Most people take comfort knowing their family and friends will remember them after they die. For Susan Shepherd, “remembering” is bullshit. She wants an eternal shrine to her sacrifice: a book that never goes out of print.
Shepherd served her country in the Gulf War, got shot while serving her community as a cop, raised an ungrateful daughter by herself—and for what? A diagnosis of terminal cancer and she isn’t even fifty. If you were in her shoes, you might agree that nothing short of national perpetual acknowledgement will do.
She’s glad you feel that way; she just wrote a memoir and sent a flurry of query letters, hoping a publisher will memorialize her with a best-seller. After hitting Send, she waits not-at-all patiently for an editor to decide if her story will sell enough copies—that is, if her life really mattered.I recently emailed with Dan Klefstad about his new book, Shepherd & the Professor, a fictional memoir about a former police officer who has terminal cancer, and asked him about his writing process. Klefstad also has a short story, “The Caretaker”, releasing in just a couple weeks in the literary journal, Crack the Spine, in issue #208. Before you read the interview, check out this short intro and reading to his book:
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing? It gave me the confidence to know I can write something that people will want to read. I could’ve self-published Shepherd & the Professor, but I wanted proof that I could get past the editor of a traditional publisher. Doing this changed my perception of myself as a writer.
What authors did you dislike at first but grew into? Mainly it’s writers from the 18th and 19th centuries who wrote in a more leisurely pace. They knew readers had few distractions, so they treated booklovers like hostages. Victor Hugo is one example, making you slog through that Battle of Waterloo chapter in Les Misérables. Was that really necessary? Okay, maybe — If you planted your crops and are wealthy enough to just watch them to grow. Writers like Hugo really wanted you to savor their words!
Leo Tolstoy is another one who’s easy to pick on because nobody reading this article finished War & Peace. I’ll admit, I tried and failed twice. But I was determined to finish Anna Karenina, which I finished twice. That’s a magnificent story, well worth the effort. When I retire, and have lots of leisure time, I’ll go back to Les Misérablesand War and Peace, and give them the time the authors thought they deserved.
What are the most important magazines for writers to subscribe to? If you’re looking for representation, Writer’s Digest is the most important. They regularly send alerts when an agent opens to queries. When looking for agents, and then publishers, I also used the websites QueryTracker and Predators & Editors. If you self-publish, however, the most important thing you need is a good editor—not another magazine subscription.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel? I’ve read many terrific novels from Illinois and Wisconsin authors as part of WNIJ’s “Read With Me” book series, which I edit and present. Few people know about these books, which is a shame. I’ll pick two: Beyond the Ties of Blood by Florencia Mallon, which is about Chilean people recovering from the Pinochet dictatorship. And Snakewoman of Little Egypt by Robert Hellenga. He gave me the courage to write from a woman’s point of view.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book? I don’t do much research at all. I create two characters, give each a motivation, and put them in a scene together. After that scene resolves, I create two more characters, resolve their conflict, and then look for ways to connect these scenes in a plotline. It’s kind of like writing a play. After I have some scenes, I’ll do quick research on whatever objects are involved—cars, firearms, whatever —but not too much; I don’t want to bog down the story in details. More important: I don’t want to rob the reader of his ability to imagine the “furniture” I put in the scenes. I want to give you just enough detail where you can fill in the gaps and move on.
What was your hardest scene to write? Any sex scene, consensual or not, is difficult to write. But they can be rewarding if they offer information to the reader. Many writers “shut the bedroom door” when the clothes come off—which I understand because the risks are so high. Add too much detail and you ruin the moment by making it too clinical. Or pornographic. Add too little and it becomes prissy, so you might as well shut the damned door. However, sex scenes can reveal a lot about characters—Are they sensitive? Brutal? Indifferent? So I say write the scene, show it to someone you trust and see if it works. If you leave it in, brace yourself because that scene is the one everyone will remember. I have my fingers crossed that you’ll get it right, because no author wants to receive Literary Review’s “Bad Sex in Literature” award. I don’t care how much publicity you get, it must be horrible to see your writing treated as a parody.
Where did you come up with the idea for “Shepard“? I was nearing 50 and started wondering what my legacy will be when I’m gone. Will people remember me, and—if so—for what? I became fascinated with the idea of legacies, this need not to be forgotten. So I created this Gulf War vet/cop/single mom named Susan Shepherd who’s losing her battle with cancer, and who’s terrified that people will forget the sacrifices she made. Then I gave her this struggle of writing a memoir and having dozens of publishers reject it, and now she’s down to her last query letter. In a twist, I have her convert her memoir into a long query letter to one person: the editor or intern who decides whether to send her manuscript up the chain. I hope people will identify with this struggle, and think about what they’ll leave behind.
I want to thank Dan for taking the time to answer my questions! Click on the link above to go buy his book!
Dan Klefstad is the author of Shepherd & the Professor, and the upcoming short story in Crack the Spine, “The Caretaker” (Issue 208).