Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sue Boggio and Mare Pearl, Award winning authors talk about their work and lifetime collaboration

The fictional village of Esperanza, NM is the setting for two delightful books Sunlight and Shadow and A Growing Season by co-writers Sue Boggio and Mare Pearl. I was intrigued by these two writers who write so well in one voice that I wanted to catch up with them and learn a bit more. In the last week to the delight of both writers and their audience, it has been announced that Sunlight and Shadow was awarded the 2014 Tony Hillerman Award for Best Fiction by the New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards; a nice achievement. Read on to learn more about these two authors and their work.

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Your friendship is an intrinsic part of your writing experience. Would either of you have chosen to be an author without the other?

Sue: I've always been a writer, since I could hold a crayon, so I would have continued writing my journals, short stories, and poetry, but would I have become a published author? Or written novels? It's possible, but hard to imagine since our lives and writing have been entwined since we were kids.

Mare: I have so many other creative outlets. I pursued musical theater in New York in my twenties. I've sung in nightclubs and coffee shops. I've dabbled in jewelry making, vintage furniture restoration, wherever my short attention span takes me. I would not have become an author without my partnership with Sue.

I read in your biographies that after Mare moved to New Mexico you wanted to do something together and since writing didn’t require money to start, you decided that would be your course. Was it really that simple?


I think we were being a bit facetious. We used to joke that we chose writing because we could sit around and laugh and eat and drink wine and entertain each other. The truth is, we came to our writing collaboration at age ten when we were creatively inspired by John Lennon and Paul McCartney's collaboration. The idea that two people could come together to co-create something neither could have imagined alone was thrilling. After Mare moved to New Mexico, we made the conscious decision to take our collaboration to the next level, and that involved tons of self-directed education to learn the craft and business of writing.

We joined Southwest Writers Workshop, attended conferences, learned to pitch, learned how the publishing industry operates, read all the writing books and journals, and read authors like Jo-Ann Mapson, Barbara Kingsolver, Alice Hoffman, Anne Tyler, Walley Lamb, Michael Chabon, Sarah Bird, Annie Proulx, and so many more. And of course we wrote and wrote and wrote! (and learned to persevere despite the heartbreak of rejection). It was tons of hard work, all while we were working full time jobs, having marriages and families, and living our lives. Nothing about it was simple! 

I was fascinated by your writing because I felt as if there was only one writer telling the story. I imagine it could be quite difficult to write as a team and keep the same voice and continuity. What is your process writing together?


We meet one afternoon a week. After our extensive pre-writing phase (brainstorming every aspect of our novel: filling notebooks with character building, theme articulation, settings, research, pinning down a myriad of details, asking questions, figuring out major plot points, trying to know as much as we can before we start the actual writing), we choose our point of view characters. We each write at least one POV character, sometimes two or three. Each POV character has his/her individual arc. Their arcs are woven together to create the overall narrative. 

We discuss what scenes each of us will write in the coming week and then we go off to do our homework. We meet back one week later and read aloud to each other, listening intently, giving feedback, asking what works and what doesn't. Then we discuss what the reader needs to know/experience next, what scenes need to follow, assign our homework and repeat this pattern for around nine months until we have a first draft. We do complete read-throughs, make our revision notes and revise our own material. Then I merge Mare's scenes with mine in our decided order, determine the chapter breaks, and then begin editing, which can take another two or three months of intensive work on my part. I constantly consult with Mare over the phone regarding changes, problem solving, etc. When we are convinced it is ready, we give it to our first readers for another round of notes and revisions.

Continuity is a constant concern with two writers and we scrutinize everything every step of the way to try to catch inconsistencies. The amount of prep we do in the pre-writing phase is partly in service to continuity. In a Publisher's Weekly article about fiction duos, our NAL/Penguin editor was quoted as saying when she first received Sunlight and Shadow, she set aside the title page without looking at it. When she finished reading it and knew she wanted to publish it, she retrieved the title page and was shocked there were two writers. It helps that we grew up a block apart, had the same teachers, and have been finishing each other sentences since we were in elementary school. 

Your characters are drawn so well that readers could easily identify someone they know who has similar traits. How did you develop your characters? Are they based on people you’ve encountered?

Thank you! Due to our years of experience working in an inpatient psychiatric center for children and adolescents, we use the concept of psychodynamics as a basis for constructing our POV characters, meaning, the dynamics of their psychological make-up, its origins and how it is expressed. We create characters by beginning with their childhoods, their backstory. We get specific about their parents and grandparents, siblings, how did they treat each other? What were their happiest times, their most painful times, the scars they carry--we write it all down because we both have to know why they are the way they are, because that determines what they want, the needs they are trying to meet, and what they are trying to achieve. Their choices becomes their story line. Character arcs are how they grow/change/heal in response to their situation and the story is the unfolding interplay between the characters and the events which arise from their choices.

Our POV characters are not based on anyone we know, though they probably contain aspects of ourselves. We have had fun with some of our secondary characters, playing homage to some colorful people we have encountered. But we'll never reveal who!

You wrote about water and land issues important to New Mexico in A Growing Season and you captured the characteristics of the people on both sides quite well. Can you tell us about the research you did into those issues?

