Today I’m excited to bring you an interview with Tawnysha Greene, author of A House Made of Stars. This novel (which has been called a “gripping, gorgeous read” by Moira Crone) is being published by the amazing Jeni Wallace at Burlesque Press, and was edited by her equally amazing husband, Daniel Wallace.
I was lucky enough to receive an advanced copy, and you can read my review here.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. While in the process of writing the novel, Tawnysha sent out chapters and excerpts to a lot of literary magazines. Ultimately, she was published in: Weave Magazine, storySouth, Blue Lake Review, JMWW, PANK Magazine, Hobart, Bartleby Snopes, A-Minor, Monkeybicycle, Waccamaw, Barely South Review, Raleigh Review, decomP, elimae, Dogzplot, Bellingham Review, Emprise Review, The Citron Review, Annalemma, Bluestem Magazine, Used Furniture Review, Necessary Fiction, Staccato Fiction, 52/250 A Year of Flash, Eunoia Review, 2River View, Wigleaf, Rougarou: An Online Journal, Still: The Journal, and Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts.
Whoa. As Jeni Wallace says, “pretty much everyone loves this book.”
So what’s it about, you ask? Read my review. Or, here’s a synopsis:
A young girl, ten years old and hard-of-hearing, attempts to cope with her family’s descent into poverty and desperation. Sensitive and perceptive, she is able to view the outside world with profound precision and care — even though she is mystified by the actions of the troubled and self-destructive adults around her. However, she slowly comes to understand the real source of the family’s sufferings, leading her on a harrowing journey of escape.
And now, without further ado, my interview with Tawnysha Greene…
Hi Tawnysha! Can you tell me a little more about A House Made of Stars? Who do you imagine as your audience?
Essentially, A House Made of Stars is a coming-of-age story. I imagine the audience to be primarily YA readers. The novel addresses the growing-up process a girl must undertake [as she] begins to understand the reasons behind her family’s difficulties. However, I would hope that this novel would capture a variety of readers.
Tell me about getting your PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Tennessee.
It was a wonderful experience. The creative writing faculty was very diverse, and each professor helped me with my writing in their own way. In addition, guest faculty often visited for a semester, and I was lucky enough to work with Richard Bausch, Pamela Uschuk, and William Pitt Root. The University of Tennessee also invited various authors and poets to come read and share their publishing experiences, and I was fortunate to hear authors such as Dorothy Allison, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Terrance Hayes.
The degree program itself prepared me for life after graduate school. Once I finished my comprehensive exams, I taught upper-level classes in fiction and poetry writing and served as fiction editor for Grist: The Journal for Writers. Since graduating, I have stayed on as a lecturer and teach many of the same classes. I am also currently an assistant fiction editor for Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts and read for the Wigleaf Top 50 series, so I am grateful for the editorial practice I had as a graduate student.
A House Made of Stars started out as your dissertation, right? Tell me more about that.
It started off as the final project for one of my fiction classes. My professor assigned everyone to write a secret story. Only she would read it—no one else—so we had the freedom to try things we would have been too apprehensive to try in a workshop. I decided to write a series of flash pieces with a young narrator, and encouraged by my professor’s feedback, I continued writing this story in the classes that followed.
While a version of A House Made of Stars ended up being my finished dissertation, the novel was incomplete, and I needed to explore my characters further. Additionally, while some sections worked on their own, the entire novel couldn’t sustain self-contained flash chapters for its entirety, as the pacing was faulty and inconsistent.
So what was it like to take your dissertation and and turn it into a publishable novel?
After I graduated, I rewrote the novel, and when it was finished I sent it out to a group of writers who gave me some very helpful feedback. I was getting closer, but I wasn’t there yet. I still needed to smooth out the pacing. I needed to rearrange the plot. I needed to make my narrator stronger.
So I rewrote it again. I tried to make every scene, every sentence, every word count, so that nothing caused the story to lag. I attempted to make the characters more active and to make their actions more meaningful. I tried to make each scene to carry into the next one until the conclusion, which was both necessary and inevitable.
