Today we’re delighted to be joined by Charleen Hurtubise, whose debut novel The Polite Act of Drowning is also the first work of fiction from new Irish publisher Eriu. Charleen explains how she turned her ‘quiet novel’ into a slow build-up towards a massive storm
Photograph: Brideen Baxter and Deci Gallen/Simple Tapestry
Did you always want to be a writer?
I really struggled in the early years of school. My handwriting and spellings were atrocious, and I was terribly shy. I had an amazing imagination though, and lived in this fantasy world inside my head, so much so I failed 3rd grade.
My next 3rd grade teacher was a wonderful woman called Mrs. Giraud. She was one of those people for whom teaching was a craft. She entered us into a programme called Young Authors Conference.
I wrote a little book called The Camping Trip. It was very underwhelming, but from there on out, I was always writing.
My mother’s friend, who was also a teacher, and had great empathy for me as a struggling student, noticed me making these little stories, and one day announced to my family: Charleen is your writer. I believed her. I’ve been writing ever since.
In 2017, you were longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize – did this boost your confidence and spur you on?
Absolutely. Every ‘yes’ along the way, no matter how small, drives you toward what might be next, what could be possible. I think they are kin to the reward system that makes video games so addictive!
Publishing a small piece or receiving acknowledgment in some way are signals to keep going.
Equally, the ‘no’ responses can be a punch in the gut. This is where the support of writing friends is so important. We celebrate each other’s victories and help absorb the blows because we have all faced them.
You completed an MFA in Creative Writing at University College Dublin in 2016. Can you tell us a little about this experience and how it helped you on the path to publication?
I know people who have found an MFA programme to be the making of them as writers. The MFA I took was mostly about constructing a novel and if I’m being quite honest, it wasn’t the place for me at the time. Institutions can be strange places to play with your creativity.
I was also at the beginning of a very dark time in my life. My mother was becoming ill back in Michigan and I was at cliff edge with a mental health crisis I hadn’t seen coming.
Later, when I found the thing I needed to write about: the metaphorical connection between mental illness and women drowning in their everyday lives, I came back to some of the more useful experiences I had at UCD, namely conversations on craft with Lia Mills and exposure to various authors on her stellar reading list, and also Frank McGuinness’s electric Jane Austen seminars.
Outside of these experiences, the most beneficial course I took on the craft of writing was a one-day workshop with Claire Keegan: How Fiction Works. Reading her stories, she clearly knows how it works, and she understands how to teach it.
You also taught creative writing workshops at UCD – what was the most common mistake you saw emerging writers making?
The workshops I ran at UCD were electives for undergraduate students, some of them exploring creative writing for the first time. At this entry point, there are few mistakes you can make, except for worrying too much about what you write.
It is a stage to experiment, emulate writers we love, play with language. I took one of these courses myself on my undergraduate degree in Michigan where a well-established professor told us weekly our writing was rubbish and no one would ever care about our characters. We were all something like 18 or 19 years old. It was grim.
So, I would say don’t worry about making mistakes – read and write, and you’ll eventually write yourself into the thing you need to say.
And take a workshop with Claire Keegan!
You’re represented by Grainne Fox, a literary agent originally from Dublin who now lives in New York. How did this come about and how has Grainne helped you with your writing career?
I first heard about Gráinne Fox when I was in residence with one of her clients at an artist’s retreat. Her client, an author I admire for both her writing and her composure, spoke about her agent with glowing admiration, and by the end of our conversation, I knew this was someone I would love to work with.
Gráinne knows the industry, she is level-headed, and without a doubt I trust her. She helps me make sense of the complicated world that is publishing, grounds me with solid advice, and keeps me focused on the goals worth striving towards.
Your debut novel was the first fiction acquisition made by Eriu, a new publisher in Ireland headed up by Deirdre Nolan. Can you tell us how this deal came about?
I had been writing novels for ten years before Deirdre discovered my work. I wrote three other novels for the Young Adult market. Two were quite dire, but one was pretty good, and had some interest at the time, which was very exciting but ultimately didn’t get published.
When I finally worked out I was trying to write a novel about a young adult rather than for young adults, The Polite Act of Drowning came to life. Even so, it took two years of submissions and so many ‘positive’ rejections on the book I couldn’t even count.
Publishers would say wonderful things about the writing and the book and then the last sentence always ended with the work being a little too quiet for them.
I tried to find ways to make it not so quiet, but ultimately, it is a story of a woman drowning, politely and quietly, in her everyday life, so I hadn’t many ideas on how to loud it up.
I had almost given up on the whole thing when writing friends told me about the new Bonnier imprint run by Deirdre Nolan. Deirdre wrote to tell me she found my writing extraordinary and wanted to explore the work further.
Deirdre, herself, is extraordinary. She has a strong editorial vision and knows how to guide the structural side of things – she saw where the changes in my story should occur, and her suggestions weren’t massive.
Little ideas such as moving this chapter here, merging those two characters there, make the stakes higher for your protagonist here.
Once I started tucking into the changes, the story started gaining its own traction and my quiet novel turned into a slow build-up towards a massive storm.
I’ve always said having The Polite Act of Drowning in print is all I ever wanted and anything else would be a bonus. Having Deirdre’s unwavering belief and then the backing of the entire Eriu/Bonnier team feels quite special and far beyond anything I initially dared hope!
What kind of discipline does it take to fit writing into your daily life? Do you have any rituals that help to inspire your writing?
I work full-time and have three children. I know a lot of people who are able to rise early and write for an hour a day or in the evening. Unfortunately, my energy doesn’t work that way. I need large swathes of time where I can enter the space I need for writing.
I lock myself in a room at weekends or take residencies at artist retreats such as Tyrone Guthrie Centre. I can work on a novel for 13 uninterrupted hours, day after day, once I have these conditions, so residencies are really important for me in generating the first draft of a novel.
Once I break the back of the work, an hour here and there for editing or structural changes is fine, but I usually have to fight for the time. I can see why people who receive bursary awards in order to take time for their writing call it life-changing.
What has been the highlight of your writing career?
Finding a writing community. I’ve been given so many opportunities through the Irish Writers Centre and have met other artists and writers along the way, including my involvement on the X Borders programme, and the residency at Cill Rialaig where I spent ten days with a group of fabulous writers (and one ghostly presence!) in my own cottage atop a cliff.
I find this advice Anne Sexton once gave to an aspiring poet quite true: make contact with others such as you. They are just as lonely, just as ready, and will help you far more than the distant Big Name Poet.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given?
This is beginning to sound like a fan letter, but of course, it comes from Claire Keegan’s workshop: let go of an idea, which is the weakest thing. Let go of an idea and listen to what the paragraph is trying to do with you rather than force it into a place where you think it should go. In this way, you’ll discover your narrative.
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