An EXCLUSIVE AUTHORLINK interview with Viola Shipman
(AKA Wade Rouse)
The Secret of Snow (Graydon House, 26 October 2021)(ASA
The INSTANT BESTSELLER by USA Today and internationally bestselling author, Viola Shipman!
When Sonny Dunes, a meteorologist whose job is all sunshine and seventy-two-degree days, is replaced by a virtual meteorologist that will never age, gain weight or renegotiate its contract, the only station willing to give the fifty-year-old another shot is the very place Sonny’s been avoiding since the day she left for college—her northern Michigan hometown.
Sonny grudgingly returns to the long, cold, snowy winters of her childhood…with the added humiliation of moving back in with her mother. Not quite an outsider but no longer a local, Sonny finds her past blindsiding her everywhere: from the high school friends she ghosted, to the former journalism classmate and mortal frenemy who’s now her boss, to, most keenly, the death years ago of her younger sister, who loved the snow.
To distract herself from the memories she’s spent her life trying to outrun, Sonny throws herself headfirst into covering every small-town winter event to woo a new audience, made more bearable by a handsome widower with optimism to spare. But with someone trying to undermine her efforts to rebuild her career, Sonny must make peace with who she used to be and allow her heart to thaw if she’s ever going to find a place, she can truly call home.
AUTHORLINK: Ms. Shipman, or rather, Mr. Rouse, thank you for spending some of your time with Authorlink today! We can’t wait to chat with you about your latest bestseller, ‘The Secret of Snow,’ and quite a few other topics. Your grandmother, Viola Shipman, inspired you to write, and so you honor her and her heirlooms, life, love, and sacrifices with your pen name.
You once said, “I want every book or novel to feel like you’re sitting around having a glass of wine with your friends telling stories. That’s what I want my books to feel like.” (Harbor Light News, 11 August 2021) And they do feel like that. That and a love letter to Michigan!
We observe a few themes in your fiction to which you keep returning; family bonds, heartbreak, redemption, marriage, middle-age, careers, and friendships.
Was this done on purpose? Or are you drawn to these subjects naturally?
“…I’ve always been driven to write about the minute moments in life, the things that unite us.”
SHIPMAN: A big “yes” to both! I grew up in the Ozarks in the 1970s and 1980s, not the ideal place for an emotional boy who liked to read, write and pop his collars. I grew up in the sewing rooms, kitchens, and beauty parlors with my grandmothers, and I heard them share the stories of their lives when the menfolk weren’t around. What did they discuss? Loss, family, friends, hopes, dreams, history, sacrifice and just wanting to leave the world a better place for their children and grandchildren. It impacted me deeply. How did they discuss these? As one would with a friend. This also impacted me deeply.
As a result, I’ve always been driven to write about the minute moments in life, the things that unite us. And I’ve been driven to write about these topics in a way that is extremely accessible. I am not a fan of writing that chooses to be “fancy.” I choose to write in a way that is homespun and folksy and yet, I believe, has a beautiful literary and accessible quality. As my Grandma Shipman (my pen name) used to say, “Life’s as short as one blink of God’s eye, but in that blink, we too often forget what matters most: Each other … the simple things.” And those are the subjects I’m drawn to write, personally and professionally.
AUTHORLINK: And you write about them so exquisitely! You also said this in the same above-mentioned publication, “The characters I write about are good, hardworking, kind women who are often overlooked in life and literature.” Why do you think that is? They should be applauded, not overlooked.
We love how your protagonists are of an older demographic, especially when doing perfectly human things (like your main character, Sonny having a meltdown on live television). What makes middle-aged people so fascinating and judged more harshly than most other age groups, do you think?
“Too many of our so-called influences have had little depth of experience to influence us.”
SHIPMAN: There’s no doubt our society and culture values youth over age. Just look at who we consider to be our “social influencers” these days. What rich, deep life experiences have they experienced? What tragedies have they endured? What obstacles have they overcome? Too many of our so-called influences have had little depth of experience to influence us. My social influencers were my grandparents and elders, a generation that experienced war, poverty and hardship and came through it with a sense of grace, resilience and hope. I am drawn to writing “more mature” characters who bring a lot of life experience to the page. I think the most fragile and flawed are the most beautiful and interesting – both in life and literature – not the perfect, Photoshopped images of what we create these days. Strong women were the models for me. My grandma was a seamstress who stitched overalls until she couldn’t stand straight. My mother was a hospice nurse. They were the most ego-free people I’ve ever known. They never asked for anything. And yet the ripple effect of their love and sacrifices changed my life, and I know this is true for so many others. And yet these are the people who never seek attention or are granted the light.
