Recently, I connected with Virginia McCullough on Linked In and was immediately impressed with her background in all facets of writing. While reading her novel AMBER LIGHT, I discovered more than a romance, for it delves into issues of identity, place, memories and decisions and second chances. Amber Light, was published in August. For more on Virginia and her books go here.
This week I took the opportunity to ask her a few questions.Virginia, welcome to Ruby On Tuesday!
You’re an expert on writing fiction and non-fiction as well as being a ghostwriter/editor/coach for 25 years. You must have gained extraordinary insights into the writer’s style and psyche.Q:What would you say is the most common problem with new writers?
First, let me say that I think we’ve been in a real Golden Age of writing for a couple of decades now. We could do nothing but read all day and barely scratch the surface of the excellent fiction being published today in all genres. That said, I’m often surprised that so many new writers don’t understand that writing on all levels is a learned skill, rather than an ability we’re just born with.
In school, I was a stilted writer, so concerned about making mistakes that I was unable to express myself in that strict school environment that existed when I was young. I joke about never being burdened by praise for my writing, and no one ever told me I had talent. That was a blessing in disguise, because I understood that I had to teach myself to write, and it takes so much practice to hone writing skills, whether applied to a nonfiction medical book or a novel. Along those same lines, good editing is critical. We self-edit first, but then we all need an editor’s eyes and pencil. I’d never want my work released to the world before a good editor has worked her magic.
The matter of inspiration remains an issue for writers, too. I know it sounds harsh, but discipline really is all it’s cracked up to be. That’s become one of my favorite sayings! I believe in the “showing up” theory of writing, in that I treat it like a job, and I’ve been rewarded by being able to work for myself. And I craved that independence. In the end, even the most talented writers can’t sit around waiting for inspiration. For some reason, this surprises some new writers. They often expect to feel fervor for their projects every time they sit down to write. I’ve run into a few who never expected they’d need to rewrite a single paragraph a dozen or more times. But that’s often what it takes.
Q: How did the idea of your latest novel first arise?
In AMBER LIGHT, the optimistic voice of Sarah, the 18-year old, came to me first, well before the whole story emerged. In keeping with a theme of mine, which is healing our fundamental wounds, I wanted to see how a young person could move on from the worst kind of trauma. Sexual assault is one of the universal women’s issues, too, and I know this myself from many angles. (I realize men are victims, too, but for the sake of conversation, I think we can all agree that historically and worldwide, this kind of violence is perpetrated primarily on women.) I also wanted to tell a story that reflects another theme of mine, which is “coming home/finding home.”~
You wrote about a mother and her critically ill child (GRETA’S GRACE) and a rape with an unplanned pregnancy( AMBER LIGHT) then about family relationships in ISLAND HEALING.
Q: How do you keep yourself upbeat and grounded when writing such dark topics.
Yes, these are serious, even dark topics, but the characters aren’t dreary people. They’re everyday women, men, and kids, like your neighbors and the families you’d see in the supermarket or the mall. I bring my own sense of humor and fun to these characters—and like real people, they experience humorous or light moments. We all have trials and hardships, and even tragedy and deeply wounding events, but we joke with each other and find light moments, even if the midst of sad or troubling times.
In AMBER LIGHT, two little girls open the way for humor and light moments. In the first few pages of ISLAND HEALING, Luke, the hero, takes pleasure from making the heroine, Geneva, laugh. He observes that it’s one of life’s ordinary pleasures and wants it to happen again. He’s also a master at self-deprecating humor, which charms Geneva.Lindsey, the narrator of GRETA’S GRACE, also pokes fun at herself when she internally groans over her tendency to talk too much, but she’s appropriately emotional when she makes big mistakes that threaten relationships. Plus, I reward my characters for all their hard work and the struggle—and emotional pain—involved in overcoming their problems. I suppose that’s because I want these people to end up with a second chance for satisfaction and happiness in their lives. I want that for myself and for everyone else, too.
In AMBER LIGHT You explore the way our choices forge our path through life.Q: Is this novel in some sense about the conflict between choice and destiny?
I hadn’t thought that philosophically, but I do know that Emily Dickenson’s quote: “Luck is not chance, it’s toil; fortune’s expensive smile is earned,” encapsulates the theme. Sarah believes in luck, but she works hard for her good fortune. At the same time, she has a physical “tingly” response to what she views as a lucky break. I think that’s Sarah’s youthful expression of what happens when she recognizes an opportunity and follows a hunch.
On some level I believe we have a purpose, but I’m not sure I’d call it a destiny. We end up having to live our way into our purpose, though, through what we call “free will.” At least that’s what it feels like day-to-day and at our biggest decision points. Like Sarah, we try to follow our hunches, but sometimes we make mistakes. I certainly wish I could have a do-over of a few choices, although I learned from my mistakes, too, and so do fictional characters.
