Interview with Valerie Stocking: ‘Rewrite and polish and keep doing this until you can’t read it anymore’

Valerie Stocking was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, and wrote her first short story when she was five. When she was eight, she won a short story contest in Jack and Jill Magazine. She wrote her first play at the age of ten. In 1966, when she was twelve, she and her mother moved to a small town in Florida where they lived for a year. During this time, Valerie experienced difficulties with the public school system, tried a Seventh Day Adventist school briefly, and then dropped out altogether. It was her experiences during this year that inspired The Promised Land.Later, she would finish high school, graduate from college and earn a Master’s degree in Cinema Studies from NYU.

For nearly 30 years, she wrote and edited in various capacities, including copywriting, newspaper articles, and short stories. She wrote nearly 20 full-length and one act plays over a ten year period, which have been performed throughout the U.S. and Canada. She edited books for audio, abridging over 100 novels in a 6-year period. In 2010, she published her first novel, A Touch of Murder, which is the first of what will become the Samantha Kern mystery series. It was nominated for a Global eBook Award in 2011 for Best Mystery.

Valerie lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her dog and cat, and is working on her next novel.

You can visit her website at www.valeriestocking.com.

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Q: Thank you for this interview, Valerie. Can you tell us what your latest book, The Promised Land, is all about?

Sure! The Promised Land tells the story of 12-year-old Joy Bradford, who’s just moved with her mother from Connecticut to a small, backwater town on the west coast of Florida in August, 1966. She befriends a biracial boy named Clay Dooley in her 7th grade geography class, and this has disastrous consequences.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?

The main character, Joy Bradford, is an outcast. At a time when most adolescent girls were experimenting with makeup and ironing their long hair, Joy’s hair is short and curly. She wears no make-up, has never shaved, has never plucked an eyebrow. So she looks different from her peers. She is also quite bright, reads Dostoevsky and Hemingway, and writes poetry.

Joy’s biracial friend Clay Dooley is also an outcast. He too, looks different from the other kids, and is shunned by them. Clay is also very bright, but in different ways from Joy.

Joy’s mother, Jessica, is drop-dead gorgeous. She loves men, and loves getting their attention. She becomes romantically involved with her divorce lawyer, Bill McKendrick, who happens to be the head of the local Klan chapter. Meanwhile, another would-be suitor, Thaddeus Simms, the sheriff of the town, tries to throw his hat in the ring for her affections. However, this doesn’t fly.

Clay Dooley’s father, an African-American, is trying to open a clothing store in the white section of downtown Willets Point, the town where the story takes place. Naturally, Bill and the Klan become involved in thwarting this man’s dreams.

Q: Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?

With this book, there’s a mix of both. Jessica and Joy are based upon my mother and me. Clay was real. So was Bill McKendrick, but I embellished his position in the town quite a bit for the novel. Thaddeus and Clytus, Clay’s father, I created, although I did include details about real people I’ve known in their characterizations.

Usually, my characters are mostly made up. This is the first time I’ve included real people, and it was kind of scary at first. I am still wondering what readers are going to think of these people. I guess time will tell!

Q: Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write?

With The Promised Land, a number of events depicted in the book actually happened, so that part of the plot’s development was easy. In the cases where I was writing fictional segments, I was pretty aware of what was going to be going on in advance. I wrote an outline of the book on index cards, something I’d never done before. Each card had a scene on it, with some brief description. This way, I knew what direction I was going in, but I could veer off down a different path if I wanted to.

Q: Your book is set in Willets Point, Florida. Can you tell us why you chose this city in particular?

It’s a fictitious city, first of all, though it’s based on a place where I actually lived. The city (town, really) plays a key role in the plot, as it’s pretty small and everybody knows everybody’s business. And, despite the signing of the Civil Rights Act into law two years prior, blatant bigotry still exists in this place. It’s kind of isolated, and I remember the smells of it to this day. I tried to depict it as accurately as I could. It was a pretty bleak place.

Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?

The setting is key. At the time the events in this story took place, Florida was ranked 49th in terms of the quality of its public school education. My mother sought assistance for me everywhere she could. There was none. I don’t mean to sound prejudiced, because I don’t know what it’s like down there today, but I think that if this story had taken place in a larger metropolitan area, more accommodations could have been made for me. Also, the fact that the town was small and isolated helped propagate the bigotry that takes place there in the story.

Q: Open the book to page 69. What is happening?

Jessica has gotten Joy out of bed in the middle of the night. She chases Joy around the house, hitting her over and over again with a belt. No explanation is given to Joy. In the book, I suggest that Jessica was victim to some vicious voices in her head that insisted she do things she didn’t really want to do. It’s a pretty harrowing scene.

Q: Can you give us one of your best excerpts?

This is a scene where the Ku Klux Klan are laying siege to Clytus Dooley’s house. Clay and Joy are upstairs in Clay’s room, while Clytus and his wife Inga are downstairs trying to stave off the inevitable.

Clay turned his attention to the window. The dim shouts of the men outside were growing louder.

“They’re coming around here,” he cried. He turned off the flashlight, plunging the small room into darkness.

Joy inhaled sharply and turned toward the window. She could see light coming from the group of men who were entering the back yard. Her heart was pounding wildly.

Through the glass of the closed window, she could hear muffled voices:

“They aren’t back here.”

“There’s nobody…”

“Don’t matter. Break it down.”

There were shouts of assent. Joy caught her breath. She counted a total of eight men standing down below her on the grass.

Through the closed door of Clay’s room, Clytus shouted something she couldn’t make out. Then Joy heard thuds coming from the back of the house.

“They’re trying to get in.” Clay’s eyes were wild with fear.

Joy craned her head around to see the cluster of men by the back door. She heard wood splintering and saw the outer screen door hanging off its hinges.

They’re coming in.

Her mouth was dry. She became aware of Clay leaning over her, trying to see out the window, too.

There was the thudding sound of something dull hitting the wood of the back door.

“It won’t hold,” Clay shouted. “What are we going to do?”

Q: Have you suffered from writer’s block and what do you do to get back on track?

I’ve been blessed in that I rarely have writer’s block. When I do, it usually results from the self-consciousness of writing the first sentences, of wanting them to be perfect, so I start going back over them and editing right away, instead of proceeding with the draft. What I do then is, I pull myself together and force myself to keep going, keep those keys clicking. I tell myself it’s okay if I write a bunch of crap; I can always fix it later. Then I become absorbed in the scene that I’m writing, and it is a matter of describing what’s going on in it and what’s being said. I become an observer.

Q: What would you do with an extra hour today if you could do anything you wanted?

Work on an article for my blog!

Q: Which already published book do you wish that you had written and why?

There are two: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, and Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. The latter is a children’s book. It’s terrific.

Q: What kind of advice would you give other fiction authors regarding getting their books out there?

First, don’t put it out there until it’s been thoroughly edited and gone over by someone you trust, who will tell you the truth about your work. Rewrite and polish and keep doing this until you can’t read it anymore. Then give it to still another person to read and critique. Finally, you have to let it go. I had a problem doing that with The Promised Land. I revised and revised and polished, until I finally said, “That’s enough. That’s it. It’s ready.” Above all, don’t give up!

Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Valerie. We wish you much success!

Thank you.

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