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Author Q&A: Carly Anne West

Carly Anne West is the author of the Young Adult novels THE MURMURINGS and THE BARGAINING (Simon Pulse, 2013, 2015). Her short stories have appeared in various literary journals, among them WatchwordJersey Devil PressSPECTRUM,  and Paper Lantern. She was a nominee for the 2007 Best New American Voices anthology and an honorable mention for Glimmertrain’s  Very Short Fiction Awards. THE BARGAINING appears on the shortlist for the Oklahoma Library Association’s 2017 Sequoyah Book Awards Masterlist. She lives and writes near Portland, Oregon with her family. Follow her on Twitter @CarlyAnneWest1 and on Facebook at facebook.com/carlyannewest.

TBL Author Q&A Series: Carly Anne West

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path?

It’s strange, but I didn’t consider becoming a writer of books when I decided I wanted to write at first. I thought a career in film would satisfy the urge more. I took some film classes in college, and finally enrolled in a screenwriting class, only to be told by the teacher that I might as well be writing novels because my scene set-ups were paragraphs long (a big no-no in screenwriting). So I didn’t do well in the class, but it was just the comment I needed to nudge me in the right direction. It wasn’t until I won a writing contest a few years later that I finally gathered the nerve to apply to my dream graduate program—Mills College. I would say my time at Mills cemented my path, or at least the desire to forge that particular path.

You’ve published several books—what can you tell us about the publication process? How would you evaluate your own experience with getting your work printed? How has that shifted over time?

I recently stumbled on a massive stack of envelopes—all with my name and address in my handwriting, all containing a cover letter and one of a handful of stories I’ve written over the years. For some reason, I kept all of these returned stories that were rejected by a slew of editors at literary magazines from here to Cork, Ireland. I had this ritual of sending the stories, highlighting the journal on a spreadsheet, then updating the spreadsheet with a highlight once they were returned: gray for no, yellow for yes, orange for who the hell knows because it’s been fifteen months and they either never received it or hated it or never read it because they spilled coffee all over the fifth page. For a long time, I couldn’t bring myself to shred those stories because it felt like they were stuck in this endless cycle of rejection and rebirth. I think I finally dumped them during this last move. Most had found homes at loving journals, and the ones that didn’t, I knew they lived on in a folder or in my brain somewhere, and they might just live for one more round someday. They might be reborn into a novel if they’re strong enough. But I guess I don’t see them as losses anymore because they all end up feeding some story or another at some point. And hopefully the shreds are now slathered across some kid’s papier mâché dinosaur now. I’d give anything for a papier mâché T-rex of someone’s mulched stories.

Can you discuss the themes and topics that entice and inspire you most? In what ways has your writing evolved throughout your career?

I’ve always been drawn to odd, atmospheric writing, the kind that leaves you unsettled without knowing exactly why (think Shirley Jackson). For me, when I write, themes more often than not take the form of fear. For my novels, that fear manifests in supernatural ways, but in my writing for adults—particularly in short stories—I think that fear takes shape as a reticence to recognize one’s own shortcomings, at least at first. Most of my protagonists are outsiders, cagey or desperately shy, and longing to connect. Some of them are overtly outgoing, but rarely are they self-possessed. My favorite combo of all time is the sad-scary pairing. I love when a ghost story has a melancholy twist, so I think when my characters are parsing through whatever it is that haunts them, it’s most often tragedy. I know, it’s morbid. But I live for that stuff.

You mention writing for adults, but you’ve also written extensively for teens—does the writing process differ when you write for one group versus the other? Do you feel that you ever censor yourself when writing YA?

I think a lot of people are shocked by the answer I give to this one (and a lot of YA writers give)—but, no. No, the process doesn’t change all that much for me, and nope, no censoring. There are tropes that are sometimes more successfully exercised in a teen story than in an adult one, and the reverse is of course true, too, but if I’ve learned anything from being a teen, it’s that I’ve learned virtually nothing. I’m continuing to work through those same issues I was when I was sixteen, just in adult form now. I’m still cripplingly insecure, and it’s basically about the same stuff that stymied me when I was younger. I just have (sometimes) more adult coping mechanisms for dealing with it now. And I can write about it, something I didn’t necessarily give myself permission to do before. Teens are way too smart to be censored, and honestly, I just wouldn’t want to. Some of the scariest stuff in life happens when we’re young. I can’t think of a better time to set a ghost story, and I can’t think of a more receptive, understanding audience than adolescents.

Who are some of your greatest literary influences?

Oh! The impossible question! I mean, they’re endless. I already mentioned Shirley Jackson, but she’s worthy of a million mentions. Of course Poe and Dostoevsky and Kafka, but also Bernard Malamud and William Faulkner, and Lorrie Moore and Victor LaValle and Yiyun Li and Mary Karr and Sherman Alexi. And I could be here all day listing young adult authors I admire and adore.

