My first impression of Mary-Chris Escobar came in the fall of 2015, when I attended a presentation she helped lead at the James River Writers Annual Conference. A few months later, as a co-worker and I labored to revive our school’s creative writing club and literary magazine, and I began to wonder what help might further motivate our teenage writers, I thought of Mary-Chris. How excited would these kids be to meet and talk to a real, live author–especially one as young, approachable, and encouraging as Ms. Escobar seemed to me? I sent her a quick e-mail, and was thrilled when she quickly responded and accepted my invitation. This past February, her presentation was a huge hit at one of our creative writing club meetings; we even had several non-members attend. Below is my recent interview with Richmond-based, self-published chick lit author, Mary-Chris Escobar.
Mind The Dog: Tell me about your genre, chick lit, and how you became interested in writing it.
Mary-Chris Escobar: Ah! I said that next time I got asked this question, I was just going to quote Phoebe Fox’s answer in this interview, because it’s basically perfect. I became interested in chick lit in the early 2000s, which was sort of the height of it’s popularity. At the time where there were a lot of books being written about women who seemed to be in sole pursuit of a husband, while loathing their jobs, living in New York and obsessing over really expensive shoes. However, while those stories seemed to become synonymous with the term “chick lit,” they were never the books I was drawn to. I like the first-person narrated books that shared a woman’s journey to finding her own strength and sense-of-self, independent of a romantic relationship. Sure there were relationships, but they weren’t the sole focus. There was also humor and wit to the stories– a certain, lightness, if you will. This is what drew me to the genre, and how I still define it today.
MTD: How many novels have you written?
MCE: I’ve written two full-length novels (Neverending Beginnings and How To Be Alive) and two novellas (Delayed and How To Fall).
MTD: Where do you typically find inspiration for your novels?
MCE: For me, stories always seem to grow out of a “what if” question. My first novel, Neverending Beginnings, opens with the main character giving a terrible, drunken toast at her best friend’s wedding (think admitting to dating the groom and then passing out). I wrote a version of this opening scene years ago in a writing class. I had given a lackluster and way-too-short toast at a wedding once, so I used that as a jumping off point to write a scene based around “what if that had gone terribly wrong.” Later I did a significant rewrite of the novel to include the structure of the main character repeating the same week over and over (like the movie Groundhog Day), and it was the same idea: what if you got stuck in a time loop and had to repeat the same week over and over with no idea why it was happening or how to stop it.
MTD: Of your novels, which are you proudest of/most satisfied with and why?
MCE: I think I’m always most satisfied with whatever I wrote most recently. I originally released Neverending Beginnings as an ebook only. Last year I released the paperback. I’m still very proud of the novel, and love the characters and story, but when I was re-reading parts of it during that process, I can certainly see how I’ve grown and changed as a writer. That being said, I’m probably most proud of my current work in progress.
MTD: So you have a book in the works? Tell me about it.
MCE: I do! I’m currently working on my third novel. The working title is Forty Days Of Forgetting. It’s an “after the happily ever after” story about a couple whose relationship is strained by their very huge, very different dreams. He’s a struggling musician and she’s working on her Ph.D. They break up at the beginning of the story and she develops this elaborate plan to forget him. Which doesn’t work so well.
MTD: How long does a novel usually take you to write, from initial idea to publication?
MCE: My experience with my two novels was really, really different. I wrote Neverending Beginnings very, very slowly (over the course of several years) for fun when I was in grad school. I then did a significant rewrite, submitted to an agent, and then completed another significant rewrite (adding in the repeating week structure). She pitched the novel to editors and was unable to find a home for it. I self-published it some years later in 2012. All in, that book was probably six or seven years from idea to publication.
I had written a super rough draft of How To Be Alive when Neverending Beginnings was being shopped to editors. I significantly rewrote it, and it took about a year and a half from that rewrite though critique and multiple rounds of editing to publication.
I’m a little more consistent with the novellas. They both took about six to nine months from idea through editing to publication. However, they are not published in paperback, and are about characters from my novels; the character development is already done and the publishing is less time intensive.
MTD: What do you enjoy (or not!) about the writing and self-publishing process?
MCE: I love creating characters and learning about their stories. I’m a “pants-er,” meaning I “fly by the seat of my pants” and don’t plot out my novels. I have a question/problem/scenario that sparks the story and then a general idea where I think it may go, but I don’t plan every twist and turn. As a result I learn all these things about my character as I go and often all these other fun things start to appear: the sarcastic and wise retired English professor, the two friends who are in love with each other and don’t know it yet. As a child, I loved “playing pretend” and in so many ways I view writing as doing exactly the same thing, in a more socially- acceptable-for-adults format.
