The Storytellers


Five fiction authors share their stories.

Written by Lindsey Lowe    

Photos by Beau Gustafson

 

I know how the world began is still up for debate, but I can tell you for sure one of the things that keeps it spinning: storytelling. It’s stories that tuck us into bed at night and stories that keep us up late until we finish the book. When our families pass down heirlooms through the generations, we’re really placing our stories into the hands of our grandchildren. It’s stories that have been written on walls and scrawled out on notebooks and pecked out on typewriters and given shape on the screen of an iMac. The world has shifted and the world has changed, and yet we have stories still. We always will.

And as long as we have had stories, we have had something else: the storyteller. There are some of us who need to tell the stories of the world, and many of those storytellers are your writers.

As Stephen Duncan says, many different kinds of people are writers, but almost all of them are observant. They are the ones who look around at life as it is and put that into a story, and that means many things for us.

It means that you can find yourself embraced by someone who seemingly doesn’t exist, who’s just a character, but who knows you nonetheless. And in that way, stories make you belong. It means that you stretch your mind around someone else’s experiences and understand his or her plight and feelings and thoughts. And in that way, when you meet people in real life who aren’t like you, you have the capacity to accept them. It means that as time passes and the world shifts and changes, many things about now will be left sitting on shelves, waiting for those who come after us to find them. And in that way, stories hold the past and the future.

On the following pages, you’ll meet five fiction authors who call Birmingham home. The ways they tell their stories are different and the stories they tell even more so, but they each share that ache within, the beat-beat-beat a story makes when it wants to get out. And so whether they’re up after the kids have gone to bed, arranging and rearranging the words until the story is born, or awake at 4:30 in the morning, taking a red pen to the pages (again), they don’t stop until the story has been told.

As a storyteller myself, it was fun to listen as they told me about how they and their stories came to be. And, as it always is, it’s an honor to share the stories.

 

Jennifer Echols

Right out of college, Jennifer Echols got a job at the Montgomery Advertiser, in Montgomery, Alabama, as a copy editor. She worked the late shift, 3 p.m. to midnight, and on her lunch break, usually from 4 to 5 p.m., she would sit on the steps of the Capitol or in the nearby library, and she would write. She wrote in longhand, in a notebook, and then typed what she’d written on a typewriter. She wrote every day. By the time she was 22, she’d written two novels and had a literary agent. “I found out that I really loved doing it and couldn’t really stop doing it,” she says. “It’s not exactly a happy ending, though. It took me 15 years to get published.”

But she didn’t stop. She wrote 10 novels in the next 15 years. This was before the Internet and self-publishing, so the process was quite different than it would be if 22-year-old Echols had written a novel today. “You went and looked at this tome in the library called Literary Marketplace. It had four million pages, and they wouldn’t let you take it out of the reference section,” she explains. “It was a listing of every publisher and every literary agent. And you just had to page through the thing and find somebody you thought might be interested in publishing or representing your novel. You sent them a query letter, and you waited one year.” Echols estimated that she sent some 2,000 queries for 10 different novels. She still has every single rejection. “You know, sometimes you see authors post their rejection letters. I just saw a rejection letter for the Rolling Stones. But I should probably shred them. It would be cathartic.”

Echols’s first agent suggested that she reformat her book to fit the young adult fiction genre (YA), but she didn’t think she wanted to do that. But she ended up changing her mind, and when she was 25, she got a second agent for her fifth novel, which was a YA book. “I had wised up and started writing YA, but [the YA market] was just very small and difficult to break into,” she says. “The boom in YA, the current obsession with it, and the fact that it has its own huge section in Barnes & Noble didn’t start to happen until maybe 2004.”

During that time, Echols had day jobs—she worked a copy editor, and she loved it—but she was always writing something. In 2004, she got what she calls her “second wind.” She rejoined a writers’ group called Romance Writers of America, which has around 10,000 members, mostly women, who are published in the romance genre or working toward that goal. It was through that organization, she says, that she learned what a literary agent was looking for and how to write a good query letter. “I learned how to explain to them that you’re giving them what they want,” she says. “Because it’s a business. It’s not somebody doing you a favor.”

