“Life is good. A life centered on writing is even better.” ~~Charlotte Rains Dixon
Charlotte Rains Dixon is an author, writing coach, teacher, and supporter of creativity in all its forms. She lives in Portland and delights in helping writers do what they love to do—write. I met her in the blogosphere a few years ago and follow her informative blog at charlotterainsdixon.com
In 2011 I took her up on an offer of a free fifteen-minute coaching session. Charlotte is funny, inspirational, and truly gifted at helping writers over the obstacles we all face. Check out my post “Tea with My Inner Editor” for one of the results of my session with Charlotte.
Charlotte’s new novel Emma Jean’s Bad Behavior was released by Vagabondage Press on February 12 and it’s a great read.
Best-selling novelist Emma Jean Sullivan longed for a baby for years, but after she and her husband Peter were unable to conceive, she staunchly vowed to become the standard bearer for all childless couples. And she succeeds spectacularly. At age 48 (43 according to her blog, Life, Full Tilt) Emma Jean enjoys a rabid anti-baby fan base and her novels have sold millions. But now she confronts a dilemma larger than any that her heroines have faced: she’s pregnant. And the baby’s father is not her husband. Through no fault of her own (he was just so damned adorable), Emma Jean had begun a passionate affair with Riley, a fetching airplane mechanic she met at a book signing in L.A. Terrified of losing both her fan base and her identity, she struggles to maintain her sham brand and her marriage. But Peter is busy embezzling Emma Jean’s money and completely uninterested in fatherhood, and Riley has his hands full with problems of his own. Not only that, her latest novel is a miserable failure, and a Vanity Fair reporter, who plans to out Emma Jean’s pregnancy to her fans, is stalking her. What’s a suddenly broke, failing, middle-aged, pregnant novelist to do? Why, flee to a glamorous resort town, of course. There, Emma Jean plots her next move.
I've finished reading Emma Jean's Bad Behavior and I am enchanted, Charlotte. Emma Jean’s snarky exterior hides a deeply wounded and insecure soul who is searching for the truth of the story of her life. She's delightfully flawed and I wanted to take her by the shoulders and shake her.
Readers get to meet Emma Jean in the pages of your book. Where and when did you first meet her?
Charlotte—Emma Jean burst forth in my brain at a time when I was visiting L.A. regularly to work with ghostwriting clients. Much like Emma Jean herself, I'm fascinated and repelled by L.A., half of me loving it, the other half hating it. The city is just so big, so full, so overwhelming, so everything. And I think Emma Jean, who has some of the same characteristics, was born of my wonder at this place. Emma Jean lives in Portland, like me, but when we first meet her she's in L.A. for a book signing and the city figures largely in the novel. I'd had a couple of discussions with a friend who is a screenwriter about how funny it would be to get pregnant at an advanced age, and out of that stew sprang Emma Jean. I wish I could point to a specific moment when me met, but it was more like in real life when you're aware of someone who might be a friend of a friend or an acquaintance and all of a sudden that person comes into your life. She was quite vocal and insistent once I met her, however!
ZM—Please share the journey Emma Jean’s Bad Behavior made to publication. Why did you choose a small press?
Charlotte—I love to talk about my journey to publication because I think that it is instructive, and I hope inspiring, to other writers. Once I'd gotten the manuscript to a point I felt good about, I started submitting it to agents. I had the great good fortune to have some personal introductions, which got me to the top of the pile. But over and over again I heard that agents loved Emma Jean but felt she was not relatable enough to make the novel saleable. I heard that word "relatable" a lot. In nearly every rejection I'd read, Thanks for submitting your novel to us. We love it, but we don't think we can sell it because…
I ran through all the personal introductions and kept submitting to agents I found through my own research. One thing that kept me going was that I got encouraging responses about the writing. The agents might have been taken aback by Emma Jean, but they were complimentary about my writing and many offered to look at my next novel. I ended up submitting the book to over 50 agents.
