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  Interview with Sandra Kring
by Terry W. Ervin II

Sandra Kring lives in the north woods of Wisconsin. She runs support groups and workshops for adult survivors of trauma. Her debut novel, Carry Me Home, was a Book Sense Notable pick and a 2005 Midwest Booksellers' Choice Award nominee. Her second novel, The Book of Bright Ideas, was released May 30, 2006. It is the summer’s Featured Alternate of Literary Guild, as well as Doubleday Book Club’s and Target's "Bookmarked" Book Club selection for July of 2006.

Sandra’s website can be found at
http://www.sandrakring.com/ .

Could you briefly discuss the origin of your interest in writing and how that culminated in Carry Me Home, your first novel to reach publication?

Although I was a reader for years before attempting my first novel, I was a writer from birth. I say this because I truly believe that writers are born, not made. We seem to come into this world with an acute desire to understand the human condition, and a keen eye that easily detects the subtle nuances in our world. We seem – from the beginning— to have a thirst for the whole story, and an imagination that begs to ask, “What if?”

How I went from reader to writer, though, happened seemingly by accident. My brother and I were letter writers – lengthy, drawn-out letters filled with imagery and detail– and after a time (because our lives were not all that interesting, mind you), I suggested that we start writing novels instead, and exchanging a chapter at a time. And then the magic for me really began! I found myself living to write, rather than living to read, and I realized that I had a knack for what I was doing. Shortly afterwards, I began asking myself, “What if a messed up girl from the backwoods of Wisconsin, who grew up believing she was dumb, and thought she’d never amount to anything, went on to become a published novelist?”

My first novel, Carry Me Home – like all my novels, and my writing dream itself – began with a question. My father had passed away, and I was given his photographs taken in the Pacific during WWII. With the war in Iraq obviously inevitable, I went to bed one evening asking myself, “What must it be like to see a loved one go off to war?” I woke up the next morning, and five minutes later, the voice of Earl “Earwig” Gunderman erupted to answer my question.

What hurdles did you confront before seeing Carry Me Home in print and how did you overcome them? Did you face any additional hurdles while working on your second novel, The Book of Bright Ideas?

Carry Me Home was written in just six weeks, landed an agent two weeks after I began my search, and sold to Bantam Dell two months after that. A clean shot to the finish line, from conception to sale. That said, I can assure you that I had my share of hurdles. It’s just that my hurdles came prior to the sale of my first novel.

As all writers know, there’s no such thing as over-night success. I wrote for many years before I felt I’d gotten good enough to approach an agent. And while I enjoyed the years spent improving my writing (and believed deep down that I’d make it), I really struggled mentally with the amount of emotional energy I was putting into a dream no one could guarantee me would ever come true. I also struggled to defend the amount of time I was devoting to writing, with no paycheck to justify it. Fortunately, I kept putting one foot in front of the other in spite of the spontaneous, negative chatter in my head.

While you’d think that selling my first novel would have squelched the doubter in my head, it did not. When facing my second novel, I suddenly became excessively aware of the fact that I needed to please an agent, an editor, a publisher, my readers, and do it under a deadline. I froze under the pressure and suffered my first bout of writer’s block. As my deadline neared, I panicked and rewrote an earlier novel. Only once I had this “just in case” novel written, was I was able to write again, and what I wrote was The Book of Bright Ideas. In hindsight, I realize that the worst hurdles I faced were the ones I put up myself. In the end, though, I gained two valuable tools. I learned how to stop overreacting to the negative chatter in my head, and I reverted back to my pre-published approach to writing, which is writing simply for the joy of writing.

Although you’ve been with one publisher (Bantam Dell), you have worked with three editors. Should a new author expect this possibility and, based on your experience, how should an author proceed if faced with it?

I was crushed when my first editor, Jackie Cantor—sharp, experienced, and the warmest of human beings—left Bantam Dell. Jackie was the editor who made my dream come true, and she did so because she loved my story and my writing. I knew my second editor was “assigned” to me, so of course I had concerns. I worried that she’d not like my second book, my writing style, and that our personalities would clash. I wondered how easy she would be to work with, and most of all, I wondered if she’d insist on changes that I didn’t agree with.

In the beginning, admittedly, the idea of a new editor was about as appealing to me as the notion of a step-mother is to a five-year-old. As it turned out, I had no reason to worry. Shannon Jamieson Vazquez was a delight to work with. She was distinct from Jackie, of course, but professional, amiable, and she had an eye for subtle detail that turned out to be an asset to The Book of Bright Ideas. I was sad to lose her, too, but I’ve come to accept what is true: editors moving from house to house is commonplace in the publishing world. My new editor, Kerri Buckley, is likeable and enthusiastic, and I have every reason to believe that she, too, will have something of value to contribute to my work.

Changing editors mid-stream isn’t the ideal situation, of course, yet it needn’t be the worst, either. Contrary to my early attitude, the writer is not the adopted child and the editor the step parent (who may or may not be kind). Instead, the relationship is more like that between a loving parent and a dedicated teacher. You both have the same objective—the well-being of your brain-child. Writers should view revision suggestions with an open mind, and rest assured that editors are respectful of the fact that it’s your baby, and that final decisions on revisions are in your hands.

What was the best piece of advice you've received with respect to writing? How did you implement it into your work?

When I first became interested in writing fiction, I went to a week-long workshop. It took me until the last day to get up the courage to turn in an assignment. The instructor thought it was wonderful and read it to the class. As luck would have it, there was a psychologist in the class who raised his hand and asked me why I’d written from such an emotional distance, when obviously I was writing about something very personal. The instructor used his comment as an opening to make a valuable point. She said, “If you want to be a writer, you have to learn to spill your guts on paper.”

