Monday, September 12, 2011

Lynda Rutledge stops by to talk about the craft and her new book: Faith Bass Darling's Last Garage Sale

By Pamela Hammonds

Lynda Rutledge
I first learned about Lynda Rutledge when I opened an email promoting a Writers’ League of Texas workshop she’s teaching. Curiosity led me to her website where I discovered she has a new book coming out this spring via Amy Einhorn Books: Faith Bass Darling’s Last Garage Sale. Here’s the book’s blurb from the publisher:
ON THE LAST DAY of the millennium, sassy chain-smoking, 70-year-old Faith Bass Darling is selling all her valuable worldly possessions at a garage sale on the lawn of her historic Bass, Texas, mansion. Why? God told her to.

Because she knows what this is about. It's about dying, and about killing her long-gone husband, Claude. As the townspeople grab up the family's heirlooms, the antiques of five generations of Faith's founding family—a Civil War dragoon, a wedding ring, a French-relic clock, a family Bible, a roll top desk, an entire room of Tiffany lamps–reveal their own secret roles in the family saga, inspiring life's most imponderable questions:

Do our possessions possess us?
What are we without our memories?
Is there life after death?
Or second chances here on earth?

And is Faith Darling REALLY selling that 1917 Louis Comfort Tiffany lamp for $1...?

Intrigued and eager to learn more about this debut author, I asked her to join us here today at What Women Write.

Welcome to What Women Write! I love the premise of your novel, but you have to dish with us here … how many others did you write and put under the proverbial bed before this story grabbed you and wouldn’t let go?

Oh, no-no-no! I'm one of those mythical writers who sold her debut novel on her very first try—in fact, her very first uncorrected draft! Aren't we all? You know, I once heard Charles Johnson, a National Book Award winner, admit he wrote six unpublished novels before he sold his first. My own story is not that extreme, but there were several, shall we say, "practice novels" before this one as I kept playing with the genre—writing for love while writing for money as a freelance journalist and professional writer. The trick is to KNOW they are practice novels, which, of course, is utterly impossible at the time. So part of the trick is not to bail out before reaching the one that is publishable. Everything in life is a journey, isn't it? So is creative writing. If you keep on keeping on, and stay in love with the creative process itself, good things often happen as you get smarter, wiser and defter with the form when the right idea finally comes along. And that really is my story, I think, as well as yours and lots of your readers. Right?

Completely. I tell my kids that famous artists never sold their first paintings, so therefore, I plug away! By the way, I love southern fiction, especially humorous stories that are larger than life. Where did the inspiration for Faith Bass Darling and her story come from?

Would you believe me if I say, I have no idea? That's the wonder of the creative muse. On the face of it, Faith Bass Darling's Last Garage Sale is humorous and southern, but there's a lot happening under the surface that's universal about the human condition to do with what we can't take with us and what we truly want to leave behind. Humor is in service to the truths, just as in life. So the real inspiration comes from just living long enough to see the absurd in everything as well as its serious layered meaning for how to move forward with hope.  But if there's a specific answer inside that general one, this'd be it:  My mom, who had a rambling old two-story house full to busting with stuff that five kids left behind, started having garage sales a few years after I finished college. I found this out, living thousands of miles away by that time, when she called to tell me she'd sold my long-forgotten stash of comic books yellowing in the back of one of the house's old closets (my dad owned a drugstore so I had hundreds) for a dime apiece. It was an inexplicably sad moment. Then I remember laughing at myself, surprised by my hurt feelings. Why was I so attached to those old things? But I was. Then, back a few years ago, I began watching Antiques Roadshow like everyone else in the known world, and after hearing dozens of spotlight stories of garage sale-found treasures, the ah-ha bolt of lightning struck. And I was off.

My mom had a tendency to give away everything we had outgrown and stopped playing with. Now I'm a borderline hoarder!  I can't bear to part with my kids' things, especially toys they loved playing with. But then I read you’ve sold foreign rights in Italy and France. How exciting! I wonder what those readers will think about Faith’s garage sale. And, you asked it first: Do they even have garage sales?

And moreover, do they even have garages? Don't you love it? I'm told selling such major rights of an unknown writer such as moi, long before publication, is a huge vote of confidence for possible success. Boy, I sure hope so! I chuckled, though, contemplating Faith and the gang's small-town comments being translated into French and Italian, and shook my head at how they'd ever explain the "garage sale" concept to European readers. Even the title will have to change, probably. "Garage Sale" is such an American term. But isn't it wonderful that they'll try? The French have what they call flea markets, I think, and the Italians have something similar as well. But the love of antiques and the hunt to find such treasures in other people's "trash" is universal, isn't it? 

Absolutely! My husband wonders how I can spend hours coming through “used stuff” but for me, it’s a treasure hunt. On your blog you advise other writers to read, read, read. I agree whole-heartedly. It’s akin to a person who wants to be a famous singer but never listens to music. I think all good writers must read and read outside the genre they write as well. What authors inspire your writing?

