Interview with Laura Caldwell
Interview by Amy Brozio-Andrews
Laura Caldwell is the author of Burning the Map, A Clean Slate, The Year of Living Famously, the just-released Look Closely (Mira, June 2005), and soon-to-be-published The Night I Got Lucky (Red Dress Ink, September 2005). Sheís a former trial attorney and currently teaches advanced legal writing at Loyola University in Chicago.
I think most writers usually have some assumptions in mind about what happens once they get their novel finished; working with an agent, editor, and publisher, they expect things are going to go a certain way. Were there any surprises for you in the process?
It took me a while to get published, and by that time Iíd really educated myself on the market. Iíd heard that youíve got to help out and do a lot of your own PR. Iíd heard a lot about what it was like to deal with an agent and an editor: donít think youíre top dog; donít think youíre going to get a ton of money; youíve just got to work, work, work. But I think what surprised me was that the law is very orderly and the publishing world is not.
The law is full of deadlines that are met and phone calls that are returned and if the judge says to jump you say, ďTell me when; Iíll be jumping.Ē And I shouldnít have been surprised but I was surprised. Itís not that itís disorganized necessarily or disorderly-- publishing is just not quite as orderly or organized as the law. And I think thatís what surprised me the most. And Iím trying to take my Type A personality down a notch and relax and realize that it just not the same thing. Iím in a different world; Iím in a different world professionally now.
How do you build your characters for your books? Did you use the same method for The Night I Got Lucky, a chick lit novel, and Look Closely, a suspense novel? Do you look at chick lit and suspense and do something different for each manuscript?
I usually get an idea, sort of a vague outline of a character and an idea for a plot and I try to write the beginning couple of scenes and then I stop. Itís hard to do because you just want to charge through and start writing the book but I stop and I make myself fill out these character development exercises that I got in a book somewhere. Iíve got it on my computer and Iíve added to it over the course of time so itís basically a series of questions, maybe three or four pages long that you answer about a character-- anything from when was her first kiss to what religion is she. Does he drink alcohol? If so, how much and when? Any little things like that. I try to make myself stop and really fill it out for every single character in a book, even if youíre never going to know in sixth grade she had her first kiss on the slide.
I think you can tell when youíre a reader that the author knows-- that they feel like a full character even if you canít really put your finger on why. So Iím trying to do that right now, [Iím] starting on a new suspense novel and I would love to start galloping into the text and into the plot but Iím making myself stop and fill out these character development exercises. It takes a long time because you have to really think about it and think, well, that guy would have been 20 during the Vietnam War, so did he get drafted? You have figure out everything based on how old they are and how old they would have been at certain times. So, I stop and make myself fill these things out; I do every time.
Do you ever borrow qualities from friends and family? Has anyone ever called you up and said, "Were you thinking of me when you wrote that character in that book?"
I really donít do it. Someone might have the red hair of my husband or she might have a divorce that sounds vaguely like a divorce my secretary went through. To my mind thereís no character that I just pluck out of real life and stick in a book. But people do read themselves into characters. Itís sort of funny, sometimes upsetting.
I had a secretary who was really hurt; she thought she was the secretary that I was writing about in my first novel, Burning the Map. She didnít see herself that way; I could not convince her that it wasnít her. And it really wasnít. And I never even once thought of her while I was writing the character. Iíd known her at this law firm I worked at but in no way, shape or form did I even think about her when I was writing the character and strangely she seemed to think she was the bitchy, humorless secretary which was too bad because she was a really lovely woman and it was sort of interesting that thatís how she saw herself.
And Iíve also had other friends just assume they are certain people and either get a little ticked off or even sometimes really thrilled but thereís no one that Iíve plucked out of real life and put into a book.
So, even if you try to avoid putting people you know into a book theyíre going to read into it anywayÖ
Yeah, you do have to be a little careful, I guess. Some writers, I think, are a little more shamelessÖ Iíve heard people talk at the Key West Literary Seminar that anything is up for grabs-- take it, put it in your work-- but because, I guess, I hurt that secretary unintentionally I am a little cautious now to not do that, to not mess with somebody unintentionally.
In a recent Chicago Sun-Times article that you were quoted in, the writer referred to your sabbatical from your job at the law firm. How did that come about? Can you tell us more about that?
