An interview with Pam Stucky, author of The Universes Inside the Lighthouse.
Hi! Welcome to Zigzag Timeline. Can you tell us about your background as an author?
Hello, Zigzag Timeline! Thank you so much for having me here! Hello, readers!
I started out as a self-published author, publishing my first book, Letters from Wishing Rock (a novel with recipes) in March 2011. Now I think we’re shifting from “self-published” to “indie” or “artisan” or maybe even just “author.” Letters from Wishing Rock was the first in my Wishing Rock series, Northern-Exposure-esque books set on an island in Washington, in a town in which everyone lives in the same building. Sequels to the first book include The Wishing Rock Theory of Life and The Tides of Wishing Rock. Some people think of them as chicklit, but I don’t advertise them as such because I don’t think they follow quite the right formula, and I don’t want to mislead anyone. They’re women’s fiction, with wit, wisdom, and recipes, books about life and relationships and community.
After the Wishing Rock books (of which there may be more one day, who knows!), I decided to try my hand at travelogues. When I first started traveling (mostly solo), I would send home emails about my adventures, which were received with rave reviews by family and friends. In 2013 I decided to turn two of those sets of emails into books about my travels in Ireland and Switzerland, and to head off to Iceland to write a “flagship” book for a new series, Pam on the Map. (See what I did there? Pam-map?!) The Ireland and Switzerland books are short; the Iceland book is full length. These have found a much smaller audience than the Wishing Rock books have, and sometimes in my insecure moments I ponder whether I should take them down. But, they’re still up now, so if you’re interested in my musings on my travels, get them now before they’re gone!
After those books, I turned to the first manuscript I ever started writing, which for a very long time was simply titled “mystery adventure.” Eventually, after many stops and starts and iterations (see more in answer below), this book became what is now the first in the Balky Point Adventure series, The Universes Inside the Lighthouse. I have had so much fun writing this one! I’m envisioning writing many more Balky Point Adventures. My intention is for this series to be an ongoing series of more-or-less standalone books, sort of like the Nancy Drew books of old, where you don’t have to read them in order to understand what’s going on.
I have many other books in my head, with new ideas all the time. I write to explore thoughts, and I have lots of thoughts! At the forefront of these ideas, probably, is a sort of memoir-ish book of humor essays. I’m not sure exactly what genre that would be. But I have lots more books in me. The journey has just begun!
What got you into writing?
I’ve always written—journals, mostly, and lots of letters (which is probably why the books in my first series, the Wishing Rock series, are written in letter/email format). Like many people, I think I always had in my mind that I’d like to write a book “one day.”
So I had a normal job like everyone else—rather, a series of normal jobs, because I never quite found anything I really wanted to do. One day in the spring of 2009, I came to work to find out a beloved 57-year-old co-worker had died of a heart attack. At the time I was just a couple months away from turning 40; 57 felt frighteningly close. Recognizing that any of us could die any day, and deciding that I didn’t want to die with that grand “What if?” still out there, I decided to take a break from work and try to write a book. I didn’t know if I could write a book, but I knew I’d never know if I didn’t try. I gave myself permission to fail—so long as I tried.
So I wrote the first book, not having a clue what I was doing but having a great time doing it. I tried for a year to get a traditional publisher, with no luck. Not being one to just put away a book after all that effort, I changed course. I reassessed and re-edited, gave it my best new shot, and dived in to the world of self-publishing in 2011. That first book was well received, so I started writing the second. Somewhere toward the end of the process of publishing the second book, I had this realization: “This is what I want to do with my life.” And it’s what I’ve been doing ever since! It’s certainly a difficult journey, no shortage of challenges and hardships, but after a lifetime of floundering and wondering what I wanted to do with my life, I think I’m finally on my right path.
What was the first idea you had for your book, and how did the story grow from there?
I was trying to remember this the other day … and I can’t! I’ve published seven other books, but this one was actually the first novel I ever started. I had an idea (? What was that idea??) and started writing this novel in the 2003 NaNoWriMo. I got about 20,000 words in at that point, I think. I returned to it many times, but never really made much progress. The idea of it, though, stuck with me all these years. Finally, after I finished my travelogue series last year, I decided to pick up this book (which never had a name) again.
Well! I can tell you why I couldn’t finish it! It was awful. I thought I’d be able to take what I’d written and edit it a bit and continue from there. But no. No way. I finally had to just start over completely from scratch with the same idea. In writing it the second time, I lost some elements from the original that I really loved. They just didn’t fit in. It happens! Since I’m planning to make an adventure series out of this book—the Balky Point Adventures—it’s possible I’ll be able to weave those ideas into a future book.
