Beth has authored 11 books and her short story, “The Longest Distance,” was part of the HarperTeen anthology, No Such Thing as the Real World, that released earlier this month. Her first book, a memoir called A Slant of Sun, was a National Book Award finalist. Beth’s YA novel Undercover comes out in paperback on May 26 and a new YA, Nothing but Ghosts, hits the bookstores on June 23.
Did you have a difficult time finding an agent/publisher for your first book, A Slant of Sun?
Hmmm. I did what everyone says you should not do—sent the book out to editors whose work I respected, without an agent. I found the brilliantly talented Alane Mason of W.W. Norton rather quickly; other editors also expressed interest. Following a single phone conversation with Alane, I knew I wanted her sensitivity and smarts as my guide (I subsequently worked with Alane on two other books, and she remains a dear friend). I then sought out an agent to help me with all the stuff that I don’t know about publishing, which is to say everything. Amy Rennert, my agent, has been with me since 1997. She found my query letter in the trash can of the agency for which she was then working, apparently. She soon went off on her own, and I’ve followed her since.
I was, to be honest, completely confused. I was in London, attending a wedding, at the time. I came back that night to a cramped hotel room littered with telephone message notes that had been slipped under the door. I honestly could not understand what my agent and editor were telling me. It seemed impossible. It still does.
You started off writing these very personal stories, memoirs on mothering and friendship. Even your fiction draws deeply from your personal experiences. What made you decide to fictionalize pieces of your life instead of continuing to write memoirs?
You can often write closer to the truth in fiction than you can in memoir, where it is, at least to me, essential to be sensitive to anyone your story might touch.
You’ve said before that you don’t outline your stories. How do you organize yourself when you’re writing?
I just write, sentence to sentence, with a general sense of mood and purpose in my head. This means that my work goes through countless drafts until I know what my story is actually about — where the accents must be, the turning points. Then I have to go back and reengineer the whole thing. Many, many, many times. It doesn’t sound or seem very organized. But I am an organic writer, interested in meaning and language. Interested in going deep.
They have all been almost impossible to write. Still Love in Strange Places, my memoir about my marriage to a Salvadoran man, necessitated 15 years of research and began as a novel that went through 30 or so drafts before I decided that I wasn’t qualified to write a novel about El Salvador and turned the whole thing into a memoir with a very different focus. FLOW: The Life and Times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River was a sui generis book—poetry, history, fiction, an autobiography of a river. There was no roadmap. Zenobia: The Curious Book of Business was a wild and out-of-the-box corporate fable; again, I was feeling my way through the dark. Every novel is a challenge, and at the moment I’m working on three that require enormous research into very different things—the Spanish Civil War, 1876 Philadelphia, and 1940s mental health assumptions.
I don’t know. Sometimes I think I should just stick to gardening and dance. It would be a whole lot less confusing.
When The Heart is not a Size comes out next March, you’ll have written 11 books in 11 years. What has been the most surprising thing for you as an author?
How hard it all still is. How little I still know. How much I have yet to learn.
You’ve taught numerous workshops and this fall you’ll be teaching a class at the University of Pennsylvania. What advice do you offer to aspiring authors?
Oh my gosh. Well. I put a lot of that advice into Seeing Past Z: Nurturing the Imagination in a Fast-Forward World, my story about teaching emerging writers and about what they taught me. And I often put a lot of that advice on my blog (for example, I have recently written about beginnings, or I have mused about outlines, or I have talked about the power of certain words). I never teach the same thing twice, rarely use the same book or story twice in my classrooms. I grow right alongside my students.
You write freelance articles, you blog, you run a communications company with your husband…when do you find time to write books?
Lately, sadly, I can barely find the time. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to win a grant (though the last one was in 2005) that buys me some time. I tend to get up at 4 in the morning and try to fight for two hours of writing time out of most days. Since my major client is UK based, however, I’m often emailing with those good folks from 5 AM on. I have California clients or interviews that keep me working until 9 PM, sometimes, and then I have a China-based client. I don’t even know what time it is over there, or what day. I just know that sometimes I’ve got calls scheduled for 11 PM, when I’m less than bright-brained. This morning I wrote for an hour and I have four sentences. I’m just trying, like everyone else, to find the time.
The extras extend my poet-heroine’s story forward, via a book of poems that she has written for her senior thesis. I was honored to be asked to do the extras, which is done for just a handful of HarperTeen books each year. I was told that I could do anything I wanted. I loved writing more Elisa poems.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
Michael Ondaatje, Alice McDermott, Colum McCann, Stanley Kunitz, Jack Gilbert. And I absolutely loved The Book Thief, last year.