Within a year, she had a good agent, and six months after that, she’d sold her first book (her 10th written novel), Major Crush (Simon Pulse). “I remember getting [what we call] ‘The Call’ in capital letters,” she says. “My agent called me and told me we had gotten an offer. It would go on to get another offer, but just the fact that we had gotten one offer meant that I would be a published author after 15 years of trying and a whole life of dreaming about it. It was a huge relief because you wouldn’t keep at something that long if you didn’t think that you were eventually going to be successful at it.”

Echols has now sold 16 books—her latest is Biggest Flirts (Simon Pulse), the first installment in a series called The Superlatives. These days, her process has morphed a bit. Once an author has sold a book, he or she subsequently sells on proposal. So now, she works on writing the first few chapters of a book, as well as a synopsis of the rest of it, and pitches that to her agent. “Previously, you write a whole book, and it’s a shot in the dark. You offer it up to the universe and hope that someone wants it,” she says. “After that, you have to agree with your editor on what to write next or you write a proposal for something and you have them purchase it, and then you write it. That has been very difficult for me, because I don’t know what I’m going to write until I’ve written it. I usually have to write a whole book before I know what it’s going to look like, because that’s what I did for 10 books. I didn’t have any feedback from anyone about anything. So that is something I’m still working through.”

She says that the first thing she thinks about after she’s finished a book is what she’s going to write next. And then she wakes up in the morning—at 4:30 a.m.—and sits down at her computer, maybe with a cup of coffee. She turns on a playlist she’s made (what she calls a soundtrack for the book), and begins to chip away at her daily quota of words. It’s hard work, but it’s the only work she wants to do. “I have always felt like I was going to fight the good fight [to be a writer],” she says. “Everybody tried to tell me, ‘You can’t make a living doing that,’ but I was going to be that one in a thousand who did.”

 

S. L. Duncan

“I haven’t always been a writer, but I think on some level I have always been a storyteller,” says Duncan. He attributes his earliest storytelling to his dad, who was a master himself. “My dad used to tell these amazing jokes. They were effortless in delivery, which meant you never knew they were actually jokes until the very end, when he dropped the punch line. But he’d set them up with these great characters that were just believable enough that you thought, ‘This might have happened.’ And then, just when you’d bought in, he’d set the hook, and you’d feel like an idiot as your sides split. There was a lot of technique in his performances and in these little narratives. I think I must have internalized some of that, because I recognize it now in my writing. When I was a kid in school, I began telling his jokes to much less success and at some point the enjoyment of telling these jokes—these stories—evolved into me writing my own. I haven’t been able to master the brevity of joke telling, so I tend to stick with novels.”

Duncan, a lawyer, published his first novel, The Revelation of Gabriel Adam, this year. While he was in law school at Cumberland School of Law, he found that he craved a creative outlet. “The endless study of legal cases and precedent somehow, at least for me, muted and compressed whatever creative energy that I held,” he explains. “At some point, that energy begs release.” So he began writing (he describes the experiences as being like a “BOOM!”) He wrote about 50 pages and passed them along to a friend to review. “At the time, I lived in Southside and spent a little more time than I needed to at Dave’s Pub, as did my friend, and we would meet up and talk about everything in the world—except the pages I’d given him,” Duncan says. “After a few weeks, I asked him what he thought, and he was totally and painfully honest with me in only the way a man from Scotland can be.” After that, Duncan threw away the pages and threw his energy back into law school.

During his third year as a law student, he took a trip to England to study abroad. While there, he was hit with new inspiration, so he came home and began again. After a couple of months, he had a first draft that he was proud of (and he says his friend from Scotland liked it as well.)

Duncan found an agent in New York City (by sending query letters and sample pages) and signed a contract. Not long after, his agent sold Revelation to Medallion Press. It’s a three-book deal, so Duncan just turned in the second book and will turn in another next year. Like Echols’s work, Duncan’s novels fall under the YA category, which is a genre that didn’t really exist even a couple of decades ago (at least not in earnest). Duncan points out that YA has been called unworthy of being read by intelligent readers, teen or adult. But he says its purpose is the same as that of literature aimed at adults—to remark on what it means to be human, to tie us together. “There are books, just as there are in the adult sections, intended for no other purpose than to entertain. Others are works of art that are profound and life altering,” Duncan says. “…Literature, at its most basic level, is meant to speak to the human experience. The teen experience is no less worthy of commentary than the adult, nor is it any less complicated or rich or gratifying.” He also points out that many of the most foundational pieces in the literary canon would be categorized under YA if written today, including such works as Huckleberry Finn, Pride and Prejudice, and Great Expectations.

