Debut Authors / Features / Fiction / Interviews

Q&A With Nicole Wolverton

Bloom: Tell us a little about your path to “blooming” as a writer and publishing after 40. Have you always wanted to be a writer or were there other adventures and aspirations along the way? Did you feel pressure to publish by a certain age or period in your life?

Nicole Wolverton: Being a writer—a professional creative writer—always seemed like a long shot, although it’s always what I wanted to do (aside from a strange, brief period when I wanted to be the next Dr. Ruth). I’m a practical person, so when it came time to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up, I set aside the dream in favor of doing something less risky, less fraught with the potential for failure. For that reason, I never felt pressure to publish at all.

In many ways, I’m glad I didn’t pursue a career in writing early on. There’s something about having forty-ish years of experience that makes writing a different experience. I’ve kept all my writing over the years, and my earlier short stories lack something . . . something I can’t quite put my finger on, but it’s there, just below the surface. There are amazing young writers, but I would not have been one of them.

Bloom: The Trajectory of Dreams is your first published novel but in an interview at The Author-In-Training you mention there where other novels before this. What was the experience like setting aside these novels and moving onto new ones? What did you carry on with you as you moved onto this next novel?

NW: Who was it that said you have to write a million horrible words before your writing improves? I’m a firm believer that it’s true in a lot of cases. I used my first million words—the first novels I wrote—to learn what my bad habits are. Every writer has words they overuse or bad grammatical habits or gaps in their knowledge about plotting and structure.

I’ve never been the type of writer who thinks every word that flows from my fingers is literary gold. I’m full of self-doubt, and so it’s easy for me to set aside a novel without feeling like I’d wasted time . . . because I didn’t. For each novel I’ve finished, I learned and improved. I may be my own worst critic (what writer isn’t?), but that’s what makes it so surprising to re-read something I’ve written only to discover it’s not bad at all. Those first million words made a world of difference.

Bloom:  How did you know The Trajectory of Dreams was the novel you wanted to pursue publishing?

NW: Just like when you know when you’ve fallen in love, you suddenly know when a novel works. When I finished The Trajectory of Dreams, there was something about it. It was different than other things I’d written. There was something inherently disquieting about Lela White (the protagonist), and the plot came together just as I’d envisioned. The language worked. One of my critique partners threatened never to speak to me again if I didn’t give the novel a shot. That’s when I started looking at my options for publication.

Bloom: The bio on your website states, “Nicole Wolverton fears many things, chief amongst them that something lurks in the dark.” Is a fear often a prompt for your work?  Was there a specific fear that inspired you to write The Trajectory of Dreams?

NW: I might be practical and rational, but I also have a lot of fears. Those fears aren’t unusual because we’re all either secretly or not-so-secretly afraid of things. I’m not ashamed to admit that I worry about someone breaking into my house while I sleep. It’s a completely normal fear; otherwise, why would people lock up their houses tight before going to bed? You’ve vulnerable when you sleep—an intruder could do anything to you, to your family, or to your home. There are those urban legends about the number of spiders the average person eats each year while asleep. Those are the things I think about when I’m lying in bed, and I can’t get to sleep. That fear is a large part of The Trajectory of Dreams. Lela White plays on that fear in a terrifying way by breaking into the homes of astronauts and watching them sleep. And that’s Lela at her most benign. To say that I had more trouble sleeping while writing the novel is an understatement.

Bloom: Lela’s relationship with literature appears to be one of the more stable ones in her life. She maintains what she refers to as an “almost private book club” with the librarian and family friend, Mrs. Gerhardt.  She is able to talk with Zory Korchagin, her love interest, in a calm and logical way about her views on novels. Yet poetry affects her differently. Her reaction to it is more visceral and in line with the traits of her mental illness. Was it a conscious decision for there to be a distinction between her reaction to these two different forms?

NW: It was not at first conscious decision. I knew Lela quite well before I started writing, but the difference in her reactions is something that popped up as I went along. Characters do things that surprise you sometimes. I came to see Lela’s link to literature and Mrs. Gerhardt as the link to her “normal” exterior self, whereas her reaction to poetry functions as an indication of her more emotional inner self.

Maybe this is some of my personality sinking into the narrative—I’ve always had a much different relationship with poetry than with other types of writing.

Bloom: Lela is a wonderfully unreliable narrator. In the novel she mentions a strange “fondness for Chuck Palahniuk.” Were you alluding to Fight Club, or another novel with an unreliable narrator?

NW: I have a weird and complicated relationship with Chuck Palahniuk. Not personally—he wouldn’t know me if he tripped over me. There’s a lot to like about Fight Club, though, and it was one of the books I read when I was thinking about writing in first person from an unreliable narrator’s point of view. Because of that, I could not resist making Lela a Palahniuk fan.