It was extensive. The worsening drought in New Mexico was all over the newspapers, which was the genesis of that novel, wondering how the severe drought would impact our chile farming family. John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal wrote a weekly column about water issues, the farmers, the endangered silvery minnow--and still focuses on these vital issues as we speak. The Valencia County News-Bulletin and The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (The agency that provides irrigation, flood control and responsible water conservation services to irrigators and farmers in the middle agricultural region of the state) were both great resources. Please read the acknowledgements in A Growing Season for a thorough listing of the wide variety of research materials we devoured in our quest to present a fair and accurate representation of these difficult issues, which unfortunately will only become more difficult as time goes on.

Do either of you have any unique methods that inspires your imagination and your writing?

As writing partners, we have a pact that we each are responsible for constantly recharging our individual creative energies, so that we are ready to draw from that source. Mare loves her rural acreage, planting flower and vegetable gardens, and hanging out with her animals (dogs, cats, ducks, turkeys, chickens, peacocks, goats, and a husband!) She also has two gorgeous parcels of land out side of Pagosa Springs--one high in the mountains and one right on the river. I like going to art galleries, restaurants, and movies with my husband, swimming, nature walks, playing with my granddaughter, and reading with two big Maine Coon cats vying for my lap. 

Then it's a matter of getting the butt in the chair and do the writing! I like to write most days. Mare saves it up for binge writing close to her deadline.  

A Growing Season recently won several awards that include 2013 Finalist in the New Mexico Press Women's Zia Award for Fiction, the 2013 Finalist in Women Writing the West's Willa Award for Contemporary Fiction and it was the 2013 winner of the Tony Hillerman Award for Best Fiction - New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards. Also Sunlight and Shadow is now a finalist in the 2014 New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards. Did you expect such accolades? Can you tell us how that has changed things for you?

Sunlight and Shadow was just awarded the 2014 Tony Hillerman Award for Best Fiction! Since Tony was a friend and early supporter of Sunlight and Shadow, and his daughter Anne Hillerman presented the award, it was beyond special.

We never expected to receive awards. All we've ever wanted is to get our work out there so we could hear back from readers. That's why we enjoy meeting with book clubs so much, hearing readers' reactions and how our work resonated with them completes the creative loop. We learn so much from our readers. If winning awards translates into more readers, then that's the best part of it.

To win for both Sunlight and Shadow and A Growing Season reflects so much on the expertise and dedication of our brilliant publishers, UNM Press. Clark Whitehorn, John Byram, Elise McHugh, Kathryn White, everyone else there who works so hard to produce such amazing and beautiful books. We are so fortunate!

For aspiring and new writers, the publishing process seems to be the most daunting element. Can you tell us a bit about how you published your books and any lessons you may have learned?

We've had some really bad luck (oh the  sob stories we could tell!) and some incredibly great luck. We've had painful failures and lovely successes.

What we have learned in a nutshell: Educate yourself about all aspects of the publishing industry so you know how to function as a professional. Agents and editors are just people with incredibly hard jobs to do, learn how you can make their jobs easier. Educate yourself about your craft, constantly. Read! Never think you are good enough, always strive to become better. Write! The more you write, the more you hone your craft. Eat rejection for breakfast and keep going. Never take no for the ultimate answer.

Do you have any other writing projects in the works?

We have the best agent in the universe submitting our latest completed novel in New York. It's called Hungry Shoes and it is based on our work with adolescents in psychiatric settings. Fingers crossed! It is a project near and dear to our hearts.

We are more than midway through the first draft of our third Esperanza book, Long Night Moon, that we will be submitting to UNM Press by spring.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors you’d like to share?

Aside from the lessons we shared above, the main thing is to love the process, love the journey, find your rewards in the writing itself. Life is to short to only focus on the destination.  Mare and I have found great comfort in the embrace of our fellow writers. Find ways to build a community with other writers through writing organizations, book clubs, critique groups, writing conferences, and social media. We love our sister and brother writers who understand what we go through, and appreciate how hard it can be. We celebrate each other's successes and encourage each other along the way. It's sometimes called networking, but if you do it right, it is so much more than that. It's family.

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Thank you Sue and Mare for sharing with us!

Both Sunlight and Shadow and A Growing Season are enchanting New Mexico stories about community, family and the friends that become family. 

You can learn more about Sue and Mare and their work by visiting their website (be sure to see the beautiful video trailer for A Growing Season).. Their books can be purchased at all the usual places including B&N and Amazon but if you are so inclined I would suggest you support a local independent bookstore such as Bookwork’s in Albuquerque, The Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe or one in your neighborhood.

Sue Boggio and Mare Pearl

2 comments:

  1. Oh, Maria,

    Both Sue and Mare are old friends of mine. We go back to the Southwest Writers Workshop conference of 1998, held in Albuquerque. We all just hit if off. Took a couple of workshops together, sat at the same table for different dinners. My first novel (then unpublished) was a finalist for mainstream fiction and one of their manuscripts won third place in the awards. I was beyond thrilled years later to receive a postcard from them announcing the publication of Sunlight and Shadows. I wrote them back immediately and purchased the book. Then about three years later my first novel was finally released from a small traditional press in CA. I got on Facebook in 2009 and we all reconnected and I was thrilled to feature them on my blog a couple of years ago.

    Love your interview style. :)

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    1. Thank you once again Kathleen,

      After reading both "Sunlight and Shadows" and "A Growing Season," I was an immediate fan and reached out to Sue to arrange an interview. Eventually we connected on Facebook. Their ability to write in unison is just marvelous and I just love the stories and authenticity of the characters.

      Cheers,
      Maria

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