Congratulations on the release of your third novel Beholding Bee in both the
US and . Could you tell us a little bit about the
Beholding Bee is the story of an 11-year old orphan who grows up sleeping in the back of a hauling truck at a WWII-era carnival. Rather than become a freak show attraction because of the prominent birthmark, or “diamond,” on her cheek, she runs off and finds a new home with two old women who, surprisingly, only she and her dog,
, can see. Peabody
I know each book presents its own rewards and challenges, could you talk a little bit about the challenges you faced in writing Beholding Bee?
There were two major challenges in writing Bee. The first was not to let the birthmark overtake Bee’s character. Even though the mark is an enormous burden for her, she is much more than the birthmark. Bee is a real girl who must find a voice and a place for herself in the world. In the first draft, many of the scenes dealt with Bee and her birthmark and the ways she was bullied, etc. As my editor suggested, “I needed to let Bee’s urgency about the birthmark stand, while writing scenes that explored her character on deeper levels. To do that I had to write a story about a girl who builds a family around her that can appreciate and sustain her as she faces the world on her own two feet.” One major change was Bee learned how to run very fast. She set goals and achieved them, and of course the strength that came from that is very empowering.
The second challenge was the “aunts.” Bee doesn’t realize at first that only she and her dog can see them, and it is a slow dawning for Bee to come to terms with who they are and what this means for her life. What Bee wants most in this world is the security of a real home, and this is threatened when she realizes she is living with women who nobody else can see. It was delicate work and I had to set it up so that Bee realized it through other people’s reactions, for example, when people didn’t get out of way when one of the aunts limps along the sidewalk. In the end, as my editor says, “the invisible aunts are the ones who help Bee find her own sense of visibility, of presence, of mattering.” The book essentially answers a question I had as a child: What would happen if my great-grandmother, whom I loved dearly, could come back and help me. This was important to me and I wanted to get it right!
Were these issues you discovered on your own or did they come by way of your editor or other early readers?
My editor, Michelle Frey at Knopf, pointed out these issues. During the editing process on all three of my novels, Michelle has worked hard to protect what I am trying to accomplish, and at the same time she has asked for more depth – scenes to deepen my characters and their relationships to one another. She does this by pointing out something that needs work, but never tells me how to accomplish this. I have appreciated this and also the way she consistently protects the “voice” of my protagonist. My agent says she is a true writer’s editor.
How much do you rely on early readers? When do they enter your process?
My husband is my first reader, so when the first draft is done (usually five or six drafts in itself) I give it to him. Then I pass it on to my agent and editor. When the revision is finished, I ask one or more of my four children to read. Then, I ask my parents, and anyone else who might be helpful, depending on the story, such as a teacher, or a woman who runs an historical one-room school museum. Finally, it goes back to my editor.
I rely on early readers to help me find places that don’t make sense, where the pace is too slow, where historical facts are wrong, where things are confusing or boring. I also rely on them to tell me something is good, because I tend to be very hard on myself.
At what point do you feel a manuscript is ready for submission?
I never feel a manuscript is ready. I am reading and tweaking up to the point the manuscript is book ready and goes to print! I am quite a perfectionist when it comes to my writing.
What are you working on now?
I have another novel under contract with Knopf and I am working on that now.
Can you reveal anything about the book or do you prefer to keep you projects “private”?
I read a lot of poetry for inspiration and I write poetry to improve my prose. I find that writing a poem is a wonderful way to delve deeply into my character’s emotions. The first page of BEHOLDING BEE began as a poem. Most of the chapters in my first novel, TENDING TO GRACE, began as poems and then I rewrote them into prose. That’s one of the reasons the chapters are so short. One example comes from the first page. I could have written that my main character, Cornelia, had a really rotten life. But when I wrote a poem about what it feels like to have a hard life, this is what came out: “I want to jump out of the car as it rushes along and wrap myself in a row of sheets hanging so low their feet tap the grass. I want to hide because my life, if it were a clothesline, would be the one with a sweater dangling by one sleeve, a blanket dragging in the mud, and a sock, unpaired and alone, tumbling to the road with the wind at its heel.”