Bittersweet Captures an Outsider’s Need to Belong
An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
Columnist Anna Roins
by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
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“My third novel, Bittersweet, now a New York Times Bestseller, exposes the gothic underbelly of an American dynasty, and an outsider’s hunger to belong.”
Bittersweet drops the reader into the privileged life of the Winslows through the eyes of small-town girl Mabel Dagmar, when she befriends the glamorous and fickle Ev Winslow at college. Ev’s family own a large, historic estate in Vermont, “Winloch,” and Mabel is invited to stay in one of their cottages over summer. Mabel would dearly love to belong to their world, but realises that nothing is what it seems. Goaded on by a disgruntled Winslow aunt Mabel soon discovers shocking secrets about the family’s past which conflict with her poignant desire to be part of their gilded entitlement. A literary beach-read with impressive accolades which include a New York Times Bestseller, a starred review from Kirkus and Entertainment Weekly’s Must List.
|“Paradise Lost was very much on my mind when I started thinking about writing Bittersweet.”
AUTHORLINK: Ms. Beverly-Whittemore, thank you for joining us to discuss your book, Bittersweet, a New York Times Bestseller. Congratulations!
Was it your intention for the themes of Paradise Lost (1667) written by John Milton, to be layered into Bittersweet when you were planning the story, or did that evolve naturally while in the process of writing? How do the themes overlap?
BEVERLY-WHITTEMORE: Thanks so much for having me!
Paradise Lost was very much on my mind when I started thinking about writing Bittersweet. I had a wonderful professor in college who was a Milton scholar, and brought this seemingly impenetrable book to vivid life for her students. I remember distinctly one particular lecture in which she explained the idea of how we live in a post-lapsarian, fallen world, that is, the world after Eve ate the apple and “lapsed.” I always knew that was an idea I wanted to write about. When Mabel first comes to Winloch, it seems to her to be an untouched Eden. But it is, in fact, a fallen world. And then she has to wrestle the idea of good and evil, both externally, and also within herself.
AUTHORLINK: How long did it take you to write Bittersweet? Was the final version very different from earlier drafts and was the editing process a challenge?
BEVERLY-WHITTEMORE: I wrote the first draft of Bittersweet in about four months. But I’d been thinking about it for more than a year, and then, once it was written, I went through two major revisions, one with my agent, and one with my editor, before the book was “done” (even then, there were a number of revisions that happened before the book was sent to press).
I love the editorial process, especially when you’re lucky enough to work with a passionate, engaged editor. It’s so nice to have someone climb inside the world you made and help you straighten it out.
Although the final product of a novel is invariably different from the first draft, I find that in the best case scenario, the final draft matches the vision/belief I had for the book when I first sat down to write it. It doesn’t always happen that way (and I have to go through a lot of messy drafts to get there!) but in the case of Bittersweet, it did, which was so satisfying.
|“I came to this book from about four different impulses, each as strong and urgent as the last.”
AUTHORLINK: That’s great. How does one write a mystery? Did you deconstruct the story before you began writing or were you led by the characters and setting as the story unfurled? If the latter, how did you keep plot-twists strong and credible?
BEVERLY-WHITTEMORE: I came to this book from about four different impulses, each as strong and urgent as the last. They became the pillars of the book; the underlying aspects of Bittersweet. The first was a passionate/ challenging female friendship; the second was the place of Winloch; the third was the collective voices of the Winslows; and the fourth was Mabel, our narrator, protagonist, and the outsider who wants desperately to belong.
Once I had these four elements in place, I knew I had a novel on my hands. I knew that, at its core, this was the story of an outsider so desperate to assimilate and belong that she would do everything in her power to protect the people she loved, even as she also couldn’t help but snoop into their lives and discover their secrets. I worked from a couple of different outlines—what happens when, what Mabel decides to tell us when, and the family tree.
I love working from an outline but I also believe it’s important to know when to deviate from the path, when to take a little detour into an unexpected twist. I’d never written a mystery before, so I had to learn how to listen to that impulse to skip off into the wilderness for a bit. It’s where I discovered the novel’s truly zinging moments, which I never would have found had I stuck to the path.
AUTHORLINK: That’s really interesting. How do you feel the publishing industry has changed since you wrote your first book, The Effects of Light (2005) – other than the implementation of social media in marketing and e-publishing?
BEVERLY-WHITTEMORE: I take umbrage with that “other than,” because the truth is that that expectation has drastically changed the writing life and publishing in general. Writers are now expected to be available and interactive and internet savvy in a way they certainly weren’t when my first novel came out in 2005. The trick is to discover which aspects of that part of our jobs are tolerable/ enjoyable, and stick to those. Instagram and Tumblr, for example, can be very low-key places to engage with an audience, without having to be as available as one needs to be on Twitter.
