Talking with . . .

    Elizabeth Letts
    An interview by Terez Rose (Gabon 1985–87)

    We writers today live in a Brave New World, one where publishing has been synergized, conglomerated, mainstreamed and mass produced to an ever-dwindling readership. At the same time, it’s a world where an aspiring novelist can now email queries to his/her hit list of agents — found and researched online, receive quick replies and share the news moments later with a large group of sympathetic writers. Online forums are the perfect writers’ enclave — they ease solitude and allow you to connect and network with like-minded people at the click of a mouse. Best of all, you can wear your torn sweats and fuzzy slippers and no one will know. It was at one such writers’ forum that I met RPCV Elizabeth Letts (Morocco 1983 – 86) in the fall of 2003. She’d just sold her first novel and had signed a contract for the second. Through her, I’ve been able to vicariously experience the peaks and valleys of getting published in today’s competitive publishing climate.
         Quality of Care, Elizabeth’s debut novel, tells the story of an obstetrician who, unable to save the life of a childhood friend in an emergency, returns to the place of her past, commencing a journey of self-discovery and ultimate redemption. The novel, chosen as a featured alternate selection for Literary Guild, Doubleday Book Club and Rhapsody Book Club, was also a pre-pub selection of the week at various public libraries and online book clubs. I got in touch with Elizabeth recently — via cyberspace, of course — to see if she could share some of her recent experiences.

    Elizabeth, let’s start with your Peace Corps days. Where were you posted and what did you do?
    I was in Morocco from 1983–1986. The first two years, I did TEFL, and the last year and a half, I worked for a project called The Morocco Literacy Project, which was a research project, jointly sponsored by Peace Corps and The University of Pennsylvania School of Education.

    What came next in your life?
    After Peace Corps, I continued with a Master’s and taught English as a Second Language for several years, primarily in community college. Then I had a complete about-face, attending the Yale School of Nursing, in a program for non-nurse college graduates that allowed me to complete an RN, Master’s Degree, and certification as a nurse-midwife.

    Did you do any writing while in the Peace Corps?
    Well, yes, and no. Part of my motivation to join the Peace Corps was the desire to broaden my experience in order to “find something to write about.” I packed a portable manual typewriter, and I did try to write . . . a lot of short fiction . . . but it was all terrible, and I just don’t think I was ready to write fiction then. The one really important thing I did do while I was in the Peace Corps was to read extensively — all the long boring books that you think you should read but never quite get around to doing. I’m so grateful for that time, and for the well-thumbed Peace Corps library of books that circulated from hand to hand throughout the country.

    On to your novel, Quality of Care. What inspired you to write it?
    When you deliver babies for a living, people often say what a happy job it must be, and the truth is, it is very happy almost all the time, but when it is sad it is absolutely devastating. Since babies don’t arrive during office hours, obstetricians are some of the most dedicated people in medicine. They give up nights and weekends and rarely get a full night’s sleep — but even so, more than half of all obstetricians have been sued for malpractice at least once in their careers. So I became interested in the psychology of that person.

    Which came first — the character of Clara, the storyline or the “big picture” theme?
    When writing Quality of Care, it was the situation, or premise that came first — it’s virtually impossible to work in obstetrics without thinking about the what-if possibility that something terrible might occur on your watch . . . so I think the premise was incredibly compelling. Then I thought about a real worst case scenario — what if that patient had a special relationship of trust with you? I knew before I started writing what the basic outlines of the plot would be, although I do not work from an outline. The characters emerge along with the writing, and the theme is something that I start to recognize as I’m deep into the story and I realize that I’ve used certain repeating motifs that I wasn’t consciously aware of at first. It is my goal that my stories be entertaining and quick to read, but that the reader is left with something to mull over afterwards as well.