In “real life,” we save our most intimate emotions and experiences for a select few, yet when we write, we can’t escape exposing ourselves (our emotions, our experiences, our fantasies), yet once we sell we have no control over who will pick up our books. This thought unhinged me early on, yet I realized that I couldn’t set my writer’s-voice free if I was worrying about who might wince or gasp over what I’d written. To get past this anxiety, I often reminded myself of the instructor’s words, and I reminded myself that if I wanted to touch the hearts of my readers, I’d need to expose the heart of who I am.

What is the most common mistake you see aspiring writers make? Do you have any advice with respect to this mistake?

I think there’s only one “mistake” an aspiring writer can make, and that’s to not write in their authentic writer’s voice.

Picture Pavarotti trying to imitate Eminem, and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Writers, like singers, have a natural voice. It is comprised of a unique tone, style, usage of language, and elements too mysterious to identify. It is formed by our personalities, how we naturally speak, where we come from, and more. When a writer is not using it, the voice will sound forced and flat. Ridiculous even, in some cases.

I write my novels side-by-side with a talented writer whose writer’s voice could not be more different than mine. Often when we read a passage from each other’s work, we both groan and say, “I can’t write like that!” and experience a moment’s regret about our own writing. In that moment of regret, we find our own writer’s voices dull and uninteresting—even “wrong” somehow. We discuss our differences, and quickly appreciate the unique sound of our own voice again and return to it.

If you are an aspiring writer who is mimicking the voice of another, please remember that publishers aren’t looking for a generic version of a bestselling author. They’re looking for a fresh voice to turn into a bestselling author! Remember, too, that you don’t need to “develop” your own voice. You only need to drop your preconceived notion of what you think a writer “should” sound like, then take your hand from your writer’s mouth and let your own voice sing!

Could you tell us a little bit about your second novel, The Book of Bright Ideas, and where you came up with the premise for it?

I think it’s safe to say that we don’t choose our stories, they choose us.

I was struggling to come up with an idea for my second book, but consciously thinking of one wasn’t bringing any results. Then one day, I happened to be parked on a street and saw two little girls playing in a yard. They were wearing dress-up clothes, and their laughter made me remember how exciting and fun it was to find your first best friend. Around that time, I happened to be thinking about change. I pondered how it happens, why it happens, how awkward and painful it can be, and what rewards it can reap in the end. As I watched the children play, my thoughts on change, and the magic of that first friendship converged, and suddenly I had a question in my mind to explore in a novel: what if an ordinary family—each member with a hidden talent, fear, and/or secret—was suddenly confronted by a person, who, for whatever reason, brought that secret to light? Once I had a question to explore on paper, the voice of “Button” Peters emerged to tell me the story of the summer this very thing happened to her family.

Are there any final tidbits of advice for the Fiction Factor readers, or final thoughts to add?

I think the greatest challenge aspiring writers face, is not giving up before they reach their goal. After all, it takes a long time to hone your skills, produce an irresistible novel, and land an agent or an editor. If a writer sees the ultimate goal—getting published—as the only goal, he/she is going to be working for a long time without any pay-offs, and get very discouraged.

I protected myself from getting impatient and discouraged by breaking all the tasks at hand into smaller, attainable goals, rather than seeing getting published as “the” goal. Honing my writing skills became my first objective, and within that task, I worked meticulously at things like description, dialogue, etc., seeing each of these tasks as separate goals. When I wrote my first novel, rather than seeing the polished novel as my goal, I broke it down into smaller goals, seeing each scene, each chapter, each draft as an accomplishment. And when it came time to seek an agent, I saw compiling a list of possible agents, writing the query letter, and each letter I sent off, as single goals, too. In breaking down the tasks, I established mini-milestones for myself, and could feel good about completing each of them, rather than waiting until I was published to feel like I had accomplished anything at all.

While working to “make it”, reading about the struggles and triumphs of published authors helped me too. Their stories reminded me that all writers wrestle with periods of despair and doubt, and that if I just kept working at it, I could make it, just as they did. That said, I’ll leave you with a little story of my own:

I remember a particularly negative morning when a string of miserable circumstances had me convinced that I was a fool to believe that anything good could ever happen to me, much less my biggest dream. I crawled back into bed with a bag of Oreo cookies, a jug of Diet Coke, and a stack of library books. I picked up the first book on my stack, and spent the afternoon reading Tawni O’Dell’s novel, Back Roads. Three years later, I thought of how surreal it would have been, had someone stepped into my room that Sunday and told me that the very woman whose book I held in my hands, would be blurbing my first novel in three short years.

When I tell this story to aspiring writers, I always remind them of what is true. “Making it” is a lot like trying to reach a destination with no road map, and no sense of how many miles you’ll need to travel to reach it. One moment, you are wondering if your vehicle (your energy level, your determination) can make it, or if it will fizzle out while you wander aimlessly, and the next moment, you turn a corner and there it is, your destination!

Copyright Terry W. Ervin II. All rights reserved.

Terry W. Ervin II is an English teacher who enjoys writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. He is a frequent contributor to Fiction Factor and his fiction has appeared a number of places, including The Sword Review, Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine and MindFlights.

When Terry isn’t writing or enjoying time with his family, he can be found in his basement raising turtles. To contact Terry or to learn more about his writing endeavors and recommended markets (among other things), visit his website at:


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