Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.
Recently, we interviewed author Terry Lee Caruthers about her writing and her book, Vivie’s Secret, a brilliant historical tale of courage, perseverance, family ties, and kindness.(Read the review here.) She’s a special projects librarian with the Knox County Library System.
Born and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, Terry Lee Caruthers is a special projects librarian with the Knox County Library System. She grew up surrounded by strong, female role models who nurtured her imagination and imbued her with a love of reading, writing, and storytelling. Terry continues to reside in South Knoxville where she shares her life with her three rescue cats: Blackberry, Clover, and Rumblewick.
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Vivie’s Secret FB page:
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
As a professional librarian, research is second nature to me. The time varies as to the task at hand.
For Vivie’s Secret, I spent about three months reading refugee accounts from the Hungarian Revolution. Old photographs from them provided inspiration for background characters, like the young girl at the top of page 22 and events like the ‘bridge’ crossing in Chapter 11’s opening.
I also poured over historical information, including old maps, on Hungary, Switzerland, France, and New York City.
My research enabled me to discover a source that had a virtual tour of the Orosolya Ursuline Church and Convent that appears in Chapter 10. It’s what enabled me to describe the Sopron chapel’s exterior and interior settings.
In some cases, I drew on life experiences. For example, I spent over 20 years working with feral cats—rescuing, rehabilitating, and socializing them. As did Vivie Babb, the woman who inspired Vive’s Secret.
What are common traps for aspiring writers? Does a big ego help or hurt them?
In short, arrogance. A big ego can actually sink a writer.
Believing the higher the word count, the better the story is a major pitfall. In writing, less is more. It’s important to ask, if the scene you have written actually advances the story. If it doesn’t, it’s got to go. No matter how much you love it. In truth, if you’ve written a 90,000+ word ms, most publishers are going to reject it. They are trained to know that there’s a lot of extraneous material there that must go, and they aren’t going to waste their time slogging through it.
Thinking or believing you know more than other writers. Failing to do the ‘homework.’ Relying on Beta readers—the current buzz in writing—rather than submitting work to an in-person critique group. The discussion and debate are invaluable. A writer can see whether plot points and scenes are clear to the readers. Having been a member of one for over eleven years, I find the exchanges invaluable. A writer doesn’t necessarily have to make the changes coming out of these discussions, but they should be thought about. Especially if they are raised by more than one critique member!
Self-publishing out of frustration after multiple rejections. Submissions are a process. Rejection notices are the stepping stones to publication. Don’t get me wrong. There are some self-published books that are very well-done, but they are as scarce as a male calico cat. In most cases, self-published works haven’t been professionally edited and often reflect poor writing. There are self-publishing authors who will argue these same points regarding traditionally published works as well. In some rare cases, this point may be valid, resulting from an editor or the author skimming over galley proofs, rather than actually studying them for mistakes.
Also, failing to invest in writing manuals and using them, such as a current Chicago Manual of Style; a current dictionary (not one online), a good thesaurus, and a copy of Dreyer’s English.
How often do you read?
How do you select the names of your characters?
Usually, the character tells me. In other cases, I jot down names that intrigue me from the genealogical websites I often roam—somehow knowing that this particular name has a unique story to tell.
Do you read your book reviews? Do you think you can learn a lot from reading criticism about your work?
Yes, I do read my reviews, and I do believe a writer can learn from them.
I’ll share this. A few years ago, I developed a friendship with someone who taught creative writing. I sent her some of my work for comment. Her critiques angered me. I fussed and fumed for days afterward, only to eventually realize that she was absolutely right.
By listening to her, I learned and became a better writer. I value her input as a result. Now when I send her something, I receive more praise than criticism.
What are your favorite books?
As a lifetime reader and a librarian, I’ve read a lot over the years. To snag a place on my bookshelves, it has to be a book that I’ve connected with emotionally and want to have with me for the remainder of my life.
To Kill a Mockingbird, which I first read in 9th grade and have read yearly ever since.
View From Delphi -Jonathan O’Dell’s prose leaves me breathless
Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, a most delightful coming-of-age story
What is your favorite childhood book?
That’s difficult to say. I guess The Happiest Christmas by Jessie Home Fairweather because of the special place it has held in my heart. As I grew older, Mom gave away many of my childhood books, this being one of them. While the story stayed with me, the title did not. I searched for it for years, as did many of my family members. Then on my 33rd Christmas, my aunt found a copy! Told in verse, this precious story of Santa’s sleigh hitting a rock in the woods and the forest animals assisting him remains a treasured favorite.
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
Anywhere from a couple of weeks to sixteen years. It depends on the book and the character. For example, the draft of a picture book only takes a couple of weeks as opposed to a middle grade or YA novel which will take longer.
Vivie’s Secret took sixteen years because it started life as a picture book tribute to my dear friend’s secret. My critique group pressed for it to be written as a YA novel, but I resisted until a noted children’s author read it and made the same assertion.
The Faithful Dog, a middle grade Civil War novel inspired by a true story took about six years. That was primarily because a publisher suggested a change in the original manuscript’s point of view. As a result, I sat down and rewrote it. I’m happy to share The Faithful Dog will be released from Black Rose Writing in July 2022.
Then, there is Red and Me, a middle grade novel I ‘wrote’ in two months. Actually, I can’t take credit for it. The book’s main character awakened me one morning, wanting her story to be told. I simply transcribed what she whispered in my ear over the next two months. Star Bright Books will be publishing it sometime in 2024.
Is writer’s block real?
Definitely. After my husband’s death, I could not write for about four months. Then, one night I was in bed reading and the idea for a picture book began forming in my head.
There are also occasions I’ve been stuck on a plot point. A walk at the neighborhood park often provides clarity.
How do you begin a book?
A word, a news story, something I see, etc. triggers an idea or concept. It’s like flipping on a light switch.
Tell us some more about your book. What inspired the premise of your book?
Vivie’s Secret was inspired by the passing of a cat rescue friend, whom I had known for years. The day she died, I learned the most incredible secret about her. For weeks, I struggled with the juxtaposition of the Vivie I knew and the Vivie I hadn’t known. In the process, I came to believe, and still do, that feral cats were the key. And that’s what inspired me to write the picture book that morphed into my YA version of Vivie’s Secret.
Which scene or chapter in the book is your favorite? Why?
While I am not a religious person, the scene that touches me the most takes place in Chapter 10. It’s Vivie’s encounter with Sister Agnes.
Which scene was most difficult to write? Why?
I can’t actually speak to it without giving away a pivotal part of the story to readers, but it’s pages 99-100.
It was difficult for me because those words were from my own personal experience in 2013.
What sort of a relationship exists between you and the characters you created in this book?
Vivie Babb was a friend I met through cat rescue. In case the reader hasn’t guessed, the Lee in the story is me. Pages 190-193 relate exactly how Vivie and I met and began our cat-rescue friendship.
Also, Central Veterinary Hospital exists, and I have utilized their services for years. The veterinarians mentioned in the text worked with both of our ferals. Dr. Black, however, has since retired.
Has this novel changed drastically as you created it?
Yes. It went from a picture book to a YA novel.
What’s next for you?
My middle grade Civil War novel, The Faithful Dog, will be released from Black Rose Writing in July of 2022.
Red and Me, Marlene’s story will be published by Star Bright Books sometime in 2024.
And in the meantime, I’m finishing up a YA manuscript that I hope to submit to Black Rose Writing in 2023.
Categories: BookView Review Interview