To coincide with my review of Thrown Out: Stories from Exeter by Indie author Jennie Coughlin, which appears in the December 2011 issue of eFiction Magazine, I interviewed Ms. Coughlin about her works, in print and in progress. To get a better understanding of the interview you might want to read the review. Better yet, buy the book. (Thrown Out is available to download at amazon.com and Smashwords and as a paperback, also from Amazon.)
Duncan: In a way you haven’t used in other interviews, tell me how the concept of Thrown Out came about.
Coughlin: Thrown Out started as some writing exercises to dig more deeply into the characters and help my editor get a better sense of them. I was posting the exercises on my blog, and, based on the feedback, we decided to go ahead with the collection while I was working on the novels. Once I had “Bones” and “Thrown Out,” the first two stories in the collection, we decided to take another look at the character Joe and his family, which led to “End Run.” Since at this point, the collection had themed itself as an introduction to the characters, Becca and Riordan were the logical choice for the final story. Although at least one of them had appeared in each of the other three stories, neither really was the focus of any of them. Thus, “Intricate Dance” was born.
Duncan: The title story, “Thrown Out,” touches on a timely issue, gay rights, one of which is to be able to live your life without fear. I confess when I saw the title, I was certain the ending wouldn’t be a happy one, but I was glad to be wrong. The fictional town of Exeter seems remarkably progressive in this area. Was that a conscious decision, or did Exeter “reveal” its nature to you in the writing?
Coughlin: Interesting take on it, and I think there are a couple of pieces to that answer. First, the title story “Thrown Out” is set in 2001, after Vermont had approved civil unions and shortly after the court case was filed that would lead to gay marriage in Massachusetts. So in that time and that place, it’s certainly a more open climate than in many other states then or now. But really, a theme that came out as I was writing “Thrown Out” was that we accept things in people we know that we might not in people we don’t know.
That cuts both ways — the Exeter residents know Dan as a friend, a neighbor, the star running back on the high school football team, the guy who fixed their front steps, Kevin and Eileen’s son. He happens to be gay. Likewise, Joe is the local insurance agent, the kid who rang up their bread and milk at his dad’s store, somebody active on the Parish Council, a member of the Rotary Club, dad to their kids’ friends. He happens to be homophobic. You can’t exclude either one of them without big ripple effects. And if you already know somebody, already have them in your life, you’re likely to be more accepting of something than if you’ve just met the person. In “Thrown Out,” Dan’s partner Chris has a much different reaction to Joe than Dan, Evan, and Liz, who grew up with him. Likewise, Chris gets a measure of acceptance from the town just because he’s with Dan.
Duncan: As an Irish-American, I can “see” your characters so vividly. I suspect some people without the cultural background might not “get it.” Do you agree or disagree? Why?
Coughlin: Well, I’ve heard the same thing from readers who aren’t Irish-American, so I’m going to generally disagree. I suspect some things might not resonate as much, but that’s also true of the Catholic elements and the New England elements. The character Chris, who’s not from Exeter, serves as the bridge for readers who aren’t familiar with some regional terms, such as jimmies (chocolate sprinkles on ice cream), but there probably are pieces that are less accessible or read differently to people who don’t have some element of those backgrounds.
Duncan: You also touch on a taboo subject among Irish-Americans—the Irish Mob. Why was that important to you? I mean, Irish-Americans will talk easily about the IRA but not the Irish Mob.
Coughlin: I grew up in a town that was heavily settled by Italians, and I’ve heard stories all my life about Mafia ties in the town. The first newspaper where I worked even had a two-inch-thick file on the former police chief, later a Town Council member, who was jailed for perjury when he alibied a mobster back in the 1960s. The Irish mob was further afield, but Whitey Bulger fled when I was in high school, and periodically I’d get stories from home of FBI agents going around questioning people trying to find him. The story that touches on the Irish Mob, “Bones,” I drafted the week after the FBI caught Whitey in Santa Monica earlier this year, so that’s probably why my plot bunnies headed that direction.
Duncan: You went the Indie route for publication, but you used some traditional publishing aspects, e.g., an editor whose input you considered and incorporated. Do you think Indie publishing is at the point where it needs standards? Or would that miss the point of Indie publishing?
Coughlin: I’ve been pretty outspoken about the need for Indie authors to make sure their work is up to traditional publishing standards. I think the opportunities Indie publishing present are amazing, but it’s not a path without pitfalls. If we put out work that’s substandard, it hurts both the overall Indie reputation and the reputation of that author. Once we publish something, we can’t take it back. For those authors who do good work that the publishing industry just deems unsalable, Indie publishing gives a chance to prove that wrong. For those authors who see it as a shortcut to honing their craft, Indie publishing gives us lots of chances to torpedo our career.
That said, I don’t think there’s a way for the Indie community to set and enforce standards. Any mechanism like that becomes a new form of traditional publishing, which some people are doing in new types of small presses.
I do think that for Indie publishing to become a long-term, viable part of the publishing ecosystem, something will have to arise through book bloggers and review sites to provide readers with a place they can go and trust that the books recommended there will, in fact, be quality publications. Not all will be something any given person would want to read, but all meet the standards of good writing and good storytelling.
Duncan: You’ve said writing a short story is the opposite of writing a news story. What’s the journalistic opposite of writing a novel, which you’re now doing?
Coughlin: I don’t know that it’s the form so much as fiction vs. journalism. Whether it’s a short story or a novel, the process I go through is basically the same. That’s what, for me, is reversed from my reporting days. Because I’m not a visual thinker, when I covered events where the scene was integral to the story, I would record lots of details while I was there to help myself re-create it back at the office—this was in the days before mobile reporting was common. All those details painted a picture for me that went beyond what people were saying.
