Not everyone can be an overnight sensation. Valerie Hobbs published her first book after years of teaching. The debut earned her a PEN/Norma Klein award for “emerging voice of literary merit among American writers of children’s fiction” and the American Library Association Best Book award. She has written 12 books in 14 years and received critical acclaim and numerous awards for most of them.
I met Val earlier this year when I was lucky enough to take one of her writing classes. Her informal style, her excellent critiques and her generous praise make her a popular teacher. Two of her books release in paperback this spring: Sheep comes out at the end of this month and Defiance releases in May. A new book, The Last Best Days of Summer, comes out next spring.
Val was gracious enough to talk to me about her writing career and offer some great insight for writers at any stage.
Your first book, How Far Would You Have Gotten If I Hadn’t Called You Back?, was based on a real high school experience. Is that the only book based in reality or are there pieces of you in each book?
There are pieces of me scattered everywhere! Mostly in Sonny’s War where I reversed the ages of my brother and me, and Tender where I skewered my first husband. But the crow in Carolina Crow Girl was really my best friend in a time of trouble, and Jack in Sheep was a Border collie we had for a little while. I think I may be solving problems I couldn’t solve in real life. It’s a heck of a lot easier in fiction.
You’ve written from the perspective of a guy, a girl, a dog…how hard is it to get inside the head of such vastly different characters?
Well, since it’s always me, not so hard. I just read an awful review of Sheep on a dog lover’s blog that said Jack was too much like a lost child. Well, DUH.
I didn’t expect anything until I saw that great cover. Then I thought it might have a chance. Book jackets are way more important than I ever thought–and you usually don’t get a say about them, which is really disappointing sometimes. Jack (my husband) and I had a homeless (we thought) Border collie for three weeks but ended up having to give it back to its irresponsible owner, which was sad. I couldn’t stop thinking about what might have happened to that dog.
You didn’t start writing in earnest until later in life. What made you decide to start writing?
I wrote short stories for about 15 years. Never thought I could write more than 10 pages. But the story within the story that ended up becoming How Far Would You Have Gotten If I Hadn’t Called You Back? sticks to me to this day like cat hair. I’m still writing it out, writing and writing it out.
I sent 10 queries along with a short synopsis and 3 chapters to agents in California, figuring a novel with a CA setting would do best with one of them. Barbara Markowitz in LA loved the chapters, asked for the novel and eventually found Richard Jackson for me. He’s a brilliant editor, now retired. I was really lucky.
You taught long before you were published, and you still teach writing classes and workshops. What were some of the other jobs you had before you became a full-time writer?
Waitress, laundry folder, high school teacher, waitress, waitress. . .
I know you’re not one to write every single day, but you’ve managed to put out almost a book a year since 1995. What is your writing schedule like?
Binge and purge. Then starvation for several months. Something like that. I cannot write unless I have something to say. A blank screen makes me want to clean toilets.
What do you think is the most important thing for new writers to learn?
I just found this quote by the late Muriel Spark about writing novels: “You are writing a letter to a friend. Write privately, not publicly; without fear or timidity, right to the end of the letter, as if it were never going to be published.” I think this is absolutely brilliant. I have it taped to my computer. I may have it tattooed onto my forehead.
Many of us who are pre-published think you’ve got it made once your book is on the shelves. What are some of the publishing challenges you face as an established writer?
Love that word “challenge”, Sherrie. The biggest challenge for me is not to write for the market. Every time I try, I blow it. If I don’t write from the heart, something I feel and know and believe in, it’s caca.
Reviews are another “challenge”. It’s like you’ve sent your child to a beauty contest and she doesn’t win. She doesn’t even make the top ten. Or the top 100. All these ugly little vampires get to win. Don’t get me started!
Defiance was the most difficult to write because I didn’t know how to get Toby to want to keep living. I got really stuck in the “muddled middle”. Pearl and Blossom were gifts from the gods. That happens sometimes. It’s what makes this whole business so magical.
What are you reading right now?
Olive Kitteredge by Elizabeth Strout who wrote Amy and Isabelle, one of my all-time favorite “grown ups” book. I get to meet her next week at a luncheon and I want to be ready! Also The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Talk about a challenge! If you can evoke sympathy for a ceramic rabbit, you are probably God.
You can learn more about Val at her website: http://www.valeriehobbs.com