I recently had the pleasure of having lunch with my good friend Amy Gail Hansen. I took the opportunity to interview her regarding her debut novel, The Butterfly Sister.
Damian Daily: What do you read in your free time? What are some of your favorite books and authors?
Amy Gail Hansen: I really like all different genres, so I read all kinds of writers. I like Gillian Flynn a lot. I like that edgy writing, and certainly the subject matter is dark and twisted. I really like that. I like Chris Bohjalian. I like the blend that he does, as a male writer, working in a lot of female issues, like his writing about midwives. I like Carol Goodman, but no one seems to know her very well. Her first book, The Lake of Dead Languages, is similar to my book in some respects in that it takes place at this all-girls prep school, and there are secrets from the past. That’s a fun book, and her other books are all really good. They’ve got great premises. I vary in what I’m reading. Right now, I’m reading Meg Cabot, her Size 12 mystery series. It’s like chick lit meets mystery. I’m all over the place.
DD: What writers have influenced you the most?
AGH: I’d probably go back to the classic writers I studied in college, like Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austin, probably just because they paved the way. Charlotte Bronte had to write under a male pseudonym just to get sold because men were the only ones writing novels at the time, which is crazy because, in my opinion, they wrote such female stories. How could you not know these were women? I took inspiration from them because they were brave enough to put pen to paper, create a story, and believe in themselves during a time when women just weren’t doing that yet. Stylistically, Gillian Flynn. Her writing style is razor sharp. I remember reading Gone Girl while I was revising The Butterfly Sister with my editor, and just reading that kind of made me think out of the box, just in the way that she described things. Another writer that helped inform my style is Jodi Picoult. I think she does that commercial/literary blend so well. Her plots are often ripped from the headlines, but she handles them with such finesse. Every book I read, I can never just read it as a reader. I read it as a reader, but I also read it as a writer, so I’m always walking away with something.
DD: Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer?
AGH: As a little girl, I would pretend to write, even before I knew how to write. I would scribble in notebooks and say I was writing a book. I also pretended to read before I could read. I don’t know if I was 100% sure I was going to do it as my career. There was an evolution to that. I started out in theater, wanting to be an actress. I switched gears and decided I wanted to teach English, and then I switched gears again and said, “I don’t want to teach writing. I want to write.” Maybe it seemed like a pipe dream to say that’s what your career was, to be a writer. Journalism was the key to that. Once I was getting paid, and getting the byline, it made me think of myself as a writer and think this could actually be a job, an actual career that I could have. I always wanted to write, but I don’t think I always knew I was going to be a writer as a profession. It was always a hobby, but it’s such a great feeling to know that I could do something that I really love.
DD: To someone who has never before read your work, what words would you use to describe your book?
AGH: That’s a good question. I think the thing that first comes to mind about my book is that it crosses genres. That’s what I like to read. I like history and mystery. I like women’s fiction and romance. I have been known to read thriller books. I’m just all over the place, so my book is definitely cross-genre of mystery with women’s fiction, a little bit of romance, a little literary, all wrapped up into one book. I think that’s a strength in that different types of readers can find things in it that they enjoy. The book is also about the past, and the past is sort of like a secondary character in the book. It plays such a pivotal role, and we are so much made up of our past experiences. Unfortunately, the past can cripple us and keep us from moving forward in our lives, so that’s definitely a major theme of the book.
AGH: In 1999, I lent my luggage to an acquaintance in college who needed luggage for a trip. I loaned her my big old honking suitcase, and she used it. Then she gave it back to me, and I never used it again until 2004 when I went on my honeymoon to Italy. At the airport, I looked down as we were checking in our luggage and realized she had left her luggage tag on my bag. I quickly changed her tag. I wrote one of those temporary ones at the airport, but I kept her tag, and I started to wonder what would have happened if my bag had somehow gotten lost. Would it have gone to her if her tag was on it? I thought it was a great idea for a story. I held onto the tag. I hung it on an iron scrollwork lamp on my nightstand. I didn’t start writing the story for another two years, but the tag hung there as a reminder to write it. I’ve hung onto the tag, and I take it with me to book signings to show people.
