I had the opportunity to sit and talk face-to-face with author Terez Mertes Rose the other day (okay so it was a mirror), about her recently released novel, Ballet Orphans, a prequel and Book 3 of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles series. Here’s what she had to say….
What was the most challenging thing about writing Ballet Orphans?
Making it not sound like the other two books in the series, and yet, not too different. They are all three set in the professional ballet world, which is quite specific. It’s hard to come up with new ways of saying much of the same thing.
Tell me about April, your main character. What is she like and what is her personality?
April is a great character; I like her a lot. She’s got a good head on her shoulders and isn’t as flamboyant as some of my other narrators. She actually showed up in the first two books of the series, years back, so I couldn’t make up something out-of-character when it came her turn to narrate. She loses both parents by the time she turns 26, and left home at age 15 to train for a dance career, so she keenly feels the loss of family, which, in turn, makes her reflective, compassionate, in search of personal closeness. And a damned good dancer.
Are there specific books or authors that have inspired your work?
Long answer: I own a few hundred books adorning multiple bookshelves in my house, some in my possession since my teens, some published in the past month. Each one has informed and enhanced my writing, either the author’s voice or their storytelling skills, or both. It would be really hard to choose which one had the most influence.
Short answer: Adrienne Sharp’s gorgeous ballet fiction. Stephen Manes’ When Snowflakes Dance and Swear. Anything by Curtis Sittenfeld.
How do you balance writing your story your way and giving readers what they want?
The first draft is mine alone. The second draft, I make sure the story conforms with what readers expect from a novel in that genre, and from a novel in general. The third draft, I remove beloved scenes that mean more to me than to the hypothetical reader, and might be prohibiting the flow or the story trajectory. The fine-tuning draft, after I’ve had some time away from the story to let it marinate and become its own entity, I might actually add back a thing or two that I love, but at this point, I’m confident the end product will be satisfactory to the reader.
Describe your writing routine. Do you outline? Edit as you go?
I get up at 4:30am and start writing as soon as possible. Mornings are my best time. I try not to focus too much on outline in the beginning of the process because that kills the muse. But as soon as things gel, I do develop a chapter-by-chapter outline, just a sentence or two for each chapter. This gives me both structure and freedom. I edit some as I go, but I try not to “put on the editor’s cap” like I do in the final draft. It kills the muse, for me, to get too nitty-gritty editorial too early.
Which do you prefer, physical books or the convenience of electronic (or audiobooks)?
Physical. I love books. Absolutely love the feeling of them, the soothing nature of them. You can’t beat the convenience of e-books, but I’m far more inclined to stop reading once I get bored. Audiobooks, no way. I get bored listening to people drone on. I love silence. I’d much, much rather read in silence.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
Read, read, read. Attend to my household’s and family’s needs. And I’m an exercise junkie, and I love walking out in nature, so that’s a chunk of my day too. It pairs nicely with the isolationist stress and sedentary nature of writing. It also gives me time to daydream. (A fiction writer’s best friend!)
How much did real world people influence your characters and do you feel a debt to them?
To answer that question, here’s an excerpt from my Acknowledgements section: “To the beautiful dancers of the San Francisco Ballet, Smuin Contemporary Ballet and Diablo Ballet, whose performances it has been a privilege to watch and write about, over the past eight years, as a reviewer. While my own characters are wholly fictionalized and none specifically resemble those I watch onstage, I get so much inspiration from watching these supremely talented and devoted professionals.”
Do you have an interesting behind-the-scenes photo to share from your own dance days?
I do! Tutu train!
Does your family support your writing career? Were any of them instrumental in the creation process?
Yes, they are wonderfully supportive. Ballet Orphans has a Silicon Valley angle, and while I know the world of ballet, I needed my tech-geek husband’s help on what Silicon Valley was like in the early 90s, and what running a startup was like. He was great at catching all my little mistakes in early drafts, too.
Do you get writer’s block, and, if so, what do you do about it?
I give myself permission to write really bad stuff. We’re talking really bad. But keeping the fingers moving is crucial to me. Occasionally my writing block (which has a lot to do with my mood, my spirits) is so debilitating, even that feels like a challenge. On those occasional days, maybe once a month, I give myself a break, find a book I love escaping into, and make it a “return to the bed and just read” day. Or I journal. I’m a nonfiction writer and blogger as well as a novelist, so, in general, there are plenty of different directions I can steer myself.
What advice would you give an aspiring writer who doesn’t know where to start?
Just write. Stop talking about doing it, and just do it. Journaling. Plucking a subject out of the air and goofing around. Telling a story. A poem. Do it daily. Keep your goals small. Start with 20 minutes a day, every day. Use a timer. The fun thing about becoming a writer is that, provided you write daily, you’re a writer. Every time you write, you’re a writer. If it bores you to write daily, well, reconsider whether you want to be a writer. Writing sounds glamorous from a distance. It’s actually more like shoveling dirt. The pay for your effort, financially, is peanuts. A writer writes because they can’t not write. It’s equal parts a blessing and a curse.
How does your main character change throughout the story?
She becomes less self-centered about her determination to make it to the top as a ballet professional. Still grieving the death of her parents and feeling alone in the world, she opens herself to new possibilities, new friendships, which play an enormous part in how she changes through the story. She grows wiser, tougher in some ways, and softer in others.
If you weren’t an author, where do you think you’d be? What would you be doing?
I am so enamored with the ballet world, through my writing, and it’s a love that hasn’t died. So, if I were much younger, I’d go nose around and see if I could involve myself in dance administration, or its equivalent in the world of classical music. I love being in those worlds, in any capacity. Then again, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer back in the late 1980s and the need to serve in a socially relevant fashion is still there, too. My career could gone the way of the social services. The nice thing about being a writer is that pondering the path not taken is great fodder for writing fiction.
What is the most satisfying thing about being an author?
I love that I can believe wholeheartedly in the product I’m creating. I like working alone, and I like working on deep, involved projects. When I’m in the middle of creating a novel, I’m so content, and the rest of the world just falls away. I’ve never felt that kind of contentment in any other job. At the same time, it challenges me, a lot, in ways I’ve never found in other jobs.
How do you think your book can help people? What do you hope people will take away/learn from your book?
They get to learn about the “behind the curtains” world of ballet. It eternally fascinates me, and I’m always on the lookout for books that do this. There are so few. Readers frequently comment how much they enjoyed this glimpse of something they knew nothing about. The novel I wrote prior, A Dancer’s Guide to Africa, is one I wish everyone would read. It’s set in provincial Africa, the “real” Africa and not the one in the movies, loosely mirroring my two-year experiences as a teacher there, and it educates readers, in a fun, engrossing way, on what it’s like to live in a dramatically different culture.
What made you choose the time/place in which your book was set?
I knew which year it had to be—1989 and 1990—because the chronology of the series was already set, from the other books. Likewise, the story is set in San Francisco, the same as the others, out of necessity.
With this novel completed, are you writing anything new?
I am working on a Book 4 of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles (Ballet Orphans is a series prequel and Book 3). I’ve gotten the basic story down and have written for months without judgment, so now it’s a big bloated mess with a lot of sloppy writing. This is where the real work begins for me. I couldn’t be happier. I prefer crafting and rewriting over the tricky creation of something out of nothing.
Where can readers find your books? They can go HERE and HERE and through their public library (ask them to order it!) and independent bookstores (ditto on asking them!). It’s is internationally distributed through IngramSpark.