An exclusive Authorlink interview
Gale Massey’s debut novel, The Girl From Blind River, is a coming of age story that revolves around illegal gambling and small-town corruption in rural New York. From the first page, Massey puts the reader inside the gritty word of Jamie Elders, a young woman who wants desperately to escape the poverty and desperation of her upbringing. As the story progresses, Jamie encounters a murder and works to confront the perpetrators and save herself from a family legacy of crime. Massey sat down with Authorlink to share her journey developing the novel, which was a Book of the Month Club pick for July 2018.
AUTHORLINK: James Dickey said the idea for Deliverance came to him as a vision of a man standing alone on top of a mountain. Where did THE GIRL FROM BLIND RIVER begin for you?
MASSEY: The first images that came to me were of ice and snow and a single young woman living in a rundown home. Once I got those images down in a few pages I knew I had a novel idea with legs to go the distance.
By far, the most important learning experience I’ve had was a one-on-one mentorship with a teacher here in St. Petersburg.
AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a writer, which workshops, teachers, classes or books have been most helpful to you in writing this book.
MASSEY: I’ve taken classes and attended tons of workshops and conferences. Writers in Paradise, Sewanee Writers Conference, The Vermont College of Fine Arts Novel Writing Program. By far, the most important learning experience I’ve had was a one-on-one mentorship with a teacher here in St. Petersburg. He’s since moved on to L.A. but he was the kind of teacher who figured out what I most needed to understand and we spent an entire year meeting for coffee and talking about elements of story. I’m fortunate that he didn’t give up on me because some of the concepts he introduced me to were difficult for me to grasp.
AUTHORLINK: Can you walk us through a few of those concepts and how you came to understand them?
MASSEY: I couldn’t grasp the concept of the extended metaphor. A good example of this is Ann Hood’s The Knitting Circle in which several women are attempting to put their wounded lives back together. They sit in a circle and knit. How perfect is that? They are literally and figuratively knitting. In TGFBR Jamie is constantly weighing the odds, and taking chances, and gambling on her future. Poker was the perfect metaphor to tell her story.
Another concept that was difficult for me was the fatal flaw and how it plays into the overall story arc.
Another concept that was difficult for me was the fatal flaw and how it plays into the overall story arc. Bringing those two things together in a full length manuscript is crucial. The example I studied to understand is The Godfather. In the first scene, Michael Corleone tells Kay he isn’t like his family. In the end he becomes the leader of his family. The story is about accepting himself as who he really is.
AUTHORLINK: The desire to write a novel often begins with a question. What question(s) were you hoping to answer with this novel?
MASSEY: What does it take to break a girl?
AUTHORLINK: You painted a strong portrait of the rough conditions Jamie lived under. What advice do you have for writers about evoking sensory experiences without overdoing it?
MASSEY: I kept the original image of ice and poverty in the back of my mind throughout the writing of TGFBR. Certain smells and visuals popped up now and then and I would include them. The key might be to make sure that whatever sensory details the writer chooses serves more than one function. For instance, Jamie cleans up after her uncle’s poker game and there’s the smell of dirty ashtrays. I invite the reader to experience that smell but this detail also provides information on Jamie’s environment and the role she is expected to play as her uncle’s servant.
I invite the reader to experience that smell but this detail also provides information on Jamie’s environment…
AUTHORLINK: You set certain expectations with the title, THE GIRL FROM BLIND RIVER. Talk about how this title is tied into the novel’s themes.
MASSEY: Certainly, I’m signaling who the main character will be but there are other themes here as well. Blind and river are poker terms but more than that there’s a clue here about Jamie’s ability to see her situation clearly. And a river indicates a journey. There’s also a nuanced threat. What did this girl do, what is she capable of?
AUTHORLINK: Good plotting is essential in a mystery. What tips can you offer other writers on plotting?
