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writing the second novel - an exclusive interview

It's a giant leap for a writer having that first novel published. It feels like an arrival but in reality it's just a starting point.

To be a
novelist you've got to be more than a one-book wonder and that set me thinking about where that second novel comes from.

I interviewed two writers who have successfully crossed the first-novel hurdle to find out how they tackled book number two.

--Brenda T. Hall

Two Novelists
Two Paths

Maryanne Stahl
Author of Forgive the Moon
and The Opposite Shore

Louise Domaratius
Author of Gadji
and Writing the Book of Ester

Louise Domaratius is an American novelist living in France, where she has had a long-term career as a lycée teacher. Her first novel, Gadji, was published by Quality Words in Print (June 2002). Her second novel, Writing the Book of Ester, will be published in the fall.

Maryanne Stahl, who describes herself as "living on around, near, and on top of Savannah with her dog, cats, ducks, humans and other wild creatures" had Forgive the Moon published in June 2002 by New American Library. Maryanne's second novel, The Opposite Shore, launched in August 2003.

For years she has attended the Seaside Writers Conference conducted by FIU (Florida International University) and you'll often see her there.

Louise comments on
Writing the Book of Ester
, available in the fall of this year

"A number of people and incidents fired my imagination, among them: l'affaire Gabrielle Russier (this young Frenchwoman's ill-starred liaison with her student added to the upheavals of the late sixties); the dark-complected foreigner shoved into the Seine in Paris a few years ago by right-wing extremists; student riots in Iran protesting against the excesses of a fundamentalist regime. Undue social pressure, fear of difference, repression: all these factors of tension were the basis of a plot that found its coherence thanks to the Old Testament story of Esther.

As ancient as civilization, such conflictive elements have new and frightening ways of expressing themselves in our time: the threat of terrorist attacks, the powder-keg situation in the Middle East, the closing of ranks against foreigners everywhere in Western society.

Yet, in Writing the Book of Ester, you will find neither treatise nor diatribe, but a very human story of love across age and cultural barriers."

~ Louise Domaratius.

Maryanne comments on her new novel, The Opposite Shore,available this summer:

"When the first book was done, my editor needed an outline and a couple of chapters for the second book, and that's when I decided to 'steal' some of the structure and themes of Shakespeare's
The Tempest.

Instead of brother betraying brother over a dukedom,
in my novel,
The Opposite Shore
sister betrays sister over a husband.

I've taken a lot of liberties and the novel doesn't really resemble The Tempest much, but the play is in my mind as a kind of template."

~ Maryanne Stahl


WS: When and why did the ideas start to flow?

For Maryanne it had to be a snap decision:
"When my publishers expressed interest in Forgive the Moon, they offered a two-book deal and wanted to know if I had a second novel. I'd been working on a couple of ideas that my agent had nixed. So I had to come up with something in half an hour! I knew I wanted to set a story on Shelter Island, and I dreamed up some plot and characters, which the publisher accepted, but I knew, as did the publisher, that I'd make changes."

Louise, on the other hand, was able to take more time:
"When I embarked on my first novel, I didn't have the second in mind, but shortly after the first was finished, inspiration started hatching for the next. I had quite a few ideas to start with: thoughts on theme, events, and characters. It was like putting together a tapestry with different textures and colors of yarn that I knew I'd want to weave together. But the outcome or final design was not really clear in my mind when I sat down at my loom to work. My publishers did not ask about my second novel, although my contract gave them 'first right of refusal' on it so I asked them when they would be disposed to consider it."

WS: What about being confined to a genre?
Once an author's first novel has appeared there is a tendency for publishers and readers to want to pigeonhole the writer as belonging to a particular genre or style. If this were true it might be restricting or maybe reassuring, according to how the writer saw her work developing.

For Louise, the novel is just one aspect of her work and she doesn't feel constricted in any way:
"I'm not sure I'll always be working on novels. I've tried writing a play and found it interesting. If I can get enough short stories together, I would like to make a collection, although these appeal less to the public than novels, in general, and I believe publishers are less inclined to take them. At any rate, if I stay mainly with the novel, I expect to try structural variations, but nothing particularly experimental."

Maryanne did feel that publishers like to be able to typecast their writers and implies that to change direction might require a change of publisher:
"Publishers love you to stay in the same niche; it's very difficult to break out of that. Some writers do it with pseudonyms! I think, though, that I write the way I write and publishers may label it women's fiction or literary fiction or mainstream fiction or whatever suits their marketing strategies. I like to think I am free to 'explore' once my two-book contract is fulfilled."

