Channelling Sophie: Patricia J. DeLois on Bufflehead Sisters

Two sisters standing in front of water

In addition to being the true author of the prize-winning Bufflehead Sisters, Patricia J. DeLois works in the audiovisual department in the Portland Public Library. Bufflehead, her first novel, won the British Council sponsored YouWriteOn.com 2007 Book of the Year Award. It was then published by YouWriteOn on a publish-on-demand (POD) basis.

The Maine Sunday Telegram called Bufflehead Sisters, “The most stunning work of imagination published by a Maine author this year…heartbreaking, hair-raising, painful, perverse, and redeeming.”

James Whyle: What do you make of that assessment of your work?

Patricia J. Delois: I’d say that’s the assessment of the ideal reader. The fact that this particular reader was in a position to publish his opinion is a dream come true. Publish on demand doesn’t come with any mechanism for publicity or promotion, and except for the promotion done by YouWriteOn, no one would have heard of Buffleheads had this reviewer not taken up the cause.

JW: You’ve kind of sprung this one from nowhere, or do you have a secret history as a writer that no one knows about?

PJD: There was a time when I wouldn’t have started a novel for fear that I would die before I finished it.

Many years ago, I was in a writing group led by a local author. There were ten of us, and one was this guy, Fred, who was writing a truly dreadful novel about a professor at Columbia who is falsely accused of sexual harassment by a sexy student whose advances he rejects. He loses his job, or maybe he quits, and he flies his Cessna up to Maine to recuperate, and he meets another sexy woman who throws herself into helping him clear his name because she believes in him. Or something. Fred claimed to have an agent waiting for a complete draft.

Anyway, this novel was Fred’s raison d’etre. That’s the phrase he used, and he said it a hundred times at every session.

I left the group after six months, and didn’t hear any more about Fred until he showed up in the paper one day–he’d been run over by a bus. My first thought was, “He’s never going to finish his novel.”

JW: What a tragic story.

PJD: In library school, they taught us that in collection development, there’s selection, and there’s de-selection, which is what you’d call weeding.

Fred was deselected by God, and what if it was because his novel was so bad that God didn’t want to see it published?

I didn’t have to worry about it, though, because I was never going to write a novel.

JW: Well, you have now. And you’ve written Sophie, an extraordinary character, leaping from the page from the moment, just after her arrival in Buffleheads, when she tells the narrator’s parents the she also had a “pi-nano,” but her mother killed it with an axe. How did you find this person?

PJD: I don’t know. All I know is that I wanted to write a story about a teenage girl who has an affair with an older man, and Sophie showed up for the casting call. I knew this was a character I wanted to work with, and as it turned out, the story was entirely different from what I expected to write, because of Sophie.

JW: Sophie dictated things, so to speak.

PJD: This is typical of her. She’s quite wilful. For one thing, she wasn’t the least bit interested in older men. That presented a problem, obviously, because she wasn’t at all attracted to the man I had in mind for her. But then I cast Janet as the narrator, and along with Janet came her family, and as the cast grew, I saw that there was one particular man to whom Sophie might be attracted for very particular reasons. It was all these particularities that dictated a novel rather than a short story, and this came as a surprise to me, since I never intended to be a novelist.

JW: A bit of a shock.

PJD: I took it pretty well. I remember the exact moment when I said to myself, “Well, I’d better get started,” and I just started writing. I had no idea what I was doing, and I think, honestly, that was an advantage, because I wasn’t encumbered by any ideas of what I was or wasn’t supposed to be doing.

JW: How long did it take you?

PJD: Two years.

JW: What was the process like, day by day?

PJD: I wrote scenes here and there—I decided early on to tell the story chronologically, for the sake of simplicity, but I didn’t write it through that way. I wrote scenes as they came to me, and developed them into different parts of the story.

I wrote pretty much every day after work, late at night on the weekends. When I wasn’t generating new material, I was revising. Once in a while, there were feverish bouts of writing constantly. You ever have those, where you’re so wrapped up in it that you forget to eat?

JW: Every now and then. Buffleheads complete, how did you come to realize that Sophie had to be the next step, and you had to go 1st person, inside her head?

PJD: Again, that was Sophie’s decision and not mine. While I was writing Buffleheads, there were several occasions when I was so glad I wasn’t writing her point of view, because I didn’t think I could sustain her voice.

When I finished, I had no idea what to do next. Since I’d had no plans to write one novel, I certainly didn’t have a backlog of ideas for other novels. Things were very quiet in my head for a couple of weeks, and then Sophie started talking. She wasn’t finished with me. I thought up a situation to put her in, just to try writing a scene in her voice, and found myself writing a second novel.

JW: How far are you?

PJD: I had put it aside for some time while I wrote a couple of short stories—I like how that sounds, like it was a strategic move, a part of my process, rather than the lapse that it actually was. When I picked it up again, I realized that my entire second act was unnecessary, and what I thought was the start of the third act was actually the second. So it turns out I’m further along than I thought, maybe half to two-thirds, although any estimate I give you could be wildly inaccurate. I’ve instructed my agent to say, “It’s well under way,” and leave it at that.

JW: Who is your agent?

PJD: Diane Freed, with FinePrint Literary Management. She’s mostly dealt with nonfiction, so this is kind of new to her. It’s all new to me, too, so we’re in it together. When you consider that a year ago I didn’t expect to get published at all, this has all happened pretty fast. Suddenly I’m a writer.

JW: I’m interested to hear you talk about “acts.” Is this a way of thinking structurally that you picked up from writing courses?

PJD: Not so much writing courses as other writers, who may have picked it up from their writing courses. I don’t normally think in terms of acts, but for some reason this story seems to be structured that way.

