Heather Newton's debut Under the Mercy Trees was recently released and after absolutely loving the novel I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to ask Heather a few questions about the novel.
Originally, I wrote the entire novel in first person. Based on feedback I got along the way I changed three of the four point-of-view characters (Martin, Liza and Bertie) to third person. I chose to leave Ivy in first person. Ivy sees ghosts. She also holds the key to the mystery of her brother Leon’s disappearance, yet the other characters in the book don’t give her any credence (they think she’s crazy) and Ivy herself says that she is never sure what’s real to other people and what’s real just to her. To make Ivy’s narrative work, I didn’t want any distance at all between Ivy and the reader. I wanted her to speak directly to the reader, with no filter and not even the slightest layer of judgment that a third person narration might impose.
Where did the inspiration for Under the Mercy Trees come from?
The idea for the plot of having brother Leon disappear was inspired by an event in my husband’s family. He had an uncle who went missing. His body wasn’t found for several years and by then it was impossible to tell what had happened to him. The lack of closure was devastating for his loved ones. I joined the family many years later, yet still at every gathering the conversation turned to speculation about what might have happened, who might have been involved. It was heartbreaking, and intriguing to me as a writer, so I decided to use a similar event as the backdrop for my novel. Against that backdrop I created my own characters and story, which deal with my favorite things to write about--regret and redemption.
Under the Mercy Trees is an extremely complex novel, how long did it take you to write?
I’m somewhat embarrassed by how long it took me to finish this novel! I first made notes on it in 1997, but got very little written the first few years because I had a baby and a solo law practice. The pace picked up after my daughter started school. I thought I had finished it in 2007 and began sending it out to agents, but wound up revising it significantly four more times before I found agent representation and HarperCollins accepted it in 2009. The lesson I learned was that novels take the time they take to write, and writers (particularly those with families and full time jobs!) shouldn’t get discouraged.
I read that this is the third novel you've written but the first to be published, how did you come to the point where you were ready for publication?
Writing is like anything else--the more you do it the better you get at it. I consider my first two novels to have been good practice. They taught me how to wrap my brain around a big story and they taught me to revise, revise, revise. Revision is what got Under The Mercy Trees into publishable shape. And no, I do not plan to pull those early novels out and try to get them published! They have a permanent spot under my bed.
What did you do when you found out your novel had been accepted for publication?
Talks between my agent and the folks at HarperCollins went on for a while so there was more than one phone call from my agent before we finalized things. The day my editor, who I hadn’t spoken to yet, left a message on my answering machine letting me know that we were “good to go” was an absolute thrill. I didn’t erase that message for months. Every time I had an aggravating day at work I would go in and listen to it and get happy all over again!
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
First, never give up. Second, along with focusing on the ultimate goal of publication, appreciate the process--enjoy the friends you make in your writing community and the pure satisfaction of creating and becoming better at your craft.
What are you working on next?
I recently finished a collection of linked short stories about faculty families at a boarding school in the north Georgia mountains in 1969-70. It’s an isolated, idyllic community but issues of race and the Vietnam War still seep in. I’m letting that cool and have now started a new novel, a women’s friendship story set in a small mountain city much like Asheville, NC, where I live.
Heather Newton’s short stories have appeared in Crucible, Encore, Wellspring, and elsewhere. She lives with her family in Asheville, North Carolina, where she is an attorney and mediator.
Thanks to Heather Newton for taking the time to visit In The Next Room, and I highly recommend picking up her incredible book. Click here to read my review of the novel. You can find out more about Heather at her website, and you can also like her on Facebook.