Tawni Waters’s debut novel, Beauty of the Broken, was released by Simon and Schuster nine months ago. In addition to winning the prestigious International Literacy Association’s Award for Young Adult Literature, it won the Housatonic Book Award, was named an exceptional book of 2015 by the Children’s Book Council, was shortlisted for the Reading the West Book Award, and was included on the Kansas State Reading Circle List. Her first poetry collection, Siren Song, was released by Burlesque Press in 2014. Her work was featured in Best Travel Writing 2010 and has been published in myriad journals and magazines. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans and teaches creative writing at various universities and writers retreats throughout the U.S. and Mexico. In her spare time she talks to angels, humanely evicts spiders from her floorboards, and plays Magdalene to a minor rock god.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on all the good things coming to you and Beauty of the Broken. It’s your first published novel, but not your first attempt at a novel, correct? Can you share that journey with us—what you learned from your earlier endeavors and what kept you going?
Tawni Waters: Thank you, Curt! Beauty of the Broken is, in fact, one of five novels I’ve written. It was agented in 2000 and didn’t sell, so I shoved it in a drawer. Once in a while, I’d take it out, dust it off, and work on it—I worked on it quite extensively during my MFA program—but in many ways, I’d given up on it. I was actually shopping another novel when I met my agent, Andy Ross. He was a huge fan of my writing but didn’t think the novel I was working on was marketable, so he asked if I had anything else. I sent him Beauty of the Broken, and he fell in love with it. We had interest from multiple publishers almost immediately.
Obviously, I went for years writing novels and not selling them, and it was, at times, horribly discouraging. I was tempted to give up. But giving up writing for me was like giving up breathing. I could quit for 30 seconds or so, but it never worked out long term. I love writing. I can’t conceive of a life without it. And while I write creative nonfiction and poetry, my favorite genre will always be fiction. So I write novels for fun more than anything else.
I learned so much from writing each of the novels I wrote. A novel is an immense, unwieldy thing, and I think the only way you can truly learn to manage things like pacing and plotting in larger works is by writing them, sometimes badly. I feel like now, having edited a book with the help of my agent, and then Simon & Schuster, I finally have a innate handle on those elements. My most recent novel, The Air She Breathes, was much easier to write than Beauty of the Broken or any of my other novels. It was a much more natural process because I’d practiced so much. I’m sure a few of my novels will never be published. (Dear God, I hope they won’t.) There is no such thing as wasted writing, even if it never publishes. I think as a writer you have to expect that most of what you write will never be read, just like a dancer expects that most of her pirouettes will never be seen. We have to hone our craft. We have to invest the time it takes to honor the intricacy and integrity of our art. The work we do behind the scenes matters just as much as that which is read by the world.
CS: A disclaimer—we taught together at Rosemont College’s MFA summer program this past June, so we know each other a bit. So knowing your voice and your narrator’s voice in Beauty of the Broken, I wanted to talk about that. The voice is very strong and it really holds up through the entire book—which isn’t always an easy task. Can you talk about how writing a voice-heavy narrative plays out at your writing desk? Do you hear the voice speaking directly to you? Or do you deliberately filter your ideas through the sensibilities of that voice?
TW: I’m a weirdo. I totally hear the voice talking to me throughout the novel. Beauty of the Broken was actually born when I sat down at my writing desk and said, “Anyone who wants to talk to me, start talking.” (I do this quite often, and it almost always works.) Immediately, I heard this voice in my head say, “Momma and Willy Macintyre made Iggy in a barn.” Mara was just there instantly, and her voice was powerful. She never shut up. There are hundreds of pages of Mara writing that didn’t make the book. She had a lot to say. Voice is something that comes easily to me as a writer. I’m also a natural when it comes to generating characters. The things I struggle with are plotting and pacing. Those things I had to work hard to learn.
CS: Beauty of the Broken is written in first person, present tense. All authors face the decisions of tense and point of view—I know I often write early drafts in present tense, but then they sometimes switch to past in revision. What about the first person, present tense made the most sense for this story? Was it that way from the beginning or did it change as the piece grew?
TW: Beauty of the Broken was always first person, present tense. Mara’s story was such an immediate, intimate story, and those choices made it even more so for the reader. At least, I hope they did. I think the teenage years are pretty intense years for most people, so I find that when I write teen characters, their voices are best served by first person, present tense. “Listen to me now!” these characters seem to scream. My new novel (which publishers are telling me is walking a fine line between young adult and new adult) is first person, present tense as well.
CS: When we taught together, we talked a lot about the individual nature and quirks of process. Would you tell us how you go about getting your ideas from thought to paper?