JW: I messed around with a band once, and one of the cleverer things we did, I think, was get out of the garage and start playing in public. What made you finally make the change, the decision to get your stuff out into the world?

PJD: It wasn’t so much a decision I made, as it was something that happened to me, but I know what you mean. There’s something about putting yourself out there under the label of “writer” or “musician” that really calls your bluff. You put yourself in a position of having to perform, and you do it, and it’s amazing what that does for your confidence as an artist.

JW: One has, if you’ll excuse a male metaphor, to put one’s member on the block. How did it play out with you?

PJD: I made one or two half-assed attempts at publication, but I wasn’t really interested enough to pursue it. Writing pitch letters just seems like homework to me. It takes a lot of time and energy, and it distracts you from your writing—I just didn’t have the patience for it.

I read something about this YouWriteOn peer review site, sponsored by the British Council for the Arts. I took a look at it and was very impressed. Writers critiquing each other, with professional writers and editors getting a look at the best work—everybody wins, right? It’s a great idea, and it’s a very well run site.

So I posted the opening chapters of Buffleheads, just to see what would happen, and at the end of the month I got the Big Professional Review. I was passed along to the big agents and editors, and someone requested the full manuscript, but in the end no one wanted it, and I probably would have left it at that had I not won one of the Book of the Year Prizes.

So I guess you could say I pursued publication, but only in the sense that it was always one step ahead of me and I was following behind. I feel like I’m always waiting to see what will happen, and it’s already happening. I won the award, I’ve been published, I’m being invited to libraries and book groups. I’ve got an agent trying to sell my work. And I’m still waiting to see what will happen next.

JW: How does the YWO publishing deal work?

PJD: It’s pretty simple. They have a contract with Lightning Source (the POD company) the purpose of which is to publish and distribute Buffleheads. My contract with YWO gives them permission to publish the book in this way. YWO keeps 20% of the royalties, and I get 80%.

JW: Such a good deal has to have a down side.

PJD: The disadvantage of POD to the author is that you get no editorial assistance—you’re responsible for your own editing, your own formatting, your own proofreading, your own artwork—and you get no promotion or publicity. Bookstores don’t like to stock POD books, not only because they would have to mark up the price to make a profit, but also because they can’t return any copies that don’t sell. So unless you can attract enough publicity to create a demand for the book, you won’t find it in bookstores.

This is where I was lucky with Buffleheads.

JW: Is luck not created by the lucky?

PDJ: I think it’s true that we create our own luck, insofar as we work hard and we’re ready when opportunities present themselves. But examine any successful author story, and you’ll find an element of pure luck. Sometimes it IS who you know, but it’s not necessarily the person you’d expect.

Because I work at the library, I happen to know another woman who works at the library. She happens to work part time, and she has a second job where she happens to work with John Robinson, who writes reviews for the Maine Sunday Telegram. She offered to pass along a copy of my book for him to review, and he wrote the review you quoted earlier, and that had an enormous impact on book sales, especially because it appeared a few weeks before Christmas.

JW: God bless libraries. And librarians.

PDJ: God bless us every one. Some writers think that libraries cut down on their sales because people are borrowing your book rather than buying it, but keep in mind that libraries actually account for a lot of book sales, not only in the books they purchase, but also in the books they inspire patrons to purchase. Some patrons will buy a book rather than wait on a waiting list, and a lot of patrons will buy copies of books they like, if not for themselves then as gifts for other readers. Not only that, but librarians are readers themselves, and they’re networked like you wouldn’t believe.

It behoves us, as writers, to be generous to libraries, and to treat librarians with the respect they so richly deserve.

JW: Given that you deal with readers in your work, what is your sense of the state of the publishing industry?

PJD: It seems to me that the publishing industry is always looking backwards at the last thing that sold. The reason you hear of so many “surprise” bestsellers is because the industry is always looking in the wrong place for what readers want.

The most consistent advice I’ve received from people in the industry is to choose a genre and write for it, because agents can’t sell your work and editors can’t buy it unless it comes prefabricated for the marketing department. You and I both know that there’s a lot of great writing out there that isn’t being published because the industry doesn’t want to take a chance on something unfamiliar.

But the readers I know don’t want to read the same book over and over. They want something original, something that’s well written, something that expands their experience.

JW: Would you recommend peer review sites to aspirant writers?

PJD: I would recommend YWO to anyone who writes fiction. You learn a lot from other people’s mistakes, and you learn new tricks from writers who are better than you. The site encompasses a wide range of writers, experienced and otherwise. I hear complaints that some people review as readers rather than as writers, but there’s value in that, too, because ultimately your goal is to put your work in the hands of the reading public, and you might as well start learning how to handle their responses.

One of the most valuable things we can learn as writers is that you can’t please everyone, and an online group has the advantage of allowing you time to absorb the criticism before you respond to it.

JW: Can we just come back for a moment to this channelling thing?

PJD: Yeah, sorry about that. It must have been disappointing to get me into the Shed and discover that I wasn’t really Sophie after all.

JW: I’m afraid I’m in two minds on that one. I’ve still got a suspicion you might be.

PJD: I often find writing to be a Zen thing, something you get lost in, something that dissolves your ego and engages you completely, but with Sophie it sometimes goes a step further. Almost like Voodoo, in that you not only empty yourself but you actually clear out to make room for someone else to take over.

JW: Verging on spooky.

PJD: Yes.

Bufflehead Sisters is a available through Amazon. You can get a taste of where DeLois is going with Sophie (or where Sophie is going with DeLois) at StoryGlossia. DeLois and Whyle are founder members of The BookShed, a peer review and networking site which welcomes damn good writers, published or not.

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