Are you new to the the #writerscommunity? Welcome. If you’re already familiar with it, welcome home. One of the things I love most about this amazing community is how easy it is to connect if you’re just willing to put a brave figurative hand out there. My connection with this writer is a perfect example of that. In a nutshell, I read her bio and was like: “Whoa, I want to know more her.” So I sent her a message and…here we are! I feel her positivity and joy through her tweets all the time, and am so excited to learn a bit more about her and her writing journey. Without further ado, Catherine Adel West.
Hi Catherine! The very first thing I like to do to start this conversation is ask about your journey: where are you at this point and how did you get there?
Well I’m thrilled to announce my book was sold to Park Row/HarperCollins (coming out in 2020)! It’s surreal as I’d only been on submission about six weeks.
Even though I wasn’t on sub long, this story is almost seven years in the making. I sat down and wrote a book because of a friend’s suggestion with NO experience or guidance (smart, right?). Those first pages were horrid. I keep a copy of the very first page to remind me how far I’ve come. It took five years (on and off) to complete the rough draft. I then went through dozens of revisions (big and small). I learned about my voice, plotting, pacing, etc. through these years.
For almost a year, I queried and participated in pitch contests, like #DVPit (thank you, Beth Phelan), each time improving my story based on suggestions from my beta readers and agents who passed on my manuscript. During my third #DVPit, I received a lot of interest from agents. For adult fiction, it was very heartening as the trend has been heavily towards YA. Ultimately, I wound up with three offers: two agents, and an indie publishing house!
I signed with Beth Marshea of Ladderbird Literary. Her editorial vision, belief and enthusiasm for my book thrilled me.
When revising my story, I thought it’d take only a month. It took three. Beth’s ideas took me deeper into my plot characters, etc.
A good agent knows your potential, but also knows when to push you for a better result.
We went on submission at the end of November 2018 and January 15, 2019, Beth called saying Park Row wanted to publish my book! I screamed and I was on the bus so I scared a child (I’m sorry, little boy).
I couldn’t ask for a better advocate than Beth! I couldn’t think of a better home for my story than Park Row, and I couldn’t ask for a better beginning to my journey as a full-time writer!
Ahh! Congratulations! Congratulations! And thank you for being honest about the timeline. Too often, I think the “instant success” story is made to seem the norm. For those unfamiliar with the #DVPit writing event, I encourage you to check out the link to its website for more info—it is a wonderful opportunity!) So now Catherine, I really want to know about this SOLD book? Are you working on anything else? Do we get to see aesthetics?
My debut novel SAVING RUBY KING is the story of two friends, Layla and Ruby, set against the backdrop of an African-American church on Chicago’s Southside. The girls find the bonds of their adopted sisterhood strained when Ruby’s mother, Alice, is murdered. In a relentless quest to save Ruby, Layla comes to discover the murky loyalties and dark secrets tying their fathers and their families together for generations. I did my first novel aesthetic for this interview!
I’m so honored. Aesthetics can be a really cool source of inspiration as well as an easy way to visualize concepts and themes. This story sounds complicated, confronting, and layered. That makes me wonder: what’s most important for you when you write—plot, characters, or setting?
That’s like asking me to choose between Chipotle or Five Guys, but if I must pick, plot is most important. You can write pretty words, but those pretty words need motivations, a reason for being. Your plot must drive your characters to a pulsing series of events making readers want to turn the page.
That’s interesting, I get a different answer every time I ask a writer that, but no answer seems more valid than another. As you work through your process, what is your favorite and least favorite part?
My favorite part of writing is dictating action and crafting the descriptions of places because I get to use my pretty words …sooo many pretty words. I’m also learning to love creating dialogue. It used to be something I dreaded, but it turns out I like challenging myself to make a conversation or the reactions read as realistic as possible.
My least favorite part of writing is The Beginning. When you start a story, you’re going in blind even with an outline, your characters are a mystery to you. And if you’re a pantser like me, there’s the fear of can I do this again? Can I write a story that will emotionally involve the reader? Can I understand my characters and who they are? Can I be good again? Starting something new is so damn scary.
I’ll be honest, I’m a Diehard Plotter for this very reason, but I think these questions are valid; they certainly make for better writing in my experience. So, I want to shift focus and get a bit more personal. We’re both women of color; how does your identity and background impact your work?
As an African-American woman, and one who grew up on the Southside of Chicago, I think how I write and what I write is based on reflecting the varying realities of black people. Because my mom was an English teacher, I have a true love of reading, writing and know where all the punctuation goes!
I’m always striving to prove who we are, and that’s a conflicting motivation in how I write. I shouldn’t have to prove anything to anyone, but yet I do.
I guess it’s something many African-Americans do as pervading one-dimensional perceptions dictate people’s reactions to us in life, as artists and as human beings.
I write to the destroy faulty imagery and the toxic detritus spewed forth by incomplete portraits of POCs, and in doing this, I further learn about myself as a writer and a person.
