Last summer, on a road trip to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, I picked up a book I thought looked pretty interesting. This book was meant to simply pass the time; to be something I could read until I got to the beach and was able to see the ocean and all the wonderful things it had to offer my senses. As it turned out, the book I bought, titled Speak Softly, She Can Hear by Pam Lewis, very nearly trumped Myrtle Beach in the way of excitement and sheer awesomeness. Not that the beach wasn’t cool… but this book really just had a profound effect on me. It made me want to be a better writer.
I’ve since read everything else by Pam Lewis that I could get my hands on, and I’ve loved every one of her novels. I was dying to get her on here for an interview, and have since found her to be as kind and fascinating as I imagined she would be. Visit her at: http://www.pamlewisonline.com/
Q: What is your favorite part of the writing process?
A: I’m a visual writer and when things are going well, I see what’s happening as if it’s being played out in a movie. At those times I can barely keep up the pace, writing as I watch and listen to what’s going on with my characters. This always comes in a rush, misspelled, poorly punctuated, but I get the sketch down and then the fun is in going over it, taming it, making it work. I often work with my eyes closed, the better to concentrate on what I’m seeing.
Q: Which of your characters has been the most fun to write?
A: Luther North is a guy in his late fifties, a rangy, outdoor person who is in charge of thirty hikers who have come from the east coast to hike in the Yellowstone wilderness. He’s a wonderful, careful leader, the kind of guy with whom people feel entirely safe. He’s inspired by my late husband who had all these excellent qualities, and the fun is recreating him in a new, perilous situation. There are so many issues around wild places – how to handle wildlife encounters, how to manage many competing interests in national parks, how to sort through all the opinions about all this to come out with a purpose and a plan. This, by the way is happening in the book I’m currently working on.
Q: What inspired Speak Softly She Can Hear?
A: It’s difficult to pick out one inspiring idea for this book as there were so many over a period of years, but one image often came to mind during the writing of the book that I will tell you about.
As sixteen-year-old juniors in high school, my friends and I went to Stowe for a week of skiing. We stayed in a dorm much like the Double Hearth of the novel. My sister and her friends were there as well and at some point during the week, my friends and I decided we didn’t like the supervision that was being provided by the older girls. Full of a sense of freedom to do whatever we wanted, we went up the road to a motel, planning to take a room and be on our own. The motel owner threw open the door to one of the rooms so we could see, apparently thinking it was unoccupied. There on the bed was a girl about our age, drunk and passed out. Beside her on the night table was a half-empty bottle of liquor. I was shocked, as were my friends. We all fled back to the security of the dorm and the supervision, but the image never left me of a girl with too much freedom too young. I’m still haunted by that image and it became the idea behind the novel: how a single wrong choice can completely alter a person’s life.
Q: My favorite character in that novel was Eddie. Do you think he was likable?
A: You did? Wow. Eddie is certainly a charmer, but that’s all he has going for him. I never found him likable; he scared me every time he showed up .In fact, in the first draft he appeared only in the first chapter. Little
by little he insisted on being present for the entire novel. He came back gradually over several revisions and every time he appeared, he scared me more.
Q: Do you do outlines?
A: I worked with a freelance editor for Speak Softly, She Can Hear and she demanded an outline, so I came up with one and found the process extremely difficult. It felt very limiting to lay out all the action in advance. But I was very glad I’d done it, and with subsequent books, yes, I do outline but roughly. I like knowing approximately where I’m headed, but I never produce a step-by-step guide for getting there. Mostly what I have in mind, what the outline consists of, is the arc of the novel, how it starts and how it ends, with a vague sense of what’s in the middle. I like to outline knowing that it can all change considerably.
Q: What is the most fascinating thing you can tell us about your grandmother?
A: My grandmother was fifteen when she left the Netherlands and went to Comodoro Rivadavia Argentina with a 45-year-old man (my grandfather). It was a terrible scandal. They married (I believe) and once in a while they traveled by ship to Buenos Aires. On one of these journeys, the ship caught fire and the crew took off with all the lifeboats. My grandfather fought his way onto one of them and to persuaded the others to allow my grandmother onboard. She was pregnant with my mother at the time. My grandmother described this in detail in a piece she submitted to the Readers Digest who used to solicit stories of true life adventure. She described the way the water was lit from underneath and seeing people she knew plummet through the bright blue water. Not until she was in the lifeboat did she realize a shark had bitten through her calf.
Q: Is your family supportive of your writing career?
A: Oh yes. They’re thrilled. My sons, my sister. Two of my mother’s sisters are living. One of them helped with the background for A Young Wife and accompanied me to The Netherlands to research the story. The other will be one hundred this year, and I have not told her about the book. It’s not so much that she would disapprove; more that she would not understand the concept of fiction, and the inaccuracies, the departures from reality would drive her crazy.
