Q&A With Christa Carmen
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Q&A With Christa Carmen
Today’s Q&A is with Christa Carmen who is the author of short stories and her debut novel The Daughters of Block Island. Daughters Of Block Island comes out this year on October 10th if you didn’t get an early copy from Netgalley.
Q: Christa, would you please tell the readers of the blog and I a little bit about your novel The Daughters of Block Island, and how you came up with the concept for the novel?
A: The Daughters of Block Island has quite a strange origin story… a happy accident of subsequent ideas and inspirations that evolved more and more as time went on.
I guess it begins with two key things: my infatuation with a painting by Katy Horan from her Murder Ballads collection: The Dreadful Wind & Rain, and a question that had always haunted me… that of why a mother might have to give one child up for adoption but is able to raise another—or others—herself. For whatever reason, these two things came together in my head when the need for a new short story to critique in an MFA residency group presented itself. After considering different reasons for why a mother might give up one child—a pregnancy resulting from assault, substance abuse issues that were dealt with later, or other, more nefarious scenarios in which the mother wanted, or needed, to protect one offspring and not another—I melded this tragic adoption scenario with the themes of The Dreadful Wind & Rain (or, as the murder ballad is also referred to, the Twa Sisters), in which two sisters are two-timed by a manipulative suitor, and the seeds for The Daughters of Block Island were not only planted, but watered, give sunshine, and nurtured above all other writing projects.
Still, the story was still just that: a short story. And to make matters worse, it was in epistolary format, so I was struggling with how to make sense of the (slowly) unfolding narrative over a series of painfully convoluted emails. Luckily, those in my MFA critique group, including rising superstar poet and writer Belicia Rhea (check out her novella being published next year from Dark Matter Ink, Voracious, about a pregnant teenage girl with an eating disorder who works to reconcile her visions of a doomsday of insect plagues and her unique role in what she fears in the impending bug-filled apocalypse), and inimitable moderators Robert Levy and Nancy Holder, challenged me to question whether I was using the right structure… the right POV(s)… and the right length. Spoiler alert: I wasn’t.
Fast-forward two years later, and I’m looking for the subject of a new novel to work on. I found myself rereading the critique group short story (which was originally titled The Dreadful Wind & Rain, like the murder ballad and Katy Horan’s gorgeous painting) and decided to try my hand at expanding it. It had potential but was also strangely boring, which was surprising… and disappointing. That is, until I realized I could really lean into the potentially trite trappings of a gothic novel if I acknowledged their occasional ridiculousness in some way. Another lightbulb went off, another unexpected source of inspiration, and I was applying the meta lens and self-deprecation of the Scream film franchise to my manuscript. Without (much) further ado, The Daughters of Block Island found its stride.
So, a murder ballad, an obsession with the psychological underpinnings of adoption, and Neve Campbell. What are the odds? The marriage of ideas resulting in exciting fiction sure can be weird.
Q: How old were you when you realized that writing is what you enjoy doing and that it was your calling in life?
A: I was 29, on a train back from Baltimore to my hometown of Westerly, RI, in about May of 2014, when I realized that writing was something I enjoyed doing and that it could be my calling in life. Specific, yes, but there’s a reason I remember those details so clearly. I had recently had a fair amount of upheaval in life and was reconnecting with things that brought me joy. One of those things was reading, and I’d downloaded Stephen King’s On Writing to read on my Kindle on the train home from my godson’s baptism in Baltimore. I had one of those all-too-infrequent but undoubtedly unforgettable epiphanies as I reached the end of the On Writing: “I love reading. I’ve enjoyed writing in the past. Does that mean… wait a minute, I think it DOES mean… could I… me? Could I be a writer? I guess there’s nothing really stopping me.”
