Margaret Dilloway On Writing About Health Issues in A Work of Fiction + Tips To Writers Having A Hard Time Starting A Novel

img_1363Name: Margaret Dilloway (O’Brien)
Hometown: San Diego
Based In: San Diego
Education: BA Studio Art, Scripps College, Claremont CA
Briefly: Author of Sisters of Heart and Snow, upcoming, Putnam Books, The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns, Putnam Books.
Winner of the American Library Literary Tastes Award for Best Women’s Fiction, 2013; Winner, Bonus Book of the Year, Pulpwood Queens International Book Clubs, 2013. How to Be an American Housewife, Putnam Books; Finalist, John Gardner Fiction Award, 2011.
Author Crush: Ruth Ozeki. I read A Tale for the Time Being in as close to one sitting as I could get, and wept when it ended—not because it was horribly sad, but because I wanted it to keep going. I also read it at a difficult writing-time in my life, and something about it re-inspired me.

If You Weren’t a Writer You’d Be…a detective! I always notice weird little details other people usually don’t—something writers and detectives have in common.

Up Next: Sisters of Heart and Snow from Putnam Books.

You grew up in San Diego. What’s the best book fair memory you have of growing up in that fab city?

My junior high held a book fair and had an author visit—young adult/middle grade author Frances A. Miller. It was the first time I met a Real. Live. Author! And I was beyond excited.

Let’s talk a bit about your book How to Be an American Housewife, set during the Second World War. When you were writing it, did you feel that you historically had to have a revisionist point-of-view?

It’s not really a historical novel; it’s a book about two contemporary women, one of whom has ties back to WWII. I wouldn’t call it “revisionist,” exactly. All history and memoir are fictional in a way, because stories are told from your specific point-of-view. Everything you write is influenced by that, and cannot be totally objective. It’s like if you’re sitting at a table with your friends and all of you are looking at a centerpiece; each of you only sees one part of it and can only describe the little piece that you see.

As far as the history in the book goes– my mom told me many stories of what it was like growing up during WWII Japan, and what it was like to come of age during Occupied Japan, when the country was completely devastated. It was a combination of her stories and my own research that made up the historical parts—for example, I did not know about the “untouchables” in Japanese society before I started writing this book, which ended up being a character.

I notice that there is a German edition of the novel. What does it take to penetrate in that market?

The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns has a German edition. For that, we can thank Putnam’s foreign rights department. They also sold rights in Poland and Croatia. I think Germans appreciate a person with perseverance and a really strong sense of morality, like my heroine.

How did you improve your writing to get it to the level that it is today?

Practice! And lots of reading across genres.

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How did The Care and Handling of Roses With Thorns come to you?

I wondered how rose companies come up with new varieties every year. So I did some research and found that there are hobbyists who breed roses to enter them into show,s and hopefully get picked by a rose company. People breed for scent and color, and the roses also need a lot of other specific attributes: the bushes can’t get too big, they have to be disease resistant, they have to do well in all climates.

These hobby rose breeders consist of mostly scientists and engineer-types—people who tend to be quite methodical. This put the inspiration for the main character in my head. My sister-in-law was the jumping off point for the character—she had kidney disease and had had three transplants—and that all combined to become the book.

How many revisions did you perform on it until you felt that it was at a point where you were totally pleased with it?

I think with this one it was about four. A rough draft, then my edits, then my editor at the publisher edited it twice. It is usually a lot more. Housewife probably had at least twelve (three or four with the publisher) and this book I’m working on now has closer to twenty total, I think.

As far as the editing process is concerned, how did HTBAAH compare with The Care and Handling of Roses With Thorns?

HTBAAH was way more intensive. I worked with my editor for a year before it was ready. And I’d rewritten it a bunch of times prior to that.

Both of your novels have health at the crux of the plot.

I know, I seem to be drawn to that. Both health issues are in my family. My mother and many relatives have this genetic heart condition where the heart enlarges and gets an irregular heartbeat—my kids and I get tested for it every year too—and I’ve had anxiety about getting it since I was little. My SIL had bad kidneys from when she was little, and my husband’s family was quite gravely affected by it.

It’s interesting to me how people handle chronic diseases in different ways. You can let it beat you down or you can have the best attitude possible—or some combination of the two. My mother, for instance, was always pretty depressed about it and resigned to dying relatively young. She passed away at age 61. My SIL handled her disease differently. She didn’t talk about it as much and she did everything she could to enjoy her life—she got a Master’s in Chemistry, taught full time, and volunteered for the Royals, all while on dialysis with no working kidney. She died at age 43. Anyway, I think I wrote about these issues as a way to understand how to live when you don’t have much time, and to work through my own personal anxieties.

What tips do you have for writers who have a hard time starting a novel?

Well, either you want to write one and you find time to do it, or you don’t. So many people have told me they don’t have time to write. If you want to write a novel, and you need to write your story, you will find a way. Write a page a day and in less than a year, you’ll have an entire first draft. If it’s not important enough for you to find the time, then it’s probably not worth writing. That’s my tough love lecture for the day.

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What advice would you give to someone who has written a first novel that enjoyed the tremendous success that your first novel did—about writing the sophomore novel?

Try to make it better than your first.

What do you think of self-publishing?

There are many extremely talented wonderful authors who have chosen to self-pub because they were told that the market wouldn’t support their book and they didn’t want to change its content; or because they’d done traditional publishing and they’d disliked the process. Self-publishing works great for some authors. But I personally don’t have the resources to do it well, and prefer to have someone else handle the sales, distribution, marketing and publicity.

I think self-publishing should be a strong decision you make after weighing the pros and cons of traditional versus self, not because it’s one-click easy. A lot of writers get rejected a couple of times, then immediately self-publish—complete with typos on the first page. You should be diligent and talented and do all the good hard editorial work to make your manuscript the best it can be.

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