A Conversation with: Julie Egert
February 12, 2011
Author of The Left Side of the Stairs
Thank you, Julie, for taking the time to chat with me. Since we share a publisher, Aberdeen Bay, we’ve communicated by email frequently in our “cyber space world.” Consequently, I feel like I’ve actually met you. Hopefully one day at some conference or event, we’ll actual meet in person in the “real world.” I recently finished your first novel, The Left Side of the Stairs, and thought it was good. Which, as I think I mentioned to you, is high praise indeed from an avid mystery reader!
Thanks so much, Madeline! I like hearing that from a “mystery girl!” Funny thing that I took the pop fiction/drama route with my first novel since my absolute favorite thing to do is dive into a mystery. I feel like I’ve already met you too, and can’t wait for our paths to actually cross in something other than cyber-space. You’ve really welcomed me into our “publishing family.”
I read a recent guest blog you did on Marilyn Meredith’s, Marilyn’s Musings[i], and I thought your comments were on the mark—two threads in particular hit a chord with me, on a personal level-the uselessness of self-pity, and on a writing level-the importance of readers caring about your characters. Your comments led me to several questions.
First, on the character topic, what immediately caught my attention was the time you spent up front developing your characters and their back-stories. So even though you didn’t “jump right in” (which I like), I still found myself interested in Shelby, and Miranda. Was the initial time spent developing your characters and their back stories on purpose? A writing or story-telling philosophy? Or just a matter of how “the muse” was calling you?
You know, it’s just something I naturally did—and I went back after I’d written it and worried that things started too slowly in the story. I was actually a reporter in a former life and was walking out of the newspaper office in the middle of the night before deadline. It was a quiet, beautiful, very cold evening. Time seemed to slow down and there was something surreal about seeing my breath in the air and hearing the bank clock clicking away—that was my muse for the first scene, and I just had to use it. I had friends who initially read the manuscript tell me it got off to a slow start. I took out some of the preliminary backstory so I wouldn’t completely lose readers but stuck to my guns. I’ve always felt, and one of my writing mantras is, you have to care about WHO the story is happening to before you can care about WHAT is happening to them.
I certainly agree on the importance of “Who.” Here’s another character question. My personal reading tastes also led me to think I wouldn’t like Miranda on first “meeting” her, or care about her situation. But, I did care. Your writing about these characters indicated to me you did a lot of very good research, and/or you were writing from the heart. So my question is, how and why, did you choose Miranda’s issues as pivotal life struggles in your novel? Maybe knowledge gained from your days as a reporter?
That’s another thing I wondered about too—whether readers would be completely put off by Miranda at first. She’s an addict and doesn’t come off as an especially nice person when you meet her. You might even get the impression she thinks she’s “above” the people she’s choosing to be around, but I tried to convey that some of that “attitude” is because she’s clearly conflicted about her situation and the life choices she’s made. I also dropped in little details like mentioning a diary her mother had given her because I wanted the reader to remember this is somebody’s daughter who wasn’t always like this.
Also I very much wanted the reader to go on a journey with Miranda and watch different facets of her character unfold. Like a friendship that develops slowly, over time. I chose drug addiction because I’ve always been fascinated at the idea of something having such a powerful grip on a person that they will sacrifice everything for it—family, relationships, health, sometimes even ultimately their life.
I did research the heck out of the topic, from reading books to watching episodes of “Intervention” on A & E. It’s funny—I had a ninety-plus year old firecracker who’s been a friend of my family for years write me a note and tell me she couldn’t enjoy the book at first because she was afraid I’d been into the drug scene! Rest assured none of my research about drugs was firsthand, I just tried to imagine what those situations and feelings would be like. I also chose drug addiction for Miranda to make my two main characters opposites yet mirrors of each other: Miranda shoots heroin with a needle and this threatens her life; Shelby as a diabetic has to use a needle to administer the insulin that keeps her alive. But I am diabetic like Shelby in the book, so that part came easily to me. Built-in research.
Yes, I liked the irony of the “needles.” Here’s a part personal, and part writing question. Your hospital stay produced the mental Peekaboo, ICU—great title by the way. For me, titles are very important on two fronts—whether I decide to read a book, and choosing the right one for my own work. I’d never thought about going up and down stairs on particular sides, and certainly not as a life-metaphor—which you used very nicely. I love metaphors—good ones that is! Not knowing about the stairs is probably ignorance on my part. Could you share how you decided on your title? Is there a historical significance, literary reference, or was it pure creativity on your part?
I lived in an old Victorian house growing up, complete with the requisite wooden staircase, and the right side did indeed creak. I thought, that could make a really cool metaphor/title for a story, so I took it and ran with it: A character who walks on the left and is timid in life, afraid to make any “noise.” (Again I’d just like to assure readers that Shelby is not 100% me—I didn’t feel “repressed” in life as I was growing up…)
Switching directions on you, since this is your first novel, were you prepared for the promotions part of your author journey?
Now that, Madeline, has been a steep learning curve for me! Anyone who knows me knows that the thought of being a “salesperson” absolutely puts me off, and it’s a job I’d NEVER choose. But I’m slowly learning to look at the marketing aspect in a different way—it’s just having a conversation about my book with someone. That’s all it has to be.
Oh, do I know what you mean on the “salesperson,” aspect of promotions! On a light note, kerfuffle is a wonderful word! Is there a story behind the word for you?
I took something that I felt was kind of a “rule” or trick of the trade of writing and tried to have fun with it. I’m sure you know about the “trick” of distinguishing your characters with pet phrases they use, so the reader will be able to know who’s speaking even if you don’t use the character’s name. There are even opinions on how many times a character should use the phrase! (I think I was told to use a phrase ten or so times per character throughout a full-length novel. As much as I love the word kerfuffle I didn’t use it that many times). Anyhow, I hate “rules” but I’ve always liked the word “kerfuffle”—it basically means a constant state of confusion so I like to say it’s the perfect word for me. My Mom and I were laughing about it on the phone one day—and she demanded that Shelby’s pet phrase be “kerfuffle.”
What’s next for you Julie, and are there any additional aspects of your novel or writing that you’d like to share?
What’s next for me? Well, I’m going to Disney World! Actually I’m not being cute—I do plan on going to Disney with my husband for our tenth anniversary. Of course I want to keep writing, and am currently hashing out the plot for “Summer At Ringing Rock,” which will be a cozy mystery. Who knows if it will make it to print, but as I’ve been told, if you’re writing for anything other than the sheer love of it, you’re not doing it for the right reasons and are bound to be sorely disappointed in the results! Writing is taking a piece of yourself and putting it out there knowing that not everyone is going to like it. It’s nerve-wracking—it’s risky—it’s personal–it’s rewarding!
Congratulations, on your anniversary! Enjoy.
For me, one of the elements I liked in your book is how one person’s decisions and actions effected and rippled through the lives of others. It’s a theme I’m fond of, and try for in my own writing. Congratulations, Julie, on a very well done first novel. I’m sure you have a great future ahead!
Thanks so much for having me for a “conversation”, Madeline! This was fun!
Julie’s first novel, The Left Side of the Stairs, can be purchased on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com, or BooksAMillion.com. Her website can found at http://www.julieegertwrites.com
[i] Julie’s comments on Marilyn’s Musings http://marilynmeredith.blogspot.com/2011/02/creating-sympathy-vs-pity-in-writing-by.html