Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Hot off the presses: Debut Author Therese Walsh!

By Julie

Today we welcome Therese Walsh to What Women Write. It's a big day for Therese — release day for her debut novel, The Last Will of Moira Leahy! We're delighted to share in Therese's special day of celebration.

Therese is a cofounder of the blog WriterUnboxed.com. She lives in upstate New York, with her husband, two children, a cat and a bouncy Jack Russell named Kismet.

From Therese:
The Last Will of Moira Leahy is a women’s fiction novel that borrows liberally from other genres: mystery, psychological suspense, family saga, romance and mythical realism. It’s about a woman who lost her identical twin — and a large portion of herself — about a decade ago, but reconnects with her former life after purchasing an artifact from her past. Through interwoven narratives, we see Maeve Leahy as she was and what led to the tragedy with her sister, Moira; and we travel with her in the present day as she unravels the truth about the artifact — who's following her and leaving her notes. We see her transform as, little by little, layers of her past are peeled away and the course of her future is forever altered.

I've known Therese online for several years through Writer Unboxed, Barbara Samuel's forums, and other social networking sites, and I really couldn't be happier for her. I'm thrilled she agreed to have a conversation with me for What Women Write.

Welcome, Therese! I love your title. I also loved UNBOUNDED, your working title, but The Last Will of Moira Leahy grew on me. I have my own hypothesis, but how do you pronounce Moira Leahy? Moy-ruh Lay-hee? Mwah-ra Lee-hee? And precisely how nuts will you go if someone else mispronounces it, say, when introducing you at an author event?

Thanks for having me, Julie. Thanks, too, for your compliment on the title. Your first guess at pronunciation is correct! If the title is mispronounced, I promise not to go nuts — though I will have a keris nearby for many of these events, so maybe people will be very careful not to mispronounce?

www: Friends, you've been warned: Tread carefully and carry a bigger keris!

Therese, The Last Will of Moira Leahy is an unusual blend of genres. To help us place it on our mental bookshelves, what other books might you compare it to, classic or recent?

Oh, boy. If I’d had an answer to this, my query-writing process would’ve been a whole lot easier. Louise Erdrich wrote a book called The Painted Drum and used myth to help unfurl the narrative as I’ve done, but her novel is quite literary. My agent wrote this in her pitch to editors:

“Part psychological suspense, part love story, (The Last Will of Moira Leahy) will appeal to readers of Keith Donohue’s The Stolen Child and Jennifer Egan’s The Keep.”

I like to say that Last Will is women’s fiction that borrows liberally from other genres and leave people curious for more.

www: I'm curious! I've read the excerpt you made available on your Web site, and I'm buying my own copy today, as soon as I can get over to my local bookseller.

So, the main characters in Last Will are twins – one living and one her deceased twin sister. Why tell your story from the perspective of twins? How did you conduct your research into this aspect of the story and the special bond many sets of sisters, especially twins, seem to share?

When I first started to write Last Will, waaay back in 2002, Maeve did not have a twin. But one day, Moira was just there, explaining Maeve’s behaviors and trauma. When I scrapped version one of the manuscript and began version two in 2005 (and version three in ’06), I knew the story had to be structured around these two women. It took a while for me to realize I could tell Moira’s tale through detailed Out of Time sequences — not flashbacks, but an actual narrative from the past that wove in and out of Maeve’s present-day story, a la The English Patient.

There are so many terrific books available about twins, but the one I liked best was a small paperback by Susan Kohl called Twin Stories, for its rich first-hand accounts of twin phenomena.

www: I love when that happens — when you think you've got it all figured out, or you've given up on ever figuring it out, and then voila!, the characters lead you.

And speaking of characters, the Javanese keris plays a special role in Last Will. I'm venturing a guess: the keris could be considered a character on its own, much in the way setting becomes character in many stories (perhaps even in Last Will?).

You’re right, and the truth is that the keris dictated the course of this story more than any character.

www: How did you learn about the keris and why did you choose to include this unusual element in your story? Did its significance change or expand over time while you were writing Last Will?

Its role in the story absolutely expanded over time. I found the keris almost by fluke. When I first started writing adult fiction, I planned a simple love story — girl + guy + peach pie = happiness. The guy was an antiques dealer. I spent many happy hours going through eBay listings, looking for antiques. One of the items I found was an antique Javanese keris — a dagger with a wavy blade. It looked interesting, so I added it to my list. I wanted my first scene to take place in an auction house and wasn’t sure which item should draw my characters’ attention. I chose the keris from my list without much thought.

