Ann, a delight herself, chose to attend our meeting rather than Skype. We enjoyed her enthusiasm and description of her writing process. She graciously agreed to share her writing method and journey to publication.
How did the idea for The Promise evolve?
After I finished my first novel, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, but before I found a publisher, I freelanced for The Islander, a magazine published in Galveston, Texas. My assignment was to write articles about people who had unusual jobs. For one article, I interviewed a brother and sister who owned and managed a small independent grocery story on the west end of the island. Their father bought the store in 1963 when this part of the island was sparsely populated.
The interview was fascinating. Tap water wasn’t safe to drink, the electricity went out frequently, and there were more rattlesnakes than children. If that was the west end in 1963, what was it like at the time of The 1900 Storm, the worst U.S. natural disaster where at least 6,000 people perished? Did anyone live there? If so, who were they? How did the hurricane impact them?
Curious, I read everything I could find about Galveston. I learned that dairy farmers, cattle ranchers, fishermen, and their families lived down the island, as the rural end was called then. Much had been written about the hurricane’s impact on Galveston’s densely populated East End but almost nothing about the people who lived outside of the city limits. They’d been forgotten and that felt like an injustice. Their lives mattered.
When my first book was published, I was offered a contract for the next two books. I immediately knew I would write about rural Galvestonians and the storm. Although my characters were not actual people, The Promise is my way of honoring the memories of the victims and the courageous survivors.
You said last night that you aren’t creative but use research to move your story. Could you elaborate?
Some writers such as J. K. Rowlings and Stephen King spin wonderful, creative worlds only they could imagine. I don’t have that gift since my practical nature keeps me grounded to the real world. I begin with a one-page rough outline and then turn to research to help me fill in the blanks. As an example, during the very early days of The Promise, I took a cemetery tour conducted by the Galveston Historical Foundation. I went simply to learn more about Galveston. Long after the tour ended, I kept thinking about the cemetery and its possible role in the novel. Months later, I wrote a scene where three of the main characters gather around a headstone in the cemetery. If I had not taken the tour, this scene would not exist.
Is The Promise your first novel?
It’s my second. The first one, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, takes place in the South Dakota Badlands during 1917, and is a story about ranchers. It was inspired by an unlabeled photograph of a woman and by a sod dugout I saw while on vacation at Badlands National Park. At the time, I taught sociology at Wharton County Junior College in Texas and didn’t think of myself as a writer. Haunted by the photograph, though, I felt compelled to write a short story about the woman whose name had been lost to history. I was three pages in when I realized I didn’t know how to write fiction. I took non-credit creative writing classes from Houston’s Inprint and during the first four years, publication was not my goal. That was liberating since I don’t worry about critics. Instead, I focused on doing the best job possible to give the woman in the photograph a voice.
Things changed when an Inprint instructor suggested I consider publication. Three years later, it was published first in the UK by Pan Macmillan, then in France by Belfond Editions, and next in the U.S. by Viking.
Since I had a contract for the second novel, The Promise was a different writing process. My UK editors never pushed but I felt internal pressure to perform and imagined critics saying the second book didn’t live up to expectations. A writer friend, Thomas Cobb, told me the second book is often much harder to write than the first one. This eased the pressure. Other writers had struggled with their second novels and had survived. So would I.
You mentioned to our group both books were published first in the UK. Why?
It took a year to find a literary agent who was willing to represent The Personal History of Rachel DuPree. She helped me with the ending and I’ll always be grateful to her for that. She showed the manuscript to editors in the U.S. and they turned it down. The agent lost interest and we ended the relationship. Months later, I read in Poets & Writers about Will Atkins, an editor with Pan Macmillan who was willing to look at manuscripts not represented by agents. I dusted off the manuscript and sent it to him figuring I had nothing to lose. Eleven weeks later, Will offered me a contract.
Rachel DuPree was nominated for several literary prizes in the UK, and Will offered a contract for two more books. Although it didn’t win either prize in the UK, the nominations sparked interest in the U.S and Viking published it a year later. The Promise was also published first in the UK and a year later in the U.S. by Skyhorse.
Will Atkins gave me a break that changed my life. The Promise is dedicated to him.
Any advice for new writers?
Writing is hard work. It requires dedication and calls for making hard choices about how to use your time. Having said that, write your heart out. Ignore the people who say you’re wasting your time and you’ll never be published. Keep writing but find a writing critique group that gives honest feedback. Listen to what your fellow writers have to say about your work. It can hurt but we writers are hardy and we can take it. Consider that these critiques might be valid. If so, make edits, throw out pages, and start again.
I’ve been meeting with my writing critique group every Friday for four hours for ten years. They’ve seen me through both books and they aren’t shy about pointing out mistakes. They make me a better writer, and I hope my feedback about their work helps them. I’m counting on the group to see me through the next book.
Have you started the next book?
I’m in the rough-draft stage and I do mean rough in every sense of the word! It takes place during the winter of 1887 in Utah’s canyon country which is now Capitol Reef National Park. The narrator is a woman whose husband disappears while mining silver. The federal government has cracked down on polygamy and men with plural wives are arrested and often imprisoned for years. Some of them try to evade arrest and hide in the canyons. The narrator is one of the people who helps them.
That’s what the story is as of today. It could change tomorrow.
To find out more about Ann Weisgarber go to www.annweisgarber.com