That’s why I focus on such women and characters in my books. More specifically, if you look at Sonny Dunes in The Secret of Snow (a 50-year-old meteorologist who is being replaced by her young, male boss with an AI “weather girl” who will “never age, gain weight or renegotiate her contract”), she is judged more critically and unfairly than her male counterparts. I have many friends in TV and many friends who are meteorologists, and the way women are treated (and even how their contracts are negotiated) is unfair (i.e., terms regarding weight, hair color, clothing, ones that men do not have). As a society, we often see and dismiss women of a “certain age” and do not consider the extraordinary lives they’ve led or what they can offer us. These are the women who should be influencing us.
AUTHORLINK: Agree wholeheartedly. (Stands up and applauds) Like many people, your childhood was a little tricky, especially when your classmates taunted you for being a little different. At least you found comfort in your loving family. Still, when a tragic motorcycle accident took your brother’s life, we understand you ‘buried your sexuality along with your brother, vowing to be the son you believed your family wanted.’ We feel for you.
Have you, too, tried to distract yourself from the memories you’d spent your life trying to outrun, like your main character Sonny in your book The Secret of Snow?
Is it possible that this tragedy might not have affected the color and scope of your life? Or was it inescapable?
“One of the things we must do in life – both as souls and as writers – is to unlearn fear.”
SHIPMAN: My life greatly parallels Sonny’s. Growing up a gay kid in rural America in the ‘70s and ‘80s was not easy. Compound that by losing a sibling. My family was defined by that loss. We were “that” family, the one tragedy had struck. Like Sonny, I ran, as far away from my hometown as I could, to bigger cities, searching for bigger jobs, not only to distance myself from my brother’s loss but also to redefine myself. And yet running solved very little because I never really slowed enough to confront what I was running from: Shame, grief, loneliness, a father who couldn’t express emotion and who I felt was ashamed of me. Moreover, I long felt like I was the one who should have died because I believed I was robbing my family of everything they deserved: I would never have a “normal” family, a wife, and children. When I hit my 30s, still unhappy, I began to confront my past.
To answer your second question, loss changes you profoundly. And when it happens at such a young age, it makes you question how much you ever want to open up fully to another for fear you will only lose them all over again. I’ve learned that when you lose someone you love deeply at such a seminal moment in your life, it can stunt you forever or push you forward. It stunted me for a long time. I was alone. I was unhappy. I was closeted. I began to realize, as my grandma said, life was as short as one blink of God’s eye, and what did I want to do with the blink I’d been given. That’s when I began to confront all my fears and write. That’s when I started to make sense of my life, my loss, my past. In addition, my mother used to tell me the majority of patients she cared for at the end of their lives were filled with regret. She begged me to live openly, honestly, to learn to forgive – not only others but also myself – and never to be filled with regret. When I began to write about my brother and my childhood, I turned one of my greatest tragedies and obstacles into a story of hope for others and a new beginning for myself. One of the things we must do in life – both as souls and as writers – is to unlearn fear. It consumes too many of us. It pushes us into dark places. When we stop it cold, magical things can happen.
AUTHORLINK: Yes. You’re so right about this! Thank you for a timely reminder. We understand you’re a huge fan of authors like Elin Hilderbrand, Dorthea Benton Frank, and Mary Alice Monroe (which we also enjoyed interviewing here on Authorlink). They write about their towns so beautifully that they become separate characters.
What made you decide to set all your novels in different resort towns in Michigan?
