Last week, we featured a review of Scott Wilbanks’ debut novel The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster. As part of the blog tour for this book release, we sat down with Scott to chat about his writing journey, where the idea for this book came from and his idea (and our editor’s) idea of a perfect day.
Be sure to pick up your copy of The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster, available now!
LS: Every writer struggles on their journey to publication. What was your writer’s road like and what was the most valuable lesson you learned in the process?
Do you mind if I start with something a little off point?
Sharon’s latest Gimbling In The Wabe struck a chord with me. I’m a consummate daydreamer, so much so that I have a hard time keeping my head in “real time,” if you know what I mean. The fall out can be pretty comical. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve wasted looking for the keys that are in my hand, the glasses that are atop my head, or trying to start a car that is out of gas…
That being said, struggle? Me? If you don’t count the 100+ rejections over four years, I’m an overnight success.
In all seriousness, that endless parade of rejections served a useful purpose. If it weren’t for every last one of them, coupled with my absolute refusal to give in, I would have never actually learned how high to set the bar to become published, nor would I have acquired the level of craft to achieve that goal. It was a painful, poignant, and incredibly rewarding process.
I wrote (badly), and queried, then rewrote (less badly), and queried again in so many cycles that each successive draft of my manuscript became something like the outer ring on a tree, possessing a character and depth greater than the previous iteration. The end result became so much better for it. More importantly, that struggle provided me a rudimentary understanding of the craft of writing, something that I’ve been able to build upon while working on my sophomore effort.
As to the most valuable lesson I learned? I suppose it is that agents are people, and people err. I can’t tell you how many agents told me that I must either pull out LEMONCHOLY’s secondary story line—the one involving Christian Keebler and Edmond Marden—or my manuscript would never see the light of day. As you can imagine, the advice was upsetting. Either pull out a story line that was of tremendous personal importance, or watch my manuscript languish. In the end, I chose to be contrary. I doubled down. I poured so much of my heart into those men that two very odd things happened. First, I couldn’t help but notice that the passion I poured into them began to light up the primary storyline. They made it better. And, second, people began to comment on how much they were moved by the two men. By the time everything shook down, I’d received three agency offers, not in spite of the secondary storyline, but because of it.
LS: What is your writing process like? Do you outline?
I’m of the opinion that I have an outlining allergy, not that my agent cares one whit. She had me plot the second manuscript while the first was in production.
I write in ripples, at the center of which is a question. To better explain, I’d like to acquaint you with a visual. Picture two women—one a young, modern day San Francisco eccentric with a penchant for Victorian clothes, and the other a cantankerous, old schoolmarm living in turn-of-the-century Kansas wheat field —pen pals who get off to a rather rocky start, depositing their correspondences in a brass letterbox that stands in some common magical ground between them.
From that picture in my head came a horribly written, stream-of-consciousness first draft—four hundred fifty pages of it. And from that came a series of questions, the first of which was the following: what would happen if Annie (my protagonist) reads about a murder that took place over a hundred years ago on her time line, yet will take place in three days on Elsbeth’s?
The question was like a pebble dropped in a pond. It was the cause, and the responses I generated were the effect, creating little ripples that radiated throughout my manuscript, oftentimes redirecting the plot entirely. To further complicate matters, each ensuing question created other ripples that expanded from the point of origin while also deflecting or changing the trajectory of the ripples created by the prior questions. This led to a lot of rewrites.
As to the questions, themselves, they were simple, and always fell in one of two categories: how can I raise the stakes for my protagonist, and/or how can I complicate both their inner and outer journey?
LS: You once told me that you wrote Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster in a very stream-of-consciousness sort of vein. How different was the writing of your second manuscript as opposed to Annie’s story?
The answer goes back to the first part of the prior question. I didn’t really have the luxury of “pantsing,” or stream-of-consciousness writing for the second manuscript, because the option clause in my publishing contract had matured, and my agent needed a synopsis and opening chapters pronto.
Opening chapters weren’t a problem, but a synopsis? Unless you have the manuscript written, the only way to create one of those is to visualize the entire story line. And the only way I could figure out how to create that story line without simply writing the darn thing was to outline.
LS: There are elements in the novel that touch upon hot-topic issues that are certainly present in the media today. Is this something that happened organically during the process of writing the novel or was it something you consciously made a point to tackle?
OMG, you’re wayyy too tactful, Tee. I’m gonna give you a hug.
