ML Longworth has one of the greatest writing stories I’ve heard so far.
After the tech company her husband worked for in Silicon Valley was sold in the last 1990s, ML Longworth tried something bold. Before leaving for a family vacation in France, she typed the following search term into a browser: computer-jobs-France. What followed was a series of incredible coincidences that lead to she and her husband and daughter moving to Aix-en-Provence. You’ll want to listen in to hear her version.
When she moved to France, ML Longworth was not a professional novelist. She began writing about food and culture in southern France and had a novel that she hid in a drawer for years. When she was offered the opportunity to teach writing at NYU’s campus in Paris, the interviewer casually mentioned that she must have a book in the works. With the promise of a job as a writing professor, the novel came out of the drawer and on to publication. Now, the Verlaque and Bonnet mysteries are a much-loved series that features the region of Aix and its food and culture as much as the mysteries that unfold there.
If you’ve ever dreamed of running off to another country, or wondered if you could build a career as a writer without the traditional MFA, here is a story that will fuel your wildest hopes. I know it did for me- I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this conversation since we recorded.
Discussed in Episode 99 with ML Longworth
Has lived in France for the last 20 years. Moved there almost on a lark when her husband sort of fell into a job there.
Planned to stay for two years.
Moved into an apartment downtown. Didn’t join any ex-pat groups. Just hit the ground running.
Started writing because she had time. Husband was at work. Kid at school and she had no working papers for France.
Had taken a weekend writing class in California and enjoyed it.
Submitted first work to the NYTimes. Rejected. Sent it to the Washington Post. Rejected but with the advice to “listen to your senses.” Rewrote it and was accepted. Then was writing freelance travel articles about, mostly, Provence.
Then applied for a job as a creative writing teacher at NYU’s Paris campus. Showed her journalism work. Dean asked if she had a book in progress. She had 3/4 manuscript of her first novel tucked away, afraid to finish it. She said yes. Then immediately pulled it out and started trying to finish it.
Writing her mystery series.
She starts with the characters. Spends a lot of time just figuring out who they are.
Wanted a different main character than stereotypical hard-drinking police investigator. So it’s a married couple.
“I think my food writing background comes out in my books.” On her descriptions of place and setting.
“It’s time I go back into another old house.” On writing a ghost story.
Book coming out this spring is #7 in the series.
“I’m still a bit up in the clouds.” On the way her career has taken off.
Moving to France, as opposed to growing up there, gives her a bit of the eye of an outsider when it comes to cultural practices and she makes a point to try and write cultural details into her stories.
Reads the small local paper and frequently finds small details and stories in it that she’ll try to reuse.
“The best way to learn how to write is just write and keep writing.” On coming to writing from a non-writing background.
“Be careful with your memoir, you can’t just be writing about yourself all the time.” On working with her students and what she learns from their writing.
“That’s the worst thing you can do is just look at the blank page.” On recognizing when it’s time to take a walk & step away from the writing for a moment.
“If you’re writing and you know you’re not feeling inspired but you’re just writing to get something down on paper, it’s never a waste.” On writing, even when it feels like it’s not working.
Elaine Castillo broke my brain with something she said on the show.
The book she ended up publishing, her debut novel America is not the Heart, was not even close to the same length as the book she wrote. Let me say this again: Elaine Castillo sold her debut novel to a big 5 publisher and then got to spend a year and a half editing it because they believed in the book and wanted Elaine to feel satisfied by the end result.
As someone who has always felt novels got sold only when there might be an errant semi-colon or two floating around, this was nothing short of a revelation. Elaine is incredibly open and forthright in this conversation. I was delighted to really get inside her writing process, how she explored point fo view, and the way the characters came together for her. It was a joy to dive into America is Not the Heart, a gorgeous book that is already making waves with the critics. You’re in for a real treat this week. Happy listening!
Discussed in Episode 98 with Elaine Castillo
- The choice to begin in 2nd person as Pol, but move into 3rd in the second chapter.
- Different characters have different amounts of class privilege & it was a challenge staying in one character’s POV for too long.
- How Elaine first wrote a 600 page novel that was Greek myth fan fiction and then threw it away.
- “I went off piste a little bit.”
- On the purpose of her abandoned 600 page Greek myth fan fiction novel. “Sometimes you just have to write a book out of you.”
- Her belief that “Any writer is really a reader first and foremost.”
- On what she likes to read & what she likes to write.
