An Interview with Paula Treick DeBoard
May 2015

Paula Treick DeBoard is an American author who writes emotional dramas that tackle thought-provoking topics. So far, she has published the novels “The Mourning Hours” and “The Fragile World” and holds a BA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing. She lives in California with her husband and teaches composition at San Joaquin-Delta Community College in Stockton.

Did you always want to be a writer?

Yes—I’ve always loved to write. I like to observe things closely and turn ideas around and around in my head, like they’re pieces of a mental puzzle. As a child I read obsessively, and at some point I started writing down little stories of my own in spiral-bound notebooks. I never lost that desire over the years, although I didn’t devote myself seriously to writing until my mid-30s.

Your two novels to date have thought-provoking and emotionally very intense and disturbing themes. What inspired you to write about such topics?

I’m interested in writing what I call “could-be-real” fiction—the events in the stories aren’t real and didn’t actually happen to anyone I know, but they could be real, and they could have happened. I want readers to feel like the characters are actual people and become involved in their lives as they read. The families in my stories are experiencing a great deal of stress, which brings them to their breaking points. The truth is, life is unpredictable. We don’t know what’s coming for us, just around the corner. That’s the reality I try to capture in my writing.

How much research did you do for your novels, if any?

Even though it’s fiction, readers still expect the verisimilitude or authenticity of the story, down to the smallest details of setting. Those details are important to me when I read, and I’m always striving to provide readers with that same experience—which makes some research necessary. For example, The Mourning Hours was set in a fictional town in Wisconsin, but I gave the town a real location on the map. My family, the Treicks, had a farm there dating back 160 years, so I was able to draw on some of my childhood memories and some intense questioning of family members for physical cues about the land and weather. When I was writing The Fragile World, my husband and I spent a spring break taking the road trip across the United States that the characters took in the book—although we did ours in reverse to make sure I was back in time for my Monday morning class!

What is your writing routine? Please describe a typical day.

I’m both a writer and a part-time college professor, so my writing schedule shifts with each new semester. Although I’ve heard it said that compartmentalization isn’t healthy, my life is firmly divided between these two pursuits. When I’m teaching, that has my sole focus. I do my planning and grading at very specific times, and that allows me to focus the rest of my time on writing. A typical writing day for me starts with a long walk with my dogs, during which I’m thinking about my story and turning some ideas around in my head. Then I’m out the door with my laptop in my shoulder bag. I learned years ago that I simply can’t write at home—there are too many distractions, like a dish in the sink begging to be washed, or a load of laundry that needs to be transferred from the washer to the dryer. These are such minor things, but each interruption brings me further from a focused train of thought. I typically go to a coffeehouse for four hours, write furiously with my headphones on, and then, when it feels like my head is about to explode, go home and do non-writerly things for a while. Depending on what I’m working on at the time, I might do some light writing or editing later at night.

How long does it approximately take you to write a novel?

I’m not a particularly fast writer, so I’m envious of people who have a first draft in just a few months. When I’m in the first draft phrase, I write at a near fever pitch and still I find that it takes me about six months to have a completed manuscript. Then comes the revisions and the fine tuning, a process that can take another six months or so, during which I feel like I’m eating, sleeping and breathing the book. I’ve found that this isn’t a process that can be streamlined based on past experience and new knowledge—each new manuscript comes with its own new demands.

Please describe your journey to finding an agent and to the publication of your first novel.

While in an MFA program at the University of Southern Maine, I wrote the first draft of the novel that later became The Mourning Hours. At the end of 2010, I started querying agents based off a list I’d been developing for several months. A writing mentor gave me some great advice—to amass 100 rejections before trying a different tactic. It’s nerve-wracking to cold-contact agents (even by email), and not so pleasant to receive rejections, but I learned something at every step of the way. Finally, the eighteenth query I sent netted me results, and I signed with an agent named Alanna Ramirez with Trident Media Group at the beginning of 2011. When I look back on that experience, I’m proud of myself for not giving up after five rejections, or ten, or fifteen. In September 2011, my novel was sent out to various publishers, and Mira made me an offer I couldn’t refuse—for the publication of two books. Alanna Ramirez has moved on (I’m now with Melissa Flashman, another agent at Trident), but I’ll always be grateful to her for taking a chance on me.

Which aspects do you enjoy most about being an author?

Beyond the actual writing itself, it’s been such a thrill to connect with readers and writers around the world. I get the occasional notes and emails that brighten my day, and sometimes I bump into people who have read my books and just want to chat about them. Since writing itself is such a solitary activity, it’s always a bit of a shock to realize that the private world I inhabited for months on end is now shared with so many others. Really, I’ve loved every minute of it.

Which least?

I find myself needing a few more hours in each day to juggle all the aspects of my life. But for now, that’s a good problem to have.

Do you enjoy the actual writing process?

