Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Kim MacQueen

A 1/2 Dozen for Kim MacQueen
whose first novel Out, Out
is drawn from her experiences
working in an ape lab.
So, you all have probably followed a bit of the buzz around self-publishing -- to do it or not to do it.
Well, here is my first 1/2 Dozen
with a self-published novelist --
though, I should warn you, Kim is far from a first-time writer.
She's been writing forever.
In fact, I met her as a journalist
when she was interviewing me.
She's one of those fascinating interviewers
who makes you want to turn the tables.
And so now I finally have that chance.
Here goes:

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

Actually yes. I used to work at an ape lab very like the one described in the novel. It was a crazy Skull Island, soap-opera place where everybody (but me) carried guns and took notes for future novels, were just waiting for the next ape escape. They were just waiting to get their fingers bitten off – almost resigned to it – while the administrators wrung their hands and worried about insurance costs and whether the university would shut the place down if another ape got out.

One time in 2005, after I’d moved away with my family to North Carolina, my friend Holly called. She’d worked much closer to the apes than I ever did – I had been pretty much stuck in the front office doing paperwork and looking out the window – and she called with a story of an escape that had happened just after I’d left. Nobody got hurt, the lab didn’t close down, everything was fine.

But she described the scene where the lab supervisors were talking to each other over their radios, trying to figure out where the ape had got to, trying to figure out where to hide, wondering if they could run to their cars and make it without being jumped and bitten. And Holly knew the apes so well that she knew why this one ape, a pregnant female I believe, wanted to escape. She knew the story behind the ape’s actions, and she sided with the ape. I remember hanging up the phone and thinking, well, there’s a novel right there – even down to the title. It was like getting a present.

[Click HERE for a link to Kim's novel, Out, Out in paperback, click HERE for the kindle version.]

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

I’m a little nutty about how I spend my time. Definitely OCD. And I’m always trying to do like six things at the same time. Probably ADHD actually, but I’m 45 and would feel pretty silly trying to fill a prescription for Ritalin at this point. Anyway, when my girls were really little and it seemed like the whole world was made of dishes and laundry, I realized that it wasn’t ever all going to get done, so how about if I do the dishes and laundry for exactly one hour – I’m talking top of one hour to top of the next – I’m sacrosanct about it. Then you stop, because then you can say you did it, and it’s never done anyway.

Later I figured out that I can apply the hour (or when things are really harried, the half-hour) and use it to hone in on just one thing at a time, and that that’s absolutely great for writing. I don’t think I’ll ever have a day when I can just write fiction all day without doing laundry or doing paid jobs or whatever, but I can do it for an hour in the morning, then cycle back around to an hour in the afternoon, etc. It’s the only way I can lose myself in it without thinking I should be doing something else. It makes me really look forward to the writing time and it builds momentum throughout the day. Then when I sit down to write I’m ready to make the most of that time. For exactly 60 minutes.

Tell us a tale from the publishing world – something, ANYthing about that process from your perspective.

This time last year I was planning on going to a pitch conference in NY, the kind where you work on your elevator speech with them for a few days and then they bring in two editors and you try your speech on them, and if you’re lucky you leave with their business cards and the promise that they’ll look at your manuscript. So I was adding up everything it would cost to go to NY, and I so love NY, but even if I stayed with my friend in his closet or whatever, it was going to be about $1,000. And I thought, if I’m going to spend $1,000 I’ll just publish the thing myself and send it up there to editors of my own choosing – that’s my elevator speech.

Then I had a few days last fall that I set aside to send queries to small publishers. I made a spreadsheet of every one I could find that had published books similar to mine and had previously indicated in the Poets & Writers’ magazine listing that they were accepting new submissions. So I started at the top of the list and worked my way down, writing these letters that said, basically, “Don’t worry, if you publish me I’ll design my own cover, and do the layout, and proofread it, and do a virtual tour, and put boxes of the books in the back of my car and take them up and down the Eastern seaboard for the next six years.”

By the time I got to the fourth publisher who, it turned out, was not accepting new manuscripts and said right there on their website, “why don’t you self-publish?” I was so pissed off I stopped, had a cocktail, and decided that if I was going to go to all that trouble I might as well own my own publishing rights.

Research. We all have to do it. Sometimes it’s delicious, sometimes brutal. Tell us a tale from the research trenches.

I love research because if I’m away from my project for awhile or I just need to refresh my memory on something it’s such a quick way to jump back into the pool. A few minutes of directed Internet research can really help when you get stuck, jump-start you when you get stalled.

Writing a novel that stems mostly from experience, I was able to sharpen memories that had gotten a little fuzzy as well as invent stuff from whole cloth and pretend like I was there. I started work on a story about this little town on Long Island where my friend Maria is from, where I’ve never been, and after an hour of playing around on the Internet and Google Earth I feel like I had summered there or something.

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?

I am always the person at the cocktail party who wants to talk about what people do for a living. I’m a little obsessed with occupations, how what people do for work shapes them and how they function within that world. I worked in restaurants for years in high school and college, and it’s amazing how much of a sub-world that is, with its own tradition and customs and language. And I find that most occupations are that way to a certain extent.

When I was in my 20s and wanted to write stories I didn’t really give myself much permission to, because I felt like I hadn’t lived much, hadn’t really done anything. So I made myself wait about 20 years, which is neurotic and silly in its own right I know, I’m dealing with it.

Anyway now that I’ve worked as a waitress, a PR person, a government, cops and courts reporter, a grant writer, an editor and an ape lab administrator, I finally feel like I can write about lots of different things with a certain amount of authority without trying so hard to talk myself out of it. And of course my experience at the ape lab not only shaped the writing, it made it possible; I would never have thought myself qualified to write about that otherwise.

What project of yours was the easiest writing of your life? And, flip-side, which one was the most like wrestling bears? (And could you tell before you started or did they turn on you, for better or worse?)

I really had the spectrum of those experiences writing this one novel. I’d been walking around with the idea in my head for two years, and no idea how to shape it – I just thought it was so big of a story that it really needed to be a novel. Then when my friend called and told me about the ape escape, I thought, see, that’s definitely a novel, and now I know how it’s shaped. But I still carried it around for another three years without even outlining it, because I didn’t think I knew how to write a novel.

So I tried to write about it in other ways: essays, short stories – all of which were totally difficult to write, like pulling my eyes out – and all of which went belly up. Then in 2008 I figured, well, nothing else is working, might as well try the novel. And that, once I settled down and started work on it, was really the easiest writing ever, I think because I was doing justice to the story I had in my head and not worrying so much about whether I could do it or not.

Kim MacQueen has been a fiction and nonfiction writer and editor for research, legal and general interest newspapers, magazines, websites and books since 1993, as part of a varied career that also includes stints as a research lab administrator, political/education/crime reporter and grant proposal writer. Her debut novel Out, Out is now available. She lives in Tallahassee with her husband Steve and their two daughters, Claire and Rose. And too many pets.

A quick description of Out, Out:
Deb Solomon is a new mom suffering a spate of postpartum depression, a listless marriage and a career in free-fall. So she jumps at the chance to go to work in another world: a university laboratory housing language-competent apes and the humans who study and care for them, led by brilliant primatologist Soraya Baldwin-Ruhl.

But Soraya's star is already falling, and the lab's human inhabitants act increasingly apelike, even as the apes start to seem more human. Deb's own life soon spirals into a science soap opera even as she follows Soraya further and further into near-madness.