Today, we welcome Elizabeth McCulloch – AKA “The Feminist Grandma,” – the debut novelist behind Dreaming the Marsh. The book explores the environment and our relationship with it. The book features magic, mysticism, and humor and is a perfect fit for the times, as the subject of the environment is more important now than ever.
While the tone of the novel is lighthearted, the subject is not. McCulloch asks very real questions about environmental responsibility from a feminist perspective, and what might happen if we don’t reevaluate our relationships with the environment, our fellow humans, and all living species. She’s a former lawyer who now runs The Feminist Grandma blog. We had the pleasure of chatting with her about the new novel, her blog, and her advice for writers!
The Tidbit: What inspired you to begin blogging and what has the journey been like so far?
Elizabeth McCulloch: I was in the middle of writing my fourth novel when our seven-year-old granddaughter came to live with us. I had to put down novels for a while. The blog helped me sustain my writer as I adjusted to motherhood, and I found unexpected advantages in writing it.
First, I became more disciplined. A teacher has to show up every day, ready or not. A baker has to provide the daily bread. A mother’s work stands in front of her, insistent, a dozen times a day. An unpublished writer suits herself; nobody cares whether she writes. As I began to get readers, I was aware of an audience waiting for my blog.
A novel takes so long that it’s tempting to take a vacation. Blog essays are a manageable size. I can dump all my thoughts on the page in a morning or two, and then tidy them up. The satisfaction is immediate.
Writing regularly, almost every day, forms a habit, and writing the essays is excellent practice. Whatever I write, I’m practicing my skills – fluency of thought, the right word, rhythm, editing.
I’ve learned a lot about myself. In my diary, my counselor and comfort in the darkest times, I usually simply ramble until I understand what’s troubling me. In these essays I choose a subject and figure out what I think about it. I’m afraid blogging has made me opinionated, though my friends might claim that pre-dated the blog.
I used to be reluctant to expose my private life to the world. Blogging has destroyed any notion of privacy, and brought out the Look-At-Me aspect of my character. I don’t bare my soul, nor write about my deepest sorrows or regrets. I don’t write about the thoughts and deeds I’m most ashamed of. But I write posts about fuck-me shoes and crude adolescent behavior on trains. I’m no longer embarrassed by my body; I’ve posted pictures of myself exercising in my underpants, and in a wetsuit like a fat black sausage.
Finally, blogging guarantees publication. I began writing seriously at forty, and didn’t get a book published until I was seventy-two. But in eight years of blogging, I’ve developed a small base of faithful readers, who often respond with gratifying praise.
TT: Congratulations on publishing Dreaming the Marsh! When did you come up with the idea for the novel?
EM: The idea began to germinate many years ago, when I moved to Gainesville, Florida. We have a beautiful 21,000-acre savannah, Payne’s Prairie, just south of town, and a huge ancient sinkhole, the Devil’s Millhopper. In my story, the Prairie became the Marsh. It began, as all my fiction does, with an image that popped into my head. I saw a house on stilts, and suddenly pictured a sinkhole opening beneath it. That led to a plot that involved a sinkhole gradually swallowing the Marsh, as well as a large lake, part of I-75, and the dreams of twin sister real estate developers.
TT: What is your writing routine like? Do you find it stays the same or differs when you’re writing a book versus blogging?
EM: I get up very early to work. I’m usually at my standing desk or on the office bed, snuggled in the arms of my giant teddy bear, by 5:30. I work till about nine, break for breakfast and to feed the backyard birds, and work another couple of hours after that.
I’ve already described how I write the personal essays of The Feminist Grandma.
For reviews, which I publish in Big Books from Small Presses, I make teeny dots in the margin as I read the book, and list the page numbers so I can find notable quotes and ideas when I’m writing the review.
Novels are a whole different affair. I begin with an image, and muddle around to see where it leads, who might be involved. I jot down ideas for scenes as they come to me, and one scene begets another. I’m well into the book when I think I know the course of the story, but the course can change. I wrote sixteen drafts of my third novel, and in the fourteenth killed off the husband instead of the wife.
TT: Your book – described as an environmental fable – is being released in a time where more attention needs to be focused on the environment than ever. What do you hope readers will take away in an environmental aspect?
