One of the things I love about being new to Taylor’s English department is that I get to discover the diverse and excellent work that program alumni have undertaken. I recently met ec newman, a teacher and Young Adult author whose novel Phase just debuted from Etopia Press. In this interview, she talks about her time at Taylor, what draws her to YA stories, and the process of publication from acceptance to editing to seeing her book go out into the world.
Tell us about yourself.
I’m from everywhere. I’m serious. Dad was a Navy lawyer for the first 15 years of my life, so I lived several places. We were in southeast TN when I graduated high school and that’s where they still are (they have a bed and breakfast there). I graduated from Taylor in 2003 as a Theatre and Writing major. As impractical a double major as you can get. Ever since I was six years old, I wanted to be an actor.
So after Taylor, I went out to do LAFSC (Los Angeles Film Studies Center) for a semester and then I did four semesters at AMDA (American Musical & Dramatic Academy). I spent several months sending out my headshot and resume, receiving little to no audition opportunities. I did one short film where I didn’t say a word, but struggled against a serial killer about to off me. That was cool, but I’d already decided to stop pursuing acting professionally at that point. I didn’t like the life. I didn’t like that my entire life had to always be about acting (networking, auditioning, etc.). It was too singularly focused. I attended Act One (screenwriting program) and realized while I loved movies, I wasn’t the best at writing them. Los Angeles no longer held any reason for me to stay.
I’d been writing a lot during that time. Mostly fanfiction, I’ll admit. It was fun and entertaining. I posted it on fanfiction.net and started getting reviews from readers (mostly favorable) and it gave me a lot of confidence that perhaps I could write a novel. I applied and got into Bath Spa University’s Masters in Writing for Young People’s program (didn’t hurt that it was in England) and that solidified that writing was what I wanted/needed/was meant to do. That was back in 2008. I’ve been doing a spectrum of jobs since then, but most recently, teaching in Rockford, IL at a college prep school: Euro/American Lit for high school and sixth grade theatre. Just finished my first year and about to start my second. It’s both fun and absolutely exhausting.
I went by my middle name during my time at Taylor, so people from that time of my life (unless I’m still in touch with them) still call me Carson when everyone else calls me Eden. I chose e c newman because I liked how it looked in all lowercase (which only appears on the cover). I also write on a hockey blog for Philadelphia Flyers fans called FlyersFaithful.com. I’m a new fan so that’s what most of my posts are about.
Your debut YA novel, Phase, is now available from Etopia Press. What did it feel like when you learned that your book would be published? What was the process like for you?
I felt terrified. I should explain that. Phase is the second novel I’ve written for publication. I wrote one before it and that book got me my agent who is wonderful. However, there were a lot of rejections and near misses with that book. Phase in turn also received rejections and near misses until I’d pretty much given up on that world and the idea of the series. I’d already looked to new stories to work on. The whole process with Etopia therefore was met with constant timidity. I was so nervous I’d say something or do something that would make them want to drop me. Completely unwarranted fears, but there was a lot of anxiety along the way.
The process was the offer, the contract, and several rounds of editing. My editor didn’t ask for major changes, but small ones. I realized how I repeated words throughout the manuscript and other little things like that. It was time-consuming, but I didn’t mind it. It made me see how much I just missed being my own editor most of the time. They did the cover, asking for my input (I really wanted trees and got that). There was a final proofread before it showed up on websites as an ebook! I’ve just received word that it will go to print which is even more exciting because I can want to actually hold it in my hands. I’m old school enough to want that.
What have you read lately that has left a strong impression?
What a tough question. I’m torn about giving this book series credit, but it did open my eyes to what age group I wanted to write for. I was working at Barnes and Noble in Los Angeles and just had gotten into vampires (read Dracula just the year before). So, I picked up this book called Twilight and adored it. My feelings would fluctuate as the years followed, but the reason that book struck a chord with me was because I realized at that point that I was a young adult author. That’s what I liked, those were the stories I tended to imagine. So, love or hate the series, it affected my writing ever since.
Also, loved and needed both Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write & Stephen King’s On Writing. The first is less a ‘how-to’ and more a book of encouragement. Which writers always need. King, who I’ve never read other than this book, mixes both encouragement, reality and some ‘how-to.’ The fact that he admits to not having a major plot outline when he writes made me feel better about my process because I don’t do detailed outlines or formulas when writing. I just play.
I really enjoyed reading Phase. Some of the things I like best about it: first, you give us, in Sophie, a very likeable protagonist. Also, you have a great ear for realistic teen dialogue; you have an eye for body language; and you triangulate relationships between characters organically and very effectively, creating tension and suspense.
What do you struggle with as a fiction writer? What are the most difficult aspects of the craft for you?
I read your Goodreads review of Phase and thank you! I was nervous when I saw you were reading it because you’re not my target audience, so I’m relieved that you enjoyed it as much as you did. You hit on my strengths as a writer right there: character development, dialogue and relationships. I’ve always been good at them. I’m a talker myself and I tend to speak my written dialogue out loud to make sure it sounds right. If I trip over any part of it, I know something doesn’t work. Since the story is written in first person, the prose undergoes the same ‘by ear’ treatment. It’s all Sophie’s voice. Relationship arcs are also the first thing I figure out about my stories…even before plot (I don’t recommend this, by the way). For the second and third book of the Phase Trilogy, I have the relationships all figured out. It’s the rest of it I’m battling through.
