I believe in destiny. Without going into a discourse on the religious implications to that statement, I believe that certain experiences are pre-determined in our lives. We make a choice on which path to take, and yet, somehow, it still leads to the same place. The only difference is how much faster, or slower, we actually get to our destination, or who we meet along the way.
Certain things have happened in my life that bolster my belief in this phenomenon. One of them is how I came to meet the person I am introducing to you today. Camille DeAngelis is a writer and was featured as a guest on Nova Ren Suma's Turning Points series on her blog. Camille's guest post was so insightful and inspiring about her experience after publication that I left a comment and started following her on Twitter. She followed me back. I had no idea that she lived within my local area.
On a totally unrelated visit to the website of a local library, a banner ad flashed on the top of the screen for a writing workshop during the month of March. Facilitated, by none other than, Camille DeAngelis. I hemmed and hawed about whether to register or not, because my husband's work schedule was beginning to get hectic. He encouraged me to sign up and promised to try and keep Tuesday nights free as much as possible. So I did. Tuesday nights turned out to be lighter than he expected, and I got to go to all the sessions. Destiny, right?
The workshops went swimmingly well. Camille is so encouraging and positive. Her smile is infectious, and you can't help but smile along with her. Her exercises were interesting, and one of the brainstorming tools she shared with us, put me on a path to finally fleshing out a storyline that's been lingering in my head.
I am pleased to introduce to you, Camille DeAngelis, author of Mary Modern and Petty Magic.
How early in life did you realize that you were a writer? At what point did you decide to pursue publication? What brought you to that decision?
I remember looking at the row of books on a shelf above my desk (Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Nancy Drew, the Babysitters' Club) and thinking that I wanted to write one myself someday; I must have been nine or ten. I think I showed an enthusiasm for writing prompts in elementary and middle school that I don't recall any of my classmates sharing.
But it was my grandmother's death that really made me into a writer, and if you check out the premise of my first novel, you can see it all too plainly. I tell people that if I hadn't turned to writing to process my feelings—if she were still with us—I would be living a fairly happy life as an editor in some Manhattan skyscraper, working on other people's books.
At any rate, I revisited that childhood daydream in college, and began writing my practice novel; and once I started it never occurred to me that I might not someday be published. I can't be half-assed or half-hearted about anything—there isn't any point!
You pursued an M.A. in Writing. How essential was this route to your writing career? Do you think that you would have achieved the same results if you had gone another way?
First and foremost, doing an M.A. (or M.F.A.) allows you the time and space to write; and if you can learn from your teachers and classmates, or parlay your degree into a teaching career, then those are bonuses. But you certainly don't “need” to go for a degree if you can carve out that time and space for yourself in the life you've got now. I have a friend with an M.F.A. from Columbia, and she sometimes says she's not sure it was worth the loans she incurred. Of course there's that very practical consideration as well.
So an M.F.A. isn't right for everyone, although it certainly worked out well for me. If I hadn’t quit my job as an editorial assistant, I know it would have taken me a few extra years to finish Mary Modern. More importantly, though, I got all the right stimulation at NUI Galway—reading Kate O’Brien and Sheridan Le Fanu (two writers I count among my influences), long walks along the promenade overlooking Galway Bay, invigorating conversations in the campus pub or postgrad study room, and pot after pot of Barry's tea to power me through writing sessions that often lasted until 5am.
That’s not to say the writing program at NUIG is at all rigorous; it has a bit of a reputation as a slacker school, and that suited me perfectly. I didn’t want my classwork getting in the way of the reason I was there. Time, space, and the inspiration I got from living in the west of Ireland: it was a magical combination.
Having said all this, though, I feel I should pass along something an agent said to me once, years ago, when I was still trying to publish my practice novel. “Don’t get an M.F.A.,” she said. “I open a submission and I can tell right away if the writer has an M.F.A. Writing programs have a homogenizing effect on impressionable aspiring writers—everything reads the same.”
There’s oftentimes a beautiful sameness to the fiction that comes out of prestigious American M.F.A. programs. It might be a very well crafted, even an excellent novel—I certainly don’t mean to take away from the achievement—but the problem is that any one of a dozen other novelists could have written it! So my main piece of advice to writers who've decided on an M.F.A. is to focus on honing your own voice. Don’t succumb to that homogenizing effect.
The premise of both your novels border on the fantastical and frankly, unusual, but intriguing. So much so, that I can’t seem to pin-point your genre. Could you describe or identify it for us? Have you ever written in other genres? What is it about this genre that calls you?
Genre-bending is a lot of fun, but it’s also pretty tricky to pin down when somebody I’ve just met wants to know what my novels are “about.” I used to tell people I write “literary fantasy,” but now I just say I write fantasy novels because it feels less pretentious.
I haven’t ever really written anything that couldn’t be classified as fantasy—I like to say I get enough real world in the real world. That’s not to say I only read fantasy, but it’s the only thing I’m interested in writing. I've recently noticed that I tend to write fantasies that are set in the ordinary world, though, and I think I'd like to try my hand at something more experimental at some point.
Is there a specific topic, whether within your genre or outside of it, that you feel you cannot write about? Would you explain to us why?
September 11th. It's the one thing I'll probably never write about, because I don't think I can do it in a way that isn't emotionally manipulative.
(I had a friend in college tell me a poem I wrote about my grandmother was “emotionally manipulative,” and even though it seemed like a mean thing to say at the time, I know she was right.)
Could you describe for us the birth process of your stories? Are all your stories born or developed the same way?