It was exactly that “hot-topic” issue that agents insisted I pull from the manuscript. It was also the same issue that led me to move to New Zealand. I jokingly refer to myself as a DOMA (Defense Of Marriage Act) refugee, having chosen to move here when my frustratingly perfect husband was not allowed to establish residency in the United States six years ago.
To answer your question, though, everything I wrote had organic origins. The direction of the time-travel component, the mystery, the epistolary war of words between Annie and El, it all came from my subconscious. When I became aware of where that secondary story line was taking me, however, I began to make deliberate decisions. It was important that I introduce my audience to the idea that all love is rooted in innocence. It was also important to me that my audience begin to understand the terrible sacrifices some people make for acceptance. Luckily for Christian, Annie (the book’s protagonist) cares for him too much to allow that to happen.
LS: I know you’re a fan of the Outlander series and other great genre works. Did anything you read previously influence you when you chose to write this story? If so, what books were they?
This is going to sound so weird considering the fact that LEMONCHOLY is, first and foremost, commercial women’s fiction, but I was inspired by the seminal work of fantasy—The Lord Of The Rings—primarily because it whetted my appetite for that particular genre. And it was that genre that fueled my imagination. Tolkien was solely responsible for turning me into a book-a-day nerd from the age of fourteen on—all of it (and I do mean all of it) either fantasy or Sci-Fi.
My mother, on the other hand, can’t stand fantasy. I mean, she has a deep-down-in-the-bones loathing for it. So, I decided to wrap a fantasy element in a more commercial premise to see if I could turn her to the dark side, so to speak.
“Did it work?” you might ask. Uh… no, though she’ll never admit it.
LS: What was the genesis of the novel?
A botched first date, I kid you not.
We were having coffee, and I thought everything was going swimmingly; that is, until he said, “I think we’re destined to be great friends.” The conversation took a cataclysmic decline at that point, and I drove home with my tail tucked between my legs. It was during that drive that I decided outcomes are only inevitable if you accept them as such, and immediately conjured up Annie, a contemporary San Franciscan obsessed with Victorian clothes, and Elsbeth, a cantankerous Victorian schoolmarm with an arsenal of curse words to make a sailor blush and a take-no-prisoners attitude, using my hyperactive imagination. When I got home, I had Annie write a letter to El, asking for advice regarding her lovestruck friend—me—and fired it off to my failed date’s email address.
The next day, I received a call… from him… at work. Apparently, my email had done the rounds at his office and was a bit of a hit.
“Annie needs to write more,” he said.
“Sadly, she can’t,” I responded.
“El has to write back,” I answered, as if nothing could be more obvious.
That snippy little retort got me an email in return (from Elsbeth), and a second date. And a third, which led to a regular correspondence in which I acted as the director, and which, ultimately, cemented the personalities of my two leading ladies.
LS: Many of the elements writers include in their stories are informed by their backgrounds, specifically their childhood experiences. What in your childhood informed you as a writer and how different do you think your work would be had you not had the same experience?
My mom tells a story about me marching into the kitchen one day to declare that I had a book in me. I don’t recall ever having said that, but she insists I did. All I can tell you is that I was a voracious reader, making my way down to Waldenbooks in the local mall, or B Dalton’s, where I’d park myself in the sci fi/fantasy section for hours before walking out of the store with a handful of books.
LS: What’s your idea of a perfect day?
Spending the afternoon on the Champs Elysees with my best bud Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson before heading to a barbeque with the All Blacks rugby team in the Latin Quarter. Oh, wait… that might just be your idea of a perfect day, right Tee? Mea Culpa. (For those of you who don’t know, Tee is a bit of a fan…)
I’m such a creature of habit, really! This’ll bore you to tears, but my idea of a perfect day begins with having written 2000 of the best words ever while sitting in the window seat of my little home office as the perfect New Zealand sunlight splatters all over the room. After that, Mike and I will head onto the back deck to count a gazillion Monarchs (I kid you not) fluttering over the backyard while we chow down on Tex Mex takeout. From there, I’ll walk through Victoria Park to my gym for a quick work out before heading home to write 2000 even better words. If I win control of the TV remote after dinner, which means that I don’t have to watch yet another show about home repair, that’s just icing on the cake.
LS: Tell me something about yourself that no one else knows.
Ha! How about this? I was a national title-holder in the sport of gymnastics. And, as the result of a career ending accident in which my left arm was, for lack of a better explanation, severed off at the elbow—yep, you read that right—and reconstructed through surgery, it’s an inch shorter than my right arm. Makes for some pretty interesting cocktail conversation, let me tell you.
* Editor’s Note: Yep, that would be my idea of a perfect day. I have zero shame. Thanks, Scott! *