Oh do I have struggles. Description is one of them. I’m horrible at place description especially. When I try to ‘show’ a house or something, it ends up sounding like a realtor; “Jane lived in a two-story frame house with white shutters.” I tend to be turned off by books with too much description (Tolkien, I love you, but you kill me), so I think that’s why I swing toward a lack of. I’m also not naturally good at tension/suspense/conflict. I think part of that is because I avoid conflict in real life as much as I can. Action sequences and tense moments require a lot of effort and rewriting on my part. I only hope I just get better at it the more I write.
I think the most difficult part of the craft is the filler parts. I tend to write all the ‘fun’ scenes first. For me that’s usually the boy-girl stuff and some of the intense, climatic moments. Linking those together with the everyday parts of my characters’ lives is hard because it can’t be boring to the reader. It may be boring to the characters, but even the minor stuff has to have a purpose and some inspiration.
Young Adult literature continues to be extremely popular with readers young and not-so-much. What is it that continues to draw people to YA in general? And what do you think it is about our cultural moment that draws people to the fantastic or paranormal?
I thank J.K. Rowling almost every day for exploding the children’s literature section in bookstores. When I was a kid, my choices after Judy Blume and James Howe were Sweet Valley High or Goosebumps. I didn’t like either. Now, there’s tons of genres and hundreds of books to choose from.
Specifically, I think YA draws people because we have all experienced it. High school emotions and events are so intense in the moment. There is nothing like seeing the boy you like in the school hallway and the butterflies in your stomach. Nothing more devastating than an argument with a friend that leaves you in tears and belief that nothing will fix your relationship. We all went through versions of that and if we didn’t, we saw others going through it. We relate and hope for better for those we’re reading about (at least I do.)
I can’t explain why trends happen. In the mid-90s there were several series of YA paranormal so similar to Twilight and the like, but it didn’t hit the bestseller lists in the same way. Who knows? I think humans always want there to be more than what we see every day; whether that’s vampires, or angels, or aliens. I’ve been to Scotland and looked out a bus window into a rainy, dreary forest and wished to see faeries because it seems so possible in that setting.
Looking back, what did your Taylor English experience give you in terms of developing you as a person, a thinker, a reader, and a writer? Is there a particular memory that stands out? (Note: I would never ask for a puff piece or an advertisement—feel free to be perfectly honest!)
I loved college and Taylor. I went to public school most of my life and it wasn’t horribly traumatic, but I was constantly teased for being a good girl. Getting to Taylor was like a breath of fresh air. I felt free to try and learn new things. I loved nearly all my classes (sorry, COS 104) and my dorm, Swallow Robin. The required biblical classes I took solidified my faith and made it my own. I needed that before I headed to Los Angeles.
I added my writing major halfway through freshman year. I took every creative writing class Taylor offered (I avoided Linguistics and Grammar which I regret to this day, but it terrified me) and learned a lot from those. Mostly that I wasn’t without talent, but I had to work at it. I was under the misapprehension that the first drafts of my poems were sacred. I’m not naturally someone who is inclined to work hard at anything. I learned how to take criticism from others and not cry about it. I had a classmate in one of the workshops say something to me on the lines of ‘all you write about is boy/girl, teenage stuff.’ I was embarrassed at the time because I didn’t seek to be more literary-minded. And here I am, writing exactly about that boy/girl, teenage stuff. Learning how to deal with rejection doesn’t sound like a selling point for a program, but I didn’t make Parnassus every time I sent in my work. Which in turn helped me work through the bigger rejections I faced later from agents and publishers.
I loved Crit Lit, Brit Lit, Shakespeare, Romantic Lit, and my senior seminar (which I took as a junior). I might sway toward YA literature, but I loved the classics that we read. I always smile when I mentally point out something as post-modernism (something I wouldn’t have known without Dr. Dayton). Professor Satterlee was really the only writing professor I interacted with most while I was a student. He was my advisor on my senior paper (chapters of a novel I will someday finish) and he was both encouraging and motivating as a teacher. He also wrote a recommendation for my graduate program, so I’m most grateful.
Taylor gave me the beginnings of my self-confidence. It took several more years and graduate school for me to realize that God really did love me as I was and that I wasn’t all that shabby (plenty of room for improvement). I look back on Taylor and the English department with fondness and nostalgia. I’d probably retake the classes if they let me.
The department would like to thank ec for taking the time to do this interview!
Here’s the scoop on Phase:
Sophie Todd hoped that her senior year would be different. Unfortunately, different seems to mean getting punched in the face for sticking up for the new girl, having her offer of friendship spurned by said new girl, and finally gaining the attention of her long-time crush, Ezra Varden, but for all the wrong reasons.
It’s a tenuous friendship at best, but as Juliet starts to open up to Sophie, they both realize that the Vardens, Juliet’s foster family, is not your average family. They’re extremely close-knit—freakishly so—but they welcomed a complete stranger into their home, which just so happens to have the largest meat freezer anyone’s ever seen…
…and certainly no one said anything about Ezra and the wolves.