WS: Is that first novel a help or a hindrance to the second?
The sheer effort of completing that first novel must influence the way a writer approaches the second.

For Maryanne, the second book was more difficult to write:
"Well, the first was based on characters I knew very well but in the second book, I felt much less sure of the characters and took much longer to get to know and understand them. The experience of the first book helped me logistically--knowing when I needed to do what. But this second book has been a struggle for me because I've had a very busy and chaotic year personally and I have not been able to devote the kind of time and focus I need to the writing."

Louise sees the experience of the first novel as ultimately more to do with growing confidence:
"Having written a first novel certainly didn't hinder me, but I'm not sure it helped, either. I had already finished the first draft of my second novel when my first novel was accepted. Writing it filled that empty, worrying time when you are wondering if your work will ever be accepted. There's nothing better to ward off 'the unaccepted-author blues' than the act of writing itself. The first novel certainly gave me valuable experience of working with a publisher-editor and a copyeditor. I learned that I didn't have to be cowed by copyeditors, who are not models of competence, and whose word is to be taken each time with a generous pinch of salt. I had fewer questions to ask the second time, a more efficient work method, and more self-assurance."

WS: And surely that first novel gives you a tremendous boost?

"If anything, I fear screwing up my career. But in some sense a hurdle has been crossed. At least I can call myself a writer without feeling fraudulent (much)."

Louise does feel more self-assured although she is by no means complacent:
"Being a published novelist has done wonderful things for my self-esteem, although I still suffer incredible butterflies at the mere thought of public speaking. This said, I'm sure many fine writers don't succeed in securing publishers, and some very fly-by-night ones do, so I realize it proves very little. Nonetheless, it has helped me feel more accepting of myself, and even when I am with people who know nothing of my "success", I have a small, warm, new-found knot of self-worth inside that lends me protection against the arrogance and pretensions of others."

WS: Can the writers give any tips to first-time novelists who feel daunted at the prospect of the second?

Louise is upbeat:
"I think it may be wise to ignore the prophets of doom who predict the failed second novel. If you've published a first novel, you've honed your technical skills through experience and the editorial process, and there is no reason why your second novel should not be more expert, more accomplished, more mature, therefore better than the first."

Maryanne warns about taking things too fast:

"Make your work the very best it can be. Because I had an agent before finishing my first book, I rushed it and regretted that."

WS: …and where do they go from here?

"I have an idea for a third novel, and it requires some research. I'd like to spend a bit of time on it. I'd like to get a hardcover deal. My two books are trade paper, which has been fine and probably helped sales but one wants a hardcover. Paper has a hard time getting reviewed in major journals. I'd like to publish a book of poetry, just ... because. I'd love to get a movie deal! I'd like to teach fiction writing full-time at a university (I'm adjunct now, teaching composition) in order to support myself, though a movie deal would help too. I'd like to continue my involvement with literary journals. (I'm an editor at Literary Potpourri, a contributor to Night Train's inaugural issue, active at Zoetrope Writers' Studio). I'd like to be loved, healthy, productive and, of course, spend a significant amount of time on the beach!"

Louise isn't looking too far ahead, however. She is formulating ideas for her third novel but, beyond that, she is reticent.

These two talented writers have taken significant steps in establishing themselves as up-and-coming novelists of our time. It was fascinating to talk to them and to have two different but equally valid perspectives on the processes involved in becoming an established writer. I can only thank them for their cooperation and wish them every success with their second novels and their future careers. -- bhall @wordsmitten.com

Want to read fiction by Maryanne Stahl and Louise Domaratius?

In our Storycove Flash Fiction Department
we feature Maryanne's short-short fiction: Looking for Rabbits.

And read an award-winning short story
by Louise Domaratius:
Definition of a String Quartet.

Editors Note: Looking for Rabbits was originally published by another online zine.
Stahl, Maryanne. Looking for Rabbits. Mindkites. December 2000. http://www.mindkites.com.

Maryanne Stahl's second novel, The Opposite Shore, was released August 5, 2003. It is available at bookstores and on Amazon. For a signed copy, email the author through her web site: http://www.maryannestahl.com, and if you enjoy cats as much as Maryanne does, say hello to one of her favorites, the one featured with her, Tinks the Cat.


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