I gave my scene to a friend, who read it with interest, then asked if the keris would be important to the rest of the book. It sounded like a good idea. I dug in, did some research, and realized the keris was so much more than a pretty blade. Maeve Leahy, the main character, realizes the same throughout the course of the novel. Here’s an outtake from the book, a scene between Maeve and a friend who knows a lot about this particular item:

"Kerises may well be manufactured by machine nowadays,” Garrick said, “but it used to be that empus made them, layering metals to create perfect patterns by following something like a blueprint. Each design was supposed to bring the owner a specific gift — like wealth or inner strength. But sometimes the empu would allow the blade to be made however it wanted to be made. When that happened, it was said the gods had a hand in crafting the keris because they had plans for it. Your keris,” he said, “is fated.”

www: (You noticed the pretty blue font to complement the cover art, right?) I'm curious, though — even though the keris plays such a large role, the story takes place in Castine, Maine, and Rome, Italy, but not Java, correct? This fascinated me as I read prepublication pieces or posts you wrote for Writer Unboxed, but I was also slightly puzzled. Without too much spoiling, can you hint at whether there's a tie between Java and the other two locations?

Correct. Javanese culture is a big part of this book, through one character in particular. Readers will meet that character in time.

www: It took a lot of years for the published version of Last Will to come to fruition. Many of our readers and What Women Write bloggers have been laboring for years to get our stories into the hands of the right agents and editors, too — some certainly not as long as you did, and some, I suspect, even longer. I admire your "sticktuitiveness." In fact, if I chose one word to sum up what I know about Therese Walsh right now, it would be persistence.

Aww, thanks.

www: Therese, how did you cope? Was there a point when you felt you might give up, or did you even throw in the towel for a period, but then summon up a new reserve of energy to try again? How do you think the process affected your reaction when you finally received "the calls" from Elisabeth Weed, your agent — first, with her offer of representation, and second, with news of your sale?

I thought about giving up regularly after the first version of the story — the guy + girl + peach pie version — failed with agents. Not only did it fail with agents, but one agent suggested I’d written the story in the wrong genre and should be writing women’s fiction. I felt defeated and exhausted at the prospect of reworking the story, even though I knew that agent was right.

I took a prolonged break. The timeline is a little fuzzy, but 2004 was a big year for mulling over what I wanted to do next. I’d been working on a new project, but when Unbounded (now Last Will) failed, I lost enthusiasm for that new project — probably because the old project writhed in the “unfinished business” category of my mind. I did a lot of thinking, a lot of reading, a lot of craft work. I salvaged one critical scene from the old draft and started over again in 2005. Then I scrapped everything again in 2006 and started over for a third time.

Maybe I would’ve quit but my characters refused to leave me alone. You know that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach, that disquiet you feel when you know something needs to be done and it’s important and you’re messing up? That’s how I felt whenever I wasn’t working on this project. When I was at least actively thinking about it, the anxiety eased. And so, little by little, I worked through the last draft.

When Elisabeth offered to represent this book, I was thrilled, hopeful. And maybe it was because the road had been so long, but when the deal came through — even though it was like someone holding up a big neon sign that said, “Congratulations, you’ve made it!” — it took a while for me to process it.

www: Thank you for being so frank. I think your words here may act as a balm and a beacon of hope for many of us. Never give up, right?

But now, something less serious. We've heard cover horror stories and witnessed some of those horrors limp painfully, unapologetically to print. BUT ... the cover for Last Will is without doubt one of the most breathtaking I've seen. I heard about your book months in advance. I've been anticipating it. But even if I hadn't, I believe this cover would produce an almost audible siren call for me in a bookstore. (Seriously! I love this cover that much. Am I gushing?)

Was this the first option your publisher offered? What was your reaction when you saw the gorgeous rendering of your story from an artist's viewpoint? How far away could they hear you scream? I'm pretty sure had it been mine, it would have been the scream heard around the world, but maybe you have a different take on it.

Thank you! I love my cover, too, and feel very lucky to have it. Here’s what’s cool: That scene I mentioned salvaging from version one of the story? That was the heart of the book for me, and that is what’s represented on the cover of the novel. I didn’t scream, but I felt choked up when I opened the PDF file. It was the first option offered, and obviously we were all thrilled with it.

www: And again, for our readers who are also aspiring writers, what do you believe is the singularly best thing you did for yourself along the way to becoming a published author?