DD: I know the name for your main character was changed from your original draft. How do you choose names for your characters?
AGH: Yes, it used to be Cate Graham, and then it became Ruby Rousseau. I did that because at first I felt like Cate was too much like me, and I was trying to distance myself from her. I switched the color of her hair, and I changed her name to Ruby. I came up with that name because Ruby is my birthstone and because of the ruby slippers from Wizard of Oz, which I love. It just seemed to fit well with the book. The Rousseau came because I was trying to place her as someone from the New Orleans area, and I wanted a French sounding name. I went as far as looking up how many Rousseaus there were in the New Orleans area phone book. It has that alliteration, and I think it’s a much more intriguing name than Cate Graham. Almost everybody I talk to says it was a good choice. Mark’s name was chosen because a lot of the Marks I’ve known in my life have not been the nicest of guys. A lot of them were real jerks. Not all Marks are jerks, but it was just my personal experience with the Marks I knew. I also like that it has a really sharp sound. It’s strong and masculine. If I had picked a name that was a little more whimsical, it just wouldn’t have fit. Virginia Bernard’s name was chosen because I like Virginia Woolf.
DD: How much of your plot-lines, scenes, and character development is preconceived before you begin writing, and how much develops during the writing process?
AGH: Going into the first draft of it, I had about the first 100 pages plotted. After that, I didn’t know where it was going, but I felt like it was a really good start. I thought that I would figure out the rest as I went, and I did. For me, it’s sort of a process of writing, and then hitting a plot wall. I’ll work out the plot in my dreams, while I’m pushing my kids in the stroller, while I’m doing dishes, driving in the car, or doing all these other things that have nothing to do with writing. Then I would go back in with new excitement and enthusiasm. I’d work, work, work, and then I’d hit another plot wall, and then I’d do the same process all over again. I like to go in with a really strong premise, with the first 50-100 pages preset, and then I let the rest kind of come to me as it goes.
DD: Would you please share an example of something that has surprised you during the writing of this story?
AGH: I was surprised by the amount of revision that I had to do to get it right. That’s a funny thing to say as a former English teacher who knows that you have to write a rough draft and then revise it. Writing’s a lot of hard work, but I was surprised at how much the story changed from my first draft to what eventually got published. That included how much I changed, and then my agent came in and had things to say. Then my editor had things to say, and I think I was very surprised at the evolution of the story. In a lot of ways, I was also surprised at my ability to make those changes and not feel bad about it, to let go of a scene I once loved. I think I was surprised at the level of detachment that I developed over the course of writing it, and I think that takes maturity as a writer. If it didn’t work for the story, then I cut it and got rid of it. I don’t even save it in another document in case I want to use it one day. It’s left on the cutting room floor. I guess the biggest surprise was the amount of revision and also my ability to adapt to it.
DD: What advice do you have for other aspiring writers?
AGH: Read a lot in your genre. Read in lots of genres, but in particular in what you write because you’ve got to know where your writing fits into the mix. It’s only going to help you compare your work and help you figure out how to format your story. Be persistent. Stick to a writing schedule. All the things I’m not doing right now. [Laughs] But you’ve got to make time to write. It doesn’t happen on its own. Nothing happens unless you set a time and a date for it. You’ve got to make an appointment with yourself and keep at it. Be willing and bold enough to revise. Don’t be so set in what you did the first time through that you can’t change it to what it needs to be. It’s that ‘Kill your darlings’ thing. It takes courage.
DD: Having read the first draft of this novel and seeing how many major changes were actually made in the final document, from who the villain was to changing and adding characters to the completely different ending, it is evident to me that the task of revisions was a major job in and of itself. Bravo on your courage and your ability to see it through!
DD: As a mother of three young children, how do you juggle raising a family while committing to carving out time for writing and creativity?