Duncan writes in the early mornings—he too rises at 4:30 a.m.—for a couple of hours before work and then again in the afternoon. (He doesn’t write on Sundays, when he plays soccer for Urban Standard, or on Mondays, because he has to recover from Sundays.) The actual act of writing—which is notoriously (and perhaps surprisingly) difficult—can be lonesome for him. “For me, finding some alone time is the only way I can get work done. I have to steal myself away from my own life to let the story take hold,” he says. “Weirdly, it is also something that builds camaraderie with other authors you meet through your agency or publishing house. You band together, not knowing anything about anything, beta reading each other’s work, and sort of hold each other’s hands through the process.” The hardest part for Duncan, though, is handing over something he’s written to someone else for the first time. “It’s also the most exciting,” he admits. “I’m fairly pessimistic, so my bar is set pretty low for responses. If my pages stay out of a bird cage, then I’m happy.”

And then there’s the work that begins after something has been written, when one must start at the beginning and read it again (and again and again). It’s heartbreaking and exhilarating, desperate and fulfilling. “I love finding the better story in what I’ve written,” Duncan says. “Writing a book is a fantastic feat. I applaud anyone who does it. But the real work is rolling up the sleeves to rewrite and edit the manuscript into something worthy. This can be an amazing time of discovery and exploration of your work. You really get to understand and know your characters and rebuild the story around them. It can also make you want to pull out all of your hair.”

Duncan says that it’s true that writing books takes a lot of hard work, but it also takes some luck. The publishing industry is an industry, after all, and what’s marketable is what sells. But at the end of the day, writing is the thing in his life that goes, “boom.” “For me, writing can be a lot of things. Frustrating, tiring, stressful. There’s this love/hate thing going on with every word I write,” he says. “But I’ve never found it to be boring. Completely and totally the opposite, in fact.”

 

Flo Fitzpatrick

Fitzpatrick’s first-ever story was minimalist. It was titled, “The Bug on the Wall,” and it went like this: “There was a bug. It was on the wall.” She was 4 years old when she wrote it. When she was 8, she penned the beginning of a novel called The Skinner Family Goes to Ireland, in which, well, the Skinner family went from New York City to Ireland…on a train. She says her brothers still ask her if that train is running yet.

Despite clearly having an early interest in writing—she went on to write a full book at the age of 10 and was the features editor of her high school newspaper—Fitzpatrick hasn’t been an active writer for most of her life. When deciding on a college major, she was split between writing and theater, and she decided on the latter. “I thought, ‘When I’m old, I can write,’” she says. “I figured, ‘Now, while I’m still young, I should dance.’” She went on to receive degrees in theater and dance and spent many years on the stage, dancing and performing, as well as teaching and choreographing.

But in 1999, while she was living in New York City, a convergence of events led her back toward writing. She was working on the side showing apartments, and her boss was interested in writing. “I thought, ‘Oh, writing. It’s been awhile,’” Fitzpatrick remembers. She had some ties to the Waco Children’s Theater in Waco, Texas, and she wrote a play for them to perform. “And then I thought, ‘You know, it’s nice getting back into this,’” she says. Around that same time, she broke her foot and was sentenced to six week in a cast. Unable to dance, perform, or generally move about, Fitzpatrick was forced to find something else to occupy her. She returned to what had been her other passion (though she never did finish the Skinner novel, so we’re still not sure how the transatlantic train came into existence.)

She first started writing short stories and then, in 2000, she moved to New Jersey and joined the New Jersey Romance Writers Group. “I had no intention of writing a romance,” she says with a smile. “But I discovered a wonderful group, and I decided I was going to learn about the business. I had the writing down, but it’s a business, and I wanted to know what to do.” She began attending conferences and simultaneously working on her first novel, Ghost of a Chance (Zebra). During one of the conferences she attended, she got an appointment with an editor from Kensington Publishing Corp. The editor had to miss her appointment because she had the flu, and so she offered to look at her missed appointments’ manuscripts immediately. That is to say, Fitzpatrick’s manuscript could skip the red tape and go straight to an editor’s desk. Fitzpatrick sent hers in, and two days later, she got the call that they wanted it. “I didn’t expect that she would call in the first place. This was 2003, so everything was already done by email,” Fitzpatrick says. “But when she called and told me, I was over the moon.” She had originally seen the book as a mystery story, but Kensington had begun a new romance sector, and Ghost of a Chance was categorized under that, meaning Fitzpatrick did indeed write a romance.

