Bo Caldwell grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from Stanford University, where she later held a Wallace Stegner Fellowship and a Jones Lectureship in Creative Writing. She has received a fellowship in literature from the National Endowment for the Arts, an Artist Fellowship from the Arts Council of Santa Clara County, the Georgia Shreve Prize in Fiction at Stanford University, and the Joseph Henry Jackson Award from the San Francisco Foundation. Her first novel, The Distant Land of My Father, was published in hardcover by Chronicle Books in October of 2001 and in paperback by Harcourt in September of 2002. The book was a national bestseller, one of the Los Angeles Times’ Best Books of 2001, and a Booksense 76 pick in both hardcover and paperback. The book was also selected for community reading programs in Pasadena (“One City, One Story”), Santa Clara County (“Silicon Valley Reads”), and the City of Claremont (“On the Same Page”). Foreign rights were sold to the U.K., the Netherlands, France, and Italy. Her second novel, City of Tranquil Light, published by Henry Holt in September of 2010, was a Los Angeles Times Bestseller, an October 2010 Indie Next Notable, and one of O Magazine’s Ten Must Reads for October 2010. Foreign rights have been sold in Italy and Turkey. Her personal essays have appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, the Washington Post Magazine, and America Magazine, and her short stories have been included in Story, Ploughshares, Epoch, and other literary journals. She lives in Northern California with her husband, novelist Ron Hansen. A short essay on loss, and what writing the novel taught me.
What one issue makes you struggle the most as an author? How do you handle it?
What other people will think of what I’m working on. I have to stay focused on the work at hand and keep putting those worries out of my mind.
The path to writing and finishing this novel wasn’t a straight one. After my first novel, The Distant Land of My Father, was published in 2001, I started a novel set in London in 1953. My first novel had been my first attempt at historical fiction, and I’d found that the parameters of a specific time and place were good for me as a writer, so I wanted to do it again, with a different time and setting. (Distant Land was set in Shanghai and Los Angeles from 1937 to 1961.) But try as I might, I couldn’t get the London novel off the ground – I didn’t have much of an idea of plot, and the characters didn’t come alive for me.
One day in the spring of 2002, I decided to give the novel my all and see if I could make some progress. But I couldn’t, and that afternoon, something inside me said, “Go back to China.” I knew exactly what that meant: my maternal grandparents had been missionaries in China, and my mom had often suggested that the story of their lives would make a wonderful book. But I’d never seen it; I’d mistakenly thought that missionaries’ lives would be too dull or simplistic for fiction.
That afternoon I went downstairs and found the memoir my grandfather had privately published for our family. I read it from a different perspective that day, and saw things I’d never seen before: his tenderness toward my grandmother, and the drama and challenges of their lives in China, and the sacrifices they had made in both going to China in 1906 and in leaving it decades later, once it had become home for them. I saw scenes and a wonderful story, and I wanted to tell it. I also saw the goodness in my grandparents. I felt that missionaries often get a bad rap in fiction, and that while there were and are certainly people who exploited or took advantage of the people they were sent to serve, there were also many people who gave of themselves and improved the lives of many people. I wanted to tell their story.
I started the novel in 2002 in and over the next couple of years I wrote about eighty pages. Those pages weren’t very good, but I forged ahead – I’ve accepted the fact that mediocre first drafts are part of my process. The characters didn’t quite feel real to me, though – partly because I was keeping them and their faith at arm’s length. I was trying to put myself in my grandfather’s shoes and imagine how he felt about God, but I wasn’t writing about my own faith.
Then life intervened: in the fall of 2004 I was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer. I was fortunate – we caught it early and my prognosis was good – but I still went through six rounds of chemo followed by six weeks of radiation. The novel got pushed to the back burner, and when, now and then during treatment, I looked at what I’d written, it was like reading someone else’s work.
When I returned to it in the fall of 2006, I was a different person, and I came at the story and the characters differently. I no longer held their faith at arm’s length; instead of writing about my grandfather’s faith, I found I was writing about my own.
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.
