Interviewer Christopher Seufert sat down with author Nancy Geary in between promotional events for the release of her latest novel "Being Miss Alcott." Latest release and information about Nancy can be found at www.NancyGeary.com.
Christopher Seufert: So you're teaching a class on how to write your first novel?
Nancy Geary: Yes, at the Cape Cod Writers Conference.
CS: You've written four books and you're on your fifth now. What's the difference between writing a first novel and writing subsequent novels?
NG: Well, the idea of the "Writing Your First Novel" class, the way I teach it, focuses on the choices that you need to be aware of when you're getting started. We spend a day discussing first person versus third person, which kind of voice is better for the tone that you want, outlining a plot, which I think is incredibly important, the themes of your book, and dialogue... So I think there are various issues that are not so particular to a novel. A novel is like any ambitious project. If you don't have it all organized in your thoughts before you get started, what's going to happen to these students is what happens to most people- they start and don't finish. And so, the ultimate goal of my class is to prepare the students to see their book through to the end.
CS: Tell me about how you made the decision to leave your job as a lawyer, and to move to the Cape to begin your first novel.
NG: Being a lawyer was taking 100 percent of my time and I just didn't feel like it was 100 percent of me. And there was this burning sense that I had something to say, that I had this story to tell, even though I wasn't quite sure what it was at the time. I'd grown up thinking that if I work really hard and I keep trying, then everything's going to have a happy ending. But, after my dad died I suddenly had this sense that, "My god, every moment is so precious, everyday is so precious." I just couldn't see myself staying a lawyer and never trying this.
Financially there were huge issues, and that's why I gave myself two years. I said, "If I haven't made it as a writer within two years I'm going to have to go back to being a lawyer." So it was confined. I admire people who have written manuscript after manuscript and keep on writing after being rejected. In fact, sometimes I think those are the real writers because they're internally driven. They're not writing for any sense of commercial success or public acknowledgement. But for me, because I was giving up so much and I was allowing myself limited time, it was either going to work or not work, and it was a huge risk.
I think that in this society your career becomes so much of who you are. I remember when I quit my job, people would ask me what I did for a living, and I would say "Nothing." I didn't say "I'm a writer." I didn't know what I was at all because I wasn't a lawyer anymore. Those first couple of months were some of the scariest months of my life. But once I got to school and started meeting other people who were trying to write and I found a community of people that were trying to do the same thing that I was, it got easier on a day-to-day basis. But in the end it really wasn't until I signed a contract that I felt like I could say I was a writer. Then I felt more comfortable about who I was.
As for Cape Cod, the reason that I moved down to the Cape was simply that it's a much more beautiful place to live and work creatively. My husband was a lawyer up in Boston so I was going back and forth a lot, but for me to work down here was such a gift. I was able to get up in the morning and walk my dogs on the beach and it was a real source of inspiration. It's perfectly quiet in a way the city never is. It was really very, very peaceful.
CS: Why specifically did you decide to use Chatham as the setting for your latest novel?
NS: There was a very deliberate reason for choosing Chatham with the book. Even though everyone says it's so scenic I think Chatham is really very wild. When you walk on the beach and the wind and the salt in your face... I remember just coming back feeling totally exhilerated. I wanted that kind of natural turmoil for what the heroine's experiencing. This is why I choose Chatham for this book specifically. My other books weren't set here.
CS: Now that you've moved away to New York, did you actually makes trips down to visit certain locations again or was this mostly drawn from memory?
NG: Mostly drawn from memory.
CS: Really? When did you first move to the Cape?
NG: My husband and I started coming to the Cape together. We sort of ended up here by accident. He had had a huge case in Singapore and he'd been gone for two months. And so when he came back I made a reservation at the Chatham Bars Inn for four days of vacation. We were down here and it was the middle of winter and it was so beautiful. We were walking around and he said, "Why don't we just go into a realtor's office?" The next thing we knew we were down here every weekend and Chatham was part of our life . We first bought our house in '93, I was here full time by 1998 and then I moved in 2001. It was very sad to go. I will never forget the day that we had the closing. My husband and I had separated and he had returned to Boston. I had this carload of dogs and sort of the last minute stuff that hadn't been packed and a brand new baby. I showed up at the closing, and I just... I don't know, it was very weird driving off the Cape that day. It felt like I was really saying goodbye to something. I think there was something about Chatham and the house that we were in. It's just a very special, wild place.
