Interview: Novelist Kathryn Magendie
Let me introduce you to Kathryn Magendie. She’s funny, talented and oh-so-literary. And she recently sold her first novel! Hoping to learn from her experience, I asked Kathryn to share with us a bit about her writing and the process of getting her book published.
Write Out Loud: You recently published a book, Tender Graces. Could you tell us a little about it?
Kathryn Magendie: The death of her troubled mother and memories of her isolated grandmother lure a woman back to the Appalachian hollow where she was born. Virginia Kate Carey, the daughter of a beautiful mountain wild-child and a slick, Shakespeare-quoting salesman, relives her turbulent childhood and the pain of her mother’s betrayals. Haunted by ghosts and buried family secrets, Virginia Kate struggles to reconcile three generations of her family’s lost innocence.
WOL: Where did the idea for your book come from?
KM: Since I never think in plot, only in character, ideas always come from a character. I did use an event from my own life to support the character I had in my head. The event was my biological mother in West Virginia giving up her three children by my father one by one. We all ended up with my father and stepmother—who adopted us (thank you, Mother—Ruth). But, the rest is made up other than a few little things that may have slipped in there, and some reading between the lines where I sneaked in some things, some secrets embedded, some tidbits I hope readers “get” when they read Tender Graces and think, “Did she mean to do that?” and I hope I did and in some instances I know I did.
The Great Moccasin Incident was based on a true happening! My brother really did play “snake polo” with poisonous moccasins, although I embellished the event in the Tender Graces. And my family did have a Rambler station wagon at one time, a pink one!
WOL: How long did it take you to write?
KM: It didn’t take me near as long to write the novel as it did to get to the publishing part of it. I wrote the first draft in a couple of months. The words just blasted out of me in a fury; it was insane and surprising. I never thought I was going to write a novel (Angie Ledbetter is the one who put a fire under my butt after she read Virginia Kate in a short story); but there it was, an entire novel . . . I thought, oh dear! What now? I just stared at that manuscript in a kind of fascinated horror. All those words came from me? That’s what I thought. Now everything wants to become a novel, geez (laugh).
After writing it, I put what would become Tender Graces away, took it out, put it away, took it out, each time tweaking it, looking at it, thinking about it, dreaming about it, talking about it. There was one point in that process where I queried agents/presses, and I know now that it wasn’t time. I finally slapped myself upside the head and ruthlessly ripped out thousands of words, things I knew needed to come out and I had been resisting it. After that I then said, “There! That’s it. Either someone wants it or they do not. I’m done.” And it wasn’t long after that I had a contract with BelleBooks.
WOL: Did your story start with a character idea or a plot idea?
KM: It’s always about the character(s). I can’t think in plots, my brain won’t work that way. I wish it did sometimes, but we are what we are and we must be true to that. Still, I wish someone could peek inside my brain and explain to me why it works as it does.
When I try to figure out plots and outlines and structure my synapses fire off chaotically and then begin to shut down. It’s only when I see some part of my character: their hair, eyes, teeth, for example; some quirk they have or way of speaking; some Part of them that makes them who they are, and then allow them to have their say, only then can the words and story come. And really, as writers, we must just get out of the way.
WOL: You chose to publish Tender Graces with a small press (BelleBooks). Did you look for an agent first or did you start approaching small presses from the start? Why did you go that route?
KM: I did look at small presses from the beginning as I was interested in that venue. And as I watched what was happening with the publishing industry, I more and more began to see the small press as a good platform for unknown writers with “general” or “literary” fiction, which for the most part is harder to sell to agents and publishers than genre fiction or fiction with strong “plots.” Character-driven work is harder to market, I suppose? Small presses are willing to take a chance on writers and I love them for that.
WOL: Where is your favorite place to write?
KM: In my tiny little study in my little log house, where I am perched at near 3,400 feet. I have a leather chair and that is where I am right now. There are books all around me, and photos, and rocks, and cozy throws, a snoring fat lazy Labrador, and other things I like. It’s small and cozy. Sometimes when it’s warm I’ll go out on the porch and write, as I will today—with the view of the Great Smoky Mountains all around me with their importance and ancient mystery and beauty.
WOL: Writer’s are often known for their vices. What is your biggest writers’ vice?
KM: Oh dear! Let’s see. Being too reclusive.
I am way too intense. I think too much.
