An Exclusive Authorlink Interview with Rachel Cline
Author of What to Keep (Random House, April 2004)
By Doris Booth
Rachel Cline's first novel focuses on the 30 year evolution of the relationship between a young Midwestern woman, Denny Roman, and her mother. What to Keep (Random House, April 2004), portrays Denny in her efforts to differentiate herself from her mother, draw strength from other people who love her, and ultimately to love herself. The story begins in 1976, skips to a weekend in 1990, and then moves to New York City for a week in 2000.
Here, Rachel talks about both the luck and surprises involved in the publishing experience.
"But when I began writing, all kinds of things in the story shifted." Cline
AUTHORLINK: Where did your ideas originate for this book?
CLINE: I had been in Hollywood trying to become a screenwriter, so the book began as a screenplay. the pitch was: What if an ordinary middle-aged woman decided she was irresistibly sexy? That's why the story feels a little like a three-act play. But as I wrote, the tale evolved into something entirely different, and the sexy woman faded into the background.
Turning 40 spurred me to do something I had always wanted to dowrite a novel. I realized no one was ever going to ask me to do that, so I had to do it myself. I started out converting this screenplay into prose because coming up with an idea for a novel was too intimidating. But when I began writing, all kinds of things in the story shifted. For example, the character Maureen demanded to be created, though she wasn't in the screenplay version at all..
AUTHORLINK: Is Denny, your the main character, really you?
CLINE: All of the characters are me, including Denny. Many of Denny's experiences are my own, especially in the third section of the book, but Lily and Maureen and even Phil also have experiences that come from my life. Lily, Denny's mother, is in some ways also modeled on my own mom. I was trying to portray what it would feel like to be committed to a career while at the same time being a parent. My own parents' divorce was amicable but of course it was a mystery to me. So trying to understand how my mother's life might have been was also something I was working out in the writing.
AUTHORLINK: When Maureen dies, her son Luke shows up on Denny's doorstep, and she takes him to raise. Did you intend all along for that to happen? And what role did Luke play?
CLINE: I had put the manuscript aside for a long time and moved across country. During that time my father died a lingering death, and that spring a very dear friend also died quite suddenly–like Maureen does. When I got back to writing I killed Maureen–who may actually be my favorite character, so I guess I was working through the losses in my own life. As for Luke, he gives Denny an opportunity to be a parent, and he's a link back to Maureen.
"Finding an agent was pure luck." Cline
AUTHORLINK: How did you find agent for the work?
CLINE: Finding an agent was pure luck. I moved back to New York because my dad was dying, and about a year later I was laid off from my job right, and 9/11 happened. The only thing I could think about was the attack, so I wrote a long essay about that. I ran into a friend from high school who edited a local literary magazine and she published the piece there a few months later.
Nina Collins, who had just opened a small agency with a partner, David McCormick, very coincidentally happened to read my essay in the little magazine. She wrote me a letter care of my old friend the editor–it took almost three months to get to me. When we met, she asked me what else I had and by that time I had a complete draft of the novel in a box under my bed. I liked her instantly, and had no desire to "shop around" the manuscript, anyway, so I signed with her pretty much there and then. I think mine was the first or second novel she went out with, but since then she's made quite a splash–Collins & McCormick has five full-time agents now and I think they're about to add a sixth.
AUTHORLINK: What was Nina's strategy for selling the work, and how difficult was it to sell the work?
CLINE: We developed a tiered list, taking the top 8 or so houses first, which was as far as it went. Daniel Menaker, who was then at HarperCollins, made us an offer within a week. It was a real Cinderella story. Nina knew Dan because he and her partner David had worked together at The New Yorker a long time ago, but his quick response surprised us all, I think. When he moved to Random House six months later and took my book with him, I knew I had an ally for life.
AUTHORLINK: Did Dan make many revisions to the manuscript?
CLINE: We went through three rounds of editing, but Dan is not a "big red pencil" guy. His edits tended to be comments like, "Needs more," or "You could do better, here." It was subtle, but in the end he helped me write a much better book.
" I have finished a memoir and am at work on a second novel." Cline
AUTHORLINK: Do you have other works underway, and is this the only book you have sold to Random House?
CLINE: I have finished a memoir and am at work on a second novel, both under contract with Random House.
AUTHORLINK: What is the second novel about?
CLINE: It's set in Hollywood, and its about a competitive relationship between two creative, ambitious women.
". . .it's difficult these days to get seen." Cline
AUTHORLINK: How are you promoting What to Keep?
CLINE: Random House has supported the book with in-store placement and co-op ads. But it's difficult these days to get seen. I have paid for a web site, and have sent myself on a ten-city toursleeping on friends couches and traveling by train. I'm hoping Random House will put a little more marketing behind the paperback version, which comes out next spring.
" It's a great experience. I got what I always wanted." Cline
AUTHORLINK: How does it feel to be a newly-published novelist?
CLINE: It's a great experience. I got what I always wanted. How many people can say that? What I hadn't expected, and what I am coming to terms with, is how hard it is to get read. There are so many novels on the market. I grew up in a world where novelists had the celebrity status of today's rock stars. Now, it's a different world.
"Try to find a way to be your own best friend!" Cline
AUTHORLINK: Can you offer any advice to new writers trying to break into publishing?
CLINE: Try to find a way to be your own best friend! I have the best editor and agent anywhere, but I'm the one who has to keep me going, the one who has to do the work.
AUTHORLINK: How do you keep up your spirits?
CLINE: I try not to beat myself up when things don't go well. I remind myself that I'm not Proust. It's only as good as I can make it, and that's still pretty good. And I always try to have more than one project goingso if one thing is going badly I can work on the other thing.
AUTHORLINK: What are your writing habits?
CLINE: My routine varies. If I'm generating new material, I write for about 3 hours in the morning. I try to get a thousand words a day of new stuff, but sometimes its only five or six hundred. I usually do revisions and promotional stuff, answering e-mail, and other non-generative work, in the afternoons.
AUTHORLINK: What do you hate most about the process of publishing?
CLINE: I hate the solitude! After writing all day, I miss the the gatherings at the water-cooler. I miss having other things to talk and think about besides me and my stupid work!
AUTHORLINK: How would you like for people to perceive you?
CLINE: The phrase I'd like to see on my gravestone is, "here lies a woman with a sense of humor."
Rachel Cline is single and has no children. She lives in Brooklyn with her two cats.
This post was written by Doris Booth