Get ready for a special guest, Fiction Flurriers! Today we have an interview with Diann Ducharme, whose debut novel, The Outer Banks House, was released by Crown this spring. I first noticed the book when it was featured in Writers Digest as a notable debut. You can read my review of the book here.
So here we go! Thanks to Diann Ducharme for taking the time to hang out with us here on Fiction Flurry.
Your novel, The Outer Banks House, takes place in 1868 on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, barrier islands rich in history. Tell us about your research process.
I first read about 75 nonfiction books about the Outer Banks and the country, especially North Carolina, during and immediately after the Civil War. After I’d digested all of that information, a lot of my research involved actually visiting places that I’d read about in those books, mostly on the Outer Banks but also in Edenton, NC, where my characters are from.
As much as I liked calling myself a lover of the Outer Banks, I found that I didn’t know half as much as I thought I did. Everyone has heard of the large dune system called Jockey’s Ridge, located in Nags Head. But a much smaller dune system exists to the north of a unique maritime forest called Nags Head Woods. The dune system, called Run Hill, is pretty much a secret to most visitors of the Banks—eerily quiet in the dead of summer. This is where I found the trees—the northernmost beginnings of Nags Head Woods—whose trunks were buried in sand. I also drove through Nags Head Woods, which was another ecosystem I didn’t know existed on the Banks. The unique trees and flowers grow there in the shelter of the Jockey’s Ridge dunes. It was all so beautiful and special that I just had to put my characters there.
During my research, I also learned about the Freedmen’s Colony on Roanoke Island, of which I’d heard nothing about either. I read a terrific book called Time Full of Trial: The Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony by Patricia Click, which taught me everything there was to know about the Freedmen’s Colony. I knew that my characters would have to go there to further their development.
I also learned during my research that many residents of the Banks were pro-Union during the Civil War. As much as North Carolina is considered a southern state, it was interesting for me to know that the people of the islands didn’t necessarily hold the beliefs that were championed by people of the mainland. This fact helped me to form Ben’s character, as well as create a picture of the independent-mindedness of the people of the Banks.
The Outer Banks has changed a lot in the past 30 years, since I started vacationing there as a kid. What do you like best about the Outer Banks, and what changes, good or bad, strike you the most?
The Outer Banks is a long, skinny chain of barrier islands that run along a good portion of the coast of North Carolina. One the one side, the ocean crashes against the naked sand, all drama. On the other side, the sounds caress the maritime thickets and marshland, more forgiving. Just as I like my friends with inner peace and natural kindness, yet sprinkled with a wicked sense of humor—an edge if you will—so do I respect the duality on the Banks—the split personalities. Nothing there stays the same—everything is dynamic, fleeting—yet the tiny strip of land still hangs on, facing the wild weather year after year. When I am there, I feel more alive, more in touch with the natural world; it is my favorite place on earth.
Despite its enduring natural beauty, most of the Outer Banks are commercially developed now. There are little strip malls and houses everywhere you look, especially on the middle part of the upper Banks. It was challenging and kind of enjoyable to imagine what the Banks must have looked like before the rather recent boom in construction.
Even though the crowds and traffic and fast food joints bother me at times, I don’t blame people for wanting a piece of this island for themselves (and thus for wanting to build vacation homes there). I myself have vacationed in Nags Head since I was three years old. Going to the beach in August with my family was something that I looked forward to all year. About 20 years ago, friends of my parents sold us some land, and my parents built a house in Kill Devil Hills, a village just north of Nags Head. I spent three summers at the house during college and graduate school, earning my way with tips from waiting tables. Now my own children look forward to time at the beach house, and are learning to enjoy all that the Outer Banks has to offer. The Outer Banks is, for me and many, many others, both a stimulating refuge and a golden memory.
How long did it take you to write the book, and what is your self-editing process?
It took me about three years to research and write the book. In the beginning, I re-read every sentence after I wrote it to see if sounded alright. It usually didn’t! So there was a whole lot of re-writing going on. But as I got more used to the writing process, I wrote full paragraphs and sections without self-editing, and then I would re-read it all the next day, and of course re-write most of it. The novel was a series of two steps forward, three steps back! I am much faster and less discriminating now.
