Karen DeGroot Carter: Do you consider writing something you struggle to do despite the constraints of parenting, something you do that enhances your ability to parent, or something that provides a welcome escape? Or all of the above!
Patry Francis: Definitely all of the above. I really admire writers who can get a lot of work done when their children are small. I was never one of them. For me, trying to understand who each child was and what they needed to grow and develop their own talents took all the creativity I had. There was no room for me to ponder the inner life of characters. Though I made many outlines and filled notebooks with ideas for the novels I hoped to write, nothing much was finished while there was a child under six in the house.
Writing, if it’s genuine and honest, is an act of supreme empathy. In writing a novel, I struggle to understand my characters, to accept their strengths and weaknesses, to allow them the freedom to be themselves (even when it doesn’t fit in with my plans), to celebrate them, forgive them and then to let them go. When you think of it, it’s very similar to the arc of parenting.
I also think my dedication to my work, both when I met with success and during the long years when I didn’t, has had a positive influence on my children. It’s taught them that if you truly love what you do, the process itself is always the greatest reward.
I have always loved my role as a mother, but I am also grateful to have something that is all my own. As my children are growing older and beginning to leave home, there is a sense of nostalgia and even loss, but that is counter-balanced by the joy I have in my other life: my work. Knowing that mom is busy and happy is also making the transition easier for the children. And, oh yes, one more thing: they are so proud of me.
KDC: At age 22, you had survived a divorce and were raising your two little boys on your own. Your posts regarding that time talk about reading classics like David Copperfield and Les Miserables to your boys, and of meeting author and essayist Marilynne Robinson, who won the 2005 Pulitzer prize for her novel Gilead. It’s clear that you pursued your love of reading literature and writing and submitting your work even during such a challenging time. What drives you to write?
PF: An early, precipitous marriage, motherhood at 19, and then divorce at 22 just when most of my friends were preparing to graduate from college and begin their lives…it’s hardly a course I would recommend. Yet, those years raising my sons and beginning to write were particularly joyous ones for me. After the divorce, I returned to the college town where I had completed a semester, re-enrolled as a part-time student, and took a job on campus. The university community proved to be a nurturing, stimulating environment both for me and for my children.
Though we struggled financially, I was sustained by some terrific friends, the satisfaction and excitement I found in learning, and especially by my wonderful boys. Ever since they were toddlers, they’ve been hearing that someday I was going to write a novel and sell it. Despite the long wait and the many detours I made, my sons never stopped believing in me. Along with my husband and my two younger children, they have been my most ardent supporters.
KDC: You were a waitress when you signed on with your agent, and you continued to waitress at a country club on a weekly basis for months after your book was sold. What suggestions do you have for writers who work outside the home — especially those who then come home to a house full of family — as they juggle so many demands on their time and energy?
PF: Every writer has to decide how to balance the need to earn money with family life and the demands of her vocation. It isn’t easy, and I don’t think there’s any one answer. Waitressing served me well. Since I worked in the evenings, I had my mornings free to write. Working got me out into the real world where stories and inspiration were almost as abundant as cranky customers; and it provided lots of energy and motion to counterbalance the hours I sat in my study, moving nothing but my brain.
KDC: You jumped on the blog bandwagon in early 2005. Have you found the demands of maintaining your blog Simply Wait for two years have been justified by the returns?
PF: The blog has been one of the most rewarding, interesting, and just plain fun things I’ve ever done. It also provides me with something writers almost never get: instant gratification. I spent years of my life stuffing my hopeful little manuscripts into envelopes and sending them off to literary magazines. As any writer knows, the wait is usually months, the acceptances are few and hard won, and then it’s usually another year before the piece makes it into print. The opportunity to publish my own work and to engage directly with like-minded readers has been both empowering and liberating.
The bloggers I “talk with” daily are some of the most creative, encouraging, inspiring people I’ve ever known. One of the true joys I’ve experienced was sharing the news that I had sold my novel. The response was generous and overwhelming. I often tell people that my blog friends pre-ordered the novel even before my mother did! Is maintaining the blog worth it? Absolutely.
KDC: On your blog, you’ve documented memorable conversations with your agent on the way to publication of your first novel and even discussed how you found an agent. Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
PF: Like most writers, especially unconnected ones like I was, I found the search for an agent — and in particular, the right agent — long, arduous, and frequently demoralizing. First, if I’d known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have taken the rejections I got so personally or allowed them to send me into spiraling loops of self-doubt and despair. I would have understood that agents are overwhelmed with queries and manuscripts, and that their primary responsibility lies with their existing clients. Second, I wouldn’t have signed with the first agent who offered to represent me, as I did several years ago, beginning what turned out to be a mismatched and unfruitful relationship. Finally, I would have waited for the right agent, one who truly “gets” my work, who loves my characters as much as I do, one who I can talk to as easily and openly as any other friend, one who is committed enough to keep submitting a manuscript until every avenue has been exhausted and then submit it one more time.
KDC: Some of your blog posts get up to forty comments. To what do you attribute the success of Simply Wait? Does your family consider your blog a distraction from your “real” writing?
PF: Yes, my family and my agent sometimes complain the blog distracts me from my real work, which is writing novels. At times, I even agree! At other times, however, I think there is nothing more real or necessary than what happens on Simply Wait. The blog’s success can probably be attributed to a fairly simple formula: I speak to the readers as honestly and deeply and directly as I can, and they speak back to me, and increasingly to each other, in the same way. As it has evolved and continues to evolve, it has taken on a life of its own that surprises and delights me every day.
