Karis Walsh and Robin Summers are both authors of award-winning lesbian novels. Walsh is the writer behind Sea Glass Inn, Worth the Risk, and the Rainbow Award-winning Harmony, published by Bold Strokes Books. Summers's debut novel, After the Fall, is the winner of two 2012 Golden Crown Literary Society Awards, two 2011 Rainbow Awards, and a 2011 Lesbian Fiction Readers Choice Award. Walsh is releasing her new novel, Improvisation, in May 2013, while Summers is currently working on her second novel. The two authors recently came together to talk about their books, writing, and life.
Karis Walsh: You and I first met two summers ago in the Adirondacks at a Bold Strokes Books retreat and we found we had a lot in common, despite our many differences. Both of us were first-time authors then, with the same editor.
Robin Summers: Yes, we’re both lucky enough to work with Ruth Sternglantz, who is utterly fantastic. She became my number one cheerleader, and therefore also my most profound critic. She wanted to see the book succeed, and so I knew her edits – no matter how painful – were designed to make my book the best it could be.
You can really trust her to take care of your characters and your story, and that’s so important to me. We’ll be starting the editing process on my fifth book, a romantic intrigue called Mounting Danger, soon.
And here I’m still working on book number two! [Laughs] My first novel, After the Fall, took me nearly three years to write, on and off, with a lot of fits and starts, and several really crazy rewrites. I know you were able to write your first novel, Harmony, in a lot less time. I wish I could be disciplined enough to write daily, but I find that given my job [public policy in Washington, D.C.] I’m often too exhausted by the time I get home to do any writing, no matter how much I may want to write. Most of the time I write on Saturdays and Sundays, so over the course of several months, that’s how I build up. Do you write every day?
I wish I did. I have aspirations to write every day, but I don’t. But I think one of the benefits of my job – I teach horseback riding and I ride and do a lot of physical work outside – is that it clears my head. When I’m riding a horse a lot of times I’ll get ideas. Your mind is kind of freed up to move forward and come up with new thoughts while your body’s engaged in what it’s doing.
When you’ve had a day like that, do you go right home and write?
I’ll jot down the lines of dialogue or ideas right away or they disappear. But I wrote my first two books in a very linear fashion, so unless I was at the point where I wanted to insert whatever I’d thought of, I couldn’t write it. I had to write step-by-step. My third one, Sea Glass Inn, I wrote kind of all over the place. It was connected by a series of paintings, so once I wrote those scenes I was able to jump around more than before. That was very different for me because I usually have a very organized structure and I follow it in a straight path.
Another big difference. I’ve certainly learned over the years that I have to outline to some degree, but I do it under protest. I find if I have too much structure, I get completely bored with what I’m writing, and then I don’t want to write it. I’m like a five-year-old that way. But things changed a bit with the book I’m writing now, Season of the Wolf. Having to write a proposal for the book, instead of just submitting the completed manuscript like I did with After the Fall, forced me to go deeper. I had to break out the index cards, because I realized as I was writing out the proposal that I had these gaping holes in the plot. So it actually ended up being a very good process even though I hated every minute of it.
I love the proposal part, coming up with new ideas and starting to see the threads that will connect the characters. You start to have those little epiphanies about who they are and what’s going to happen. But the daily sitting down and writing is difficult for me, and I’m trying to work on that. I don’t have a specific place where I write, but I have certain pens I use, and I have lots of colored index cards and sticky notes. When I finish a scene, I like to rip up my notes and throw them on the floor around me. That way I can see the accomplishment scattered on the ground like confetti from a parade. What does your work space look like?
I write my best outside for some odd reason. Of course, that makes it a little difficult in the winter to get anything accomplished. I wrote the first half of Season of the Wolf on a little deck outside my apartment. Deck is a strong word – it was really more of a landing. But I put a little chair and a little table out there, and I had my thermos of coffee and my computer, and that was it. I’d sit out there for eight to ten hours and be completely happy. I miss that deck.
I bet. Speaking of which…your books are all set in the Pacific Northwest. Do you think - besides familiarity - that there’s a reason you set your books there?
I have a very close connection to my home. I love this area and the general attitude of the people here and that helps define who my characters are and who I am. So yes, it’s very much a choice that this area is a strong presence in my books.
I also have a very strong connection to places where I have lived or places that I’m familiar with. I think they impact the characters, to some extent – certainly their values. I like the idea of writing about places that I grew up in, places that I care about. I think it adds something. So when you start a book, do you start first with an idea or a concept? Or do you start with the characters? Or does it depend?
It depends. My first book, Harmony, was sparked by the idea of a woman falling in love right before her wedding. My second book started with a strong concept of the character Jamie. For my third book, I could see the artwork and the ocean beach and the bed and breakfast. I could see images in my head and I just kind of turned them into a story. The fourth one, Improvisation, is a spin-off from Harmony, so that started with the characters as well.
I know when I wrote After the Fall there were some elements that were definitely from my life and my experience, things that I intrinsically felt and understood, even though so much of the book was nothing like my life – I’ve certainly never survived an apocalyptic plague. It’s interesting how little things creep in from your life. I think it’s different in everything you write, how much of you is going to come out, but they say that you write what you know for a reason. You do write what you know, whether it be little elements here and there or whether it be big pieces.
And you used the first person voice, so it seems more personal. I’ve been writing my romances in third so I can shift between the two characters. But you did some interesting things with point of view…
Especially given my insanity of changing point of view twice and having to go back and rewrite huge chunks of the book. Not a process I would recommend to anyone.
That’s not easy…
No. After the Fall is written from two points of view. The primary point of view - that of the main protagonist, Taylor - is in first person present. The other point of view – which has been subject of some controversy – is not the other protagonist, Kate, but of a third character, a boy by the name of Duncan. And that’s told in third person past, which was definitely a question that came up when I submitted the book to Bold Strokes, not only because I was using a non-primary character as one of the main points of view, but because of the switching back and forth between first and third person. I’d never written anything in present tense in my life, so that was sort of a strange choice. But it felt very necessary for that character. Taylor’s experience is very raw, I think, and to really get at the truth of her experience, I felt like it had to be like she was talking right to the reader.
The immediacy of the situation really hit home because of that.
Whereas with Duncan’s point of view, the third person, you didn’t need that immediacy. You needed more of his narrative take on what was happening, to get outside of Taylor’s head a little bit, which was why I felt like it was so necessary.