Kathy Czepiel’s beautiful new novel talks about sacrifice, women’s lives…and violets

A Violet Season

Kathy Leonard Czepiel is the author of A Violet Season, a historical novel set on a Hudson Valley violet farm on the eve of the twentieth century.

She is the recipient of a 2012 creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and her short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals including Cimarron Review, Indiana Review, CALYX, Confrontation, and The Pinch. Czepiel teaches in the First-Year Writing Program at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, where she lives with her husband and their two daughters.

Photo by Chris Volpe

Come and hear her talk about the history of the violet industry and listen to excerpts from her novel at New Haven’s Mitchell Library in Westville on Monday, October 29th at 6:30 p.m.

Tell us about your new book.

A Violet Season is set on a Hudson Valley violet farm operated by three brothers at the turn of the twentieth century. Ida Fletcher, who is married to the black sheep youngest brother, has taken up wet nursing to help pay the bills, and her teenage daughter, Alice, has been forced to leave school for work. The novel tells the story of the increasingly great sacrifices that Ida and Alice make for their family’s survival, and the way those sacrifices unintentionally set them against one another and affect the rest of their lives. I wrote the novel in part because I grew up in the mid-Hudson Valley, which was once known as “The Violet Capital of the World,” though there is little remaining evidence of that industry today. I wanted to bring that piece of my hometown’s history back to life. But the story is also about women’s lives at the turn of the century, their relationships with men, their work, and the start of their journey toward more independence.

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

I’m also a teacher, and I love teaching. For the past nine years I’ve taught in the First-Year Writing Program at Quinnipiac University. I don’t have aspirations of becoming a full-time writer because I think I would get really bored and lonely working independently at home all of the time. But if I weren’t a writer and a teacher, and if I were talented enough, and if such a thing still existed, I would play cello or French horn in the pit orchestra of a Broadway show. Or I might be a landscape designer and work outdoors all of the time, except in the dead of winter, when I would go cross-country skiing and read lots of books.

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?

My favorite part is the inbetween, which is where I am right now with my second novel. No one has imposed a deadline on me yet, but I have a full draft, so I have something to work with. I’m rocking back and forth between research and writing, so there’s some variety, and the work isn’t linear. I can dip into any part of the manuscript and work on it, now that I can see the big picture. I find first drafts terrifying because it’s just me and a blank page, and what comes out on that page is mostly garbage, and I know I just have to keep going to make something. Final revisions are kind of a drag, the point at which I’m studying every single conjunction and semicolon.

Do you procrastinate? What’s your favorite mode of procrastination when you’re supposed to be writing?

Making a cup of coffee and a chocolate chip cookie. My husband often mixes a big batch of cookie dough and leaves it in the fridge—very dangerous.

What about being a writer has made you truly happy?

I’m so lucky to be living my childhood dreams. So many of us leave those behind, and for a long time I did, too. When I think of my ten-year-old self writing stories after school and submitting them to Cricket magazine and telling people she wanted to be a writer when she grew up, I’m really happy because I’ve made that kid’s dreams come true!

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 treat writing like a job, because it is. There are days when it feels a lot like work. When you have a “real” job, with a boss and colleagues and a location not inside your house, you might wake up in the morning and say, “I just don’t feel inspired to work today,” but you get up and go to work anyway. Writing is no different.

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

That depends on what kind of writer they want to be. Lots of people are happy writing for themselves, or for their close friends and family. To them, I say: do it! Maybe take a class which will teach you to do it a little better. And don’t let anyone else tell you what you should be writing; write what you feel strongly about.

To the people who have aspirations of wider publication, my advice would be a bit different. Those writers have to take classes—lots of them, whether in a school setting or in professional conferences and workshops. They can’t compete in the marketplace without treating their craft seriously, as something that must be learned and practiced. And then, they must be extremely persistent. They must keep showing up, keep studying and reading and writing and sending their work out there despite all the rejection and discouragement. There’s no denying that luck also plays a role in becoming a published writer, but the persistent writers will be there when luck turns up.