But back to the question … I suppose I’ve always been fascinated by space and aliens. To me, it’s not a question of “do aliens exist” but rather “where?” and “will we ever meet any?” I love light sci-fi (I’m easily confused by hard-core sci-fi!). Doctor Who, A Wrinkle in Time, those sorts of stories. The universe is huge. We are just a tiny tiny tiny part of it. So what else is out there? And the ideas of parallel universes or multiple universes fascinate me as well. Endless possibilities for the imagination! Everything is possible. The story grew out of curiosity. What is out there?
And beyond that, toward the end of the first draft, the book took on an element I really wasn’t expecting (requiring some hefty editing for the second draft!). Again, I don’t want to say too much, but much to my surprise I ended up taking on the topic of loneliness, which I think is a huge issue in our society. Huge. Hopefully I didn’t write it with too heavy of a hand—I don’t want to slap anyone in the face with a message—but as it’s an YA book, I think it’s possible the story could lead to openings for some discussions or contemplations about loneliness, and what we do about it. If it did, that would be amazing.
Among your characters, who's your favorite? Could you please describe him/her?
Oh sure, ask me to pick from my children! I love them all! But in The Universes Inside the Lighthouse I’d have to say I love Charlie a lot, probably because his laid-back, easy-going, fun-loving personality is one I wish I had! I’m in my mind a lot (like Charlie’s twin sister Emma), but Charlie takes life as it comes and is up for any adventure, while at the same time he’s loyal and kind. I love him!
What's your favorite scene from your novel? Could you please describe it?
I’ll pick two: one shorter and one longer.
There’s a lot of travel between planets/universes in the story, and therefore lots of brief scenes of travel. (Hopefully I’ve managed to keep them from being redundant!) There’s one instance of travel—I won’t specify—that I always find myself holding my breath while I’m reading it. I think I did pretty well with it, if I do say so myself!
The longer one happens almost at the end, so I won’t tell you much. But there’s a scene in which Emma does something that to me is such a poignant expression of compassion and kindness, the kind of compassion I strive for but so often fail at. It makes me proud to know her. ☺
What's your favorite part of writing? Plotting? Describing scenes? Dialogue?
The last few months of getting a book ready to be published are so busy and exhausting that right now I’d probably say my favorite part is “When it’s over!”
But that’s not totally true. Writing is a craft filled with fears and doubts, but when you’re able to break through those fears and doubts and let the story flow, it can be amazing. I create/plot on paper (hand written on a pad of paper), then do the actual writing on the computer, because I can type so much faster than I can write, and I lose fewer thoughts that way. When I’m writing by hand, the creation process, I love that. Starting with nothing and having all these ideas and stories come out of the pen is simply incredible. Cliché as it is, the stories do sometimes seem to come out of nowhere; I’m as much an observer as anyone. When that happens, that’s totally cool. It’s the closest I come to being able to read my own stories before I’ve written them, if that makes sense. I always wish I could read my stories for the first time from a reader’s perspective, to see what I think of them objectively, but of course I’ll never be able to have that experience.
How long does it take you to write a book? Do you have a writing process, or do you wing it?
How long it takes to write a book depends on how you define that time. As I said, I started writing this book back in 2003—so by some counts, it took eleven years. Now that I’ve written eight books, though, I have the process down a bit better. I know my blocks and how to get through them, I understand that you just have to put your behind in the chair and write. That means I can get a book written in much less than eleven years! If I had to guess, I’d say on average a book takes me nine months to a year, but of course that varies from book to book. The key is not to get stuck when you get stuck. If there’s a part you don’t know what to do with, don’t just sit with it. If you know what’s supposed to happen in a scene but can’t get the scene written, write “add some great writing here about ___” to the manuscript, and go on to the next part. There’s no point in starting at a blank screen! Keep writing!
As far as process, with my first book (the first one I published, that is) I completely winged it. I had no idea whether I could write a book to completion, or how to do so. I sat down and wrote, and repeated that until one day the book was done. (And then I started to learn about editing!) Now, though, I’d say my process has evolved. Once I have an idea I start outlining it, chronologically or by chapter or whatever works with that particular story. Then when I have an idea of the general shape of the story, I start writing. Things absolutely change in the course of writing, but knowing where I’m going lets me do some foreshadowing and building of the plot in subtle ways, which is fun.
What is it about the genre you chose that appeals to you?