As for publishing. I think I like the artistry of it. The concept of actually laying out pages and creating a book. I like the control to chose my covers and what fonts I’d like to use for section breaks. The business side of publishing, the actual selling and marketing of my books, is basically continual education. There is always something new, always something else to try. It’s easy to get bogged down in all this. For me it’s been really healthy to look at it as an experiment: what works, what doesn’t, what used to work- but not so much anymore. Rinse and repeat.
MTD: You have a full-time job. How do you make sure to find time to write, publish, keep up with social media, etc.?
MCE: I’m not great at it. In fact sometimes, I’m actually pretty terrible. How long did it take to get this interview done? I always wish I had a really pretty answer to this question– something about schedules and planners and morning pages. But I don’t. I make a commitment to writing every week and I typically write in the evenings after work or on weekends. When I’m nearing the end of the story and can see the finish line, I’ll often pull some late nights–eager to get the words out, but all other times, I’ll prioritize sleep over staying up to make sure I hit a certain word count or something like that.
As for the business/promotion stuff: I’ve been blogging weekly for a long time now, and that’s just something that’s integrated into my weekly schedule. I’ll work on it a bit in the morning and typically finish it on Tuesday nights. Sometimes I’ll try to carve out some weekend time when I have a more in-depth post like my monthly book and beer pairing (Books & Brews). And sometimes I slog it out on a Wednesday night at midnight, if I’m being really honest.
I try to use my lunch break and other natural down time for other social media. This isn’t a perfect science. And I’ll admit to sometimes going pretty silent. I am a big believer in picking social media that you’re comfortable with and not feeling the need to try every new thing. I’m on Facebook and Twitter, and Instagram a little. No plans to Snapchat and I refuse to join Pinterest –because I know I would just always, always fall down a rabbit hole of pretty food pictures.
All that to say, I really believe there is no one right way to do this. There will be seasons for everything. Seasons when you are an amazing writer. Seasons when you are an amazing other-job-that-pays-the bills person. Seasons where you are an amazing spouse/child/parent/caregiver. I think we have to give up the expectation of always being amazing at all of them simultaneously. It’s too much.
MTD: What do you like about writing, and how did you discover your love for writing?
MCE: As I mentioned before, writing feels like “playing pretend” as an adult — so I really think my love of it started as a child running around my house making up stories with my stuffed animals. That being said, I wandered through a number of creative outlets before realizing writing was the best match. I’ve got a bunch of theater and studio art credits on my college transcript to prove this. I was always told I was a good writer, and in high school I wrote really dramatic poetry–but it wasn’t until I took a class in fiction writing at a local arts center (Visual Arts Center, in Richmond, Virginia) in my late twenties that I really discovered that writing was my thing.
MTD: Who is your favorite author and what is your favorite book? Why?
MCE: There are so many wonderful, wonderful, books–it’s always completely impossible for me to pick one, so here are a few: Megan Crane’s English As A Second Language was the book that kicked off my love of lighthearted women’s fiction. I related to the main character in a way that made me wonder if I might have a story to tell and if the “right” way for me to tell it might be in first person narrative. Meg Cabot’s Queen Of Babble series are the books I’ve re-read the most. They are my go-to “comfort” reads–the oatmeal raisin cookies of books. On the nonfiction side, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic fell into my hands at exactly the right time and has been really inspiring, as did Amanda Palmer’s The Art Of Asking (because the Fraud Police are real, folks).
MTD: What is your favorite literary device?
MCE: I don’t know if it’s technically considered a literary device– but I love a little twist of magical realism in a book. Allison Winn Scotch’s Time Of My Life is one of my favorite books of all time (see, I told you I would forget something in that last question about favorite books). The main character is thrust back in time and finds out how her life would have turned out had she made different decisions. Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke’s books also always have great examples of this, like The Status Of All Things, where the main character’s Facebook posts start to come true–so great!
MTD: What advice would you give to aspiring novelists?
It’s really, really, easy to get caught up in the publication talk. Do you indie publish or traditionally publish? How do you write the best query letter/back-cover copy? Which agents are looking for what, and who’s the best match for you and your book? How do I get featured on BookBub? Does that even matter?
There are thousands of questions about the business stuff. There always will be. But here’s the thing–none of them matter until you have something to sell. So please, write your book. Not someone else’s book. Not the book your parents wish you’d write. Not the trendy thing you know would sell. Not the one that would get you into an MFA program. Write YOUR book. The one you aren’t sure anyone wants to read, but that you must write. The one that wakes you up at night, and won’t let you peacefully enjoy that long car ride/walk to work until you tell it. Write that. Then worry about the rest.
Mind the Dog Writing Blog thanks Mary-Chris Escobar for being so generous with her time and participating in this interview.