Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Interview with Barbara Forte Abate
What would you like readers to know about you as an introduction?
I’m pretty certain that I’ve always wanted to be a writer. It seems the yearning was just always there swirling around in my head. I grew up in a small town in upstate New York, a middle child who spent an ordinate amount of time daydreaming. I aspired to great things in my mind, but was never so confident as to actually share my ambitions out loud, convinced that no one would believe an ordinary girl like me capable of accomplishing something as exceptional as writing books.
Although it would be years after graduating high school before I would actually sit down with my blank yellow pad, held to the chair by my determination to launch head-first into the still simmering dream to write, once I got started – that first sentence, paragraph, page – the love of creating stories was fully returned and off at a gallop.
The Secret of Lies is my first published novel, but it isn’t the first one I’ve written. That first book lives a quiet existence on a dark shelf in the closet. It’s not very good, but I hold onto it for what it represents – because those finished pages were so effective in pushing me past the barrier erected between the desire of wanting to write and actually doing it.
It amazes me really, how clearly I recall the precise moment when the idea for this book came skidding into my mind – not because it was so extraordinary or profound, but because once it arrived, it stayed to become a twenty-year obsession. I’d just finished writing my first novel, and although it felt like a sing-from-the-mountain-tops-milestone-accomplishment, I recognized that it wasn’t the book I wanted to write. I was absolutely primed and ready for something bigger and so when this seed of an idea arrived – the thought of someone stepping out the door and simply walking away from their life for reasons yet unknown – it felt exciting and potentially very important.
Because I married young and had three of my four children at the time, life was forever busy and full to the point of overflowing. The only opportunity I had for attempting to write was when my two little girls were at school and the baby was taking her afternoon nap. This was to be my routine for years, writing on my yellow pads over the span of a bazillion afternoons – eternally thankful that baby Chelsea was a marathon napper!
When I started this story I didn’t so much have a plan as I had abundant passion. No fleshed out characters, plot, or destination -- it truly unfolded as I poured words onto the pages. And once I began to understand and fully care about my characters they returned the favor by telling me their story.
What have you learned through writing this book?
The most obvious answer would be that I learned what it takes to write a book – not any book, but one I’m proud of. Because I pretty much jumped directly into marriage and family only a few years after graduating high school, I wasn’t armed with an abundance of writing skills when I first sat down with the intention to write a book. I was intimidated enough by the reality of how little I knew about the writing process that I was careful not to look at that particular fact too close or for too long. I bought stacks of used books: grammar, writing technique, a dictionary that weighed as much as a cinder block, punctuation and sentence structure, The Elements of Style – pretty much everything I didn’t pay enough attention to while I was in school. Dig-in and forge ahead was my plan and I stuck with it – for twenty years. It truly was a learning process like no other, and by the time I realized exactly what I was up against and the reserves required for the journey, I was in far too deep to shut the door and walk away.
Not only did I learn that getting the words right would take years (there came a point when I simply had to stop counting rewrites and edits, as the numbers had climbed high enough to be nearly frightening), but then came the most emotionally brutal portion of the challenge – the years and years of rejections and insistent knocking on closed doors that no one intended to answer anytime soon.
It was around this time when I fully came to understand just how important writing was to me – the fact that I refused to give up when by every indication it was time to hang up my pen. Every returned manuscript landed like a punch in the stomach, but once I recovered it only made me dig in deeper. Only then, when I was pushing so determinedly to find a place for my novel in the world did I realize my own strength, and the determined faith I was wielding like a weapon and a shield at the same time.
I love that -- the idea that faith can be both a weapon and shield. Your words are inspirational to anyone following their dreams! Tell us, how did you get started writing?
I’ve always been crazy in love with books, and so writing my own felt like something just waiting to happen. I honestly can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing. I started composing stories in grade school and it wasn’t long until one of my classmates and I got the idea to compose an “underground” newspaper that consequently ended up getting us into a good deal of trouble when our teacher found copies stashed in our desks.