Alice Mattison and Maddie Dawson are reading at Best Video Wednesday!

As the “real person” behind Books New Haven, I am–technically speaking–Sandi Kahn Shelton. But I’m also Maddie Dawson in my life as a novelist these days. (It’s confusing to be me: I also have three novels out under the name of Sandi, and one under the name of Maddie. I also have two twitter accounts, two facebook accounts, two blogs, two email identities. Such is life when you have a pseudonym.)

But anyway–one of the great things I get to do occasionally is appear in public as two people, and this Wednesday–Oct. 17, at 7:30 p.m. is one of those times.

And I get to read with my longtime friend, Alice Mattison,who is the author of several novels herself, including her latest, the fabulous When We Argued All Night, which recently had a GREAT review from the New York Times. She’ll be reading from this novel…and if you’ve never had the experience of hearing Alice read from her work, you are in for such a treat. I want her to read the whole thing, just because I love hearing it–but she probably won’t.

Also, Alice appeared on Books New Haven back in June, and here is that post, along with her brilliant answers to our nosy questions.

I will be reading from my latest work in progress, a novel-to-be called The Opposite of Maybe, which is going to be turned in to my publisher in February (February 15th, to be specific, but who’s counting?)  I’ve read from this before at Best Video, in fact, and the encouragement of the crowd has helped me move on to write at least a couple more pages since then. Actually, I’m nearly finished with this book, although the characters are not nearly finished with me. They wake me up regularly in the middle of the night to remind me of things they’d like to have included in the book. So I am something of a wreck most days, but I will try to be sane and succinct on Wednesday night, and would love it if you could come and smile and wave.

Alice and I are reading at 7:30 p.m. Best Video is one of the more wonderful places on the planet, made even more wonderful by the fact that it now has a wine bar, in addition to its coffee bar, its thousands of videos, its friendly and knowledgeable employees–and its lovely proprietor, Hank Paper. Here is a story I wrote about Best Video for the New Haven Register last summer. It’s located at 1852 Whitney Avenue in Hamden.

PJ Sharon offers a glimpse of dystopian teenage life in trilogy

PJ Sharon is the author of several independently published, contemporary young adult novels, including Molly finalist, HEAVEN IS FOR HEROES, FAB Five finalist ON THIN ICE, and SAVAGE CINDERELLA, Golden Palm and Sheila finalist.

On the road to publication, PJ decided that indie-publishing was the best fit for her books. They fall outside the norm for YA fiction in that they are geared toward 16-22 year old readers, a market considered risky with traditional publishers. Hers, however, aren’t your average high school stories. Instead, they are portraits of the real life issues of older teens and their struggles with family, friends, and the guys they fall for. Although the themes are mature, evoking plenty of drama and teen angst, PJ writes with a positive outlook and promises a hopefully ever after end to all of her books.

P. J. Sharon

Tell us about your new book.

WANING MOON is Book One in THE CHRONICLES OF LILY CARMICHAEL. The trilogy is about sixteen-year-old lily Carmichael, living in the year 2057. She is the first generation of genetically engineered children bred to survive the plagues that wipe out three quarters of the Earth’s population. Her genetic modification not only makes her resistant to the plague, but gives her the ability to heal quickly and an intuitive ability to heal others—everyone except her uncle and her brother. Their blood ties make them immune to each other’s abilities. Her thirteen-year-old brother, Zephron, has the opposite capability which is to take life with just a touch. Their mother died during Zeph’s birth and their father was killed by a government agency called the Industry, an organization trying to capture these EVO kids. Sam raises Lily and Zeph as his own, determined to keep them hidden in the Northeast hills, but when a young drifter named Will falls into a trap on their property and Lily decides to heal him, their secret is bound to get out.

