Tawni Waters’s debut novel, Beauty of the Broken, was released by Simon and Schuster in 2014. In addition to winning the prestigious International Literacy Association’s Award for Young Adult Literature, it won the Housatonic Book Award, was named an exceptional book of 2015 by the Children’s Book Council, was shortlisted for the Reading the West Book Award, and was included on the Kansas State Reading Circle List. It is being adapted for the screen by Jeff Arch, the screenwriter best known for writing Sleepless in Seattle. Her second novel, The Long Ride Home, was released by Sourcebooks Fire in Fall 2017, to enthusiastic reviews, including raves from Kirkus and School Library Journal. Her first poetry book, Siren Song, was released by Burlesque Press in 2014. Her work was anthologized in Best Travel Writing 2010, The Soul of a Great Traveler, and Monday Nights, and has been published in myriad journals and magazines. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans and teaches creative writing at various universities and writers retreats throughout the U.S., Europe, and Mexico. In her spare time she talks to angels, humanely evicts spiders from her floorboards, and plays Magdalene to a minor rock god.
Mitchell Sommers is the Fiction Editor at Philadelphia Stories, as well as a member of the Board of Directors.
Both Tawni and Mitchell are friends of the Rosemont College MFA and MA in Publishing programs.
Mitchell Sommers: So, tell me about your new book, The Long Ride Home. How did it come to be?
Tawni Waters: It’s a sordid tale of frustration, drunkenness, and Neil Young, as most novel-origination stories are. Ok, maybe not most novel-origination stories, but my novel-origination stories. I started writing The Long Ride Home a few summers ago, when I was teaching a creative writing workshop at University of Virginia. I had just found Beauty of the Broken had won the ILA—or something. The details are murky at best, but I had just found out about one of my first novel’s accolades, and I was very anxious to write another “good” book. So I spent all my free time (which I didn’t have much of) trying to be brilliant and failing miserably. I sent my agent three chapters for three different books (nine chapters in all), and he rejected them all.
So much for writing another “good” book.
Finally, I had a day off, and I told myself I was going to go to the nearby pub and get shnockered (that’s a fancy Tawni word for “rip roaring drunk”). I also gave myself permission to write whatever came into my head, “good” or bad—to just have fun with writing, the way I used to before I started publishing and winning awards. So I did. I was a few shots of whiskey/glasses of wine (yes, I mix the two) in, when Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend” came on. (I was doing a radio interview a few weeks ago, and I accidentally said Neil Diamond’s “Unknown Legend” came on. The radio host looked so confused. Can you imagine Neil Diamond singing “Unknown Legend”? It’s a whole new song! But I digress.) As soon as I heard the opening lines, “Somewhere on a desert highway, she rides her Harley Davidson, her long blond hair flying in the wind,” a character started talking to me. She didn’t stop until I had about ten pages hammered out. I sent them to my agent, and he said, “YOU ARE A GENIUS! WRITE THIS BOOK!” So I did.
The moral of this story is, “The secret to genius is whiskey.” As if we didn’t already know that.
MS: And, since this is now your second Young Adult book, do you consider yourself an YA writer at this point?
TW: Not exclusively. The Long Ride Home is walking a fine line between YA and New Adult. In fact, in September, School Library Journal released an article titled “YA or New Adult: Six Titles for Older Teens,” which highlighted six “buzzworthy” new adult titles. The Long Ride Home was included. (Yay!) But right now, I’m working on an adult novel. I think I’m open to writing YA, adult, and even middle grade, novels. I’ll let the work be whatever it needs to be. But I do love writing for teens. They are such an amazing audience. They have embraced me and my work so enthusiastically. It’s an honor to write works that touches their beautiful hearts and minds.
MS: And [spoiler alert, sort of], how did you decide to make pregnancy so critical to the novel?
