Welcome to Dames of Dialogue, Rita! Let’s start off with you telling us about your latest book.
My latest book is a collection of short stories called Alterations, Penumbra Publishing 2013, written over a period of 20 years, some of them harking back decades to when I was a young child growing up in Brooklyn, walking with my mother in her big-shouldered mouton coat as she did her errands and talked to shopkeepers along 86th Street.
What I’m putting the finishing touches on Feminine Products, my second novel that follows some of the characters in Lily Steps Out. Feminine Products is about Rusty Scanlon, owner of a trendy boutique who has an eye for fashion and a gift for messing up her love life. When she finds Walter, a guy who adores her, she thinks she has it all. Not so, she discovers when she tells him she’s pregnant and he suggests a paternity test. Stir into the mix her disappeared, now repentant father, a con man who dotes on his mother, the reluctant-to-marry Walter, and you have a novel that explores what it takes to make a family, and what it means to be part of one.
Besides the length, what is the difference between writing a short story and writing a novel? Do you prefer one to the other?
I enjoy them both, but because of its brevity a short story requires more discipline than a novel. Every bit of dialogue, every gesture has to contribute to the overall meaning and purpose of the story, whereas in a novel you have a bigger landscape in which to move around, more time for little asides and meanderings. In a short story you need more action and less back story. Things have to happen in the moment and there must be an event that changes or alters the main character. That’s how I came up with the title of Alterations for my collection. It’s also the name of one of the stories in which a young girl’s mother is a dressmaker.
I’ve written one short story and it was so arduous a process I’ve never tried it again. Promotion is a big—and usually the most hated—part of being a writer. Can you share a little bit about how you promote?
Whether you’re a self-published writer or have found a publisher, you’ve got to be your own press agent and publicist. You could write the greatest book in the world, but if no one knows it’s there what good is all the time and effort you spent writing?
One way I promote my books is to research blogs and see if I’d be a good fit for an interview or guest post. There are dozens of such blogs, and reviewers who specialize in indie fiction and unknown writers looking to make a name for themselves. Maybe only a handful respond to my inquiries—I keep them short, a sentence or two describing my book and why they should feature me—Thank you Dames!—but it’s worth the time and trouble.
Another thing I do is contact my local newspapers, tell them a bit about myself and my books and ask them if they’d do a story on me. Libraries are another venue I explore, as are local open readings. Search the internet. Google has it all.
I think the internet plays a huge part for most authors re; promoting. What do you consider the single most satisfying aspect of being a writer?
When the writing is really going well and the sentences flow, when the plot is moving and the characters speak precisely the way I want them to. When my head, heart and gut are so thoroughly engaged in the story that my fingers dance over the keyboard as if someone else is typing the words, those are the moments I relish.
Yes! What are major themes or motifs in your work? Do your readers ever surprise you by seeing something else in your stories than you think you wrote?
Though I don’t set out to write with a theme or motif in mind, in my short story collection and in both my novels, I know that relationships and family life play a major role. People and how they get along and interact, the dramas and sometimes mysterious bonds of family life—they are, to me, a never ending source of fascination.
Objects of one kind or another also play a significant role in my stories. They could be as simple as a sewn on button in my short story “Odette,” or as complex as a sculpture that spins and seems to breathe in “Mixed Bag”. But again, I don’t set out to do this. I don’t say this story is going to have such and such. The story comes from the writing itself.
My novel, Lily Steps Out, is about a middle-aged woman who is sick of making beds and cooking meals, and goes out and gets a job. My yoga teacher said the idea that Lily was dissatisfied with her life and wanted to evolve and make her life more fulfilling was a yogic principle. That surprised me.
I really like the premise for that book! I can certainly identify with her. If you could talk for thirty minutes with any author (or person), living or dead, who would it be?
I’m a great fan of Joyce Carol Oates, her intelligence, her range, her output, and although the conversation was short lived and almost entirely one sided I not only spoke to her, but she gave me a quote I was able to use for the cover of Lily Steps Out.
