The Wrong Kind of Woman

by Sarah McCraw Crow

(Mirror Books/Harper Collins)

An unexpected death and a wave of social upheaval collide in Sarah McCraw Crow’s The Wrong Kind of Woman (MIRA Books/HarperCollins). Virginia Desmarais’ world is altered when her husband dies of an unexpected heart attack. Virginia and her daughter, Rebecca are left to pick up the pieces in a 1970’s America. The Wrong Kind of Woman offers an insightful look at navigating change while staying true to yourself.

Sarah McCraw Crow share her journey from magazine writer to creative writer, writing in multiple points of view,  and creating an authentic depiction of changing times.

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a creative writer. Did you have a mentor(s) who offered advice that has stayed with you that you can share with us?

“I’ve had a fairly long apprenticeship. I took my first short-story writing class in 2007.”

 CROW: I’ve had a fairly long apprenticeship. I took my first short-story writing class in 2007. Until then, although I’d been a longtime magazine writer, I’d only noodled around with fiction. So I began taking classes, writing a lot of short stories and a bad novel. I also took about eight years to write a historical novel (about the sister of the artist John Singer Sargent), and this novel got me an agent, but it didn’t sell. In the year or two that I was querying and while that historical novel was out on submission, I started another project, which eventually became The Wrong Kind of Woman. Around that time, I also went back to school at Vermont College of Fine Arts for my MFA.

I haven’t had one main mentor the way some writers have, but the advice that has stayed with me from all my teachers, and from speakers at conferences, is some version of persevere. Keep going. The writers who succeed are the ones who keep writing, who keep submitting. That said, I do consider a few of my teachers at VCFA—especially Abby Frucht, Brian Leung, and Dave Jauss—mentors of sorts. They all are masters of sentences, paragraphs, and stories.

AUTHORLINK: James Dickey said the idea for Deliverance came to him as a vision of a man standing alone on top of a mountain. His job was to get the man off the mountain. Where do stories come from for you—image, first line, character?

CROW: Oh, that’s a good question. It depends a little on the story, but I’d say what comes first is either a character—I hear someone else’s words or thoughts—or else some issue that’s been bothering me but that I can’t figure out.

AUTHORLINK: Where did the idea for The Wrong Kind of Woman come from?

…I’ve always wondered how as young women they navigated the choices that were and weren’t available to them…”

CROW: The Wrong Kind of Woman came from a few different sources. The first glimmers of character were pages I wrote in the perspectives of Virginia and Oliver. At the time I thought I was writing about a marriage, about two characters who each feel like a failure. But then two longtime interests intruded. One is the women of my mom’s generation and a little older—women who are in their 80s and 90s today: I’ve always wondered how as young women they navigated the choices that were and weren’t available to them, when there were fewer opportunities for higher education, for sports, for careers. My other weird interest is in colleges like Dartmouth College—those schools that remained stubbornly all-male until the late 60s and early 70s. The Ivy League and the other most selective colleges (mostly in New England, but also elsewhere) really took their time admitting women and minorities.

AUTHORLINK: How did you decide using alternating points of view in the novel? What opportunities and challenges did this present? 

“Switching from one character’s perspective to another does present both opportunities and challenges.”

CROW: That happened pretty organically. As I was writing pages in Virginia’s point of view, or in Oliver’s, I would start to wonder about another character they were interacting with. First Rebecca, their daughter; then Sam, the college student who’s not sure what his friendship with Oliver says about him. I wrote pages in the POV of other characters (Louise, Elodie) as a way of figuring out what the story would be. And once I started to see what the story might be, I couldn’t let go of Rebecca or Sam. I let go of Oliver’s and Elodie’s pages because it was getting unwieldy, and muddying what I thought the story was turning out to be.

Switching from one character’s perspective to another does present both opportunities and challenges. As a writer, you can convey a lot more information about an event, a place, a scene, than if you stick with only one POV—so that’s a big help. You can also enlarge a reader’s vision of a character by letting the reader see a POV character through another character’s eyes. But switching point of view can make for a choppy narrative. And some readers just don’t like it as much. As a reader, I love novels with multiple points of view, or with a more omniscient narrator.

AUTHORLINK: What did you do to make the 1970s so authentic? You can talk about any research you drew from. 

CROW: I used a range of sources—books like Keep the Damned Women Out, Nancy Wiess Malkiel’s account of the struggle for coeducation, and It’s Different at Dartmouth, Jean Kemeny’s memoir of her time as the wife of a college president, old magazine and newspaper articles, archival photos from Dartmouth College, and lists of bestsellers, movies, albums, and songs from the late 1960s and early 1970s. I also interviewed women who’d attended New England women’s colleges like Smith in the 1950s, and women who’d gone to Dartmouth as exchange students in the late 1960s. In 1970 I was five, so I do have my own memories of the early 1970s, but I needed a lot more context to flesh out the novel’s background.

