Bookpleasures.comwelcomes as our guest Vicki Salloum author of Candyland and Faulkner & Friends, and one novella, A Prayer to Saint Jude. Her most recent novel Waiting For You At Midnight has just been published.
Vicki's short fiction has been included in the anthologies When I Am An Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple; Pass/Fail: 32 Stories About Teaching; Voices From the Couch; and Umpteen Ways of Looking at a Possum: Critical and Creative Responses to Everette Maddox. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Vicki lives in New Orleans
Norm: How did you get started in writing? What keeps you going and why do you write? Do you have a theme, message, or goal for your books?
Vicki: I was in my late thirties when I started writing fiction. Before that, I was a staff writer for three newspapers. One day, I was working at my typewriter with a blank sheet of paper in it. I wanted to write my first short story—my first piece of fiction. I had no expertise, no knowledge of what to do. It’s just that I loved to read fiction and wanted to try my hand at writing it.
I’ll never forget how inadequate I felt with that blank sheet of paper before me. Somehow I got out one sentence and then another and another. And, finally, I managed to finish the story.
What kept me going through all the years of terrible fiction writing and rejections and failure? Faith and hope. Some people become so obsessed with what they love to do they can’t stop doing it. That was me. It would have been soul killing to stop. So I kept taking creative writing classes year after year until I developed a proficiency at it. And, yes, I always search for the themes in my novels.
John Gardner once wrote that in all great fiction, primary emotion—our emotion, the character’s emotion—must sooner or later lift off from the particular and be transformed to an expression of what is universally good in human life. That universal statement, he wrote, is likely to be too subtle to be expressed in any way but the story’s way. I keep working until I discover what that universal statement is in my work and then try to bring it out so that others will discover it.
Norm: In your opinion, what is the most difficult part of the writing process?
Vicki: The most difficult part of the writing process when I am writing literary fiction is to adhere to a structural form that will capture readers’ attention and compel them to keep turning the page. The central character must be an agent struggling for her own goals. There should be internal conflict that propels the story forward, a moral choice, a climactic moment, and final outcome. Just as important, a writer should understand her main character deeply before characterizing her. And she should tell her story in concrete terms, not just abstractions. All of this takes concentration and is not easy to do.
Norm: How many times in your career have you experienced rejection? How did they shape you?
Vicki: Rejection has been a huge part of my writing experience. In the early years of writing short stories, I used to keep the most memorable rejection slips in my file cabinet. I rarely took them personally, and I didn’t allow them to permanently discourage me. Instead, I chose to learn from them. I saw them as a challenge to push me to work harder to be a better writer.
Norm: What did you find most useful in learning to write?
Vicki: Honestly, when I think of what helped me most to learn to write, I think about the advice of successful writers who came before me. In his book On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner wrote that when the central character is a victim, not someone who does but someone who’s done to, there can be no real suspense.
Real suspense comes from moral dilemma and the courage to make and act upon choices. George Garrett said that above everything else—language, style, etc.—there has to be about the story something that really matters a lot to people. It can’t be contrived. And if it really matters enough, it can override other flaws and defects. And in reading books about Flannery O’Connor, I’ve taken seriously the advice she has reportedly given other writers. She said that a good story is one that comes from the heart. She also advised setting aside three hours each morning in which to write and do nothing else. I could go on and on. Nothing has been more useful than the advice of these great masters.
Norm: Do you write more by logic or intuition, or some combination of the two? Please summarize your writing process.
Vicki: I work more by intuition than by logic. I completely trust the unconscious mind to carry me from the beginning of a piece to its conclusion.
Logic plays an indispensable part, but I don’t get deadly serious about logical thinking until I have completed a sloppy first draft. This is how I work: I start out jotting down on lined notebook paper whatever comes to me to write about.
The more I write, the more I get into a dream-like state where the story begins to unfold and the plot begins to move to moments of understanding. When I have a rough draft finished, in which I have dramatized in the simplest form a beginning, middle and end using sensory imagery, I type it in the computer, print it out, and take it to a coffee house to revise.
The revision process can go on for years. It is in the process of repeated revisions that I get an understanding of what the work is really, deeply about, what the moral choice is in the story. When the revision process is finished—when I cease being in that dreamlike state and cease working from the unconscious mind, then I start using my intellect to work on technique and craft. I have prepared questions I ask myself in an effort to make sure the theme has been fully emphasized—to make sure the “moral soul,” as I call it, is there. After that, I have a blank book in which I’ve collected vocabulary words over the years. I go through my book looking for words I can substitute for the ones I’ve used in my drafts—words that may be lyrical or give deeper meaning the story. Months later, I’ll read the manuscript a final time and, if the words don’t move, I’ll know that it is finished.
Norm: What served as the primary inspiration for Waiting for You at Midnight and who was your intended audience?
Vicki: My husband was the primary inspiration for Waiting for You at Midnight. After he died, I had no one with whom I could talk to honestly about my thoughts and feelings and about what was going on in my life in the months following his death. So I started writing to him. He had been my best friend, and it was very natural to “talk” to him.
