I’m so excited to kick off Creative Ladies with the super-awesome Blair Thornburgh. Blair was nice enough to talk to me about working for Quirk Books, being a writer, and Nora Ephron. You can read more about her on her website and blog, and follow her on Twitter @ATallOrder.
I hope you guys enjoy this interview as much as I did, and remember, if you know any cool, creative ladies who would be perfect for this column, please send me an email at email@example.com or comment on this post!
What’s your main creative gig (this can be your day job, your freelance work, or both)? Describe what you do on a normal working day.
My day job is being an Editorial Assistant at Quirk Books in Philadelphia (you may know us for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children). It’s the greatest; I can’t lie. A typical day will see me doing both things editorial (reading book submissions, proofreading manuscripts, helping with edit letters to authors, writing catalog copy) and assistant-y (payment requests, contracts filing, other et ceteras). I love working at a small publisher that cares about making good books. It’s the dream!
What are your creative, just-for-fun (not money or career advancement) hobbies?
I like to say that I make books and then in my spare time I make other books. By night and by very early morning, I write young adult fiction (I just finished a novel! Not to brag! But I’m psyched!) Obviously, this is still kind of “for money and/or career advancement,” but I think of it much more as fun because a lot of it is just indulging imagination. In an ideal future, I’m a crazytalented power author/editor like David Levithan or R.J. Palacio, but for now, I’m psyched just to get to do both. I also write freelance blog posts and essays for sites like the Hairpin and the Billfold when I have a good idea to pitch (usually it’s about snacks).
What inspires you? Feel free to be as literal or as figurative as you want.
Is it lame to say coffee? I really like coffee. My other motivation is kind of anti-movation: I’m pushed to create stuff because I know that no one else will push me. The world is and will remain indifferent to the stuff I make until I make it and prove that, ipso facto, this stuff is worth existing.
In three words, describe your creative aesthetic.
*i.e., I want to my novels to have snappy, funny dialogue but also wax philosophical on issues of grammar and language. I think I mostly pull it off.
How would you describe your creative “process”? Does it involve a lot of staring into space, doodling, or candy eating?
I LOVE staring into space. I heard it called “woolgathering” once and thought that was brilliant: looking around you, casting a wide mental net over everything and pulling it back in for interesting bits of fluff. I space out on the train to work, on long walks, at the gym, whatever, and let my subconscious turn things over. Beginnings are such fun places! Then, once I have an idea for a story, I start taking notes and doing research (my current dreamy little notion is an Elizabethan-set historical YA, so I’ve got a stack of books out from the library and went to the Ren Faire for bonus inspiration).
Once I’ve got a decent grip on the general shape of my plot and characters, I start writing. I plan out as much as I can (Scrivener! Everyone, please use this word processing program to notecard out your ideas; it will change your life) but I also believe that writing is a heuristic process. The very act of writing helps you discover what you want to write about. This means that my first drafts are kind of like an industrial byproduct of the imagination factory, and NOT the actual text of my novel. It’s hard to think of them this way, because it basically means I have to rewrite everything to get it right, but getting it right is ultimately all there is, so.
Nitty-gritty details: I’m very ambitious with writing goals. Revising this last novel, I had a daily goal of two thousand words on weekdays and as much as I could on weekends. I know; it was awful. I didn’t sleep much. I got up too early and stayed up too late. I was obsessive. But I did it, and even better, it got done.
Oh, and I totally make character-themed Spotify playlists. No shame.
What creative accomplishment are you most proud of?
My most recent (hahahaha, because I’ve written SO MANY) novel. I had the idea to retell Tristan and Isolde as a YA novel at the end of my senior year of college, and a year and a half later, I’ve done it! Pretty much! It’s something like 90k words and still in need of a few tiny polishes, but I’m pretty much ready to launch it into the world. It’s tacky to say it, but this is the book of my heart. The harder I worked, the more I fell in love.
The printed and spiral bound manuscript of Blair’s novel. As she puts it, “Doesn’t look like much, but it’s a year and a half’s worth of love/writing/obsession!”
I was also a speaker at my college graduation, which I never in a million years thought I would do, let alone do and not mess up. It was hugely wonderful and I can’t believe I didn’t throw up first.
What’s a big creative challenge/failure/embarrassment you’ve learned from?
Hmm. I wouldn’t call it a “failure,” exactly, but I worked for a bit as a journalist during and after college, and I learned A LOT—including that it wasn’t for me. I loved writing pun-laded gossip quickie pieces but dreaded things like interviews, investigations, and follow-ups. I liked getting paid to write, but I didn’t like doing the writing, and to me, that was a turning point, knowing that there could be more than one way to make a living with words. At the end of last summer, I decided to chuck it all, move to an illegal Canadian sublet for three months, and write my damn novel. It was a risk, but it worked.
Who’s your Creative Lady role model (this can be a person you know, a celebrity, a fictional character, etc.)?
The Noras: Roberts and Ephron. Nora Roberts is a downright badass: her books are good and sell like crazy and she takes no shit from anyone. Her one rule of writing is “ass in chair.” What more do you need?
When I was struggling and starving living in New York and trying to be a reporter, Nora Ephron’s books kept me from abject despair. She was so warm and funny and whip-smart, just like I want to be. I remember one night, riding the J into Manhattan and walking to Tompkins Square Park, reading her last book of essays and deciding that, dammit, I was going to write her a well-worded fan letter. Twenty minutes later, I got a text from my mom that Nora Ephron had died. I sat in the park and just wept.
What time of day are you most creative? Are you a morning person or a night owl?
Morning! Working on a farm one summer made me a total circadian weirdo; I LOVE getting up early and accomplishing things before 9 AM. In the summer, I work nights, too, because something about sealing myself in my air-conditioned bedroom creates a pleasant chill-chest of white noise and concentration. Basically, I like to work any time that I can feel alone.
Being an awesome Creative Lady can be overwhelming. What do you do to relax?
Drink whiskey! That’s a joke, kind of! In seriousness, I like talking walks (see above) and I’ve recently gotten into barbell weight training. Highly recommended.
What books would you recommend to other Creative Ladies?
Writer types, please read Bird by Bird, The Elements of Style, On Writing (Stephen King), Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne, and Second Sight by Cheryl Klein. Everyone else: Steal like an Artist is great.
What advice would you give to other Creative Ladies who want to do what you do?
Be ambitious and do not stop. Reading a lot is good; reading intelligently is better. Don’t define yourself by your degree (I majored in Medieval Studies, for God’s sake). And email me if you want a novice career whisperer for publishing/writing/journalism—I’ve had more and more generous help from people than I could ever have hoped for and I’m dying to pay it forward.
What’s your Creative Lady motto?
Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit (Perhaps one day it will be pleasing to remember even these things).
This is a line from Virgil’s Aeneid, which is probably the most important book I’ve ever read. The idea here is twofold: to see yourself through hard times by knowing that the experience will make a good story, and that stories, above all, validate the human experience.