Debut author Charlotte Rogan talks about “The Lifeboat”

Charlotte Rogan, of Westport,is the author of a critically acclaimed debut novel called The Lifeboat. She graduated from Princeton University in 1975. She worked at various jobs, mostly in the fields of architecture and engineering, before teaching herself to write and staying home to bring up triplets. Her childhood experiences among a family of sailors and the discovery of an old criminal law text provided inspiration for The Lifeboat. After many years in Dallas and a year in Johannesburg, she and her husband now live in Connecticut. The Lifeboat is being translated into 18 languages. She will be reading from her book and signing copies at R. J. Julia Booksellers, 368 Boston Post Road, Madison, at 7 p.m. on May 3. Call (203) 245-3959 to make a reservation. (Can’t make it to that one? See below for other readings and signings.)

Visit Charlotte’s website at http://www.charlotterogan.com.

 

Tell us about your new book.

The Lifeboat tells the story of Grace Winter, a 22-year-old woman who survives three weeks in an over-crowded lifeboat only to be put on trial for her life. You find out in the first chapter that Grace’s attorneys suggest she write her story down as part of her defense, and the result is a day-by-day, first person account. As the days pass and the weather deteriorates, it becomes increasingly apparent that for any to live, some must die. Grace watches and waits as the other passengers choose sides in a brewing power struggle, but eventually, she too must declare herself. It is because of her actions in the boat that she ends up in a courtroom, but is Grace telling the truth at her trial or is she merely saving herself again?

Where did the germ of the story come from? How did you first know you were going to write this story?

I found the germ of the story in my husband’s old criminal law text. I was particularly intrigued by two 19th century cases where shipwrecked sailors were put on trial after being rescued. Not too long after finding that book, the character of Grace Winter came to me and started telling me her story.

People sometimes ask me how much I was influenced by the Titanic or by a classic Hitchcock film called Lifeboat. The vast amount of material that has been written about the Titanic certainly provided me with a wonderful resource, but I was less interested in the idea of a shipwreck than I was in the moral dilemmas posed by a lifeboat situation. I guess you could say that my story takes up where the story of the Titanic left off. As for the Hitchcock film, I haven’t seen it. Someone gave me a copy of the DVD after I sold my book to Little, Brown, and someday soon I will watch it. I hear it’s great.

Did this book come to you easily, or did you have to wrestle it to the ground once or twice? Did you ever give up on it?

It’s funny you use the word “wrestle,” as the term I use for getting an unruly manuscript into shape is “arm wrestling.” Nothing comes easily in writing—for me, anyway. My stories grow organically, which means that I follow where my characters lead rather than fitting them into a preconceived plot. This means that I head down a lot of blind alleys, that I throw a lot of pages away, and that I have to do a lot of arm wrestling to get the disparate pieces of the story to cohere.

I put The Lifeboat aside for about four years while I wrote another novel, but I wouldn’t say that I gave up on it. I think that break was beneficial, because I came back to the manuscript with fresh eyes and a new ability to see what was working and what wasn’t.

Do you have a writing process you could share with readers, a way you like to proceed when you’re writing a book? (Some authors say they write the first draft out in long-hand, on yellow legal pads, with a special, sacred pen, after throwing salt over their shoulders and repeating an incantation…while others say they write the first draft in a two-week-long fever and then spend the next two years revising. Others don’t even begin until they know the whole story).

 I love the idea of a sacred pen, and I used to have one—a beautiful Waterman cartridge pen—but it broke, and after replacing it once, I didn’t replace it again. I love the feel of a nice pen in my hand as I go back and forth between longhand notes and typed pages, but I try not to be too superstitious about anything to do with my process of writing. I could imagine that too much reliance on ritual might become an impediment to actually sitting down and doing the work.

Are you a “pantser” (writing by the seat of your pants, discovering the story as you go along), or do you have the entire plot outlined before you begin? Or something in between?

My writing sort of accretes to the germ of the story the way a pearl grows around a grain of sand. I write snippets here, chapters there—not necessarily in order. I do use an outline, but it is more a device to help me make sense of what I have done rather than one that points the way to where I am going. I don’t think this is a particularly good way to write a novel—in fact, it is highly inefficient—but I don’t think you get to choose which type of writer you are.

How do you get yourself to write when you don’t feel inspired? Is there anything that can bring that mood, or voice, back to you?

