Touring the blogosphere this month is author Phoebe Wray, whose debut novel, JEMMA7729, was just released by Edge Science Fiction & Fantasy Publishing. In this interview, Phoebe talks about her inspiration for the book, tackling writer's block, looking for a publisher, and her working environment, among other things.
When did you decide you wanted to become an author? Do you have another job besides writing?
I was telling stories before I could write. My Dad was a great story-teller, and he encouraged me to make up stories. The adults indulged and applauded and spoiled me. I wrote my first poem in second grade (I was about 7) and it was published in our very small village’s weekly newspaper. I started a newspaper in the 5th grade, a little weekly that ran 2-3 pages. Started writing stories about then, too.
I have another job. I teach in the Theatre Division of The Boston Conservatory, a very fine Theatre/Music/Dance private college in Boston. I teach History of the Theatre, Cultural History, occasionally Acting.
Were you an avid reader as a child? What type of books did you enjoy reading?
Yes. I especially loved animal stories, and action stories. I read a lot of comic books, too. I read all the kids’ stuff — loved Robin Hood (I wanted to be Robin, not Marion), Mark Twain, Stevenson, the Nancy Drew Dectective books. I liked poetry books and I read the dictionary (it was a children’s version).
Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write such a story.
JEMMA7729 is a rather dark action-adventure, futurist story, set in North America in the early 23rd century. The government is rotten and repressive —it’s a government that tells Big Lies and holds the country together with fear and intimidation. Once Jemma discovers that what she’s been taught is not the truth, she sets out to discover the truth for herself and becomes a rebel, a saboteur, and the government tries to stop her.
I got the idea one day thinking the “what if” mantra. What if there were a government so repressive it just lumped all crimes and misdemeanors into one huge category: Inappropriate Behavior. That was the original title of the book. I’m sure that the discomfort and anger that I’ve felt (and many many other Americans have felt) over the past eight years of bullying and repression by my own government has a lot to do with why I wrote it.
The theme may be one reason that I got framable rejections from American publishers and it wound up being taken by a Canadian publisher.
How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline?
I can’t work with outlines. I had a hard time starting the novel. I just couldn’t get past a few pages until — it sounds hokey, but there was the morning when I sat down to write — and Jemma walked into the room. The novel had to be written in the first person. That’s not my favorite voice, but nothing else worked. The whole book comes off Jemma’s ideas and personality.
Of course I manipulated the character, but she’s a strong personality, and not a particularly comfortable one to carry around in your head for years.
From the moment you conceived the idea for the story, to the published book, how long did it take?
Forever! Or so it seemed. I wrote it first as a short story in 2000. Then a novel in two parts, and finally I turned the first part into JEMMA7729. From the time the publisher took the novel to its publication was about two and a half years.
Describe your working environment.
I live in an 1860 farmhouse at the edge of a small Massachusetts town, with a huge yard and a protected wetland just beyond my back yard. Very pleasant place, even though the age of my house means windows don’t fit well anymore; it’s hot in summer and cold in winter and the floors are uneven. There are two stories. My study is a huge room on the second floor, with a window beside my desk that looks out to a street and a wonderful maple tree I planted in 1976 which is now taller than the house.
My study is very messy and full of bookshelves, files, two desks — the computer desk and one that came off a 19th century sailing ship. There’s a sound system, too. Sometimes I like music when I write — music of all kinds. Mozart is good, so are Dixie Chicks. Depends on what I’m writing.
I use a Mac. I am generally accompanied by one or more of my three cats. If they aren’t sprawled some place in the room, they come to interrupt me periodically. The big cat boys (Max and Mouse) like to sit behind me when I write. I have a big leather chair, so there’s room for them, one at a time. The little cat, Jenny, likes to sit under my feet.
Are you a disciplined writer?
Yes. I like to write in the morning. I’m an early riser — usually waking at 5:30 or 6:00, and after the cats are fed, I’m at the computer. I write something every day.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? What seems to work for unleashing your creativity?
Yes and it’s a rotten state of affairs. I think only once has it been really disabling, and that was early on, because I wasn’t able to sell any of my stories. I’ve been a nonfiction writer, and , generally, everything I wrote, I sold. These were articles and a book about endangered species and marine mammals, short plays, some theatre stuff.
Then I did begin to sell the fiction, and that helped to get me back on track. The trick I use when my muse is failing is to open the dictionary at random, stick my finger on the page and write something using or about the word I’ve pointed at.
One of the times I did that, I had pointed to “name.” I wrote a weird horror story called “Names,” which I’ve just sold to Inkspotter Publishing for “Backless, Strapless and Slit to the Throat: A Femme Fatale Anthology.” It’s due out sometime soon.
Technically speaking, what do you have to struggle the most when writing? How do you tackle it?
Starting. I need the first sentence. That is sometimes tough to get. I just keep writing first sentences. I don’t let myself give up. I have rarely changed those first sentences. I certainly didn’t with JEMMA7729.
How was your experience in looking for a publisher? What words of advice would you offer those novice authors who are in search of one?
When JEMMA was first shopped around, I had an agent. I don’t have one now. We had all those glowing rejections. Then nothing happened, my agent couldn’t think of where to send it any more. Once I was on my own, I started sending it to small presses, and finally sent it to EDGE. It took them about six months to get back to me, but they bought it.
Just don’t give up. If you believe in your work, keep trying. Often, the problem is that what publishers are looking for is a narrow band. You have to fit into that band. You have to find the compatible fit.
What type of book promotion seems to work the best for you?
I don’t know yet.
What is(are) your favorite book/author(s)? Why?
I would love to write like Connie Willis. Her fabulous time-travel novel “The Doomsday Book” is one of my very favorites. I’ve read it many times with pleasure. And I like George R . R. Martin, and Suzy Charnas.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
That one is simple: write from your heart.
Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?
Yep. PhoebeWray.net. It’s under construction, but readable.
Do you have another book on the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?
JEMMA7729 is my first published book. I’ve got four setting on my desktop. A magic realism series, Tales of the Winter People, and a thriller.
The Winter People series is partly based on my adventure of being a working environmentalist for eleven years, I worked several times with Native American people, and became fascinated with the old tales of how the tribes integrated new technologies into their societies without losing their culture.
Anything else you’d like to say about yourself or your work?
I think people who can write ought to. We’ve become so wi-fi and anime and other techno things that sometimes we can feel overwhelmed. But I’m about to teach Drieser’s “Sister Carrie,” published in 1900, and it captures the fin de siecle in America as nothing else. Words are.
Thanks for stopping by! It was a pleasure to have you here!