An Interview With Miriam Herin, Greensboro Author

Jan 10th, 2013 | By | Category: Feature, Fiction

It’s not everyday you realize that your new neighbor is a published author. As a person who’s happiest when totally overwhelmed by fantastic books that you simply can’t put down, this knowledge made me positively giddy a few years back when Miriam Herin and her husband Tom moved into a house just down the block from me.

Miriam Herin

And here’s the best thing…her novel Absolution was amazing. It was everything I want in a good mystery, and while it’s initially unnerving to actually know a person whose book you’ve read, I quite enjoy it. I haven’t gone the silly fan route though; I don’t pepper her with questions about reasons for why her characters behaved as they did, nor do I beg for details about her next book even though I really, really want to know. Miriam’s just one of those amazing people who is 100% awesome, to use a truly overused word. She’s just awesome.

So after my glowing introduction, please meet a true class act, the Bard of College Hill. She makes a mean African stew as well.

1. When did you first decide to write Absolution? So many people say they want to write a book but you did…what made you take that leap?

Absolution was my fourth novel manuscript. I quit when the first three couldn’t find a publisher. But after a few years’ layoff, I decided to take one more stab at this crazy business. Fourth time a charm!

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was six years old. But it took a mid-thirties crisis to push me into attempting a novel. That’s when I walked away from teaching onto the longest, most frustrating road of my life. I’m rather surprised, and even delighted, to find myself still on it.

And yes, many people say they want to write a novel or some other book. But those who actually do it understand an essential truth: that you have to seat yourself in a chair, stay in that chair and put words on a page.

2. Tell us about the publishing process. I’ve heard that it’s a bit hellish, and personally speaking, the fear of rejection would cripple me. I can barely write an industry article without revising it 50 times and worrying that someone’s going to point out a misuse of a semi-colon.

Anyone who wants to publish as a professional writer probably needs a good psychiatric examination. Talk about delayed gratification…and often NO gratification. Oh, I know we write for the love of it. Even so, in my most depressing fantasy, I imagine the anonymous finger that will delete every unpublished manuscript file from my computer when I’m dead.

But that aside, to publish a novel, you usually need to have a complete manuscript. (For non-fiction, you can submit a book proposal to an agent or editor.) Unless you choose to publish your work yourself as an e-book or through a company that does that, you will most likely need an agent. Unfortunately, most agents won’t readily look at manuscripts from unpublished writers, so you’ll have to come up with a really, really good query letter. In my experience, I’ve found the best way to get an agent’s attention is to be recommended, preferably by a published writer.

As for rejection, as Vizzini says in The Princess Bride, “Get used to disappointment.

But here are a few tips about that:

(1) Before you put your work “out there,” be sure you have people in your life who love and value you no matter what an agent or editor says about your writing. If you need a vocation where you feel affirmed, I’d suggest vet school.

(2) After a rejection, give yourself 24 hours to feel really terrible. Then go back to work.

(3) Find other writers or intelligent readers who will give you honest and sometimes painful feedback on your manuscript BEFORE you send it to an agent or editor. Close friends and family members may be helpful, but be aware that they don’t usually read your work with professional detachment. It’s better to get the bad reviews from your peers than from the gatekeepers of the publishing world. When you feel you have the best manuscript you can write, that’s when you submit it to agents or publishers.

(4) Listen to criticism even if you don’t agree with it. If you get the same criticism from more than one reader, then REALLY listen to it. Whatever the feedback, be ready to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite.

3. What about all the extra bits that go along with publishing a novel? Do you enjoy book signings and all the press that you have to do?

There are actually people who have tentatively approached me at a book event and asked if I minded autographing my novel! I guess if I ever sold a million copies I might get tired of signing books, but the fact that someone wants my autograph never ceases to be a thrill. But what I most enjoy is talking with individuals and groups about books and the process of writing. I’m a people person, so for me book events are the real payoff to what is a long and solitary enterprise. I also believe it’s important for writers to meet their readers. A plus of some book events is the opportunity to meet and get to know other writers.

4. You’ve mentioned a new novel, which has me quite excited. Can you tell us anything about it?

I’m working on a novel set between 1838 and 1840 at the time of the Second Seminole Indian War, the longest American War prior to Afghanistan. My story follows a slave girl of mixed race from Charleston to a South Georgia turpentine farm, and from there through the Okefenokee Swamp and into Florida. I intend to begin blogging about this novel on my website in the near future. Stay tuned.

5. Is it easier to get the motivation to write more after you’ve been published? 

The problem with being an unpublished writer is the sense that you’re not a “real” writer. So publication does wonders for one’s sense of self and vocation! For me, the hardest part of writing any novel, whether now or when I was unpublished, is to begin. A year ago I heard choreographer Twyla Tharpe say that beginning a new work of choreography is like walking into a white room. For a writer, that white room is the blank page or computer screen. Because I don’t outline or fully know how a story will unfold, I can spend a long time staring at page 1.