- “I’m the type of writer who needs to write the world first.” On her process and her 1,000 page first draft.
- On the editing process that uncovers the novel inside all of the writing. “I think you can be ruthless but also protective.”
- “I knew that I never wanted to write about someone who was in a position of importance.” On her main characters.
- “I’m not hugely interested in writing about heroes.” How she chose her characters.
- “I always really like writing people who are wrong about themselves.” The fun of writing an unaware character, rather than an unreliable one.
This episode brought to you by The Secret Writeaway, a retreat coming this October to Portland, OR
Emily Thompson + Kathleen Shannon wrote the book on Being Boss.
Back in January 2015, Emily and Kathleen launched a podcast called Being Boss. It was for women business owners and creative entrepreneurs. The show quickly grew from a small posse of listeners into a sensation, and then a movement. The exploration of what it meant to be boss created in-person events and a vibrant online community of women, all ready to “do the work” as Emily and Kathleen put it.
It was only a matter of time before they wrote a book. As soon as the book was ready to hit the presses, I was eager to speak to the two of them about what had allowed them to collaborate on a book from two different cities and in the midst of their shared business and the businesses they each run on their own. I knew they’d have systems and tips galore, and I wasn’t disappointed.
If you’ve ever thought about collaborating on a book, this is your episode. And even if you don’t dream of co-authoring, the advice Emily and Kathleen share will help you get your book written better, faster, and saner. Happy listening!
Discussed in Episode 97 with Emily Thompson + Kathleen Shannon
- People always say that writing a book is the most painful thing you’ll ever do, but Emily and Kathleen found the process joyful and pleasant, and grew from the process as writers.
- They needed to have hardcore systems in place to make it work and make it joyful.
- The first two weeks of the book writing process was very trial and error.
- The proposal was the most painful part of the whole process but gave a lot of clarity about the content that would be written about.
- They decided to write the book in chronological order, from beginning to end, instead of writing random chapters when they felt inspired.
- They had a very structured and detailed outline and then assigned who would write each part.
- They wrote in Google Docs so they could write and edit in real time, and would go to separate offices to write different parts then come together and read to each other.
- They found it easier to write by reading out loud and talking it through with each other.
- They had recurring themes and pillars that always came up in their work that they decided to use as chapters.
- The hardest part of the proposal was trying to explain what they do to people who were not familiar with their work, and pitching to traditional publishers.
- The pushback, resistance, and clarification along the way is what makes the work ultimately better.
- They played off each other’s energies to help get through the process and encouraged each other to keep going.
- Writing a book was like childbirth; you don’t remember how painful the whole process was and then you have this beautiful thing at the end.
- Consistency breeds legitimacy.
- They had to drop their egos to make the best book for the reader to pick up.
- Collectively agreed that they needed to stand ground on the graphic design of the book.
- At the end, it wasn’t ego, but it was having this vision and needing to go through the process to get the thing that aligned with the vision.
- There is a certain amount of clout that comes with being traditionally published and having other people believe in you.
- They wanted the accountability of a traditional publisher to make the book happen.
- Finding a good fit with an agent and publisher and asking the right questions along the way is important if you choose traditional publishing.
- Show up and do the work!
- How you do anything is how you do everything. Treat every project like it is the most important project in that moment.
- When people can have mutual respect for one another, they can all create something to be proud of.
- They had to build very serious boundaries in work so no time was wasted while writing, but knew it was okay to break those boundaries sometimes.
- If you start behaving as if you are writing the book or that you are getting a lot done, you will get it done. Care enough about the project to do what it takes to make it happen.
- You have to acknowledge that this is still your job and you won’t always have inspiration. You still have to just sit down and do the work.
Kit De Waal didn’t start writing until she was 40.
I love a hot debut novel from a bright young thing as much as the next person, but there is something I love even more about a late-to-writing career trajectory. Now that I’m on the other side of 40, I feel particularly fired up whenever I read books by those who didn’t start as writers the moment they finished school.
Kit De Waal is the stuff revolutions are made of. With an article in the Guardian that asked “Where are all the working class writers?” she inspired the launch of the Working Class writers movement in the UK, something we would do well to adopt here in the US. Writing is hard work, and not easily done between all the responsibilities of jobs, home, families, and making this expensive thing called life work. Kit began writing at 40, studied craft with gusto, and published her first book in her 50s. It exploded into a national and international best-seller and was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award in 2016.
