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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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Author Profile: Nairne Holtz

The Skin Beneath

Nairne_Holtz
Nairne Holtz

Nairne Holtz was described by the Globe and Mail as a “writer to watch.” She is the author of This One’s Going to Last Forever (Insomniac, 2009), which was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, and The Skin Beneath (Insomniac, 2007), which won the Alice B. Award for Debut Lesbian Fiction and was shortlisted for Quebec’s McAuslan First Book Prize. She lives in Toronto with her lover and miniature dogs.

This One’s Going to Last Forever is about relationships that are, for the most part, destined to fail. From campus lovers to a middle-aged man who performs drive-through weddings dressed as Elvis, the characters in these darkly comic stories search for love in all the wrong places. They also find love in the most unexpected places. 

In The Skin Beneath, Sam O’Connor is a “yuffie,” a young urban failure who is covered in tattoos and preoccupied by picking up girls she quickly discards. But there’s one woman she can’t forget—her dead sister, Chloe, a conspiracy freak who may not have killed herself. Tracing Chloe’s final days in this noir coming-of-age tale of swapped, hidden, and altered identities, Sam discovers everyone has another layer and secrets they hide from themselves—including herself. 

This One's Going to Last Forever

 CW: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?

NH: One of my fourth grade teachers assigned creative writing exercises for homework and that sparked my interest in writing. I decided I wanted to be a writer, a spy or a private detective. I’ve wound up working as a librarian and being an author. I can’t talk about the spy stuff. 

CW: How did you develop your book idea?

NH: My ideas come from my imagination, reality, and skewed reality. The reality isn’t necessarily mine. Sometimes I draw on the lives of friends or complete strangers. I’m always reluctant to say what is real and what isn’t in a specific story or book, but I will say I was amused when a reviewer of my first novel, The Skin Beneath, described the only character in the book inspired by a real person as “unlikely.”

CW: And what research was involved?

NH: Research involved trips to various libraries and searching the web. Being a librarian helped.  

CW: What’s your personal approach to the writing process?

NH: My writing process for longer work involves outlines, revised outlines, and endless drafts. The process is often tedious as is discussing it in my opinion. As to training, I have a graduate degree in English from McGill University. I also completed the Humber College creative writing program, where you are paired with a writer who edits chunks of your work for eight months.  

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

NH: It took me a little over two years to write my first novel, but I was lucky at that time not to be doing much paid work. Humber College has an agent, and I sent my stuff to her when I finished the program, and she took me on. That process took about a year and a half.

CW: What were the surprises and challenges on your route to publication?

NH: My first attempts at publication were in Canadian literary journals. I received one acceptance and fifty rejections, which was quite discouraging. My girlfriend kept saying, “There is always more than one way,” and indeed, my stories eventually found print in American lgbt literary journals and anthologies. While my books have received glowing reviews in the mainstream, basically my audience is lesbian.    

The hardest part of the publishing process was realizing the extent to which manuscripts languish in slush piles. The mainstream presses look at books represented by agents whom they know and the indie presses tend to publish their friends and aren’t necessarily impressed by agents. What I enjoyed about the process was how much I learned about both writing and marketing. Also, of course, it was such a thrill the first time I walked into Chapters and saw my book on the shelf.

CW: What advice would you give unpublished writers?

NH: You have to decide what you want and make peace with it. If you want to write novels, this will likely mean periods of not working fulltime at a paid job, which has obvious economic consequences. If you tell a story with non-mainstream characters or you have an experimental style or you write poetry, you will likely limit your audience. You have to decide whether it is more important to have a wider audience or to tell your story in exactly the way you want.

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

The closing of so many gay and lesbian and women’s bookstores has meant fewer places to sell my books, but the web has offered more opportunities in terms of publicity. I think Amazon, not to mention all the second-hand booksellers online, will mean a longer life for my books, and I was quite happy to add my first book to Google’s free electronic library. For my second book, I focused more on the web in terms of publicity. For instance, I had my publicist give my book to a few bloggers and some places where I did readings used Facebook as their main publicity tool.

CW: What’s next?

NH: I’m working on a new novel set in Nova Scotia in the ’70s and ’80s about a Quaker hippie family.

For more information, Nairne’s website is www.nairneholtz.com.

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