FRANCESCA’S TOP WRITING TIP: In following advice from writers, feel free to discard what doesn’t work for you. I’ve listened to lots of interviews with writers and read even more, and people are hugely different. This one gets up at dawn and writes for an hour every day; that one only writes on weekends. This one outlines everything; that one feels outlines kill creativity. This one swears by writing groups; that one was scarred by them. About the only universal truth is that you do have to write to be a writer, so embrace the things that help you do that. But maybe that’s not a very helpful tip—in which case I’d go back to the best piece of advice I was ever given and say, read broadly!
Francesca Forrest has lived in the United States, England, and Japan, and used to boast about having given birth to children on three continents. If she’d started earlier, she might have tried for births on a full six (sorry Antarctica!) Currently she works as a copy editor, spending as much of her free time writing as possible. She’s had short stories and poems published both online and in print, but Pen Pal is her first published novel. She also volunteers as a writing tutor in a medium-security jail and with a program to make children’s books available in the various mother tongues spoken in Timor-Leste. She loves knowing which plants in a landscape are edible and the folk names of wildflowers. She blogs at http://asakiyume.livejournal.com
Why do you write? You know how so many good things are even better if you can share them with someone? You hear a beautiful song, and you want your friends to hear it, or you taste a delicious dessert and want everyone else to be able to enjoy it too. It’s like this for me with the stories in my head. I have these stories, these ideas, and I desperately want to share them. So I write. I want the story that’s alive in my own mind to live in other people’s minds, too.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? I really believe in the power of storytelling outside of the official role of writer. We’ve all known great storytellers (it could be a grandparent, an old neighbour, the class clown at school) who never put a word on paper, but who could hold you spellbound when they started weaving their tale. Even though the stories they tell seem ephemeral—gone as soon as they tell them—they often really linger in the mind. They have strength. If for some reason I couldn’t keep on pursuing writing, I hope I’d be one of these storytellers.
What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? My preconceived notions regarding publication were my toughest obstacle. These days, there are many ways to be published: you can publish with a major publishing house, a small independent press, or you can self publish; you can publish a physical book, an e-book, or both. You can serialise a story online. And, you can choose one route for one project and another route for another project. All the forms of publication involve difficulties. I had to learn to be flexible, and I also had to recognise that no matter what route I took, it wasn’t going to be easy.
What’s the best aspect of your writing life? I love the actual business of writing. I love turning scenes over in my mind, playing with dialogue, images, sensory details, the order in which events are going to unfold, and figuring out what works best. Some people dislike revision, but I love revision. I love going over a scene and finding a way to make it better.
—the worst? It’s very frustrating and depressing when a story doesn’t gel, when I work on something for a while and see that it’s just not going anywhere. Nothing’s ever really lost—you can recycle ideas later, and the experience you gain in any attempt is always useful—but I hate the moment when I realise that I should abandon some particular thing I’m working on.
What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? In a sense, I feel as if I am only just starting out now. I wrote a lot as a child and adolescent, but largely stopped when I was in college and bringing up small children. It’s only been in the past six years that I’ve gotten back to writing seriously. To answer a slightly different question, if I could do something differently with my life overall, I would never have let my writing slide—I would have kept at it during those small-children years.
What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? My father’s a writer, so I don’t feel like I was confronted by many surprises: I knew what I was getting into. I guess it would have been reassuring to know that I actually *would* have the tenacity to keep going—that in the absence of miracles, I’d be able to put in the hard work . . . and that sometimes there would be miracles, just not necessarily in the form or places I was expecting.
What’s the best advice you were ever given? To read broadly. I really think the absolute best way to improve as a writer is to read, and to read many different sorts of books. It’s amazing what people can do with language; it’s amazing the way stories can be told. You can apprentice yourself in writing by reading.
Pen Pal starts with a message in a bottle and ends with revolution. Em, a child from a floating community off the US Gulf Coast, drops a message into the sea. It ends up in the hands of Kaya, an activist on the other side of the world, imprisoned above the molten lava of the Ruby Lake. Em and Kaya are both living precarious lives, at the mercy of societal, natural, and perhaps supernatural forces beyond their control. Kaya’s letters inspire Em, and Em’s comfort Kaya—but soon their correspondence becomes more than personal. Individual lives, communities, and the fate of an entire nation will be changed by this exchange of letters. Pen Pal is a story of friendship and bravery across age, distance, and culture, at the intersection of the natural and supernatural world.
Pen Pal is available from http://www.amazon.com/Pen-Pal-Francesca-Forrest/dp/1494264633 and http://www.amazon.com.au/s/ref=nb_sb_noss/377-1330537-9613469?url=search-alias%3Ddigital-text&field-keywords=pen+pal+francesca+forrest
Francesca has also set up a website for the book, with pages on remarkable real-life pen pals, messages in bottles, floating communities and indigenous languages. She’d love you to check it out at http://penpalnovel.virb.com/index