If you feel like it’s too late for you to write what you want to, it’s not. If you feel like you aren’t like the authors you see on the shelves, don’t let that stop you. And I expect that listening to Kit De Waal will help you stay focused on the dream of writing and publishing your book. This episode is magic.
Discussed in Episode 96 with Kit De Waal
- Didn’t start writing until her 40’s.
- Was a voracious reader in youth but didn’t have dreams of becoming a writer.
- Started writing short stories when at home with her young children.
- Wrote two books and a screenplay, got an agent but couldn’t sell any of them.
- “I very much had gone to a different place in writing that book.” On writing My Name Is Leon, her third book and first one published.
- “This one came from the gut.” On how My Name is Leon is different from her first two, unpublished, novels.
- Was surprised that this was the book that people responded to.
- She was 55 when My Name is Leon came out.
- “I interrogated the books that I loved.” On being serious about the craft of writing.
- “It takes a long, long time, many hours of practice to get to where you want to be.” On putting in the time.
- The Trick to Time is her new novel.
- Was able to write it in the window between selling Leon and it coming out. 18 months.
- Started writing her main character as an old woman but had to reassess what “old woman” meant to her.
- “Hang on. I’ve got stuff left. I’ve got life to live. I want to be loved and I want to love someone.” On writing an older character’s story.
- “There is life to be lived. And if there is life to be lived, what have I missed and do I want to carry on missing it?” On her main character getting a wake up call.
- Literary fiction vs genre fiction.
- Literary fiction at the moment is wary of too much plot, that might get in the way of character development, which is literary fiction’s stock-in-trade.
- But the literary classics are full of plot. Example, Madame Bovary.
- She grew up watching a lot of films with her father, particularly film noir. Her use of suspense and plot now comes out of that background.
- While writing she plots massively. Uses a spreadsheet.
- After plotting out the entire book, she puts it away and then just starts writing.
- Plotting it out first allows her to not waste thousands of words on sections that were unnecessary.
- Puts sun icons throughout her spreadsheet to remind herself to keep some light and warmth in her stories, which might otherwise be very grim.
- Easily spends 6-7 months on her outlines.
- Trick To Time has 3 timelines. She wrote each independently.
- The interweaving comes much later. She commits to each narrative, one at a time, as she’s writing them.
- Worked in family and criminal law for many years. Was not a lawyer.
- Took time off work after adopting two children and found herself with time to think about what she wanted to do next.
- “I thought that I would have enough skill and enough knowledge without doing some of the hard work that you need to do to become a craftsperson.” On starting to write.
- “It’s such a great thing when you find your joy.” On becoming a writer.
- Working Class Writers Movement
- Common People: An Anthology of Working Class Writers
- For working class writers, the uncertainty of being able to make a living from writing necessitates that writing becomes a smaller and smaller part of ones life, to make room for the first job, the second job, the childcare, etc.
- Publishers expect working class writers to write versions of their own lives, or a version of hardship. But what if you want to write science fiction? Or vampires? Or historical fiction? Your voice isn’t expected.
- “Middle class writers can write what they want and working class writers are expected to be constantly rehashing their own narrative.” On one of the many barriers facing working class writers.
- “We laughed every day and sometimes we laughed because that’s all we had left.” On growing up working class, but growing up happy.
- “It doesn’t matter how well we’re writing and how much we’re writing if there aren’t people to listen.” On the responsibility of the publishing industry to look for, and actively seek out, the broadest range of writers possible.
- “The publishing industry needs to recognize that this world is made up of lots and lots of different communities that value literature.” On the need to represent the broadest range of writers possible.
- “There has never been a more important time for people to understand one another, and for us to investigate and appreciate and understand other peoples’ lives.” On the essential role of fiction now.
This week, we dive into the mysterious lure of Sweden and its literature.
As a lover of languages, I have long been fascinated with the art of translation. I am delighted to have Henning Koch on this week, who has translated Fredrik Backman’s work including A Man Called Ove, as well as the acclaimed Every Moment We Are Still Alive. In addition to working as a translator, he’s also a writer himself and has published two books. We explore Henning’s beginnings in translation, the relationship it gives him with language, and why he can’t possibly write and translate at the same time. We also touched on something that has become a phenomenon recently: the worldwide obsession with Swedish crime fiction.