SHIPMAN: When I lived in St. Louis, I went on vacation to Cape Cod one summer. The owner of the inn where I stayed was from Michigan. She said, “You came a long way to go to the beach. Why didn’t you drive to Michigan from St. Louis?” And I thought: Michigan has beaches? I ended up going on vacation to Saugatuck, Michigan, (known as the Art Coast, with wonderful galleries, shops and restaurants and nestled next to Lake Michigan with stunning beaches and dunes) the very next year, and the moment I stepped out of the car into the most adorable Currier & Ives town I’d ever seen, I said to myself, “I have to live here.” It was magical. Over the next few years, I vacationed in resort towns up and down the western and northern coast of the Mitten, and each were stunningly beautiful and unique in their own ways. After I sold my first book, I jumped off a bridge without a parachute, quit my full-time job and moved with my husband to a knotty-pine cottage just outside Saugatuck. I haven’t looked back since.
I have long been a huge fan of the writers you mentioned. All are masters of location. They make the Lowcountry and Nantucket come alive. I can feel the humidity. When I began writing my first novel, The Charm Bracelet, I made the conscious decision – should I be blessed to continue writing fiction – that I would set every novel in a different Michigan resort town. I did that for a number of reasons. I had a feeling most readers were as familiar with Michigan as I had been: They likely knew very little of Michigan’s natural beauty, quirky resort towns and fascinating history. It was a territory that largely felt unexplored in literature, and I felt compelled to bring that to life. Moreover, the people in the state truly sum up the type of characters I’m drawn to write.
In every novel I write, I make the setting as big a character as my characters. I not only want it to breathe and live but I want it to impact the characters’ lives and decisions, serve not just as a backdrop but as an influencer (as it did in my life). I do the same with Michigan’s weather: It changes as much as my characters. All of this affects why and how they act, the decisions they make and, ultimately, the direction they wish to take in their lives. And that’s always north … always Pure Michigan.
AUTHORLINK: Love it! How did you get started in writing? Have you always written journals or liked recording things? What was the first thing you ever wrote?
In one way, writing books is a tangible way of holding onto the past. However, in this day and age of iCloud storage, text messages, and Instagram, photographs, and letters have never been more transient. No longer printed on paper, they will never later be discovered by some grandchild in an attic one day. It doesn’t seem right somehow.
“I do feel like we’re losing our connection with our past, especially our family history.”
SHIPMAN: Great questions! I actually started writing very early. My mom and grandmas were big fans of Erma Bombeck (her column appeared in our rural newspaper), and I saw how her writing impacted them after long, hard weeks of work. They smiled. They laughed. I thought, “If I could make someone feel like that, it would be a dream come true.” My first memory of “really” writing was after I had made the horrid mistake of choosing to sing “Delta Dawn” (the Tanya Tucker version!) in my rural middle school talent contest. I was heckled offstage by an audience that made the boys from Deliverance look like The Jonas Brothers. I sprinted offstage and yelled at my mom and grandmas for allowing me to humiliate myself. They presented me with a copy of Erma’s book, At Wit’s End, and a little, leather writing journal. “This might be how you make sense of things,” my mom told me. I started writing little essays about family in that journal, ala Erma.
I do feel like we’re losing our connection with our past, especially our family history. And you are so right: We no longer write letters, we no longer send Christmas cards, we don’t post pictures in scrapbooks. We text short, perfunctory notes to one another. We take photos on our cells and then delete them when our iCloud gets full. Our memories are transient. I rely on the letters and notes my family sent me. I look through old scrapbooks. In fact, the reason I started writing the novels I do has a parallel backstory: When I was moving my father into a smaller home after my mother had passed, I discovered all of my working poor grandmothers’ heirlooms (charm bracelets, recipe boxes, quilts, hope chests) and many letters and photo albums boxed in the attic and garage. I began to comb through them, and I began to cry. I realized they were never poor. In fact, they were the richest people I’d ever known because they truly understood what mattered most in this world, as we’ve been reminded the last few years. I also realized these seemingly meaningless trinkets – that most people would toss away or take to an antique store – told the story of not only my family but all our families. I hope my books reconnect people to their families and histories, because I believe we can’t know where we’re going if we don’t know from where we came.
AUTHORLINK: How true your words are. How do you get started in writing a work of fiction? What inspires you? How do you decide on a story you want to tell and then go about structuring it, if at all? Or do you think of a character first and base a story around their life?