Waning Moon

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

There is so much concern today about where our world is heading. People live in fear of what will happen if our economy collapses or we have a climactic event that changes the landscape of our planet. Kids and teens especially, are both terrified and fascinated by dystopian stories of post-apocalyptic survival, making books like The Hunger Games or television shows like Revolution part of the new pop culture. I live in a small remote town with neighbors who love living in the woods as much as my husband and I do. We often get together and talk about current events and contemplate our survival strategies. We aren’t quite as bad as the Doomsday Preppers, but we do try to prepare for whatever the future holds. Humans are the most adaptable creatures on the planet, and in keeping with my “hopefully ever after” philosophy, I wanted to show how we might survive if life as we know it took a turn for the worse. As for how I knew I was going to write this story, it’s always about the characters not leaving me alone until I put their story on the page. If I don’t listen, it gets very crowded in my head.

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?

I struggled with this book more than my others. Partly because it is so different from my contemporary stories, but also because it is the first book in a trilogy and I’m not a true plotter, so I had to be very careful about where the story line went, making sure I planned properly for the next two books. It was also challenging because I was in the midst of promoting my other books and had very little time to write—a frustrating place to be for a writer. The story came in fits and starts and finding my creativity to imagine a future world was a big challenge.

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).

Hahaha, I’m not nearly as interesting as that. I write the story my characters tell me to write and I don’t stop until their story is on the page. I let the first draft flow as organically as possible and then go back at the end and revise the heck out of it. I do have critique partners who help a lot with plot holes and character details that always seem to keep me on track. I typically write a chapter at a time and then go back over it before proceeding to the next chapter. Kind of a two steps forward and one step back approach.

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? 

I’m a pantser by nature, but I’ve learned the value of planning judiciously. If I plotted the whole story out, there wouldn’t be much point in writing it, but I do like to understand my characters before I get going. I want to know what their goal, motivation, and conflict are, what they are most afraid of, what their fatal flaw is, and what they will have to sacrifice or learn to get what they want in the end. Also, if I know the major turning points in the story, it gives me a direction to write toward. Whatever happens in between is up to the characters and boy do they take me to some interesting places.

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?

My most favorite part is the beginning. I can sit down and write the first fifty to a hundred pages of a story and be so excited about the journey, I forget to eat, drink and sleep. But then I get toward the sagging middle. That place where there are lots of words getting onto the page and the story seems to be going nowhere. I hate that part! I’ve learned to step back and reassess my character’s goals at that point and check in with my pacing of the story. It’s usually the time where I need to blow something up or get the characters kissing. Although I don’t have everything slipping into the book, I’ve been known to hear another author’s voice and fear I’m writing a lot like someone else. As far as first drafts or revision, I consider myself a reformed first draft addict. I wrote four full length manuscripts and kept moving on after the first draft because I didn’t know how to revise. Once I learned the art of revision through some very good workshops, I found that I loved the process of refining my work to make it shine. It always feels like a monumental task to revise after that first draft, but the work is always worth it.

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?

I say that all of my characters are me and none of them are me. How’s that for ambiguity? I have written stories where my characters have gone through things that I myself have experienced, but it’s not my story. And I can honestly say that no, I’ve never been a kidnap victim, nor have I lived in a dystopian world of the future. Although I’m writing fiction, I can’t help but draw from my own experience. It’s kind of an alternate universe that I create where I get to imagine, what if that event had happened this way, or what if I’d known someone like this in my life? How would things have been different? Especially in writing for the YA market—it’s like I get a virtual do-over in a completely new world.

Do you procrastinate? What’s your favorite mode of procrastination when you’re supposed to be writing?

Housecleaning. If I’m avoiding writing for some reason, I feel justified cleaning the house since it’s a necessity and it still feels like I’m working. My house is usually very clean during that “sagging middle” stage of the process.

What about being a writer has made you truly happy?

Exploring my creativity in a way that gives me joy and brings joy to others is the ultimate reason I write. There are moments when a line or a paragraph comes together in poetic perfection that just makes me giddy. And I love those aha moments when a character learns something really valuable that I ask myself, where did that come from? I learn something new about myself every day when I’m writing.

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

I tell them that it isn’t as easy or as glamorous as they imagine, but if they have stories to tell, they shouldn’t let anything stand in their way.