Can Meg Answer a Few Questions, Please?

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The following is a transcript of an interview with Fran Halpern on her show, “Beyond Words.” It aired live on Santa Barbara NPR affiliate KCLU in November of 2003, shortly after The Language of Light was first released.

FRAN: We are delighted to have author Meg Waite Clayton join us on Beyond Words. It is an auspicious occasion: publication of your first novel and a signing at Borders in Santa Barbara Monday at 7:30. The Language of Light. . . Now, I'll imagine your publishing story: You write the novel, finish it, send it off, find a great agent who makes the sale to the publisher, right?

MEG (laughing)

FRAN: Now, let's here your version of the story.

MEG: Well, that's very close to the story if you just skip the first eight years or so.

FRAN (laughing): Okay.

MEG: I actually started writing The Language of Light in the fall of 1993. I had no idea what I was doing at the time. I had a degree in law and had practiced law for a number of years, but I hadn't written fiction for classes or for anything else since I was in about junior high school. But I'd always wanted to be a writer--since I was a kid--and I had the opportunity to spend some time writing and I started to do so. I finished the novel--or thought I'd finished the novel for the first time--in about January of 1997. I made an organized, concerted effort to get an agent at that point in time. I sent out cold queries to agents in New York, primarily, and much to my delight I got a very positive response from a number of people. I ended up flying up to New York and interviewing agents and signing with one, and feeling like I was about to be on the bestseller list.

I did sign with one of the agents, and she loved the book, and spent a lot of time talking it up to people and trying to sell it and over the course of the next year or so collected a lot of what she called “wonderful” rejections. One publisher asked for it three times, and another was sure they were going to buy it but couldn’t get it through the publisher. The long and short of it is the damn thing never sold. And by the end of 1999 she had basically given up on it.

FRAN: Meg, it's very interesting what you just said, and I want to ask you about the emotional response to that. Do you think--before we come to the happy, successful end to this story, which took almost ten years--that getting that close . . . that the rejections might have been better if they’d said “we don’t like this story, we don’t like this book.” I don’t mean really hurtful, but “not interested” rather than “it’s almost there, it’s this close to the finish line, but we’re not going to use it.” Is that more hurtful emotionally, do you think?

MEG: Well, I don’t know. I suppose if people had said this is dreadful and we could never imagine publishing it, that would have been very dispiriting. Getting close was a very roller coaster emotional time for me. I certainly lost a lot of sleep. But I think that people feeling that it was almost there and people wanting to publish it but not being able to get it through the bureaucracy of publishing was in a way very exciting and very affirming. 

FRAN: So that first agent gave up on you and then what happened? 

MEG: Well, The Language of Light spent some time in a drawer, actually. I started writing short stories and sending them out and getting them published, and I worked on another novel, and I started a mystery. When I finished the mystery, I started querying agents again, and did the same thing--cold letters to agents--and ended up signing with an agent for the mystery.   

In the mean time, I kept pulling out that manuscript and at the urging of my friends and my husband, who always believed in The Language of Light, I worked on revisions on it.

I took it to the Squaw Valley Writers Conference in the Summer of 2000. There, my group leader on the day I was up was a wonderful writer named Bharti Mukherjee, and she was very complimentary of the manuscript, and really inspired me to take another look through it. At the time, I didn’t have the emotional energy to do it, so I stuck it back in a drawer for a little bit. It was probably a year later that I actually began serious revisions on it.

That fall--the fall of 2001--I submitted The Language of Light to the Bellwether Prize. It was that Winter that I got an agent for the mystery. At the time, after I’d submitted it to Bellwether, a new friend of mine read it and gave me so many comments that I actually walked out of the meeting crying. I went back eventually and did a whole new round of serious revisions, and didn’t even save a copy of the draft I’d sent to Bellwether, having absolutely been sure that it was a disaster.

Lo and behold, in January of that year--2002--I was notified that I was a Bellwether finalist, and I thought, “Oh, dear, I don’t even have a copy of the manuscript that's a finalist.”

But at the time I told my agent, and she said, basically, “What manuscript? Could I take a look at this book?” I said sure, but it had already been shopped. She looked at it, she read it overnight, and she called me the next day and said, “If this doesn’t win Bellwether, I can sell it.” It didn’t win Bellwether, and I did one more quick round of revisions, and she sent it out and sold it to one of the first three editors she sent it to.

FRAN: I’d like to ask you--It’s interesting because, for fiction, you said you sent out queries. Was there something in the query about the book? Was the story of the book in the query?

MEG: Yes. The query that I sent out was--I always tried to keep it to one page--it was a brief . . . not quite a synopsis of the book, but a few sentences meant to intrigue the reader into wanting to look at the book, and then a little description of who I was and a request for them to let me know if they would like to read the whole manuscript. I sent the letters out cold to names of people I found sorting through Publisher’s Weekly and places like that where you can find the names of agents who actually sell books. That’s how I went about getting an agent.