Even then, it was my little pink diary that contained my best fiction. I had an enormous fear that my sisters would find my hiding place at the back of our shared closet, so whenever I wrote anything I invented names, characters and a random scene or two in an effort to camouflage the passages of truth. Even now a bajillion years later, I employ that same technique when journaling, not because of snooping sisters, but more because I tend to journal only when I’m angry, disappointed, or disillusioned. Venting in written form has always been medicinal for me, but it’s generally very exposed and ugly to look back on once the moment has passed. By putting it all down in my peculiar code of fictitious names and lingo, it later reads back as mostly ridiculous and amusing, rather than the ramblings of a tyrant.
What is your writing process like?
I’ve always written my first drafts in longhand on big yellow legal pads. There’s something that feels so authentically creative about filling those stark blank pages with thoughts, words, and scribbles. We didn’t own a computer when I completed my first draft of The Secret of Lies, which looking back now I can’t even imagine, but once I’d finished I knew I couldn’t send it out to agents and publishers as it was – scribbled out on yellow pads – so I asked a friend to borrow her typewriter.
Coincidently, having the loaner typewriter parked on the kitchen table for the next several months was the not-so-difficult-to-decipher clue that tipped my husband and children to the fact that I’d been clandestinely penning a novel. I was so insecure over my abilities, and had been holding to the fear that everyone would consider my writing a self-absorbed and egotistical pursuit, that I only wrote in the afternoons while my children were napping. As it turned out, it was a very misplaced assumption on my part, because my family has been nothing other than supportive, encouraging, and glowingly proud of my writerly accomplishments.
How do you get ideas for what you write?
The most inspiring ideas seem to come from those things I find unfolding right around me – not necessarily up-close and personal, but within reach if I’m paying attention. If I merely pass the time loitering in the space my own life occupies, my writing can become stale, and really, the world at large is positively rich with ingredients to season any writers stew. Startling or unusual news stories have provided useable hints and clues for current and future stories. Overheard conversations passed between strangers can lend themselves to characters or scenes in development – most recently a young woman in the grocery store berating her “selfish and inconsiderate” boyfriend over her cell phone at the same time she calmly examined a box of Fruity Pebbles Cereal. I’ve also discovered more than a few striking characteristics for characters in development while flipping through a magazine and finding myself captivated by an intriguing photograph.
Even then, the ideas I find most durable over the course of writing a story are those that seem to come up from nowhere in particular. I can’t say I understand how it works really, and even after years of chasing my imagination I’m still unsure how it is that our thoughts can so consistently wander off into places we don’t always recognize or even know we possess, diving deep and returning time and again with the components essential for creating memorable stories.
What is your biggest advice for young people reaching for their dreams?
First and foremost you have to trust the internal plug-in that gave you the dream to begin with, and then you have to be willing to invest in yourself. I will never be convinced otherwise that the desires of our heart are not random. They are in fact eternal and altogether necessary. It’s far too easy when the path turns rocky to convince ourselves that we don’t have what it takes to go the distance and grasp the prize – or worse, allow others to tell us what we’re capable of, where we fit, and what we should be doing. Trust in your abilities and love what you create. It all begins and ends with the faith you pack-up and carry along on the journey. Dare to be unique, aspire to be remarkable.
What are some of your favorite books?
My first favorite book was The Secret Garden, but my favorite book of all time is To Kill a Mockingbird. Not only do I love everything about the story and characters, but I remember reading it for the first time when I was in middle school and thinking how desperately I wished I could write like Harper Lee. Another favorite is The Great Gatsby, and most books by Augusten Burroughs. A Girl Named Zippy is a funny, touching, beautifully written memoir. And I recently read and loved both Water for Elephants and Mockingjay.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
The goals we create for ourselves and the dreams we aspire too are the difference between a life lived and one truly fulfilled. Being sidetracked by chance or circumstance, not having the necessary education, name tag, or street address, are movable roadblocks and absolutely not cause to abandon those things we’ve set out to accomplish.
And it does help considerably, if like me, you find that you really don’t like taking ‘no’ for an answer. So that when a door refuses to open to your polite knocking, you know to just go around back and slip-in through that crack in the window. If you’re put in the time, done the work, followed the rules and still haven’t gotten an invitation, then maybe it’s time to put on your best outfit and crash the party.
Connect with Barbara