TW: One of the things I loved about teaching with you is that our processes were so different. I actually wrote a blog about the experience because listening to you talk about your amazing and incredibly disciplined process made me realize I don’t really have a process. I’m very haphazard when it comes to my writing (and really, my life in general). If I feel inspired to write, I do, for as long or short a time as the inspiration lasts. I tend to sit down in the middle of jogs to jot down a few paragraphs because I was moved by the reflection of trees in the water. Or I write six pages at a rest stop in the middle of a road trip because a song on the radio made me understand a motivation of a character I’m writing. Or I scribble a poem in the bathroom at a rock show.
I think this works for me because as I mentioned, I’m absolutely addicted to writing, so I write often. I produce as much (or more) work as some of my friends who have a structured writing process. Sometimes, I go on a writing bender and write for 12 hours a day for a week. I only stop because I need to sleep or eat or move before my body fuses to my chair. If I don’t feel like writing, I don’t do it, but I rarely go a day without writing something. In other news, I am rebellious by nature and resist anything I feel forced to do, so I think if I started telling myself I had to write, I’d suddenly find myself markedly less interested than I once was.
I’m not sure my way of writing would work for someone who thrives on a life predicated on structure. I think you just have to figure out what works for you.
CS: You share the same geographic and small-town roots as your characters in Beauty of the Broken. I’m always fascinated by place and all the things it can say and provide in a story. Can you talk about this and what elements it added? Are there other actual realities that seem to continually find their way into your work?
TW: Barnaby, New Mexico, the town in which Beauty of the Broken is set, is loosely based on Edgewood, New Mexico, the town in which I grew up. Actually, I didn’t grow up there. I grew up on a mountain close to that town, but it was the closest thing to civilization I knew.
After Beauty of the Broken came out, I had all these people from my hometown writing me and saying, “Hey, I recognize that place!” However, Barnaby isn’t exactly like Edgewood. Edgewood doesn’t have a river, for instance. Also, Edgewood was not nearly as bigoted as Barnaby, nor was it ruled over by a fire-breathing reverend. But the isolation of the place lent itself to the sort of “time warp” vibe I was going for in the book. I wanted Mara to exist in a world where she had little exposure to anything that might make her feel like it was ok to be a lesbian, and Barnaby definitely provided that element. I also wanted the abuse she undergoes at the hands of her father to be overlooked and excused, and to me, that felt more likely to happen in a small, bigoted town. Were she and Iggy living in a city, going to a public school, the severe abuse would very likely have been noticed and reported, but Barnaby’s social structure made it more believable that the abuse would be allowed to escalate the way it does in the book. Finally, I’m very interested in (and horrified by) the despicable ways people behave when they pack up. Many psychological studies have shown that people in groups do things that individuals would never do. I think the social structures (and strictures) of Barnaby highlighted the “pack mentality” issues I wanted to explore.
Small town themes do make there way into my work often, but I’ve traveled enough that they aren’t necessarily a constant. I know and deeply love the mountains of New Mexico, but other places have become part of my soul as well. My current novel begins in Los Angeles and ends in New York, both places that mean a great deal to me. I think water is a constant in my work though. In Beauty of the Broken, the river plays an enormous role, becomes a character in and of itself—a friend to Mara. In The Long Ride Home, my protagonist, Harley has a similar relationship with a body of water, only hers is bigger. She’s in love with the ocean. Some of the novel’s pivotal scenes happen there.
Water is an important symbol to me. My family name isn’t Waters. I changed my name to Waters after my first divorce. I couldn’t see going back to being Tawni Hackett because I just wasn’t the girl I was before I got married, but I didn’t want to keep my husband’s name either. So I changed it to Waters because even though water changes and moves constantly, it’s essentially always the same thing. It is the essence of life. It is powerful and mysterious. Everything we, as human beings, are is represented in water.
CS: Where did this novel start for you—with an image or a particular line? Perhaps the novel’s first line?
TW: Yes, Beauty of the Broken began when Mara whispered that first line in my brain. It began with Mara’s character and voice. I fell in love with that kid, and her weirdo brother, instantly. Stories almost always begin with characters for me.
CS: You’ve talked about the cinematic nature of writing—the importance of visualizing and delivering a complete fictional world. How do film and cinematic sensibilities influence your work?
TW: I love film. I think it is by far the most powerful artistic medium available to us. It combines visual art and acting and music. It’s collaborative. I suppose the same things could be said of live theatre, and I love that medium as well. Because I admire film so much, I think about it all the time when I write. I hear music in my head as scenes are happening, and I ask myself, “Ok, how do I put that music on the page?” The answer is I echo the tempo with my things like words choices and sentence lengths. I see the scenes, and I ask, “How do I get that color, that expression, that ripple in the water, into my readers’ visual fields, the way it would be if they were watching unfold?” And then I rustle around in my brain for the exact, most visceral words to paint the pictures I’m trying to paint. The song called “Shadowstabbing” by Cake speaks to that, I think, when it says, “Adjectives on a typewriter, he moves his words like a prizefighter.” You have to move your words like that to create cinematic writing. Every word has to be chosen carefully and pack a punch.