Luckily I can’t drink but at most two vodka drinks or else I get sick (er, “sick” means silly, crazy, loony, and slightly out of control), because I do like Ketel One and tonics with lime. And sweets—I have a huge sweet tooth and have to control it by not having sweets in the house or by having Roger hide them from me so I don’t eat them all at once. And sour cream, geez, I love sour cream. And cheese; cheese is just do danged good. And Creole cream cheese ice cream that luckily isn’t sold in North Carolina, but I guess that is a sweet and I’ve covered that. French fries—I’m forever in the search for the perfect French fry and am many times disappointed: just salt without any other seasonings, nice and crispy on the outside and soft on the inside; is that so hard? And crackers, I love the crunch of crackers and I dip them in whipped cream cheese, because I love cream cheese, too, and . . . and . . . I better stop now.
WOL: What does your writing routine look like? Do you schedule your writing or do you write when inspiration strikes?
KM: I write during the day: I get up, have coffee, a mountain walk and three days a week a strength workout, and then I settle down to work for the day. I never ever wait for “inspiration,” for the inspiration comes from actually sitting down and getting busy writing. I do try to take evenings off, and I also usually try to take off at least one day a week where I am away from the work.
You know, we really do just have to sit down and write and write and write; some of what we write might turn out to be unusable (or crap!), but if we write 1,000 words and six-hundred of those 1,000 are golden, we have six-hundred words! Build on that, don’t worry about the four hundred you had to toss—who cares! There are always more words, always. Throwing out words is one of the hardest lessons, but one of the most rewarding. Knowing when to stop and say “done” is another one, for the work will never be perfect, and I should have put that under “vices,” how I want my work to be perfect and that’s impossible.
WOL: What are you working on now?
KM: The next book in the Virginia Kate Sagas, which continues her story and for which I do not yet have a title. In Tender Graces I left Virginia Kate in the present day still in Momma’s house in the holler. I left her in the past chapters as a 16 year old girl. So, she still has some things to say in both present and past. She’s still the storyteller.
I also have a completed novel, for now titled “The Affliction of Sweetie,” that I took out and fiddled with the other day when I was stuck with something for the next Virginia Kate book. I have to rip out some things, tweak here and there.
WOL: Are you prone to working on multiple fiction projects at the same time, or do you spend all your time on one project until it’s complete and then move on? Why?
KM: I’m really prolific—and that doesn’t mean all my stuff is publishable, or will be published, but I just seem to be able to write a lot of stuff and write it without force or trouble and some of it turns out pretty good. My husband says he’s never seen anything like it, how stuff just appears on the page, zippity do dah day! I just love language and words.
Right now, though, I am concentrating hard on the second Virginia Kate book, as I have a deadline. Deadlines are the great motivators to get your arse in the chair and get the work done, and I am serious about my work, it is important to me, so deadlines are important for me to adhere to. This isn’t a hobby for me, but my life.
If I get stuck, I will sometimes briefly work on something else to distract me. And as for why I have the ability to work on several projects at once? Because I am completely insane; there are just way too many people stomping around in my head. But mostly because I love what I do and I really enjoy my characters and this is all I ever wanted to be. I feel incredibly fortunate and grateful.
At one point in the process, as I mentioned above, I made a few attempts to query agents and received some really great comments about the book, but the book wasn’t ready at that point, so I stopped querying. I know I didn’t query anywhere near enough agents, but . . . well, maybe I will later.
One night I was really aggravated at myself for dilly dallying around and I googled “southern fiction publishers” and BelleBooks came up. Well, as soon as I clicked on their site, I knew they were who I wanted. I mean, “Southern Fried Fiction,” how could I not love that? I almost didn’t query them! I thought, “Oh, I don’t think my work will fit what they want.” But then I became angry with myself again for not giving it a try, so I sent in the query right then and there, right on the spot. It was soon after I had a contract: lesson here—don’t second-guess yourself, don’t be afraid to try, believe in yourself because if you do not believe in your work, who will?
WOL: Thank you so much for sharing with us, Kathryn! Best of luck with Tender Graces and your future work.
KM: Thank you so very much for this fun interview!
Kathryn Magendie is a writer/editor, Co-managing editor of the Rose & Thorn Literary Ezine, and author of her debut novel TENDER GRACES. She lives tucked in a cove, in a little log home, smack dab in the Smoky Mountains, with a fat lazy Labrador and a good man Roger. Her short stories, essays, photography, and a few sad little poems have been published in both online and print publications. She feels weirdly wonky writing in third person, and has stopped writing this several times to wonder if she is talking about herself, or her Self. Mostly, she hopes you’ll love her Virginia Kate in Tender Graces, and all the other words that will come.
Posted in vip interviews