Julie Lawson Timmer, author of the best-selling novel Five Days Left, published her second book, Untethered, this past June. Lawson Timmer, who currently is working on her third novel, is originally from Canada and now lives with her family in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where, in addition to being a wife, writer, mother, and stepmother, she practices law part-time. In her email conversation with Literary Mama contributor Gina Consolino-Barsotti, Lawson Timmer reveals how she untethered herself from being a “want-to-be” writer and emerged as a published author.
Gina Consolino-Barsotti: You are a mom, stepmom, author, and attorney for a wheels manufacturing company. Can you elaborate on how your writing and mothering journey began and led you to where you are today?
Julie Lawson Timmer: I had wanted to write a book for a long time and had never given it a real shot. I had plenty of excuses, starting with a lack of time and energy. But then, the year I turned 45 (2011), I was suddenly struck by the realization that if I were to get to the end of my days and look back on my life, one of my greatest regrets would be that I had never tried to write a novel and to see if I could get it published. If I tried and failed, that would be fine, but if I didn’t try at all, it would be a devastating regret. So, I promised myself that I’d have a draft of a novel completed on my birthday, about three months away. I met that goal—it was a terrible first draft, but it was finished! To reward myself, I signed up for a writing conference where I pitched some agents (none offered representation) and met some amazing writer friends, who I’m still close to. I learned a lot at the conference and used that knowledge to revise the novel and then query agents. That ultimately led me (after another one and a half years or so) to my agent.
When I started writing that first book, Five Days Left, all four kids were living at home (two are in college now), and I was working full-time. It was challenging to find the time and energy to write, but I had this looming “end of days regret” hanging over me, so I made an effort to find the time. I found it between the hours of 4 a.m. and 6 a.m., so that’s when I wrote and revised my first book over the course of two years. It was tiring, but, at the same time, it was exhilarating to be working toward this goal I knew I “must” try to achieve. During those two years, I practically jumped out of bed each morning to get back to the manuscript. I still do that some mornings but not every day. About a year ago, I reduced my lawyering to half-time, so now I have entire writing days at home, enabling me to sleep until a saner hour every day.
GCB: You acknowledged in the notes of your book Untethered that the storyline involving Char, Allie, and Morgan originated from a Reuters article entitled The Child Exchange: Inside America’s Underground Market for Adopted Children by Meghan Twohey. Since you started working on the novel, have you noted any legislative movement on this very important issue of rehoming adopted children? Do you have any recommendations to other authors who desire to highlight humanitarian or social justice issues within their fictitious storylines?
JLT: Yes, thankfully, several states have passed anti-rehoming legislation already, and several other states have introduced it. There’s also been a federal anti-rehoming bill introduced. These bills were introduced as a result of the Reuters article, and I imagine Megan Twohey must feel great about that. What a contribution she made with that article!
I think one bit of advice I’d give to authors seeking to include this kind of storyline in their work is to be careful about preaching—as in, don’t do it at all. In my experience, readers love to learn new things, to be told about situations, moral dilemmas, etc., that they weren’t aware existed. But after they’re told these situations exist, readers like to be able to make up their own minds about what the right answers are. They don’t want to be lectured to or instructed how to think, and they certainly don’t want to put up with that for 300 pages. It’s not easy, but I think it’s important for an author to provide the information only and not the answer.
GCB: How much of your experience with being a mom and stepmom creep into your characters’ lives?
JLT: Although none of my books has been autobiographical, I’m certain that a lot of me has ended up in all of them. With Five Days Left, I imagined what it would be like to face a goodbye with a child, and my anguish about that definitely found its way onto Mara’s pages. With Untethered, I have experienced both the joys and challenges of raising a child who isn’t mine, and that experience informed a lot of Char’s pages.
GCB: Your characters Mara (Five Days Left) and Char (Untethered) feel very different to me. Mara exuded a self-assured, self-possessed, and strong attitude, despite her ailing body. Char, on the other hand, seemed hesitant and sometimes had a difficulty finding her voice. Can you speak a bit about how you birth your characters and encourage their evolution in a story? Do you have any characters that you have written about that you find most endearing to you?
JLT: It’s funny, because Mara came to me almost fully-formed one night as I was sitting with a notepad, sketching out thoughts about the novel. I could see her clearly in my mind, and she was Indian, on her way to India to adopt a daughter there, along with her parents, who had adopted her from the same orphanage. She was married to an American, she lived in Dallas, she had been raised in Montreal—all of this was news to me, and I just wrote it all down as some voice in my head told me this was how it was going to be. I have no idea why she announced herself that way, but it felt like there was nothing I could do about it. Mara is strong-willed in the book, and she was strong-willed in her creation! At one point, I actually tried to change her name, but she refused to let me do it. It sounds strange, I know.