I remember, once the furniture had been moved out I had something called a champagne and Similac [A brand of baby formula] party and invited people over just to say goodbye. Someone at that party said to me, "You're never going to live in such a nice place or in a nice house like this again." And it's true. It was a very special house in a very special place. So I do miss it.
There really is something about driving across the bridge and smelling that salty air for the first time, and the moment that you roll down the windows.
CS: So you are also beginning your fifth novel right now?
NG: I've just started, although it's kind of interesting because I entered into contract with my new publisher without them even seeing a proposal. So I've been working on a novel but they haven't even seen it. I'm going to meet with them in September and see if they actually want the one that I'm working on or whether we'll come up with a new idea.
CS: This one is along the same lines?
NS: As Being Mrs. Alcott. It's certainly not a sequel, it has a younger heroine and totally different issues and it's set in Westchester where I live now but it's not a suspense.
CS: So it sounds like it will be interesting to see if you core readers are mystery readers or Nancy Geary readers.
NG: I'm hoping they're Nancy Geary readers, though we'll see.
CS: Can they predict how changing genres like that will effect the book sales?
NG: I don't think they know. I was at a Book-Span party and a man from Barnes & Noble, who is a big buyer for them, said, "You know, you're making a huge mistake because they won't know how to shelve you!" On the other hand, the Barnes & Noble editors picked Being Mrs. Alcott as their favorite read and that was a huge, huge deal. I figure we'll see what happens. I think this is the direction I want to go. I couldn't be a lawyer when I really wanted to write, ultimately. I just can't write being worried about where I'm going to be shelved.
Photos for this article can be found at www.MyChatham.com and freely used.
- Nancy Geary Bio -
"I was born in New York City. Other than a year at boarding school when I was constantly homesick, I was educated in Manhattan and graduated from the Spence School, an all-girls school on the upper east side. Because my parents were divorced, I split my summer vacations between Southampton, New York, where my father had a home, and Manchester, Massachusetts, where my great-grandmother lived.
I graduated magna cum laude from Brown University in 1987 where I studied American History and "Law, Ethics and Public Policy." My honors thesis on AIDS in the pediatric population won the Minnie Helen Hicks prize. I then went to Harvard Law School where I represented indigent defendants through the Harvard Defenders program, taught constitutional law at a nearby public high school, and was a teaching assistant for an undergraduate ethics course.
After graduating cum laude, I spent four years as an Assistant Attorney General in the Criminal Bureau of the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office. I initially did appellate work, but later prosecuted public corruption, insurance fraud and financial crimes. I also spent six months in the Lowell District Court as part of the Urban Violence Strike Force prosecuting primarily drug and domestic violence cases. I had the chance to work with a wonderful group of assistant district attorneys and dedicated police officers, including one cop who pursued a fleeing felon on a tricycle and caught him! As difficult as the work was, the days were exciting. Lowell District Court is still the scene of my most vivid legal memories, both successes and failures.
I went into private practice briefly at a large Boston law firm before quitting my legal career to try to write. I enrolled in several graduate seminars, participated in workshops on various aspects of writing, wrote lots of short stories and read constantly. Then one day on a vacation in Turks and Caicos, the idea for Misfortune came to me. I couldn't sleep and scribbled notes in a travel guide and on pages of my day planner. I completed the book about a year and a half later and, in the process, came to think of Frances Pratt as a real friend. Misfortune was published in 2001,Redemption in 2003, Regrets Only in 2004, and my latest novel, Being Mrs. Alcott will be released in July 2005.
I live in Westchester County with my son, two Labrador retrievers, and two rabbits in a house built in 1790. It has crooked floors, uneven walls, and a basement that fills with water every time it rains, but we love it. I teach creative writing at the Northern Westchester Center for the Arts and am currently at work on a new novel."