In the fall of 2011, as I was in the middle of this frustrating submission process, an old friend with whom I'd gotten my MFA contacted me and told me his novel had found a publisher—Vagabondage. I knew this novel well because I had critiqued the manuscript (for the record, it's Facing the Furies by Daniel DiStasio). It was a novel that I absolutely adored and so I checked out the publisher. They had a submission form on their website and on a whim, I submitted Emma Jean. Dan told me he'd heard back in two weeks and the website said they responded in six, so when I didn't hear back, I just figured it was another no.
Fast forward to March 2012, nearly five months later. It was a Saturday afternoon and I'd been out all day, so I was checking my email on my phone. I noticed an email from Vagabondage and idly looked at it. Thanks for submitting your novel to us. We love it, and would like to publish it. I was so used to reading the same old rejection that it took me a few minutes to realize they were accepting me, not rejecting me! Even after it sunk in, I kept going back to the email to make sure I hadn't read it wrong.
Please, writers who are reading this—don't give up! When you know you've done your best and have honed your novel to a point that it's publishable, keep going. We creatives give up way too fast. I know I have in the past, and the reason that Emma Jean is published is because I just kept going.
ZM—What’s the best thing about publishing with Vagabondage Press? www.vagabondagepress.com
Charlotte—My editor, Nanette. She's amazing. She did a fabulous job of editing the book, and she's also held my hand throughout the entire process, answering my many questions and reassuring me every step of the way. I've also been impressed with the rigor of the process, from the content and grammar edit, through the copy editing and proofing. I'll never forget when a writing friend said to me, "You mean they actually edit you?" As if all small presses just accept books and throw them up for sale. Small presses are fast becoming the biggest and most vital segment of the publishing industry, and with good reason. We all need to learn not to discount them just because they are small.
ZM—In publishing today, getting an agent, finding a publisher, and marketing all seem to be tied to genre. What is Emma Jean’s Bad Behavior’s genre?
Charlotte—I call it women's fiction, which annoys me every time I say it because we don't have a category called men's fiction. A few years ago it would have been called chick lit, but that became a pejorative so I avoid it. You could also classify it as a romantic comedy, but I'm afraid that the word comedy might turn people off, making them think that it's full of jokes. It's not. The comedy comes from the gap between Emma Jean's view of herself and reality.
ZM—Many craft books stress that writers must read and read a lot. Who is your favorite author, or what is your favorite genre? What draws you to a book you read for enjoyment?
Charlotte— I love women's fiction. I always feel like I should have a long list of classics of literature to name, but truth to tell I love women's fiction because I can empathize with the characters, which I think answers the second half of your question. I read authors like Jennifer Weiner, Juliette Fay, Jo-Ann Mapson, and Lolly Winston, writers who tell a great story with characters that you feel you know.
I'm glad you asked this question because I agree with all those craft books—writers must read a ton in order to write. I once had a client who struggled with writing a memoir and about a year into our relationship I learned that she didn't read, which explained everything to me!
ZM—Finally, what question do you wish interviewers would ask, but they never do?
Charlotte—Well, one of the things I'm wrestling with is people's reaction to the characters in the book and how similar they might or might not be to people in my life. So a question might be, "How similar are you to Emma Jean?" And my answer is that in some ways we are a lot alike and in many other ways we're not the same at all. I admire Emma Jean's brash ways and she always seems to have a witty or smart rejoinder. Me? Not so much. I'm the one who always thinks of the perfect thing to say a day later, which is why, I might add, I'm glad I'm a writer who can revise and edit! Emma Jean has many experiences that I don't share but we do share a similar outlook on life.
I love the process the process of writing fiction, and part of the reason I enjoy it so much is this melding of real life and completely fictional elements that happens. We take a bit here, and there, combine it, and throw it on the page and magic happens!
This has been a fabulous interview, Zan Marie, thank you so much! Your one-sentence synopsis of Emma Jean's story nails the novel perfectly—I needed you when I was writing my query letter.
Charlotte Rains Dixon is a writer and writing teacher. She has published numerous articles and stories as well as three non-fiction books. Charlotte received her MFA in creative writing from Spalding University and teaches in the Loft certificate-writing program at Middle Tennessee State University. She lives in Portland, Oregon.