Posted by amybou on:
The Santa Barbara Writers Conference’s First Book Panel on Tuesday, June 12 featured several dynamic debut authors who shared their stories of why they started to write their first books and what their writing process entailed—from research to revision, to finally sharing their work with readers. Panelists included Ramona Ausubel (No One Is Here Except All Of Us), Melinda Palacio (Ocotillo Dreams), Toni Margarita Plummer (The Bolero of Andi Rowe), and Amy Franklin-Willis (The Lost Saints of Tennessee).
Palacio’s Ocotillo Dreams is set in Chandler, Arizona during the immigration sweeps of 1997. "It wasn't difficult to imagine myself caught up in those immigration sweeps," Palacio said. "My historical fiction suddenly became contemporary," she noted, after mentioning that her novel was released in the midst of a new immigration sweep.
"I'm a very intuitive writer," Palacio replied when asked about her writing process by moderator Barnaby Conrad III. Although she doesn’t outline, Palacio shared how she wrote down plot points on a piece of drawing paper in order to connect events in the narrative and said that she used different colored note cards to keep track of storylines. Palacio attended the SBWC as a student for the first time in 2001 and relied on several friends she made at the conference to read early drafts of her novel, which recently won First Prize in the Mariposa Award for First Book at the International Latino Book Awards in New York.
SBWC alum Amy Franklin-Willis was inspired to write The Lost Saints of Tennessee by the stories her father told her about growing up in rural Pocahontas, Tennessee during the Forties and Fifties. A few years after her grandmother passed away, the family home that Franklin-Willis visited during Christmas and summer vacations was sold, which prompted her to start writing about Pocahontas. "I really missed the anchor that town had provided me," she explained. Through the process of writing the novel, she learned how to "honor the fictional story that emerged" and edit out some of the stories that had come from her family.
The Lost Saints of Tennessee took eight years to write, as the author was raising three children and working a full-time job. As for Franklin-Willis’s process of keeping her story straight--which was no small task, as the novel spans over forty years--she found that creating a timeline on a white board was instrumental. "That kept me sane,” she said. “I wouldn't have been able to get through it" without the timeline, which still hangs in her office to this very day.
Ausubel spoke about the balance between research and imagination in writing No One Is Here Except All Of Us, which is set in the Romanian village of Zalischik during World War II. In the early stages of researching the novel, Ausubel flew to New York to interview her Romanian grandmother, sorted through ship logs and telegrams, and starting transcribing her family's stories, only to realize that “all that research was just a weight." After putting down the research for two years, she returned to the project with the new understanding that "if I was going to write this book...I would have to fold myself and my imagination into it." She allowed herself the freedom to write whatever she wanted as she drafted the novel, deciding to first invent her world and then to check for historical accuracy later in the revision process. "This is my family story from my own heart," Ausubel said. She wrote 17 drafts of the novel--"it was such a mess and required a million ways of cleaning," as she described it--and went through another two rounds of revision after the novel was sold to Riverhead (a division of Penguin).
As an editor at Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press as well as an author, Plummer spoke about the process of working on a short story collection and making the stories linked at the suggestion of her first editor at Curbside Press, which was later taken over by Northwestern University Press. Plummer said that as an editor, she finds that her authors are generally able to find their own solutions to problems she identifies in their work, and wanted to be sure to give her editors what they wanted since she's in the unusual position of moviing back and forth between roles. Since Plummer doesn’t like to sit for too long at the computer, she is in the habit of printing her drafts and making revisions longhand. Set in South El Monte, California, where Plummer grew up, the stories in The Bolero of Andi Rowe center on a young woman of Mexican and Irish heritage and explore themes including love, loss, identity, and the immigrant experience. As Conrad pointed out, all of the works by authors on the panel explore "family and borders...and villages as well."
"We write for someone to read it--we have to have readers," Ausubel said, after likening the act of sharing work with readers to having another voice on the other end of the telephone during a conversation. For the past forty years, the Santa Barbara Writers Conference has created opportunities for conversations to take place between authors and readers, for friendships and mentorships to flourish, and for stories, and even first books, to emerge.
Photo courtesy of Nancy Shobe at www.nancyshobe.com