Her second book was more of a challenge. Because of some contract holdups, she had to submit that one in six weeks. “I didn’t have book two. There was no book two,” she says. Fitzpatrick sent her editor a number of ideas before she landed on the winning one: “Finally I said, ‘Look, here it is: Bollywood; music; stolen, cursed statue; Irish, rogue hero. That’s it. She wrote and said, ‘I love it.’” And so Hot Stuff (Zebra) was born. “That’s probably the book that ended up having the most success, and I wrote it in eight days,” she says. Though she is a by-the-seat-of-her-pants writer, it doesn’t usually go that fast (though she also wrote Aria in Ice [CreateSpace Independent Publishing] in a week.)

Fitzpatrick has since written eight more books, the latest of which, Legacy of Silence (Harlequin), came out in July of this year. Her writing process matches her vibrant personality: She conducts detailed research beforehand and jots some notes, but mostly she just jumps in. “I’ll say, ‘OK,’ and I’ll sit down and do it,” she says. “And then I hope that inspiration hits. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. Generally, probably because I’ve written books in a week, I usually get through the first draft before I do any kind of heavy edits.” She says her latest work is what she calls “ungenreable,” which she also thinks would make a great name for an all-girl group (I suggested that she write a book about them.)

Fitzpatrick says she writes because has to find some way to create. “I have all these stories roaming through my brain. I can’t draw worth a darn (my stick figures are on the order of demented 5-year-old kids), so [my stories] have to come out in prose rather than pictures,” she explains. “My other favorite means for storytelling is through dance, but unfortunately, that would require a large company to perform, lots of interesting costumes, and possibly some bizarre special effects.”

 

John Mantooth

When Mantooth, a junior high English and social studies teacher, turned 30, he made a goal: have a book published before his 40th birthday. “I knew my whole life I wanted to be a writer, but I never did it,” he says. “I absolutely loved reading and telling stories, and in my mind, I always imagined myself as a writer one day. But then I got busy with things, and I kept thinking about it, but I never actually sat down and tried to do anything.” When his wife got pregnant with their first child around the time he turned 30, he had the epiphany. “For some reason, that made me think, ‘You know, there’s some things—well, really just writing—that you never really tried. You need to sit down and try.’ I sat down and was going to write a book, right off. I did, and it was very, very bad.”

After about three years (and another terrible novel), Mantooth decided that the best way for him to become immersed in the field of writing was to ease in—he backed up and started writing short stories. “That really saved me,” he says. “I needed to learn how to write a story. Short stories taught me about beginnings, middles, and ends.” He liked writing short stories and did so for the next five years. “For me, a short story is so much easier to hold in my head,” he explains. “A novel falls out of control for me and it’s harder to maintain the voice. A short story is compact, and that voice is easy to nail.”

Mantooth got involved in an online writing community called zoetrope.com. This was in the early 2000s—before Facebook and Twitter—and it served as a meeting place for writers. Mantooth posted his short stories there for critique, and through trial and error, he began to polish his skills. After that, he submitted his stories to horror and mystery magazines and received some good feedback. In fact, he decided to publish a collection. “The one place I always wanted to publish a story was this Canadian publisher called ChiZine. They have this webzine, and their webzine is where everybody who was writing dark fiction wanted to get published,” he says. “They rejected me time and time again. They were always nice rejections, though. For some dumb reason, when I had my collection, the first place I went was ChiZine. I got back an acceptance saying they loved them.” ChiZine Publications published Shoebox Train Wreck in 2012. He was 41—he had missed his deadline by a year—but that didn’t matter. “That was the biggest accomplishment,” he says. “Even though I ended up publishing a novel with a major publisher, that first one was huge for me.”

In 2009, he decided to turn his attention back to writing novels, which he says bode better for turning writing into a career. He finished his first novel a year later and began to shop it around. He says that while he got good responses, he had a hard time selling it because it seemed to straddle the line between YA and adult fiction. After more than 75 rejections, he found an agent who believed in the book and the two began to send it out to publishers. They got so many rejections that his agent suggested he start writing another book, which he did.