As for the industry as a whole, well, it has a lot less money. Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on whether your publishing house is choosing to spend anything on your book. I do think there has been a corrective in terms of advances and money spent on, for example, sending less well-known authors on book tour, and this kind of belt-tightening has led to more realistic expectations for authors as they’re heading into publication (for example, with my first book, I was flown across the country to do a reading that only three people came to; that just wouldn’t happen anymore). That said, it has always struck me as bizarre that a publishing house will acquire a book for money and then decide to spend next to nothing promoting it. But I suppose that hasn’t changed at all from the beginning of publishing.
|“I used to feel very awkward about my standing in the book world. I knew my language was very literary . . .”
AUTHORLINK: Yes, the implementation of social media to promote one’s book is the most significant change. What is your definition of a literary book compared to one that is considered ‘mainstream’? Can it really be ‘selling out’ as you once said, when your book maintains a literary quality even though it appeals to the masses?
BEVERLY-WHITTEMORE: I love that my publisher, Crown, advertised Bittersweet in both The New Yorker and Us Magazine. To me, that spoke so eloquently to their belief in my book, and its ability to reach readers who wanted to read literary sentences and also be swept away by a juicy plot.
I used to feel very awkward about my standing in the book world. I knew my language was very literary, but I wasn’t writing the kind of quieter, more meditative novels that were “cool.” Instead, my plots always seemed to be wild and intense and much more “commercial.” With this book, I decided to embrace these two sides of myself, which had always seemed at odds, and write the kind of book I want to read on vacation. That it’s helping me contribute to my family bills is a fantastic feeling.
AUTHORLINK: What are your ambitions for your writing career? Do you feel that you will try writing another literary-mainstream novel again? What are you working on now?
BEVERLY-WHITTEMORE: I have two career ambitions: to be able to keep publishing books, and to be paid enough for them to contribute financially to my family. I’m pleased that Crown acquired my next novel, June, a few days before Bittersweet was published; and that’s what I’m working on these days! It’s another literary/ commercial novel, full of family secrets and twists and turns. It’s scheduled to come out in 2016.
|“. . . because it means you go after what you deserve.”
AUTHORLINK: It sounds compelling! Did you make any marketing mistakes in your writing career? What are some pitfalls that new writers should try and avoid in your opinion?
BEVERLY-WHITTEMORE: My biggest pitfall in marketing my books, and myself, has been timidity. Mostly I’m guilty of this in the early days of my career, and then, after my second book did poorly and I had a hard time selling my next book and lived in a cone of shame. I have a female writer friend who told me a story of a now well-known male writer (who shall remain nameless) who she met at a party a decade ago. She asked him what he was working on and he replied “A novel. It’s going to be huge.” And it was! It was huge! Although I’d never walk around saying something so braggarty, it doesn’t hurt to believe that your book is going to be huge, because it means you go after what you deserve. You’ve written a book, for god’s sakes! You deserve to advocate for it! I’m afraid most men don’t need to be taught this trick, but boy do we ladies sometimes need reminding.
AUTHORLINK: When did you first realise you wanted to be a writer? Did your writer-mother inspire you?
BEVERLY-WHITTEMORE: My mother-writer is always an inspiration! It’s because of her that I’m doing this. Her storytelling is in my blood, and I see it in my son too, who has been spinning tales since he could first talk.
AUTHORLINK: She must be very proud of you. Ms. Beverly-Whittemore, thank you so much for your time. We wish you every success in the future and look forward to reading your next book, June that comes out in 2016.
|About the Author:
New York Times bestselling author Miranda Beverly-Whittemore has published three novels: Bittersweet; The Effects of Light; and Set Me Free, which won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for the best book of fiction by an American woman published in 2007. A recipient of the Crazyhorse Fiction Prize, she is also the creator of FriendStories.com. She lives and writes in Brooklyn and Vermont. You can find out more about Miranda Beverly-Whittemore on https://www.facebook.com/MirandaBWAuthor?fref=ts and https://twitter.com/MirandaBW
|About Anna Roins:
: Anna Roins was a Senior Lawyer with the Australian Government Solicitor before she embarked on a career in writing six years ago. As a freelance journalist, she has contributed to numerous articles on social and community issues and edited a number of books, websites and dissertations. She has continued her studies in creative literature with The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London. Anna is currently writing her first novel and is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with bestselling authors. You can find out more about Anna Roins on https://www.facebook.com/anna.roins and https://twitter.com/Sophiabluestar