Friday, July 20, 2018

Book Bites: Sarah Ward, author of Aesop Lake

Today I'm branching out again by bringing you an interview with YA author Sarah Ward. Aesop Lake hits shelves next Tuesday (July 24th) and tells the story of two teenagers living through and grappling with the aftermath of a heinous hate crime in rural Vermont. Read on as Ward discusses writing for teens, NANOWRIMO, and creating a book that both embraces and confronts a timely, and difficult, subject.
"Emphasizing that there’s no shame in recovering at your own pace but no refuge from responsibility either, three illustrated Aesop fables punctuate the well-paced novel." -Kirkus Reviews

What drew you to the genre you write in?

Ever since I was barely an adolescent myself I wanted to write for young adults. This age group is always relevant, carving new paths into the way our culture thinks and behaves, and yet there is something so familiar to their experience that we can relate to the pain, and the sweetness, of moving from childhood into adulthood. As a parent of two young adults, and a youth group leader at a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, I have spent a lot of time talking with teens and early twenty-somethings. They are brimming with energy, passion and discovery. When I worked as a clinical social worker, my favorite clients were young adults, because they always came in with such bravado, but when treated with respect and kindness they opened up very quickly. I find that writing for them is just as satisfying. I believe that we shouldn’t “write down” to what we think is safe; we should challenge young adults with difficult topics and real-life situations. I also find that adults enjoy YA as much as the youth, as we have all been there, and can relate on so many levels.

Were there any parts of your novel that were edited out, but which you miss terribly?

Yes, in the first several drafts, Aesop Lake was told from three perspectives: Leda, Jonathan and Marcia. Marcia is Jonathan’s mother, and I felt strongly that her perspective on the hate crime was important, and that she could bring in the voice of the community. However, my editor felt that Marcia’s voice wasn’t necessary, and that it was a little odd to have an adult tell part of the story in a YA novel. So, I talked with my daughter, who was seventeen at the time, and she agreed with my editor. I had to cut ten chapters, shift the important pieces into Leda & Jonathan’s story, and then write four new chapters to make up for the gaps in the story line, all on a three-month timeline. Whew! Not only was it painful, it felt like a herculean task to take on over the holidays, but I did it!

Have you ever given up on a writing project?

Yes, my first attempt at a novel fell flat after fifty pages. I was listening to a web-cast that suggested outlining the novel to help you write it faster. But as soon as I completed the outline I was bored. I couldn’t keep the intensity going in my storyline, and the characters felt shallow, as if I were trying to make them do what I had written in the outline. I learned a valuable lesson from that experience, and never outlined again. This novel, Aesop Lake, was written during National Novel Writing Month 2015 (NANOWRIMO), where you spend the entire month of November trying to pump out 50,000 words of a novel. You can’t critique yourself, and you have no idea what is going to happen in the story. Every day you are just doing the best you can to get to a specific word count, and at the end of that magical month Aesop Lake had a first (horribly written) draft! And then the work began to shape and craft what became the final product.

Do you have a set routine as a writer?

No, I sometimes wish that I was one of those writers who could get up at O-dark-thirty, to write for an hour before the rest of the world stirred or stay up late every evening and pull prose from the dusty corners of my office, but I can’t. I like to sleep in to six-thirty and I don’t have an office in our small condo. I mostly write on the weekends, sometimes in the library, or at a coffee shop, or Panera, if it’s not too crowded. When my daughters were young I would squeeze in thirty minutes of writing while they were at a music lesson, or when I was waiting for their lacrosse practice to end. I called this “stealing time” and it worked really well. Now that they are older, and I don’t need to cart them around, I have to be more disciplined about finding time to write. I like to go away for a weekend retreat to a friend’s house, or a cabin in the woods and get as much done as possible. For over a decade I had a strong writing group that met once or twice a month, but we have drifted apart and their goals changed. Now I get together with my best writing buddy, Tammy, and we keep each other on track. Until I can give up the day job, I will just keep fitting it in and around the rest of my life, but it seems to be working.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

This past spring, I was at the 2018 American Writers Programs (AWP) conference, and I sat in on several panels about writing for young adults about challenging subjects. My new novel, Aesop Lake, takes on a hate crime against a gay couple, and one of my main protagonists, Leda, who witnesses the crime, has to choose between doing the right thing, or protecting her boyfriend and family. I asked one of the panelists, Sarah Aronson, how does she cope with negative reactions to her topics, since I'm assured that some will judge my book as too violent, anti-Christian, etc (even though it is not), and Sarah's response was, "as soon as this book is released, start writing the next one. Don't get focused on any negative press, or the haters, because they don't really matter. What matters is getting back to work, telling the next story that is ready to be written, and putting your energy into the creative process." I can't wait to do just that, as I've been thinking about my next novel for six months. I'm ready to go.

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