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The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

05 February 2008

Interview with first-time author Therese Fowler



Therese Fowler's women's fiction novel Souvenir made its debut in the United Kingdom in July and finally reaches our shores on February 12. Souvenir is a story of love and loss, heartbreak and fulfillment, lies and truths, and duty and sacrifice as they play out in the life of Meg Powell at age 21 and again at age 38.


Therese, thank you for visiting my blog, and congratulations on the publication of your first novel.

Thank you, Shauna. It's my pleasure.

Meg faces difficult ethical challenges in Souvenir. Several times she must choose between her own needs and those of the people she loves most. Long after I finished the book, I was still debating whether she had made the right decisions, particularly at the end of the book. Do you believe the choices Meg made at the end were the correct and moral ones, or do you yourself have doubts?

This is a great question.

First, let's think about how we determine "correct and moral." Is the standard personal? Is it based on religious and/or cultural beliefs? I'm a natural-born skeptic, which means I see the world not in black-and-white terms, but in shades of gray. Objectively speaking, there are very few moral absolutes.

I believe that, all things considered—and I want to really stress that expression—Meg's choices toward the end of the story are right. She struggles with the questions of what's right and for whom, weighs the matters with compassion and consideration for the circumstances, and strives for the closest thing to a win-win scenario as she can get.

Other people dealing with Meg's dilemmas would choose differently, which may well be appropriate for them and their circumstances. I think this is what Souvenir argues: There ARE rights and wrongs, but what they are and how we determine them—and adhere to them—is complicated and difficult. Some people prefer to accept and follow what others deem correct. Others are uncomfortable doing so and believe it's our duty to question the status quo. I'm one of the latter.

If at age 21, Meg had put her own needs first and married her first love, do you think it would have worked out?

I think the success of young love is always a crapshoot. It's very difficult to gauge long-term compatibility at that age (as I know too well, having married the first time at age 18). Still, I believe their affection and connection was true; if they survived the initial few tough years, they'd have had a good chance of a happy and enduring relationship.

As a mother, wife, and daughter yourself, do you find it difficult to juggle your needs—including writing—with your other obligations?

"Juggle" is right! Yes, it's challenging. I'm a bit of a perfectionist, which means I want to be a good spouse and a good mom and a good daughter/daughter-in-law and a good writer all at the same time. However, I'm also very practical and I know that trying to do it all at once pretty much means failing at everything. So I prioritize: My kids' needs always come first, and the rest gets managed on a case-by-case basis. Why does it seem there's never time to go to the gym?

My mother died in 2000, and nearly all the fiction I have written since deals in some way with her death. How did your mother's death influence the writing of Souvenir, and does it shape the book you are writing now as well?

I'm so sorry for your loss. It's hard to be prematurely motherless, and changes the way the world feels—which of course influences everything, don't you think?

I started to see a change in my writing when my mother's cancer was diagnosed and then, about two months later, my father-in-law's. His was known right away to be terminal, and it was the way he handled his prognosis that first affected me. He accepted the truth with dignity, which I admired, but he didn't open up about anything, nor did he invite what I'd consider meaningful discussions. Similarly, even when my mother's condition was judged terminal, she never opened up and never invited intimate discussion of either past or future, limited as it was sure to be. This made me wonder what I would do if I knew my time was nearly up.

My mother's death, most likely from a pulmonary embolism, was unexpected; her cancer prognosis had given her one to two years, and so it's possible she might have been planning to find a way to discuss some of the enduring issues in her life and mine. I'll never know, because while I'd hoped to find some kind of diary in her belongings, there was none. It was terribly disappointing, if not surprising. How comforting it would have been to have more than photos and recollections to remember her by—which is not to discount those. It's just that, in these scenarios, there's so much more power in words.

That power of left-behind words is the core of Souvenir. It's through Meg's mother's diaries that Meg starts to come to terms with the mistakes of her past—hers and her parents'. So I suppose that in some ways the story is a kind of personal wish-fulfillment for me.

My just-completed novel has shades of the mother-daughter communication barriers as well. In one sense I'm dealing with the relationship dynamics I had with my mother—things I never admitted, things she never asked or told—but it's also a look at universal mother-daughter dynamics and the ways our personalities influence how well, or how poorly, we bond.

How do you think the mother-daughter bond differs from every other human relationship?

At some point women begin to recognize how inescapably similar they are to their mothers—even when they believe themselves to be as different as, say, kittens and oak trees. Our mothers own a part of us in a way that our fathers rarely do, perhaps because women know women in ways men never can. When you add to that the parent-child shared history and the shared genes, you get a unique bond. Not always a healthy or positive one, but certainly unique.

What was your favorite part of writing Souvenir?

Days when I felt like more of a medium than a creator—when it seemed that the story flowed right out of my fingertips and I was living it with the characters as the words appeared on my computer screen.

