Interview with Cynthia Hand

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by Rebecca Evans

Suicide. Adoption. Self-Acceptance. Fantasy. History. Women’s Rights. It seems one author can stretch and cover a myriad of hard topics. Cynthia Hand delivers. She approaches writing with humor and heart. I recently had the honor of interviewing Cynthia about her work and her writing process.

Rebecca Evans: Your latest release, The How & the Why (Nov 5 th , HarperTeen) is your first novel that takes place in Idaho. Can you tell me about it?

Cynthia Hand:  The How and the Why is a contemporary young adult novel about two young women: a sixteen-year-old girl residing in a home/school for pregnant teens, writing letters to the unborn child she intends to place for adoption, and the high school senior that child grows up to be, trying to come to terms with her identity. This is my eighth published novel, and yes, it’s the first I’ve written that is set in Idaho! The book centers around Idaho Falls, Boise, and Caldwell. I was born, adopted, and raised in Idaho, so this book is extra special to me. The image on the cover is the actual Booth House, (now known as the Marian Pritchett School) which still serves pregnant teens in the Boise area. I was fortunate to spend time at the school last year, immersing myself in the place and interviewing some of the staff. Those people are the true heroes of today. They make a difference, every day, to these young women.

RE: Can you tell me how place plays a role in your work, especially this one place you’ve
chosen to live, grow, and give back?

CH: When I first started writing seriously at the MFA program at Boise State, I avoided writing about Idaho, mainly because I didn’t want to be viewed as a local. (Laughs) As if being local is so bad. I based my early stories on broader, universal settings. Predictably, no one got very excited about anything I wrote in those first semesters. Then around the third year of my MFA, I studied Flannery O’Connor. She wrote extensively about using the tools only you have, particularly the settings that you know. I decided to re-write my stories to set them in Idaho. That’s when people started to get excited about my work. All of my published short stories occur in Idaho, and one of those stories landed me an agent. In a way, embracing Idaho led to my career as a published author.

I set my first novel in Jackson, Wyoming, with the characters occasionally driving to Idaho Falls to shop for things. That was as close as I got to home in my writing for many years. I was thrilled when The How & The Why unfolded for me as a story, because I’d been wanting to write about Idaho again for years. I loved discovering the details that could bring the state to life for the reader. The novel is a hat tip to Boise State and a love letter to the College of Idaho, where I earned my MFA and my BA, respectively. I wrote the majority of the manuscript from the third floor of the beautiful brand-new library at C of I.

I (gulp) do mention the inversion. I carry a bit of guilt over this, airing anything but the best of Boise, but maybe I’ll help slow the population influx?` The weather reflects the character’s mood in that scene, which is a necessary component. There are numerous touchstones to real location in the book, especially the Boise Public Library and many local restaurants.

RE: Can you speak to the different processes that each of your books has taken? Is there a similar thread to the way you’ve pulled a book together or has each one been an individual method?

CH: Each book is a different process. I wrote my first novel while my two-year-old took his afternoon naps. Back then I wrote from 1-4 pm every day, hurrying to type the words before he woke up. But for the second novel, I had to get away from my computer and all the emails and marketing and noise around the publishing of the first novel. Instead I worked in the Pepperdine University library, where I taught creative writing. I wrote long-hand into a notebook and stayed up late to transfer everything into a Word document. Then I got to writing The Last Time We Say Goodbye, which was based on the experience of my younger brother’s suicide. This work was extremely personal and emotional, and I cried while writing while I worked on it, which understandably worried people in the library, so I hid away in my office to complete the manuscript.

I’ve learned to move back and forth from writing the more personal and therefore sometimes painful “heart books,” as I call them, to penning lighter, funnier books, like the Jane books or The Afterlife of Holly Chase, which is my retelling of A Christmas Carol. This is how I manage emotional intensity.

RE: Tell me how you care for your emotional health while writing about difficult topics.

CH: I don’t write about current emotional events or situations. I need time between the
experience and when I write about it. Time to garner perspective. There are parts of writing tough topics that become cathartic, things that I work through while writing. It helps to have a goal when writing this way, instead of bleeding out onto the page. My goal in writing The Last Time We Say Goodbye was to show reality to teenage readers. Often suicide is depicted romantically on television or in novels. I tried to shed some light on the grittier side. I wanted to show what a family looks like following suicide, including details that most people don’t consider: the clean-up, the thousands of dollars a family pays for burial because most life insurance companies do not cover death by suicide, the therapy, the ostracization of the survivors, the guilt. I wanted teens to see the bad and the ugly as I had known it, not to preach at them that suicide is bad, but simply to give them a truer picture of what it actually means.

With The How & The Why, I had a similar goal: I wanted to show relationships in the adoption triangle in a way that they are not normally presented. As an adoptee I often cringe at the depiction of adoption. There’s generally a search for the adoptee’s “real” parents, or an instant connection once two biological relatives find one another. This grossly oversimplifies, even denigrates, the relationship with the adoptee’s adopted parents. I really felt like I had something to say there.

It was difficult and wildly emotional writing about adoption. I had a much easier experience writing from the point of view of the birth mother. I pulled from my own experience as someone who has worried about bringing a baby into the world. Writing from the adopted child’s perspective was much harder and trickier. It made me ask myself some  uncomfortable questions and venture into painful territory. It was nice to turn, once I finished writing serious material, to writing another Jane book—the fantastical, historical comedies I write with Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows. I needed joy. If I feel low from heavy writing, I’ve learned to take a break and write funny stories instead. That works.

