Cheryl Suchors, author of the inspiring memoir of adventure and persistence--48 Peaks: Hiking and Healing in the White Mountains (She Writes Press, September 2018), interviewed me about my writing process.
Cheryl: When did you begin writing fiction?
Belle: As a child I used to draw stories with a narrative sense to them. I’d describe the action out loud, as I drew. They were kind of like graphic novels. I did that for several years. In high school I remember that my favorite assignment was writing a short story. Alas, in college, there were no creative writing courses. I was in my thirties before I started taking classes related to writing at the local adult education center. The summer I wrote my qualifying paper for my doctoral program, I plunged into writing a novel that I’ve never finished. It was a nice contrast to the other kinds of writing I was doing in my work and in my student life. I was in my early 40s then. But it’s only been the last dozen years that I’ve taken creative writing very seriously.
Cheryl: What kinds of training in writing have you had?
Belle: I took a couple of short fiction classes when I first started getting interested in novel writing. Then I became interested in screenwriting and did that for a bit. That was actually very helpful training for writing novels. The big breakthrough was my discovering Grub Street in Boston, which is the pre-eminent writing center here. That was back in 2006. I took multi-week classes and workshops and attended their annual Muse and the Marketplace conference for writers several times.
Probably the most significant training I’ve had was a new program sponsored by Grub Street, called the Novel Incubator, an intensive MFA level program over the course of a year with 10 students and two teachers. It was for those who already had a completed novel draft, and you had to be accepted into it. It was a complete game changer for me. It brought my writing to a whole other level. Since then, I haven’t taken many classes because it felt like the pinnacle of my training/ I think they have a larger percentage of published novelists coming out of that program than any MFA program. It’s in its eighth year now.
Cheryl: How do you come up with ideas for your stories?
Belle: I have to say I’m most often prompted by my own life events or the events of those of those around me. I’m particularly fascinated by issues of identity and how our sense of identity changes across the life span in response to our circumstances, needs, and personalities, I have a degree in human development, so some of my interest comes from my academic training.
Cheryl: What specifically inspired Gina in the Floating World?
Belle: I’ve always loved traveling. When I was in my 20s, I spent a year traveling, mostly in Asia. I ended up in Japan without much money, and I took a job as a bar hostess for a few months. The place was in a suburb of Tokyo and became the setting that inspired the setting that’s in my novel.
It was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life. It took me out of my comfort zone and exposed me to things I never would have seen as a tourist. After that, people kept telling me I should write about it. Obviously, I took a long time to get to writing about it, but here I am.
Cheryl: Why write it as a piece of fiction rather than a memoir?
Belle: You know, I never thought about doing it as a memoir. There was no natural story arc to it; it was a series of incidents. I think I was more interested in using my imagination and making up the parts that weren’t there. And I did take it in a much darker direction than my own experiences would suggest.
Cheryl: As a fiction writer who is inspired by autobiographical events, how do you decide what to include and what to make up?
Belle: I often start close to real life, and then most of it ends up on the cutting room floor after revising. You have to kill a lot of your darlings when you write inspired by autobiography. I don’t think I say initially I’m going to use this event and not that event. I tend to write organically, and with more revisions, the less it resembles my own story.
I will say that in Gina, my protagonist is not like me. She had ambitions that I never had; she wanted to have a career in business, which never interested me, but I thought that was important to give her that kind of focus so that everything else that happened to her was in contrast. She came from a different background from mine, too. Her parents were less educated, and she had a more restricted life than I probably had. So, she was really bursting out of her prescribed roles in a way that I wasn’t when I travelled to Japan.
Interestingly, my father, who was not a man full of praise, was prouder of me for that year long trip I took than almost anything else I had done. That would not have been the case with my protagonist’s father.
Cheryl: Describe your process of writing Gina?
Belle: As I mentioned, I got interested in screenwriting. That was because I was trying to write something with a friend, and it seemed easier than writing a novel together, which had been our original plan. So, I took a course called “The Character-driven Screenplay,” and I used this idea of the young woman working as a bar hostess in Japan that I’d been hoarding for years. I worked on it there and later with a screenwriting critique group that came out of that class. I finished the screenplay in about six months. And soon after that, I novelized it.
