Author Wendy Walker ~ Interviewed

Wendy Walker is a former commercial litigator who has been a stay-at-home mom for the past eleven years. She began writing several years ago and her first novel, Four Wives, was released in February, 2008, by St. Martin’s Press. It was also published in the UK and The Netherlands. Her second novel, Social Lives, was published by St. Martin’s Press in September of 2009, and is currently being packaged as a dramatic film by the producers of the Twilight movies.

Tell us a bit about your current project.

My latest novel, Social Lives, was just released. This is a story about four women trapped within the stifling social structure of one the wealthiest suburbs in the country. From Cailtin Barlow, who is fourteen, to her mother, Rosayln and friends Jacks Halstead and Sara Livingston, these women are struggling to define themselves and navigate their lives in a world dominated by hedge fund wealth and sexual politics. While Caitlin is being sucked into a group of teens who engage in the “friends with benefits” phenomenon, her mother is desperately trying to manipulate the gossip that surrounds her. Meanwhile, Jacks is driven to action when she learns her husband is being investigated for a Bernie Madoff type scheme, and newcomer Sara is pulled into the storm that eventually involves all of the women. It is a plot drive book with profound issues that are right out of today’s headlines.

We are all about journeys…unique ones at that. How convoluted was your path to your first published book? Share some highlights or lowlights from your path to publication.

Wow. This is a story worthy of a novel itself! I started writing as a hobby with a dream attached many years ago after I became a stay home mom. I really needed something that was on a career path but still allowed me to make being a mom full-time my number one priority. A few years and two more babies later, I had finished a legal thriller and secured an agent. While that book was busy not selling, I quickly wrote a second one, this time drawing from my life and the world around me. That effort, my first novel Four Wives, was published in 2008. Of course, it wasn’t that easy! Along the way, I have struggled to get the word out that, in spite of its packaging, my work is not chick lit or Desperate Housewives melodrama. Both of my novels are issue driven stories with characters drawn from real life. When I finished my second (or third) novel, Social Lives, I had to fight with both my publisher and a major bookseller over covers that I felt were overly sexual, objectifying, and ultimately not reflective of what was inside. I am currently marketing Social Lives with a vigorous campaign to get the message out and attract an audience that wants to read something that is a little more serious than the genres I have been typically grouped with. Luckily, the producers of the Twilight movies agree with my vision, and are currently packaging a movie deal for Social Lives! I am crossing my fingers and working incredibly hard to continue to build my career.

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.

Absolutely! Every day. Every page. Every review, good or bad. I don’t know that it ever leaves completely. Even after I’ve gotten great feedback on a few chapters, I read and re-read the next chapter wondering if I’m the only one who will get it. This is a tough business. The only thing that gets me through is having the experience now to know that I can, in fact, write and that if I miss the mark, someone in my camp will set me straight and I will get it right. It’s never blind faith, but rather an accumulating sense of confidence. It’s not easy.

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?

Many things. First and foremost, get a bigger advance. Sometimes this is not an option, but here’s the thing newcomers don’t always know. When a publisher pays a large advance, they have to recoup that expense. If they are faced with two books – one with a large advance and one with a small advance, where do you think they are going to put the most time, money and effort into packaging, marketing, PR and sales? At every level, the advance becomes relevant and therefore self-fulfilling. Without this attention, it is very hard to launch a new novel. Authors in this position then have to fork out thousands of dollars for their own PR firms, Web site designers and the like to get their book out there. There isn’t one author I’ve met who didn’t tell me this with conviction. The advance is everything.

What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?

My life and the world around me. I find real people fascinating, and while I never write about them specifically, I definitely draw from their emotional journeys.

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.

In my first novel, Four Wives, I have a character who is the town doctor. I named him Dr. Bill Harrison. Choosing names for characters can be tricky. I always want the name to fit the character, but try to mix up sounds, starting letters, etc and I try to never use names of people I know. Well, this time I missed one. Our pediatrician has the first name Harrison. Of course, I rarely think of him as “Harrison,” as he is known to my kids as “Dr. Pierce.” When the book came out, I was speaking at a book group in my town. One of the women there was Dr. Pierce’s daughter. She told me how their whole family had assumed I had done this on purpose and they were all comparing themselves to my character’s family. I was mortified! And, of course, with three little boys, I am in that office dozens of times every year. I can’t always catch everything in every book, but things like this make me try harder each time.

