Author Interview: Monica Roe on Thaw

“Monica Roe works as a traveling physical therapist. Originally from the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, she now works here and there around the country.

“She spent last winter in the northwoods of Wisconsin, learning to build wooden furniture and being educated about the finer points of Packers football.

“Last month, she moved to Nome, Alaska, where she just saw the finish of the Iditarod dogsled race. She currently kills and eats one king crab every week and tries to stay warm while she waits for the halibut fishing to get good….”

How would you describe yourself as a teenager?

I was an observer. I spent a lot of time watching the interactions between people around me and wondering about what motivated them. I always chose the company of a few good friends over a lot of casual acquaintances.

I had the good fortune to grow up in a beautiful, rural part of New York state, and the outdoors was always right in my backyard. As a teenager, it wasn’t uncommon for me to take a book and a blanket out to our field and spend an afternoon reading on top of a hay bale.

Could you tell us about your apprenticeship as a writer? What helped you the most? What might you do differently, given the opportunity?

Well, I started scribbling stories almost as soon as I learned how to write, though I wouldn’t exactly describe my early efforts as good! Several middle- and high-school English teachers encouraged me to pursue writing further. I was a biology/pre-med major as an undergraduate, with a dual minor in chemistry and English writing.

Looking back, I’m really glad to have had the chance to pursue coursework in both science and the arts, because I think it made me more well-rounded, both as a person and as an author.

Also, the years of science coursework (seven so far, and I’m still not quite finished) have given me a pretty strong work ethic that I’ve found very helpful as a writer, especially when I’m stuck in the middle of a manuscript and it feels as though there’s no end in sight.

Could you tell us about your path to publication? Any sprints or stumbles along the way?

I started submitting short stories to children’s and young adult magazines in college and collected a pretty impressive stack of rejection letters. Now I wish I’d saved them all so I could show them to people who tell me that they’d like to write but are afraid of rejection! I think I sold my first short story when I was about 24, then a few more in the three years after that.

I was very, very, lucky when it came to getting Thaw published. It ended up being bought by the first house I submitted to, which was absolutely fantastic.

Congratulations on the release of your debut novel, Thaw (Front Street, 2008)! Could you tell us a bit about it?

Sure. The book centers around a character who believes in natural selection over interdependence, self-reliance over human interaction. He’s never had to deal with imperfection in himself, so he has very little tolerance for it in others, which is apparent in his method of dealing with the people in his life, particularly the ones who care about him.

Of course, he ends up forced into a situation where he loses control over most areas of his life and, therefore, has to rethink his isolationist views regarding himself, others, and the world around him.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

As a physical therapist, I often work with people who are trying to rebuild themselves. Usually that means physically, but how we define ourselves as people is often very much tied together with our physical abilities.

I was interested in writing about a character who would have very little tolerance for sub-optimal performance–particularly from himself–and how that would affect how well he would do in a rehabilitation setting.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

The initial idea for the book occurred to me early in 2004, during my last clinical rotation of PT school. I spent about two months just outlining, then maybe a year writing the initial draft.

After that I think I took around six months to revise (that’s actually my favorite part of the whole process–I can’t stand first drafts!).

Front Street bought the manuscript in the summer of 2006, which started another round of revisions between myself and my editor.

Without giving too much away, how did you frame the psychology of your main characters? Do you do a lot of pre-writing?

When I created Dane (my main character), I wanted to form a character who was initially not at all user-friendly. I believe that an early reader referred to him as an “anti-hero,” which is about right. He’s one of those individuals who is smart and skilled at almost anything he tries, but he’s lacking a certain humanity, especially in terms of empathy for other people (or for himself, for that matter). Yet he’s very dynamic and draws people to him, even though he doesn’t really treat them very well.

I chose to write a character like Dane because I’m interested in people who shy away from close human relationships–interested in what motivates them to choose absolute self-reliance over friendships. Is the choice a matter of conscious preference, or are they driven by other factors beyond their control? And do their choices make them happy, or merely keep them safe? Those were some of the questions I explored with Dane.

Yes, I prewrite. A lot.

Do you outline first? Do you just begin writing and see where it goes? Or, put another way, are you a plotter or a plunger and why?

Definitely a plotter. I do a huge amount of outlining before I try to write any prose. I learned this one the hard way–I once ended up scrapping almost 150 pages of a novel I’d spent a year working on (ouch!) because I’d tried to just jump in and start writing without doing any outlining beforehand. I know that some very successful writers are able to plunge right in and I admire them for that, but I, unfortunately, don’t seem to have that talent. Too left-brained, I suppose.

It also seems to work better for me if I spend a lot of time mulling over characters in my head before starting to write about them. If I try to get them down on paper too quickly, their voices don’t really feel distinct or authentic to me.

It seems that a common challenge among writers is fighting their instinct to protect your characters. After all, the bigger the obstacle, the stronger the conflict and, often, the protagonist’s growth. Did you ever have to push yourself to push the characters? How did you deal with these dynamics? Or were they an issue at all?

My protagonist wasn’t exactly the most likable character at the outset of the story. In this case, therefore, my biggest challenge was trying to make him sufficiently engaging for an audience to even care enough to stick with him through the book, even if they thought he was a jerk.

That said, it was actually a lot of fun to try and develop Dane into a character capable of personal growth, and to change him (believably) enough to elicit empathy from an audience.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

When I was younger, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to be a writer since I’d chosen not to major in English. Looking back, I’d tell myself to relax and just write about the things I know and love.

What advice do you have for YA novelists?

Find at least one writing friend to partner with. Even if you don’t write the same type of things, you can help keep each other motivated, offer an outside pair of eyes, and get each other through the times when you’re blocked or frustrated (if you’re anything like me, you will have those times in abundance).

Do you work within a community of writers (a critique or workshop group), with an editorial agent, or solo before submitting to a publisher? Why? What are the benefits to you?

My most solid writing partner is my friend Tessa. She and I don’t write in the same genre, but we trade manuscripts back and forth and critique one another pretty regularly.

The greatest thing about working with one of your best friends is that you can expect (and give) brutal honesty and nobody’s feelings are hurt. I know that the criticism she offers will only make my work better, and vice versa.

I also have a wonderful teacher who’s been immeasurably helpful to me as a writer, and I bounce a lot of things off her when I’m in the middle of a project.

What do you do when you’re not in the book world?

I travel a lot for my job, so I always enjoy seeing new places. I do make it a point to get back to New York every few months to spend some time with my wonderful family. Visiting my closest friends is also very important to me–they’re spread out across the country (the world, in some cases), but I try to see all of them at least every year or so.

Outdoors, I love to canoe, fish, hike, camp, snowshoe, and cross-country ski. I’ve also gotten pretty good at growing portable vegetable gardens (tomatoes in pots, peas in hanging baskets–that sort of thing). I live at at least part of each year in Alaska, which is an absolute playground for the types of outdoor things that I love to do.

Indoors, I enjoy woodworking, cooking, and lounging in front of the fireplace with a good book or movie.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I’m working on a novel that revisits a few characters from Thaw a couple of years down the road. I wouldn’t exactly call it a sequel, but I think it’ll address a few ends that were left hanging at the end of the first book.

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