Author Sarah Graves ~ Interviewed

Sarah Graves
lives with her husband John, a musician and luthier, and their black Labrador Retriever in a house very much like the one Jacobia Tiptree is remodeling in Eastport, Maine. When she’s not writing Jake’s adventures, Sarah works with her husband on the house (of course!) and she plays the 5-string banjo (not well, but enthusiastically!)

What is your current project? Tell us about it.

I’ve just celebrated publication of the eleventh “Home Repair is Homicide” mystery, A FACE AT THE WINDOW (Bantam, 2008). The books star home-repair enthusiast Jacobia “Jake” Tiptree, they’re set in Eastport, Maine, and they include Jake’s family and friends plus a lot about Eastport, which is a character in itself. Oh, and there’s murder in them, of course.

A FACE AT THE WINDOW is a bit different from the earlier ones in the series, faster-paced and quite thriller-ish. It’s certainly Jake’s scariest adventure. And I’m working on the twelfth in the series right now. At the moment, Jake’s trapped in a stone chamber that is filling with seawater, along with two friends and a killer. I’d tell you the title, but I don’t know it yet, and I’d tell you what happens next, but then I’d have to…you know.

Tell us about your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got the call you had a contract, how you heard and what went through your head?

I was reading and writing as a very young child, so I guess I’d been writing for twenty-five years when I got “the call.” I’d probably written a million or more words. And what I felt, honestly, was mostly relief. Like, okay, at last that stage is complete, and we can go on to the next. I didn’t go through that long period of submitting and being rejected that many writers do endure. But then, I didn’t start submitting things until quite a late stage in my writing life, compared to what other writers seem to do.

Do you still experience self doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.

Is there a writer who doesn’t experience self doubt? And it is at the heart of most of what people call writer’s block, I think. I wish I had a magic wand to share. What I can suggest is that you remember that you can always rewrite – but not until there is something to rewrite. So just write it down, don’t self censor on first draft. Finish the darned thing! You can fix it later.

What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?

I think I wish I’d known that some of the things I didn’t pursue could’ve worked out just fine, if I had stuck with my own belief in them. Early on, I tended to give my artistic impulses short shrift, feeling they were self indulgent. A writer does need to be businesslike and aware of what the publishing environment is, but don’t forget what’s at the heart of it all. It’s not all business!

What’s the best or worst advice (or both) you’ve heard on writing/publication?

The best advice: Write. Finish what you write. Send it out. Was it Robert Heinlein who said that? The worst advice: self-publish. I know there are differing opinions on it. But from what I see, the odds of succeeding with a self-published book are lower than the odds of being killed by lightning. And with lightning, at least it’s a quick and relatively painless death. Cheaper, too.

What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?

Oh, gosh. There are way more ideas everywhere than I can possibly use. But…I do like newspaper stories. People do things I could never dream up.

Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you’d like to share with us, the ones wherein you get “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six foot man…please do tell.

The title of the first book in my current series is THE DEAD CAT BOUNCE. The phrase has to do with the stock market, but I have indeed gotten “the look” from people who think THE DEAD CAT BOUNCE might be about doing bad things to cats. So let me say again that no cats were harmed in the writing of the book, and nothing bad happens to any cat who appears in the book, either.

Is there a particularly difficult set back that you’ve gone through in your writing career you are willing to share? Or have you ever been at the point where considered quitting writing altogether?

Hmm. You know that moment when you sit down to face the blank page? That moment that comes every single morning? Honestly, every writer has those moments, those setbacks, the less encouraging times, shall we say. If your natural impulse is to write through them, you will. If not, then you’ll find some other, less discouraging thing to do.

With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet behind the ears you if beginning this writing journey today? Read all you can.

Read everything. Write all you can. Join the toughest writing workshop that will take you, and listen to what the members tell you. But don’t follow any advice that makes your inner baloney detector go off. Also: go to conferences and conventions. Not so much to pitch your stuff, but to learn how the business works, to gain insight, and to become known as a decent person to have around and to work with. As for that writer’s block we mentioned above, fuhgeddaboutit. In my opinion, it’s 99% self indulgent nonsense, that kind of talk. Besides, as a beginner, you simply haven’t earned the right to have writer’s block! (And neither have I, but that’s another story.) But if you do get something like writer’s block, just copy the phone book until it goes away.

Speaking of copying: if you copy type a few pages of a book of fiction, in proper manuscript format double spaced, one inch margins all the way around, etc. then you will get a sense of what a manuscript page of typed fiction is supposed to look like. And that sense is a very valuable thing to have. Really, try it. It is useful, that knowledge of how the typed page looks. After all, people editors, even read mostly with their eyes.

What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?

