Hey, it’s Tuesday! Time for another installment of Debut Author Q&A! Today, my guest is author Sarah McCoy, who discusses her unique journey to publication and explains a misconception that aspiring writers often have that she likes to call “James Patterson Syndrome.”
Name of book: The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico
Book genre: Adult Fiction
Date Published: August 2009
Publisher: Random House
What is your day job? Like most writers, I do a little bit of everything to make ends meet. I’ve taught English writing courses at Old Dominion University and at the University of Texas at El Paso. I work as a freelance writer when time permits: a family health column for Your Health Monthly magazine; features for El Paso Magazine; essays for The Millions online literary magazine, etc.
What is your book about? It’s about a spirited 11-year-old girl named Verdita growing up on a small farm in 1961 Puerto Rico, a time when the island experienced a notable surge in American influence. The changes in the country mirror Verdita’s own development into an adult. It’s about the tug-of-war between childhood and tradition, and the responsibilities of the unknown. Verdita’s choices shape her destiny and her identity.
What would you say is the most challenging part of writing a book? There are so many challenges to writing a book, but for me the biggest one is remembering that I am merely the conduit. The story and the characters run the show. Sometimes the creative writing workshop devil gets on my shoulder, whispers in my ear, and makes me anxious to write the most elegant, perfect prose ever penned in history. A tall order to fill. My perfectionism makes me obsess over every line, word, and turn of phrase. Then my inner muse kicks the workshop devil in the hiney and reminds me: You are simply the storyteller. Neither Sarah McCoy nor the loveliest syntax are the heart of the work and never will be. Like most writers, I’m incredibly self-critical, so remembering my role is both a challenge and a great relief.
What motivates you to write? Storytelling. Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved sharing good stories. They connect our imaginations and emotions in ways reality sometimes cannot. I remember once being in the kitchen with my momma after a day in kindergarten, and she asked me how my afternoon had been. We’d read We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Helen Oxenbury and Michael Rosen. Instead of simply saying that, I used it as my story template and concocted an epic tale of a nefarious classroom mouse that we raced around attempting to capture — across the reading rug, under the art easels, over the desks, and through the playhouse. My momma had clapped her hands and said, “What a wonderful story!” Winded and electrified by my imagined adventure, I confessed, “That didn’t really happen, but it felt like it did.”
I’m motivated to write because it’s my way of better understanding the world around me. Fiction allows us to explore people, places, events and complex emotions while safely shielded by book covers.
So true! Did you experience writer’s block along the way? When I feel like I can’t write, it’s usually a sign that my characters need to develop and grow in my imagination. They aren’t ready to be harvested. If I cut them off too green and try to make a pie, it’ll be sour, small, and not very good. I know this about my creative process so I hold off writing until my creative tree is bursting — the fruits about to fall on their own if I don’t run out to collect them. I try not to pressure myself into writing. The handful of times I have, the stories have felt forced and lacking in natural ripeness. I had to pitch them in the garbage and that’s never fun. So I’ve learned to be patient and allow my stories to arrive in their seasons.
How long did it take you to find a publisher? After I connected with my literary agent, it took two months to find my publisher.
Do you think it’s vital for first-timers to have an agent? Yes, I believe it’s important to have a literary agent. They’re your cheerleader in the publishing world. You, the author, can’t walk into a publishing house, knock on an editor’s door and say, “I’m a complete stranger, and I’ve never been published, but will you read and possibly pay me for this wad of papers I call a book?” However, an agent can go to that same person and say, “We know each other. I have a new author and I like her work. I think you will too. Here’s something you should read.” Like most occupations, the book business is a community of people and friends. A good agent is a wonderful first friend to a debut author.
What is the biggest misconception about writing a book? What I like to call the “James Patterson Syndrome.” I have many students tell me that they aim to be the next James Patterson and put out a bazillion New York Times bestsellers. I don’t like to be a bubble-burster, but for most writers, that’s not how it happens. In my experience, the publishing process is meticulously slow. The story and writing is double triple checked; the book’s layout and packaging is considered; you must market yourself and be your own publicist, setting up weeks of on-the-road and online events. Each book requires a huge investment of time, years of work. And that’s all after you’ve completed the actual creative writing endeavor. There’s little instant gratification in this business. Patience and perseverance: it’s the tortoise’s race, for sure.
What was your favorite aspect of the writing process for this book? Listening to my family members tell stories of Puerto Rico, going back to our family farm in Aibonito for visits, and reconstructing that world in Verdita’s fictitious Florilla.
What tools/methods have you employed to promote your book? For my debut novel, I was somewhat unaware of all the available avenues of promotion. I’ve been schooled over the years and now understand that Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, book blogs and independent bookstores are the bastions of the literary community. It has been my pleasure to form relationships with amazing people in these places. I can’t sing their praises enough.
I understand your second novel comes out in January 2012. Tell me about it. I’d love to! It’s called The Baker’s Daughter, and I can’t wait to share it with everyone on January 24, 2012.
And now my favorite last question: Oprah has famously said that there is no such thing as luck, without preparation and a moment of opportunity. Would you agree or disagree with regard to your own success as a writer? I’m a believer in destiny. I think our daily life choices shape our futures. I agree with Miss O for the most part. Lady Luck is a bit like the tooth fairy in my book. She requires you to yank out a tooth, put it under your pillow, and go to sleep to get a trifling prize. I’m not a big fan of pain and passivity for candy quarters. Fate, however, asks us to vigilantly watch the horizon for rising opportunities — to expect them like the sun and moon — and be ready to walk our lighted paths.