    I certainly did my share of mulling after reading Quality of Care — about the capriciousness of life with its accidents and fate, as well as the more conscious choices we make and their consequences. What about you — what do you consider important motifs in the book?
    Several of the characters face situations that are beyond their control — Clara’s accident, Eleanor’s struggles with her daughter, Gordon’s tragic loss of his wife. When faced with the unpreventable and the inexplicable, what do you fall back on? But I didn’t want the story to be about a lawsuit, per se. To me, this book is primarily about Clara’s spiritual journey. But I was also interested in the role of the caregiver — you see a variety of ways of caring in the book — the self-sacrifice of the nurses, Clara’s incredible sense of duty — the way she believes that if she tries hard enough she can guarantee a perfect outcome every time. Gordon’s attempts to save his brain-damaged daughter. Eleanor’s tough love. Lydia’s belief that she was somehow fated to save Clara’s life. All of them were showing their care in the best way they knew how. So the question the book posits is — where is the line between caring for the people you love, or for whom you feel responsible, but still letting go and accepting the fact that you do not control their destinies? For Clara, it was her personal journey of discovery — what happens when you realize that all of your years of dedication and skill and training are still not going to save the day every time.

    Sounds like one of those lessons we all learned in the Peace Corps.
    Oh, definitely. We all join the Peace Corps with the assumption that we’re going for the express purpose of doing good. And we all discover over time that life is rarely as black and white as that. I like to believe that the intent to do good will triumph over time, but not without teaching us to be humble about it.

    So, you went from the Peace Corps and continuing to teach English as a second language, over to the health care/obstetrics field. When and why did you start writing novels?
    I started writing in July 2000 when my family was moving from New York to Pennsylvania. I was in between jobs for a while, and all of a sudden, it just hit me. I thought, I don’t want to be one of those people who dies thinking she has a novel in her. So, from one day to the next, I just started writing seriously. And once I got started, I worked like a demon.

    When and where do you write?
    As a working mother with three school-aged children, I have to grab time and make the most of it. Fortunately, my work schedule leaves me with some mornings free to write — my best time is when my kids are at school and the house is blissfully quiet and empty. But between sick kids and days off and half days and conference days (not to mention the evil vacations), well, the truth is I write any time I can, otherwise I’d never finish anything. As for location, I work at a desk in my dining room right next to the kitchen. People traipse in and out all the time. Kids interrupt me. The phone rings, or I run to the store to pick up a loaf of bread in the middle of a chapter. Virginia Woolf said that a woman writer needs “a room of one’s own” — I mean yes, it’d be nice, but a corner of the dining room will do in a pinch.

    What writers have had an influence on your writing? Any Peace Corps writers?
    I think of myself as following in the footsteps of women who write what is sometimes called “serious women’s fiction” . . . that is books that are thoughtful but also commercial — writers like Jane Hamilton, Sue Miller, Gail Godwin, Billie Letts, and Elizabeth Berg. As far as Peace Corps writers, I read Maria Thomas’s two wonderful books right when they were first published, and was heart-broken when I learned that her career had been cut short by an early death. I’m also a huge fan of Kent Haruf, and I enjoy George Packer’s work.

    You once mentioned meeting George Packer when you were both at Yale.
    Yes, he was a year ahead of me, and we were in the same creative writing class — I believe it was a course taught by Thomas Berger. Although I didn’t know George well, I knew he was going into the Peace Corps and was interested in writing, so he was a bit of a role model. I especially like some of his pieces in The New Yorker. He published a recent piece about Iraqi immigrants who lived in Athens during the Olympics, and I swear only a RPCV could have written with that much insight and compassion.

    Have you written anything about your Peace Corps experience? Do you see it happening in the future?
    So far, I haven’t. I read a very interesting interview with Anita Shreve, who spent some time working in Africa as a journalist. She didn’t set any of her books there until her seventh or eighth book, and she said that she just didn’t feel adequate to the task until then. I tried for a very long time to write about Morocco, but I think I was so overwhelmed by the experience that I didn’t feel I could reduce it to words. But I do very much hope to write something about my experiences there at some point, and I do have a partial memoir in a drawer that I pull out from time to time. The one thing I’ve written that is set in Morocco is a children’s picture book called The Butter Man, due out from Charlesbridge Publishers in 2007. The story is set in Morocco’s High Atlas mountains, where my husband grew up, and is based on a story that he told me from his childhood, and so we are publishing it as co-authors.