AUTHORLINK: This is a story of social change. How did you use real events to increase dramatic tension in the novel?  

CROW: I wanted my characters, but also the novel’s readers, to sense that what had been far away and ignorable in this small town—war, protests, the women’s movement—was getting closer and closer. All those anti-war protests and campus takeovers, and then a little later the more radical actions of Weather Underground, were unsettling to college administrators, and I wanted to show a college town on edge because of their worry.

And Virginia is hardly an activist, but losing her husband opens her up to new friendships, a more urgent need to get a job and finish her degree, and to the possibilities of the women’s movement. Sam, likewise, is an apathetic, nonpolitical college student, but his new friendship with Jerry, a Vietnam vet, allows Sam to see the campus in a different light, and when Sam falls for Elodie, it’s partly because of her clarity about being a more radical activist.

AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about the importance of place in the novel. 

CROW: I think place is important in any story or novel, and not only gives texture and realness to a story, but also can help with conveying emotions. I also wanted my characters to be both insiders and outsiders, and I think place had something to do with that. Virginia grew up (as I did) in Norfolk, Virginia, a traditional city in a traditional time, and then spent her adult life in New England. Sam is a Clarendon student who doesn’t fit the school’s WASPy, jocky mold, and he’s also a New Yorker. And Virginia’s daughter Rebecca has grown up in this small college town, but starts to see her surroundings very differently after her dad dies.

AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing The Wrong Kind of Woman and how did you overcome them?

” I also wondered as I revised this book whether I got the time period right…

 CROW: Getting to understand Sam as a character was a challenge, although I loved writing his pages and spending time with him. I hope I wrote a credible young man who’s unsure about his sexuality. I also wondered as I revised this book whether I got the time period right, and how it would read to people who were young adults in the late 1960s and early 70s. That was definitely a big challenge, and it’s been wonderful to hear from older readers who liked the book and said I got the details right.

AUTHORLINK: Did you surprise yourself in the writing of the novel?

CROW: Yes, many times! For a long time I thought this was either a marriage story or a family story, and I had 150 pages or more in Oliver’s point of view. A different story slowly emerged, but even so, I was sad to let go of Oliver’s POV.

AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about your revision process when working with your editor. What sort of changes did you make? Any tips on revision for apprentice writers?

“By the time my manuscript got to my editor, I’d revised it so many times.”

CROW: By the time my manuscript got to my editor, I’d revised it so many times. I’d done two or three rounds of final revision with my agent, and before that, several rounds after writer friends read it and after various workshops. My editor’s suggestions were mainly about cutting down some of my long sections of interiority (something I do too much of), and character development of some secondary characters. It wasn’t too daunting, though.

Regarding revision more generally, a couple of tricks that have been helpful for me are: leave your manuscript alone for a period of time, a week or a month or whatever you can stand, so you can see it with fresh eyes when you come back to it; and retyping the whole draft into a new document, which helps you really think about each sentence and what the story’s about.

AUTHORLINK: What advice would you offer to apprentice writers? 

” Try not to worry about what others might think, or what the outcome will be.”

CROW: I’d first say give yourself permission to write! Anne Lamott coined that phrase “shitty first drafts,” which is what we all write. Try not to worry about what others might think, or what the outcome will be. Just get some words on the page. For me, writing by hand in a notebook often yields more interesting results than writing on a Word document on the laptop.

And read a lot. Go back to the books you love and reread them, thinking about what it is that made you love them the first time. Read whatever is calling to you.

And last, look for feedback. Find a writing buddy, a writing group, or a class, because sharing your work, reading others’ work, and getting feedback really helps writers learn to write better. The key is finding the right person, group, or class. One handy thing with the pandemic is that community writing organizations like Grub Street in Boston are offering all their classes virtually now. So you can take a class from anywhere.

AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.

CROW: I have a big mush of a project that’s set partly in the early 1980s, partly in the 1920s, and I don’t know what the story is yet!

Sarah McCraw Crow is the author of the novel THE WRONG KIND OF WOMAN (MIRA Books/HarperCollins). Her short fiction has won awards from Good Housekeeping, Stanford Alumni Magazine, and So to Speak, and she’s a regular reviewer for BookPage. She’s a member of the National Book Critics Circle and Grub Street, Boston. She lives in New Hampshire with her family, and when she’s not reading or writing, she’s probably gardening or snowshoeing (depending on the season).