I was a partner at a small boutique law firm and in May of 2000 I decided to take a break. My husband was like, why donít you take six months off and try to finish your book and see if you can get it sold. And my partners were very, very supportive so I went off into this six-month sabbatical. But the law firm was bought out by a larger firm about three months into it and the larger firm was not really as understanding about my sabbatical. I had to make a choice, either go back with them and be at this big firm and make really good money and have a very solid future, or go on an unlimited sabbatical with no sort of promise that I would ever get published or that I could get that particular job back. So, I just decided to go for it and it was about a year and half later that I actually got a book contract.
Were you scared?
Yeah, it was really, really scary. It was kind of a little bit pathetic; everyone would say, ďHowís it going?Ē People, I think for a while, were envious because itís like, oh, youíre taking time off, thatís awesome, and then after a while I think people just thought it was sort of sad. They saw that I was working really hard and I wasnít having any luck, getting published or getting an agent. It was a long year and a half, but it was worth it because all I did was write, write, write, write, write. Now I look back on that time and I kind of wish I had appreciated it a little more. I mean, I appreciated it that I had a benevolent husband but it was just so simple because all I did was write. I wasnít juggling other projects or my law school job or marketing or whatever. I kind of look back on it and itís sort of this charmed time now... a good revisionist history.
What do you think of the term "chick lit"? Is that what you would call the books that you write?
For ease, I guess, and everyone just seems to know the term now. I think I felt a little irritated with the term at first-- it seemed kind of limiting and I certainly understand why some people feel that it is limiting, but now Iíve just sort of embraced it. I think itís supposed to mean fiction thatís predominantly geared toward women that has as its main goal to entertain and thatís really my main goal, to entertain. So if people get something out of it, if it causes them to think a little bit then thatís great, too, itís awesome. I set out to entertain people and so if thatís what chick lit is-- itís fiction that generally entertains-- then thatís fine with me. And I think those that slam the whole genre, I think they need to be careful Ďcause karmaís a bitch.
Do you ever think you would pick up a nonfiction book project?
Well, Iíve been asked to work on things and nothing really pulls me. I certainly would if there was something that really pulled me in but I have so many fiction ideas that keep coming to me that I really want to work on that I canít see [doing] that right now.
In doing research for this interview, I read that youíve had experience freelancing, novel writing, practicing law, and teaching law at Loyola University. What have you found to be the most rewarding?
I think writing novels, just because itís so creative. The law is orderly. The law is one of the coolest clubs Iíve ever been allowed to join; my dadís a lawyer, my uncleís a lawyer, my grandfather was a lawyer so Iím proud to be in the club but it certainly has its limitations in terms of creativity. Freelancing does too, because you are taking a subject and essentially reporting on it; you can report well, you can slant, and you can shade but essentially-- and it is more creative than the law-- that still has its limitations. Novel writing is just an open-ended free-for-all. You get to create something, you get to make it up. Itís kind of insane. So I think that is kind of what energizes me of those three areas.
For your suspense novel Look Closely, did you figure out the ending first and then work back to the beginning or do you start at the beginning, plan out your characters and your basic plot and see where it all took you?
Because Iíve now-- knock on wood-- been able to sell my work ahead of time without having completed the whole thing, Iíve been selling it based on three chapters and a synopsis, I have to plan out the whole thing because a synopsis has to tell the whole story.
Generally, what Iím doing is getting an idea: what if you didnít know, for example in Look Closely, how your mother died. What if your whole family had splintered? And what if you started to suspect your dad maybe had something to do with it? And so I figured out the characters, started writing it, and then I sat down and worked on the synopsis. I hate writing synopses. Itís the most awkward, painful thing to just, in ten pages, tell a whole novel. Thereís no way to make it sound exciting but the benefit of writing a synopsis is that you really figure out the big plot points and exactly whatís going to happen. You can tell if itís not going to hang together by having to sit down and sort of figure it out piecemeal. So thatís how Iíve been doing it for the last couple of projects, including Look Closely.
What sort of marketing do you usually do for your books?
I try to do a little bit of everything. I try to put the word out there that Iím available to go to book clubs. One of my favorite things to do is to go to book clubs that have read my book. I think most book clubs are an excuse for women to get together and drink wine and thatís just fine with me. Everybodyís always saying, ďOh, Iím so sorry we didnít get to talk about the book enough,Ē and I just donít care because I love hanging out with women and meeting all these cool, new women; itís been one of the best upsides of writing.
Then I have a website. Iím in the midst of changing it and updating it. I try to send out everything from postcards to e-mails, do the book signings, try to talk to people like you, try to do just a little bit of everything and hope that you get some help from your publisher at the same time.