FRAN: This is a marvelous story. Too often fiction writers are told you have to submit the whole manuscript, or at least you have to submit three or four chapters because a query just won’t do it for a piece of fiction. Somehow as usual there are all kinds of rules that have to do with publishing, only nobody knows what they really are, and you don’t have always to abide by those rules. I do think it’s fascinating that on a one-page query you got those kind of responses. . . Tell us, why the title?

MEG: The title comes from the title of a photograph by an American photographer named Clarence John Laughlin. That photograph is--it’s not actually what I usually enjoy in photographs, I’m inclined to enjoy more realistic photographs and that particular photograph is literally a picture of space between a window shade and the casement--but it captures a little bit of magic that is very appealing. And I thought the title, “The Language of Light,” also captured a magic that was very appealing. The novel had had several titles before that, and when I gave that title to the book it inspired me to add another layer to the book that I think brought The Language of Light to the place it needed to be to be published and to be well-published.

FRAN: The opening lines of the book--were those rewritten or did they stay in place? I lie awake studying the moonlight...Was that always there or did you have to rewrite those opening lines?

MEG: Well, it’s interesting. The book in its earliest conception started out to be a book about a friendship between two women: my protagonist, Nelly Grace, and another one of the major characters in the book, Emma Crofton. So the beginning of the book originally was what is now the beginning of chapter one, which is also substantially rewritten. The piece you just read started out at the end of the book, and through a lot of juggling and restructuring and deciding what was really important in the book, I ended up moving that piece forward and starting with it. It probably has gone through . . . a million drafts. That language has changed so many time I couldn’t even imagine how many. But it kind of kicks off the father-daughter story, and I’ve always thought of this book--since I got through the first draft of it and kind of realized what I was doing--as a father-daughter love story. So I did want to start with that part of the story. And that’s why I moved that part forward.

FRAN: Now, you are a wife and a mother, you have two young sons, you’re an involved citizen--how do you organize the time to write, rewrite, and then research the publishing business in order to market the manuscript? How did you organize your life?

MEG: Fran, when I first started writing The Language of Light--or when I first started writing anything--I had a toddler and a baby. Whatever time I could gather for myself and for my writing was very precious and needed to be used very efficiently. We lived on a farm in Maryland when I started writing the book.

FRAN: Now that’s the answer to “Why is the book set in Maryland?” Because you have had that experience.

MEG: Yes. Absolutely. At some point in time when we lived there I got child care for some of the time and my son Christopher started preschool. So what I would do is I would get up in the morning before everyone else got up. We had an outbuilding on the farm that had an office upstairs with electricity but the only heat was a wood-burning stove. We had gobs of wood, as you do on a farm, from trees that had been felled and cut up into logs. So I would get up in the morning and go out in my boots and pick up my ax and split wood for my wood-burning stove, and stoke the stove.

FRAN: (laughing)

MEG: And then I would take Christopher to preschool and when I came back the babysitter would be there and she would take over Nicholas and I would go to the then-almost-warm (although it never did seem to get really quite warm) office and write until it was time for the babysitter to go. I learned from that early experience that you have to take the time you have to write to write.

That’s what I do now. When the children--who are both a little older now and can actually ride their own bicycles to school--when they leave for school in the morning, I give them hugs and see them out the door and tell them to ride carefully and then I sit at my desk and I write.

My deal with myself is 2,000 words or 2:00, whichever comes first. Sometimes 2:00 comes and goes and I’m having such a great day that I just keep writing and writing, and sometimes I’m so relieved to have 2:00 or those 2,000 words come that I abandon it all and go play chess with the boys or something. But I’m very, very disciplined. It’s probably a discipline I learned in law school, and I think that is one of the things that has carried me to publication, just being able to sit down and do it on those days I had no desire to do it whatsoever.

FRAN: When you have a family--Your husband is also a writer?

MEG: He is.

FRAN: He’s also a lawyer who became a writer?

MEG: That’s correct.

FRAN: I guess you both learned how to write fiction while you were practicing law!

MEG: (laughing) Some would say!

FRAN: Okay, you also have family. Do you need to have their understanding and respect when this process is going on? Because most writers do write at home or in a little outhouse somewhere. They don’t get up and get their little suitcases and go off to the office--which means they’re not bothered all day long.

MEG: I think having the support of my family is so delightful, and makes it both easier and more enjoyable, it’s just really amazing. I had a reading in Palo Alto last night, which just went marvelously well. It was standing-room-only and we sold every book in the store which was very, very fun. But my husband and my two children, Chris and Nick, were there, as were my parents--my mom and dad. My son Nicholas, at the ripe old age of eleven, was one of the biggest question-askers in the crowd.

