Interview by Columnist Ellen Birkett Morris
Three Ways to Disappear
by Katy Yocom
In Three Ways to Disappear, Katy Yocom tells story of sisters Quinn and Sarah’s return to India, where they spent time as children and were marked by a family tragedy. Their journey helps them discover new truths and forge a deeper connection to each other and the world.
Yocom shares her journey as a writer and the evolution of the novel, which won the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature.
AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a creative writer. Did you have a mentor who offered advice that has stayed with you?
“I’ve always loved to write creatively, but it didn’t seem like a sensible career choice…”
YOCOM: I’ve always loved to write creatively, but it didn’t seem like a sensible career choice, so I got an undergraduate degree in newspaper and magazine journalism from the University of Kansas. The education I got there has actually served me well in my creative work. I learned to write clearly and concisely, but I also learned about selecting the salient detail, listening for dialogue.
It also taught me that my work is not me, which is an incredibly liberating thing to know. It makes it possible to undertake major revisions without fear or regret. Well, without too much regret.
I began studying creative writing about ten years after college, at first taking one-off classes at the University of Louisville and then studying in the low-residency MFA program at Spalding University. Sena Jeter Naslund, the program director, taught me that in fiction, you have to do everything all at once. You can’t begin your story with pages of description, then introduce your characters, then develop the conflict, then get to the action—instead you have to weave those things together so everything is right there on the first page: voice, mood, character, the beginning of the story arc. Sometimes more than just the beginning.
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?
YOCOM: Sometimes an image. Sometimes I’ll hear a sentence, a voice speaking to me. That’s the best, when a voice arises unbidden. That’s when I know I have something.
AUTHORLINK: Where did idea for Three Ways to Disappear come from?
“It began with an obsession. I’m an animal lover…”
YOCOM: It began with an obsession. I’m an animal lover, and as a child I particularly loved the big cats. I suspect the movie Born Free had something to do with it. That childhood fascination came roaring back to life (okay, I can hear the pun there) when, shortly after I finished my MFA program, the tigress at the Louisville Zoo gave birth to a litter of cubs. I got obsessed. I visited them every week and watched them grow up. I wanted to write about them, but for a long time I thought a book with tigers in it had to be a children’s book—Life of Pi notwithstanding—and I wanted to write a novel for adults.
Fortunately, I mentioned this mental block to a former mentor from the Spalding MFA program, and she kindly informed me I was wrong. Clearly I needed that permission, because lo and behold, a day or two later, a voice suddenly came into my head. I heard a sentence, then another. I ran upstairs to write. That first, frenzied writing session gave me a character, a setting, and a basic idea of the story arc.
AUTHORLINK: How did you decide on the dual narrative structure? What opportunities and challenges did this present?
YOCOM: It was the most circuitous journey in the world! I started out with four different POV characters, and over the years I worked on this book, that number constantly shifted. New POV characters emerged. Others dropped out. When the editor who eventually acquired my book read it, I think it had at least eight voices in it—some of them only appeared for a chapter or two. It was my brilliant editor, Midge Raymond, who told me this was a sister story, and all the other voices needed to go. She was absolutely right. I could see the shape of the book emerge much more clearly once I pared it down. I did lose a scene or two I dearly loved and will always miss, but it was the right choice.
The dual narrative serves the story by revealing the sisters’ lives in parallel, which has the effect of letting me reveal the way the long-ago tragedy has shaped both sisters’ lives. Even though they’re very different people, the dual narrative structure makes it clear how the past is driving everything that happens in the present, for both sisters—Quinn, whose lingering guilt about the tragedy now plays out in her own marriage and mothering, and Sarah, who returns to India both to forge a new career and to seek some closure and healing at last.
AUTHORLINK: What themes emerged as you wrote? Were you surprised by what came up?
YOCOM: I was absolutely surprised! When I began writing the book, I thought it would be an adventure story about a highly independent woman—the stranger who comes to town, so to speak. But as I revised, her past, her family of origin, her old secrets, took on more and more importance until the novel became a story about families. It’s about connectedness and coexistence among animals and humans, the fragility of relationships and life itself, and the healing power of love. It’s about how life must go on, even after loss. The involvement of the natural world heightened that last piece of the puzzle.
AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about the importance of place here in both Quinn and Sarah’s lives.
YOCOM: The sisters spent their early years in India, where their father was a doctor. After their brother’s death, their mother brought them back to the States, to Louisville, Kentucky. Quinn, the older sister, put down roots there and started a family. Sarah, her younger sister, took off as soon as she could and became a globe-trotting journalist—but unexpectedly decides to return to India and begin a new life there, working in wildlife conservation at a tiger reserve. Their decisions about place speak to their characters. Quinn wants stability, safety. Sarah wants freedom. In her previous career, she never touched down anywhere too long. But when finally she decides to land, it’s halfway around the world from her sister and mother. So even though she’s settling down, she’s still keeping herself unreachable.
AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about the research you did. I know you traveled to India. How did what you saw there deepen the telling of this story?
“My time in India profoundly affected the story I told.”
YOCOM: My time in India profoundly affected the story I told. It gave me the sensory experience of the world I was writing about, so I could reference sights and sounds and smells. But it also gave me stories—things I did while I was there, things I observed. It gave me characters—people I met, the stories they told me about themselves. And it gave me a major subplot, when I went to a village and met people whose lives are profoundly affected by the tigers in their midst. It really sparked my imagination. India also gave me a mood to write into. That may be the least tangible thing, but it’s all-pervasive.
AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing the novel and how did you overcome them?
YOCOM: The hardest part was simply keeping going. It took me years to write this novel, years that required a lot of tenacity and resilience in the face of rejection. I credit my agent for not telling me about the individual rejections. I know she sent it out on submission far and wide—more than once—but I honestly have no idea how many times it was rejected. Dozens and dozens, I’m sure. Occasionally she’d tell me specifics—that three presses were still looking, or that she had heard from everyone and no one picked it up in that round of submissions. I’m glad she protected me that way. I don’t know if I would have had the heart to keep going if I heard about it every time someone passed on the novel. A couple of times, an editor got excited about it and asked for changes—without offering a contract—but then ultimately passed after I’d completed the revisions. Those were the hardest rejections of all, because I’d gotten my hopes up—it was impossible not to.
AUTHORLINK: You wrote an environmental novel that portrays the complexity of the issues and the give and take on both sides. How did you keep from developing a stance on the issue? What did you do to cultivate this complexity?
” I write to find out what I think.”
YOCOM: I write to find out what I think. I believe deeply in the rights of animals to exist on this earth. Yet I don’t think you can prioritize saving animals at the expense of the most vulnerable humans. Not only would that be unethical, it simply wouldn’t work.
People will do what they need in order to survive. For some people, that means competing with animals for resources. For some, it even means illegally poaching endangered animals in order to make a little money to put food on the table. In my mind, the end consumers—and, worse, the traffickers—are morally indefensible. I have no sympathy for them. But an impoverished tribesman killing a tiger so he can sell the body and buy, maybe, a secondhand motorbike? I can’t judge someone in that situation.
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?
YOCOM: There’s a story here! My editor and I found each other when my novel manuscript won a contest sponsored by her publishing house, Ashland Creek Press. Unlike most contests for book-length works, this one wasn’t a publication prize. Instead there was a cash prize and a monthlong residency at an artists’ retreat center. She kept telling me how much she loved the book, so I was hoping she’d offer publication. When she didn’t, I finally asked outright why not. That’s when she said that the novel was too long—about 100 pages too long—for a press their size to take on. She also noted that it was too sprawling, with too many point-of-view characters, and she thought it needed to be focused in on the sisters. She said that if I agreed with those notes and if I wanted to undertake such a major revision, she’d be glad to take another look.
I’d been down this road before, with an editor asking for changes without a contract. (That seems to be more and more the norm in the publishing world.) But this time was different. I could see instantly that her editorial vision was spot on. It was a sister story, once you carved away the extra. Thanks to Midge’s astute notes, I could see how to slim the manuscript way down and still tell the story I wanted to tell. So I spent the first two weeks of that writing retreat cutting and cutting and cutting. Here’s where my journalistic background was a huge help. I trimmed the novel from 108,000 words—every one of which I had thought I needed—to 80,000 words. That’s 28 percent, if you’re doing the math. Some scenes, I changed from another character’s POV to one of the sisters. Other scenes I deleted altogether. The whole time I was doing it, I was energized. It felt like a challenge—like, you think I can’t cut 100 pages out of this manuscript and still end up with something good? Watch me.
Which leads me to my revision tips for apprentice writers. First: Revision will teach you things. Embrace it for what you’ll learn. Don’t be afraid to try things. If they don’t work, you can always go back to your earlier draft (which of course you’ve saved in its original state). But you’ll never progress as a writer, if you don’t try new things. Second: Keep a scratch file with everything you’ve cut. You might be able to use that material later for some other project. Third: Revise for one thing at a time. If you’re going to change your story from January to July, and make your protagonist 45 years old instead of 30, and move the setting from New Orleans to New York, do each of those things in a separate pass. If you try to do it all at once, you’ll feel like you’re trying to wrestle an octopus.
AUTHORLINK: What advice would you offer to apprentice writers?
YOCOM: Read widely. Read the kinds of books you want to write, but read beyond that preference, too. If you want to write commercial fiction, you should also read literary works. Poetry, too. And don’t just read books by American authors; there is incredible work readily available in English from authors on every continent.
Read deeply. When you read work that excites you, study it. Is there a sense of, say, tenderness that you love in a particular book? Then try to figure out, on a technical level—word choice, sentence structure, the inclusion of details, the placement of chapter breaks—how the author created that mood.
Also, read to find out what you don’t like. If you study of the opening chapters of, say, ten or twenty different books, or the opening pages of ten or twenty different stories, you’ll begin to see what attracts you and what repels you in terms of style, subject, and structure. You’ll recognize what feels fresh and original and what’s clichéd.
AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.
YOCOM: Alas, I’m not getting much done creatively in these pandemic days. I’m journaling a lot. Kicking around ideas for ideas. Waiting for something to gel.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Katy Yocom’s debut novel, Three Ways to Disappear, won the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, the First Horizon Award, and other prizes, and was named a Barnes & Noble Top Indie Favorite. Katy was a 2019 recipient of the Al Smith Fellowship Award for artistic excellence from the Kentucky Arts Council. She has written for Newsweek, Salon, LitHub, American Way (the American Airlines in-flight magazine), Terrain.org, and elsewhere. A graduate of the low-residency MFA in Writing program at Spalding University, she lives in Louisville and serves as associate director of the graduate programs of Spalding’s School of Creative and Professional Writing. She co-directs the Spalding at 21c reading series, which recently concluded its seventh season, and serves on the board of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. Find her online at katyyocom.com.