As an adjunct professor in Chicago, teaching in a department devoted exclusively to creative writing, I started each course with this very question. After all, the students were there to learn how to write fiction, so surely they read a lot of it. I kept being shocked that many couldn't list writers they read beyond ones they were required to read in school. So the topic became a very important first day discussion: Why is reading as a writer important?  Beyond knowing what's being published in order to be published yourself, you, the writer-in-training, should feel a sense of joy in stumbling on a good book by a new voice, right? After all, you want to be a voice that others discover yourself. But beyond that, it's a fundamental writing life dynamic:  Just like the way a song can stick on your mind, words stick—cadences and images and thoughts stick—and you're always a better writer and thinker because of it. 

Words are you; you are words; be awash in them, am I right? As for me, I have such eclectic tastes and been influenced so broadly, my own inspiring writers’ list would be ridiculously long and crazy. But there's method in my reading-as-a-writer madness: Once you decide what genre will be your home, at least for a certain project, another grand side effect of broad reading tastes across genres is how everything is fodder for your creative cauldron—newspaper headlines, narrative nonfiction, memoirs, cereal boxes, even old love letters (as seen in Faith Bass Darling's Last Garage Sale.) Ideas are everywhere, waiting to be thrown into your simmering stew. It's so much fun to be reading as a writer, antenna subconsciously up, and be suddenly compelled to put down the book or article and go jot down an idea it gave you out of the blue.  

But back to your specific question:  My inspiring author list, depending on how what year I was inspired, would include the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy mysteries devoured as a 10-year-old, along with a current bookcase-full of fiction and nonfiction writers—famous and not-so-famous, living and dead, and all for different reasons worthy of an entire discussion itself­—such as Harper Lee, Kurt Vonnegut, Marilynne Robinson, Flannery O'Connor, Bill Bryson, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Krakauer, Yann Martel, Annie Dillard, Randall Kenan, and the next one I happily discover. 

Your background is very impressive: past winner of the WLT's Narrative Nonfiction Manuscript Competition and an adjunct professor for Columbia College's Fiction Writing Department as well as having national and international publishing credits as a freelance writer. But I had to laugh when I read your blog as you detail one morning where you committed to getting up early to write. I have the same issues about early-morning writing. What advice can you give about finding the time to write?

So fun you read that. Who said that half the secret to success is showing up? The times I've tried to show up in the morning, though, the hallowed time most authors seem to prefer, that little timeline diary shows what happens. I love late night—late-late-late night—no distractions, nothing but quiet. But I always pay for it the next day, of course. Still, it works for me. And being a nervous-energy writer, I love my laptop; I use it here, there, everywhere. However, the truth? I write all day in the sense of nurturing a sense of creativity "as I go." 

You can imagine how many napkins I've scrawled on and pens I've borrowed. I've even called myself at home and left messages of thoughts I didn't want to forget. I hate texting—who wants to use thumbs to hunt/peck when you've spent 20 years perfecting the perfect Qwerty typing speed? But I bet that's what I do next. Or not. We'll see. All that to say the real writer is always writing—even when she isn't. I recall the moment in my late 20s that I realized I could actually stand in waiting lines without grumbling because I always had something to work on in my mind. That moment I knew I was a writer. And that would be my advice—make all your time writing time, because writing is much more than typing words on a page.

My worst habit is scribbling notes for a story on the church bulletin. Surely God will forgive me? Lynda, I’m so awed when writers find success and then pay it forward by helping fellow writers realize their publishing dreams. You’ve adapted the popular course you taught at Chicago's Columbia College into a three-hour workshop to help writers develop the skills needed to guide their manuscripts toward publication by sharing what you know about the publishing world. (Or, as you put it, by comprehending the Why, Where, How and "Oww" of Submission.) What did you learn when sending out: Faith Bass Darling’s Last Garage Sale and what do you hope people learn most by attending your class?

I learned that Hemingway was right when he said he never finished a novel, he "abandoned" it. But what he didn't mention, being Hemingway, is that before that moment, you will be revising and revising and revising AFTER you "finish" it and WHILE you are beginning its submission journey.  

And what I'm about to tell you and your readers will make you heave a weary sigh after all your hard work if you don't already know: Writing really is a process. So is publishing. And the agent submission process, which is the real hurdle for first time authors, is part of the creative process. I'm sure most of your readers have heard agents say, during panels at conferences, that the first mistake writers make is to submit work too early, long before it's publishing-ready. Since we all do it, and will continue to do it, why not make it work for us? Making a researched potential agent list, carefully submitting, and pausing after every handful of rejections to rethink and input changes is crucial. I know that sounds weird, but agents now serve as gatekeepers. And in that role, they can be an incredible tool for manuscript development once you accept that your finished book isn't really finished. 

That's what I learned while submitting Faith Bass Darling's Last Garage Sale more than any other thing. With such feedback on my first submissions, I made changes needed to make it work for others as much as it did for me—but only after more than one top agent took the time to say so. And that hones a writer's own editorial and critical skills as well. Then the right top agent said yes, talked me into changing my title from The Last Garage Sale, to Faith Bass Darling's Garage Sale, a very good revision itself, before she sold it to a top editor renowned for her own editorial skills. 