That continues to be the joy of writing, for me. It's incredibly addicting and makes me impatient to get back to writing when I'm between projects.

What is your writing regimen? Would you recommend it to aspiring authors?

When I commit to a new story idea, I spend a lot of time in what I call pre-writing: journaling ideas and thoughts to help me find the heart of the story and to help determine where to start. I work a lot with point of view and structure, inevitably writing scores or even hundreds of pages that get discarded—but that's my process for finding the story. Once I feel like I've found it, I can then turn out a solid first draft in about five months.

I'm at my desk for several hours every weekday, striving to reach 2000 words. It's a goal that, even when I don't achieve it, keeps me focused on forward progress.

I write full-time now, but when I was in grad school and working part-time, I had to fit my writing into the leftover time spaces. More by luck than by effort I'm a fast writer (relatively speaking), which helped me make the most of whatever writing time I had. My main recommendation is that: Make the most of your writing time. Try to do the mental preparation when you're involved in other activities like housework or commuting, so that when you do have time to write, you're ready.

Do you have any advice for people writing their first novel?

First, be aware of the marketplace, but follow your own vision. Each of us is different and each of us has a different way to tell a story—that's the joy of books and reading!

Second, cut "writer's block" from your vocabulary. Blockage is simply under-preparedness. If you're trying to write and you get stuck, try this exercise: On a fresh page or in a new document, write to yourself about the story you're trying to tell. Almost without fail new ideas, solutions, and/or directions will occur to you. Getting stuck is just part of the process; if we recognize it as such, it loses its ability to throw us into a tailspin of despair.

Third, finish the story even if you know it isn't quite right. Incomplete novels don't get published! It's always easier to review/revise a story once it has been written start to finish. One caveat: It's okay to abandon something that you are absolutely certain isn't working or that no longer keeps your interest—but ideally that won't happen much, if at all, if you first spend some time considering a story idea before writing very much of it.

Is your next book also women's fiction? What is it about?

Yes, my next book, which I recently turned in to my editor, is also women's fiction. On its most basic level, it's the story of a popular TV talk show host who gets a second chance with an old flame, only to find herself falling for his son, who's nine years her junior.

As with Souvenir, the new novel takes what are familiar story elements and puts them to use in a multilayered drama about family and relationships and the naïveté of youth. You'll see another look at questionable decisions made for what the characters believe are honorable reasons—because really, to me the most interesting stories become personal, inviting us to consider what we believe is right and wrong. Like Souvenir, it's a story of redemption and healing.

The title (at least for now) is What She Should Have Known. I'd be glad to hear opinions about whether or not it's a compelling title, and why.

Thank you again for visiting my blog to talk about your books.

I'm very glad to do it. Thank you.


Therese will be posting responses to comments on Wednesday, February 6.


Therese Fowler's Website is at http://www.theresefowler.com/, and her blog is at http://theresefowler.blogspot.com/. Her book Souvenir is available at all major bookstores and can be ordered online from Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. It is also available, or forthcoming, in ten foreign languages and fourteen countries worldwide.


17 comments:

Lisa said...

What a great interview! As you know, I read and loved Souvenir back when Larramie was kind enough to get ahold of a UK edition and send me an early Christmas gift.

Therese, you know I'm a big fan of your work and of your approach to writing as a business. You seem to have searched a little before finding the type of story you wanted to write. What advice would you give to aspiring novelists who aren't quite sure what their style is yet or who their reading audience might be (not that I know anyone like that)?

Therese said...

Wow Lisa, aren't you the early bird? :)

In discussions elsewhere, you and others have observed the frustration of feeling unable to write anything like the works of authors you most admire. I went through a phase like that in grad school after reading Nabokov.

I'd advise trying to look at the issue NOT from the angle of "how can I ever write like him/her" but instead, "what kind of stories and writing are true to ME?" Once you've answered that, you can use the answer as your writing target.

Jenny Crusie, who writes romantic comedy, is a very well-read, highly educated woman who gets asked why, then, she doesn't write "serious" fiction. Who we are as readers really doesn't determine who we are as writers. Especially not when you read very widely, as she does, and I do--and you do. She's a funny, lively person and she enjoys writing funny, lively stories.

The story ideas that occur to you are another good indicator of your writer-identity. It's like this: I love reading literary science fiction, but I never have those kinds of story ideas. So I don't try to write that kind of fiction.

Really, it all comes down to self-knowledge. Write what feels true to you, and you'll find like-minded readers in due time.

Carleen Brice said...

Shauna and Therese, I'm sorry to hear about both of your moms. I too lost my mother (when I was 28), and my relationship with her seeps into my writing.

Great interview!!

Larramie said...