FRAN: (laughing)

MEG: You would have thought I’d planted him. He asked all the right questions, so I could do all the right selling.

Both my sons and my husband have been tremendously, tremendously supportive through all of this, starting with Mac, my husband, who encouraged me to write. At some point in time we looked at the balance in the check book, and he said, “You know, you don’t need to work. You can write if you want to. And if you don’t start doing it now, you never will.”

I started writing in secret, not telling anybody else what I was doing. We were living in Baltimore at the time, and he started introducing me . . . as “his wife, the writer.” Having nothing--no publishing credits--to my name at the time, it felt very awkward at first. But it was really, really special to me. It let me know that he took me seriously, and that really meant a lot to me. 

FRAN: That is crucial. And we have something crucial going on here. We have a caller. Good afternoon, Lacey. You have a question for Meg.

LACEY: I don’t actually have a question, I have congratulations for Meg. I read the book, I loved the book, thank you for writing it, and my god, to get a first novel published is ... I guess like getting to the top of Mt. Sinai and getting the Ten Commandments.

MEG: (laughing) Thanks, Lacey. I certainly feel like I am on top of the world. I got my first newspaper review last weekend in The Baltimore Sun, and they called the book one of the most perceptive looks at the Maryland hunt area ever, and concluded by saying “The Language of Light shines on, a wonderfully knowing action photograph that has emerged from the darkroom as words.” I have been literally dancing on the tables since then.

LACEY: Well, keep dancing on the tables, and we’ll look for to the next one.

MEG: Thank you very much.

FRAN: Dancing in the Light. Thanks, Lacey.

Meg, you mentioned that you had standing room only at the bookshop and all the books sold. What is the clue there? Because when you are not a huge celebrity author--I have seen wonderful writers, even well-known writers, sitting at a table with stacks of books and maybe three or four people show up for the signing. Is this a family area? Do you know a lot of people? How does it work, and how would it work for other writers who want to go out and have book signings?

MEG: It absolutely is a family area. I live both in Palo Alto and in Santa Barbara, and so Palo Alto where we have a home is a place I am obviously connected to. We’ve only been living in Palo Alto for a year, so to have the turn-out we did after only a year absolutely thrilled me. But one of the things I’ve done is I have cast all my shy inclinations aside and tried to let everybody I know know what is going on with The Language of Light, that it’s come out and that they can purchase it and they they can come hear me read from it and support me in that way. People have just been wonderfully supportive.

One of the things that happened in the book store last night is that people came who I’d met briefly or who I’d known for a few weeks or a few months or whatever, and they bought not just a copy for themselves but copies for their sister or their mother or their friend who likes horseback-riding or their friend who likes photography. One of the women who came was a woman I met a few days ago on the plane on the way back from Washington, D.C., from my having done promotional work there. She came and she brought her son. It’s shocking, really, and just delightful how many people, when you say you have just published a novel, want to hear about it. If you’re not too shy, you can tell them about it, it’s amazing how many people follow up on it and buy a book and come to your reading.

FRAN: That is marvelous. You do have to make eye contact with people. I know that there are writers who literally shiver and shake at the idea of going out in public, it ain’t their thing. But it is part of the process, particularly now it’s part of the process in publishing. The Language of Light is a lovely book--a lovely read and a lovely book, that’s a given. But who knows about it? You the author have to continue to do that kind of thing, right?

MEG: That’s right. I actually am somebody who is not wild about--or hasn’t, until the last few days, been wild about--appearing and speaking in public.

I went out to Washington D.C. for my first reading at a bookstore called Chapters Books. I was very nervous beforehand. I thought, “Oh, I just don’t know how I can do this.” Having been in law school at the University of Michigan, I told myself I survived standing up and speaking in Smith’s Property class when I was twenty-two and very self-conscious about everything, and if I could survive that probably I could survive this.

Then I went to the bookstore and the woman--Terry, who owns the store--gave me the most lovely introduction, and said the most complimentary things about the book, and just from her few words I felt lifted up and carried through the whole experience. It was so much fun. I read for literally eight minutes and people started asking questions. The questions were so . . .wonderful. People were so interested in hearing about the book, and hearing about how I’d written it, and hearing about where the characters came from. It was absolutely delightful.

After that experience, I thought, “Oh, this is actually going to be fun! It’s actually not going to be work promoting the book. I’m going to enjoy it.” That was certainly true last night, I had just a wonderful time at my reading last night and I’m very much looking forward to my reading in Santa Barbara on Monday.

FRAN: Meg, we’re going to have to say so long for this moment. We’ll see you Monday night at the Santa Barbara Borders at 7:30 in the evening, where everyone can get the rest of the story, and get up and ask all their questions . . . Meg Waite Clayton. Debut novel, The Language of Light. I assume we can look forward to another novel coming down the pike?

MEG: Absolutely. Thanks for having me on the show, Fran.