Interview with Christine Fletcher
Teens from Chicago Public Schools’ Hyde Park Academy and Kenwood Academy had the opportunity to submit questions to the author Christine Fletcher, which she thoughtfully answered. We wanted to share this great information with all of our readers:
I’m working on my second book, but at times I draw blanks. What do you do when you’re drawing blanks?
If I’m drawing blanks, the usual problem is that I’ve written myself into a dead end. There has to be something in the scene drawing the characters forward: for example, a question that needs to be answered or some conflict that needs to be unearthed. I find the best thing to do is step back a bit. I leave the computer, take my spiral notebook and a pen, go to a different place in the house and start jotting notes. I write notes about what’s going on in the scene; what emotions the character might be feeling; what conflicts he/she might be having with other characters; anything. This almost always gives me something to work with. If that doesn’t work, I just make some kind of action happen on the page. It might be the wrong action, but at least it gets the writing jumpstarted!
When and where did you get the idea to write this book? Was it difficult and/or frustrating at times?
This book never would have been written if my mother hadn’t told me the story of her aunt, who was a taxi dancer in New York in the 1920s and 1930s. Aunt Sofia had been the family secret for over 50 years. I was in my 30s before I learned about her. I thought her story was fascinating, so I started doing some research. The more I learned about taxi dancers, the more interested I became, especially when I found out that many of the girls still lived at home and kept their job secret from their families. That secret-double-life thing really intrigued me. I started wondering how a girl could possibly get away with it, and for how long, and before I knew it, the character of Ruby Jacinski was born.
I’m working on my third novel now, and yes, every single one has been difficult and frustrating. I might have one good day of writing, followed by three or four terrible days. You’ve got to keep writing and doing the best you can, even on those terrible days. So much of writing a novel is about having enough faith in yourself to keep sitting down every day and doing the work. Every writer I know has tremendous doubts. We doubt that our ideas are any good; that anyone will want to read them; that we’re not doing the idea justice; that we’ll get to the end and find out the whole thing is terrible. Thankfully, I have some really good friends who remind me that it’s all part of the process, that I complained about the exact same things when I was writing the last book, and that it still turned out OK. I tend to forget that!
How long did it take to write Ten Cents a Dance? Exactly how much research did you have to do?
It took about a year to write the first draft, then another six or seven months for two full revisions. During that whole time I did tons of research. I kept a bibliography to keep track of my sources: 49 books, 22 magazine articles, and 10 movies or documentaries. That’s not counting all the Internet research I did. I would often start with a Google search, just to get an idea of what information was out there. I found a lot of books that way. I would occasionally consult Wikipedia, but I never relied solely on that or on any Internet source. Stuff you find on the Internet just isn’t trustworthy enough. I made a rule for myself: every fact had to come from at least one “hard copy” source (i.e., a book or article) or one Internet source and then verified with a hard copy source. If I could find two hard copy sources, that was even better, and I did that as much as I could.
When you start writing, how do you know what scene goes where? When you write do you go through it like the book or is it in parts that you have to put in order?
I’m a linear thinker—I have to start at the beginning and keep going until I hit the end. Some writers are really good at writing scenes in any order and then stitching them together, but my brain just doesn’t work like that. It’s almost as if I have to find out what happens at the same time my characters do. When I start writing a book, I have a beginning scene in mind, a tentative ending, and maybe two or three key events that happen somewhere in the middle. But it’s all subject to change, depending on how the characters and the action unfold as I go along.
One of the best sayings I ever heard about writing fiction is this: The first draft is the writer telling himself the story. The second draft is the writer telling the reader the story.
In other words, at the beginning, the writer usually doesn’t know what’s going to happen or even what the story is really about. The first draft is where he or she discovers all that. Then, once the writer knows the characters and knows the story, then he or she figures out the most effective way to tell that story to the reader. That’s what the second (and third, fourth, fifth, etc.) drafts are all about.
The novelist E.L. Doctorow once said: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as the headlights…but you can make the whole trip that way.” I love that quote.
How did you come up with the names?
Hi, Ruby! It was really important that the names be true to the time, and they had to fit the characters, too. I looked up lists of baby names that were popular in 1925 (the year my main character would have been born), and as soon as I saw the name Ruby, I knew it was perfect. It sounded sassy, sparkling and tough, exactly the way I saw the character in my head.
Most of the characters have ethnic last names—Polish, Lithuanian, Greek, etc.—and genealogy sites online were really helpful for those.
