Thursday, January 24, 2008

Author Spotlight: Carolyn Parkhurst

Posted by Lynne Griffin

Every writer hopes her journey toward publication will be a magical one. And who doesn’t dream critics will hail her debut, “brilliant” and “inventive,” and proclaim her second novel, “a deeply affecting page turner.” For Carolyn Parkhurst, author of The Dogs of Babel and Lost and Found, dreams do come true.

In the first of The Writers’ Group 2008 author interview series, Carolyn Parkhurst shares an inside look at her literary life.

Lynne Griffin: Can you share with our readers the highlights of your writing life?
Carolyn Parkhurst: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. In the beginning, I wrote and worked at a book store, though it was hard to get a lot done. I decided to get an MFA, and while it’s not for everyone, I really thrived in a place where everyone was focused on writing.

I wrote my first novel, The Dogs of Babel in about two and one half years. I finished just before I had my son. A few months after he was born, I put together a list of five or six agents to query. I used books, read other authors’ acknowledgment pages, and talked with friends. I signed with an agent relatively quickly, from that first round of querying, and he sold my novel in about two weeks. I think it’s important to submit work that is as good as you can possibly make it.

LG: I’ve read stories about your editor reading your book and making a middle of the night phone call to your agent to make an offer.
CP: Yes, it’s fun to have a good story. The whole process was very exciting. Submission of Lost and Found was different in that I submitted to my editor at Little, Brown with fifty pages. With some back and forth, it ultimately was placed there.

In some ways it was better to be writing with the certainty it would be published. On the other hand, it was hard at times to write under pressure. It worked out fine, though.

LG: Do you have a writing routine? What’s your process?
CP: In the early stages, I do a lot of brainstorming. For the novel I’m working on now, I thought through the idea for about a year and half and now it’s been just months that I’ve been writing it. I brainstorm, jotting down ideas. Writing little pieces. I don’t journal, but I often write things that don’t end up in any books. I think in the early stages, it’s important not to edit yourself too much.

I typically write every week day, but not always. And not on weekends, holidays or vacations. I like to really be there for my children and the other people in my life. I don’t write at home. I leave the house, go to Starbucks or a place like that. With my first book, I wrote a page a day. I could do more, but tried not to do less. I haven’t done that since. My writing now has to fit into a schedule, because I’m a parent. I can write for a couple of hours—two or three at a time—that seems to work for me.

LG: In a blog post earlier this month, I wrote about knowing your novel’s theme before you write. Do you know your novel’s themes or do they present to you along the way?
CP: I often don’t know what my novels’ themes are until closer to the end. I think it’s probably a mistake to start there. To me it’s more organic to know the story or the characters first.

LG: Another post this month explored a novel’s seeds. What were the seeds for your novels?
CP: I always start with a couple of different ones. I usually start with a situation and then a character. In The Dogs of Babel, I had this idea of a man whose wife has died. He needs to know what happened, yet there needed to be something off balance in the way he handles his grief. So situation, then character, and then comes the character’s voice.

In Lost and Found, I wondered about those stories you hear about teenage girls’ hiding their pregnancies. And then I thought about how reality shows might change people. Those two things came together for me.

LG: What’s different about writing a second or third novel, when you’re already agented and published?
CP: The way I manage time is different. I have a family now and I didn’t with book one. It is harder to focus sometimes because my mind is occupied, there are more distractions. But I have more confidence that I can do it, because I have. While there is something new with each book, and you can’t just rest on the idea that you’ve done it before, I have a different kind of confidence. It’s of course easier to be agented and published, I feel lucky. I’d say overall it’s mostly good, but I still have realistic concerns.

LG: How do you balance writing with promoting?
CP: Well of course its part of my job to do both. In truth, promoting is distracting from writing a new book. It’s time consuming and requires you to put yourself out there, be a more public person. But I’m always happy to do the promotional work I’m asked to do. There’s a flurry of opportunity in the beginning, when a new novel comes out. And then later, as little things come up, I do that. Interviews, book groups.

LG: Do lulls in publicity worry you?
CP: Like anyone I like it when there’s interest in my work, but then it’s not my most productive writing period. Then when things aren’t going on, I wonder if people are still reading my work. There’s a typical cycle to it.

LG: Our readers will be happy to know you work with a writers’ group. How does yours work? Who are your early/late readers?
CP: There are six members, and once a month three writers submit work. Most are working on novels, though there was one person working on a memoir and occasionally someone submits short stories. Everyone at the moment is published, but it wasn’t always that way. It is important though that we’re all at roughly the same level and that we generally like each others work. My first readers are my husband, my agent, and my writers’ group. I really value the feedback. It’s easy to lose perspective if you’re entirely on your own.

One of the important things you need to learn is how to sift through feedback. When one loves something and one hates it, you need to listen. You need to see if you can do something with that feedback. But you shouldn’t make changes that aren’t true to your vision.

LG: Are you working on a novel now? What’s next for you?
CP: I’m working on a third book; it was submitted on sixty pages. I just accepted a two book deal with Doubleday.

LG: What’s your most important advice related to craft?
CP: In terms of getting published, without a doubt it’s persistence. You have to learn how to accept rejection; every author has drawers of rejection letters. You have to trust you will find your audience, or that they will find you. Don’t aim for an audience, writing what you think is the next big thing. Trust that your work will choose you, and that readers will find you.

Huge thanks to Carolyn for taking the time to stop by The Writer’s Group. I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say we can’t wait to read her next novel.


Therese Fowler said...

Lynne, this was a treat.

Thanks, Carolyn, for sharing your thoughts.

I found myself nodding in agreement with many things, but particularly the advice that we must trust that readers will find us--no wonder, right, when my own first novel's just about to come out? :)

Congratulations to Carolyn on the new book deal!

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

My thanks go out to Carolyn too. And thank you Therese for commenting. I found Carolyn's thoughts inspiring and loved having the chance to share them with our readers.


kristen spina said...

Lynne, thank you so much for sharing this interview. It sounds like I need to add Carolyn's books to my stack of things to read.

These interviews are going to be a great addition to an already wonderful blog! I look forward to reading more.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...


Yes, head right out to get Carolyn's books. She captures unique details so beautifully. Masks and apple trees and parrots. Oh, my!

Thanks for your encouragement about our new series. It's exciting to us, and we're thrilled to hear it is for you too.


Judy Merrill Larsen said...

What fun to stop in this morning and meet Carolyn--I read her second book last month and loved it.

And boy, did I need to hear "Trust that your work will choose you."

Thnaks Lynne and Carolyn!

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

What fun to stop in this morning and meet Carolyn--

What a lovely way to put it! Thanks for your kind words about the post and her books.


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