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Author Profile: JE Knowles on her book Arusha

Arusha by JE Knowles

Author J. E. Knowles grew up in East Tennessee, began her writing career in Canada and now lives in London, England. Her first novel, Arusha, is the story of a gay marriage—between one man and one woman.

From the book cover: Edith Rignaldi clearly understands that she and husband Joe remain together for the sake of their children. It is why they married in the first place. But she never foresaw the lifeless emotional landscape they both now occupy after eighteen years together.

Teachers in a small, God-fearing Tennessee town, they cannot insulate themselves entirely from the cultural encroachment of the late ’80s: the inexorable march of the feminist and gay rights movements, the spread of the AIDS epidemic. When the faithful, steadfast Joe is finally overwhelmed by his desire for men, the lives of all four Rignaldis explode.

CW: When did you first know you wanted to be an author?

JEK: Probably as soon as I knew what an author was. I remember being nine years old and finding out that there was already an author in the Guinness Book of World Records younger than nine. I was very disappointed!

CW: Tell us about your book. How did you get the idea for your book?

JEK: Arusha is the story of a family—a woman, her husband and their children—and of the parents’ love. First, their love for each other, which brought the family together, and later their love for themselves and others and how that pulls the family apart. I’ve had the characters in mind since I was about fourteen but I didn’t know what their story was. I’d been living with the characters so long that the story just seemed to grow out of them.

CW: What research was involved in your book’s development?

JEK: The climax takes place in Arusha, Tanzania and I visited Tanzania before I knew that I would eventually write this book. It was the trip of a lifetime. East Africa, with its wild animals and incredible landscapes, has such a place in Westerners’ imagination. At the same time, journeying to someplace so far away brought home for me how different are the life experiences of people in various parts of the world. None of this really felt like “research”—the book developed out of where I’d been and what I’d thought about.

CW: What is your writing process? Do you have any formal training in writing?

JEK: I was already publishing articles and a few poems and stories when I went to the Humber School for Writers. That was my only formal training in writing, but what I really learned there was how to self-edit, how to make my work professional enough to be published. I met some wonderful fellow writers with whom I still exchange work. My writing process is the same as it was in elementary school: I get paper and a pencil and scribble down whatever comes to mind.

CW: How long did it take you to write the book and find an agent and publisher?

JEK: It took me about two years to write the manuscript, then another two years to find a publisher—about four years in total.

CW: What’s the most surprising thing you discovered in writing this book?

JEK: That the story wasn’t going to be principally about the daughter, Dana, but about the mother, Edith. I’ve never been a mother or married a man, so writing Edith’s (and even more, her husband’s) story took all of my imagination.

CW: Do you have any stories of rejection or inspiration to share with writers climbing up the mountain?

I have a story of rejection and inspiration, and it is the same: I received more than 100 “No”s to this novel before I got to one “Yes.” Many rejections were from agents or editors, just form letters saying don’t send the manuscript at all. Some requested part of the novel to read, but ultimately said no. A few read the whole novel, then decided it wasn’t for them. But I only needed one yes!

CW: What was the hardest part of the publishing process? What did you most enjoy?

JEK: It took about as long to place Arusha with a publisher as it did to write the novel and that was very discouraging. I found it hard to see so many books that, to me, were published with less time and care, while I was still struggling to sell a book in which I truly believed.

What I most enjoyed was holding the published book in my hands, seeing people buy it and ask for my signature. The book launch was the party of my life at that time—nine years in Toronto came together there.

CW: What advice would you give unpublished writers?

JEK: Write. This isn’t original advice, but it’s more important than ever now, when anyone can e-publish to a certain extent. Publishing is a separate business from writing, and if you start by focusing on getting published, you’ll never give the writing the time and energy it truly needs. Write an excellent, excellent story. Then you’ll have the faith in your writing that you’ll need to persevere through all the rejections and the business side of things.

CW: Have changes in the book industry forced you to change how you published or marketed your work?

JEK: Not really “forced.” More and more people are reading e-books, so I’m glad that my book was simultaneously published in that format, for readers who choose to purchase it that way. Certainly, the Internet has made it easier to find out exactly what publishers want in terms of a query or submission (just visit the publisher’s Web site), and if they’ll accept a letter or submission by e-mail, that saves time and money as well. I don’t think there are any shortcuts, however. The fact that I can instantly post or “blog” about what I’m writing doesn’t mean readers want to read something thrown together slapdash. I try to write minimal marketing copy, because the more time I spend on that, the less time I have to perfect the writing itself.

CW: What’s your next book project and what can you tell us about it?

JEK: I’ve just finished my second novel, with the working title of The Trees in the Field. It’s about a United States Senator from Tennessee, a Republican woman, whose ambition is to be president…until she runs into inconvenient obstacles from her past and future and begins to question what patriotism really means.

CW: How important do you feel contests and awards are in getting published or getting attention for your book? Do contests curate?

JEK: I like this question, although it’s not an easy one. I looked up curate to get its precise meaning, and it seems to have been back-formed from curator, with its origins meaning to take care of. So, do contests guide readers and tell us what we should be reading? I actually don’t think they do. There are so many awards out there now—anyone can put their favorite books in X or Y category on a Web site, or start a poll and suddenly you’re the Grey City Journal Irish-American of the month (a real, albeit tongue-in-cheek, example).

I’m happy to have been a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award because of the Lambdas’ history and the many writers I admire who have won them. But I admired the writers’ work before they won. At their best, awards confirm quality we already know about.

To read more from J. E. Knowles or join her mailing list for information on new work, please visit jeknowles.com.

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One Response

  1. […] Author Profile: JE Knowles on her book Arusha (chazzwrites.wordpress.com) […]

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