Wow, this is a good and tough question. Why aren’t I asking this question at Writer Unboxed? (Makes a note.) I think the answer is networking, which for me involved reaching out to other writers for critique and establishing Writer Unboxed with Kathleen Bolton.

Yes, you can write in an isolated environment, but — especially for new authors — why would you want to? It’s true that not all critique will be helpful and some may even be harmful, but hearing how others digest your work can guide you along the path to publication if you’re listening with your gut as well as your head (and never your pride). And I could never fully list the ways Writer Unboxed has helped me along the way — the people I’ve met, the things I’ve learned. The blog is sometimes exhausting but it always gives back.

www: I can vouch for Writer Unboxed as an invaluable resource. It's been on my go-to list for nearly as long as I've been reading blogs. And by the way, Writer's Digest named it of the 101 Best Websites for Writers in 2007, 2008 and 2009. Current contributors include uber-agent Donald Maass and one of my other favorite authors, Barbara Samuel/O'Neal. Readers, check it out!

Therese, besides the obvious – your dream of publication coming true – what do you consider your greatest accomplishment?

I have two great kids who make me proud and make me laugh and make me glad to be alive every single day. But, sure, this book is right up there with my two best shining living accomplishments.

www: And who is Teri, as you're more commonly called, in the moments when you're not wearing the admittedly fabulous hat of Therese Walsh, debut author of The Last Will of Moira Leahy?

Who is Teri? Well, she likes laughing more than anything, even chocolate (I know! Gasp!). She thinks Richard Simmons’ guest appearance on Whose Line is it Anyway has to be one of the funniest things in the world, right up there with Chris Farley’s SNL skit as motivational speaker Matt Foley. She dances, badly, in the kitchen with her kids, cheers loudly at their swim meets and soccer games; and goes — occasionally — to her husband’s Irish-band gigs (but not too often lest she be pulled from the audience to sing the un-Irishy Homeward Bound or The Boxer with him). She likes dressing up in medieval clothing for her local choir’s Twelfth Night event and braiding her hair crazily for that night. She’s a bit of a foodie; she would drive long miles for fabulous feasting.

www: Hey, I think I'd like to hang out with that Teri in real life. (I'd go hear the band, too, by the way! Just sayin'.)

I have one final question: How are you going to celebrate book release day?


I have a book talk/reading/signing planned for a nearby Barnes & Noble — very excited about that! After, a bunch of us are going to one of my favorite eateries so we can gobble bacon-wrapped BBQ shrimp and drink chocolate martinis. But after reading Adrienne Crezo’s story about chocolatinis via Twitter (@a_crezo), I know to be careful.

www: This interview has been beyond a blast, Therese. Thank you so much for visiting with us at What Women Write, and we wish you only the best.

Today, Therese Walsh, debut author. Next week, New York Times Bestselling Author Therese Walsh?

Wouldn't surprise me. Nope, not one bit.

Visit Therese at her Web site, where you may read an excerpt. (But I just dare you to visit this beautiful site and not immediately run out to buy this book!)


  1. Great interview! Does Amazon count? If it does, count me in for running out to buy the book.

  2. Hi :)
    Thank you for the EXCELLENT interview with Therese Walsh. It's one of the most in-depth and personal interviews I have read.
    Congratulations to Therese on Release Day today!
    Love & Best Wishes,

  3. Heading to amazon.com now, despite the fact I have about 30 books here, waiting to be read! This one sounds amazing.

  4. A very entertaining interview, Julie. Just added this book to my must get list. I, too, love the cover. It's a real work of art.

  5. Thank you, ladies. I don't think you'll be disappointed. And Amazon definitely counts, Edie!

  6. This is a great interview...I know Therese a bit from yet another writers' site (and hope to host her at a writing series next spring), but this conversation offers details I'm sure I wouldn't have gleaned in months of contact! Plus, THE KEEP is one of my favorite recent novels, so now I am even more excited to jump into LAST WILL! Congratulations, Therese, sounds like you earned this!

  7. Hello, fellow Backspacer Jenny. Thanks for stopping by and reading. Therese was a dream interviewee!

  8. Wonderful interview Jules! Don't you wish we could meet Teri in real life? She sounds like exactly the kind of girlfriend that we would love hanging with, aside from her obvious mad skills as a writer. Cannot wait to read this book. I'm so intrigued! And I won't borrow yours, I will buy my own, to support my online friend Teri!!

  9. I had such a blast with this interview. Thanks again for having me, Julie, and thanks everyone for your support. Much, much appreciated.


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