KDC: You’re a member of Killer Year’s inaugural class of 2007 – a group of debut thriller and suspense authors who banded together to support and promote each other and their work. How did you become a member and what’s required of you as a participant?
PF: I got involved with Killer Year after seeing a mention in Publisher’s Lunch. The notice said that a writer and editor named Jason Pinter was setting up a site for authors who had debut thrillers or suspense novels coming out in 2007. Though my novel is difficult to categorize, being part psychological suspense, part literary, part family drama, I emailed Jason and asked to be included.
Once I was accepted, I thought that was pretty much the end of it. Little did I know how energetic and innovative this group of writers would prove to be. Nearly every day brings a fresh round of new ideas, camaraderie, and support in my email box. We share the responsibility of maintaining a site and blog and we’ve put together an elegant volume of first chapters to introduce booksellers all over the country to our novels. We’ve also compiled an anthology of our short stories that will be published by St. Martin’s Press in early 2008. The group has been given amazingly generous support from an array of established authors of the genre. Aligning myself with Killer Year has proven just how much writers can accomplish when they work together.
KDC: You describe The Liar’s Diary as part psychological suspense, part literary, part family drama. By defying categorization, your book appeals to a wide variety of readers. Could you describe the plot?
PF: Like a lot of novels that deal with a violent crime, The Liar’s Diary began with a story from the headlines that I couldn’t forget: An adolescent had committed a particularly gruesome murder in his neighborhood. The community rose to his defense. He was a “good boy” from a “wonderful family.” The evidence, however, was damning and conclusive. As a mother, I wanted to know how his parents could have failed to see that something was wrong before it reached this point. Thus began a novel imagined from the mother’s point of view. In the end, my novel is not the story of the family I read about in the newspaper, but a totally fictional one that confronts some very real questions: What would you do if you believed your child may have been involved in a brutal crime? How far would you go to protect him? Where does a mother’s first loyalty lie — with her child or with the truth? As I probed deeper, the answers surprised even me.
KDC: You’re an avid reader whose favorite authors range from Polish poets like Czeslaw Milosz to novelists like Joyce Carol Oates and Andres Dubus. While reading poetry, you’ve said you ask yourself, “Does the poem give me something I need to have; does it tell me something I need to know; does it crook its metaphorical finger and lead me some place I’ve never been, but recognize instantly?” Do you ask the same of fiction, and what do you strive to provide through your own writing?
PF: I had almost forgotten what I’d said about poetry, but my view hasn’t changed, and yes, it applies to fiction too. I want an engrossing plot, and characters who are real and interesting enough that their fates consume me, challenge me, and maybe even change me.
When I was younger, I finished every novel I read, even when I had to struggle to reach the end. Not anymore. With so many books published every year, I choose the writers who will receive the gift of my time carefully. If they don’t reward me in return, I close the book and leave it for someone else who may need what it contains. I wouldn’t write at all if I didn’t hope and believe that I could similarly reward those who read my work.
KDC: You’re a self-described introvert with a big voice, a former waitress who devours poetry and literature and then serves up her own brand of writing. You were an only child who now lives in a very full house. You’re an educated person who grew up in a factory town. Yet you come across as so grounded – at least to me – despite these paradoxes and the many roles you play as a wife, mother, poet, and now published novelist.
PF: Your observation cuts to the essence of everything I’ve struggled with and drawn strength from in my life. The paradoxes you describe have made me feel like an outsider in whatever world I found myself in, but also enriched my perspective. I think that writers, and perhaps all artists, often feel a sense of being “different” for various reasons. In fact, it’s probably the source of the empathy we need if we wish to create real, living characters that may live lives very dissimilar to our own, or to recreate the world in all its amazing colors.
In the end, it’s the paradoxes themselves that ground me. Whenever I get too impressed with my newfound success, I look to the right of my computer where I keep my old waitress nametag pinned to a bulletin board. And if that doesn’t quash my ego, there’s always a family member around to remind me that I’ll always be just plain “mom” around here.
KDC: You’ve noted that one thing you feel you missed by not getting a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) is the sense of community MFA grads seem to take with them as they pursue their writing careers. I suspect Simply Wait has given you a forum for developing your own connections with other writers and readers. Is this true?
PF: The blog has been my MFA program in many ways. It’s not only brought me the friendships and connections with other writers and readers that I’d hungered for; it’s also been a great source of feedback. Through my posts, I’m taught on a daily basis what readers respond to strongly, and what they don’t. There is no more significant lesson a writer can learn. My editor laughed when I submitted my acknowledgments for The Liar’s Diary. Instead of crediting my MFA community like many writers do, I mentioned my blog friends. “We’ve entered a new era,” she said. And it’s true; we have. There are exciting ways for writers to find each other and to communicate that didn’t exist a decade ago.
KDC: You have so many colorful characters that inhabit your blog, from Chris the Cabbie, to Lina at the health club, to the cook lady, even your father, your uncles, and your grandfather. And you write nonfiction on all sorts of subjects in a very accessible, personal, and often very funny way. Have you considered pulling some of the best posts from Simply Wait into a collection?
PF: Oh, I love those people, every one of them! Thank you for recalling them and imagining that they might populate a book. It’s such a delight to be able to share the friends, family members, and acquaintances who make me laugh, break my heart, or inspire me with their courage, their wisdom, or their attitudes. I love both the idea of putting together a nonfiction book that celebrates the unheralded life and involving blog readers in the editorial selection. At present, however, I’m thoroughly engrossed in a new novel, a book of linked short stories, and a collection of poems. Ah, for more time!