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So You Wanna Win a Book Prize?

In honor of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize and the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets (open now!) We've revived our interview series about publishing the first book. This week, Book Prize Coordinator Katie Schmid Henson talks with Prairie Schooner contributor and novelist Kate Southwood about the process of writing her manuscript, acquiring an agent, and bringing her first novel to publication. Southwood's first novel, Falling to Earth, was published in 2013 by Europa Editions and received rave reviews from The New York Times and The New Yorker.

1. How many books have you published, and where?

My novel, Falling to Earth, was published by Europa Editions in the US and UK in 2013.

2. Describe the process of constructing your first manuscript. Did you plot organically? Did you outline? How did the story come together?

It came together slowly, after I’d had the idea to begin my story with a historic tornado from 1925. I couldn’t begin writing full time until my youngest child started grade school, so there were some months between my learning about the tornado, deciding how I wanted to use it in my story, and actually beginning the novel.

By the time I started writing, I had worked out the story’s beginning and ending, and I had also decided to explore the difference between tragedy and the tragic, in this case the difference between the tornado (a tragic and unavoidable force of nature) and the tragedy of bad human behavior (a matter of choice, and therefore avoidable) that followed it.

I never outline, but that’s probably only my being pigheaded in retaliation for all of the outlines I was made to write in school. In this case, I felt that the story presented itself organically, once I knew the beginning and ending, and after that I was able to write it more or less in chronological order. I wasn’t married to the ending, exactly, but it helped to know where I was going. I literally wrote the beginning few chapters and then wrote the ending before proceeding with the body of the novel. I don’t mean to present that as a formula for success, only as a record of what I did in this case. I could have changed the ending at any time, but I never did, although I found that the reasons for that ending had multiplied by the time I was done writing.

3. Did you notice any writing tics or themes once you’d gotten through a first draft? (For instance, I spent the year 2007 trying to break myself of the verbs “bloom” and “ache,” once I realized everything I wrote was blooming or aching.) How did you decide which tics were fruitful (interesting in that they accrued throughout the story in a meaningful way) and which were not?

I wrote the novel almost entirely in the present tense, which I found so demanding and rigorous that I think it may have also acted as a pre-emptive strike against my usual writing tics. When I told a writer friend that I was writing in the present tense, third-person omniscient, she literally stopped walking and asked me, “Why would you do that to yourself?” Others have advised me against writing in the present tense, but I couldn’t let it go. It was well suited to the spare and straightforward style I prefer, and the difficulties it presented may well have kept me from sliding into my usual tics, like uniform, unvaried sentence structure, that I’m always on guard for.

4. What was the editing process like? How did you get from draft to draft? Did you find yourself excising large portions? Adding?

I don’t write drafts, as such. I think the advent of the PC (I’m old enough that I went to college with my parents’ old IBM Selectric in tow) killed the drafting process for me. If I’m able to change things at any time, over and over again before I hit the print button, then whatever I’m writing becomes a continuous draft. I absolutely hated drafting papers in college—typing a page, marking it up, and then retyping it with my edits—so my first PC was a Godsend. And now when I’m writing fiction, I tend to finish one chapter before starting another one. I’d be in really dire traits at this point if I were required to teach drafting to fiction students.

As for excising or adding large portions, I tend not to have to get rid of things so much as I sometimes need to add them. Before sending out Falling to Earth to publishers, I ended up adding four or five chapters based on suggestions from my agent, and then the book needed very little editing once Europa Editions had acquired it.

5. How did you decide where to submit the finished manuscript? What was the process of getting an agent like?

I was introduced to my first agent by my MFA advisor. That sounds fantastic, like being born with a literary silver spoon in my mouth, but it actually took three tries over several years before he took me on as a client. I knew somehow that Falling to Earth was different, and I was right: he took me on immediately after reading it. My agent, as I mentioned above, was one of the book’s first editors, and that was a service I wasn’t expecting from him, but which I was very grateful for. He had decades of experience in publishing, and when it came time to shop the book around, the decisions were all his.

My first agent has since retired, and my editor at Europa Editions introduced me to my new agent. I have cold queried agents, but only a few, and that was years ago. I’m a peculiar case in terms of agents, I think, and the only useful thing I can say about finding an agent is that one of the ways it can happen is that a person in a position to help you will notice your work and make a phone call of introduction.

6. What does current-you wish you could have tell past-you about the whole process?

The same thing I told myself all along: don’t give up, but don’t beat yourself up if there are periods—years, even—when you simply do not have time to write. If you are reading good writing and paying attention to things around you, you can still grow as a writer.

7. What did you do when you heard it was accepted?

Honestly, I just breathed a sigh of relief. Falling to Earth is a book about a tragedy, and it turned out to be a hard book to sell. My agent said the whole thing had felt like a rollercoaster ride to him. I felt a much greater sense of elation when my agent took me on, to be frank, than when the book was finally bought by a publisher. Once I had my agent, I knew everything else would fall into place.

8. What was the most surprising thing about the publication process?

I had no idea that book acquisitions go through committees of editorial staff, which often include marketing and sales people. Editors rarely ever acquire books on their own anymore—the days of the gut reaction are over. There seems to be a growing climate of hesitancy in publishing that makes it harder for debut authors to land contracts.

My agent got several enthusiastic emails from editors who were eager to acquire Falling to Earth, only to have them backpedal the next day when the sales people had entered the conversation and said that the book was not upbeat enough to sell. It was incredibly frustrating to see that pattern repeated over and over again.

9. What is your favorite part of your first book?

I truly don’t have a favorite part, so I’ll pick something unexpected and say the book cover. The cover was the first thing about the book that I had no role in choosing, and I remember just sitting and looking at the cover art and smiling. The cover uses a vintage photograph of a mother and child, and is meant to suggest two of the main characters in my story. It was a lovely revelation to me that other people could show me something new about my own story.

Kate Southwood received an M.A. in French Medieval Art from the University of Illinois, and an M.F.A. in Fiction from the University of Massachusetts Program for Poets and Writers. Kate has published articles, essays, and reviews in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor and The Huffington Post, among others. She has also written in Norwegian for the online news service ABCnyheter.no. Born and raised in Chicago, she now lives in Oslo, Norway with her husband and their two daughters. Her debut novel, Falling to Earth, was published in 2013. You can find her online at katesouthwood.com.