Now, when I sit down to write, I know what the final picture is, and then figure out what it is the readers would need to see to draw that same conclusion. Some scenes flow easily, and it’s an unconscious effort on my part. Others I really have to slow it down to step by step interactions for it to feel real to me.
Duncan: Thumbnail the Exeter novels for us and give us an idea of how long we need to wait for each installment.
Coughlin: I have at least six in mind, but I’ve been finding that the original first novel keeps getting pushed back—it’s now on track to be novel four of six—because earlier stories bubble up as I dig into the characters. So I’ll give you the first four, but I do plan to do others after those four are done, and others might join the mix as I go.
All That Is Necessary is the novel I’m revising right now, with a plan to release it in late March. While it starts and ends in present time, the bulk of the story starts right before Dan and Evan find the bodies in the marsh as kids [The story “Bones” in Thrown Out.] and goes through the fallout from that, which changes many of the characters in the town. Dan has to stand up to a lot of adults when almost everybody else around him is afraid to rock the boat.
The second novel, as yet untitled, follows from that story. Liz’s nemesis returned in All That Is Necessary, and that causes a lot of problems for her and those around her.
Fate’s Arrow pulls back from Exeter a bit to focus on Ellie, who’s still living in DC. After her annual holiday visit to Becca, she realizes her life has some holes and must figure out how to plug them.
Better The Devil continues some developments from Fate’s Arrow and puts Dan, Liz, and Ellie together for a big project that could alter Exeter’s future forever—if they can figure out who wants to stop them and why.
I have two others beyond that, but last week at the first book club discussion on Thrown Out, several of the members wanted to know what happens with Joe, Annabelle, and their family in more detail, so that’s now higher on my radar than it had been before.
I’d like to release a new novel every six months, but since I have a full-time job as well as a part-time one, some of it depends on those not going too nuts, as well as on my editor’s other commitments. There also will be periodic short stories. Some of the small ones will be posted on my blog, either as Rory’s Story Cubes Challenge entries or just as flash fiction like last week’s “Now What?” Thanksgiving short. Longer ones probably will be released as 99-cent eBooks, and I’m not ruling out future short-story collections.
Duncan: Do you see Exeter and its wealth of characters as a story well that is unending? Or do you have plans for non-Exeter stories or novels?
Coughlin: Yes. The beauty of the small town setting is you have a limitless cast of characters and developments with those characters. In present day, I have characters who range from middle school age into their early seventies, so the multiple generations allow me to move forward and backward in time to tell all sorts of stories.
I might branch out from Exeter at some point, but right now I have more stories than I have time to tell in that world.
Duncan: What’s your advice for people who opt for Indie publishing, i.e., how to go about it as a professional writer, how to deal with flak from fellow writers who don’t see Indie publishing as a viable option?
The biggest advice I can give is to get a good developmental editor who can provide feedback. If you can’t find one, a good critique group also can be invaluable, as well as beta readers. But an editor is the best of the available options if you can find a good one. Also, honestly evaluate your skill set and available time. I’m fortunate that I have a lot of design, graphics, copy editing, web design/HTML, social media, and formatting experience from my journalism background. With all that, plus a group of beta readers, I’m able to produce a quality product.
If you don’t have skills in a particular area, be prepared to hire somebody to handle various elements of each project for you. And if you do have the skills, be prepared to spend the time. In the six months since I started production on Thrown Out (three pre-release, three post-release), probably fifty to sixty percent of my time has been spent on non-writing elements, and that’s including most of the revisions on Thrown Out and all the writing to date on All That Is Necessary.
As for the current debates about the validity of indies, both online and from fellow writers you may know in person, my best advice is to think through why you’re taking this path before you choose it. My two main reasons were the chaos in the publishing industry right now and a concern that my series doesn’t fit neatly enough in a single genre/category to convince a publishing house’s marketing department that it’s salable.
The industry chaos is something I’ve been fairly outspoken on, especially in its parallel to newspapers’ struggles in the past decade. Publishers aren’t learning any lessons from what newspapers went through, and I prefer to stay out of the arena while they’re figuring all of this out the hard way. The salability is something I would disagree with the marketing folks on. By going Indie, I’m betting my career on my being right, not them. And if I’m right, when the industry has finished this eBook-driven shakeout, I’ll be able to pitch to traditional publishers, or whatever the closest approximation to those entities is, with a fan base and solid sales—assuming I want to. It’s possible I could decide that staying Indie is the best bet, and I won’t know that for a few years yet.
As I hope I just demonstrated, I have a reasonable, logical answer for people who hear “Indie” and think “vanity press.” Most people—in the industry and not—who hear my reasons agree with my approach, given my perspective and circumstances. Those who still scoff, I just tune out. As long as each of us taking the Indie path has a reasoned-out approach that can be backed up by facts, I think those who want to denigrate our individual choice can be safely tuned out.
Duncan: Who is the one author (non-screenwriter) who inspires you to write? Who is the author (non-screenwriter) you’d like to be compared to, favorably, of course?
Coughlin: Sneaky, to take out my usual answer. 🙂 Once that answer is excluded, the answer to both questions is actually the same—Harper Lee. To Kill A Mockingbird is my favorite book and has been since the first day my freshman English teacher assigned it in high school. I stayed up until midnight that night to finish it, and I’ve read it a couple of dozen times since then. Atticus Finch is one of three lawyers—the other two are real people—who inspire Riordan Boyle’s (from Thrown Out) approach to law.
The other author I would mention is Natalie Goldberg. I’ve never been able to read more than a few pages in herThunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft without having to put the book down and starting to write. In terms of inspiration, she’s the non-screenwriter who has the strongest effect.
Lee inspires me to tell great stories, but Goldberg inspires me to put pen to paper and make the words flow.