I’m so excited to continue my new blog series in which I’ll be interviewing some incredible lady writers. Every woman I interview is someone I know and admire, and I can’t wait for you to get to know them as well.
The second lovely lady I interviewed is Stephanie Harper. Stephanie and I went to the same graduate school, and she was also on Spry’s staff for quite some time. We were so lucky to have her keen eye and editorial skills working with our contributors. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I enjoyed the process.
Erin Ollila: I was so lucky to have you as one of my Editorial Readers at Spry Literary Journal. Does close reading other writers’ work influence your writing at all?
Stephanie Harper: Definitely. I think the influence is kind of twofold. On the one hand, I get to read many well-crafted pieces that inspire me and push me to go further with my own work. This has been a great source of energy for me. On the other hand, looking critically at the amount of submissions I go through each issue, I begin to see patterns emerge in regards to craft issues or certain writing ticks that turn me away from pieces. It makes me hyper-vigilant in my own work.
EO: Well said. I think learning from other’s mistakes is a type of job benefit. You can learn without making mistakes yourself. Let’s talk about your own writing for a moment. What mistakes of your own have you learned from along the way?
SH: That’s a great question. From a craft standpoint, I’ve found that there were a lot of small things I could edit out of my writing that totally opened it up. Dialogue tags, for example. And adverbs. You don’t always realize how all those added words can muddy the waters of your prose until you start to really consciously eliminate them. And, sometimes it’s just a matter of having something spelled out in detail… It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out the difference between an en-dash and an em-dash. In terms of professional lessons learned, I’ve discovered that you have to be really careful with freelance work, particularly in taking on projects for individuals. While most of my clients have been wonderful, there’s been a time or two where I’ve gotten significantly underpaid or even not paid at all for work I’ve done. I’ve learned that you have to have a good grasp of the assignment and the time you will potentially put in before you start in order to make sure the fee is fair. I’ve also learned for large scale projects worth a lot of money, that if an individual is willing to pay at least a portion of the sum up front, this is a good insurance policy.
EO: How did you get started in the world of freelance writing. Are there any projects that you like better than others?
SH: The first site I ever wrote for was The Examiner. This was a pay per page view model and I was writing about Entertainment topics. It was more of a pet project than anything, an opportunity to write about fun subjects and maybe make a little money on the side. When I got serious about freelance copywriting, I started applying to agencies that hired freelancers. I’ve worked with several different companies over the last few years. I’m fortunate now to have a company that I’ve establish a long term relationship with that is always willing to give me work, even if I leave and come back. The subjects are not always the most glamorous, but the work is steady and the per article rates are above industry standards. My favorite freelance gig was for a travel company, simply because I got to research a lot of really interesting places all over the world—definite fuel for the bucket list.
I’ve done freelance editing as well. Those projects tend to be more on an individual basis. I’ve found clients through craigslist and Elance. What I love doing most in this arena is manuscript reviews of book doctoring. It allows me to really get my creative juices flowing.
EO: It is so great to have a well-balanced writing background. Tell me more about your fiction writing. I’d love to know how your book is coming along.
SH: My first novel, which came out of my MFA thesis, is currently under representation with an agent. It’s been an excellent experience so far. I spent about six months revising the novel based on my agent’s suggestions and came out of it with a better book. Now, I’m in the waiting period, hoping she can find a home for it with a publisher. In the meantime, I’ve started with my next novel. It’s in early stages, so I’m still trying to wrap my head around characters and concepts. It’s exciting but also daunting. I’m hoping to take advantage of NaNoWriMo and really get cranking.
EO: How do you feel in the waiting period? Is it an anxious time? Does starting your new novel take your mind off of the waiting?
SH: It’s definitely an anxious time. In some ways, I think we’re trained to think that once we get to the pitching point, it’s only a matter of time before something happens. But that waiting period can be incredibly long and there are certainly no guarantees. It’s definitely been an excellent lesson in patience and keeping a level head. It took me a while to jump into the new novel. I’d poured myself so fully into the characters in my first novel and then put them in someone else’s hands. I needed some time to get them out of my head, to refuel before fully investing in a new project. So, I wrote a lot of poetry for a while, published some personal essays and articles, kept things small. And, I kept thinking and researching and planning the next big project, started getting to know my new set of characters a little. Now, I’m at the point where I’m ready to really jump back in with both feet.