Reading Shirley Jackson taught me what it means to have a voice. Because if you know what she sounds like, you can never mistake her for anyone else. That’s voice. You can hear her, no one else, when you read her prose. Once I figured that out, all I had to do was practice for twenty years, to begin developing my own voice. Such as it is.

What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why?

Not to toot my own horn too much. But my most recent book, A FACE AT THE WINDOW, represents a breakthrough for me in that I feel I’ve succeeded at two things I’ve been trying all along to do better at: plot and pacing. I wanted a race-car of a book, and I think I got one.

Dean Koontz recently shared his take on the concept on “the writer’s sacred duty.” What comes to your mind at the mention of “the writer’s sacred duty?”

I haven’t read what Mr. Koontz said about it. In my opinion, the writer’s sacred duty is to entertain the living daylights out of the reader. But now of course I’ll have to go look up what he thinks.

Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?

Yes. The next time someone tells me that they’d write books, too, if only they had time, I’m going to say something back. Possibly something honest. Ditto for being told that of course, I can only write when I feel inspired, or how nice it must be to work only when I feel like it. Oh, hahahahaha. And while we’re on the subject, do you remember the opening sequence and music for the TV series MURDER, SHE WROTE? The one where she tra-la-las through the writing of a book and then gives it a loving, perfectly manicured little pat when it’s done, while the light-hearted music plays? Every time I see that, I know exactly where the impulse to do murder comes from. Tra-la-la, my foot.

Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?

I would like to write the perfect thriller. The perfect, completely un put down able one, with not one single wasted word. The one you can’t stop reading. You know: perfect! And failing that I wish someone else would write it so I could read it.

What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?

My favorite part of being a writer is writing. And my unfavorite part of being a writer is of course…writing.

How has your unique life journey prepared you to be an author? What is one of the more unique or strange life experiences that has really given you an extra oomph in your writing?

I have had a few more coincidences happen in my life, and a few more narrow escapes, than seem strictly likely. And they have given me a hazy sense that there’s some sort of pattern going on generally, that I am just too close to be able to see clearly. This causes me to feel that plotting isn’t the creation of pattern, but rather that it is the paring away of extraneous, non-pattern stuff, so that in good novels the pattern is made visible rather than “made up.”

Describe your special or favorite writing spot or send a picture if you’d like.

I like writing in new places, especially ones in which I have no other responsibilities. Buses, hotel lobbies, and so on. I generally do write in my office, where everything is set up the way I need it. But I can do it most anywhere there is no music; I simply stop hearing what’s around me, usually, but if there’s music it disrupts the rhythm I’m hearing in my head. What I don’t like is writing in coffee shops, especially trendy ones. It makes me feel I am just pretending to be a writer!

What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?

Completing a novel-length manuscript is a project that requires faith – faith that one will someday come to the end properly. The only way I ever do it is to put one foot in front of the other and keep on. I cannot claim to have “overcome it.”

What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?

I write a detailed outline. I find that it’s much easier to write words that have some hope of entertaining people, if I have in advance at least some notion of what those words will be about.

Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?

I do complete a certain number of words per day when I am working on a novel. I try to avoid stopping at the end of a scene. I would never stop at a point where I didn’t know what was going to happen next. It’s just too hard to get going again, from a complete stop. Ideally I stop in the middle of a sentence – one I know the end of!

Plot, seat of pants or combination?

I suppose combination. I use the outline I’ve written. But that still gives a lot of leeway for creativity, and for me at any rate the confidence to exercise the creativity, as well.

What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?

Well, I’ve been accused of all three, certainly. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to sit here and admit to any of them! Seriously, I find it helps to ask myself what the heart of the scene is. What do these people really want, in their hearts? Because that’s what real drama always comes down to, it seems to me. Not just what’re they doing, but what are they feeling?

Have you received a particularly memorable reader response? Please share.

When the first book in the “Home Repair is Homicide” series, THE DEAD CAT BOUNCE, first came out, a local Eastport high school student told me he’d never been interested in books, but because this one was about his home town, he decided to try reading one. He read it all the way through, he said, and he liked it! It was the first book he had ever read. To be that for someone, their first book, to be the one who sort of showed them what reading can be – well. A dozen years later I am still so proud and so pleased.

Have you had a particularly memorable peer honor? Please share.

That my peers consider me one of their peers is a tremendous honor. I take great pride in my profession, not because I am in it but because they are.

How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?

I am fortunate in that my marketing and publicity teams at Random House are absolutely fabulous. They do so much for me, and they alert me to things I can do, to support the books. My best advice is to get to know these people, listen to what they say, and most of all, appreciate them. They are the unsung heroes of the book business.

Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?

No, you’ve been admirably thorough – and I should quit before the vaudeville hook comes out and yanks me off the stage, don’t you agree?