This was the version I sent out to agents, and later, publishers, and this is the version that was accepted by Burlesque Press. I am fortunate to have Daniel’s careful eye help me bring the novel to its final version.
Why did you decide to publish with a small press instead of going the more traditional route of getting a literary agent and a big-name publisher?
I actually tried the traditional agent route first. Every year or so, an agent will come visit the University of Tennessee, review manuscripts, and offer advice, and when I was in the program, Julie Barer came to see us. She was delightful during our conference and told me to send her my novel when it was finished, so she was the first agent I queried. Unfortunately, by that time, her roster was full and she wasn’t taking any more clients, so I tried others and got a lot of requests for a full manuscript then received helpful advice for how to revise the novel. In the end, while encouraging and hopeful, these responses were ultimately rejections, so I decided to try sending the novel to small presses.
A House Made of Stars is shorter than the average book, and all the characters are nameless. The language is very sparse, the chapters are short, and it’s a narrative that doesn’t wrap up as neatly as traditional novels do. The book takes a lot of risks. Small presses seemed a better fit, so I began sending the book out to presses that published books I admired.
Why did you decide to submit to Burlesque Press in particular?
I first met Jeni Wallace of Burlesque Press when she came to a reading at the University of Tennessee. I knew that her press sponsored the Hands On Literary Festival in New Orleans every year, but I didn’t know that she published books. Then Siren Song by Tawni Waters, their first publication, came out. The book looked beautiful, and I remembered how gracious and kind Jeni was at the reading. I didn’t know if she was even looking at more manuscripts at the time, but I wrote her an email and attached the novel. Closing my eyes, I hit send.
Within a few weeks, I heard back. She wanted to meet. To discuss publication. I took deep breaths as I drove to the meeting. Two hours later, I laughed and screamed the whole way back home. It was one of the most exciting days of my life.
One of the main reasons I chose Burlesque Press was how impeccable their book design was for Siren Song, and they did not disappoint in designing my book. If anything, they went beyond my biggest hopes, and when I first saw the final cover for A House Made of Stars, I gasped. It was perfect in every way. I owe so much to the two of them and can’t think of a better team to release my first book.
Excerpts from A House Made of Stars have been published in approximately a bajillion literary magazines. How did that happen? Also, does this mean that the novel is still comprised of stand-alone pieces?
While the original dissertation had a lot of stand-alone vignettes, the published version is a continuing story with short chapters. A lot of the flash pieces that were accepted and published in journals actually don’t appear in the novel or if they do, are dramatically altered.
Although I cut a lot of these vignettes, I still sent them out and am fortunate that some editors liked them enough to publish them. That is not to say that they didn’t get their fair share of rejections. Some stories only received four or five rejections while others got well over 100. Luckily, having worked as a fiction editor, I knew that a story could be turned down for any number of reasons, so I just sent these stories out again and again until they found the right journal. I also had some revise and resubmit responses which I took full advantage of, and I am so grateful for these editors who gave me advice in exploring my characters and my narrative even more than I had before.
And finally, what is your favorite piece of writing advice?
One of the best pieces of writing advice I had gotten while in graduate school came from Richard Bausch. He said that if you get stuck while writing, lower your standards and keep going. That helps me if I ever get writer’s block, and I always remind myself that I can go back and revise, because I will (often many, many times).
Most helpful, though, is a practice I’ve started of always ending the day’s work in the middle of a scene or a thought. That way, I know what I had planned to write and get started more easily the next day. Too many times, I’ve stopped writing for the day after a chapter or a major scene, because I was tired and eager for a break, but then when I resumed the next writing session, I would struggle, because I had no idea where to go from there. Now, I always end in the middle with some notes on where to go next.
I do that, too! Thanks, Tawnysha!
You can pre-order A House Made of Stars here; it will be available on Amazon soon.
You can visit Tawnysha Greene’s website here, or follow her on Twitter: @TawnyshaGreene
The launch party will be held on July 11th, in Knoxville, and Tawnysha will be reading in Baltimore at Notre Dame of Maryland University on September 15 as part of their 4 Under 40 Reading Series. She will also be introducing the novel at The Hands On Literary Festival, which is in New Orleans from December 28-31, 2015.