TW: I’m going to be all woo-woo and say I didn’t decide to make pregnancy critical, my character did. I always start novels from the place of character and let everything else grow from there, so when I first started writing this novel, I had no idea my character was pregnant. She told me as I put the words on the page. Of course, “she” is an aspect of my psyche, and I happen to have been pregnant when I was 18, so it’s not at all shocking my subconscious would bring that experience forward when I was writing. Also, I lost my father at 21, so it’s not surprising my subconscious would want to write a book about a young woman losing a parent. I think I worked through some of my life’s biggest issues in this book, without consciously setting out to do so or even knowing that I was doing it until I was done. It seriously took me until almost the end of the book to realize that I was working through my feelings about my father’s death in this work.
Yeah, I’m a little slow on the uptake.
MS: Let’s talk about that Neil Young reference. Can you talk a little on how music affects your writing. Are there songs you listen to ad nauseum when writing? Are there song writers/performers who act as inspiration? And has the music that affects you changed over time.
TW: When I was a little girl, I wanted to be three things—a writer, a singer, and an actor. When I grew up, I actually became an actor and a writer. I didn’t become a singer because a couple of kids used to make fun of my singing voice. Thanks to them, I thought I had a horrible voice and never pursued singing. I did play the clarinet and piano for a few years each, and the guitar off and on. But what I really wanted to do was sing. I loved all the music my dad listened to—Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan and Marty Robbins and Joan Baez. I still love that stuff.
When I was in Crimes of the Heart in my thirties, I was drinking with the director after rehearsal, and I started singing Janis Joplin. When she heard me, she said, “Oh, my god. You have an amazing voice. You’re singing in this show!” (I was playing a down on her luck singer, so it worked.) I did, and while I was singing one night, someone in the audience shouted, “She can sing!” Hearing that broke something in me—the belief that I couldn’t sing, I suppose. I had ruled out an entire art form because someone said I sucked at it when I was five, and it wasn’t even true. Isn’t it weird how those early detractors have so much influence on how you live your life?
I said all that to say music was one of my earliest passions. I grew up loving it, and I wish with all my heart I wouldn’t have listened to those kids that told me my voice sucked. Still, I became two of the three things I wanted to be, and two out of three ain’t bad.
To assuage the music lover in me, and also because I fell in love with a rock star, I followed a rock band around the country (and sometimes other countries) for almost 20 years. I saw over a thousand shows. I really think that band’s music was a huge part of my creative genesis. I wrote after the shows, when I was all sweaty and high on my personal crack (music and love). I don’t follow them anymore, but I do still love music. I don’t normally listen while I write, unless I happen to be in a public place where I can’t turn it off, but music often inspires the conceptions of my novels. I always try to put the lyrics that are inspiring me in my novels, and my editors are like, “Tawni, we are not paying a zillion dollars and spending six months trying to acquire the rights to 50 songs. Rewrite.”
I wish I could tell you which music inspires me the most, but it’s random. Sometimes, it’s the old stuff my dad loved. Sometimes, it’s the new stuff my kids are listening to. For instance, my daughter introduced me to this song “One for the Money” by Escape the Fate. It’s bordering on screamo. It’s inspiring the hell out of me right now. I call it the “Are you ready mother fuckers?” song. I also have a cache of songs (lyrics and melodies) I’ve written over the years. I think they are pretty good, actually. Maybe, someday I’ll do something with them.
MS: Your first novel, Beauty of the Broken, was, without saying more, kind of a downbeat ending. The Long Ride Home, again without revealing any details, was quite a bit more hopeful. How is the creative process different (or not), coming at a novel from such different endings?
TW: I honestly thought of the ending of Beauty of the Broken as triumphant. I was stunned when people thought it was depressing. For me, walking out on abusive relationships has been the most powerful thing I have ever done, and I tried to give Mara that sense of victory. I guess I failed miserably. I was attempting to be subtle with the hope. I have since learned that there is a fine line between subtle and nonexistent. You know that moment where Mara imagines Xylia opening the door for her with the flower in her hair? I had hoped readers would suspect that was how things were going to happen, because in my mind, they were. But almost no one got that. I still get letters all of the time from readers who beg me to tell them what happens to Mara. They want me to write a sequel. I don’t know if I can do that. Mara’s story feels done to me. But I can write one more chapter, which I’m thinking about doing.
