A NaNoWriMo Interview to Inspire
Tweetspeak spoke with Laura Boggess, author of Waiting for Neruda’s Memoirs and the recent novel Mildred’s Garden, to inspire you for NaNoWriMo and the rest of the year. Includes tips for promoting your work!
Tweetspeak: You’ve written in other genres besides fiction, but it’s fiction that has stolen your heart, and it’s fiction you’ve chosen to dedicate your writing career to for the foreseeable future. Tell us: why fiction? 🙂
Laura Boggess: Fiction was my first love. I’ve been known to say that stories saved my life—which is a bit dramatic, but then, sometimes the truth is. There were difficult things in my childhood, as is true for many, and reading fiction allowed me to escape to other worlds and gave me an understanding there was a different world outside of my small life. Other genres can do the same, mind you, but as a young girl fiction was more accessible to me and it was the fairy tale that captivated me. By writing stories now, perhaps I am reminding myself of that beautiful glimpse of optimism I found as a girl: anything is possible.
TS: Your latest novel, Mildred’s Garden, is largely set in your home state of West Virginia. Was there any reason you chose that setting as opposed to something more ambiguous? How has the choice led to things you didn’t expect in the book and/or the promotion of the book?
LB: I love West Virginia. Setting the story here not only allowed me to speak from a place of familiarity, but also offered some unique opportunities to highlight the lovely features of our state. The fact that we have four distinct seasons has always been one of my favorite things about living here. This also lends certain advantages to telling a story that features gardening and growing things—every season has its own chores associated with gardening, whether that’s planting, harvesting, or preparation for both. It adds depth to the story to include seasonal details.
I also enjoyed sharing some of West Virginia’s treasures in Mildred’s Garden, such as Mountain Stage—a public radio music program recorded in front of a live audience that is broadcasted over 300 different public radio stations in the country. It’s a gem. I also mention the New River Gorge, one of the nation’s newest national parks, and the Midland Trail, one of the most scenic drives in the country. It has been delightful for me to explore these places with new eyes.
An unexpected delight was getting an inside look on the bed and breakfast business in West Virginia. As part of the book launch for Mildred’s Garden, I visited four different bed and breakfasts in the state and did a series for Tweetspeak featuring these little places of rest and retreat. I wrote the articles from the viewpoint of two characters from the book, Mildred and Cindy. So, it was kind of like an extension of the story, which was fun.
TS: Speaking of promoting the book, we noticed you’ve been doing a lot of regional promotion (in West Virginia!). Tell us a little about how you kicked that off and how you’re keeping it going. And, any favorite moments so far?
LB: I’ve been leaning into my community and taking advantage of the many resources available here. I found an independent bookstore nearby who has agreed to carry Mildred’s Garden, I’ve teamed up with some other local authors for a couple book signings at nearby coffee shops and my church is hosting an event for me at which I will share about the inspiration for Mildred’s Garden. I contacted Yeager Design and Interiors, who I mention in Mildred’s Garden as Mildred and Cindy’s design team for their bed and breakfast, and they agreed to carry the book in their store. I’ve talked to local writers’ groups and publications. And, of course, we kicked off the launch with the bed and breakfast tour I already mentioned, which was definitely a highlight. It has been heartening to feel the support and encouragement of my community. It’s one of the loveliest things about small town life!
TS: Okay, we also want to know your fiction-writing secrets. Have you got any? Do tell!
LB: I don’t know if I have any “secrets,” per say. I try to keep my antennae up for possible story inspiration. I love a story based on moments from history or true events. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the many untold stories from the past. I have a writer friend who is researching her genealogy and is writing a story about one of her ancestors based on her research. There are too many missing pieces, so of course the story is fiction, but there are also true happenings woven into the story. I find this kind of storytelling fascinating.
In Mildred’s Garden, it was a true story about the rescue of a group of Vietnamese boat people that inspired the character of Sam. I was completely taken by the fact that a baby was born on a refugee boat out on the open sea. When I read that story I began to wonder what happened to that little one. And so, that story became Sam’s backstory. I think my greatest tool as a writer of fiction is to keep my curiosity primed. I’m always wondering, “what if?” A story can come out of the most surprising places.
TS: November is NaNoWriMo. Any advice for nanowrimo-ers? (How long did it take you to write Mildred’s Garden, btw? What season of the year did you start writing it in?)
LB: Mildred’s Garden started with one tiny scene that revealed itself to me out of the blue. It was the opening scene where Sam meets Mildred at his Mountain Stage performance. I wasn’t sure who these two people were, or why Sam was so drawn to Mildred. I remember reading that scene to my youngest son, who is a videographer and a visual storyteller—so I really respect his thoughts on my writing. He said, “Mom, that sounds more like poetry than anything.” And just like that I knew poetry would be a part of the book. I carried that scene around inside of me for several months before I began to flesh out the story it belonged to. It was during the spring, the Lenten season. I decided to make writing on that story my Lenten practice that year. So, I committed to writing every evening for the forty days of Lent. The bulk of the story was written during that time. So, in a way, it was very similar to a NaNoWriMo commitment.
I wasn’t sure if the Instagram part of the story worked, so I had a couple friends read preliminary drafts. Then I entered the story in the West Virginia Writers annual competition. When it won first place in the book length prose category, I thought, “Maybe this does work, after all.” So, even though most of the book was written in forty days, it was probably about a year all together, with stops and starts, before it was complete.
In this time of emphasis on “own voices” stories, I was a little intimidated by telling the refugee portions of the story, but what do you do when a story won’t leave you alone? I was able to find—with the help of friends—both Vietnamese and Yezidi readers who gave me valuable feedback on their cultures. This step also added some time to the process, but it was so necessary. My new Vietnamese friend, Lan, gave me a book that told the stories of many boat people. Sadly, I learned that the story that inspired Sam’s character was not unique. I don’t want people to forget these stories.
All this to say, I guess one piece of advice to NaNoWriMo writers would be to lean into community and bring others alongside to give feedback, encouragement, and expertise.
TS: Every book has a way of teaching us something about our writing practice and/or craft. What did Mildred’s Garden teach you? Will you carry that through in your next project? (And, we can’t wait until there’s a next project!)
LB: I think Mildred’s Garden taught me how valuable it is to have a community involved in my writing. From my very first readers, to my culture readers, to the ways my little town is now helping me get the word out about the book, the presence of others during this process has been invaluable. In the past, writing has been mainly a solitary endeavor for me. There is something that feels very risky about bringing others alongside in this way. Sharing any artistic creation can make one feel vulnerable. There definitely have been moments on this journey where I’ve felt the sting of rejection. Rather than making these moments harder, having a community to share the ups and downs has been surprisingly affirming. I’m grateful for that. I hope I can carry that with me into the next project.
Photo by Jason Trbovich, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by by Laura Boggess.