I think some writers need to trick themselves into work, particularly in the early stages of a novel or story. I do that by telling myself I have to write three pages and then I can quit for the day. However, once the story begins to take shape, it’s hard to keep me away from the manuscript. I love editing and rewriting. That’s when the most creative ideas and images come to me. I describe this process as like a sculptor chipping away to free an intricately detailed frieze from a block of stone.

6. John Updike, one of my all-time favorites, has a great quote that I want to ask you about: “What art offers is space – a certain breathing room for the spirit.” Do you find spirituality in what either you or other writers put down on paper?

I’m not certain I know precisely what Updike means. But in terms of fiction, I would come at it this way: the best novels and stories take us out of our “everydayness” and into worlds that have shape and sequence, where we experience people and settings with a clarity that often eludes us in our “real” world. Though much of our reading might fall into the category of “escape,” I think the best fiction, like all good art, has the power to illumine our personal reality and transform how we see and understand it.

I’m still drawn back to wonderfully rendered scenes in fiction: Captain Ahab ranting at God from the deck of the Pequod in Moby Dick, Christ’s kiss on the lips of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov, a disillusioned Gabriel watching the snow from a window in Joyce’s “The Dead,” Mrs Ramsey’s dinner party in To the Lighthouse, Fermina in Love in the Time of Cholera strolling through the marketplace tracked by the man she is about to realize she doesn’t love. Scenes like these don’t just provide epiphanies for a story’s characters but also for us readers.

I think writers also experience epiphanies when they create stories. I do when a scene works out differently and better from what I’d expected, when a snatch of dialogue or an image seems to come from nowhere, when I suddenly comprehend more fully a character that I’ve created. These are the writer’s “soul” moments.

7. I’ve mentioned Updike as a favorite American author…could you name a few of yours and list your favorite works of theirs?

How many pages do I have? When I was a grad student in English Literature, I found it difficult to specialize like you’re supposed to, because I loved writers from too many periods and genres. But the grad school years provided me a rare opportunity to read many of the great works of literature, past and current. So my list of “favorite” writers would be really, really long.

So I’ll just toss out a few novels that I’ve read and admired in more recent years: Waterland, Love in the Time of Cholera, Atonement, The Famished Road, Beloved, The English Patient, All the Pretty Horses, A Lesson Before Dying. Surprisingly, it was only within the last two years that I read for the first time Pride and Prejudice and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, three absolutely splendid novels. One recently published novel I like is Lauren Groff’s Arcadia.

8. How can we encourage more people to read? I’m lucky enough to have some book fiends as friends but I also know many people who enjoy bragging about never reading. How can we make sure that we keep fueling generations of readers?

When was the last time at a party or in a casual conversation, we asked someone “What’s a good book you’ve read?” (Editor’s note: Miriam’s the only person who has asked me this at a party.) I often ask that about movies and I know people who ask me if I’ve seen a particular television show or series. So maybe one thing we can do is “talk up” books more frequently.

Personally, I think the demise of the “book” and reading may be somewhat exaggerated. Computers, the Internet and twitter certainly create distractions and may affect our attention spans, but people are still reading. Book clubs seem to be everywhere. I like to think our relationship to books may just be in transition. Though I stubbornly resisted e-books at first, I’ve come to love my Kindle, which allows me to read everywhere, even in the dark or at night on a train or airplane. No matter where I go, I can bring along an entire library. Isn’t that amazing! So I’m not mourning the art of reading just yet.

I think we pass on the love of reading to children by reading to and with them and by making sure they have access to books and reading devices. I think if our own children see that we enjoy the experience of reading, if they hear conversations about books in daily life or at the dinner table, if we talk with them about what they’re reading, I believe they’re more likely to grow up to be readers.

9. You seem incredibly well-balanced, with no massive addictions or any insane stories floating around about you getting into a fight with Norman Mailer on TV or anything. I don’t see you involved in College Hill bar brawls, although that would be amazing. Am I missing something? Do you have a secret angsty personality?

Don’t they say that writers, like comedians, had unhappy childhoods? And yes, I can relate to that. But happily, for me, adulthood has gone far better than any of us deserve. But if you want to see angsty, right now is about when it kicks in, when I have a novel nearly ready to test the waters in the publishing world.

10. Last question…back to this upcoming novel: anything you’ll try and do differently in terms of getting it published and promoting it?

I’ll do what I always do in terms of publication: send it to an agent or two, more if needed. As for marketing, I plan to feature the new novel on my web site before an agent or publisher even looks at it. These days, they say we’re also supposed to create videos to market our books. Fortunately, I spent a few years in that business, so bring it on!

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