Q: What was the biggest hurdle in your writing career and how did you overcome it?
A: After having some success with short stories I acquired a fairly high-powered agent and sent her an early draft of Speak Softly, She Can Hear. I had the very naïve belief that she would take it and sell it without hesitation. Instead she called and kept me on the phone for about forty-five minutes telling how much she did not like the book. I was devastated. Really destroyed. My late husband (on whom the hike leader in the novel-in-progress is based) was very sympathetic and told me we should get in the car and go to a hike we enjoyed nearby. I said I couldn’t possibly: I was suffering from this rejection too deeply. I really felt almost paralyzed by the rejection. In the end he prevailed and we hiked. Midway through I realized I hadn’t thought about the rejection at all and discovered the immense value of physical activity. I sent it to another agent who had, I have to admit, many of the same complaints as the first one. I had to swallow the fact that there was truth in what they said and use the information to improve the story. These rejections, painful as they were, lit a fire under me, I doubled down. I rewrote that book three times in its entirety, determined to get it right.
Q: How many years of writing did you do before you got a book published?
A: I began writing seriously at the age of 39 and my first book was taken when I was 59, so twenty years. I never counted on publication. I hoped for it, wished for it, but knew better than to expect it, certainly knew better than to expect I might earn a living at it.
Q: Which character was hardest to write?
A: The characters I don’t like are difficult to write because the temptation is to make them one-dimensional. Eddie Lindbaeck comes to mind. He was a lowlife, but every lowlife is the way he is for a reason and for Eddie, it was coming from a family with a great deal of money who neglected him and ultimately cut him off. Tinker Carteret is another such character. She’s annoying, officious, bossy. But she’s had a lifetime of being the ugly, responsible, overweight sister. I need to feel compassion for the characters I don’t like. It makes them easier to write.
Q: When you first got published, how did you celebrate?
A: I bought something called a body-bridge. It’s a sort of padded table shaped like a half circle. It’s great for relieving stress and stretching my back after I’ve spent time on the computer.
Q: What has been the most rewarding part of writing for you?
A: I made the mistake many years ago of telling people I was working on a novel. This generated persistent questions such as did I have a publisher? What else had I written? I regretted having told people but at the same time, I saw myself not just as a writer of marketing materials for insurance companies, but as someone who also had artistic ambitions. So it was vanity, I know. Nevertheless, over the years, the recurring question was, “so, how’s the novel coming?” And my replay was always, “Oh, it’s coming along.” I had the feeling people felt sorry for me and thought I was banging my head against a wall.
One day I was hiking with my usual group and one of the people asked me that question. How’s the novel coming. I was able to say “Great! Simon and Schuster is publishing it next year.” That was absolutely the most rewarding moment, followed by many others exactly the same.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: As usual the new novel has no title. I call it bearnovel. It’s based on many experiences my late husband and I had leading hikes in faraway places with groups of people who usually didn’t’ know one another and among whom there were always some difficult people. It will take place in the wilds of Yellowstone and will include a predatory bear and a group of hikers who become isolated from the world by terrible weather conditions.
Q: What does your writing space look like?
A: I’ve recently changed my writing space. I now have a glass-topped desk that looks out a very large picture window over the woods on the east side of the house. I live in the woods and it’s common for deer, owls, hawks, raccoons and other creatures to pass by. I try to keep all the surfaces free of clutter, but am not always successful.
Q: Do you have any pet peeves about your writing style?
A: Yes! I play far too much Scrabble and solitaire online. But I understand that Joan Didion does this too, at least the solitaire part. This is the second piece of comfort I’ve had from reading about her. Years ago, when I was doing some journalism I read that she was capable of spending a full afternoon in a motel room working up the courage to call the person she was supposed to be interviewing. I can relate to that. It can take me days to make necessary phone calls. I should add that I am comparing myself to her in only those two ways.
Q: What is your all-time favorite book?
A: My all-time favorite book is R.W.B Lewis’s Edith Wharton biography. It changed my life many years ago to read of her story so beautifully written. Another of my all-time favorites is Drop City by TC Boyle. Into Thin Air by John Krakauer also comes to mind. For older books, The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler and just about everything by Edgar Allen Poe.
Q: What makes you laugh out loud?
A: I laugh easily and often at all sorts of things. Life’s foibles make me laugh out loud. So does my sister, my sons and my grandsons. It can be about anything. When I’m in their presence I know I’ll laugh, so I do. Very recently I saw a movie called 21 Jump Street by myself and I laughed out loud. The poet Bruce Cohen makes me laugh out loud. So does the short-story writer Leslie Johnson, the novelist Wally Lamb and the short story writer Sari Rosenblatt.. These people can all make me laugh so hard my cheeks hurt.