The characters in your book have very distinctive voices, and you alternate points of view between the two main characters, Abigail and Ben. Was it difficult to jump from Abigail’s head into Ben’s and back again while writing the book? Had you considered only using only one character’s point of view or telling the story in third person?
It wasn’t as difficult to change points of view as I thought it would be. Ben’s voice actually came very easily to me (no, I don’t talk like a southern “Banker”! He always seemed like a good friend to me—I have no idea where he came from). Abigail’s voice was a bit harder for me, using the first-person point of view, because I didn’t want her to sound too much like me—a boring, twenty-first century wife and mother. See, a lot of Abigail’s bookish, teacher-minded, stuffy character traits are also mine! She needed to also have a raging inner fire, which I only have on certain days of the month.
I originally wrote from Abigail, Ben, Uncle Jack, and Winnie’s perspectives, but when editing the manuscript for my agent, I removed Winnie’s chapters, mostly in an effort to shorten and streamline the novel. The “Uncle Jack” chapter started off the novel (my agent loved this chapter), but this chapter was removed when editing the novel for my editor—she didn’t understand why I started the novel with a character who immediately dies! But the chapter isn’t completely gone; I am going to put this chapter on my website so that everyone can read it!
Tell us about how you found your agent and about your overall publishing experience.
I have attended the James River Writers conferences in Richmond for the past six years. The many insightful sessions at the conference helped my writing immensely and perhaps more importantly, gave me the courage to keep writing in a sometimes difficult profession. I met my agent Byrd Leavell at the conference after sending in the first five pages of my manuscript for a conference session that involved an actor reading the pages and a panel of editors and agents critiquing them. Byrd liked the writing (the “Uncle Jack” chapter) and said that he’d like to see more, so I introduced myself after the session and I eventually (eight months later!) sent my completed manuscript to him in New York. I edited the manuscript for him (shortening it by about 25,000 words), and he sent it to about 10 publishing houses around six months later.
It struck a chord with editor Lindsay Orman at Three Rivers Press (an imprint of Crown and Random House), and Three Rivers Press quickly made me an offer. The book was also chosen to be published by Crown, which prints hardbacks (I’m not sure how or why this happened). Lindsay loved the book almost as much as I did, so the editing process was full of positive vibes. However, a year after taking the book on, Lindsay decided to go to law school, so I was transferred to a new editor, Heather Proulx Lazare. Of course, she is also lovely and very professional, so the transition was easy. It took two years for the novel to be published, due to the fact that it was an early summer release.
Full circle, four years later, I will be on a James River Writers conference panel myself (October 9, 2010), sharing my story (from manuscript to agent to editor and publishing) and hopefully inspiring others. My editor Heather Lazare is planning to attend the conference as well.
Are you working on another novel?
This past spring I completed my second novel, tentatively titled Chasing Eternity. It’s about Ryan Abernathy, an uptight geneticist and longevity researcher who travels to an island off the western coast of Ireland to meet with and collect DNA samples from two elderly twin sisters, whose genes hold potential for his research. He meets with a local woman—the great-granddaughter of one of the twins-- who captivates him with old stories and myths and family lore. One story describes a clan of the oldest people the world has ever heard of, and Ryan must separate truth from reality in his ultimate quest for lifespan extension. My agent recently sent the manuscript to 12 houses, so stay tuned!
I am also working on a sequel to The Outer Banks House.
Who are your favorite authors?
I have a long list that is always changing! Currently at the top of the list: Sena Jeter Naslund, Anita Shreve, Ian McEwan, Elizabeth Berg, Jane Austen, Anne Tyler, Sarah Blake
What advice do you have for writers just starting out?
Write a little bit every day, but think about your writing (I call it marinating) when you aren’t writing. The best ideas usually occur to me when I’m not sitting at the computer. I only had small amounts of time during the day during which I could write (my daughter was only a baby), but I made it a point to sit down at my desk almost every day and stare at what I thought was my terribly crappy novel. The staring eventually turned into tinkering with words and phrases, and sometimes, if I was lucky, good ideas for moving my novel forward. Have patience. When I’m on a roll, writing is the most joyful thing I’ve ever done.
Thanks again, Diann! We wish you much success with your book!
Please check out Diann's website at http://www.diannducharme.com/