Every month, I interview an author I admire on her literary firsts.
Gina Sorell’s made a lot of bold choices in her life, switching creative careers, swapping literary agents, and shaking up her life to move across countries and continents.
Her debut novel, Mothers and Other Strangers, is equally bold. Part psychological thriller, part coming-of-age story, and part redemption narrative, the story follows Elsie, a thirty-something woman in Los Angeles who learns her estranged mother — a beautiful, self-absorbed, and secretive parent — has died. So Elsie goes on a journey to discover the true story of her mother — a story that takes her all over the world, from Los Angeles to Toronto to Paris to Cape Town. (full review here)
So I was happy to get a chance to ask Gina for tips and advice on making bold choices, writerly and otherwise!
In this interview, Gina talks about who inspired her writing, why it’s important to have a job, and what caffeine-filled snack got her through her writing days in L.A.
Siel: I really admired the ambitious scope of Mothers and Other Strangers. The novel takes us to four wildly different cities on three continents, straddles several different literary genres, and tackles heavy themes ranging from creative ambition to apartheid to mental breakdowns. All this made me curious about the books you yourself love. What novels would you say served as inspiration for your own?
Gina: First of all thank you. And thank you for having me here! That’s a great question. I think I was more inspired by the writing styles of other writers, rather than a particular work.
For example, I love how Caroline Leavitt (Cruel Beautiful World) is able to take her readers on a whirlwind ride, vividly creating the world that her complicated characters inhabit. I’m always swept away in her novels. Robert Eversz (Killing Paparazzi) expertly pushes his stories and plot forward with a ticking clock that keeps the reader turning the pages. I do love a big bold family Saga, and adored Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.
At the time I was writing, I don’t think I was really aware that my own novel was ambitious! It was just the story I needed to tell and the only way I could tell it.
From an essay in The Millions, I learned you were compelled to switched literary agents while working on this book — a bold move for an unpublished author. What tips do you have for writers for recognizing when a relationship isn’t working — and letting it go despite fear and uncertainty?
Oh that was a hard one. My first agent for this book was a terrific agent and powerful. The decision to leave wasn’t an easy one. But after a very, very long time working together, we lost momentum and then clarity. And it became clear that we wanted different things for this book. So after a couple of years I thought, well I’ve waited this long I can wait a little longer to get it right.
The advice I’d give, is to do everything you can to make the relationship work, and then at the end of the day, remember that you really do just get one shot at being a debut author, it’s actually what this former agent told me, so you have to know that it’s the book you want and the relationship you want, because it’s a career you’re building and if you’re lucky it starts with that first book. And then hopefully you and your agent can work together on your next one.
Before turning your focus to writing, you were an actor for two decades! Do you have tips for other creative types who seek to completely change careers to become writers?
Yes, always have a job! That sounds so practical I know. But writing won’t necessarily pay the bills, and stressing over how to pay them isn’t inspiring, at least not for me. So if you can keep your career and change it in a way that let’s you work on your writing until you are ready or able to write full time, then do that. Or if you need to let go of your career, so you can claim your new one as a writer, which I needed to do, then do so and find something else that makes you money and doesn’t leave you too exhausted to write.
I’m also the Creative Director of a branding firm, Eat My Words, and I love my job and my boss. But before I had this job, I did a lot of freelance copywriting for ad agencies, because it was short term work that paid well. And I made and sold my own jewelry, which was really great, because it was tactile and the rewards were immediate.
If you were to go through the entire first book process again, from acceptance to publication, is there anything you might do differently?
You ask the best questions! Yes. I’d tell myself, it is going to take 10 years. And then 7 years wouldn’t feel so long! I’d also revise more in entirety and less in chunks. Part of what happens when you have an editor an agent involved, is you work on a section, then they read it and like it, then you work on another one, and eventually it becomes hard to see the work clearly for both of you. So I’d also allow myself months per revision and save certain readers to the very end, so that they would have fresh eyes.
Elsie, the protagonist of your novel, isn’t such a huge fan of Los Angeles — complaining even about its optimism! She cracked me up — and also made me wonder what your own thoughts were about this place. What do you miss most about Los Angeles, now that you don’t live here anymore?
L.A. was hard for me to love for the first two years. I’m an East Coast girl, I walk everywhere or take transit, driving is terrible for me, and I have the worst sense of direction. Before Google Maps I was always lost, even with GPS! But then I heard this great radio show on NPR about how L.A. was a city of neighborhoods, pockets waiting for you, making you discover them, and that shifted things for me. I lived in a ton of neighborhoods in L.A.: Mount Washington, SilverLake, Korea Town/Hancock Park, Beverly LaBrea, Studio City and Magnolia Park in Burbank. Eventually I loved L.A.
And what I miss is the optimism! And the belief in oneself that we are capable of trying anything, doing anything, succeeding at anything we really believe in, work hard at, and put our minds too. I would not have my career as a Creative Director or as a Novelist, had I not lived in L.A. And it has such a great literary scene! And the food, the farmer’s markets, the friendliness of people saying hello to one another, the weather, and let’s face it, Trader Joe’s. My grocery bill is three times what it was in L.A. Trader Joe’s is the first place I go when I return to L.A., their chocolate covered espresso beans have gotten me through many long writing days at my desk!
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