The 5-Question Interview: Carolyn Turgeon

The writer dishes about never writing longhand, anxiety and weirdness around writing and not getting intimidated by the process.

Carolyn Turgeon was born in Michigan and grew up in Illinois, Texas, Michigan and Pennsylvania. After graduating from Penn State, she earned a master’s in comparative literature from UCLA. Her first novel, Rain Village, was published in 2006 by Unbridled Books. Her second, Godmother: The Secret Cinderella Story, was published in March 2009 by Three Rivers/Crown in the US and Headline in the UK, and has been optioned for film by Random House Films/Focus Features.

The Writer’s Journey: Are you a “big picture” writer, or do you take the Anne Lamott Bird by Bird approach?
Carolyn: I think I’m a bird-by-bird writer attempting to become a big picture writer. I’ve finished and published two novels now, and in both cases didn’t even know major plot points until a couple of years into the writing. In the case of my first novel, Rain Village, I wrote a whole draft over several years and then rewrote it from scratch, twice. In the case of my second, Godmother: The Secret Cinderella Story, I had a basic situation and character and just wrote enough scenes to start assembling a plot. In the end, I cut at least 100 pages of good writing that didn’t fit in the book once I figured out where it was going.

These are not approaches I would recommend.

It took me a while to figure out how to put together a plot and construct a story arc. The page-by-page stuff comes to me much more easily than the big picture. But now, with my third novel, which I’m just starting, I needed to come up with a synopsis before really getting into the writing at all. This is because the UK publisher that bought my second novel also bought my third, based only on an idea (that I would write about a mermaid). So I needed to put together a synopsis for them as well as for my U.S. publisher to review. It took many attempts and a few frustrating months, but I now have a synopsis and chapter-by-chapter outline that I quite love, and that should serve as a blueprint to get me through this book much more efficiently.

But I haven’t done it yet, so we’ll see…

The Writer’s Journey: Using the six-word memoir approach, please give us your six-word description of how you write.
Carolyn: When Law and Order Isn’t On.

The Writer’s Journey: Now expand that description to more than six words.
Carolyn
: I am not sure this description needs to be expanded.

The Writer’s Journey: Taking the stance that creativity is a natural state, why do we get stuck? How do you overcome “stuckness” if you encounter it?
Carolyn: I’ve been stuck many times and for many reasons. Not knowing where the book is going next. Anxiety and weirdness around the writing. Not wanting to finish and let go of a book. Intimidation, because writing a novel can seem so impossible. Plus there’s always, always something more fun to do. I don’t think that writing a novel is a natural state, either, though creativity itself might be. I think it’s artificial and odd and terrifying and revealing in ways you don’t even realize. I also think that sitting in front of a computer every day making up stories and worlds is basically like going crazy on purpose, and trying to force yourself to stay that way. So there’s plenty to muck you up.

To overcome stuckness, I have to remind myself to calm down and look at the writing in bits and pieces. The big picture can get awfully overwhelming, but that one page, that one moment, is much easier to contend with. I also have to remember that it doesn’t have to be perfect. If a scene feels difficult or I don’t quite know how to approach it, I have to give myself license to just write it and let it be god-awful. It’s easier to work with something that’s bad than with a blank page, I think, and a page of bad writing can contain one line that will lead you where you need to go. When I was writing my first novel, Rain Village, I’d get stuck and just stop writing for months at a time. Now I know to write out of order, to let myself be terrible, all kinds of things. Whatever you can do to not get intimidated and keep going. It’s hard!

The Writer’s Journey
: The Talmud says that “Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’ Do you have a personal interpretation for what this means to you as a writer?
Carolyn: If I were to describe my own process in such a way, I’d more imagine a huge, unwieldy sunflower and me kicking it and begging it to grow and occasionally leaving it untended for days at a time. I do not have nearly so gentle a relationship with my own writing as those Angels do with their grass blades. I tend to see the novel as my sworn, fight-to-the-death enemy.

The Writer’s Journey: Tell us how you write…pen or computer, crayons or ink? Do you sing it or act it or just write it?
Carolyn: I only ever write on my computer—my lovely pink laptop, to be precise. I revise so much as I write, rewriting lines and deleting words and rearranging text, I don’t know how I’d write by hand. Plus I hate having to transcribe even a few lines scribbled down somewhere. It feels like a real waste of time, time I could spend watching tv or ice skating or making cocoa. I’m not sure what I would have done if I’d been born at a time when computers weren’t around! Maybe I’d have just taken 10 times as long to write a book, or maybe I would have switched to haiku.

Carolyn says she always wears red lipstick, loves Greta Garbo and glamour, glitter, burlesque and the circus. She plays the accordion and loves gypsy music and is currently working on her third novel, a retelling of the original little mermaid story. She lives in the middle of Pennsylvania but you can visit her at http://www.carolynturgeon.com/.