MASSEY: There’s so much to say about this. I don’t quite know where to start. Get the protagonist in trouble right away. Be aware of shifting the power in each scene. Provide enough interiority to make the plot and character motivation plausible. Be aware of how many acts you want and work toward the twist that needs to take place at the end of each act. I found it helpful to work with an outline but I kept that document very fluid because things happen when you’re writing that will surprise you. Surprises are good! Nurture them.
AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing THE GIRL FROM BLIND RIVER and how did you overcome them?
Honestly, putting that self-doubt on a shelf for just an hour at a time was one of the most difficult disciplines I’ve ever faced, but you have to do it…
MASSEY: Most of the writers I know are plagued with self-doubt. It took years to write this novel and there’s always the question of squandering your family’s resources by spending so much time on a project, especially as an untested writer. Honestly, putting that self-doubt on a shelf for just an hour at a time was one of the most difficult disciplines I’ve ever faced, but you have to do it, you must do that even if it’s only long enough to write a paragraph a day. Think of it as a muscle you’re learning to use. Intermittent praise from teachers and fellow writers along the way helped enormously. Giving back is another useful practice. When talking with writer friends, remember that a little encouragement goes a long way. Give back.
AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your research for this book. Do you play poker yourself or is this a world you had to educate yourself about?
MASSEY: I do play poker! Not well enough to win very often, but well enough to write about it. Poker, like any sport or activity, has a beautiful slang language that I find enthralling. I tried to include enough of that terminology in the novel without confusing the action in the scenes and I learned very quickly how challenging that is. It’s a fine line to walk. I also knew I needed to play poker in a wide variety of settings to understand how it feels to be a woman at a table of men. Trust me, it’s not that great. I’ve played in low-end card rooms and halls, house games, and gorgeous casinos like the Bellagio and Caesar’s. It’s a sport that’s geared toward men and it isn’t easy for women to excel. After I had played for a few years I knew I had to write a story that showed the reality of trying to make it as a woman in a male-dominated sport.
AUTHORLINK: What sort of advice do you offer to apprentice writers about keep focused and staying encouraged?
Story is the first priority. It is the glue that has guided humanity throughout eons.
MASSEY: Read a lot. When you find a book that thrills you, a book you wish you’d written, study it. Find out why it moves you so much. Take it apart. Find critiques of this much-loved story and study them. Strive to understand its structure. Discuss it with someone who can take your level of understanding deeper. Don’t worry about grammar in the first draft. Don’t get attached to your own beautiful sentences. Beautiful sentences will hang you up. They should only be the addressed in later revisions. Story is the first priority. It is the glue that has guided humanity throughout eons. If you want to be a storyteller, learn the elements of a story. It might also help to understand archetypes.
AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about your revision process when working with your editor at Crooked Lane Books. What sort of changes did you make? Any tips on revision for apprentice writers?
MASSEY: My editor, Chelsey Emmelhainz, and I got along great. She was so intelligent and thoughtful in her approach to challenging problematic areas in TGFBR. At first, we disagreed about how many points of view I had going on, but in the end she got through to me and I cut it from six to four. That was the hardest and most time-consuming part of the revision. She knew that it would have the effect of bringing Jamie forward and she was right. From there we moved into deepening the interiority and motivation of each character. I’m grateful to have worked with her because now the book is truly the book I meant to write.
AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.
MASSEY: I’m working on a second novel that features a mother/daughter team who operate according to their own interpretations of the law.
AUTHORLINK: The Girl from Blind River was selected as a Book of the Month Club pick for July. What was your response to this?
MASSEY: I was absolutely floored to find out about BOMC. The editor doesn’t tell an author when they submit a book and there’s such a small number of selections, so I had no idea this was even possible. It’s an amazing high to get a debut published but to have the exposure from an organization like that sends it to another level altogether. The affirmation that all those years of writing in solitude and wondering if you’re spending your time wisely? All that was gone in an instant.
Gale Massey’s stories have appeared in the Tampa Bay Times, Walking the Edge, Sabal, Seven Hills Press, and other journals. She has been the recipient of scholarships and fellowships at The Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Writers in Paradise, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.