That Part Was True by Deborah McKinlay

McKinlay Uses Letters to Build Story
An exclusive Authorlink interview with
Deborah McKinlay

By Ellen Birkett Morris

That Part Was True
by Deborah McKinlay

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August, 2014

In her novel That Part Was True, Deborah McKinlay uses an old form to tell a very modern story. The novel begins with a fan letter sent by Eve Petworth to Jackson Cooper, a best-selling novelist. Their relationship unfolds in alternating letters and narrative as she struggles with anxiety and he with writer’s block. They find comfort and friendship, but will there be something more?

“. . . I learned on the hoof – mostly by reading a lot and making mistakes a lot.”

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a writer – degrees, jobs, workshops, writing groups, classes, and mentors that helped you along the way.

MCKINLAY: I came into writing before writing courses were widely available, so I learned on the hoof – mostly by reading a lot and making mistakes a lot.

AUTHORLINK: I see you have written nonfiction and worked as a journalist. What subjects have you written about?

MCKINLAY: I wrote freelance for most of the commercial women’s magazines in the 1990s (Cosmopolitan, New Woman, Vogue) and also for Esquire and a national British tabloid newspaper (The Express) during the same period. The work reflected the times, the audience and my life then, and was mainly about romantic relationships between men and women and aspects of women’s friendships. I also wrote a series of short books in the same vein.

AUTHORLINK: What drew you to try fiction?

MCKINLAY: I cannot remember a time when I didn’t want to tell stories. I just had to learn how to do it. I am still learning.

AUTHORLINK: What skills related to your nonfiction work carried over into the writing of That Part Was True?

MCKINLAY: Mainly, getting it done. But I also picked up some humour writing skills, which I have found useful even for work which is not obviously comedic, like That Part Was True.

AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about the title.

MCKINLAY: This is a two part answer. The naming of novels is not always straight forward. Editors, agents and marketing departments all have some input and there is often a tense period around contract time when everybody chews on their pencils. That happened with That Part Was True, but (and here is the second part) in the end this novel was the first of my books to go ahead with its original title. I was thrilled because it had come out of the writing. I realize it is a little obscure – it is not meant to suggest that any element of the story is literally a ‘lie’. I meant it to convey the onion-like peeling back that the characters go through in their correspondence and friendship, till they reach their true selves. I was using the word ‘true’ in its more poetic sense.

AUTHORLINK: How did the premise of the book develop?

MCKINLAY: In so far as I can pinpoint a beginning, I’d say my first thoughts were about isolation. I wanted to write about someone who was living within very narrow confines who reached out to somebody beyond those. Eve became that character. The character of Jack just appeared. He is her surface opposite, which enables some development in each through their association.

“The letters were not so much a deliberate choice as a reflection of character . . .”

AUTHORLINK: What led you to write a novel that is, in part, epistolary? It seemed a bold choice given the modern preference for text messaging. What did that choice allow you to do in terms of the narrative?

MCKINLAY: The letters were not so much a deliberate choice as a reflection of character – particularly Eve’s. The first letter is hers and it instigates the story. I believe that character would still write by hand, at least initially. The use of letters allowed me to grow the characters and their correspondence more slowly and more subtly than text messaging would have, and that was essential to the plot.

AUTHORLINK: Where do stories begin for you? character? plot? image? first line?

MCKINLAY: A character and a situation.

AUTHORLINK: This book is about the challenges of middle age and the nature of real intimacy. Did you know this when you began writing or did this evolve?

MCKINLAY: A bit of both. The nature of real intimacy is something I am interested in, in particular the idea that concepts of romantic love are often too specific, so I did set out with that in my head. As to middle age, again this came from Eve’s character. I wanted her to be sandwiched between a dominating mother and a grown, equally dominating daughter and so her age was determined by that. I did reduce her years a bit when I pitched the book because I was nervous about the palatability to publishing of an older lead in a romance, but my very smart agent, Alexandra Machinist, advised me to reinstate her extra birthdays.

“For me, the process of writing, once started, is not challenging. It is demanding . . .”

AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing That Part Was True and how did you overcome them?

MCKINLAY: For me, the process of writing, once started, is not challenging. It is demanding, but the demands are enjoyable ones. This project was no different. There is a low hurdle to be negotiated, though, if you write about food, in that the recipes need to be original. I cleared that by calling on my family. The Christmas cake and cookie recipes were both hand-me-downs.

AUTHORLINK: Talk about the process of revision for this novel. What was it like working your editor? How many revisions did you do and what was your main focus when making changes? Advice on revision for apprentice writers?

“Working with Deb Futter, my editor at Grand Central, has been a dream.”

MCKINLAY: I wrote the first draft, left it in a drawer for a year, and then tossed out about 50 percent of the original. I reworked it a couple of times after that – expanding the food element and the letters. Then I pitched it. Working with Deb Futter, my editor at Grand Central, has been a dream. We scheduled our first revisions call and I bought a new notebook for it. She began by giving me a couple of gentle notes, and then she said she didn’t mind whether I sent the whole manuscript to her or each revision individually. I plumped for whole manuscript and we set a date. That was it. My new notebook had only half a page filled. We did that, I think, twice more. Each time the few comments were along the lines of suggestion (‘I rather like x character – could we have a bit more of him?’) rather than specifics and they all made sense to me, so revision fatigue never struck.

AUTHORLINK: Are there particular habits that you would encourage writers to cultivate – habits of the mind or attitude or work habits?

“I think any creative, self-employed person’s greatest battle is with their own head. Quelling self-doubt is key . . .”

MCKINLAY: I think any creative, self-employed person’s greatest battle is with their own head. Quelling self-doubt is key, and, also, fighting back all the new ideas that start to vie for your mental attention as soon as one is selected. I think the best habit to work on is finishing everything you start.

AUTHORLINK: How did you connect with your agent? Any tips for selecting the right agent?

MCKINLAY: I found Alexandra the same way as most people find their agents – by querying a book. Given that there is no magic bullet, the only tip I’d offer beyond the obvious (do your research and write your best stuff) would be not to let geography limit you. Alexandra is at ICM in New York and I live in rural England.

AUTHORLINK: Advice to new writers on staying encouraged and focused on the right things?

MCKINLAY: Read Hugh Macleod’s ‘Ignore Everybody’.

AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on next.

MCKINLAY: I have just finished a draft of a novel that tells the story of a friendship between an old lady and a young man, and I am working on the outline of a book about a naïve woman who marries a wealthy politician while fighting back all the new ideas that are vying for my mental attention.

About the Author

Deborah McKinlay has published half a dozen non-fiction titles in the UK, and her books have been translated into numerous languages. Her work has appeared in British Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and Esquire. She lives in South West England.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.