I don’t have much patience with writer’s block, but then again, I haven’t ever been subject to a rigid deadline, so maybe that explains why I never feel paralyzed by my projects. There are certainly ebbs and flows to the writing, but there always seems to be something I can do to counteract a slow spell. For instance, first drafts and editing seem to use entirely different parts of my brain, so if I am stuck in one area, I switch to the other. And I can always do research. Research is like a wonderful treasure hunt that can lead to all sorts of interesting books and documents. When all else fails, I turn for inspiration to my literary heroes, the authors of the most dog-eared books on my shelf. But the bottom line is that like most worthwhile things, writing is hard work—nine parts struggle to one part inspiration.

When did you first know you were a writer?

I didn’t start writing until I was in my mid-thirties, so that was the first time I began to hope that I might become a writer. I think everybody has a different standard for deciding when that status has been achieved. Some people would say, probably correctly, that anybody who writes is a writer. I guess I started to feel like a writer after I had been writing for about ten years, but I didn’t say it out loud until after I sold The Lifeboat to Little, Brown in the fall of 2010.

If you weren’t a writer, what job would you like to do?

I would have liked to be either an architect or a physicist. I always thought I would do something that combined creativity and numbers, but I probably wasn’t good enough at math to be a physicist or good enough at drawing to be an architect.

What’s your favorite, and least favorite, part of the writing process? One writer describes the “sticky phase,” when everything you see and hear seems destined to slip into your novel somehow. Does that happen to you? Do you love the first draft, or prefer the last revision?

I am someone who does a lot of drafts. Sometimes I circle obsessively around a single chapter and sometimes I take a broader view, looking at the story as a whole and striving for coherence. My favorite part of the process, though, comes after I have a good draft—beginning, middle, and end. Then I can focus on what I call layering, or making the composition richer. One of my first discoveries about writing was that words have both surface and depth, and trying to elevate a sentence to the level where it has both is hugely challenging, but also a lot of fun.

What’s your process of revision? Do you have readers who give you advice? At what point do you enlist their aid?

I have one long-time writing friend, and she and I act more as cheerleaders for each other than as advisors. Aside from some wonderful creative writing workshops I took when I first started to write, I have never found interim comments useful. The difference between a second-to-last draft and a last draft is huge, so I don’t like to show my work to anyone until I considered it finished. Now you are going to ask me: When is it finished? With every manuscript, I come to a point where it is finished enough, and I am ready to move on to another project. The publication process has been wonderful in that my agent and editor have helped me take a “finished” manuscript to the next level of completion.

Readers tend to think that everything authors write is autobiographical. How do you handle those sorts of questions—people assuming that everything in your book really happened to you?

Have you read The Lifeboat? I don’t think people are going to think that about my book! But I know what you mean. Interestingly, I just gave a talk called “Truth in Fiction,” which was about the kind of truth one finds in fiction: the germ of the story is often something from real life; the themes of the book seek to get at Truth with a capital “T”; and a novelist’s interests and background are bound to come through in both themes and setting. But the extent to which autobiographical details are significant has to be different for each writer—and probably for each book.

Have you ever gotten up in the middle of the night to write a scene that simply will not let you rest?

I doubt I am the only writer who sleeps with a pad of paper next to the bed. Fail to heed the call of the nighttime idea at your own peril—you will not remember it in the morning! Mostly, the things that wake me up at night are just snippets, or broad solutions to problems of plot. Sometimes, though, a whole scene comes to me, and yes, I get up to write it down. It makes for a productive day of writing to find a lot of scrawled notes on the pad in the morning—if I can read my handwriting, and if there happened to be ink in the pen.

What do you tell people who want to be writers, too?

Read, stick with it, and listen to your inner voices.

Want to hear Charlotte talk about her book, and buy a signed copy?

May 3, 7:00 PM – Madison, CT: R.J. Julia Bookstore

May 18, 12:30 PM – East Meadow, NY: East Meadow Public Library

May 23, 7:00 PM – Marblehead, MA: Spirit of ’76 Bookstore

May 30, 7:00 PM – Farmington, CT: The Farmington Libraries, 6 Monteith Dr., Farmington

June 5, 12:00 Noon – Weston, CT: The Weston Library

June 19, 7:00 PM – Wilton, CT: The Wilton Library
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