Author Interview ~ Christy AwardWinner Cathy Gohlke

Cathy Gohlke’s writing has appeared in a variety of publications. She lives with her husband in Elkton, Maryland, where she has worked as a school librarian, drama director for adults and young people, and director of children’s and education ministries. Cathy is the mother of two grown children. “William Henry is a Fine Name” is her first novel.

Plug time. What new book or project do you have coming out?

“William Henry is a Fine Name” won the Christy 2007 Young Adult Award. It is the story of thirteen-year-old Robert, who in 1859 is torn between loyalty to his abolitionist father and his mother’s slave-holding family.

After his best friend, William Henry, is trapped in a deadly scheme to protect secrets of the Underground Railroad, Robert vows never to get involved again. But when he discovers his grandfather’s plan to sell his own son, born of a slave woman, Robert must decide whether to stand by or risk everything to help him escape.

“William Henry is a Fine Name” is a coming-of-age story, a tale of friends, a family, and a nation caught in the chaos of slavery, forced to take a stand.

I’m currently working on a Civil War sequel to “William Henry is a Fine Name.”

How did you come up with this story? Was there a specific ‘what if’ moment?

From the moment in childhood that I learned of the Underground Railroad I’ve been fascinated by that daring race to freedom and inspired by the courageous runners, conductors, and stationmasters. I’ve wondered if I would have had the courage to step up to the plate, to help others when the risks were so high. Writing this book helped me explore that, and count the costs in saying “yes” to whatever the Lord calls me to do.

The “what if” moment came when I imagined two boys—best friends, one black and one white, caught in the chaos of those times.

Tell us about your publishing journey. How long had you been writing before you got a contract? How did you find out and what went through your mind?

I’d written features for newspapers, periodicals, essays for two books, poetry, short stories, and several skits and dramas for years before I attempted to write a novel. Once I completed the novel I submitted chapters and synopsis copies—whatever each publisher required—to several publishers. One publisher asked me to rewrite the book for a younger audience—which I tried, but neither of us was happy with the shortened, younger audience story.

So I listed the manuscript with “The Writer’s Edge.” Within a few months three publishers contacted me, asking to see the manuscript. I signed a contract with Moody Publishers on my 50th birthday—which felt like the gift of the century and the start of a brand new life!

Do you ever struggle with writer’s block? If so, how do you overcome it?

Some days new writing flows. Some days it reads like a travelogue. Some days just getting a paragraph on paper feels like I’m pulling teeth with a wrench but no Novocain. I persist because I know that once I have words—any words—on paper I have something to work with. I love rewriting, cutting, honing and polishing—if it makes my work better. So, even if I must throw today’s work out tomorrow, writer’s block is not an option.

What is the most difficult part of writing for you (or was when you first started on your writing journey), i.e. plot, POV, characterization, etc?

Plotting was/is my most difficult part of writing.

How did (or do) you overcome it?

It is something I struggle with in each new piece. Outlining the plot helps tremendously, as long as I allow my characters to tell their own story, and as long as I don’t feel married to my outline.

Where do you write? Do you have a dedicated office or a corner or nook in a room?

I write wherever I am. I am blessed with a wonderful home office with windows that look out into woods and down along the banks of the Laurel Run. I do some writing and most of my writing business there. But I often find I need to leave home to write new material—just to get away from the siren song of laundry, dirty dishes, floors that need mopping, closets that need cleaning, phones. . . I can write in the midst of a noisy restaurant or seated in my car in a parking lot or at a table in the park by the river—anywhere I feel no responsibility to interact or do anything else at the moment.

Do you have a word or page goal you set for each day?

A good day is 5 manuscript pages or a scene.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Prayer and Bible reading come first. That is the only typical part of my day. I usually write as long as I can before and after breakfast, then attend to the business part of writing later in the day. Sometimes I write late at night when the house and my mind have stilled. Some days are dedicated to outlining or writing new work, some to research, and some to preparing talks. Some days are slated for volunteer work or for the needs of my family and friends. Some days are dictated by deadlines. Most days are a combination of these.

Take us through your process of writing a novel briefly—from conception to revision.

Something intrigues or fascinates me: it could be a snippet from history, the expression on someone’s face, a conversation I’ve overheard, that morning’s Bible reading, or a twist on something I’ve read in the newspaper. I explore that picture in my mind and people it with story characters. That exploration might include research, people watching, or relaxing enough to watch the mental movies my characters create.

I see parts of the story as movie scenes or stage dramas in my head, and sketch scenes or dialogues from those. Though I don’t know the entire story, I begin a flow chart, and imagine how those scenes might link together. That is when I begin to see the story as a whole, form a general plot, and create an outline. I’ve written with and without a chapter by chapter outline and have found that an outline keeps me on task.

Now I’m ready to write the story. If I get stuck I go back to my outline. If I’m really stuck I’ll skip ahead to a scene I see more clearly in my head and pick up there. I can always go back and fill in what I’ve missed. I read over what I’ve written for the day before I go to sleep at night. My mind sometimes resolves problems as I sleep.

Each new writing day begins with prayer, then editing what I wrote the day before. Editing allows me to dip my feet into the story and regain momentum.

Once the first draft is written I read the entire manuscript, cut, revise, rewrite, and hone. I tighten each chapter’s beginning and ending, edit line by line, working with the arrangement of words, and make certain my characters remain in character and maintain their voices.

When the manuscript is as polished as I can make it I give it to a group of critical readers. I take their comments into consideration, rewrite where I think best, polish, and send it to my editor. That is when the editing process with the publishing house begins, and I realize how much I don’t know.

What are some of your favorite books (not written by you)?

“The Holy Bible”
“In His Steps”–by Charles Sheldon
“To Kill A Mockingbird”–by Harper Lee
“The Mitford Series”–by Jan Karon
“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”–by Mark Twain
“Ahab’s Wife”–by Sena Jeter Naslund

What’s the best writing advice you’ve heard?

Don’t quit. Write. Write. Write.

What do you wish you’d known early in your career that might have saved you some time and/or frustration in writing? In publishing?

Believe that your book will be a success and prepare accordingly: Plan your next book and begin writing it as soon as you send your first one out. Create a website with appropriate links and updates. Prepare notes for book and related talks. Simplify your life because you will be busier than you’d ever imagined.

How much marketing do you do? What have you found that particularly works well for you?

I’ve done several blog and some media interviews. Book signings and related talks are my main form of marketing. Being willing to speak to various groups: schools, libraries, clergy, youth groups, writing or book groups, storytelling, Scouts, re-enactors, etc., builds community relations and readership. Those talks lead to other invitations and almost always include opportunities to witness for the Lord.

Do you have any parting words of advice?

Give back. Encourage and help other writers. Don’t be afraid of competition. There will never be too many pen warriors to bear the light of truth in this world. Ask the Lord to guide your mind, surrender your desires to Him, and make yourself available and open to His leading. Faithfully hone the gift you’ve been given. Write. Write. Write. Rejoice that you can do the thing that makes your heart sing.