Your response to Lisa's dilemma was so simple and true, Therese. Of course you've described yourself as a "student of life" and -- as a fellow sociologist -- I see that in your writing. How aware are you of that background or is it just natural perspective?

Larramie said...

P.S. The time noted is obviously PST. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Great interview. I like how Therese worked the mother's diary into her book when it's clear from her comments that she wishes could have found such a thing from her own mother. I have my father's journals, after he died when I was 13, but they really aren't personal ones. They talk about cattle and crop yields but there really isn't anything about how he felt. I don't think my mother has ever kept a journal at all, but fortunately she is still living at age 90 and we talk frequently about old times.

Therese said...

Hi Carleen--I remember you saying you, too, lost your mother. It's hard...but I feel I'm putting the experience to use in ways my mom would approve of. She was a wonderful advocate for my writing dream.




Larramie: I have to say the sociological element to my work--and my having chosen the field in the first place--is really just a function of who I am.

For good or ill, I can't seem to write anything that doesn't have a social critique working in the background of the story.




Charles, what you say about your father's journals intrigues me; there's a story in how a character would feel about having that kind of unrevealing part of his or her parent, and of why a parent who wrote about some things didn't write about others.

Some of my UK readers and advance readers here in the US have said they've begun keeping a journal as a result of reading Souvenir; I think that's one of the best things to come of this experience so far.

Lana Gramlich said...

Another interesting interview. Thanks for the info!

Shauna Roberts said...

Thank you, CARLEEN, for both the condolences and the compliment. Isn't it odd how people who aren't in our lives can influence us as much or more than people who are in our lives?

LISA, LARRAMIE, CHARLES, and LANA, thanks for stopping by.

THERESE, what you said to Lisa about choosing to write the stories that are true to her is so important. I've never heard it expressed that way.

Sphinx Ink said...

Terrific interview, Shauna. Therese has some fascinating ideas and suggestions on writing. I'll look for her book. Sounds like something I'd like.

Rae Ann Parker said...

Souvenir sounds very interesting. I love redemption stories. As a writer who has written for several different age levels and groups until recently, I appreciate Therese's comment to "Write what feels true to you." I hope I am doing that now. Thanks for a great interview, Shauna & Therese.

Julie at Virtual Voyage said...

Another thoughtful and thought provoking interview....enjoyed the insights into the writing process, and tip on dealing with writers block.

Suspect this idea of pre-preparation could be expanded helpfully...?

Feel like this post is going to stay with me as something to mull over.

Shauna Roberts said...

SPHINX INK, there are sad moments in the book (that's why the British edition had a tissue warning), but there are also moments of great fulfillment , so I do think you would enjoy it.

RAE ANN, I wondered why you were now writing just children's books. I hope that is your true niche that will make you happy (and published). Like you I love redemption stories, while my husband prefers revenge stories—always makes for a challenge choosing a movie at the video store or theater.

JULIE, I thought those writer's block tips were useful even if one didn't have writer's block. I particularly liked the idea of just sitting down and writing a letter to yourself about your book. That probably sparks a lot of insights and ideas. I mean to try that one.

Do you do any preplanning for what you'll photograph on a trip, or do you just look for what makes a good picture once you're there?

Julie at Virtual Voyage said...

Blend of spontaneity and organization, I guess. I had in mind to visit the Moore exhibition for months, and as I have taken photographs at Kew over a long time, I knew the terrain in advance.

Beyond that, I go with what catches my eye - but if I have the time am more selective now over what would make a good photo - as opposed to a good painting - when I'm actually in situ.

Suppose there is an interesting twist here as to whether writers are more prone to 'block' if the terrain is less or more familiar to them - or whether a block is actually a 'chrysalis' phase...?

Yogamum said...

I was just popping over to say hi in the spirit of mutual delurking, and was so thrilled to see this interview and the Q&A. I have been a bit "stuck" on my current WIP due to life circumstances (my father recently received a lung cancer diagnosis and is not doing well) and due to simple "underpreparedness" as Therese says. Today is the big day to get back on track, and I was really happy to see this inspiring discussion!

Shauna Roberts said...

YOGAMUM, thanks for visiting, and I'm glad that you enjoyed the interview and found it useful. I'm so sorry to hear about your father. Here is a link to resources I found useful when my mother had lung cancer: http://nasw.org/users/ShaunaRoberts/diseases.html#Lung. I also joined an online lung cancer support group. It was extremely useful; I learned all sorts of tips to make her more comfortable that her callous doctor didn't bother to tell her about. I'm a medical writer, so if you need any help deciphering what the doctor says, feel free to contact me at ShaunaRoberts @ nasw.org.

Yogamum said...

Wow, Shauna, thank you. I will bookmark that site and I'm sure there will be lots of useful info. I'll be going to see Mom and Dad next week (they live in AZ, I'm in CO) and will pass it along to them as well.

Namaste,
Yogamum