Rebecca Marshall-Courtois is a former New Yorker who has been living in France for fourteen years. Her fiction has been published in various print and online publications, including most recently, Thought Magazine, Saucy Vox, Literary Potpourri, Freefall, The Listening Eye and Smokelong Quarterly.
Learn all about Rebecca:
Q. Hi, Rebecca. We're thrilled you could spend some time sharing your insights into your writing success. Could you start by telling us a little about yourself?
I've had two lives and wear several different hats today. My first life was spent as a confused marketing major (on the ten-year program, bouncing from one school to the next) and bartender (bouncing from one job to the next) in the state of New York and thereabouts, and my second life started when I moved to France fourteen years ago. My different hats include writer, teacher, student, mother and wife. After falling in love with my boss (the banquet manager at my last bartending job), I followed him back to his hometown, a residential area called Buxerolles, in the southwest of France. Today, I'm teaching English at a university medical school and completing a doctorate in literature, based on the role of jazz music, literary and Biblical intertextuality in Toni Morrison's novels. My most important role is mother, and I have three wonderful daughters who are my greatest source of energy. You can also visit my web site for more information: http://www.geocities.com/rebeccamarshallcourtois/bio.html
Q. How long have you been writing? What made you put that first story down on paper?
I started writing seriously as a teenager. Writing served as therapy as well as a means of escaping the world and creating a (sometimes) better place for myself.
Q. Do you write in a particular genre? If so, what genre is it?
My writing is usually described (by others as well as by myself) as literary. The definition of that term is one that regularly stirs debates. In my opinion, literary fiction places as much importance on the how (the writing) as it does on the what (the story).
Q. Have you been published? What was the first story? Where was it published? How long did it take? What was the process?
I started seeking publication for my work a little over two years ago. It took about six months for an acceptance. "Three Saturday Nights," a love story, was picked up by Love Words, a site that has sadly ceased to exist since. The editor there accepted it within 24 hours via email. Since, I've had about twenty stories published both online and in print. Sometimes it takes a few hours to receive an acceptance, but often it takes several months.
Q. Who’s your favorite author and why?
John Irving used to be my favorite author because I read him in high school and college, and he was the one author who gave me the inkling to write. Since then, I've become a much more avid reader (averaging two novels a week) and I've discovered so many incredible authors that I can no longer honestly place any one of them on a pedestal. My tastes vary enormously and I like discovering new voices. Among those writers who have left their mark on me are Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Paulo Coelho, Victor Hugo, Jeffrey Eugenides, Joanne Harris, Alice Sebold and Susan Vreeland.
Q. How did you deal with rejection letters, if you received any?
I have a fat file full of them and lately I've been adding to it at least once a week. Some anger me, some frustrate me, some I manage to just ignore. This said, I've received a great deal of encouragement from some top markets, and when I start feeling down about the slow progression of my writing career, I sometimes pull those letters out and read through the comments some of these editors have made about my work. It sounds odd to say that flipping through old rejection letters can give me a boost, but this has happened.
Q. What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing?
There's a feeling I get sometimes while reading a novel or story. I feel like the writer has reached out and touched me, physically, because the words on the page blur and I'm right there, in the story, I know exactly what that writer felt while evoking a particular mood or scene. Or, at least, I think I know, because great writing allows space for the reader to take over and finish the story for the author. You cannot tell the reader everything, you have to let her/him figure some things out alone and fill in the details. The chosen detail is like a prompt, and if the writer finds just the right one, the reader can create a full image around it.
Q. How do you develop your plots and characters? Do you use any set formula?
Often my stories come from words. My favorite writing prompt is choosing a word or a few different words and creating a story around the word(s). It's not a formula, just a fun way to work. I open the dictionary at random and come what may. Other times, an idea for a story comes along on its own. "The Peach" came to me while I walked past a bowl of summer fruit in the kitchen. For me, the sense of smell is the most evocative of all. My characters develop themselves as I write. They're mostly hodgepodges of people I've come into contact with in life, but they are never carbon copies of any one person--I take a little bit of one and add elements of others until my character's physical appearance suits its personality and its role in the story.
