First of all, congrats to the winner of May ARC Giveaway #1: Way to go, Shalayna W.! She’ll be receiving copies of WAYFARER by R.J. Anderson, EARLY TO DEATH, EARLY TO RISE by Kim Harrison and STRANDED by J.T. Dutton.
Speaking of the fabulous J.T. Dutton, she was kind enough to talk with me about her writing process, STRANDED and dancing in her snowboots in Alaska. Take a peek!
CG: What particular moment or scene inspired you to write this story? Was it something about an abandoned baby on the news, or something more abstract than that? Is that typically how your ideas get started?
JTD: Just after I moved to Iowa a few years ago, I read about a girl who had given birth all alone and then abandoned her baby in a field. The ensuing media coverage and newspaper editorial responses focused on the political implications of the situation more than the personal ones. A huge debate about right-to-life and right-to-choice erupted.
Meanwhile, the girl was 14, too young to be anyone’s poster child.
I began thinking about her and the people closest to her, and I started to write what I guessed was just going to be a short story. Fiction starts for me with thoughts about people and what makes them tick, not usually headlines. The tale began to wrap itself around an entire town and the different ways adult characters expected the teen girls at the story’s center to handle their sexuality. I was driven by the question of what could have changed the outcome of the situation.
Weirdly, because the plot of STRANDED involves a lot of people making mistakes, it’s a tragic/comic story rather than just a tragic one. It’s about a very sad situation, but it includes self-forgiveness and some gallows humor.
CG: Without giving too much away about the plot — if that’s possible — what’s your favorite scene in STRANDED? What about it makes it your favorite?
JTD: I included a sex scene that may be the most honest and riskiest thing I’ve ever written.
CG: Was your upbringing a lot like the small-town life in Heaven, Iowa? What is it about small towns that you find most dramatically compelling?
JTD: I grew up in a small town in Connecticut. There were a lot of local characters, and people still ask “what is in the drinking water there?” Like Heaven, the town lost the businesses which provided a principle source of employment and people didn’t have a lot of options about the kind of work they could do. There was some despair, but also, pride. Several generations of families had resided there and it is a pretty place.
Small towns are dramatically interesting because they all seem to have a story about what made them good places to settle and why people stayed or felt they had to leave. The pace of life is slower, which leaves room for lots of speculation. I love gossip, getting little hints of what my neighbors are up to. You can be in on a few secrets when you know everyone you bump into at the grocery store.
CG: I’m from one of those small towns myself. Something may indeed be in the water. But back to the subject: Writing. Describe your writing process for us, whether that means telling us if you outline or not, or what flavor of ice cream you need for brainstorming — any details would be great!
JTD: Every morning at 5:30 the cat walks over my head. I climb out of bed, let her out and then plop down in front of the computer. I begin at the beginning of whatever I’m working on and add stuff and delete stuff until the kids wake up an hour or so later. After a mad rush to get them to school, I put in more time.
Fiddling the way I do is probably the worst way to get a first draft finished. I’ve tried to draft using an outline but I almost always deviate from it within two pages. I send the really confused stuff out for feedback hoping my friends will tell me it’s deep. My first set of responses is always lousy, so I quit. Quitting lasts a day— at the most a week—and then the cycle repeats until I can’t quit because I’m almost finished and my friends are beginning to come around.
CG: You took part in the University of Alaska’s MFA program. I know one question a lot of aspiring writers have is whether or not to pursue an MFA. What would you tell them, based on your experiences?
Well, to be honest, last year I was part of a debut writers group in which only a few of us had MFAs, which proves you don’t need one to guarantee success. I didn’t learn anything useful about marketing or working with an agent or a publisher at mine, and, when I graduated, I still had to acquire that education. I had to do that part on my own.
But I loved getting my MFA because I learned a lot about writing. My classmates were incredibly talented. I had loads of fun with no money. I developed high standards during many midnight bar discussions about books and I formed connections that will last me a lifetime.
The weird deal about the University of Alaska MFA program was that most everyone went off to live in little one room cabins without running water after their first year. When I was accepted, I thought, no way, not me, the student apartments will be just fine (and warm). But I got sucked into the Alaskan lifestyle just like my compadres and before I knew it I was feeding my woodstove, cross country skiing every morning with the husky, and wearing large boots even on the nights I went out dancing.
I am a better person for it. I would tell anyone who is thinking of an MFA to go for the atmosphere, the friends, the joy of doing nothing but writing for a while. But don’t go expecting the degree to make the difference in what happens in your career—learning the business end is a whole separate thing.
CG: What’s next for you after STRANDED?
JTD: I am working on a spinoff of Stranded based on one of the book’s characters. He moves to Vermont and gets a barn job at an all-girl summer horseback riding camp—it’s kind of a Midwest meets New England kind of tale, with an explosion.
CG: Explosions? Count me in.
Of course, now it’s time for another ARC giveaway. This week, I’m giving away advance copies of FAT VAMPIRE by Adam Rex, a “never coming of age story” about Josh, who gets changed into a vampire when he’s 15 and is seriously not happy about being stuck in high school forever; and SAVING SKY by Diane Stanley, about a girl named Sky who tries to go about her life and ignore the increasingly disturbing news reports about the world falling apart — until injustice and violence strike too close to home. I’m also throwing in an ARC copy of a book that’s already out; that might seem beside the point, until I tell you the book is SPELLS by Aprilynne Pike, and I know you want to get your hands on that one if you haven’t already!
To enter: Send me an email at evernightclaudia at gmail dot com, subject line “May ARC Giveaway #2.” Give me the name and address where I should send your books if you win. (And yes, anyone from anywhere can enter!) I’ll pick the winner next Monday, May 24. Good luck!
And finally! I leave for Ohio tomorrow and hope to meet plenty of you guys at these events, where I’ll be appearing with Ellen Schreiber:
Tuesday, May 18, 7 p.m.: Joseph-Beth, 2692 Madison Rd., Cincinnati, OH
Wednesday, May 19, 7 p.m.: Books & Co., At the Greene, 4453 Walnut St., Beavercreek, OH
See you guys there!