    How did you go about getting an agent? How many queries did you send out? Any advice to those just starting out their search?
    I did not use any kind of intelligent or systematic method to query agents — I don’t remember exactly how many I queried. I think it may have been around fifteen or so, names pulled from Jeff Herman’s Writer’s Guide. If I were giving someone advice now, I would suggest a more systematic approach, and I would also encourage anyone to be confident about the process. When you are brand new to writing, you will hear a lot about how tough it is to get an agent. That is true, to a point, but if you have a viable project you should be able to get an agent just by writing query letters and following the standard protocols. It is not necessary to have insider connections or anything like that.

    And what about publishers?
    My agent decided which publishing houses to submit to, and I must say that working with NAL/Penguin has been absolutely wonderful.

    How does one go about getting chosen as an alternate selection for the Literary Guild, Doubleday Book Club and Rhapsody Book Club? Your novel, I noticed, was also chosen by DearReader.com to be a pre-pub selection of the week, prompting a few public libraries and other online book clubs to follow suit. Was all this your agent’s work, or NAL’s distribution of advance reader copies?
    To tell the truth, I have no idea. Book club rights are part of the subsidiary rights that belong to the publisher (like large print, audio, etc...) I’m assuming someone sent my galleys to the book clubs and that’s how I got picked, but I really don’t know. I’ve been told it’s considered quite a coup to be picked for several different clubs — I think my book can crossover to different groups of readers. It’s a true mainstream book. As far as the online book club . . . I thought that was a really neat thing. I really support what they do — sending out short excerpts of books to people via email so people are exposed to new books and authors. It’s a service to readers and libraries, as well as the authors, because it entices people to read, and the online book club — DearReader.com — is free of charge.

    How did you “learn” how to write a novel? Any classes/courses?
    I did take some creative writing classes in college, like the one I mentioned, but in retrospect, I don’t think they helped me very much. People are different, and some seem to benefit from explicit instruction, but I’m more the intuitive type, and thinking too much about the process tends to make me self-conscious. But I have always been a voracious reader, and I think that’s how I learned to write a novel. When I sat down to write, I just wrote. When I got stuck, I pulled novels off my shelf and tried to figure out how other writers had done it. I avoided “how-to” writing books as well. Sometimes I worry that if I get too technical about how I do what I do that I won’t be able to do it anymore.

    I’ve found Backspace,* our online writers’ forum, to be a valuable source of writers’ information and camaraderie. How about you?
    I’m surprised at the extent to which the Internet writing community has been helpful to me. I was someone who really looked askance at the Internet, but writers are so isolated that it allows us to make friends, and to swap information which helps us make better decisions. Up through the time I sold my novel, I didn’t know any other writers — I had one friend who was a “writing buddy” but she was as new to the process as I was. Now I have a number of writer friends, and I’ve met many of them through Backspace (www.bksp.org). You really don’t need connections to get an agent, but once you’re at the agented stage it is extremely helpful to be able to compare notes with other people who are going through the same thing.

    What, for you, is the toughest aspect of writing?
    I think the most difficult aspect of writing for me is to stop writing — to get the characters and their story out of my head and to come back to the present. I do a lot of thinking about the story at odd moments, when I’m washing dishes, or driving the car pool. I get totally distracted, drive past my exit or something like that. Then my kids always yell, “Snap out of it, Mom.”

    And the most rewarding?
    The most rewarding part, by far, is in the telling itself, of setting out to tell a story and knowing that I got to the end.

    You’ve just submitted a second novel to NAL. What’s next for you?
    My second novel, tentatively titled Family Planning, is currently in the editing stages and is due out from NAL sometime next year. I’m also in the development stage for ideas for my third novel, and am working on a children’s middle grade reader set in Morocco.

    Well, thanks for all this great information Elizabeth, and I’ll see you over at Backspace. I’ll be the one wearing the fuzzy slippers.
    Thanks, Terez. Tell people to come say hi at www.ElizabethLetts.com as well.

    * Backspace — www.bksp.org — an Internet-based writers' site, hosts discussion forums, a guest speaker program in which agents, acquisitions editors, and bestselling authors conduct online question and answer sessions with the group, and offers articles and advice from agents and other publishing professionals on its homepages. Backspace has attracted the support and participation of many best-selling authors and top publishing professionals, and was recently named one of Writer's Digests "101 Best Websites for Writers."