Another resource I used a lot was the Baby Name Wizard (www.babynamewizard.com/voyager). I got lots of ideas for period-appropriate names from this—plus it was a lot of fun to play with!
Was it really easy for you to relate to Ruby?
It actually wasn’t. Ruby isn’t like me at all. She’s outgoing and sassy, and she doesn’t like school—she wants to be out in the real world, doing. I loved school, my favorite thing is reading, and when it comes to dancing, forget it. I can barely walk a straight line without bumping into something.
In addition to all that, what made it really hard to relate to Ruby is that she’s a poorly educated white girl raised in a segregated society, long before the civil rights or women’s movement. From our point of view today, she’s a racist. Back then, she wouldn’t have thought of herself that way; as far as she’s concerned, this is just how the world is. And since the story is told from her point of view and in her voice, those attitudes come through clearly. It was really tempting to make her more “enlightened,” but for a girl in her situation in the 1940s, that wouldn’t have been realistic. And historical fiction has to be realistic—otherwise, it’s historical fantasy. We can’t write history the way we want it to be, we have to write it the way it was. I knew that, but still there were times—especially in the early chapters, before her beliefs are challenged—when it was pretty tough to relate to her.
But the best thing about having a character so different from me is that she was constantly surprising me. At one point in the book, she did something so outrageous I actually said out loud, “Oh no you didn’t!” It was something I hadn’t planned, it just came out of nowhere. But it was a perfectly Ruby thing to do. Those are some of the best moments in writing—when your characters take over and start doing things you never expected.
How do you manage both, writing a book and being a veterinarian? Do you sometimes get lost in the idea of your ideas while at work?
I feel really lucky that I have both careers, but it’s always a balancing act, that’s for sure. I work two days a week (sometimes more) at the veterinary practice, and I write the other days. Owning my own veterinary practice would be impossible—there’s no way I’d have time enough to write—so I work for someone else.
When I’m working as a veterinarian, I don’t think about writing at all. And vice-versa when I’m writing. It’s like they take up two completely separate parts of my brain. The hardest part is transitioning between writing and veterinary work. It’s like I’ve been living in the 1940s for five days, and it takes me a little while to get readjusted the 21st century!
How many years did you have to do to become a veterinarian?
It took me five years to earn my bachelor’s degree, and then four years in veterinary school. Every once in a while, veterinary schools might admit a student with only two or three years of undergraduate study, but almost always they require a bachelor’s degree first. Keep those grades up!
Would you like to turn any of your books into a movie?
I’d love it! If you know any movie producers, send them my way.
How do you feel about entertainers such as Katy Perry and Christina Aguilera “reliving” the 1940s using fashion?
I think it’s fabulous. I especially love Christina Aguilera’s song and video “Candyman.” She does 1940s style beautifully: the hair, makeup, dresses are all perfect. I just adore the fashions of that time—half the fun of watching ’40s movies is admiring the clothes. Back then, they took wartime rationing and made it look gorgeous. So anyone who wants to revive those styles, I say go for it!
Was your life in any way like Ruby’s? Is Ruby something like your alter ego? I love writing, what would you suggest for an up-and-coming writer? What college did you attend? What training did you have?
My life hasn’t been like Ruby’s at all. (I don’t even have a sister!) And we’re so different, I don’t really see her as an alter ego. She’s definitely her own person, very distinct from me.
My biggest piece of advice for an up-and-coming writer is to read. Read widely. Try authors you never heard of, sample all different kinds of fiction and non-fiction. You don’t have to like everything but the more you read, the more you’ll absorb how different writers use language; how they build tension; how they reveal character; how they weave plot. Some of these things can be taught in the classroom, but I believe nothing teaches a writer how to write the way reading does.
Equally important: while you’re doing all that reading, keep writing. Keep striving to improve. Don’t ever be completely satisfied with your work. Writing is a craft, and like every other craft, it takes tremendous amounts of practice. I’ve published two novels, and I’m still striving to get better in my work.
I attended the University of California at Davis for both my undergraduate and veterinary degrees. I was a science major, so the only writing course I took was one creative writing class in my freshman year. I didn’t take another writing class until I was 30, and that was through the adult education department of our local community college. A few of those and a couple of writing workshops are the only training I’ve had. But I’ve been an avid reader since I was a little kid, and that’s where most of my education in writing came from. That, and lots of practice. By the time I published my first book, I’d been writing for 12 years. Almost every author has a similar story. It really comes down to persistence. If you keep reading, keep writing and keep striving, you will succeed. It may not come quickly, but it will come.
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