Interviewed by Sandra Parshall
Carolyn Wall was happily anticipating publication of her first novel, Sweeping Up Glass, by Poisoned Pen Press when she received astonishing news: Bantam/Random House had bought the rights from PPP. The book has since been sold in a number of foreign countries for publication next year. Under the agreement, PPP retains the right to publish a 1,000-copy special edition next month.
Sweeping Up Glass isn’t crime fiction in any conventional sense, although crimes occur in the story, and Bantam will publish it as literary fiction. It’s told in the striking voice of Olivia Harker Cross, who struggles to keep a small grocery store going in rural Kentucky during the Depression, while she raises her grandson, looks after her mentally ill mother, and tries to protect the silver-faced wolves that are being killed by hunters on her land. Olivia’s poor, segregated community hides devastating secrets, and when the silence is broken the truth threatens to destroy Olivia unless she finds the strength to fight for herself and for the very people who have betrayed her.
Carolyn is a freelance writer and lives in Oklahoma. I recently talked with her about the unexpected turn in her career and how it has affected her life.
What an exciting time this must be for you! How did you find out about Bantam’s offer? What was your first reaction? How have your family and friends reacted?
I didn’t know anything about all this until the deals were well underway, some of them completed -- and thank goodness! Robert [Rosenwald, publisher of Poisoned Pen Press] called me and asked if I was sitting down. So I sat. In the days following that phone call, my feelings were divided into three categories: Well, sure (I’d put in my three million words and always believed I’d write a bestseller), Still grinding away (scrambling for freelance work, putting together writing classes, couldn’t stop struggling uphill) and What’s my name? (often accompanied by What town is this?)
My family and friends have cheered and cried and thrown parties and dinners and celebrated. My family has smiled so much, I suspect their faces hurt.
When do you expect the Bantam edition to be published? Will it be hardcover or paperback?
Bantam’s edition will first be hardcover and then paperback. I don’t know for sure, but I’d look for Glass in hardcover early next summer. The deal also involves a second novel, hardcover and then paperback.
You’ve already been through the editing process with PPP. Is the book being re-edited at Bantam? Since you submitted the book to PPP, a mystery publisher, I assume you think of it as a mystery, but Bantam will publish it as literary fiction. Will the two versions be substantially different?
Bantam will look to see if they want revisions. My editor, Kate Miciak, told one of the overseas publishers that she’d “read it with her heart, now she would read it with her head.” Truly, I don’t expect much in the way of change, but you never know, and I’m willing to try things. I’m not surprised that the book will be considered literary fiction. I’ve always thought of it as “suspense,” murder included.
What was the inspiration for the story? Were you already familiar with the setting and the time period, or did you have to do quite a bit of research?
In the book, Olivia’s life is much like mine was, at least until she is nine or ten – although at that time I hadn’t been born yet, and I’m not from Kentucky. But those and a few other fictionalizations gave me a cushion for a very painful story. From then on, we pick up more fiction, lots of symbolism. And yes, I researched the time period and the place.
Where does the title come from?
The title is the story’s theme: You think all the bad things have happened, and you’ve swept up the glass. But the hard stuff keeps coming – what do you want to do? Keep on sweeping, or take a stand?
Was this the first novel you’d written? If not, would you tell us about your previous efforts to break into print?
While this is my first novel to be sold, I wrote three “learning books”. It takes a while to figure it out. Meanwhile, I sold hundreds of articles and short stories. But when I sat down to write my first scene from Glass, I knew it was gold. I just knew.
What is your day job?
I've been a freelance writer for a long time. For fourteen years I was senior staff writer for the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum -- I still write for them -- and fiction editor for Byline magazine for writers. I teach writing to kids and adults, run a prison-writer mentoring service and an editorial service. So I write or edit or teach most of every day. When I've had enough, however, I pack lunch in my purse and go to the movies.
What do you believe are your greatest strengths as a writer? What aspects of craft are you still trying to master?
I guess my strengths lie in "falling into" my characters. I'm working on the pacing and insertion of clues -- how many revelations, when and where.
What writers have inspired you and taught you by example? Whose books do you rush to read as soon as they’re published?
I read everything by James Lee Burke, most of Dean Coontz, all of Diane Mott Davidson. I always loved Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, but my favorite is Lalita Tademy's Cane River.
What’s next for you? Are you working on a new book now? Can you give us a hint of what it’s about?
I'm currently finishing The Coffin Maker, the second book that was part of this "sold package". It's about a woman who builds coffins in her barn in south Texas. The fancy, inlaid, hammered ones are sold across the south as armoires, bridal chests, gun cabinets, coffee tables. But the plain jane models have another purpose. This story is about wrongs that were -- and still are -- perpetrated in Mexico, and how, sometimes, things have to be made right.
Will you be doing any signings and conferences where readers can meet you after the Poisoned Pen Press edition of Sweeping Up Glass comes out?
I'm signing books at The Poisoned Pen [bookstore, in Scottsdale, AZ] the third weekend in August -- check their website --and here in Oklahoma City at Full Circle Bookstore, 50 Penn Place, on Saturday, August 9 at 3 p.m.
In parting, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Oh boy, that's winding me up and turning me on! Well -- write. Write about yourself, your family, your boss, your local supermarket opening. A new ad for your toothpaste tube. Develop an awareness of your presence in every single moment, and your own opinion. And read. Listen to every teacher within reach -- you can sort it all out later and decide what's right for you. Don't ever let anyone tell you you can't. Pretend you're Alice, and go bravely down the rabbit hole.