Fresh Ink is a monthly series of interviews with debut novelists that focuses on the journey to publication. Please welcome Melanie Thorne, author of Hand Me Down, a powerful novel about a teenager’s enduring strength as she searches for a safe home for her and her sister after her mother’s choice to live with an ex-con forces them apart.
I read this book last year and still think about it—though just 14, Thorne’s protagonist, Liz, is wise and brave beyond her years. Her story is full of constant struggles but despite it all, there’s a tenderness, hope, and even humor woven throughout that makes it linger.
Hand Me Down launched last year in hardcover and just came out in paperback.
Length of time from book’s start to pub date: Six years. I wrote the rough draft from January to April of 2006 for my thesis, then worked intermittently on it for another three years before sending it to agents, then my agent and I worked on it for about a year before sending it out to publishers, and it came out about a year after it sold.
# of agents you queried before signing: 2. I did a ton of research and had a list of about six agents to query, but didn’t end up using the full list.
# of books written before this one: 0.
# of revisions you went through: 2,678,590 or thereabouts; you know, uncountable revisions.
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?
I think so much of this business is unpredictable and it’s changing all the time, but I think the most surprising part for me has been the outpouring of responses from readers. So many readers have written to me and told me their own stories of abuse and family betrayals, of separation from parents and siblings, of being forced to move out at young ages, or bouncing between friends’ couches and guest beds to avoid unsafe households. I’ve even heard from readers who have taken in those children who have nowhere else to go. Readers of all ages have thanked me, not only for a book worth reading, but for helping them in some way with their real life, and that is a gift I did not expect to receive.
I was so interested to learn that Hand Me Down started out as a graduate school thesis (my novel also started as my creative writing thesis in undergrad). You’ve mentioned that while grad school teaches us a lot about craft, the “business of publishing needs its own manual.” Can you give me an example of some of the conflicting feedback you’d get from grad school workshops and your agent? How did they tend to differ and how did you ultimately choose what feedback to incorporate into your work?
While in grad school, my readers were other writers, who are trained to read in a very specific way, and tend to offer feedback aimed at improving your craft as a writer by improving individual stories. Agents and editors are trained to carefully consider how to reach a broader readership. So once I was out of the classroom and in the business world of writing, the feedback on my novel started to shift toward that perspective.
Both emphases were incredibly helpful, and I owe a great deal to my grad school training as well as my work with my agent and editor. In the end, I used the feedback from my gut the most, but I do feel that I’m a better writer—and Hand Me Down a better book—for having gotten feedback from two different viewpoints.
You’ve talked a lot about how you choose to write Hand Me Down as a novel rather than a memoir because you wanted to have more freedom to tell the truths of the story. I’m also fascinated by your description of fiction as a shelter that protects a real person/character’s vulnerabilities. Whether or not we’re writing about true events, how do you decide which vulnerabilities we as writers should protect, and which we should confront and delve into to get to the truth of a story?
That’s probably something every author must answer for herself, but I think some of the best writing I’ve done is when I was scared to delve into a particular memory or emotion—of my own or a character’s—and did it anyway. It’s a matter of timing, too, as I think if you expose a vulnerability too soon, within yourself as a writer or too early in the story you’re telling, it can do more harm than good. Trust your writer’s gut—it usually knows when you’re ready, even if your heart still feels afraid.
A lot of the debut novelists I interview are on the verge of their initial launch, but we’re celebrating your paperback launch, so I’m really excited to learn more about this stretch of the journey! In what ways have the experiences leading up to your paperback launch differed from the launch a year ago? How are they similar?
I’m still nervous whenever anyone new reads the book, so that feeling hasn’t gone away, but in general, the paperback launch has been much less nerve-racking. All the main reviews were out, the big what-ifs that tortured me last year have already been answered this time around, so the whole thing feels almost low-key. Everything was so new when the hardcover came out and I had no idea what I was doing, or if I was doing it right, so it was stressful and exciting and scary and overwhelming in so many ways, and with the paperback I’ve felt more at ease and much less terrified.
The other big difference with the paperback is the pacing. With hardcovers, which only stay in bookstores for a few months, you want to shoot out of the gate and sell as many books as you can up front. I’m learning that the paperback is considered more of a slow build. It stays in stores for a lot longer, has a longer life so to speak, so the rush for ASAP coverage isn’t quite as strong. Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to wait to buy a copy…
You know I absolutely have to ask a Christopher Pike/The Last Vampire-related question I’ve been thinking a lot about how the books we read as children shape the readers and writers we eventually become. Do you agree, and if so, what were some of the things you took away from these books? Read the rest of this entry »