So I guess for me, the ending to The Long Ride Home wasn’t much more hopeful than the ending of Beauty of the Broken. However, I was very careful to make sure the hope I felt made it onto the page this time. I think that is the real difference in the endings. I’m a more aware writer now. Getting feedback from reviewers and readers really does something to you as a writer. It changes you–in a good way, I think. You are much more aware of your audience as you write, and I think for the most part, you should be.
Writing is a conversation, not a monologue.
MS: I think a lot of people (meaning, writers without agents) would be interested in your relationship with your agent, Andy Ross. He seems, from what you’ve said, pretty involved in the creative process.
TW: Andy is pretty awesome, and yes, also pretty involved in the creative process. He’s one of my best friends. He also is my biggest cheerleader. Every time I go to a conference, someone will walk up to me and say Andy has told them I’m the best writer in the world. Most agents don’t do that for their writers, so I’m incredibly grateful. I have friends who call their agents and don’t hear back from them for six weeks. If I call Andy, he answers, and if I write, he writes back within minutes. I’m teaching a master class for the Rosemont Writer’s Studio this semester, and Andy actually Skyped in to talk to my students. He’s so generous.
He’s also a generous editor. He helped me do a major edit on Beauty of the Broken. The draft I sent him had two point of view characters. Henry, the Native American character, told half of the story. Andy made me change it all to Mara’s point of view, which was a huge edit, and also a really good one, I think. I sent him the chapters for The Long Ride Home as I wrote them. He gave me feedback. We had to work on one scene a lot—the scene where Harley leaves Dean in the motel. But other than that, he pretty much loved everything I did. And then Annette Pollert, my editor at Sourcebooks (who also edited Beauty of the Broken when she was at Simon & Schuster) made almost no changes, which surprised me. She edited the hell out of Beauty. But The Long Ride Home in published form is very, very close to the book it was when I wrote the first draft.
I’ve already sent Andy the first chapters of the novel I’m working on now, which I started when I was teaching in Sicily in January. He loved the chapters but pointed out a few things that he felt were lacking. I’ve spent the last nine months pondering his critique, and finally, just this month, solutions came to me. So now, I’m rewriting the chapters. We will see what he says. Whatever it is, I take it very seriously. I don’t always agree with him, but I at least consider what he has to say. The most frustrating thing about being a writing teacher is having students who won’t listen when you tell them what needs to change in their work. That kind of arrogance will make sure a person never gets published. I know my work can always be better, and I respect Andy’s advice. I’d rather hear something from him than from a reviewer after the book is published and cannot be changed.
MS: How did you get Andy Ross as your agent? What was the process there?
TW: I met Andy at the San Miguel Writer’s Conference in 2013 when I was teaching a travel writing workshop. We first spoke at a fiesta where he was trying to find someone to take a picture of him with a sombrero wearing donkey. I offered, and I honestly think we clicked then. We just liked each other. I was lucky enough that a few days later, we were in a workshop together. We had a writing assignment, and I did mine, and read it out loud when the teacher asked for volunteers. Andy tells this story to everyone who asks how we met. Apparently, when he heard me read in that workshop, he thought I was one of the most talented writers he’d ever seen. And he had to read after me, and felt humiliated because he thought his writing was inferior to mine, so I guess that made the experience more intense for him. Later, I went to a pitch session with him, and he told me, “That’s the worst pitch I’ve ever heard, but your writing is amazing.” (I’d brought pages because I kinda knew my pitch would suck. I’m not very good at selling myself.) He asked me to send the book I was pitching, which he eventually rejected. But he told me again in his rejection letter how amazing my writing was and asked me if I had anything else. I sent him the manuscript that became Beauty of the Broken. It had been sitting in my drawer for over a decade at that point.
He called me crying after he read it, and the rest is history.