Anna E. Collins was born and raised in Sweden, and now resides in Seattle with her husband, two children, and her mini goldendoodle. She has published two novels: Love at First Spite (January 2022) and These Numbered Days (March 2022) and has another due out next year (The Reluctant Traveler). Her stories are about women—their hopes, dreams, journeys, and relationships—and she writes with the goal of making readers both laugh and cry. Her most recent novel, These Numbered Days, tells the story of a woman who finds self-acceptance and love when, after an eight-year absence, she returns to her family seeking redemption from her now teenage children. Sheryl Zedeck Katz recently spoke with Anna about her writing journey, losing control when you become a mother, and forgiving yourself for mistakes.
Sheryl Zedeck Katz: Congratulations on publishing two novels this year! How did you get started writing?
Anna E. Collins: I’ve been writing for about 13 years. I started writing when my kids were little. I needed to do something different, something just for me. I was stuck in the baby haze. I’d always dreamed of writing, but I didn’t take it super seriously in the beginning. I wanted to see if I could write a book and I did. I didn’t know anything about writing, but I enjoyed the process, so I kept writing.
SZK: Can you describe your path to publishing?
AEC: I’ve completed eight manuscripts. The first three will remain in the proverbial drawer. Book four (Women’s Fiction) is forthcoming; Book five (These Numbered Days – Women’s Fiction) and Book seven (Love at First Spite – Romance Comedy) are published; Book six (Women’s Fiction) is on submission; and Book eight (Romance Comedy) I’m currently not at liberty to say. I found my agent through cold querying. I had done Pitch Wars, a program that matches aspiring authors with established authors as their mentors, the year before, but had few requests and no takers, so I set about sending queries to a list of agents I’d put together. I queried over 50 agents in total for that book (The Reluctant Traveler) and started writing These Numbered Days. About 1/3 came back “no response means no,” and I never heard from them, and about 1/3 read the partials or fulls. My agent requested the full manuscript of The Reluctant Traveler at the end of Jan 2018 but didn’t offer representation until May. Both books were on submission for two years and during the last year, I wrote Love at First Spite, which ended up being published first. It’s like a ketchup bottle, nothing for a long time and then all of a sudden—results.
SZK: You seem to be able to put your brain in different gears with respect to genre, and that’s admirable. Are there challenges involved in switching genres?
AEC: My biggest challenge has been switching to romantic comedies. Focusing a whole story around a romance can be hard. Women’s fiction is a more natural path for my brain to take because I have always been introspective and interested in observing human nature. In women’s fiction, personal growth is the journey, but with romantic comedies, the relationship is the journey. Writing romance has been a new challenge, but also a breath of fresh air for me.
SZK: You taught high school English in Sweden and have a master’s degree in educational psychology. Did either of those experiences help in your writing journey?
AEC: As writers, especially when you first start, it’s difficult to accept constructive criticism, to wrap your mind around the idea that a first draft is not a final draft. Anytime you work at your writing, it’s going to make you a better writer. In my master’s program, I had some professors who pushed me, so I learned that it’s okay to examine my writing, and I think that made me a better writer.
SZK: I love a book title that means more than one thing, as I think yours does. How do you feel about titles and what does These Numbered Days mean to you?
AEC: Very simply, the title refers to the actual number of days my character has spent away from her family, but it’s also about how she feels about the loss of time with her children. I think there are more than even these two meanings in this title. Often my ideas come from titles, a phrase, or something like that. That’s what spurs my inspiration for a story. I’m happy with this title, even though it was a change requested by the publisher because it does have several meanings. Word play or multiple layers of meaning in titles is very important to me.
SZK: There were several lines in the book that jumped off the page for me. The first one was on page two, and it really set the tone of the story for me: “When I’d had my children, they’d taken over my heart. They pulled it out for me to carry in the open, pulsating and vulnerable because they were it— a piece of me roaming free.” It’s such an open, honest, and clear description of what motherhood can feel like. Can you share with me how you came to describe it that way?
AEC: That’s how motherhood has felt for me. When you have kids, you realize that you can’t control everything because they feel so close to you, and yet they are individuals that do whatever they want, and at times there’s very little you can do about it. It’s a terrifying feeling, especially for someone like me, who is a bit of a control freak, who doesn’t like insecurity and feeling vulnerable. This line definitely comes from my experience, especially as a mom of teenagers. I’m trying to accept this intense discomfort of having the most vulnerable part of me, my children, unprotected. I’ve felt this vulnerability in situations as immediate as losing track of a kid in a department store (the longest 30 seconds!) or physically feeling their pain over friendship problems, and as abstract as picturing them moving out in a few years and creating lives of their own. I think vulnerability as a parent is inevitable for most of us and not something we should strive to avoid, but rather accept as part of the journey. It takes resilience, but it’s there because we love our kids.
SZK: Why did you choose to make your main character Annie’s story not just about her depression and her past, but about her choice to leave her family and give up her role as a mother?