When the train arrived in Westerly, I went to Staples, bought a notebook, and started writing my first novel the very next day. A few weeks later, I read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and was inspired to try my hand at short stories in addition to the novel. I found that short fiction came naturally to me—much more naturally than plotting a novel—and so I spent a large portion of my early days honing the craft of short story writing. I really believe this gave me the foundation I rely on today as a writer, and both Stephen King and Shirley Jackson hold special places in my literary-loving heart for their inadvertent contributions to finding my calling.
Q: What is your advice on writing great stories to aspiring authors who don’t know where to start?
A: Advice is a tricky thing, because what might work for some might be neutral—or even harmful—for others. I’ve been asked in other interviews and by other writers and readers about advice for new authors, and I guess my simplest suggestion is simply: Write! Do not stop. Turn all your anger and disappointment and dissatisfaction (and, since I believe we each have a shadow side and a lighter side to our personality, all of your joy, success, and happiness, too!) into stories. Those stories make the world the magical place it is. It’s a real gift to harbor a talent and passion for writing. Embrace it, and share it with others, if you’re so inclined!
I do also think it helps to have a goal. And I don’t necessarily mean a goal to, say, complete your first novel in three months (or worse, in 30 days, like those poor masochists who participate in NaNoWriMo each November… I’m half-kidding… again, what works for some doesn’t work for all, but I did NaNoWriMo once in ten years and it was decidedly NOT my favorite thing). But any goal, no matter how small, helps keep you on track. Maybe start with something that gets your butt in the chair as consistently as you’re aiming for and work your way up. My writing goals are simple these days: meet deadlines—regardless of what that looks like for word count or days in a row spent writing—and respond to the Muse when she comes knocking.
Q: Does Hollywood have any interest or rights to The Daughters of Block Island? Hollywood is lacking in the creative department and they are long overdue for original content again.
A: At present, my agent, Jill Marr, has not been contacted regarding the film rights to The Daughters of Block Island, but I know that the Sandra Dijkstra Agency is really wonderful about helping authors get their work noticed by production companies (Game of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s Ill Kippers Productions optioning Jo Kaplan’s fantastic gothic novel, It Will Be Just Us, comes to mind), so I will remain (very cautiously) optimistic that this is at least something within the realm of possibility.
Q: Have you ever dealt with writer’s block? If so, how do you deal with it?
A: I haven’t ever dealt with writer’s block before, so I haven’t had to come up with any clever or resourceful ways of combating it. I can say that, oftentimes, I struggle with the opposite problem, which is having too many ideas and not enough time in which to write them. Walking my dog or going for a jog are the worst for me in terms of instigating a flood of ideas. I’ve jogged myself into any number of new ideas, and while many of them are fated to languish in my “ideas notebook” (yes, I have to have this, as lame and fifth-grade-nerdy as it sounds, because I have the memory of a gnat specifically when it comes to ideas, and if I don’t jot them down instantly, they flutter away like so many pollinating butterflies), I’ve also nurtured plenty of run-or dog-walk-seedlings into full-blown short stories or even novels.
I guess that I’d imagine the best advice for anyone suffering from writer’s block is not to get too hung up on the perceived inability to produce new work and try to relax as much as possible. I know that’s easier said than done, but like anything in life, the more you worry about something, the more power it tends to have over you. Go for a walk or a museum or simply read new exciting work by authors you admire. By immersing yourself in things you enjoy and other creative pursuits, you’ll likely re-inspire yourself with far more success than if you force yourself to sit in front of the keyboard, sweating, for a designated number of minutes or hours each day.
Q: If you are writing a new novel right now, can you reveal any details?
A: When Thomas & Mercer acquired The Daughters of Block Island, they also acquired my (at the time) work-in-progress second novel. I can’t reveal too many details at present, but I will say it’s another creepy tale of gothic murder, ghosts, and historical figures set in Rhode Island… Providence, to be specific! I guess, technically, this second novel is still a work-in-progress, but the initial draft has been completed and edited, so it’s come a long way from its submission-stage iteration, and I’m about to pass it off to beta readers (and eventually my agent), before I send it along to my editor in September.