Author Interview: Zu Vincent on The Lucky Place

Zu Vincent holds an MFA from Vermont College, where she began writing a story about fathers and daughters that became The Lucky Place. She was awarded Harcourt’s post-grad semester at Vermont College in 2006.

Her essays and short stories have appeared in several literary journals and anthologies and her features in such magazines as Harper’s, Yoga Journal, and Flyfishing. She’s written for BenBella Books, Harcourt, Signet, and Plume–with new essays and books coming from Scholastic, Salina Bookshelf, and the ALAN Review.

Craft-wise, how did you approach your apprenticeship as a writer?

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing. As a kid, I stashed my stories in a top drawer and read every book I could get my hands on.

Once I stopped stashing my efforts, I cut my eyeteeth on the short story, writing them for literary journals. I apprenticed to a Hollywood producer and wrote scripts. I worked as a stringer for an alternative weekly. I did art and travel writing. I wrote for the Internet and for national magazines.

So, I mostly learned by doing. Short stories, for instance, are a great teacher, especially when it comes to subtext and the power of irony. And freelancing can be really good for the fictional soul.

New worlds open up to you through research and travel. And you get to know people, which is a writer’s dream. People are so generous in interviews, willing to give of their emotional selves if you’re just willing to listen. It’s a pretty humbling experience, being handed their stories.

You hold an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College. Why did you decide to embark on formal study? What did you gain from the experience?

I don’t think you can ever stop learning more about your art. An advanced degree in creative writing just felt like a natural part of the process. I’d heard really wonderful things about Vermont College. It’s one the most respected programs of its kind. Walking through those doors you know why. The Vermont College writers’ community is so caring and the faculty amazing, you can’t help but dig in.

And that translates into an intense writing experience. It sounds ironic that a low-residency program is intense, but it is. They set some rigorous goals but you also throw yourself into learning for its own sake. And your passion for the work ends up being the real measure of what you accomplish.

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

It’s funny, but it can take a long time for a story to jell; yet once the voice starts pouring out, it feels like no time at all.

At Vermont College I worked on this story of a girl with two fathers as my creative thesis, and that became The Lucky Place. But I’d actually met my characters, Cassie and Jamie, before. I’d written about them in a short story, although in the story they had different names. Which is to say, the idea of their lives was haunting me when I sat down to write The Lucky Place.

So maybe the hitches to publication were subterranean.

Congratulations on the release of The Lucky Place (Front Street, 2008)! Could you tell us about it?

It begins with this little girl whose father forgets her at the races when she’s three. I wanted to know what happens to her as she grows up.

Cassie’s been abandoned, but she thinks it’s her fault because she didn’t keep her dad’s hand and was lost in the crowd. That takes a real toll on her, and she just wants to hold tight to everyone she loves, her mom and brothers and stepdad, yet her family keeps slipping away.

What does it take to survive for this particular girl? She seems very ordinary. But who is really ordinary underneath? Like most young people, Cassie has a vivid imagination that leads her in to trouble, and insight.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

The books I love are novels about getting to know yourself and others on a deeper level. With stories that show a greater understanding of who we are. That happens when we discover ourselves in the characters, when they make us laugh or cry or say, Ah-ha! Now I get it! And what drives me to read is also what drives me to write.

Besides that, The Lucky Place is a coming-of-age story, and I’ve always loved coming-of-age stories. I think that time in our lives stays with us out of all proportion to the actual years we live it. It’s where we first discover how to love, how to be in life. That was my larger inspiration for The Lucky Place. That and the magic of childhood, and what happens when that magic comes up against reality.

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

I mentioned that I was working on The Lucky Place while at Vermont College, and the novel sold before I graduated, thanks to Carolyn Coman, who passed it on to Front Street. And I was lucky because my wonderful editor, Joy Neaves, loved it and felt it was right for her list.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

The book is written in vignettes, which is just how it came out, so I didn’t want to mess with it. I wanted to create a cinematic feel that speaks to the pace of life today, to give some punch, but also some poetry. But I didn’t know if I could pull it off. You have to write quick scenes which give glimpse after glimpse of your characters that eventually add up to a complete story.

At the same time, each vignette has to stand on its own, as a kind of story within a story. And Cassie’s voice needed to mature through these scenes as she grew older, to reflect her emotional growth.

The other challenge was Cassie herself. She’s an observer, she takes things on and holds them inside. The trick was to reveal and motivate her in The Lucky Place by portraying everyone around her through her eyes.

Your novel is marketed to ages 12 and up, but features a younger protagonist. What about the story makes it more appropriate for YA readers?

I believe young adults are wise and intuitive, and I put my trust in them as readers and didn’t hide anything in this book. Both the subject matter and the voice are pretty mature. And even though Cassie’s story ends here when she’s twelve, I’m finding it speaks to a lot of adults, too.

Besides, our younger years are right with us, nipping at our heels when we’re young adults. We very much care about who we are and where we came from, even as we’re becoming independent. And we grow up figuring out so much more than we’re given credit for.

I think readers will identify with Cassie and how she feels discovering and dealing with so many unpleasant truths.

What is it like being a debut author in 2008?

It’s amazing. I wrote the novel I wanted to write, and Front Street made it into a beautiful book. It’s now on the young adult shelves, which are a really exciting place to be. Young adult literature has exploded in the last few years.

And young adult and children’s writers are a special breed. This is hitting home right now, being part of Through the Tollbooth. And also as a member of the Class of 2k8.

I’ve gotten to know debut novelists from all over the country, and we really do have a great writer’s community. We share our knowledge and support and help each other get word out about our books. It’s a thrill to see everyone’s novels doing well.

But the very, very best thing is the response I’m getting from readers. Knowing that someone has taken the time to invest in Cassie’s story and then been touched enough to write to me. That’s incredible!

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

I learned pretty early that life is precious, and that to respect yourself you have to respect your dreams. So I wouldn’t advise anything different. I’d advise the same thing. To stick with your dreams.

How do you balance your life as a writer with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, etc.) of being an author?

The balance is ultimately inside, I think. To me, that means if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing creatively. That goes for promotion and all its variations. If I’m giving a talk, I want to put my heart in it. If I’m writing a blog entry, I want to shine it up until it evokes something I’ve really thought about. This way, promotion becomes part of the work instead of something that takes me away from it.

That’s one way to find the balance. The other way, for me, is an absolute need to write. After a few days of not writing, life looks less colorful. I sulk like a kid who can’t go out and play. So, I have to go out and play!

What can your fans look forward to next?

I’m always writing more than one thing at a time; right now I’m working on two novels. One is a companion to The Lucky Place. I just couldn’t put this family away.

I’m also completing what I think of as a literary mystery that involves a kidnapped boy and a senile old lady who has to fight herself to save him.

Cynsational Notes

from reviews of The Lucky Place…

“A stunning fiction debut by an author to watch.” —School Library Journal

“Fans of Nancy Werlin‘s Rules of Survival (2006)[author interview] are a natural for this sad but hopeful story.” —Booklist