Yes, I absolutely experience self-doubt with my work. I don’t a know a writer who doesn’t. Like many other writers, I often feel like a fake, as though I’m going to be found out any minute, and that any success I’ve had has been a fluke. It helps me to identify those thoughts as untrue, and to recognize that they are not from God’s Spirit. They come from darkness and fear. The best antidote for fear and self doubt is to write, even when the thought of writing is what elicits the doubt and fear. I’ve learned that writing is a job, like laying tile. I don’t wait for inspiration; I get to work. Sometimes it helps to reward myself, or time myself (“I’ll just work for an hour, then I can take the dog to the park”). It also helps to read about how other writers deal with it. The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes has been very encouraging.
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.
Readers have asked me whether I become emotional when writing sad parts of my novels. I don’t. In fact, it’s sort of a high when I feel that I’ve successfully written a poignant scene.
Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?
The lack of control concerning reviews is really hard for me. You do your best work, and then it gets published, and then it goes out into the world, and you have no control over whether or not it will be reviewed, or how. I have had to learn and relearn to let go of the outcome. It’s about the work, the work, the work.
What gives you the greatest writer buzz, makes the trip worth the hassles (besides coffee or other substances, or course )?
The writing is both the challenge and the reward. When I feel that I’ve done a good day’s work, whether that’s a paragraph or a few pages, I feel satisfied and fulfilled and really happy, deep down. Writing is the reward; the work is the payoff.
What is one of the more unique or strange life experiences that has really given you an extra oomph in your writing?
Having children has been good for my writing. They’re grown now – 25 and 27 – and I only realized in the last few years that I didn’t start publishing stories (though I’d been writing for years) until after they were born. Motherhood taught me about discipline and priorities, both very important lessons for a writer. Being a mother has also deepened me as a person, which is of course good for writing.
Describe your special or favorite writing spot.
I work on a MacBook, and I alternate between writing in bed (because it’s comfortable) and my study, which I love. It’s small, about seven feet by nine feet, and I sit in an armchair. I’m surrounded by photographs of family and friends and lots of books that, like old friends, are near and dear to my heart.
What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?
Discipline – the idea I mentioned earlier that writing is a job and that you don’t have to be inspired to get to work. That myth is the enemy for me. Discipline doesn’t come naturally to me – I always have to work at it. I also have a tendency to procrastinate, but I’ve learned that that’s partly because I’m afraid of failing – writing badly. I’ve learned that anything worth doing is worth doing badly, and that perfectionism leads to procrastination, which leads to paralysis – doing nothing. So I get to work, even if that means some mediocre pages.
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?
In a documentary on the musical theater composer Stephen Sondheim, he said that sometimes he has a shot of vodka to get himself going. I don’t drink, but I liked the idea, so my latest strategy has been “writing chocolate” – I bought some really good chocolate at Whole Foods and put it in my study. I have some of it like a shot of something before I write. I only get it before I write, and then I have to work. So far, so good. We’ll see.
Plot, seat of pants or combination?
Combination. Plot is difficult for me because it involves logical, analytical thinking, which is not my first (or second or third, for that matter) mode of thinking. So I don’t plot out novels, but I do need to have a general idea of where I’m headed. Both of my novels have been based on the lives of family members, and that’s been enough to get me going – the arc of their lives, sort of a line to follow through the book.
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 just keep going. Some days it’s about forging ahead, and others it’s about improving what I have. The important thing it to be working. It’s like building a house – even if I work on a corner in the kitchen, that counts. Every little bit helps.
Have you received a particularly memorable reader response or peer honor? Please share.
A woman who’d read my first book told me that it had changed her family relationships – it had helped her with forgiveness – and that meant a great deal to me. More recently, a woman told me that City of Tranquil Light had helped her get through her mother’s death. Those kinds of comments mean more than any review. To touch an individual’s life is a great honor.
Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?
Why do you write? I write because I feel that that’s the best use of my time, that it’s my calling. Because this book tells the story of missionaries, a couple of interviewers have asked me if I have the desire to be a missionary. I don’t, because I feel that writing is my calling. It’s what fulfills me, on a deep level, and it feels like the best use of my time and talents.