“I always start with what I call a ‘big question.’ “
SHIPMAN: I always start with what I call a “big question.” It’s something that I’m wrestling with and want to try and answer, and something I think readers are struggling with as well. For instance, in my current novel, The Secret of Snow, inspired by the loss of my brother, I was struggling with how lost so many in our country were likely feeling during the holidays, considering we’ve lost nearly 800,000 people to Covid. In fact, I had recently lost my father-in-law to Covid. My family holidays were certainly altered after my brother’s death, and they had been again. I wanted readers to know it was okay to give voice to their grief during the holidays, to remember to honor and remember those we’ve lost and to remind readers to reach out to those who need it this time of year.
I’m much more of a pantser than a plotter (plotting reminds me of doing outlines for bosses in my former career). After my big question, I always start with characters, and I do pretty in depth character sketches to really get to know them. I think, starting as a memoirist and intimately knowing the people I was writing about, I need to do the same in fiction. I also think very diligently about structure, and urge beginning writers to do the same. I approach the structure in every novel in a unique way, and it’s a way for me to tell my story in a fresh and interesting way each time, rather than just proceeding in a linear fashion. For instance: The Secret of Snow is structured around winter weather, The Clover Girls was structured around traditional camp activities, The Heirloom Garden around Michigan heirloom flowers, and The Summer Cottage around the “summer rules” my grandma had at our old log cabin (“Nap Often!” “Ice Cream Is Required!” “Go Jump in the Lake!”). It allows me to go back and forth in time, and introduce history and “ghosts” into characters’ lives.
AUTHORLINK: Wonderful, thank you. Even with all the technology and social media we have at our fingertips today, are we more, or less, connected than we used to be, in your opinion? I was raised in the 80s, too – the last epoch before social media technology – and it’s taken on a gilded halo. 😊
SHIPMAN: I just broached this topic in my most recent summer novel, The Clover Girls, about four girls who meet at summer camp in northern Michigan in the 1980s and become best friends until life, career and past hurts pull them apart. They were so connected as girls, before technology, and – despite all the technology at their fingertips today – totally disconnected as adults. I, too, am an ‘80s “gal” at heart. I loved the music, the fashion, the movies, and TV shows. MTV played in my fraternity house 24-7. In so many ways, the ‘80s defined the lives of those who grew up in that era. I actually believe we’re connected more but too often in a less personal and meaningful way. When I grew up, I snaked the telephone cord into my bedroom and talked to my BFFs for hours. We’d spend hours at the mall together.
Today, however, snippets have replaced quality time: Our lives, friendships, and attention spans come in hummingbird spurts: A quick text, a TikTok video, a Facebook emoji. And yet I will say that I’ve seen that change during the pandemic: The virtual world not only connected so many of us, it saved many of us. I started WINE & WORDS WITH WADE (my Facebook Live literary happy hour every Thursday at 6:30 pm ET on the Viola Shipman page) in March 2020 at the height of the pandemic. My tour (and the world) had been canceled, and my father-in-law was dying of Covid. It forced me to recalibrate my life. It allowed me to not only support other authors but also to reach out to readers and provide a sense of hope, community, and laughter. The emails I’ve received from readers – saying how much this connection has meant to them and truly saved them – has made me rethink how we should connect virtually. I feel we’re beginning to see deeper, more meaningful connections as a result, and I don’t think our virtual connection will ever diminish.
AUTHORLINK: Describe your road to publishing. How many agents did you approach before you were signed up? How many publishers did your agent approach? How many edits did you have to go through from your own, to your agents, to your publisher? Did you or do you have any fears about your writing?
“If you want it, then you have to make it happen. And it can.”
SHIPMAN: I spent about three years writing my first memoir, America’s Boy. I wrote it largely for myself, as a way to finally make sense of my childhood, come to terms with my past and celebrate who I’d become thanks to a family that loved me but had no idea what to do with me. When I began to push commas around, I began to read a lot of other memoirs, and I truly believed mine was not only different, with a unique voice and perspective, but also deep down that it just might be good enough to be published. I’d always been a good student, so I began to do my research. I started researching literary agents (starting with the Writers’ Digest Guide and Jeff Herman’s Guide to Literary Agents). I looked at which agents represented memoir, who was seeking new clients, who repped clients I admired, and who had successful track records in sales over the last few years. I then spent about three months trying to write the perfect query letter, one that narratively captured my book and my voice but also made me unique. I made a spreadsheet of ten lists of fifteen different agents (150 total), and began with the first fifteen. I mailed (back in the day) my letters on New Year’s Eve of 2004 with my husband and my mom beside me (with, as I like to say, a SASE to pay for my own rejection). I remember saying, “Here goes nothing.” And my mom said, “No, here goes everything.”
