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A New Collection of Questions & Answers about recent publications


An interview with author: Joan Dempsey  

(by Enza C)

Brief bio:

Joan Dempsey received her MFA degree and teaching certificate in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles.

Her debut novel, This Is How It Begins, won the  Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers (2017), the bronze Independent Publisher Book Award for literary fiction (2018), and was a finalist in the Lambda Literary and the Sarton Women's Book Award (2018).
Her writing has been published in "The Adirondack Review,", "Alligator Juniper", "Obsidian: Literature of the African Diaspora", and "Plenitude Magazine", and aired on “National Public Radio”.

Joan lives in New Gloucester, Maine, where she helps serious creative writers fine-tune the craft of writing through online courses.


Your debut novel, This Is How It Begins, deals with strong themes. The political and social discourses clearly echo the past. What inspired you first to write this story: the evils of the Holocaust or the potential evils lurking in the present?

What inspired me initially wasn’t really either of those things, although they came to inspire me as the story grew. I knew I wanted to write a political novel since I spent some years as a lobbyist in Massachusetts and loved the political work, but I didn’t know what subject I wanted to write about. What I hadn’t anticipated is that Ludka, the 85-year old protagonist of This Is How It Begins, would take over the novel from her son, the senator I started writing about, and steer me to her history, which included living through the Holocaust in Warsaw. I’ve always been interested in the origins of bigotry and other sorts of evil, and Ludka gave me the story with which to explore those serious themes.

What was the timeframe for the completion of the novel from first to final draft? What obstacles slowed you down?

The timeframe was far too long! I was writing only in the margins of my day job, so the novel took seven years to write, start to finish; another fourteen months querying agents, and another sixteen months to publication. The things that slowed me down were having to work full time and write only in snatches of time here and there (a most inefficient and frustrating approach to writing a long work), and dealing with my own and others’ attitudes that writing was a less legitimate way to spend time than working at a job that pays good money, which I don’t, by the way, believe.

Research played an important part in your story, what research methods have been most fruitful for you?

They’re all wonderful! Research is so much fun. Seriously, there isn’t one way that’s more fruitful than another, at least not for me, since I get so much out of all of them: reading, watching documentaries and films, listening to podcasts and audiobooks, using the internet (of course), spending time in libraries (including specialized libraries), visiting museums and galleries, talking to/interviewing people whose experience is relevant to what I’m writing, travelling to on-site locations that I’m writing about ... it’s all good!

What advice would you give to a new writer on research methods

I’d give the same kind of advice about research as I do about most things: go where your energy lies, since that’s what will keep you happily working. Seek help with the stuff you don’t like doing or don’t have the skills to do. For instance, I love the law and enjoy researching legal matters, but I’m not a lawyer or a paralegal and I don’t have the research tools at my fingertips to find what I need to find, so that kind of research was a challenge. Now, though, I keep a paralegal on retainer (small money, trust me!) and reach out to him whenever I have a legal question—he can find things for me in minutes that would have taken me hours and a trip to the library to uncover.

One of the most difficult things for a writer to do is to “kill his darlings”—particularly when they are well researched.  How much of your book did you cut from your final draft?

First, any writer who’s worked with me in either my online writing classes or one-on-one, knows that I’m a believer in “setting aside” darlings instead of killing them. Many times, they can simply be killed off, sure, but I always advise that writers keep a file in which they paste all those darlings they’ve stripped out of a manuscript. This eliminates any difficulties writers have with the killing, and provides a file of historical artifacts that can be  fun and instructive to review while being a repository for ideas that might be used elsewhere.

It’s impossible for me to know how much of the book I cut from the final draft. I edit and revise as I write. I don’t do a “shitty first draft.” I write, revise, write, revise, write, revise. This means that by the time I hit my finished “first” draft, it’s really more like a twelfth or twentieth draft and is very close to the final draft. Suffice it to say, I cut heaps of material out along the way!

Your main character is an 85yrs old professor who has witnessed the holocaust in Poland; her grandson is a gay man facing persecution in Massachusetts. What difficulty, if any, do you encounter when writing about characters of the opposite sex and of different chronological age? What advice would you give to a new writer about character development?

I didn’t have any difficulty at all with those two particular characters. The one that was the most challenging was Warren Meck, a young, anti-gay, fundamentalist Christian radio host with three kids. He and I are so polar opposite about our politics that I found him challenging. That said, my approach to writing him was to spend a lot of time getting to know him through and through, and it didn’t take that long before I found a lot of common ground on which I could develop a real appreciation and liking for him. After that, he was easy to write. I don’t believe there’s a character out there—much as I believe there isn’t a human being out there—I can’t find something in common with. And once you can empathize via that commonality, you’re on your way to writing a great character.

My best advice regarding character development (bearing in mind that this is a topic I could go on and on about since it’s so complex!) is to embody your characters. I have read a lot (a LOT!) of manuscripts, and one mistake I see again and again is that newer writers tend to create flat, somewhat lifeless characters. Characters, like people, live inside their bodies all the time and thus are constantly in touch with all their senses. Emotions, thoughts, bodily sensations, sight, sound, smell, touch ... Get right inside of your character—body, heart, mind, soul—and experience the world directly through him. Always be asking yourself what your character is feeling, thinking, observing (through all her senses) and get that information onto the page.


If you had to suggest one must –take writing course to the emerging writer, what would that be? A must have book on the craft of writing?

Don’t skip the fundamentals! Too often I see writers who have—hats off to them!—written entire novels, sometimes a whole series of novels, and yet they never learned the most fundamental elements of writing a story, and often don’t know grammar and punctuation. If you’re a fiction writer, take an introduction to writing fiction class. If you want to write a memoir, take an introduction to memoir class. Just because you know how to write from all that schooling in your past, doesn’t mean you know how to write creative fiction or non-fiction. Creative writing is like anything else—you need to learn the tools of the trade in order to do a good job with it.

As for craft books, what I recommend depends on what a writer needs or wants to learn. The ones I always recommend can be found HERE.


Finally, what book inspired you the most into becoming a writer?

This question is impossible for me to answer! There is no one book; there is a lifetime of reading books behind my decision to become a writer. What truly inspired me the most was the experience of sitting down with my first assignment in a beginning fiction class and discovering that characters really do magically appear and ask for their stories to be told. In that moment, I fell in love with fiction as a writer, a love I’d already possessed all my life as a reader, and knew that writing stories is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.


Author’s links

Get your copy of This Is How It Begins

Amazon website for This is How it Begins

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