Bloom: Lela suffers from an unnamed mental disorder. Why did you decide not to reveal it in the novel?

NW: The mental order goes unnamed because Lela doesn’t have any idea that she’s mentally ill. Sure, she recognizes that she’s different from other people, but not different in a bad way—she believes herself to be a hero, on a mission that benefits mankind. Because the novel is told in first person point-of-view, there’s no good way to disclose a diagnosis of which she’s unaware.

There’s one opportunity in the novel to reveal her specific disorder, but it didn’t seem necessary to the plot. I’d rather allow the reader to speculate on that point.

Bloom: You’ve spoken about the extensive research you did on sleep disorders, mental illness, and the space program for The Trajectory of Dreams. How does research influence or shape your writing beyond solidifying the scientific facts?

NW: Facts are one thing, but what characters do with those facts is quite another. Lela White’s personality is the result of extensive research on her particular psychology. She couldn’t have a thought, undertake an action without it making sense within her mental disorder. Nearly every character in the novel has habits or thoughts that were shaped by research. It’s inevitable—nearly every fact you learn in life shapes your personality and opinions, and the same is true of fictional characters.

Bloom: Until recently you were the moderator of “5 Minute Fiction,” a weekly online flash fiction contest. You also did an online book tour for the release of your novel. How significant is the presence of a virtual literary community in your life and in what ways does it influence you as a writer? Did you seek this out or did you fall into it?

NW: Writing is a lonely thing. So many of us sequester ourselves in our offices and only poke our heads out for food and water. It’s hard to maintain that and keep your sanity. Having friends who can empathize is critical, and a virtual community makes it easier to find the right group. While I didn’t initially seek out other writers online at first, my network has grown to include them.

Several years ago when I was looking for some fresh eyes for a manuscript, I did look specifically online. As a result, I developed a fantastic relationship with another writer who has become my critique partner. And I’ve met some amazing people through “5 Minute Fiction” and other online flash fiction challenges, Twitter, Facebook, etc. I know some people think of their online platforms as sales tools, but it’s definitely more than that for me.

Bloom: Are you working on anything now? And will we be seeing anymore of Lela White?

NW: Lela White’s story has come to an end, but there are two other manuscripts on my agent’s desk right now. Both are young adult novels, one horror and one suspense. It’s an incredibly exciting time for me! While going through the submission process, I’m doing research for my next novel, which is a young adult ghost story set in Philadelphia.

Bloom: In Monday’s feature, Emily St. John Mandel wrote that The Trajectory of Dreams is a “fearlessly dark novel,” and that Lela, the protagonist, is “heartbreaking, because for the moment at least she is lost.”  Is your work that is geared toward young readers also dark?  Do you see the degree of darkness and hope as a difference between adult and YA literature?

NW: My writing tends to be a little on the dark side, no matter whether adult or young adult. Writers, reviewers, agents, and editors like to speculate about the difference between adult and young adult work, trying to pin down defining characteristics, but in the end it’s really the age of the main characters, and even that’s not entirely definitive. Take, for instance, The White Devil by Justin Evans. Almost all the characters are young adult, yet it was marketed as an adult novel for no reason that I can discern. Novels marketed to the young adult audience aren’t any less complicated or nuanced, any less dark, or any more hopeful than novels geared toward an adult audience. There is also Patrick Ness‘ Chaos Walking series. That is incredibly dark (and so, so good).

Bloom Post End

Click here to read Emily St. John Mandel’s feature piece on Nicole Wolverton’s The Trajectory of Dreams.

2 thoughts on “Q&A With Nicole Wolverton

  1. Wonderful interview. I’d love to know more about Nicole’s thoughts on how it feels being an older debut novelist in a world where most first-time authors are in their late 20s and 30s. I’m turning 54, and my own first novel is being released this fall. What strikes me is how out-of-the-loop it can feel being nearly a generation removed from others going through this process. This divide can feel even greater given that older authors are often not connected to an MFA community, while so many of these young novelists came up through such programs and carry the community — and support — with them..

    • That’s an interesting thought, Kim (and congratulations!). You have a point about MFA community support and feeling removed from all of that. There’s certainly more attention paid to younger novelists from various corners, not least of all the MFA programs. I have theories about why, as I’m sure you must. You’re less of a genre writer than I am, I think, and that makes a huge difference. You don’t see a lot of genre writing coming out of MFA programs, so publishing/support seems less dependent on the academic community. It also seems like genre writers have an easier time of building their own communities through social media. I could be completely wrong about that, of course.

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