But then one day he got a text from her that said an editor at Penguin was interested in the book. “I’ll never forget it. I got really nervous about it,” he says. “I didn’t want to do the call at home, because I knew I’d be interrupted by kids and dogs, so I ended up going to Full Moon Bar-B-Que. It was empty because it was four in the afternoon. I ordered some fries so they wouldn’t look at me funny. And I just stared at my phone.” The phone call went well—Penguin wanted the book—and The Year of the Storm was published in 2013.

Mantooth is working on his second novel now. He gets a lot of his writing done in the summers, when school is on break, as well as early in the mornings and during afternoons in coffee shops. He says that at the beginning of his writing career, he forced himself to meet a daily quota of words, but these days, he doesn’t mind taking a day off. But it’s never long before he starts craving that creative release. “Part of it’s that I enjoy being by myself and thinking about things,” he says. “If I can’t write for three or four days, I’m just a headache to deal with. And there’s nothing that feels better than being published. I don’t always enjoy it every day when I sit down to write, but I couldn’t stop.”

His work is mostly dark, which you might not suspect upon meeting him. He attributes it partly to what he began reading as a kid; his dad let him delve into his bookshelf, which was full of Stephen King and Elmore Leonard. Mantooth loved that kind of stuff—mystery and horror and psychological thrillers. When he was in his 20s, his tastes changed a bit, and he says he gravitated toward more literary, but still dark, fiction. So it made sense that his own stories would follow suit. “People ask me why I’m drawn to dark stuff,” he says. “It’s not the dark stuff I’m drawn to. It’s finding a tiny light in the darkness. Those are the kinds of stories I like: Things are pretty bleak, but you can find some kind of light.

“That’s kind of like life. And I’m hoping—if I’m doing this right—that at the end there will be a little bit of hope.”

 

Patti Callahan Henry

When Henry was a child, she was probably asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. And while she wrote a book at the age of 10, she never answered that question with, “a writer,” or, “an author.” Instead, she got her degree in nursing. Though she wrote through that time, it wasn’t until she was an adult that she realized that’s really what she wanted to be. “I was playing dollhouse with my daughter, and I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She said, ‘A writer of books.’ This comment stunned me into one of the uncommon ‘aha’ moments we have in our lives. ‘That’s what I want to be,’ I said. And I started at that moment. I didn’t think long about what kind of book I wanted to write; I already knew what I wanted to write—the same kinds of books I read. I wanted to write a novel about families and love and loss and as Faulkner says, ‘A heart in conflict with itself.’”

Henry wrote for years before she began to pursue being published in 2000. She sent her work to agents in old-fashioned envelopes (by snail mail) and secured an agent. The first novel she’d written, Between the Tides, was published as her fourth, and her second novel, Losing the Moon, became her first published piece (it was published by Penguin in 2004.) She’s written 10 novels altogether and is a New York Times bestselling author. Her work has been featured in Good Housekeeping, skirt! magazine, South magazine, and Southern Living. She plans on continuing to write, because “stopping would feel like death.”

She says that there’s no typical day for her, writing or otherwise, but she tries to do her creative writing in the mornings. “It is definitely not what I expected. If I had ever imagined being a writer, I would have imagined it as a much more glamorous career than it actually is,” she says. “The hardest part about being a writer is the fear that my words aren’t saying what I want them to say, that my story (the one I see in my mind) isn’t coming across on the page. The most rewarding part is the positive reaction from readers, the relationships built from the story.”

What she loves about writing is watching the story take shape; as you go on, it becomes tangible. “What I love about the actual act is watching the story come alive, slowly, letter by letter, word by word. I don’t hate anything about it at all. Why writing? Because I always want to know what happens next.”

While some might say that writers are a curious bunch—perhaps it takes a certain kind of person to write stories all day (or, rather, to try to write stories all day)—Henry wouldn’t. “I don’t think I’m different at all. I think we are all searching for meaning; we are all yearning for connection. If a writer is different than anyone else, I think it might be the amount of time we spend alone with our thoughts and stories,” she says. “Yes, it can be boring and lonesome. But it can also be exhilarating, freeing, and exciting. So as with anything in life, you take the good with the bad.”

Henry’s latest novel is the aptly titled The Stories We Tell, published by St. Martin’s Press in June of 2014.

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