Fresh Ink is a monthly series of interviews with debut novelists that focuses on the journey to publication. Today we’re starting off the year with Seré Prince Halverson, author of The Underside of Joy, which was published January 12 by Dutton and is forthcoming in 14 other countries.
I first learned about Sere through Sarah Jio‘s blog (another Fresh Ink interviewee) and am now counting down the days till February 23, when she’s in Austin for a book signing. Sere will be the first author I’ve interviewed who I get to meet in real life! (You bet I’ll be taking pictures!)
Length of time from book’s start to pub date: About six years, with many breaks in between.
# of agents you queried before signing: current agent, 12 (in the distant past, 75+ before I found my first agent.)
# of books written before this one: 2.5
# of revisions you went through: Too many to count. I’m all about revision.
We’re lucky that there are so many great resources for writers to learn about publishing these days. That being said, what’s the one aspect of the process you never could have predicted?
The kindness of strangers. People are not only taking the time to read my novel, but to write me, and also spread the word. And don’t even get me started on the writing community! I’ve met so many talented and supportive writers. I even belong to an online group called Book Pregnant, made up of 22 debut authors, and we’re all helping each other through the book-birthing process. It turns out that remembering to breathe is key.
I smiled when I read on your website that you worked 20 years as a freelance copywriter. It seems there are many of us copywriter/novelists out there! How did you choose this career path, and how did it lead you to fiction? Do you feel there are advantages to this mixture of writing backgrounds?
I’ve always loved writing but when I was younger but I lacked the confidence to pursue writing fiction as a career. I majored in Journalism. My dad’s guidance went something like, “The only way you can make a living by writing is in advertising.” So I took a lot of advertising and public relations classes. I got married right after graduation and worked so my first husband could finish his degree. But I soon realized that what I really wanted to do was write fiction. So while I worked and raised kids, I took writing workshops and classes.
Sometimes I wished that I had an unrelated day job, because as different as copywriting and novel writing are, they take up the same brain space. While I showered, or drove, or folded piles of laundry, or whatever, I either thought of headlines and concepts, or character and plot. So when work got busy, my fiction didn’t get its due attention. But when work slowed down, I’d plunge into the novel. Of course I’d want to stay there, but eventually the phone would ring and I’d force myself back into advertising mode and create a tagline or write a website.
In retrospect, I can see a lot of positive aspects. Copywriting taught me to set deadlines for myself. It taught me to never wait on the Muse, because, as Barbara Kingsolver says, “She has a lousy work ethic.” I was a single mom for a lot of years, and working freelance gave me flexibility so I could be around for my kids. I’d take work with me and get stuff done while waiting in the car during basketball or lacrosse practice.
What inspired you to tackle the stepmother stereotype that “pits good against evil” in your novel? Was it challenging to against a mythology (for lack of a better term) that’s traditionally found in literature?
I’m a mom and a stepmom, I have a mom and a stepmom, my kids and stepkids have a mom and a stepmom. And none of us are evil. I was thinking about how much a stepmom can love her stepkids but usually doesn’t have any legal parental rights if something should happen to her spouse. The mom/stepmom relationship is complicated. Both love the same people, which in the very best circumstances can be uniting. But the relationship can also be a minefield of comparisons, jealousies, and insecurities. And to a writer, minefield is just another word for candy store.
How did you approach marketing yourself? How much of it is a collaborative process between you and the publisher, and how much of it is just you?
I’m learning a ton. Even though I’ve been in the business of marketing and advertising, it’s different when you’re promoting your own book-baby! The relationship and process is definitely collaborative. My publisher has been really supportive and pro-active. The whole team has also been open to any ideas that my agent and I present. From day one, I’ve been surrounded by smart people who are really pulling for this book. I’m extremely fortunate.
Social networking provides so many opportunities for writers to connect with readers. I blog at www.whomovedmybuddha.blogspot.com and I’m on Facebook and Goodreads, but I’m not on Twitter. I know a lot of writers who love it and I know I’m missing out on a lot. But I’m not a particularly fast writer or a gifted multi-tasker. (I mean, look how long it took me to get published!) I’m afraid that if I joined Twitter, I wouldn’t get another novel written. I think it’s important for writers to focus their energy where it’s most effective and most enjoyable. If you’re doing something only because you feel you have to, that comes through. There are about 84 million things writers can do to market themselves, so I say focus on the two million and let the rest go. And remember to pray. Light incense. Consider burnt offerings…
Your novel was selected for a BEA Buzz Panel, along with others such as Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and Chad Charbach’s The Art of Fielding. How would you describe that experience?
Humbling. It was such an honor to have The Underside of Joy chosen as one of the six, and to be in that kind of company. I couldn’t quite believe it and still can’t. The stars and planets must have decided to completely freak me out, and aligned in perfect cosmic force the day that decision was made.
What was one of the best things about the day your book launched?
I have always passionately loved bookstores. At the same time, I also felt frustrated when I walked into them. It’s hard to admit that, but it’s true. I’d look at all the books and feel both inspired and bummed that my novels weren’t in there, that the dream kept alluding me, that my work hadn’t reached readers. To walk in and see my book on the shelf? Pure joy.
About The Underside of Joy:
To Ella Beene, happiness means living in the Northern California river town of Elbow with her husband, Joe, and his two young children. For three years, Ella has been the only mother the kids have known. But when Joe drowns off the coast, his ex-wife shows up at his funeral, intent on reclaiming the children. Ella must fight to prove they should remain with her while she struggles to save the family’s market. With wit and determination, she delves beneath the surface of her marriage, finally asking the questions she most fears, the answers jeopardizing everything and everyone she most loves.
Thank you so much, Seré, for your wonderful interview, and congratulations on your book launch! See you soon in Austin at Bookpeople! Readers, if any of you are Austin-based, let me know in the comments so we can get together at Seré’s reading.
Tags: Sere Prince Halverson