EM: The story involves a giant sinkhole which swallows up environmentally sensitive land where developers planned to build luxury condos. The mayor thinks engineers and experts can stop the sinkhole and save the development. But people aren’t in charge. Mother Nature is.
She is also in charge of climate change, though we have laid the powder and lit the fuse. Very soon, or perhaps already, we will have set off a chain reaction of climate warming, ice melting, and water rising that we cannot stop. I agree with Margaret Mead that thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, and I’m thrilled to see very young people uniting in protest. But I don’t know whether we can achieve more than incremental changes in our profit-driven economies and luxury-seeking lives. Incremental change will not turn around the disaster that we have created in our only home.
TT: How did magic come into your story?
I’m not really sure. I don’t believe in the slightest in magic, yet magic infuses the book, and completely delights me. Payne’s Prairie fills me with wonder, and indeed all nature strikes me as magical. Imagination itself feels like a magical process, though I know it is merely electrical impulses in the brain. Maybe letting my imagination free in the large scope of a novel opened me up to the possibility of magic.
TT: What advice do you have for aspiring authors looking to become published?
EM: Learn about the publishing industry through magazines or newsletters. Join a writers’ group. Go to writing conferences and meet people. Build your on-line network too – follow writers you admire on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, or all the other trendy sites I’ve never heard of. Post only when you have something to say, and be sure each post is well-written.
If you write short pieces, look to the literary journals. Don’t start with the famous ones, go to the little obscure ones. If, like me, you can’t write short fiction, you’ll have to attract a book publisher. You need an agent to get into the big houses, but consider the small publishers. A small publisher cares about your book almost as much as you do. They don’t have big marketing resources, but I understand the big houses only put those resources into a few books each year – the other books sink or swim, usually sink. Big house or small house, you will probably have to work hard at promoting. Hire a publicist if you can afford it; they cost less than an old used car.
And of course, most important, do everything you can to improve your writing. Here’s what works for me:
Read. Read in the genre you want to write, and also venture into classy literature that may be a bit of a struggle. Read poetry. Go to poems.com, where every day you will find a new poem from one of the hundreds of literary journals. I don’t grapple with the truly puzzling ones, or those that bore me, but every few days I find a new delight, and poetry stretches my word muscles.
Write. Writing takes faithful practice. I’ve heard an excellent writer say that every day you don’t write, you’re not a writer. This strikes me as both neurotic and male. Every woman writer knows that family demands will intervene. So I’m pleased to be writing almost every day. If I go a long time without writing, I become gloomy and anxious. Maybe I’m neurotic too.
Brain-dump. In both fiction and essays, I dump it all out on the page or screen and then tidy it up. It’s lovely how many nuggets appear as you dig through the ore. This works if you have a basic idea for a scene, or a topic for an essay. But even an empty-mind day calls for brain-dump. Just scribble crazy thoughts, disconnected words. Get the juices flowing. Soon one thought will lead to another. And it’s all practice.
Edit. I find first drafts hard, but I LOVE editing. I’m very decisive, so editing is easy for me. When you’ve dumped out a whole essay, go through it. What should follow what? What’s extraneous? Where do you need a bit more? Then read it aloud, sentence by sentence. Does it have rhythm? Is ‘shiny’ or ‘glowing’ the word that conveys your meaning, and if either will work, which one makes the sentence more pleasing to the ear? I always read my so-called final draft of a novel out loud – it’s exhausting and takes days, but it’s very useful.
TT: What are you working on now? What’s next for The Feminist Grandma?
In the year since I signed the contract with my dream publisher, Twisted Road, my time has been filled with edits, cover design, website design, publicity efforts. Now the book is out, and almost everything I do is related to promoting it. I write articles to get my name out there, contact book clubs, hustle for speaking engagements, take interviews with anyone who asks. I have become more active on Facebook and newly active on Twitter thanks to an excellent publicist who told me I had to.
I’m pleased that I managed to write nineteen blog posts and seven chapters of my fourth novel in that year. I hear from writer friends that it will be a while before I can devote most of my work to writing, rather than publishing and promoting. When time opens up, I will borrow friends’ hideaways and take week-long retreats to work on the novel. I’m applying for month-long writing residencies, and someday I’ll get one!