Friday, April 2, 2010

Interview with Deborah Heiligman

When we selected Charles and Emma as one of our March books, I zoomed straight to author Deborah Heiligman's website and found there a gold mine of information about the background research she had done, all with primary sources, including her own travel to relevant sites in England. As I read Charles and Emma I had questions lurking which she graciously agreed to answer, along with sharing a StorySleuths Tip focused on the craft of writing. Thank you, Deborah!

Here are her responses:
DH: First of all, let me say that I am really so very impressed with your blog posts. Your analysis of writing is just terrific. I must admit that I think you know more about my writing than I do. However, I will do my best to answer your questions!

StorySleuths: It's clear from your website, from the Source Notes following each chapter, and from your Selected Bibliography (as well as from the text itself!) how much research you did. How did you decide when to stop researching and begin writing?
DH: Nothing like a deadline....I had a gun pointed at my head because the publisher really wanted to bring the book out before the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birthday. I had a pretty tight deadline for the first draft. Just thinking about it makes me sweat. But I do work best when I have a deadline. It was the all Charles and Emma Channel all the time for eight months, and then for a year and a half total.

StorySleuths: Starting from your original idea of focusing on the relationship between Charles and Emma, did any of the research you did change the story as you envisioned it, and if so, how?
DH: If I look at the proposal, I see that I was thinking of a much less narrative approach. More straight biography, with digressions to "tell" about the time period, the role of religion in English society, etc. But once I started researching, which meant reading primary sources, Charles and Emma just started talking to me and it became their story. The more I read the more I knew I wanted very much to let them and their lives tell it, and I wanted to stay out of the way as much as possible. Of course as you probably can tell, I fell madly in love with each of them, and with their marriage.

StorySleuths: On your blog you talk about "working through fear." Can you elaborate on this and share some of your strategies for working through fear?
DH: You're making me sweat again. Just remembering... O.K., I can do this. Breathe, breathe. YES, that was one of things I did. I learned to breathe.
Seriously, I had a lot of fear about this book. In fact, I had the idea for the book years before, and when I sent out the proposal and it got rejected (either once or twice, I'm not even sure), I was pretty relieved. I thought oh good, I don't have to do it. My main fear was: who was I to write about Charles Darwin? There are so many people who have spent their whole lives writing about Darwin... And Darwin was really my husband's "beat." But the story kept pulling at me, and when I told my soon to be agent about it, his eyes lit up and he said, "Let me see your proposal!" Then he kicked my butt to do it. So that was one way that I worked through the fear--I got a contract, and had a deadline, and I had that kicking my butt to Get It Done.
I also worked through the fear by talking about it with my husband and some really good writing buddies.
My husband was a HUGE support. He's a writer, too, (I'm not sure if you already know that) and he knew so well how I was feeling, so his support was priceless. But of course when you're a writer, you are really alone. (Sweat pouring down face.) I, however, HATE to be alone, so I manage not to be much of the time--. I am not afraid to reach out. The day I had to send in my first draft I was terrified. TERRIFIED. (Truth be told my editor had seen some of it already, and was very encouraging, but this was a whole draft and I was scared, really scared.) So I called my agent on his cell phone, and when he said "hello," I said, without preamble, "Will you hold my hand while I press send?" And he said, "Deborah, I'm at the doctor, I am on the examining table, I don't have any clothes on." And I said, "O.K., but could you hold my hand while I press send?" Now you know why he is completely worth the commission!
I also exercised. A lot.
StorySleuths: We read that one of your questions was where to begin the story. Did you face other challenges in writing the story?
DH: One of the biggest challenges was to have it be their story, keep it a STORY and still explain the science. And gosh, there was so much to explain! And Darwin did so much. That was huge--how could I not include this, that or the other thing? There was so much science and history, but I didn't want it to take over. So I had a mantra and that was that everything I wrote had to be "in service to the love story."
StorySleuths: Could you share one writing tip that you learned in the process of writing Charles and Emma?
DH: I learned so much about writing during the many drafts of this book. I really stretched myself in all ways, from the beginning of the process (reading only primary sources for the longest time) to the end (trimming away unneeded scenes, words, fat...). To give just one tip is hard, but I think it would be that when you are starting a new project, keep an open mind, and let your characters--be they real or fictional--dictate the form the story will take. Let content dictate form. I am starting a new project now, and it is going to be very different from C & E because my heroine is such a different person. I'm letting her tell me how to do the book.
We're eager to read your new project when it's published, Deborah, and we're so excited to learn that as of yesterday, you were able to get in touch with your next subject's great grandchildren! How exciting is that!
StorySleuths Tip #59: To quote Deborah Heiligman, when "starting a new project, keep an open mind, and let your characters--be they real or fictional--dictate the form the story will take. Let content dictate form."