When I teach writing, I always show my students a scene from from a movie on the first day. Afterward, I draw an empty square on the board, and tell them to shout out everything that was going on in the scene. They tell me about costumes and facial hair and music and grass and clouds and dialogue and dogs and lighting and pacing, and I draw what they say. And then, I tell them their job as writers is to get all of that on the screen of their readers’ minds, only unlike directors, they don’t have actors and makeup artists and set designers and musical scores. They have words. Then we spend an entire semester exploring what we can do with words to make all of that happen on the page.
CS: Beauty of the Broken is marketed as a YA novel—but while its characters are young, its themes and actions are very adult in nature. You didn’t write this with the YA-tag in mind—so how did this change happen? In what ways does a YA designation help? Do you think it hurts in any way?
TW: I never imagined that a book as dark as Beauty of the Broken could be marketed to teens, nor did I write it for teens. I wrote it for adults, and I submitted it to my agent as an adult novel. He told me it was YA, and I was stunned. But it sold almost immediately as a YA novel, and it’s won some pretty cool awards as a YA novel, including the International Literacy Association Award for Young Adult Literature.
I’ve gotten extremely positive responses from my teen readers. It’s amazing to be making this beautiful connection with them. They are so passionate and raw, and many of them are lost, especially because teens that are drawn to the book are often experiencing some of the issues it addresses—rape and abuse and questions of identity, sexual and otherwise. They write me the most moving letters. When I meet them, they cry and hug me. It’s humbling to know I am touching people who still have much of their lives in front of them, that maybe, just maybe, I have helped them to accept themselves and altered the course of their lives for the long haul.
The only downside is I’m a little limited in what I can write about. I wanted to write about sex trafficking. I tossed the idea around to publishers, and they said, “No way—not in YA.” And now, The Long Ride home is making the rounds with publishers. Several have rejected it, saying they love it, but it’s not YA—it’s an adult novel. The content is gritty, and the protagonist is 18, so as I said before, it’s walking a fine line. My agent and I may end up having to sell it as an adult novel. We’ll see.
CS: You’re a bit of a nomad the days. Can you tell us about that? Is it hard to write under these circumstances? How has it helped your creative side?
TW: After Beauty of the Broken and Siren Song came out, I traveled extensively to promote them. I was working as an adjunct college professor at the time, so I would fly off to do a book event on the East Coast on the weekend and then fly back to Arizona to teach during the week. I almost lost my mind, so I let the job go. Then, I was traveling so much that I came home three days in six months, and it occurred to me I was wasting my rent, so I let my house go too.
Now, I live on the road full time, and I love it, though I do have to race off to stay with my mom in the New Mexico mountains to recover from time to time. I actually write more when I’m on the road. Stasis is hard for me. I thrive on change. I hate staying in one place. I hate having a day job. So when I’m doing these things, I tend to get bummed out and lose my inspiration. And since I only write when I’m inspired, I don’t get much writing done when I’m leading a “normal” life. But when I’m on the road, I can’t stop writing. My biggest challenge is I’m prone to getting so deeply absorbed in my work that I don’t hear airline announcements, and I miss flights.
CS: What’s next?
TW: Hopefully, a zillion dollar contract for The Long Ride Home is next. (I’m gonna pretend you’re a genie and wish for that.) It’s about a kick ass, motorcycle-riding girl named Harley who accidentally starts a house fire with a candle. Her mother dies in the fire, and Harley moves across the country to live with her mom’s best friend. She decides to ride back to New York on her motorcycle to spread her mom’s ashes at the beach where they used to play together. She invites her best friend Dean to join her. Dean is sexy and smart and kind, if a little nerdy. She’s been sleeping with him, but she’s all screwed up from her mom’s death, so she refuses to be in a committed relationship with him and kinda acts like a crazy person. As they are driving across the country, she finds out she’s pregnant. Hijinx ensue. I know it doesn’t sound hijinx-y, but it is a pretty funny book at times, if I do say so myself. It’s also pretty heavy. I tried to balance the light and the dark, but obviously, I’m not a very objective judge of whether or not that worked.
Curtis Smith has published over 100 stories and essays. His work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. He’s worked with literary presses to publish a pair of flash-fiction chap books, three story collections, three novels, and an essay collection. Dock Street Press has just put out his latest book, Communion, an essay collection. In 2016, Ig Publishing will publishing his next book, a collection of essays about Slaughterhouse Five.