During the summer of 2004, after reading that she was giving an author talk and book signing at a local library, I decided to print out the first chapter of Lily, enclose it in a SASE and take it to her. Off to the library I went and sat through her talk clutching my offering with sweaty hands and a pounding heart. When her talk was over, I queued up to buy her book and ask her (beg if necessary) to read my chapter. My turn came. She autographed my book. I mustered all my courage.
“Ms. Oates,” I said, “I’m a writer too and I’ve written a novel. It would mean so much to me if you would read the first chapter.”
“Oh, I can’t,” she said. “People ask me all the time. I just don’t have the time.”
“Ms. Oates,” I said. “You’re like a movie star to me.” (This is true.) “I’ve read almost all of your novels and you’re collections of short stories more than once.”
I could sense the impatience of the crowd behind me waiting their turn, but I kept talking to her, until finally I heard, “Send it to me at Princeton.” Words from heaven. I flew home, called the college, got her address and ran to the post office.
About a month or so later I received a postcard from her saying some lovely things about the book. I couldn’t believe it! But there it was—Joyce Carol Oates liked my chapter! If something could be worn out by looking at it, that postcard would be dust today. When I knew my book was going to be published I wrote to Ms. Oates and scanned the post card onto the letter, asking if I could use the quote. A few weeks later I received a reply, “Of course you can. Good luck!”
I know exactly how you feel. I received a letter from Dolly Parton, who read a couple of my books, telling me she enjoyed them so much she was going to pass them on to her family to read. I cherish that letter! How do you classify yourself as a writer? Fiction or non-fiction? Specific genre such as mystery, short story, paranormal or more general such as women’s fiction, Appalachian, etc.
I have written articles, essays, short stories, fiction and non-fiction, and I’m comfortable in all genres. What I haven’t done is write a story from an omniscient point of view, and I’ve been thinking about tackling a mystery.
You’re what I consider a prolific writer. Beside “writer,” what else are you; what is your “day job”?
I am and have been an interior designer for the past 35 years. I teach interior design in Continuing Ed at Queensborough Community College in Queens, NY, and I’m coordinator of their Interior Design Certificate Program. I lecture on the decorative arts and interior design and have recently designed a talk called, “You’ve Written a Book, Now What,” which focuses on how to get your book into publishable shape.
What is your VERB? (This is a big poster at a local mall)? If you had to choose ONE verb that describes you and you behavior or attitude, what would it be?
That is a great question! And DO is the first word that comes to mind. DO. DO. DO. And don’t be afraid. Take on new challenges and don’t give up. It took me 93 tries to get my first short story published, and 7 years to find a publisher for Lily Steps Out.
Great advice. Were books an important part of your household when you were growing up?
There weren’t many books in the house when I was growing up, mostly magazines and newspapers, and my mother sent for a “parent’s encyclopedia” from “Parents Magazine.” I had “The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew,” and when I was older, “Nancy Drew.”
My father was a great storyteller though and my mother was more a reader of stories than she was a teller of tales. I remember her sitting beside my bed on a chair she pulled in from the kitchen, me home from school with a fever, chicken pox, or swollen glands, her reading from my books. The comfort of her voice, its changing rhythms and intonations, have remained with me all these years. Sometimes I think my parents are in my stories, my father in the twist and turn of a plot, my mother in the rhythm of the prose.
What a lovely thought. Are you in a critique group? If so, how does it work and specifically how do the members help your writing?
I believe that a writer’s group or a critique group is essential for any writer. I’ve belonged to the same group for 20 years and the members have been very helpful. Writers often can’t see the flaws in their work; we’re too close to it. We need critical thinkers to tell us if a plot is moving, or if it’s bogged down with unnecessary minutiae? Would a character really say that? Or say it that way? Our sentences are our darlings, they’re like our children, and sometimes it’s difficult to see our children’s shortcomings, we need a more objective observer to do that for us.
Thanks for joining us today, Rita. For more information about Rita and where to find her books:
Lily Steps Out Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/1935563890
Lily Steps Out Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/lily-steps-out-rita-plush?keyword=lily+steps+out+rita+plush&store=ebook
Alterations Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Alterations-Rita-Plush/dp/1938758153/ref=pd_sim_b_1
Alterations Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/alterations-rita-plush?store=ebook&keyword=alterations+rita+plush