Maybe this essential question is why we humans have always been drawn to stories—our brains are wired for stories. We read/hear/watch characters make one decision after another, and sometimes we’re sure they’re making big mistakes. But then, all isn’t at it seems, and the character was right after all. We’re so relieved to be wrong. At other times, the characters are forced to make course corrections, as we “real” people do throughout life. I think it’s what keeps us interested.
Wisconsin is the setting or part of the setting in two of your novels and is quite different from the beach on the southern coast where your novel AMBER LIGHT and the St Anne’s Island series take place.Q:What draws you to the southern coast?
I’m so fond of coastal locations, especially islands, like the Georgia and South Carolina coastal islands in ISLAND HEALING and AMBER LIGHT, although both islands are fictionalized versions of places I love. For eight years, I lived in Asheville, North Carolina and attended conferences in coastal cities and took trips to the ocean now and then to work on various projects. Although the mountains are gorgeous, I missed the water. I grew up in Chicago, right in the city, so Lake Michigan was a touchstone for much of my life. Since I live near the incredibly beautiful Door County peninsula in Wisconsin, it quite naturally became a setting for GRETA’S GRACE. I used Washington Island because it’s a popular destination in the county. So, I love the Great Lakes, as well as oceans, but I’ll use rivers and smaller lakes, too. Water is always somewhere in the story.
Q: How much of yourself, your own experiences, is in the book, and How did your background in boating lend authenticity to the boat scenes?
Like all writers, I try to add authenticity by using elements I’m familiar with. In GRETA’S GRACE, Lindsey is a professional speaker, which is a way of life, not just a business—it’s much like writing that way. I was a member of the National Speakers Association for about 17 years because I worked as a ghostwriter/editor for speakers. I attended many NSA conferences, and generally observed the speaker’s life. Lindsey’s life was familiar to me.
I lived aboard a classic—old—wooden sailboat for seven years. We started in Maine and ended up in the US Virgin Islands, so I can add that note of marine—sailing—authenticity. It’s one of those things, too, that once you’ve done it, you never stop looking at boats and thinking about port-hopping and swapping stories with other people. I use my sailing experiences in ISLAND HEALING, and it comes into GRETA’S GRACE, too, through Sam, a character who’s building a boat. Sam’s workshop resembles a similar building that belongs to old friends in Maine.
Q:What turns you on most in life?
Probably more than anything, I’m fueled by passion. I’m drawn to people who approach their lives and their interests with energy and passion. I’m lucky in that I passionately love to write—in general, but now, I’m especially passionate about writing novels. I have ideas to last me the rest of my life, however long that is. I also believe we’re supposed to use what we’re given to add to the world, even in tiny, almost imperceptible ways. When I wrote healthcare books, I’d picture one reader being helped by the information I explained. That kept the passion strong for me. And, I grew up in the midst of the great social changes of our time—my mother was born before women could vote and she went to college at a time when few women had that opportunity. Her sense of her good fortune and carving her place in the world aroused my passions early on.
Q:What turns you off most in life?
I suppose apathy is the other side of the passion coin. I don’t understand boredom, and my parents were big on participation and staying awake to the world. So I was raised without a sense of helplessness about solving problems or righting a wrong. I see variations on that theme in some of my characters. In AMBER LIGHT, Barly Rhoads has a heightened sense of justice. He wouldn’t be much of a hero if he simply shrugged and said, “Nothin’ I can do.” Or, what if Sarah brushed off her talent as a portrait artist? She’d lose her path to insights into other people and even into what love is. Apathy never discovered an effective treatment for an illness or created a symphony or made life better for anyone.
Q:Which words would you most like said about you before you die?
That’s a very big question—but I’ll go ahead and link passion and friendship—friendship has been one of the most important and cherished parts of my life. I enjoy Caroline Myss’ work on archetypes, and I’ve added one of my own—the cheerleader. I’d like my friends to say that when they were pursuing a dream, or struggling to recover from an illness, or trying to find the strength to overcome a problem and go on, that I was their most passionate and faithful cheerleader.
Q:What’s up next for you?
I’m working on ISLAND SECRETS, book 2 of my St. Anne’s Island series. The story is set in motion when an ER physician, Faith Marshall, leaves Chicago to find—and confront—her biological father, whom she believes sold her. Nothing like a bunch of secrets to get a story rolling! I’m equally excited about my finishing touches on a lighter book, THE JACKS OF HER HEART, which is a romance between two people in their early fifties, a bit older than the norm in love stories. I’m also calling it “the revenge of the middle-aged,” because this couple has very disapproving adult children—I’m poking fun a bit at the way kids can turn the tables and start bossing around their parents. It has some ‘60s and ‘70s music elements, a huge vintage clothing sale—and a lovable old dog, too. True to my pattern, it takes place in a town on a lake in Wisconsin, and is book 1 of The Capehart Bay series.
Virginia’s question to readers…
These are related questions, so there’s more than one: What makes a character unforgettable for you? What is it about a character moving around in a story that makes you know you’ll remember her or him? What makes you think about the character after you’ve read that last line? What makes you want to read more books in that series or by the same author?
Book Club Reading List: http://bookclubreading.com/?s=Amber+Light