Erica Abeel is the author of four books, including the acclaimed novel /Women Like Us, The LastRomance, I’ll Call You Tomorrow and Other Lies Between Men and Women, /and /Only When I Laugh, /a memoir. A former dancer, Abeel was until recently a professor of French literature at City University of New York. She currently writes film reviews, features and blogs for online film magazines.
Tell us a bit about your current project.
An impetus for “Conscience Point” was the love triangle at the center of “Brideshead Revisited” — Charles/Sebastian/Julia — which has long both intrigued and mystified me. So to work out what it was all about, I reimagined a similar trio in a novel of my own, set mainly in a region I know well: Long Island’s Gold Coast, aka as the Hamptons. I also wanted to explore the struggles of accomplished baby boomers to keep from getting cashiered out in rapidly shifting times. And, finally, “Conscience Point” reflects nostalgia for that never-recaptured intensity of first love.
We are all about journeys…unique ones at that. How convoluted was your path to your first published book?
Well, for my first book, “Only When I Laugh,” it was simple, partly because there were lots more publishers. Now, given the tepid response of many mainstream publishers to fiction, I had to discover a new home and “kindred spirit.” And once I connected with Unbridled Books, I immediately sensed I’d found them.
Share some highlights or lowlights from your path to publication.
It’s a real privilege to work with good editors. Greg Michalson at Unbridled is a terrific, insightful editor, who brought the novel up in subtle but decisive ways, and helped me make my heroine more sympathetic. Our phone and email confabs were definitely a high point in the path to publication.
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.
A big impediment to writing a new novel is the need to promote the one that’s already out there — virtually a fulltime job in itself. You want to give the published novel your best shot. There are always self doubts until a novel-in-progress takes root in your subconscious and off-moments of your waking life. Now with my latest book I’m trying to A) polish and twist individual scenes; B) suss out the novel’s larger meaning; and C) avoid writing scenes that sound too play-like. I try to set aside the prime time morning hours to inch the new book forward. It’s about a group of college friends from the 50’s who fail to fulfill their promise.
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 wish I’d known earlier about the wonderful folks at Unbridled Books.
What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?
I don’t really have a source — I have to work with some core feeling — anger, disappointment, longing — otherwise the long slog necessary for a novel becomes impossible. That said, one source and inspiration for “Conscience Point” was the career and ambition of a well-known concert pianist friend. Something she once said to me found its way into the novel: “I won’t move over till I fall over.” I love that kind of fightin,’ gutsy heroine.
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.
Well, in my novel in progress I wanted to know how a closeted gay man might betray his true orientation. I’m still researching that, so stay tuned …
With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears you if beginning this writing journey today?
It gets harder and somehow you have to be up to the task.
What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?
A wonderful editor/writer who has since died, who “plumped the pillows,” as she put it, of my “Hers” columns for the New York Times. She had an inspiring attitude, refused ever to be intimidated or so impressed she couldn’t get the work done. She loved helping fellow scribblers. How I miss her! And her spirit and drive — like that of my pianist friend — infuses “Conscience Point.”
What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why? (Doesn’t have to be one of your books or even published.)
I think I come into my own in the most satirical passages of my novels, including “Only When I Laugh,” “Women Like Us,” and “Conscience Point.” I feel at home with that sharp-edged tone — which is also in my journalism — but I fear it may put off some independent booksellers who prefer something gentler. At readings, when I get to the party scenes among New York’s highfliers, I myself have to laugh.
Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?
The disappearing press and the shrinking print review outlets.
Share a dream or something you’d love to accomplish through your writing career.
I’d like to create and lay claim to a “world” the way Updike did with upper crust suburbans.
What gives you the greatest writer buzz, makes the trip worth the hassles (besides coffee or other substances, or course )?
Reading reviews of “Conscience Point” that “get it” and feeling that by writing I’ve earned my keep on the planet.
What is one of the more unique or strange life experiences that has really given you an extra oomph in your writing?
I’m privileged to have lived through acquaintances (and a romance) with the Beat writers. I’ve also been the roomate of Yoko Ono in New York. This juicy history is feeding into my novel-in-progress.
Describe your special or favorite writing spot or send a picture if you’d like.
Oh, gee, just get in front of my computer and resist reading email. It’s awfully unhealthy to sit there like a maniac all day though, don’t you think? Essential to the long form is keeping in shape. I end the work day by running to the gym or doing Pilates.
What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it? What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?
If you’re not writing autobiographical fiction, the hardest task is finding the structure. And it’s only through writing the whole damn thing that you discover both the shape and the book’s deeper themes. However, I outline compulsively, over and over, to keep myself on course.
Plot, seat of pants or combination?
I have to write in the morning, after which my brain gets fogged. So my main ritual is to stave off all the distractions as best I can and just get to it, the earlier the better. Coffee is imperative. But now email and the web world is a major threat to the single-mindedness needed by a fiction writer.
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?
Keeping the plot driving forward. Best method for doing that is constant rewriting with an eye to forward propulsion. As a movie reviewer, I learn a lot about narrative drive from studying films.
Have you received a particularly memorable reader response or peer honor? Please share.
Well, I loved that “Women Like Us” was a Book of the Month Club selection. And I’m generally delighted with the reception of “Conscience Point” and the way it excites readers. It’s got a page-turner quality that readers really appreciate and that I studiously engineered. And I love that they’re into the spooky Gothic quality of the novel, which I had such fun creating.
Have you discovered any successful marketing/promo ideas that you’d share with us?
I would just say be proactive and fanatical on behalf of your own work.
Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?
I’m far from having an answer, but the greatest challenge for a writer is to clear the clutter of both the internet and life’s incessant demands, and somehow carve out time for the work. It also helps to have good teeth because dentists tend to destroy one’s schedule.