(Courtney is really very lovely, so surviving was kind of a given. If you were looking for an author smackdown, maybe next time?)
Anyway, I had the chance to interview Courtney McKinney-Whitaker, the author of THE LAST SISTER, a historical novel which recently released! Here is what she has to say about her newest book, her writing process, and doing the all-too-tricky baby/book-juggle:
Your recently released novel, THE LAST SISTER, takes place in the mid-eighteenth century in the British colony of South Carolina, which I think is a very unexplored era in young adult literature. I’d love to know what made you decide to write about that particular period in history. How did you manage to research it?
I grew up in Greenville, SC, which is in the western corner of the state and at the time was still part of Cherokee territory. I've always been interested in Colonial America, and it's always struck me that most fictional accounts focus on the New England experience and on the very late Colonial period, right around the time of the American Revolution. Those that are set in the South tend to be set in the Coastal South. I wanted to write about a different time and place, and the Anglo-Cherokee War presented itself as a setting that challenges common notions both about the South itself and about Britain's interactions with native peoples. Writing about an unfamiliar setting was a challenge because I couldn't make any assumptions about what my readers would know, and I had to find a way to break through some common stereotypes about people and politics that just weren't true for the time and place.
I majored in history at the University of South Carolina, so I was familiar with the resources I would need and where to find them, and I knew who to call if I got stuck. Part of the book is set at Fort Loudoun, a British fort which is today located in Vonore, Tennessee, close to Gatlinburg, and there's a great reenactment group there. Their resources were invaluable.
You’ve worn a lot of hats in the past: librarian, part-time English teacher, and author, all literary careers. But I want to know: If those professions didn’t exist, what do you think you would be? Besides unhappy, that is. ;)
Since it's getting harder and harder to make a living at those careers, this is probably a good thing for me to think about, isn't it? ;-)
I often say I'm good at two things, reading and writing, so don't expect Mama to be decorating an elaborate birthday cake or sewing a homemade Halloween costume anytime soon. That's why we have stores and more talented friends.
My only other hobbies, really, are my diet and exercise. This happened partly out of necessity: I was very sick with celiac disease for most of my twenties, and I was determined to get better. I value the healthy eating and exercise that saved me so much that I've become one of those annoying people who actually does love to eat healthy food and exercise every day. Also, because the rest of my life is so sedentary, it keeps me sane and complements my writing work nicely. I was on a strict diet and exercise regimen throughout my recent pregnancy (not to lose weight, but to make sure I didn't expose my body to anything toxic for me and to maintain my bone health—all under a doctor's supervision, of course), and I know that helped me avoid many common discomforts and bounce back fast.
I love to talk to people about improving their health through taking care of their bodies, so maybe I'd like to be some kind of diet and exercise counselor? I said to my husband the other day that I need to find a way to get paid for working out. Sadly, I'm not flexible enough or coordinated enough to be a group exercise instructor because I think I'd like that.
What, to you, is the hardest part of writing a novel?
Is it okay to say whatever part I'm working on right that minute? I like to jump in and make a mess, so while I find early drafts challenging, they don't stress me out the way the later ones do. The hardest part, for me, is the final edits, both the ones that I do before querying (which aren't really final at all, as we know), and the ones where they say, "Here, read this over, but you can't change anything," and then laugh like evil villains. I may have made up the evil villain laugh, but I sure hear it. As soon as I hear I can't change anything, I read and realize what a horrible mistake I have made by ever allowing this out into the world and how surely now everyone will realize what a fake I am and can I possibly have this back and let the dog eat it or bury it deep in the backyard? Ugh. Final edits. I hates them.
You have a new addition to your family on the way! Congratulations! How, if at all, has motherhood transformed your writing?
Thanks! My daughter (which still seems weird to say) has been here since the middle of September. Writing-wise (and baby-wise, too) things are going better than I ever dared to hope. She's a very chill baby who only gets up once during the night, so I'm not dealing with sleep deprivation. (Knock on wood.) I also have an extremely supportive spouse, so that helps.
When I was in grad school, one of my professors told me not to worry about having kids because hers made her a much more efficient writer and actually increased her output. I'm finding that to be true. I had gotten into a very bad habit of procrastination—because writing is hard and Twitter is fun—which I really didn't like but felt powerless to stop. The cure for that is to have a baby! No more time to procrastinate because she might wake up/need a change/be hungry soon (she will definitely be hungry soon), so work NOW. It's also helped me with some of my perfectionism: no more time to read an email seventeen times before I send it. If it's missing a comma, it won't be the end of the world. I feel like every second of my day is spent doing something useful, which is a great feeling. I've learned to work in small spurts and to work at places other than my desk. I've become instantly more adaptable, so the baby is helping me learn skills that help my writing.
I had a baby in September and a book debut in October. I planned ahead to devote the rest of the year to adjusting to the baby and doing all the things I needed to do for the book, so I took time off from my regularly paid writing work to take care of both those babies. I know I'm lucky to be able to do that. I also planned to have a novel in the query stage because that stage is mostly waiting, and I knew the waiting game would give me time to adjust to motherhood and bond with my baby while still feeling I was doing something to move my career forward. I also figured the baby would distract me from the awful waiting game and keep me from refreshing my email every five minutes, which has proven true.
I've worked at least part of every week day since my baby was born, just on keeping up with things. I also did a full edit of an almost-finished manuscript. She has a little sleep seat right beside my desk. While I'm still nervous about finding the time to write in that stage after she stops sleeping most of the time and before she goes to pre-school, I'm finding that writing and mothering complement each other very well so far.
THE LAST SISTER is your debut novel. Where do you see your career heading from here? Working on any new projects?
For now, I'm working during my baby's naps, but I can actually get a lot done during that time, and my husband insists on taking over baby duties whenever he's home so I can work. (Yes, he's amazing.) So I don't see my pace slowing down, and if while she's very little, I write a novel every two years instead of every year, that's okay with me.
Here's where I am now. I just published THE LAST SISTER, and I have one novel in the querying stage. I want to write a companion to the THE LAST SISTER, and I want to write a novel I just thought up yesterday morning that has me cackling to myself about how funny and brilliant it is. Of course it is—I haven't even jotted down a note yet, so it's extremely funny and brilliant in my head. I may end up writing two at once, which I've never done before, but that's another benefit to being a new mom: I'm getting very good at juggling.