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

Be patient. Choose the right agent, not necessarily the first. Choose the right editor and make the right deal. The only thing worse than not having your novel published is having it published and then not do as well as it could have.

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

A novelist and writing professor names Brooke Stevens. When I finished my first manuscript, I gave it to him to evaluate. When he told me I had a shot at doing this for a living, he changed my life. This was a crazy pipe dream and he made it feel possible. I took his advice on rewriting and know I would not have gotten this far without him.

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 am very proud of this new novel, Social Lives. I feel that I managed to merge a fast paced, plot driven book with compelling characters and messages that stayed true to my beliefs about the role of women in our culture today. I think this is why I have been fighting so hard to keep it from falling into the “sexy tell all” category. Each of the characters has a façade that hides deep emotional conflict, and no matter what they are doing, they are driven by complex social forces. Putting their stories together in a comprehensive way was grueling at times, but I am very proud of the outcome.

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

Yes. Everything has to be done over lunch or drinks. Fridays are half days, and August is a wash. I’ve never seen a business like this! But my biggest pet peeve is when agents and editors tell authors they are declining a project because “they don’t feel passionate” about it. I don’t care if my agent and editor love my work or hate it. It doesn’t need to be sitting on their bedside table. All I care about is that they think a ton of other people will love it and buy it. This is a business, and they are the professionals. I need to love my work and they need to sell it. Luckily, mine do both, but this is not and should not be a prerequisite.

Share a dream or something you’d love to accomplish through your writing career.

My goal in life, aside from raising healthy, happy kids of course, is to be able to do what I love to do every day. I do not believe in the philosophy of working to live. If you love your work, then life and work become one and that feeling of dread on Monday morning and glee on Friday evening goes away. Every day is enjoyed. For me, writing is it and sustaining this career so I can have that is my dream.

What gives you the greatest writer buzz, makes the trip worth the hassles (besides coffee or other substances, or course )?

When I can have a long stretch of time to really get into a few chapters, that is bliss. I don’t have it that often, but when I do, it’s very satisfying. The last hundred pages of Social Lives was written over about three days, eight or ten hours each day. And the ending is my favorite part!

What is one of the more unique or strange life experiences that has really given you an extra oomph in your writing?

Having children! Honestly. It pushes you to your limits and makes you feel things you never imagined you could feel. Also, being an honest and trustworthy friend. People confide in me and though I never write about them or betray their secrets, they make me understand the depths of human emotion. Using this knowledge in my characters is invaluable.

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

My bed in my pajamas! Sorry, no picture available : )

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

I see each scene in my head so I don’t always know if I’m giving the reader ample detail to see what I see. I always go back and make sure I’ve described things well.

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

I plot it out as much as possible. Because my books tend to have multiple characters and complex plots, it’s very important for me to know which tidbits of information I need to give the readers along the way so they can follow what’s happening.

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?

No. I have only the amount of time that I have when I have it because of my kids. I work when I can and just push through even if I feel stuck.

Plot, seat of pants or combination?

Plot, plot, plot! It usually changes, but that’s OK. It keeps the story moving forward.

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?

I always have to go back and cut out some internal thoughts from my characters. Just as I tend to skimp at first on the scene details, I can go overboard with character’s thoughts. I do this to make sure they are fully understood because my characters don’t always behave well! Understanding them and having compassion for them becomes crucial. This is what a good editor does – telling you when it’s too much of this or too little of that.

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

Without question, having Wyck Godfrey, the producer of the Twilight movies, tell me that he got my book – that was a moment I will always remember. Every character, every motivation – he got it all the way I had intended. Because of his tremendous success ,which in his business emanates from sound judgment, hearing this from him was extremely gratifying.

Have you discovered any successful marketing/promo ideas that you’d share with us?

Just plodding away every which way possible. Word of mouth, internet, blogs, friends and family, events, publicist efforts, radio, TV – anything and everything.

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

If only! I will say this. Becoming a published author was a crazy dream. But I told myself I would give it a number of years and work as hard as I could. Looking back, I can see that it was every word, every page, every interview, every letter to an agent that got me here. Like a house, this career was built brick by brick. So now I tell my kids, dream big and work hard. If you enjoy the work, then life figures itself out from there.