What would you say is the most important element for crafting a story, or for discovering a new mode of creativity?

Of course this varies for everyone, and I think it probably changes for me every couple of years or so, but I think I’m finding lately that the biggest creativity killer for me is outlining too soon in the process. Some writers live by the outline, and God I wish I was one of them. Sadly, I think it only serves to suck the life out of my characters when I try to figure them out too soon. If I rush it in any way—if I try to make the plot happen before the characters are ready to tell me what the story is—the story is dead on arrival. If I don’t have a pretty solid understanding of the character, her primary struggle, and a pretty strong sense of place, then my plots feel too thin. And I have a really hard time going back and filling them out after that. Adding to the fun is that sometimes all of it comes fast like a flood, other times like a trickle. Again, I can’t force it. If it’s a flood, hooray! If it’s a trickle, I just have to be patient (shudders).

In terms of publication, is there something in particular that you look for when approaching a press? Both of your books, The Bargaining and The Murmurings, were published by the same publishing house. I wonder what factors played into you choosing and developing relationships with this press, and if there are any particular elements that caused you to remain with them for both books.

Publishing is still a world I’m learning, and I might never fully learn it. Fortunately for me, I have an incredible literary agent. Great agents like him keep a finger on the pulse of which imprints and editors are looking for which types of stories. The Murmurings and The Bargaining were sort of a blend of contemporary and horror, and he knew Simon Pulse liked stories that sort of skirted that edge. I was thrilled to end up there.

You’ve lived in several different parts of the country—how has moving around so much shaped your writing?

Every time I’ve moved, I’ve had to grope my way toward a new community. Finding my people has become an exhausting but totally worthwhile part-time job. Writers can be especially hard to find. We like to hide, you see. But social media can help, and writers know writers who know writers, so oftentimes the friends I’ve made have been through third party connections and random one-offs on Twitter. All that searching, though, has reminded me again and again what it’s like to feel isolated and afraid, which is what it often felt like to be a kid. My husband calls me a functioning introvert, and I think that’s fairly accurate. I also think there are a lot of functioning introverts out there, and it makes genuine connections that much more precious when they happen. I write a lot about finding those connections and what happens when we lose them, take them for granted, or exploit them. Betrayal is portrayed a lot as this huge, devastating, cataclysmic event, when in reality, I think we initiate and suffer small betrayals every day. Some of them have bigger consequences than others. That’s interesting territory for me to explore.

Is there a particular achievement or experience that has opened up the most opportunity for your writing?

It could all be in my head, but I think there was a lot to placing my very first short story. I probably wouldn’t have written it today, or I would have written it much differently, but it was where I was at that time, and it embodied a very specific part of my life and my development. Most importantly, I think it gave me a taste of what it was like to write something personal and have someone connect with it. After that, I wanted that feeling again, and desperately. More than confidence, I think it built intention in me. I wanted to write stories that meant something to me, and I very much wanted them to mean something to someone else. It’s like the deepest conversation I’ll never have, but I’ll get close if we see something or hear something or understand something in the same way, in that same moment.

Speaking of first publications, what guidance might you give to fledgling writers/artists?

Writing, like any art…or any endeavor for that matter…will have its critics. The crushing thing about criticism around something as personal as writing and artistic expression is that it becomes insidious. Those critical voices will find their way into your brain and make a little home. They come out of hiding at the worst times, the times when you’re feeling the most vulnerable. Those voices will make you want to quit. Just…don’t. It’s the hardest thing in the world sometimes. But don’t. Find your mentors, find your friends, find your people, find your Twitter buddy or Facebook community. Tell them when you’re feeling vulnerable and let them tell you how amazing you are. Then believe them. If you can, find a writing group, or a team of like-minded people that will prop you up when you need it and challenge you when you think you don’t. But just don’t let those little voices make a permanent camp in your brain. They’re so mean. You don’t deserve it. Give the world your art. Please.

After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?

Well, thank you so much for saying that! I look around at the billions of other more accomplished and painfully talented writers out there and feel like my contributions are miniscule. Honestly, it’s such a blah answer, but my ambition is to keep writing. My intention is to keep writing. My goal is to keep writing, but better. Much better. I want to keep writing and reading and training and working at the craft and learning from the multitudes of brilliant writers out there. Writers are lucky in that their craft is as anonymous as we want it to be. I don’t have to worry that my aging body and deepening wrinkles are going to render me unfairly obsolete. I can keep writing for the rest of my life if I choose, and indeed I choose to do that. I hope that I can continue writing more complex, more nuanced stories and keep reaching more people with those narratives. I see many more ghost stories in my future. There’s frankly just too much that haunts me. As for publishing, I really, really, really hope so. A great deal of that is in the hands of others, but I’ll do everything I can to keep putting work out there.

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