions and settings, etc.
Joanne: What was the hardest part for you in the writing process: the outline, synopsis, query or building the story itself?
Holly: In writing this book, The Wishing Hill, I did it all the hard way, building the book from the ground up with a character who started out in one novel and ended up in another, simply because I loved her, but the first plot I put her in didn’t work at all! With my work-in-progress, Beach Plum Island, I actually wrote a synopsis for it first (at the editor’s request), and I found out something stunningly obvious: it was much easier to write a novel when I knew the high points of the story structure in advance! I think I’ll always use a synopsis from now on, even if it’s only for me and not for an editor.
Joanne: What marketing techniques do you implement to increase your sales?
Holly: You know, it’s too bad there isn’t any magic bullet for marketing books, because whoever created that bullet would certainly be a billionaire! Some books make it big that many, many editors have rejected before they see the light of day; other books that people bank on (and by that, I mean they’ve earned huge advances from publishers) never create the buzz expected of them. Having said all that, I think it’s essential for all writers to be involved in publicizing their work through any and all avenues you’re comfortable with, whether you use social media, public appearances, or some other form of marketing. All of it eventually snowballs. You just have to keep communicating with people and being generous in your interactions with readers, other writers, and the media.
Joanne: Do you have any advice to new writers just getting started with their first manuscript?
Holly: This is tough advice to follow, and sometimes I fail at it, but the best advice I can give is to just keep writing your book until the end, because you probably won’t really know what the “real” story is until you complete your first draft. Then you can go back and start tearing things apart and editing.
Joanne: Are you currently working on a new manuscript? If so, can you give a sneak peak into the premise of your story?
Holly: Yes, I’ve just turned in the first draft of my next novel, Beach Plum Island, to my editor at Penguin. The premise of the story is that two sisters and their half sister discover, as their father dies, that they have a brother who was given up for adoption before they were born. Their father’s last wish is that the sisters look for their brother and tell him the truth about their family, and the novel’s action focuses on that search and its outcome—for each of the sisters individually, and for them as a family that must uncover secrets and come together during the course of the novel. The relationships in the novel are all tumultuous and it’s an extremely emotional novel, which made it very satisfying to write.
Joanne: Thank you so much Holly. I am so excited for you and can’t wait to meet in person here in (usually) sunny Florida. Now readers, here is a peek into The Wishing Hill with links below to purchase the book.
Excerpt from The Wishing Hill
By Holly Robinson
Her husband, Michael, wasn’t a bad man. People fell in love and out again every day, as easily as going in and out a revolving door. It wasn’t his fault that he didn’t love her anymore, and he had always been good to her. Better than anyone.
Standing next to him in the garden now, Juliet saw the tender pink scalp peeking through his wispy brown hair and knew that she was clinging to him, to what they’d had, because of the hollow fear she felt at the prospect of being alone.
“I only came to say goodbye.” She took his hand and led him over to a shady bench.
“We’ve already said our goodbyes.” Michael slumped down next to her.
“No. I mean, I’m actually leaving Mexico. Just for a while. I’m on my way to the airport now.”
“My mom fell and broke her hip. I’m going home to take care of her.” She took a deep breath and added, “This is your last chance to clear your things out of the apartment. Anything I find in there when I get back, I’ll just toss. I mean it. I need to be done with this. With us.”
There. She had done it. She had delivered her ultimatum. Instead of feeling forcefully in control, however, Juliet only felt pathetic. Especially when she met Michael’s glance and found sympathy there.
“God,” he said. “Why do you have to be the one to take care of her?” Michael had met her mother twice. Twice, it had been a disaster.
She shrugged. “There’s nobody else. My brother and his wife live too far away. They’ve got jobs, kids. I can paint there as well as here.”
“For how long?”
“She’ll eat you alive.”
Juliet surprised them both by laughing. Of course she was afraid of the same thing. But she quickly grew somber again, knowing that she had to tell him the rest. “There’s something else you need to know, too,” she said at last, wiping her eyes. “It might hurt you. I’m sorry if it does.”
“Thank God!” Michael grinned. “I deserve to have you hurt me,” he said. “Go ahead. Hit me with your best shot.”
His grin faded. “You’re kidding.”
“Don’t worry. It’s not yours.”
“Well I know that,” he said impatiently.
“What?” Startled, she squinted at him. “How?”
“The timing’s all wrong,” he said at once.
Juliet could tell by the way Michael avoided her eyes that there was something he wasn’t telling her. But what?
“What do you mean?” she asked. “Why couldn’t the baby be yours? It hasn’t been that long. You don’t know how far along I am.”
Michael still wouldn’t look at her. He stared at the ground, his hands dangling between his knees.
“Tell me,” she said, nudging him with her elbow. “How do you really know this baby isn’t yours?”
“You’re not showing, so you can’t be very far along.” His voice, aimed at the dusty ground between his feet, was muffled and dull. “And we haven’t been together in months.”
“Women don’t usually show for a while. Not with their first babies, anyway.” Juliet said this with more assurance than she felt. She had read books, but what did she really know? She felt her neck flushing with irritation, a slow creep of red fury suffusing her body. What was he lying about?
She had a fierce urge to wound him. “I guess now we know it wasn’t me who was infertile.”
To her shock, Michael laughed. “Sweetie, I knew that already.” He stood up, smoothing the creases in his white trousers.
“How could you? You never went for testing.” Juliet was confused, anger clouding her vision. Michael shoved his hands into his jacket pockets and did a strange little shuffle on the sidewalk, bringing attention to the fact that his transformation from beach bum back to businessman was not yet complete: he still wore rope sandals, his toes gleaming like white pebbles against the brown twine. “Remember that time when I left you here and went back to San Francisco for a while?” he said. “The time I called you and said I had the motorcycle accident?”
Juliet squinted up at him. “Of course. Why?”
“There wasn’t any accident. I went to San Francisco for a vasectomy,” he said. “I already had my family and couldn’t stomach the thought of another one. I thought you’d get over wanting a baby.”
“What?” Her voice was a whisper. Rage had clogged her throat.
He smiled a little. “I guess in the end it doesn’t matter, right? We both got what we wanted. Good luck with it all. I’ll clear out my stuff next week.” Michael gave her a funny little salute and then, before she could respond, he was off, strolling back into the building.
Juliet sat for a moment longer on the bench, chest heaving, her legs leaden beneath her. Then she remembered her mother and stood up. She had to put one foot in front of the other and get on that plane to Boston. Then she could fall apart.
Links to buy her book