A confronting conversation with Irish author Polly Devlin was the catalyst Andrea Dunlop needed to establish a regular writing practice. Now, with her second novel launching next month, she talks to us about establishing a sense of place in writing, having patience with the publishing process and the business of being an author.
Please give us an overview of your work
I'm the author of novels Losing the Light and She Regrets Nothing and one novella, Broken Bay, all from Atria/ Simon & Schuster. When I’m not working on my own books, I help authors with their social media and marketing and have worked in publishing for thirteen years. I live with my husband and miniature pinscher in Seattle, WA.
What made you want to be a writer?
I wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I was lucky enough to have parents who read to me and who read themselves, so storytelling was always a part of my daily life. Growing up I wrote mystery stories, poetry, overwrought journal entries, you name it. I wrote my first novel-length manuscript (which shall never, ever see the light of day thank you very much) in my intro to fiction class my freshman year of college.
What inspires you to write?
As long as I keep working, I find that the inspiration keeps coming. I usually get my idea for my next book while I’m working on the previous one. Certainly I draw from my own life, which is true of all writers. Readers have told me I have a strong sense of place in my books, and I think that my travels have certainly inspired me. My three published works are set in France, the San Juan Islands, and New York City respectively, my work in progress is set in Buenos Aires. The setting is a character of its own in all my work and I love to think about how where we are determines how we behave and the choices we make.
Is there any particular incident that has happened along your writing journey that you’d like to share?
When I was about twenty-five, I was trying to finish a novel and was having trouble completing it. I was working as a publicist for Doubleday at the time and so I got to meet lots of working writers. I had a conversation over coffee with the Irish writer Polly Devlin who was then in her seventies and teaching at Barnard. When I confessed I was struggling, she told me that I was facing some serious challenges because a) I was a young person living in the most distracting city in the world b) I had a very demanding day job and c) I was terrified. She told me the fear would never leave me, so just get used to that part. She then asked what time I got to bed at night and what time I got up in the morning, and could I get up an hour earlier to write before work? I told her I supposed I could do that yes, though I’ve never been a morning person. She looked me in the eye and said “Let me tell you what will happen if you don’t. You’ll be sitting here ten years from now wondering why you never finished that novel.” I was up at 6 am the next morning!
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
It doesn’t matter when, it doesn’t matter how, but you have to make time to write consistently if you want to get enough momentum to make it all the way through a book, let alone polish it to the point that anyone would want to read it. I think doing it first thing in the morning is helpful because then no matter how crazy your day gets after, you’ve already worked on your book. But everyone’s life is different so I don’t like it when people say you must do “x” or it doesn’t count—maybe you’re balancing more than one job, raising kids, caring for parents, whatever. Just find a way to carve some time out—even twenty minutes a day on your lunch hour—and stick with it.
Any advice for approaching publishers?
First, get yourself a good agent. Of all the people on your team, your agent can be your MVP. And second, be patient. A myriad of things affect when and how you might get a book deal, most are not under your control. Educate yourself about the industry, if you’re writing in certain genres—romance or sci-fi for example—you may not need a traditional book deal to build a readership, but if you’re writing in literary or upmarket fiction, you almost certainly do. Don’t do anything out of desperation whether it’s a signing a contract that seems sketchy, a collaboration that doesn’t feel right, self-publishing when what you really want is a traditional deal, etc. I’ve made all the mistakes on that list so that you don’t have to. You’re welcome.
What do you think is the biggest marketing challenge for new authors?
The business of being an author is completely different than the art of being a writer; and the latter does not in any way prepare you for the former. I think many authors are amazed at how much they’re expected to do to market their own work but that, my friends, is being an author. There’s a bit of a fantasy about writing in seclusion and never having to sully yourself with the business end: if that’s how you feel, then writing is a hobby for you.
What methods of book marketing do you find the most effective?
I happen to love social media—Instagram and Twitter in particular—both have been very helpful to me in building and maintaining a community of readers, other authors, media folks, etc. These tools didn’t exist when I started in publishing and I think the authors that learn to use them well can do so much more to help their own careers than was possible a decade ago.
How do you handle rejection as a writer?
Rejection is one of the best things that can happen to you as a writer. It can help you hone your craft, sharpen your instincts, and perhaps most importantly, build resilience, which you will need at every stage of your writing career. I got rejected a lot before I signed my first book deal for Losing the Light, and truthfully, that’s how I knew I was for real about being a writer, it would never have been worth it otherwise. I have a rule about rejection—whether it’s in the form of a bad review of an actual no—I give myself a day to pout and then I force myself to let it go and move on. I’ve told my husband he’s allowed to call me out if I pout any longer than that.
How do you deal with isolation, as writing is an inherently private exercise?
It’s so important to connect with other writers who are in the same boat, online and in person when possible. I have a number of writer friends I text and email with regularly—some live locally so we have regular lunch and drinks dates. Lucky for me I live in Seattle which is lousy with authors. I’m also part of an organization called Seattle 7, which supports literacy and is made up of all authors.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with aspiring writers?
In moments of writerly despair—and there will be some—remember that writing is a long game. We’re not like athletes, we can do what we do until we lose our marbles. It’s a blessing to have a passion you can stick with all your life. So hang in there.
You can find out more about Andrea via her website and social media channels: Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Her books are available for purchase through Amazon: She Regrets Nothing, Losing the Light and Broken Bay.