I abandoned writing for a couple of years because of family events, but in 2006 I attended a novel writing workshop in Tucson. The leader loved my idea! In fact, when I pitched it, he said, “Ka-ching!” So that got me all excited about it again. But to be marketable he thought I should ramp up both the drama and the sex. And I did. I really enjoyed the revision process. I went through several major revisions, and then I had another break from the novel for several years from when I worked on a different novel, based on the screenplay I’d written with my friend. I took a couple of courses where I worked on that one.
In 2011, when I started the Novel Incubator program, I decided to use my other story, not Gina, because I pretty much liked what I had written at that point, and I didn’t want it to be taken apart, which is what I knew would happen in that program. So, for the next couple of years, I worked on getting that other novel into shape based on the feedback I’d received in the Incubator program. I tried to market it, but I didn’t have a lot of success. So, I came back to Gina, and, to my surprise, I found that it needed quite a bit of work. I applied everything I’d learned in the program, slashing 15, 000 words, killing more darlings, and cutting scenes, and I also got feedback from a writer critique group I’d been a member of for about eight years as well as others. Then, when I felt it was ready to get out into the world, I approached She Writes Press.
Cheryl: What did you find most challenging about writing this novel?
Belle: I know that many of my novel-writing colleagues have trouble with plot, and that is not an area I have difficulty with. I enjoy the puzzle of making all the pieces fit together and resolve in a satisfying and believable way. Not that that’s not challenging. It is. There are a lot of moving parts in a full-length narrative.
But I think for Gina the most challenging part was writing about another culture, a culture with which I was not all that familiar and that involved some shady characters. How do I present a fair picture of this culture while still being true to my story and not create stereotypes, for example? To deal with that problem, I did a huge amount of research, which I loved. And I also had someone who was much more familiar with the language and the culture review it to address any problematic areas. And we shall see! You know, it is a concern.
Cheryl: You mentioned writing another a novel. How did the experience of writing that novel compare to this?
Belle: They both started from screenplay, and so that was a point of similarity. But, as I mentioned, I’d collaborated on that other screenplay with a friend, and thus, it was a joint development of characters and plot. We both knew nothing about screenplay writing when we started. But we are both analytical people who had studied psychology, and we spent hours and hours on these long walks talking about our characters’ motivations, discussing the plot. This was a friend I visited on the Jersey shore in the summers, and we’d bring a tape recorder for our conversations. We had lists upon lists of all these ideas that we’d come up with and charts and graphs, with personality types. And we probably overdid it, but it was fun.
In contrast, by the time I wrote the screenplay for Gina, I knew quite a lot about screenwriting. The script came very quickly and easily to me. But the reverse was true about writing the novel because I wrote the novel of Gina first when I didn’t know that much about novel writing. Writing the early drafts of the novel of Gina became a good foundation for writing the other novel.
I would say the other contrast was that Gina required a lot more research. The other novel, which was rooted in both our personal biographies, didn’t require much in the way of research. It was set in cities that I knew and studded with events that felt more familiar.
The other novel is much more humorous than Gina. Gina has its light moments, which I think is important in any dark story, but the other novel is almost bordering on satire. It’s quite light and funny. The tones in each of the novel seemed appropriate for the subject matter.
Cheryl: Now that you are on the verge of publication, what other advice or thoughts do you have for someone considering writing a novel?
Belle: I would say number one is: be prepared to commit. Find something that you want to write about that you really care about. Try to devote regular time to it so you don’t lose the thread of your thinking. That’s a good time management principle. I’d say, get some training of some kind. I think that made an enormous difference to me. And find a way to get critique and feedback; this is not a one-person game! Finally, understand that writing a novel or any full-length piece of work is all about the revision process. That’s where the real magic happens. And only do it if you enjoy it.
So many people say. “Oh, geez, I’d love to write a novel.” But I think if you really want to do it, you will. So, like anything in life, it’s a matter of priority. I was working full time during the writing of both of my novels, and somehow, I found a space for it.
Cheryl: Where do you see yourself going with your writing in the future?
Belle: That’s a good question that I don’t have a full answer for yet. I’d still like to make the other novel see the light of day. I also have several other ideas that have to do with representing the different decades of life. Gina is about a young woman in her twenties. The other novel, which is called How to Write a Best Seller, is about two women in their forties/ At one time I had this goal of writing about each decade of life. But given my current age, I don’t think that I’ll realize that goal fully, at least not in the novel form. So, there may be a novella or short stories or other things I can do to fulfill that goal.
I’m also an artist and I want to make sure I have time to pursue that as well. There are only so many hours in the day!
(For more about Cheryl Suchors and her writing, visit her website.)