AGH: As women in general, I think we always feel guilty. It doesn’t matter if we’re working full time, part time, or at home as a full time caregiver. There’s a lot of work involved, and I’ll be honest, sometimes I don’t feel like I’m juggling it all. Sometimes I’m obsessed with work, and other times, I’m so involved with my family that I’m not working at all. I think striking that balance is very hard, and I’m not even sure I’ve ever figured it out. I often feel like I’m juggling two extremes. I’m either obsessed with writing, or I’ve totally ditched it to clean the house and do crafts with the kids. I guess that works for me if in the end, they still feel like they’re getting attention, and I’m still getting work done. I think maybe it’s a thing of scheduling. Go ahead and say, “I’ve got 45 minutes to do puzzles with you.” Take advantage of the time that you can get. Sometimes you might need to ask for help. You’ve got to make it a job. Make an appointment, and stick to it. Of course, I’m saying all this, but the last few months I haven’t been doing it. And I know better!
I do feel that we have a level of guilt, thinking we shouldn’t be doing this, especially when your kids are little. I’m reminded all the time, looking at my eight-year-old, how quickly he got to be eight. My youngest one is two. I know the time is going to go fast, and I don’t want to miss it. At the same time though, I don’t want to leave myself nothing because I didn’t follow my own dreams, and I didn’t make work a priority. I think I need it for my sanity. It’s just something I have to do, and when I don’t do it, I’m not a very good mother because I’m resentful. Mommy hasn’t had time to use her brain to its full extent.
DD: What are some of your personal quirks, fears, or unique traits?
AGH: I do have some. Here’s a thing a lot of people don’t know about me. When I read a book, I will read the very first page or paragraph out loud, and I read the very last page or paragraph out loud. There’s something that happens when you read out loud like that. I think it resonates more. The first time I ever did it was with The Great Gatsby in high school. I remember reading the end of the book and then wanting to reread it, and I read it out loud. Just hearing the words in addition to reading them, it sticks for me more. It’s just one of those weird little things I do that a lot of people don’t know. I don’t even think my own husband knows I do that.
DD: For readers looking forward to your future work, are there any hints you can provide about what is next on the horizon?
AGH: The next book is similar to The Butterfly Sister in that it will be cross-genre. It is definitely a mystery, but it will have elements of other genres in there. The main character is female, but she’s older than Ruby. Ruby was 22. I think my characters age with me. She does have a child, so that throws in the motherhood aspect, and she’s a cop. She’s a detective. The plot has a lot to do with memory and the scientific aspects of how short-term memory and long-term memory work. I’ve had a lot of fun researching it. I intend to schedule drive-arounds with female and male police officers to research how they handle things differently. I’d also like to compare police work in a small town versus a larger city. The character is an LAPD officer on a leave of absence in a small town in the Midwest.
Also in doing research for this second book, I posted a question on my Facebook page, asking about first childhood memories. At what age, what are the details that you remember? It’s gotten a lot of comments. It’s been really interesting hearing about other people’s earliest memories, and it really has, in fact, helped me construct what I want to do for the book.
DD: Readers, please feel free to visit Amy’s Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/AmyGailHansen and chime in with your answers.
DD: I find myself constantly pondering and exploring the topic of creativity. In a past blog post, I asked readers if they practice more than one form of art, exploring multiple venues as a means of expression, or if they have committed to one definitive medium, to the exclusion of all others. Besides writing, do you express yourself via any additional creative outlets? What are some of your other interests and pastimes?
AGH: I do like art, and I’m pretty good at it, as much as anyone can be without being trained. I would like to do it more. I find that it’s such a release and a mental relaxation. I think it’s healthy. I always feel good, and time passes quickly. I’m also really into baking and cooking and home décor. I’m an avid HGTV watcher and magazine subscriber, and I love all of that stuff. I go in waves. Sometimes I go crazy redecorating, and then I’m on to cooking, and then back to writing. That’s probably just a factor of me balancing Momhood and home as an area, a great place to be.