I don’t write genres; I write stories. For better or for worse, I write the stories I have in my head—the stories I want to read—and then I figure out what genre they’re in! Not always the easiest task, but I have to write the stories that want to be written, regardless of where they fit. That said, I love science fiction because in many cases it’s not necessarily fiction. Sometimes, it falls more into that realm of “maybe, someday, somewhere, this could happen.” That’s amazing to contemplate. Think about how many of the gadgets from Star Trek have more or less become realities, half a century later. Think of all the things that happen in our science fiction today; could they come true, too, one day?
I also love that science fiction gives us such a rich medium in which to explore relationships. When someone or something is literally alien, we have a chance to dissect our opinions of it or feelings toward it. I’m reminded of Mary Doria Russell’s book The Sparrow. I once read that she wrote it in or around 1992, in contemplation of the 500-year anniversary of Columbus’s “discovering” America. She wanted to explore the idea of “first contact”—whether one society could merge with another, without harmful effects. Whether that’s true or not (I remember reading that, but that doesn’t mean I actually did), whether she accomplished her goal or not, those things aren’t the point. The point is that science fiction opens up new worlds—literally—where we can delve into important and interesting discussions, and maybe see them in a new light. Sci-fi tears through boundaries and opens up universes of opportunities to explore the question, “What if?”
Like I said, I had so much fun writing my first sci-fi. In fiction of course everything is “made up” (more or less!), but in sci-fi, you really get to stretch your imagination. If you can think it, you can write it. Mind reading, time travel, ghost universes, absolutely everything is possible. A writer’s dream!! I can’t wait to get to work on book #2!
Are there any books or writers that have had particular influence on you?
JK Rowling: because she created a world so intense, so real, so evocative, that millions of people feel intimately connected to it. What an amazing gift!
Barbara Kingsolver, especially The Poisonwood Bible: because that book is a masterpiece of writing. It takes great skill to weave so many tales together, and at the same time give both truth and perspective to the time and place in which the stories are set. Brilliant.
Jose Saramago: because I don’t like rules, and Saramago breaks rules. Some people will tell you a book has to be written in such-and-such a way. If anyone told Saramago that, he didn’t listen! His breaking free from the prescribed molds is a huge part of what makes his books stand out.
As far as books written for younger audiences, I’ve never stopped loving A Wrinkle in Time. That image in the book of the ant crawling across the string, that has stuck with me since I first read the book. Quite possibly A Wrinkle in Time may have been one of the books that first sparked my interest in space and the great unknowns of our universe. (I read it so long ago that I can’t remember!) An author that some may remember named Ruth Chew also wrote books that I devoured—full of magic and the idea that anything could happen.
Did you ever surprise yourself when you were writing your book? Characters who took on lives of their own? Plot elements that took unexpected turns?
Yes. The characters often surprise me! This goes back to the question of my favorite part of the writing process. I’ve learned that if I try to do a full character sketch with everything there is to know about my characters before I start writing, I get too bogged down in that process and don’t ever get the story written. Now that I know that, I start writing with a general idea of my characters, but at some point I need to stop and figure out their backgrounds, often including a ton of information that never will make it into the book. It really does feel like “discovery” more than “creation” at that point. The characters just start telling me their stories, their motivations, their fears and dreams. I’m of the opinion you have to be able to love every one of your characters; if you can’t, you aren’t writing them from a real place. Because when you think about it, with a few rare exceptions where a person is truly mentally disturbed, most people really are just doing the best they know how, trying to live a happy life (whatever that may mean to them). If you’re going to write a hateful character you still have to be able to see him/her from his/her perspective; you can’t just write from the outside perspective. You have to get into their lives and minds and understand why they behave as they do. Otherwise it won’t seem real. So, when they start telling me their stories I sort of fall in love with all of them, at least with part of them. It’s a weird thing sometimes, how close I feel to my characters. I’m sure this is true of most authors. We know them so well that they don’t seem like characters but rather people you once knew really well. Like old friends you haven’t seen for a while, or people who have passed on, they now exist only in your mind. Unlike old friends, you can never call them up. But they’re always with you!
Thanks for stopping by!
Thank you so much for the opportunity! And for everyone who is doing NaNoWriMo—good luck! Stick with it! You can do it!
Please send a cover photo, author photo, and any website/purchase/social media links along with your answers. Thank you!
Buy links: The Universes Inside the Lighthouse
Amazon (print): http://www.amazon.com/dp/1940800072
Amazon (Kindle): http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00OGOBYMY
More information on and purchasing information for Pam’s other books at www.pamstucky.com
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