My Summer of Southern Discomfort is Stephanie Gayle’s first novel. This Somerville, Massachusetts native is a MIT Administrative Assistant at Massachusetts Institute of Technology by day and a writer by night; although she likes to think of writing as her full-time job. Stephanie has a great sense of humor, my guess, without even trying. I’m sure you’ll enjoy her interview as much as I did.
Moe: Looking back, did you choose the writing profession or did the profession choose you?
Stephanie Gayle: I don’t believe any profession chooses you. I always had a facility for words and loved to tell stories. I started telling people I was a writer once my novel was bought. That felt great, being able to say, “Oh me? I’m a writer.”
Moe: What inspires you?
Stephanie Gayle: Nature. Good books. Observing people. Reading something I wrote and thinking “not half bad.”
Moe: Every writer has a method to their writing. On a typical writing day, how would you spend your time?
Stephanie Gayle: On a good weekday I get in three hours of writing: one hour at lunch and two hours in the evening after I’ve eaten dinner. On weekends I write first thing in the morning for about two hours. Then I’ll go back and write more throughout the day, depending on what else I have planned.
Moe: How long does it take for you to complete a book you would allow someone to read? Do you write right through or do you revise as you go along?
Stephanie Gayle: At least nine months for one of my writer/editor readers, but for regular folks, closer to three years. My agent had to tell me, “Stephanie, let your mother read the galley of your novel.” I wanted things perfect before anyone saw my story, even my mother, who thinks everything I write is perfect. I revised more as I wrote with my first novel. With my current work in progress I wrote right through and am now editing, scalpel in hand.
Moe: When you sit down to write is any thought given to the genre or type of readers?
Stephanie Gayle: No. I find those thoughts restrictive. I tell myself a story. That’s how it starts.
Moe: When it comes to plotting, do you write freely or plan everything in advance?
Stephanie Gayle: I’m a terrible plotter. I prefer to create strong characters, stick pins in them, and see how they react. In those rare instances where I have plotted at length, the story almost always veers off course. Events evolve and circumstance change, just like life.
Moe: What kind of research do you do before and during a new book? Do you visit the places you write about?
Stephanie Gayle: I do rigorous research before and during the writing of my books. Lots of reading of legal cases, code books, and papers on law. I didn’t visit Macon, a fact that surprises most people who have read My Summer of Southern Discomfort. I couldn’t afford the airfare, so I did loads of research. It’s amazing what good stuff you can find if you look hard enough.
Moe: Where do your characters come from? How much of yourself and the people you know manifest into your characters?
Stephanie Gayle: My characters usually have a trait or two that comes from people I know, but I don’t ever think “let’s rewrite so and so.” Instead I decide that my character, Natalie, is freakishly organized. I think, who do I know like that? I might include a specific trait or detail of that person in Natalie’s make up. For the most part my characters are brand new and I look forward to figuring them out.
Moe: Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If yes, what measures do you take to get past it?
Stephanie Gayle: No, but admitting this makes me nervous. As if some god of writing is going to see this and go “Aha! We missed one!” and then smite me with writer’s block.
Moe: What do you hope readers gain, feel or experience when they read one of your books for the first time?
Stephanie Gayle: I hope they find something true, something they recognize, even if it’s only a tiny detail. I love when an author encapsulates something I’ve seen thousands of times in a new way or in peerless prose. That moment of recognition is powerful. I want to be able to make my readers feel that.
Moe: Can you share three things you’ve learned about the business of writing since your first publication?
Stephanie Gayle: It is a business. Rejection is well and truly not personal. It just feels that way. Have alternate titles for your work prepared in case someone in the publishing house chucks your original title. Scrambling for a new title is not fun at all. Writers are generous people willing to share what they know.
Moe: What is your latest release about?
Stephanie Gayle: My Summer of Southern Discomfort is about Natalie Goldberg, a liberal lawyer from the northeast who impetuously moves to Macon, Georgia and becomes a public prosecutor. She alienates her family, becomes a complete fish out of water, and is then assigned a death penalty case. She’s in trouble because she opposes the death penalty. It’s about her coming to terms with the decisions she’s made and those she plans to make.
The original novel idea was a three part narrative, and Natalie was just the first narrator, but that changed during the writing. The third “main” character as originally conceived isn’t in the book at all.
Moe: What kind of books do you like to read?
Stephanie Gayle: Fiction and quirky non-fiction. I’ve been reading lots of contemporary fiction lately though the last book I read was a biography of famed Australian wallpaper designer, Florence Broadhurst.
Moe: When you’re not writing what do you do for fun?
Stephanie Gayle: I read, I watch movies, I bake, I travel (I’d like to do more of this), I visit museums (the more off-beat the better). I also like to spend time with the friends I don’t see nearly enough of when I’m embroiled in novel writing.
Moe: New writers are always trying to glean advice from those with more experience. What suggestions do you have for new writers?
Stephanie Gayle: Read widely. Ask questions of other writers. Take a writing class or join a good critique group. Keep a notebook by your bed because there is nothing worse than losing those precious 2:00 A.M. bursts of genius. Trust me, you won’t remember them in the morning.
Stephanie Gayle: Less happy. In terms of career, I don’t know. Ambition has never been my strong suit.
Moe: What is your favorite word?
Stephanie Gayle: I’m pretty fond of deciduous and homunculus.
- Indulge in a copy of My Summer of Southern Discomfort at Amazon.com.
- Indulge in a copy of My Summer of Southern Discomfort at Amazon.ca.
My interview with Stephanie Gayle originally published 11/25/2007 at Literary Fiction, BellaOnline.