Book Architecture’s very own Stuart Horwitz had the opportunity to moderate two panels at the 2022 Tucson Festival of Books. The authors who participated in the sessions have published novels across a swath of genres but, in their own way, each linked the success they have found in their careers to having identified and articulated the why behind their writing. Without that clarity and conviction, it becomes much harder to get a work over the finish line and into readers’ hands. Below is a compilation of some of their key thoughts from the TFOB panels and beyond.
Beasts of a Little Land, Juhea Kim
Juhea is a writer, artist, and advocate based in Portland, Oregon. Beasts of a Little Land is her debut novel, but she is also the founder and editor of Peaceful Dumpling, an online magazine at the intersection of sustainable lifestyle and ecological literature.
Juhea says, “Why do [I] write? No one ever asks me this but I repeat this every morning while taking a walk in my neighborhood. I write to save nature and reduce animal suffering. That’s the throughline of my work across genres (essays, journalism, short stories, novel) even when the writing in question doesn’t look like it has anything to do with nature.
“Knowing the reason I write was what kept me from giving up whenever I was staring down yet another rejection. And it will continue to inspire me through the ups and downs of writing life.”
The Scribe of Siena, Melodie Winawer
Melodie is a physician-scientist and associate professor of neurology at Columbia University. She has published over fifty academic articles and contributed to several anthologies. For her, fiction writing is an invaluable outlet that brings balance to her otherwise fact-bound life.
“The way I do scientific research goes something like this: I come up with a question I don’t know the answer to. I try to look up the answer. If I don’t find an answer, I look harder, and in more sources. If I still don’t know the answer, I ask colleagues with expertise. If no one knows the answer, or even better, if there is disagreement, or even controversy about the answer, that’s when I know I’ve found my next research project…
“But in fiction, uncertainty is a foundation for invention. That means I get to make things up. And that is intensely pleasurable.”
Our Woman in Moscow, Beatriz Williams
Beatriz got her MBA in finance from Columbia University and worked as a corporate strategy consultant in New York and London for many years.
She said, “The business career was something I was doing to be successful at, until I had the nerve to try what I really wanted. I was always writing. I was literally writing books on company laptops and scrubbing the files before I turned the laptop in. It was always what I wanted to do.”
Once Beatriz stepped away from her career to have her children, she decided it was time to prioritize her decades-long urge to write with more commitment.
“I thought, it almost doesn’t matter now if I crash and burn — at least my kids need me and love me. Now that writing was no longer the most important thing, I had the guts to go ahead and try it.”
A Ballad of Love and Glory, Reyna Grande
Reyna crossed the US–Mexico border to join her family in Los Angeles as a young girl, a harrowing journey chronicled in her memoir, The Distance Between Us. For Reyna, the why behind her dedication to her writing career had a real urgency to it.
She said, “When I discovered books, I felt that I had been saved. My childhood was full of things that were beyond my control. Books gave me an escape. I was able to hide in the pages of those books and for a moment get away from all the chaos around me.
“Once I discovered Latino Literature when I was in college, the books I read helped me to define myself. I was Mexican and American. I could celebrate my Mexican culture while at the same time also feel at ease in the American culture. They helped me not to feel torn between the two.”
Both of these things helped equip Reyna with the tools she needed to write her memoir.
“A lot of books about immigration are from third parties who are researching the topic, and they’re interviewing immigrants to write their experiences down, but it’s very rare when that immigrant gets to tell that story herself without having somebody else tell it for her. That’s what I’m really grateful for—that I can use my own voice to tell my own story. I wish more immigrants had that opportunity,” she said.
Island Queen, Vanessa Riley
In addition to being a novelist, Vanessa has an astounding number of degrees (like we’re talking: a doctorate in mechanical engineering and a master’s in industrial engineering and engineering management from Stanford University, as well as bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from Penn State University). While her published novels are rich and varied, they are united in putting women and people of color–groups that have largely gone voiceless in history books and historical fiction–in the spotlight, reminding readers that they too lived and loved fiercely, and had complex and rich lives and legacies.
Vanessa said, “Female-centered historical novels are having a moment, particularly when uncovering little-known histories. Resistance to these narratives, which cast heroines with agency, hidden talents and extraordinary achievements, has declined, but only after a hard-fought battle.
“Perhaps women have won the war and we can pen stories of our ancestors without the dreaded attack of the old guard — a patriarchy accustomed to controlling the narrative and wielding the term “historical accuracy” like a weapon.”
The Christie Affair, Nina de Gramont
Nina is a professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. She is the author of The Last September, several young adult novels, and The Christie Affair which was her first New York Times bestseller.
Nina diligently worked at her writing career for years, motivated and sustained by the why that was entrenched deep within her.
Upon the success of The Christie Affair she said, “If this had happened when I was 25, I’d think that it meant I was really brilliant. Happening at 55, I know it means I’m really lucky. So I’m appreciating it, for sure.”