Welp, I started cheering on my couch. This year suddenly shines a bit brighter. So, as you use your art to combat these incomplete narratives, as you write and put yourself so wholly into your work, how does that fit in with…life? How do you find balance?
I have a full-time job as an editor. I have a family and church obligations. I love to travel and hang out with my friends, so my plate is full, my cup runneth over… you get the idea.
I want say I’m good at scheduling or that I set a specific amount of time to write, but I’d be lying. I fit in writing where I can. So that means A LOT of writing on the weekends and after work or free time. Sometimes I say I’m going to write and still just veg out and watch “Judge Judy.” We all have those moments where, though it’s our passion, writers want to do ANYTHING but write. However, I think about where I want to be as a writer and the fact I want to make a living at this and many times (not ALL the time, but many times), it propels me to grab my laptop and create!
I’m loving this Judge Judy veg-out sesh idea though. Okay, time to get even more personal. Writer’s Block. Harsh Critiques. How do you handle them?
When I get stuck, I write something different. Flash fiction and poetry are perfect for me. Writing outside of my current MS, writing even outside my comfort zone helps me conjure imagery or sharpen dialogue. Writing something other than my story has saved me on more than one occasion.
When it comes to tough critiques of my writing, after I get out of my feelings, I take a good look at what my agent or beta readers said and then dissect the comments. The one question I ask for EVERY critique is: Will this change or suggestion serve the story and if so, how? If I can answer this in a minute, then it’s a change I need to make. If I waffle, many times I don’t need to make the edit. If I keep hearing the same thing over and over though, then I take a hard look at what I can do to improve upon what I’m going to put out in the world.
Feedback is always helpful, but you don’t have to change every single thing someone suggests changing. Ultimately, it’s your story and you have to decipher how best to tell it.
I think this is a common trend among those who write well! Okay, now for a fun question. Would you rather visit one country for a whole month, or visit a new country everyday for a month (thirty countries)? And, where would you like to go?
I’d visit one country for a whole month. I hate to fly, but I love to go new places so the less getting on a plane thousands of feet in the air, the better off I am. I just got back from Rome a few months ago and loved it there, but if I have to choose, then France. I’ve been there a couple of times and there’s still so much of the country I haven’t explored. Provence in particular (since James Baldwin lived there) I’m dying to visit.
La France est un beau pays! (Ha, you all didn’t know I still had it!) But, I digress. Catherine, you’re a woman of color and a writer. We have to be honest here and acknowledge the journey to publishing hasn’t always been as easy for people who look like us. What advice do you have for aspiring writers, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds?
It’s okay to feel the dark things (fear, anger, despair, jealousy), but you CANNOT let those things rule your actions or your art.
Those emotions are natural, but you need come out of it otherwise you’ll be good to no one.
Know there are people in the writing community who are going through the same thing.
Make sure your motivations are pure. Make sure that you’re doing this to put something beautiful out into the world: you’re not doing this to show someone up, to prove someone wrong, to become a billionaire and marry Idris Elba (I think I just told on myself).
Oh Lord. haha
Choose your battles. Don’t die on every artistic hill. There are some things your agent or your editor want you to change. If it’s not breaking some sort of moral code, and you can still look at yourself in the mirror, then make the change. Many times, it’ll make your story better.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help from the Writing Community. A lot of us, particularly marginalized writers, WANT to help you because someone helped us. I’m on Twitter quite a bit (@cawest329) so tweet me! If I don’t know the answer, I’ll help you find it, and we’ll both learn something together!
This is what I’m talking about—reach out, folks. The help and support is there, you just have to ask. Now, another fun question: If your life was an album, what would it be called and what genre would it fall under?
The title of my album would be called: A Walk Through South Side Fire (I’m dramatic AF aren’t I?)
…I’m digging it, though.
The sound would be a cross between Jidenna, Bon Iver and Mumford & Sons (don’t ask me how it would sound. I’m sure all of them could make that collaboration work).
Bonus Question! You have an all-expenses paid trip wherever you want with one of your characters–where do you go and who do you bring and why, why, why?
I’d decide to travel back to Rome with Ruby King. Ruby needs to know what fun is and what hope looks like. She needs to explore a world outside of Chicago. I love my city, but sometimes people think that’s all there is and so much more awaits past the skyscrapers and deep dish pizza. Ruby doesn’t know this because she believes she’s trapped by her circumstances. I’d take her to see the Colosseum, and Vatican City; we’d take a day trip to Florence marvel at the Statue of David. We’d eat hella gelato and flirt with so many men. Soooo many men.
Then she’d know. Ruby would know to keep the faith, she’d realize there are bright things and good people waiting for her on the other side of her turmoil and chaos.
Ah! This interview was everything I hoped for and more! Thanks so much Catherine for your time and YOU GUYS, KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR SAVING RUBY KING! Show the world and the publishing industry that we want and need a diverse array of stories because that’s our world! For more information and to stay up to date with her, you can also:
Follow her on Twitter!
Visit her website!
Next Up: Tiffany Lewis on February 8!