It's been awhile since we've done an author meet & greet here at Trish's Dishes. But when I heard about Melissa Senate's new book, THE SECRET OF JOY, a couple of months ago, I emailed her right away to see if she'd answer some questions for us.
Melissa is all sorts of things I love: a prolific author, funny, wise...AND she lives in Maine. Whenever I read her books, I want to drive north to take her out for chocolate martinis to talk about writing and life. So let's pretend that I did! Here we are:
And here's our conversation!
1. I’m curious about your characters! One of the first things I thought of when I finished THE SECRET OF JOY was how good it felt to read a book with no real bad guy. Arguably Rebecca’s father isn’t a shining example of perfection, and a couple minor characters are jerks, but overall the conflict isn’t one of good vs. evil so much as the challenge of adapting to new information (or something more subtle and profound like that!) Was that a conscious decision on your part? How did your characters evolve during the writing process?
A: I love this question because the challenge of adapting to new information is exactly what the story is truly about. You’re hit with a doozy, sometimes a few at once, and what do you do? How do you process it? How does it change you? I wasn’t conscious of having those questions in my head when I started writing; I just knew I needed to find some answers for myself about the autobiographical aspect of The Secret of Joy. Eight years ago, I received an email out of the blue that said: I think you might be my half-sister. It took me a long time to take all the questions that this email, this doozy, raised in me, and dump it on my characters to help me sort it out. Just as I had to accept the new information of a half-sibling I’d never met suddenly making contact, Joy Jayhawk had to, despite not wanting to, despite wanting to stay shut down. And Rebecca, queen of getting stuck in a rut of her own making, not even a particularly comfortable rut, suddenly wanted something that required movement and moxie. I was so happy with how they ended up, how they opened up their own lives. No spoilers by saying they both get a happy ending.
2. You write fiction for both adults (SEE JANE DATE and THE SOLOMON SISTERS WISE UP are two of my favorites) and teens (THEODORA TWIST). How did you start writing for a younger audience? Do you consciously alternate between the two markets as you’re plotting new books?
A: Oooh, thank you for that, Trish! I’d always wanted to write for teens and kept it in the back of my mind as something I’d think about one day, but then the “one day” presented itself in the form of an idea I couldn’t shake. No one would ever know it, but the inspiration of Theodora Twist, about a teen movie star with a bad image who’s forced to film a reality TV show about how she’s really just an ordinary teenager (not!) by living with one (who really is) and doing everything she does, came from my being a nervous new mother. Isn’t that crazy? I can remember seeing all these perfect looking, skinny, coiffed new mothers walking in packs with their snazzy strollers on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where I lived until my son turned two, and feeling so . . . not of them. When I feel that way, I have a tendency to make my main character “the opposition” and really delve into who they really are and if their life is really so glam and perfect. I love demystifying people for myself. Love that about writing. It’s why I made the main character of The Secret of Joy the seeking half-sibling; I wanted to put myself in the other person’s shoes. Not always easy! I think this relates back to your comment in the first question about their being no real bad guys (or girls) in the book.
My next teen novel, THE MOSTS, is coming out in June 2010, and I have a full proposal, a meaty synopsis and five chapters of a new YA, that my agent gave me great notes on for revision. I think adult fiction comes more easily, more naturally to me, but I personally love to read YA so I’m very drawn to continue writing for that market. Once I finish the adult novel I’m working on now, I’ll revise the new YA proposal. It’s a little different for me, a little edgier, so we shall see. And no, no vampires!
3. Speaking of plotting…are you a “plotter” (who outlines the whole story ahead of time) or a “pantster” (who flies by the seat of your pants to see what the characters do next)?
A: I am a serious plotter. I love long, meaty synopses in the character’s voice that I then break into chapters and then into scenes. That’s basically how I structure/format a new novel. I need to know where my characters, where my plot, are headed. And I write to an ending. Everything I do leads me to that ending.
4. Many of my blog readers are aspiring writers—can you tell us a bit about your writing routine? For example, how do you juggle writing and motherhood? Do you work on one project at a time or do you work on several simultaneously? How soon after finishing a project do you start another?
A: I’m a full-time writer and freelance copywriter/editor, and right now I’m very lucky that my seven-year-old son is at school for seven hours a day. I’m a morning person, a wake-up-at-5 a.m. morning person, and I like to hit the computer when I’m fresh out of bed without a certain little voice saying, “MOMMY!” for a good two hours. I read the previous scene, get all the threads going in my head, and then start writing. Then, when my dear Max wakes up, I turn my attention to him. Once the school bus pulls away, I always do my freelance work (I typically write one back-cover per day or have a freelance line-edit to work on) and then I’ll be itching to get back to my manuscript, which I’ll work on till the bus pulls back up. I only work on one novel at a time. For example, before I started the women’s fiction manuscript I’m writing now, I wrote a proposal for my next YA. I need to revise that one, but I won’t do that until I finish the women’s fiction manuscript. I think I’d have too hard a time keeping both stories in my head, all the trials and tribulations of the characters. Because I’m not a night owl, it’s very difficult for me to write at night, after my son goes to bed. That’s when I do most of my reading or watch some fun TV. But when I’m very close to deadline (like now), I work till midnight every night and eat whatever want. Like the half-gone chocolate Santa on my coffee table.
I start a new project immediately after finishing one, mostly because I’m a single mother and write full time! If I don’t produce, there’s no second income to lean on. My next novel is due to my editor on January 1st, so the day after I’ll start working on the proposal for the next one. I already have the idea and wrote up a page-long pitch that I’ll send my agent; if she green-lights, then I’ll work it into a full proposal. I love the whole process. The dreaming up the idea, the figuring out the meat and bones, the submitting, the waiting and nail biting, the writing, the submitting. I find all of it very exciting. The part that makes my stomach flip is the two months or so before the book comes out, when I’m anxiously awaiting reviews.
5. What is your favorite scene from THE SECRET OF JOY?
A: My very favorite scene is when Joy’s female clients on the love bus (except Victoria, who found instant love with Victor) are exploring the beautiful lighthouse in Cape Elizabeth (Maine), and they’re all staring out at the water and just start opening up, the way staring out at an endless expanse of ocean can have you do, and Joy asks which is worse: to lose the father you’ve loved your entire life, or to have never known him at all. That scene starts all the characters on an honesty-path that gets kinda bumpy for everyone.
6. What are you working on next?
A: I’m scary-close to deadline (1/1/10) for my next novel, THE LOVE GODDESS'S COOKING SCHOOL, about the unlikely teacher of an Italian cooking class and her four unlikely students. There’s a teensy bit of magic, a little romance, lots of delicious Italian food. That’ll be out next November. I’m definitely not ready to think about next November, but it’s wonderful to know that a new book will be making its fun production journey all through the coming year.
(*And this is where, in our imaginary martini-time, we'd turn off the cameras, order another round of chocolate martinis, and talk about all sorts of super-secret girl stuff regarding our next books, cute boys, and where to get cute shoes in Maine*)
Bloggies...don't you love her? I seriously recommend THE SECRET OF JOY as a holiday giving idea. It will bring entertainment, hope, and happiness to readers everywhere...what more could one ask for in a gift?