These diary notes, I guess you could call them, became the material for Waiting for You at Midnight. I eventually changed the real-life people and day-to-day events to imaginary ones. The novel is about loss—the loss of someone who loves you and cherishes you and understands you and knows your history, the loss of youth, the loss of physical beauty. Only after I finished it did I think about who would be my intended audience. I thought that the people who might be helped by my book would be people like myself, who were devastated and grief-stricken and searching for a meaningful new life.
Norm: What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them? As a follow up, what do you hope will be the everlasting thoughts for readers who finish your book?
Vicki: Any individual who has never been through what the narrator, Arabella, went through would find it hard to understand how intense grief can be, how it manifests itself, and how long it can endure. It is only when you experience it yourself that you realize—in your aloneness—that you are stuck with the problem of what to do with it.
How to get rid of the constant emotional pain. How to occupy your days so that your life has a purpose. How to feel peace. And joy. And how do you do all these things when you are so muddled in your thinking and overcome with sadness that you can barely wash your face in the morning? And how do you find the strength to make a triumph of your life? That is most what you want to do. So my intention in writing this book was to examine a soul in turmoil. And my hope was that it would lead anyone reading Waiting for You at Midnight to discover that the greatest spiritual growth can often come as a result of tragedy along with a new appreciation of how beautiful life is and how joyous it can be.
Norm: How did you go about creating Arabella and is there much of you in her character?
Vicki: This book is part autobiography and part imagination. Most of the characters and events in the book are products of the imagination, but the narrator Arabella’s conflict—her crushing emotional needs in conflict with the workings of her moral intelligence—mirrors that of the author in the wake of her husband’s death.
Norm: It is said that writers should write what they know. Were there any elements of the book that forced you to step out of your comfort zone, and, if so, how did you approach this part of the writing?
Vicki: For other novels I’ve written, I have chosen subjects I knew nothing about. They presented challenges of the imagination and the opportunity for exhaustive research. Waiting for You at Midnight was not that kind of book. I wrote it as a tribute to my husband, a chance to say goodbye to him a final time.
I knew everything about him, and the challenge was to capture the essence and spirit of him and the meaning of his life on earth. My focus was on him and our time together and I wanted to create an honest portrayal. But there is another part of this. I also wanted to make sense of the spiritual odyssey that begins for a caregiver after a loved one dies. So I had my narrator—the widow in the story—ask the hard questions and dissect her new relationships and question the activities that took place in her life with brutal honesty in an attempt to understand who she was, what she wanted for the rest of her life, and how to go about getting it. I wrote what I knew. But there were many things I didn’t know that I wanted to find out.
Norm: What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
Vicki: I enjoyed the rawness and dark, ugly truths that poured out of this narrator’s head. It was as if the central character was some tortured soul writing down her most private thoughts in a diary and thinking no one will read them and yet everybody was reading them. I’m so tired of political correctness and putting one’s best foot forward and guarding what one says to protect ourselves against what others will think of us. This narrator went raging against the dying of the light to keep her soul alive. She had no time to waste on pretense.
Norm: What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?
Vicki: There are people in this world who were born to create and they have to do it or their spirits will die. For those people, I say: Just do it! Create your heart out! Don’t worry about whether or not you are good enough. If you work hard enough at it, you will be good enough. I would just hate for you to stop creating before the miracle happens. But that I mean that one day, if you do not give up, the work that you have created may possibly be of great value to others and live on long after you die. Who are you to say this will not happen? And what have you to lose by trying?
Norm: Are you working on any books/projects that you would like to share with us? (We would love to hear all about them!)
Vicki: I have one novel and a collection of short stories that still haven’t been published. I would like to concentrate on finding good homes for them. Beyond that, it remains to be seen what my next novel will be about, though I’m pretty sure I will write another. And the thought came to me the other day that I might try my hand at teaching fiction writing on a volunteer basis to children or adults. It dawned on me that four of my novels have been published and countless short stories. Surely I know something that would perhaps help a beginner writer. But just because a writer knows how to write doesn’t mean she knows how to teach. So we’ll have to see about that.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and Waiting for You at Midnight?
Vicki: A book excerpt, my bio, and reviews of my book are posted on my WEBSITE. My e-mail address is also posted on that website if anyone would be interested in writing to me. I promise I’ll write back. And I have reviews and an Author’s Page on both Amazon and Goodreads. Finally, if anyone happens to be in that neck of the woods around November 10th, drop by the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge, where I’ll be one of the author participants. I’d love to meet you, say hi, and talk about books and writing.
Norm: As this interview comes to an end, what question do you wish that someone would ask about Waiting for You at Midnight, but nobody has?
Vicki: I guess I would want them to ask: What is this book really about? I would answer that by saying it is about more than a widow’s grief. It’s about the search for an authentic self. The narrator Arabella realizes there are two people living inside of her. One is the woman who was raised by a traditional, conservative family and who has taken on the values and customs of that family. The other is a free-thinking bohemian who falls in love with back-street guys. But she finds that she doesn’t belong in either world. When Arabella is caring for the dying Logan, she feels death closing in around her and, after he dies, she is in a panic to seize joy. She realizes how precious life is—and fleeting—and she wants desperately to shed the falseness of her former self and discover who she genuinely is and learn how to live an honest life.
Norm: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. It's been an absolute pleasure to meet with you and read your work. Good luck with Waiting For You At Midnight.