Sunday, January 25, 2009

One Writer's Process: Sara Lewis Holmes

When she was growing up, Sara Lewis Holmes admits that she found it hard to talk to people. So, she wrote letters to them instead.

Why letters?

“Maybe because when I was growing up,” Holmes says, “I had a hard time talking about anything emotionally risky. So I wrote letters instead—to my family, to my friends, and to the man who later became my husband.”

How could she have known that years later the same process of writing letters would help her discover her first novel?

Letters From Rapunzel, which won the HarperCollins Ursula Nordstrom Fiction Prize, first appeared, explains Holmes, “as a scribbled book title idea in my journal of June 1997.”

Not until four years later, as she tried to ease into the rough draft of her first novel, did Holmes discover the key that wold unlock the draft.

“I pretended that Rapunzel was locked in her tower,” she says, “and to my surprise I found out she was not a fairy tale character, but a real girl.”

Then Holmes took another creative leap and imagined “that her main character was writing letters to her from captivity.”

Holmes, who lives in Virginia with her husband and two children, is currently working on her next book, Operation Yes, scheduled for release in Fall, 2009 from Scholastic’s Arthur A. Levine Books.

Recently, she was kind enough to put down her pen and take a brisk swim with Wordswimmer.

Wordswimmer: If writing is like do you get into the water each day?

Holmes: I can't quite leap into the cold depths first thing in the morning, so I warm up with coffee, and a bit of reading. Then I deploy my water wings: cheap spiral notebooks that always, always seem friendly and invite me to wade in. I have for years allowed myself to write whatever and however and whenever I wanted to in plain, no-rules-at-all notebooks, and now they're a source of material, a record of my writing life, and a habit that allows me to start when I'm frozen.

Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat... for short work? For longer work?

Holmes: Short work is lovely. I spit out my poems in one-sitting drafts. Later, I go back and polish them. I consider my poetry recreational swimming.

For longer work, I again use a spiral notebook---one for each project. I date the entry, and then start in with the questions. What am I doing? Why is this part not working? Will this format work for a novel? What pieces are missing? Sometimes, I have answers, but mostly not. It's asking the questions that gets me back into the work, where I discover the answers. The back and forth between the notebook and the drafting (on my laptop) keeps me afloat for the duration of a long work. We're talking a year here. Plus time for revisions.

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Holmes: Reading helps. I get inspired by the scholarship and courage and devotion and wit and beauty that is poured into books. I also get outside. Walk. Run. Breathe. I'm looking for the mysterious.

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

Holmes: No one much cares whether you do it or not (unless you're famous and then there's another whole way to drown.)

Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?

Holmes: I remind myself I'm not really alone. I recently had to draft a scene in which one character shows another character how to do a theatrical stage fall. I told my yoga instructor about the scene, and lo and behold! she was a drama major and demonstrated a graceful fall on the spot. Then, another yoga class participant volunteered that she taught drama to middle school students, and the two of them proceeded to show me how to stage a mock fist fight. So, if you feel alone: ASK. Ask for help with details. Ask for discernment about what is right and what is wrong with your work. Heck, ask for ideas. Ask for spare change. Ask for the next dance.

Also, I believe that our writing work is a response to the world. Sure, we do it alone. But we are responding to what's there, who's there, to the battles and questions that already exist. Even as we write in solitude, we shouldn't be cut off. We should be engaging in conversation with what's come before us and what's around us.

Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?

Holmes: Being part of the writing/reading community. A book (or a poem or an article or a short story) opens the door to connecting to other writers and readers.

To read more about Holmes and her writing process, take a look at these posts on her blog.
For more on her notebooks:

For dry spells:

For getting through longer work:

And for shorter work (poetry):

And last, if you think no one but you cares about your writing, check out:

For more information about Holmes, visit her website:

If you’d like to read more interviews with her, check out:

And for a special treat, take a look at how Holmes’ editor went about writing the flap copy for her forthcoming book, Operation Yes:


Jules at 7-Imp said...

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I'm amazed at the talent that must just seep out of someone whose beautiful poetry is "recreational swimming." Sara's debut novel is also beautifully-executed. I can't wait to see the future books that come out of her.

jama said...

Thanks so much for this! Loved Sara's answer about swimming alone: Just ASK!

Debbie said...

Thanks for the interview! I love hearing the story behind the story.

TadMack said...

What a lovely interview.

I believe my friend Sara has a charmed life -- but that she makes her own charms.


Jacqui said...

Great interview. I want to make a metaphor about Sara inspiring others to swim but, sigh, I've got nothing. My favorite line is "I'm looking for the mysterious."

Bruce Black said...

Looking for the mysterious... that's the key, I think, to writing that pulls the writer--and the reader--into the story.

Where and how you find it, well, that's the challenge, isn't it?

And then, of course, getting it down on paper.

Thanks to all for stopping by.

Jill Corcoran said...

Wonderful interview.

It is true, that no one much cares whether you do it or not (writing/swimming) but as Sara says, that is why we in the kid lit community have each other. We care.

Vivian said...

Yay for Sara! Great interview. Love the yoga story.

laurasalas said...

Thank you, Bruce and Sara! So lovely to read about a writer whose blog posts themselves often read like published essays. I can't wait to read Sara's next novel!