Each novel has its own origin story, methods of character and plot development, and writing rituals, although they do all begin with a “what if?” I got the idea for Mary Modern by ruminating on my great-grandparents' engagement portrait—I wanted to have a conversation with my great-grandmother, and I figured that could be accomplished by either time travel or cloning. I figured there were already plenty of time travel novels. Then I had this random idea about an impossibly old witch who makes herself young again and goes out on the town to pick up hapless young men, and that kernel grew into Petty Magic. Some characters are based on (or are composites of) people I know in real life, and others are just people I'd like to know—or people I'd like to be. Sometimes a complete plot has slotted into place in my head, as with Mary Modern, and other times I've deliberated for months over a story's one rightful ending, in the case of Petty Magic. And sometimes I start working on something but it needs a couple more years to simmer, as with the novel I'm writing now; I needed to bring the experiences of the past two years to make it into what it really wants to be.
Where do you typically find inspiration for your stories and the characters you create? Is there a particular source that you return to regularly?
You can find inspiration anywhere—absolutely anywhere. I've filched great one-liners from friends (though I'm always careful to thank them!), plumbed my dreams, scribbled down awesome bits of dialogue overheard on public transit, and borrowed names off of tombstones. I've walked through a Christmas market or along a seashore taking note of every sight, scent, and sensation. Becoming a writer means taking notice of things, even the small, seemingly insignificant details—they may not be so insignificant, in the end!—and cultivating an insatiable curiosity about the world and how it works.
Can you describe for us a typical writing day? Do you write every day? Do you dedicate regular hours to writing? What would be the optimum conditions for a “perfect” writing session?
On an ordinary work day I go to the public library, which is a pleasant 15-minute walk, and aim for at least 1,000 words. If I can hit 2,000 then I'm really pleased. I find I'm at my best in the mid-afternoon. I also read for research, faff about on Twitter, and poke around in the stacks looking for something to inspire me. On days when writing is like yanking out my own teeth (haven't had one of those in awhile, thank goodness), I'll just stick with research reading.
I developed a new writing routine on my last trip (to Colombia in February): I didn't bring my laptop, so I just wrote longhand in these cute little composition notebooks I picked up in Ireland. Being internet-free resulted in wonderful productivity. I literally wrote a quarter of my novel in two of those notebooks over a three-week period.
As for optimum conditions, I try to live and work by Charles Bukowski's “air and light and time and space,” and just get it done no matter what's going on in the background.
After a writing session, how quickly can you step out of your story to tend to real life?
I don't know that I ever really tend to real life, apart from the potty breaks. My fiction is much more interesting!
Have you ever found the inkwell dry? How do you refill it?
I definitely have what I call creative “trough” periods, which invariably occur between novel projects. I go through literally a year or two of false starts. It isn't that I suffer from a lack of ideas—I actually have too many ideas (if there is such a thing!), and it just takes my subconscious awhile to process and sort everything. In the meantime, I fill myself up on good books, art, movies, music, and travel experiences, and research any subject to which I feel drawn. Eventually things come together and the writing is easy again, but in the meantime I have to be patient!
writer's block” and the creative cycle on my blog, if anyone's interested.)
What part of the writing process do you enjoy the most? Like the least? Why?
Other writers might call me a freak of nature for saying this, but I LOVE revising. I love re-jigging and reworking and refining exactly what it is I'm trying to say. Of course, I've got the raw material to work with, so I've already overcome the initial series of psychological hurdles in producing, as Anne Lamott says, the “shitty first draft.”
I don't know if this really counts as part of the writing process, but publicity is the least fun. There are moments when I really enjoy it, like when I connect with people who've loved my books in person or online, getting to throw myself a launch party, or working on a Q&A like this, but the rest of it (reviews, the promotional side of social media, and so forth) is inherently unfulfilling since I have virtually no control over how well the book does. For me, the best parts about being a published author have been the actual writing of the books, the excited early feedback from my writer friends, and awesome friends who started out as fans of my books (shout-outs to Sarah and Maggie, and Todd and Bill!)
This is a question that was posed on the blog of one of my favorite authors, and answering it helped me identify my priorities in terms of what I want to focus on as a writer. So, I’ll ask you: “If you had just one story left in you, and it was guaranteed to be published, what would that story be?”
It's always the next one! I'm very fond of the children's novel I'm working on right now, but my next adult novel is going to be my magnum opus—and this time I mean it. Until I've finished it and the next crazy-awesome idea comes along, that is.
I've never been too concerned about publishability. (If I wanted first and foremost to sell books, well—I could have written two dozen potboilers by now!) I shelved one manuscript I was working on last year because it started to feel a little too modest, but I don't worry if people will find my stories too quirky. Perhaps my all-time favorite piece of advice came from my NUIG fiction teacher, the Irish novelist and short story writer Mike McCormack, who said I should “make a space [for myself] on the shelf” by writing the kind of stories no one else could ever conceive of. That advice has served me extraordinarily well!
Camille DeAngelis is the author of Mary Modern and Petty Magic, both published by Crown, a subsidiary of Random House. She's also written two travel books on Ireland. Her books are available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble.com, iTunes, and through an independent book store through Indiebound.com. You can follow her travel and writing adventures on her blog Shine On, Dear, and follow her on Twitter as @PettyMagic. When she's not writing or traveling, she whips up some mean vegan cookies and some pretty awesome stuff with yarn and a pair of sticks.
Another destiny thing... I make some pretty awesome stuff with yarn and a pair of sticks too.