AEC: This story was always about a mother leaving her children. The original spark came from days when my son started kindergarten and I sometimes found it difficult to say goodbye. So, on one of those morose days when I dropped him off, I was at my computer and I wrote one page that’s still in the book, as I wallowed in my own sadness, about what it would be like if that goodbye was forever. That page stayed in my idea folder for several years before I wrote the book.
SZK: Have any of your other manuscripts been inspired by your family?
AEC: Other than that, the only other direct inspiration that I’ve taken from my family is the male lead in Love at First Spite, who has Meniere’s Disease, an inner ear condition that causes repeated attacks of vertigo, which my husband also has. His experience living with a chronic degenerative illness informed part of that character’s arc.
SZK: Annie is in therapy, and on medication for depression, but you also give her music to cope. She says she wants to “put on her headphones and escape into the cymbals, horns, and massive choirs . . . only music could temporarily drown out reality.” What made you choose music as an alternative tool?
AEC: I listen to classical music when I write because I feel like it creates a writing room in my head so I can block out other distractions. I don’t listen to it as an escape like my character does, but I needed my character to be able to disappear into something else and I had that connection.
SZK: The line, “Depression was like a squatter always waiting for the next opportunity to get back inside,” painted such a vivid image for me. In your acknowledgments, you recognize everyone whose life has been touched in some way by depression and you say, “There are a lot of us.” What kind of research did you execute on depression and what helped you feel comfortable sharing that part of yourself?
AEC: I was really depressed as a teenager and I had a hard time after my oldest was born, but I was never embarrassed about it. I was never made to feel embarrassed by it. It’s also not something that has affected me to the extent that it affected my character. Knowing what depression feels like, though, and working through it and coming out the other side, I felt far enough removed from it that I was able to lend my memories to the representation. But the medications regarding what worked and what challenges people faced, those experiences were lent to me by beta readers and other writer friends. I chose to have my character deal with hereditary mental illness, not to diminish depression stemming from circumstances, like postpartum, but I wanted her to have a compelling reason to leave her family because in society’s view, that’s the ultimate failure as a mom, isn’t it?
SZK: That’s a fantastic book club discussion question—was the main character right or wrong to leave her children? Did you want the reader to take sides?
AEC: I think her actions can be justified either way. I wanted her choice to leave to be a topic for conversation. But with any person, whether it’s a character or in real life, you have to extend the kind of grace to picture her at the moment and realize there was no other decision for her to make. I think the bigger decision is whether she could have come back at some point, but I can completely understand how people could argue she never should have left. It was important to me that my character didn’t take a side. I wanted her to vacillate between thinking her decision was right and wrong because that’s part of her journey to forgive herself. I wanted her to get to a point where she thought—that’s the past and I can’t undo it. It doesn’t matter anymore, what matters is what I do right now.
SZK: Which is an important lesson for anyone to learn, but especially mothers. I think this brings up the topic of sacrifice for your character in particular, and for mothers in general. Usually, it’s not a should I stay or go kind of question we grapple with, but still, it’s impossible not to give up things in favor of your child’s needs, so how do we balance that?
AEC: That’s a really good question, a hard question. I feel like there is a necessity for selflessness when you become a parent. For me, if I hadn’t had children I would live a much more self-centered life, just from the nature of not having to care for people who were vulnerable and dependent on me. And so, I think, if you want to have children, be prepared to make sacrifices, but to a degree, because if “mom” becomes your only identity, you don’t set a good example for your kids and you’re not the best version of yourself. I feel like that’s an eternal struggle for mothers—where’s the balance? At what point do I put my foot down and say I need to do this for myself? Writing has been the little corner that I carved out for myself, and I see—now that my writing success is a little more visible to my children—that it enriches kids’ lives to see you being your own individual. I don’t mean to say the exact degree to which you should sacrifice; it varies between people.
SZK: I love how you balance a heavy topic with lighter themes about parenting, friendship, family dynamics, elderly care, and romance. Given everything your character was struggling with psychologically, what made you think she was ready for a new romance?
AEC: I don’t think she was. That’s one of the things I love about women’s fiction, how closely it can mimic life. Life is messy. As an author, I like to have a little romance in my books just because it’s part of the human experience and it offers some levity to some of the heavier topics that women’s fiction deals with. Also, love happens when you least expect it. I wanted my character, as unprepared as she was for human interactions, to have a win. I wanted to give her a glimpse into what life could be like.
SZK: If you had one message you’d want readers to take from These Numbered Days, what would that be?
AEC: Forgiveness. As humans, we’re hard on ourselves. Whether it’s because of mental illness, or we feel like we’re a burden, or we think we’re not good enough as moms. I think what I want people to take from the story is that they can come back from making mistakes. The tagline on the book is “Old mistakes can lead to new beginnings,” and if my character can come back and forge a new life, considering her past, I want readers to think they can as well, that it can always get better. You can change your current state; nothing is permanent. Ultimately, I was dealing with heavy topics, and mistakes may not be easily resolved with a snap of your fingers, but I wanted the message to be optimistic and hopeful.