Q. What do you do to unwind and relax?
Since I spend a lot of time sitting behind a desk or reading in bed, I have to move to unwind. I do a lot of running and average 7 kilometers three times a week. I also go to a gymnastics class one evening a week and try to play tennis or go swimming as often as possible. Often, I just take long walks and enjoy this beautiful country. I love being outdoors.
Q. What does your family feel about your writing? Are they supportive?
My parents are very supportive and send my stories around the web to everyone they know. I love them for that. My husband is very tolerant and allows me both the time and money I need to keep it up. This is a lot harder than you might think considering that all these mailings cost us a fortune to send overseas. My ten-year-old daughter, Jessica, is already a writer (and a gifted one if I can be impartial). She's the one who has shown the most interest in my work although she cannot read anything I write due to the language barrier and her age. I'm sure that will change in time.
Q. What inspires you? Who inspires you?
Everything and everyone inspires me. Moving overseas was like being born again. It woke me up to the world around me, and I look at everything and everyone from a different perspective now. Most of all, I just love life and pay attention to everything I come into contact with.
Q. Are you working on any projects right now?
I'm completing what I hope will be the final draft of my first novel, "Glass Diamonds." In fact, I've written four novels, but "Glass Diamonds" haunts me on a regular basis. I've been working on it, on and off, for around three years and the story has changed a great deal over that time. I hope to start seeking an agent by the end of this summer.
Q. How do you handle Writer’s Block?
I've learned to just take things as they come. When I suffer from writer's block, I usually work on marketing my work or revising a story or novel. Sometimes, I just shut the computer off and do all the things I don't take the time to do when I'm writing. Of course, I run, but I also sketch, work on the house, read, sew or just spend more time with my girls and husband. The urge to write always comes back to me sooner or later.
Q. What is most frustrating about writing? Most rewarding?
The frustating thing about writing is waiting for responses from editors, or receiving a rejection letter from one of the top ten literary journals in the US that says you've made the final cut. Those "almosts" get to me every time. What I find most rewarding is perhaps the process itself, crafting a story and finishing it. The sense of euphoria I get when finishing a major project is immense, a little like the rush a runner gets after the first five kilometers.
Q. Do you have any kind of writing schedule?
I generally write during the day when I'm alone at home. The time I spend writing depends on my work schedule and my mood. I don't force myself to write so many words a day anymore although I used to.
Q. What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given as a writer? What’s the worst?
My favorite piece of advice is a quotation I picked up by Frank Yerby. It is hanging from my wall next to my computer screen and reads, "It is my contention that a really great novel is made with a knife and not a pen. A novelist must have the intestinal fortitude to cut out even the most brilliant passage so long as it doesn't advance the story." The worst piece of advice would have to be about seeking publication from journals. I read a recommendation about using a particular editor's name on a cover letter as well as on the envelope. I've since learned that this does nothing but slow the whole process down. If a magazine's guidelines ask you to address the fiction editor, they mean "fiction editor," not Dee Dee Schwartz, or whomever. Before a story lands on Ms. Schwartz's desk, it gets read by lots of folks whose names might not even appear in a masthead. If it gets to Ms. Schwartz's desk at all, it's because it shows merit and whether or not you used her name on your cover letter will not be of much importance so long as Dee Dee likes the story.
Q. If I were sitting down to write my very first story, what would your advice be?
Just write it from start to finish. You don't even have to use complete sentences. Then start tinkering. Use the senses, all of them. When you've got it where you want it, forget about it for at least another month. Go back to it again and fix it up as best you can, and then, if you think you like it, have others read it and critique it. Don't ask your mother to read it, but do ask strangers. There are lots of good critique groups out there, and if, like me, you live too far away from "live" ones, you can join a critique group on the internet. I've been a member of the IWW for over a year. The help I've received from the members there has been tremendous.
Q. What advice would you give to writers just starting out?
Only one word: perseverance.