Dividing her time between New York City and the coast of Maine, Beth Gutcheon has been making a living for over thirty years as a full-time writer. She has seven novels in print as well as two works of non-fiction. Her most recent novel is Leeway Cottage with Good-bye and Amen coming soon. To keep things exciting, between novels Beth has worked as a screen writer. You might recognize the Lifetime TV film The Good Fight starring Christine Lhati and Terry O’Quinn. Please enjoy getting to know this talented author.
Moe: Looking back, did you choose the writing profession or did the profession choose you? When did you ‘know’ you were a writer?
Beth Gutcheon: Writing chose me; what I wanted to do was read, but I couldn’t figure out how to get paid to do that. I find writing hard – I think most real writers do – but getting published was never hard for me, so that seemed like a clue that it was something I could do.
Moe: Every writer has a method to his or her writing. On a typical writing day, how would you spend your time?
Beth Gutcheon: I work five days a week, at home, in silence. Ideally I talk to no one until I’ve either done my required number of words or been at work a certain number of hours, five or six. I do speak briefly to the dog walker at midday, usually about the state of the dog’s bowels.
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?
Beth Gutcheon Once I’ve started writing, I’d say it’s usually six to nine months before I have a draft someone can read. My work rule is that at the start of the writing day I am allowed to polish the work of the day before, but not to go further back. I do no major revisions until I’ve written the end, because you never really know what a story means until you know how it ends.
Moe: When you sit down to write is any thought given to the genre or type of readers?
Beth Gutcheon: I always think of my readers. I do think, always, that if they are as I imagine them, on their deathbeds they will not be regretting things they didn’t do, but all the books they meant to get to but never did. So if they are going to grant me any of their precious lifetime booklist slots, I want to be sure it’s worth it – that they are entertained, that they will learn things and feel things, and that when they get to the end they will really know they’ve been somewhere.
Moe: When it comes to plotting, do you write freely or plan everything in advance?
Beth Gutcheon: I always know before I begin what the setting is, who the major characters are, how the arc of the book will look and what ending I’m heading for. I know what the book is about. But that leaves a great deal that has to evolve as I go along.
Moe: What kind of research do you do before and during a new book? Do you visit the places you write about?
Beth Gutcheon: I prefer to research by reading when possible. I’ll ask for specialized help from humans when I need it, but I never know what I’m looking for until I find it; if someone is trying to help me by talking to me, it’s harder to negotiate through what I can’t use to find what I can. I do absolutely visit places I write about, if I don’t already know them well.
Moe: Where do your characters come from? How much of yourself and the people you know manifest into your characters?
Beth Gutcheon: The personality and biographical details of each character have to be very real to me, but often they are constructed out of very small bits of things I know or have seen. I build a biography for each important character before I start writing, and often, when doing a major revision, I will change something major, like the character’s name, so that the whole person evolves away from the little shiny bits of real data I started with.
Moe: Can you share three things you’ve learned about the business of writing since your first publication?
Beth Gutcheon: The worst possible reason to use something in a story is “it really happened.”
Be very careful about whom you show early drafts to. Be sure you know what kind of readers they are, that they like the kind of book you are trying to write, and be sure that they truly wish you to succeed, both consciously and unconsciously.
Your agent is the most important professional relationship you will have. Find someone who believes in your work, to whom your success is important, who can also get her phone calls returned.
Moe: What is your latest release about?
Beth Gutcheon: My forthcoming novel, Good-bye and Amen, follows Leeway Cottage, and is about the next generation of the characters in Leeway Cottage.
Moe: What kind of books do you like to read?
Beth Gutcheon: Books of letters. Biography, literary fiction. Some poetry. I review audio books as well, and through my ears like to read more plot-driven fiction, and mysteries. At the moment I am reading the John P. Marquand novel Sincerely, Willis Wayde, because a reading group I visited recommended it (it is wonderful), the letters of Kingsley Amis, and the poems of Robert Hass.
Moe: New writers are always trying to glean advice from those with more experience. What suggestions do you have for new writers?
Beth Gutcheon: Be sure you are writing in the right form. There are many young ones trying to write short stories, because short stories are what is most taught, when their gift is more suited to longer fiction. Think hard about what you most like to read, and don’t be afraid to try the long form. Or, be afraid, but try anyway, if novels are what you love to read.
Beth Gutcheon: If I weren’t a writer I hope I’d be a librarian.
Moe: What is your favorite word?
Beth Gutcheon: Favorite word! What a great question. I’ll let you know in a year or two.
- Purchase a copy of Leeway Cottage from Amazon.com.
- Purchase a copy of Leeway Cottage from Amazon.ca.
My interview with Beth Gutcheon was originally published 12/27/2007 at Literary Fiction, BellaOnline.
Visit Beth Gutcheon’s official website.