Oh, sure we'd all love the first agent to fall in love with our manuscript, not change a word, and sell for big bucks. That's probably not going to happen. Why? Not because you aren't brilliant, but because there is so much at stake for everyone concerned.  Being professional is embracing the revision process, trusting it will improve the outcome without ruining your vision or voice. Writing really is rewriting, up to the very last minute. 

Of course, we need to use common sense, too, since agents are human and can also go overboard, as well as just be flat-wrong for you: After winning the WLT Narrative Nonfiction Manuscript Competition (which by the way is one of the best feedback resources out there and well worth the money. Here's an article about my experience Writers League of Texas asked me to write for Scribe, FYI.  

I remember an agent I met as part of winning asked me, without ever having read a word, whether I'd have trouble with revising because that was her modus operandi.  My first thought was: "Perhaps you'd like to read it first before you decide you want to revise it?" Her zeal was a bit over-the-top, even for an agent. And it was a nice, big red flag. I knew I'd be doing revisions, but the way she broached it was all wrong for me.

So what is your job after you've put that last period on your last sentence? Being very careful with your baby. You now need to switch hats to sell it, and you can, even if the thought makes you apoplectic. Nobody cares as much as you do and nobody ever will.  That's what we'll be discussing in my WLT half-day course: an overview of the skills you'll need to find publication once you and your idea are ready. And you don't have to have a finished manuscript to gain from this short course; in fact, it could help you as you finish it. 

Beyond talking about how to create letters that will actually be read, we'll hone in on the right and wrong ways to do your homework to find the agents who are good matches for your work, including a little workshop effort, and then how to use those rejection letters to your advantage. A grasp of the ways of the publishing world will put you years ahead of other aspiring writers in seeing your manuscript in print. And we'll have a lot of fun, too, just chewing the fat about the whole experience, as I've done in this long answer, actually; that's a promise.

Can you give us an idea on what you’re working on next?

Two ideas are percolating, actually, one to do with 1964 and Corvairs, the other to do with 1940 and giraffes. Where either of them go, if they go at all or replaced by something juicier, is the mystery and the fun of this writing life, isn't it?  

My dad had a Corvair! Probably one about that time. I remember a picture of it—and Ralph Nader calling it ‘unsafe at any speed.’ Made me glad my dad installed his own seatbelts in it! And of course, giraffes are always fun to read about. 

Lynda, thanks so much for being with us today on What Women Write. Be sure to alert us when Faith Bass Darling’s Last Garage Sale hits booksellers and we’ll remind our readers to get a copy. Plus, if you tour north Texas to promote it, we’ll be there!

Lynda’s class will be held October 8 from 1-4 p.m. at St. Edwards University, Trustee Hall 104, in Austin. There are currently spots still available for you to attend. Click here to register. You need not be a member of WLT to attend.


  1. Thank you for this WONDERFUL interview, Lynda and Pamela! I didn't get to read it yesterday, but believe it or not, my DAD did, and he sent me this nice little encapsulated version of all the things he learned about writing from you, Lynda! (One day, maybe he'll get up the nerve to actually comment on here??)

    I read the sample of Faith Bass Darling's Last Garage Sale, and I was already hooked. Can't wait for it to come out! And I think at least in England, they are called tag sales? Maybe?

    Thanks again, ladies!

  2. What a great interview, and I can't wait to read this book, Lynda. You offer some great advice for aspiring novelists.

  3. Great interview with a fine woman and writer. Thanks for it!

  4. Thanks for stopping by, all. I'm thrilled for Lynda and eager to read her story soon.

  5. Love this interview--great advice. I'm in the revising and revising and revising mode right now!

    Can't wait to read this novel--what a great premise. I can already tell the characters are going to get me at page 1.

  6. I love the idea of leaving a message for yourself on your answering machine! I tend to eventually lose some of my scraps, and this seems so sensible. Might have to do it to my cell so the rest of the family doesn't think I'm nuts (wait, they live with me; they already know), but I'm not quite there with the texting either. Great interview, ladies. Good luck with your book--so exciting!

  7. Love this interview. Like you Pamela, I love southern fiction, especially ones with major doses of humor and unforgettable characters and scenes. Congratulations, Lynda. Excited for you and can't wait to read this novel. Would add it to my wish list on my nook, but can't do so overseas. Currently at my home in Italy. BTW, a number of Italian homes have garages. In fact, for tax reasons, each is assigned a number. After two years living in Tuscany and two near Rome, can't say I've ever come across a garage sale. Each town, though, has an open market day. Some offer crafts and antiques, as well as household goods and produce. Really appreciate your writing advice. Currently caught up in the constant revisions of a memoir. Slowly pulling together, thanks to helpful feedback.

  8. Just read all of the comments; so much fun, all! Thanks for having me over, Pam. And Deborah, thanks for the Italian input! Now maybe I've met someone who might read it in Italian and tell me if they call it Faith Bass Darling's Open Market? ;)

    Good luck on everyone's writing. Will check back, as Pam's suggests, when the book is "real"!


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