EO: I’m always amazed at how different authors tackle research. What does research look like for you?
SH: I think the key to research, for me, is balance. I am very meticulous when it comes to details and I think it would be easy to get so swept up in learning that I forget to write. Because of this, I sort of approach research in two stages. There are certain things I like to have a grasp of in the beginning. For example, in my first novel, my protagonist is agoraphobic. I wanted to have a solid clinical understanding of what that meant before I proceeded. At the same time, I didn’t want to overdo it, because I wanted to come up with my own descriptions for his anxiety and panic. It needed to make sense for the disorder but also speak to his unique worldview. I couldn’t get too deep into others’ interpretations of the illness. That’s where the balance comes in.
I also spend a lot of time doing research while I’m writing. Maybe it’s a product of growing up in the internet age, but I rely heavily on being able to look information up in the midst of the writing process…Google at my fingertips. If I am talking about a certain geographic area, I might read tourist guides, look at photos, and even bring up a map. This kind of exactness is extremely important to me. But I try not to let it disrupt the flow of the writing process either. So, if I’ve got a good rhythm going, I’ll make a note in the manuscript that something needs looking into, and come back to it later.
EO: Let’s talk about some of your inspirations. Who do you read?
SH: My reading habits are pretty diverse. I’m very character driven, so I’m always looking for those authors who tell an important story through the complexity of the characters they create. I’m definitely drawn to quirk. I also love anything that tackles myth or magical realism… Things that are slightly off color and speculative. Because of where I’m at professionally, I also take a great interest in debut novels and women writers. Some authors I really admire right now are Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon, Peter Heller, and Aimee Bender. I also think there’s a lot to learn from the classics. I read Jane Austen and George Eliot to really understand how to write about the emotional and intellectual lives that people lead and how they connect to each other. I read a lot of poetry as well, mainly because I think the language in lyricism really inspires my prose. I love e.e. Cummings and Mary Oliver.
EO: If you could choose any writer – living or dead – to be your mentor for a year, who would you pick and why?
SH: That’s a tough one! I think I would say Margaret Atwood. There are so many things to admire about her. She decided she was going to be a writer very young and has always stuck to her goals. She’s had a lengthy, prolific career. Her prose is magic and she’s a talented poet as well. I love that she writes in a variety of genres and is always pushing boundaries, experimenting. And she’s a highly respected critic as well. Just brilliant. What couldn’t I learn in a year?
EO: Agreed. A year is such a long and such a short amount of time. Do you have any idea what you’d want to work with her on?
SH: Well… everything is probably the most honest answer. I think when you are gifted with a wise and willing mentor, even just the ability to converse or ask for small snippets of advice is immensely helpful. I think there’s also great benefit in learning about others’ experience as a writer. I feel like someone who’s done as well as Margaret Atwood would have a lot to teach me.
EO: That is a great answer. The question isn’t one that is easy to answer, and I think your response is very honest. Speaking of mentors, who did you enjoy working with the most in Fairfield University’s MFA program?
SH: I really had positive experiences with all of my mentors. Nalini Jones helped me a great deal both in my first semester and as my thesis mentor. Her guidance and friendship has been truly indispensable. Eugenia Kim was also fabulous and really helped me clean up my prose style. And, I had Rachel Basch as a second reader and she really encouraged me to dig deeper with my characters and tease more out of them.
EO: Before we finish this interview, tell me any recommendations you have for other lady writers: favorite authors, favorite books, favorite essays, favorite food. Whatever comes to your mind.
SH: I would suggest “Bird By Bird” by Anne LaMott. I also got a lot out of The Paris Review’s “Women Writers At Work.” It’s a great collection of interviews and offers so nicely varied perspectives.
EO: How can my readers find you? Please share any social media links.
SH: My website is www.stephanie-harper.com. You can also follow me on Twitter @StephanieAHar and Instagram @StephanieAH27