Within two weeks, I heard from seven of the agents requesting to read at least a partial of the memoir. A week later, I had three formal offers of representation (from three very different agents and agencies, big to boutique). I spoke with all three. When one of the agents got emotional speaking about my work – and also talked about my long-term writing career rather than this one book – I knew I had my answer: Wendy Sherman. Within about a week, the memoir had multiple offers, and I finally selected Dutton. I’ve been with Wendy since day one, book one, and that was 13 books ago. It was the best decision I’ve ever made. She’s navigated my career from memoir to fiction and back again, steered me to the ideal homes and editors for my books, sold my work nationally and internationally, and been there not only as an agent, cheerleader and champion but also as my friend. I always have fears about my writing. I think that’s natural. Authors sit home alone writing the best book they can, poring their hearts onto the page, hoping their words resonate with readers. But I also believe when you’re scared (not afraid, but trembling because you’re challenging yourself, doing something new, traveling a road you’ve never gone before), you’re onto something good. Believe me, a memoirist writing under his own name approaching his agent saying he wants to write fiction for women using his grandmother’s name as a pen name is a touch scary if not a total literary Victor, Victoria.
But I tell aspiring writers this: I used to believe there was a golden key passed around Manhattan to certain authors, and I would never be one of them. I’m just an Ozarks kid with no connections. But what you must do is write not only the best book you can but the one that calls to you, you must channel your own voice, you must overcome fear, and you must believe and be willing to handle rejection and walk through walls to make it happen. If you want it, then you have to make it happen. And it can.
AUTHORLINK: Amazing. How do you feel you’ve evolved as a memoirist over the years? Likewise, as a fiction writer? Tell us what you gain from memoir writing compared to fiction?
SHIPMAN: I feel as if I’m a completely different – and much better – memoirist, novelist and writer than I used to be. I think most authors feel this way. We all evolve, personally and professionally, and our work reflects that. Moreover, I feel like writing memoir (and returning to it) has made me a much better fiction writer, and vice versa. There are so many things I bring from each world – pace, story arc, dialogue – that help each genre. Overall, I’m a much more concise, bare bones writer than I used to be: I say more with less. My books are rawer, the characters deeper, the issues more personal. I also think, like with anything you do, the more you practice, perfect, hone, the better you become at it.
I’m a big runner and have run a marathon. I never believed that I could run 10 miles much less 26.2 in under three-and-a-half hours. But the more I practiced, the better, the faster, the more accomplished I became. My stride narrowed. My pace quickened. It’s the same in writing. I can now convey in a paragraph what used to take me a page. What hasn’t changed? I still write what calls to me. And that’s what matters most. If you don’t believe deeply in what you’re writing, then you are doomed.
AUTHORLINK: Good advice. There are emotionally charged passages in The Secret of Snow. How do you write tear-jerker scenes? Is the litmus test that you ought to be crying as you write them? What works for you?
SHIPMAN: Do you have me microchipped? First, I am a highly emotional, and empathetic, person. I wear my heart on my sleeve in life and literature. I consider it a badge of honor. I dig deep into my characters’ and love to show what I term “the ghosts on their shoulders,” the pasts we all have but rarely get to see in real life, the things that make us who we are. If I’m not weeping – and I truly mean weeping, over and over again – I keep working on a scene until I get it right. I also read my work out loud over and over again to catch bad notes in dialogue or scenes. If I read and cry, I feel good. Much of this emotion is pulled from my own life: Things I’ve seen, conversations I’ve had with my own mother, losses I’ve experienced. But the tear-jerker scenes only work if they’re an emotional payoff for all that’s preceded them. This means readers are fully invested in a character and a storyline. It’s as equally difficult to make someone cry as it is to make someone laugh, and I try to do both in my work. Tell a joke to a room full of people, and half will think you’re hilarious and half will think you’re an idiot. Same with emotional scenes. You must put in the work to get the payoff. My writing is based in what I term the Three H’s: Humor, heartbreak and honesty. You cannot have one without the others.
