Kristina Riggle is the author of the novel Real Life & Liars of which Publisher’s Weekly writes, “With ease and grace, Riggle walks the fine line between sentimentality and comedy, and she has a sure hand in creating fun, quirky characters.” This could well apply to her second novel, The Life You’ve Imagined, where four former high school classmates come together in the small town where they grew up to face the choices they’ve made and wonder if they could have done things differently. Her third novel, Things We Didn’t Say, due out June 2011, is about marriage, divorce, and whether or not you can ever start fresh.
Riggle started out as a newspaper reporter in western Michigan, and continues to work as a freelance journalist. She’s also a published short story writer and fiction co-editor at Literary Mama. She lives and writes in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with her husband, son Sam, 8, and daughter Avery, 3, and a dog. Here, she talks with Literary Mama fiction co-editor Suzanne Kamata about writing, motherhood, and letting go.
Suzanne Kamata: How did you get started as a fiction writer?
Kristina Riggle: Writing fiction for publication had been a “someday” dream of mine while I pursued my more practical career (or so I thought at the time) as a newspaper reporter. Then, it’s a cliché but it’s true that having children changes your perspective on life. Between the birth of my son — after two years of infertility — and burn-out at the newspaper, I quit my day job. I continued to freelance a little bit so I could hang onto a piece of my old career self, while a lovely woman with aÂ part-time day care in her home watched my infant son a few hours a week. It was in between freelance assignments that I started pursuing fiction writing with an eye toward publication. That was in 2003.
SK: How did writing for newspapers prepare you for being a novelist? Or were there things you had to unlearn?
KR: It was a great help, actually. Discipline, a deadline mentality, disbelief in “writer’s block,” and the thick skin a reporter must grow — all of these things have been a boon to me. Also, my interviewing skills and lack of shyness (ever met a shy newspaper reporter?) have come in handy during my novel research and book promotion. Journalistic writing also carries with it a certain immediacy and energy created by the need to be concise, and that has shown up in my novels.
I’m having to unlearn Associated Press style, such as using numerals for all numbers ten and over. I hereby apologize to all my copy editors at HarperCollins for this.
SK: How do you manage to write with small children in the house?
KR: Ever since I quit the day job I’ve balanced some combination of freelance newspaper writing, which supports part-time day care to allow for some creative writing time. This is still tricky as some of that writing time had to be dedicated to the freelance work, but I couldn’t ditch the freelancing because we couldn’t have afforded day care without it. (I freelance less often since the book deals, however.) This meant I would have to be very, very efficient. I’m told Hemingway would leave off every writing day in mid-sentence so he wouldn’t waste time the next day wondering what to say next. I don’t know if that’s really true, but I adopted the habit and it works very well. I’ve also been known when necessary to write first thing in the morning before everyone wakes up, to write after the kids go to bed, or to scribble notes longhand in a notebook at the lunch table.
SK: Has being a mother changed the way you write? For example, do you choose your subject matter knowing that your kids might read your books someday?
KR: I don’t worry about what the kids will think someday. Maybe I should, but I just don’t. It’s hard to answer this because I only started writing seriously for publication since my son was born. I don’t have a point of comparison.
SK: Do you ever borrow material from your kids for your novels?
KR: I do, and it’s sometimes unconscious. For my third book, Things We Didn’t Say, I wrote a teenage boy character who never talks to his parents about anything. During revisions it dawned on me that this is my worry about my own son, who is not quite eight years old but likes to hold things in. More directly, little habits of my children have popped up in my kid characters, such as my son’s fascination with dinosaurs and blurting out cool facts he learns.
SK: Your first novel, Real Life & Liars, takes place in Charlevoix, and Things We Didn’t Say is set in Grand Rapids, two definite places. In The Life You’ve Imagined, why did you make Haven a fictional town, albeit one based on small western Michigan towns that you are familiar with?
KR: The effort of writing in a real place — especially one four hours away from where I actually live now — was somewhat exhausting to me, and this time I wanted total flexibility in the landscape. Also, The Life You’ve Imagined is a bigger canvas. It takes place over three months and has many varied settings appropriate for the four major characters. Real Life & Liars plus my third book, Things We Didn’t Say both have compact time frames and have a crucible effect of the action taking place mainly in one house.
SK: What was the germ for The Life You’ve Imagined? Did you start with a character, an idea, a setting?
KR: I deliberately mined my personal experience. I started the earliest versions of this book before Real Life & Liars and at the time I was thirty and thinking about the experiences in my twenties, which had the biggest impact on me. I had this sense of learning — really, truly understanding — that the world is not a meritocracy and life just plain isn’t fair. This is a hard lesson for gold star-addicted National Honor Society nerds like myself. This led me to the character of Anna, the ambitious lawyer about to make partner who can’t figure out why she’s not delirious with happiness at getting what she always wanted. Anna’s mother, Maeve, came from her, and the rest of the book grew out of their conflict.
SK: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you are ruthless about abandoning projects that aren’t working, whereas I know other writers who keep going back to the same manuscripts, and maybe even publish them years later. How do you know when to give up on a manuscript?
KR: When I can no longer tell whether my changes are making it better or worse. When I’m starting to feel desperate and changing things for the sake of changing things. I think back to a critique partner’s comment on my first attempted novel, as I frantically revised to make the ending more of a conflict, a bigger payoff for the reader. He wrote, “Really? Physical violence?” I realized that made no sense for the character and I was getting desperate. I no longer knew what to do. I set that aside for years, though I eventually revised it into a literary short story. I don’t give them up forever necessarily, these failed manuscripts. But at some point I have to let them go and make a fresh start.
SK: Are you part of a writing group? Do you usually share your novels with anyone before they go to your agent or editor?
KR: I have a few trusted readers, other writers whose talent I admire and respect. I have had a real, live critique group in the past, though I don’t right now. My agent does like to edit and she has great insight but I don’t show her raw, unedited work.
SK: How has Literary Mama impacted your writing career?
KR: When I was sending out query letters for my novels and when my agent was submitting my work I would get comments back that they were impressed with my Literary Mama involvement. I think they were impressed that I took the craft of writing seriously in a variety of ways, not just my own novels. Editing other work always makes you a better editor of your own work, I believe. And, on top of all that, the community of support that is the Literary Mama family has made this rocky publishing journey much more comfortable.
SK: What are you working on now?
KR: Now that Things We Didn’t Say is being released this summer, I’m at work on my fourth book and, as is typical for me, I don’t say too much about works in progress at early stages. It’s also under contract with HarperCollins and should be released in 2012.