So itís kind of a lot of everything. Usually a friend throws the book launch party. Ralph Lauren, the restaurant in Chicago, is actually having a luncheon for my new book in September and theyíre inviting journalists. They did it before and itís so nice, I donít even know it all happened but theyíre just great there. So just try to do a lot of everything and hope something sticks.
What inspired you to start writing? Have you always wanted to be a writer?
No, in fact I went to the University of Iowa, which is arguably the best writing school in the nation, took one creative writing class and got the worst grade of my academic career. Which is not to say that I was a diamond in the rough and I should have known it-- I tell that story because I think anybody can learn a skill, so I definitely was not a writer my whole life and didnít even think about it until after law school.
I just thought that maybe I needed a little creativity so I thought that would be a good hobby to pick up. I took a novel class and thought it would be cool to write a story about a woman who goes on vacation and it changes her whole life. I started writing that story in that class. It took me two or three years to finish it. I couldnít get an agent, couldnít find a publisher, went on to a second book, a suspense novel thatís never seen the light of day, yet-- and had trouble selling that, too.
I was at the San Diego State University Writersí Conference and I met Margaret Marbury whoís now my editor. So it was kind of a lucky meeting at a cocktail party; I was trying to sell the suspense novel but she was telling me how she was going to do chick lit and so I told her about Burning the Map and she said she wanted to see it. It took a long time, basically about ten months after I met her, she made me an offer. It was a rather long haul and when you look back it doesnít seem so bad but itís hard at the time. Youíve finally finished this thing and now you canít get it out there; itís somewhat disheartening sometimes.
So have you gone back to your University of Iowa writing professor and said, ďHey, look!Ē
No, I think they were just like, ďOh, not great,Ē and Iím sure I was not great. But I just think anybody can learn anything. My other worst grade was in legal writing in law school and now I teach advanced legal writing at the same law school. No matter what stage of life youíre at, you can learn something. It doesnít necessarily mean youíre going to excel. If you pick up tennis at 50 the chances of you playing at Wimbledon are nil but I definitely think people can learn new skills, whether itís just for a hobby or whether itís for a profession.
Well, thatís good to know; so thereís still some hope for some of usÖ Whatís the one thing that you would advise other writers not to do?
For new fiction writers, I would advise people not to write in a third person multiple viewpoint unless youíve got chapter breaks or scene breaks. In other words, I would advise people not to write third person multiple viewpoint where within three pages youíre in one characterís head and then youíre in another characterís head and then youíre in another characterís head.
There are a lot of authors, like Jennifer Eagan for example, who do that very well. I think Anne Patchett wrote Bel Canto like that but I know from talking to my agent and my editor and other people in the profession that if they see a new writer who they donít know yet that they can trust and [the writer is] sort of meandering from one personís head to another, I think it comes off sloppy-- you donít seem like an intentional writer, like youíve thought it out. I think itís tough to get published if youíve got a third person multiple viewpoint within two pages being in five charactersí heads. But itís not that hard to put a scene break or chapter break and then be in all the heads you want to be in.
What would you say has been your proudest moment as a writer so far?
Probably when I heard my first book was on the shelf. Someone called me and said that the Borders on State St. had put it out a day ahead of the release date. I called my husband and went running down there. I said, ďDonít go in yet! Wait until weíre both there.Ē So we met outside and he took my hand and we walked in the store and there it was between Joyce Carol Oates and John Irving on the front table. I felt so bad for Joyce and John, not that I know them but it was like, oh, thatís so sad for them. But it was fabulous for me. It was such a cool moment just to stand there in this sunny, huge bookstore and see yourself on the front table.
Did you want to stop every person walking past and say, ďI wrote thatĒ?
My husband was; he was like, ďLook, this is her!Ē And it was funny because I remember the employees were kind of like, big deal, weíve met a ton of authors, but I was like, ďHi!Ē-- introducing myself to everyone. Everyone who worked there was kind of like, good, great, okay, buh-bye. But I was just so-- it was just the neatest moment.
I guess itís like having your first baby; you never get to have that time again. No matter what you do, you never have that initial ďWow!Ē Itís still awesome, you slip in a bookstore and your like, Omigod, there I am! But you never quite have that taste of that first time.
Amy Brozio-Andrews is a freelance writer and book reviewer. She brings more than five years' experience as a readers' advisory librarian to her work, which is regularly published by Library Journal, The Imperfect Parent, and Absolute Write. Her reviews have also been published by The Absinthe Literary Review, ForeWord Magazine, January Magazine, and Melt Magazine. Amy is also the managing editor and an international markets columnist for Absolute Write. Visit her online at http://www.amyba.com.
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