AUTHORLINK: Now for some lighthearted questions:-
- Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how?
- If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
SHIPMAN: On my screened porch in Michigan in the late afternoon with a glass of rose. I will read any genre, but I love memoir and contemporary fiction most. And I think I would introduce Lolly from The Charm Bracelet to Iris from The Heirloom Garden; I think the two – women in their 70s and 80s who have experienced great loss and are battling many issues with fierce determination, faith and resilience – would have changed each other’s lives in profound ways and, ultimately, become fast friends.
AUTHORLINK: Lovely! What are you currently working on now? Are you able to tell us a bit about it or them?
SHIPMAN: I have three new books coming out in 2022, including MAGIC SEASON, my first memoir in a decade, and my next two Viola Shipman novels, starting with THE EDGE OF SUMMER.
MAGIC SEASON publishes May 3 from Hanover Square Press and follows the tumultuous relationship I had with my Ozarks father. We had little in common save for our love of baseball and the St. Louis Cardinals. The memoir takes place, inning by inning, over the last game we watched together. It is a beautiful, heart wrenching memoir for any queer kid that ever felt as if he or she didn’t belong but also a universal story for any child who only wanted a parent’s unconditional love and support, and fought for that knowing it might likely never come. I’m deeply proud of it.
THE EDGE OF SUMMER will publish July 12 from Graydon House Books, and it was inspired by grandmother’s buttons and button jars as well as the fascinating history of the pearl button industry in the U.S. at the turn of the century. It’s a novel that follows a woman who loses her mother to Covid and then goes in search of who her mom really was. It’s a book that asks why we too often trade in those things and people we love for those that, only on the surface, seem to have more value and worth. I think it’s my most beautiful work to date.
AUTHORLINK: They both sound brilliant! Mr. Rouse, it was so great talking to you about The Secret of Snow and your writing process in general. Thank you for your time today, and we wish you and your family happy and healthy holidays, and of course, continued success in your writing career!
SHIPMAN: Thank you so much! It was an honor. Happy Holidays, and here’s to a happy, healthy, magical 2022!
About the Author: WADE ROUSE, writing as Viola Shipman in his latest book, is the internationally bestselling author of 11 books, including four memoirs and five novels, which have been translated into 20 languages and sold over a million copies worldwide.
Wade’s books have been selected multiple times as Must-Reads by NBC’s Today show, featured in USA Today, The Washington Post and Chelsea Lately and chosen three times as Indie Next Picks by the nation’s independent booksellers.
Wade is the noted humorist of four critically-acclaimed memoirs. He was a finalist for the Goodreads Choice Awards in Humor (he lost to Tina Fey) and was named by Writer’s Digest as “The #2 Writer, Dead or Alive, We’d Like to Have Drinks With” (Wade was sandwiched between Ernest Hemingway and Hunter Thompson).
Wade’s novels, written under the pen name Viola Shipman, are beloved by readers across the world. Wade chose his grandmother’s name as a pen name to honor the woman whose heirlooms and family stories inspire his fiction.
Wade’s debut novel The Charm Bracelet was a 2017 Michigan Notable Book of the Year, and The Summer Cottage was the #1 Bestselling Novel in Michigan in 2019. Wade’s novels have hit the bestseller lists in Germany (where he was #1 on the Spiegel Bestseller List), Italy, Spain and the Czech Republic.
Wade earned his B.A. from Drury University and his master’s in journalism from Northwestern University. He divides his time between Saugatuck, Michigan, and Palm Springs, California, and is also an acclaimed writing teacher who has mentored numerous students to become published authors.
You can find out more about Viola Shipman and Wade Rouse here at https://waderouse.com/about/, https://www.facebook.com/authorviolashipman, https://twitter.com/viola_shipman and WINE & WORDS WITH WADE (my Facebook Live literary happy hour every Thursday at 6:30 pm ET on the Viola Shipman page)