In order to explore the topic of Swedish crime further, this week’s episode continues with the couple that writes together under the pseudonym Lars Kepler: Alexandra Coehlo Ahndoril and Alexander Ahndoril. Their book, The Sandman kept me up at night for days, furiously turning pages. We discussed how they came to write together as a couple, what they believe makes Sweden uniquely capable of writing dark crime stories, and their incredible method of writing together.
I love these two conversations as a pair because both of them center on finding connection with others through language and the love of books. If you’ve ever dreamed of seeing your work appear in another language or considered collaborating, this episode is for you.
Listen Up on iTunes or Stitcher | Henning Koch’s Books + Translations | Henning Koch’s Trailer | Lars Kepler’s Site | Lars Kepler’s Books | Lars Kepler’s Facebook
Discussed in Episode 95 The Swedish Connection:
Part 1: Henning Koch
- One day picked up a book from his shelf that he had loved as a child and decided to translate it from Swedish into English. He pitched it and got lucky.
- “I fell into all the traps.” On diving into his first translation.
- First book took him around four months.
- Joined the Swedish-English Literary Translators’ Association.
- SWELTA publishes a magazine that gives translators a place to do shorter translations and excerpts. A place to build translating skills.
- Translators very, very rarely have any say in what books are translated. Publishers select books via their own criteria and then approach translators.
- But he did manage to bring one book to a publishing house that they decided to go ahead with.
- In Every Moment We are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist
- Primarily translates from Swedish to English.
- “You have to recognize the cultural distinctness of the work you’re translating.” On bringing the personality of one language into another.
- “You have to just show people, and keep showing them all the time, ‘hey, this is happening in another language.’” On the art of translation.
- But the new language has to be familiar enough to the reader so that they can fall into it.
- “You have to respect the distinctness of the work.” On not trying to mask the provenance of a story.
- “When you read Dostoyevsky you want it to feel Russian.” On the pleasure of reading translated work.
- “If I’m translating I don’t do any writing whatsoever.” On keeping his own writing separate from his translation work.
- “It’s all writing.” On translators being writers.
- “Being a translator is a bit like being a studio musician.” On how translators need to be able to fill a role, instead of inventing one.
- Has finished his most recent novel and is in the process of shopping it around.
- “So I really just felt like a berserker.” On giving himself a writing window and leaping into it, ready to write.
- Most translators don’t translate their own work.
Part 2: Lars Kepler
- Alexander and Alexandra Ahndoril: husband and wife team writing together under a pseudonym. Their Joona Linna series sold 12 million copies in 40 different languages.
- Alexander wanted to be a big painter in his youth.
- His first novel was picked up when he was only 19. He wrote 9 novels, 20 theater plays and 1 opera libretto before writing as Lars Kepler.
- Alexandra wrote 3 historical novels before writing under Lars Kepler.
- Both were successful novelists independently before decided to collaborate.
- “It is very lonely to be a writer because you know you can’t let anyone else into what you’re doing until it’s finished.” On the joys of collaboration.
- Collaborating wasn’t as easy as they thought it would be.
- “We can laugh at it now, but we had a lot of failed attempts before finding the key to collaboration. The key is Lars Kepler.” On learning how to collaborate.
- “It wasn’t until we invented Lars Kepler that we could bring our styles together into a totally new author.”
- Lars Kepler has a whole identity and habits. He used to be a teacher, then experienced tragedy and became a very shy and lonely person before he started writing.
- Alexander and Alexandra are novelists writing the novel of Lars Kepler who is then writing the books.
- They always find their ideas through conversations and then can write the plot. After the plot is completed they start to write, sitting side by side and emailing their texts to each other to fill in the gaps.
- “After a while when the book is finished we don’t know who wrote what because there is not a single sentence in it that only one of us has written alone. And that’s when we say it’s the work of Lars Kepler.” On the process of writing together.
- “When the story comes alive is a magical moment and you have to follow the characters.” On creating a story from their plot notes.
- “Having taken down this wall of loneliness is the most enjoyable thing we’ve ever done.” On why they love collaboration.
- Each book has its own rhythms and tones. They want their readers to experience a roller coaster of emotions in each novel.
- “Empathy is the most important part for us when we write. You have to understand all the characters when you write. Even the bad ones.” On character development’s essential role.
- They aren’t interested in describing a character as a monster. They want to know how and why the character became a monster.
- “It is always a journey from chaos to order.” On writing crime fiction.