RE: Much of your collaborative work (with your co-authors for the Jane novels) revolves around culture and identity and I wondered if you could talk about how three of you come to a synergy on unfolding the series.

CH: Our first goal was to have fun and make each other laugh. We started writing a book about Lady Jane Grey, who was queen of England for nine days before she was overthrown and beheaded. She’s one of history’s saddest stories, and we wanted to give her the happier ending that she deserved. When that novel took off, (My Lady Jane was a New York Times bestseller and the winner of multiple awards, including the Amelia Bloomer Award for outstanding works of feminism) we explored other stories we wanted to tell. We liked the idea of taking a woman who’d been dealt a bad hand in history and giving her more agency over what happens to her. That is exactly what we’ve done: we’ve written about Jane Eyre / Charlotte Bronte (My Plain Jane) and Martha Canary (My Calamity Jane, out this June) and we’re currently working on a new novel about Mary, Queen of Scots. We think of ourselves as “rectifying history” as a way of honoring those women.

Our writing process together has always been an absolute joy. Our first step is to gather in the same location, rotating between Utah, Virginia, and Idaho (where we each live) over the course of a week. The months leading up to that time are spent outlining and planning out our story. Once together, we each write a chapter from our own character’s point of view. For instance, in My Calamity Jane, I wrote Chapter One as Martha Canary, (aka Calamity Jane) Brodi Ashton wrote Chapter Two as Frank Butler, Jodi Meadows wrote Chapter Three as Annie Oakley, and then, back to me writing Chapter Four as Jane, and so on. We each write a chapter a day. We finish our chapters by dinner and then read out loud to each other. We tweak, make suggestions, laugh, tell better jokes, and plan for the next day. At the end of the week, we’ve completed half of a book. We break for a month, meet again for another week and finish the draft.

RE: You simultaneously work on several bodies of writing, books, sequels, collaborative projects, along with book tours, speaking events and readings. How do you keep organized and moving forward?

CH:  I am a Type A personality and am happiest when everything stays organized. But I have a lot of balls in the air. Some always drop to the floor. Over the years, I’ve learned to roll with it and offer myself grace.

RE: Can you tell me your thoughts of adults reading YA or poetry, stretching their minds into other universes?

CH: A truth universally acknowledged in my business is that more than half of the readership of YA fiction is adults. I think this is a good thing. It speaks to why I love to write and read about teens. That period of life makes good fiction. Your emotions are more heightened, and the stakes seem higher. You are deciding who you are and who you want to be. We all remember this period in our lives. We can relate. It’s a good recipe for storytelling.

My personal pet peeve is when people treat YA like it’s fluff and insinuate it has no substance or value outside of entertaining teenagers. This speaks to how people can be suspect of anything if it’s too popular. It’s a form of good old-fashioned pretension to suspect something of being less-than if too many people like it, similar to the way Martin Scorsese claimed this month that The Avenger films are not cinema. Of course, they’re cinema. There are different forms of art, but it is all art. YA has as much capacity for art as any other medium. It can carry the emotional power and intellectual complexity of literary fiction. The difference is the audience, not the art.

RE: Can you share a few insights into who has influenced your writing the most?

CH: I was wildly influenced by Harper Lee early on. To Kill a Mockingbird was the first book where I understood voice, the flow of words as a kind of music, more than simply laying down events. Then later, Flannery O’Connor, as I mentioned. Hemingway, who is now a bit problematic, but I still learned a lot studying him. Eudora Welty, Alice Walker, Annie Proulx, Toni Morrison, Barbara Kingsolver, and, for humor, anyway, William Goldman. In YA I am hugely influenced by Laurie Halse Anderson, Holly Black, Neil Shusterman, Gayle Forman, And E. Lockhart.

RE: Did any of your work surprise you?

CH: I am constantly surprised by my work. Writing is one-part conscious process and two parts subconscious. Often, I write to discover what I know, rather than writing to tell what I know. I can flip open any of my books and be surprised at what I find there–that those particular words came out of me, it feels like a kind of magic. The characters come to life on their own and make choices I never expected them to make. Holly Chase was a good example of this. I thought I had the ending neatly tied, the expected ending to a Scrooge story. But Holly took a walk in New York City at the end and suddenly changed everything. It was the right ending. It shocked me. I love it when this happens. It’s part of what makes writing worth it.

RE:  What advice do you have for a student of the narrative or literary arts?

CH: The regular stuff: read as much as you can, write as much as you can, pay attention to the world around you, seek out mentors, listen to professional writers. Under all of that is one simple piece of advice: take it seriously. If you want to be a writer, you don’t need someone to hold your hand and teach you tricks. (Although school was enormously helpful for me and is the right path for a lot of people.) In the end, formal school or not, you have to wrestle with the business of being a writer. Study it as an art. Find ways to hone your skills and follow your passions and improve your craft. No one can do that but you.

Bio: Rebecca Evans is a writer with essays and poems published in The Rumpus, Entropy, and Fiction Southeast, to name a few. She served eight years in the Air Force, including service in the Gulf War. With an MFA in creative nonfiction, Evans is now working on an MFA in poetry at Sierra Nevada College. She is currently editing a collection of essays titled Body Language, and just completed her memoir, Navigation.

Side Bar: Cynthia Hand will be appearing on Sunday, November 10th for the Couch Surfer artist event at Radio Boise.

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