With Char, far fewer things about her simply appeared to me, and I had to think about her and decide what she would be like. But certain characteristics of hers did seem to drop from the sky—the fact that she’s not in good shape, for example, and doesn’t really care all that much; the fact that she’s easygoing and not the type to bark out orders to her stepchild, etc. That second trait of hers was a key to the book, as you know.
After writing those two books, my process has become fairly fluid: I start thinking about a main character and allow her to contribute as much as she wants. If she’s quiet, I decide certain attributes for her, then stand back and see if she wants to make any changes or additions. I make note of those, add some more, and repeat. I think all of the characters I write about are strong in some significant way, so it seems right that they’d have some real opinions on what I write about them.
As for favorites, I’ve heard from a lot of readers that they really like Harry (from Five Days Left) and I agree. He’s such a caring person and such a unique/obscure person to end up in Mara’s life and in such an important way. In my current WIP, one of the POV characters is a nine-year-old boy, and he may end up being my favorite of all time. I love that kid and am always racing to get back to the chapters where he’s talking.
GCB: In addition to the adoption exchange, other complex issues interwoven into your novels include interracial adoption, Huntington’s disease, self-mutilation, and widowhood, to name a few. What part of your life journey has influenced you to address these topics within your writing?
JLT: I’m not sure any particular part of my life journey has led me to choose any of those topics. For no reason I’m aware of, I’m drawn to complex moral dilemmas and to the question of what makes a family—DNA, a legal document, or love? These are issues I find interesting and relevant to the way we all live today, and they’re the things that I’m most inspired to spend hours at a time (and hundreds of pages) considering.
GCB: The theme of saying goodbye pervades your first two novels. If this is not too personal, has writing these novels proven therapeutic to you and enabled you to say goodbye to certain aspects of your life?
JLT: I wrote Five Days Left after I lost a friend to cancer. (The book is dedicated to her.) Although writing the book didn’t make me grieve her less or find her death acceptable in any way, it did make me feel I had done something to honor her life in some small way, and I felt a bit of peace because of that. I think all of my books include a great deal of hope and happiness and laughter so that even though there are goodbyes, the stories are not only about loss and sadness. I think that’s similar to life, and, in that way, I think writing the books has been a good reminder to me that in life, we get it all: the good and the funny and the terrible and the heartbreaking. There can be moments of hope in the darkest of times, too, and I think that’s another lesson I was reminded of in writing these books.
GCB: Congratulations on your upcoming third novel, Mrs. Saint and the Defectives, which is due out in 2017. Can you tell us a little about this novel?
JLT: Thank you! Mrs. Saint and the Defectives tells the story of Markie, a 40-something single mother who’s trying to start her life over after a very public and embarrassing fall from marital, professional, and financial grace. Desperate to escape all the gossip and the shame she feels in letting her life get so messed up, Markie moves herself and her teenage son, Jesse, to a new house in a new town, where she plans to hide from the world, befriend no one, and lick her wounds in private. But then she and Jesse meet their new neighbor, Mrs. Saint, an irascible, elderly French-Canadian woman who takes it upon herself to involve herself in the lives of everyone around her and to identify and correct all of their flaws, whether they want her to or not.
GCB: What question do you wish that I would have asked but did not?
JLT: How about: Does it ever get easy to write an entire novel? And my answer is: No. Some books are easier than others to write, but all novels are challenging. They take a ton of time, they can be frustrating, they can make us feel like we have no talent, they can make us want to stomp on our laptops. I think this is an essential thing for aspiring novelists to know—not so they’ll be discouraged but so they’ll realize that we ALL go through this with pretty much every book we write. We ALL find it tough. We all struggle to find enough time, to come up with good ideas, to stick with a schedule of writing, to battle our inner critic, to manage our expectations, to deal with rejection, to find the emotional energy to revise the same chapter again and again and again before it finally comes out right. So, if you’re working on a novel and you’re finding it hard to keep up your motivation or your confidence, or if you’re getting frustrated because a plot line ended up not working and now you have to cut five chapters or rewrite them, you’re not alone. You’re not the only one struggling while the rest of us are breezing through the process, effortlessly knocking off chapters that look perfect after the first draft while we maintain our energy and sanity and our tidy homes. Yeah . . . no. It’s hard for all of us. But it’s rewarding too, for so many reasons. Find a writing friend or a group or someone you can lean on when (not if) you suffer any of these challenges. And keep writing.