Yes, of course! Sure, there are times I want to pull my hair out, but by now I’ve learned to trust the process, and that keeps me calm when I’m writing. Each stage of the writing process has its moments of intensity. There’s the rush of a first draft, where words come out so fast they’re practically tripping over each other, then the revision, where those tricky plot elements somehow fall together, and finally the stage where I read each sentence aloud, finding the right combination of sound and syntax. At the end, I’m exhausted, like I’ve been running an ultramarathon—but I’m proud of myself, too, for making it across the finish line.

How is your actual writing process?

At the beginning, I’m working off pure instinct—an idea that I’m just toying with, to see where it might go and what might happen. I tend to write more character-driven stories, so an important part of the process is getting inside the character’s head to find out how he or she thinks and talks. I do some planning out of scenes and sketching out of the overall plot of the story, but these things will change as I write. I’m often quoting these words from E.L. Doctorow, since I feel they perfectly capture the experience of fiction writing: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Do you work out the plot and your characters’ personality in detail before you start writing your novel, or do you mostly develop them while writing?

I typically have a good idea of a character’s personality when I begin, but more aspects of that personality come into focus as I write. With Olivia, one of the narrators in The Fragile World, I came to a part in the story where she reveals an important event from her past, and suddenly this made me understand her so much better. These quirks of character inevitably influence the plot.

Do you first write verbosely and then need to shorten a lot, or do you write a lean first draft that you afterwards flesh out with more details?

I’m definitely more verbose at the start, but that’s intentional. I try not to do too much editing on the first draft, because that tends to curtail creativity and slow down the overall process for me. Another piece of advice that I share with my students comes from the writer Annie Dillard: “Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.” Inevitably, this leads to more “cutting” later on, because sometimes those words are getting in the way of the story. But then, the story might not be there without that initial burst of inspiration.

Is your head full of story ideas, or do your ideas rather come slowly one after the other?

I have more ideas than I can possibly handle. I keep a physical notebook with me most of the time to jot things down, and I have a file on my computer with little notes for future stories. I find that if I don’t write ideas down immediately, they will be gone forever.

When working on a novel, do you ever dream about the story or your protagonists?

Yes! When I was writing The Mourning Hours, I found myself dreaming about the Hammarstrom family. I would wake up exhausted, because I’d spent the entire night with them, stuck in the same two or three scenes. In so many ways, characters do begin to feel like real people. This probably sounds crazy, but when I step away from a manuscript for a while, I find myself thinking about the characters and wondering what they’re doing.

Are you usually confident when you start writing a new novel, or are you plagued by self-doubts?

I’m confident about the process of writing, from first draft to finished book, now that I’ve done it a few times. But there are always doubts that come up along the way, and I’ve learned to just ride those out as best as I can. Part of the issue comes with the solitary nature of writing—when you’re alone with your thoughts, it can be easy to second guess yourself. Sometimes it helps to step away from the work for a bit and let someone else take a look at it. I’m fortunate to have friends and family members I trust who can be objective when I can’t be. 

Do you have a favorite writing place?

I wrote most of the first draft of my third book (coming in 2016) at a little shop in Modesto, California called Frost Bakery. I only ever order a black coffee, but the smells wafting from that kitchen are delicious. I take a seat by the window, and I allow myself to be distracted occasionally by the people who wander past. They’re all potential characters in a future book, after all.

How do you celebrate a newly published book?

My family and friends have celebrated with me at launch parties for each of my books at a local restaurant, Tresetti’s World Caffé, and then I’ve done a bit of traveling and speaking and more chatting about books. It’s so wonderful to feel the love and support and interest at these events, but it’s also good to have some down time to not think about the book, too. I try to give myself a few days where I just indulge myself in reading from my to-be-read list.

What do you hope to achieve with your novels?

I’m always trying to explore different aspects of the human experience—whether the weight of guilt and suspicion, as in The Mourning Hours, or ways of coping with a close tragedy in The Fragile World, or more recently with the writing of my third book, I’m trying to see how far a parent would go to protect a child. But these are just the ideas that are starting points for writing. Long before I was ever a writer, I was a reader, and I continue to read every chance I get. So ultimately, I hope to tell a good story that satisfies the reader.

How do you deal with and feel about destructive criticism from readers?

Readers are entitled to their own opinions about what they’ve read. As a reader, I have opinions too—sometimes quite strong and not always favorable. I feel blessed to have overall positive reactions to what I’ve written, and I feel like that’s the most any writer can expect. In the beginning, when The Mourning Hours came out, I read all the reviews, good and bad. Since then I’ve weaned myself off those sites. I think there’s a tendency for writers to want to interact with readers who have left negative reviews, just to try to get in the last word, but I’ve never let myself go down that path. It might seem initially satisfying to critique a critic, but in the long run, nothing positive can come from that experience. I actually delivered a speech recently where I mentioned some of the negative reviews I’ve received, and that was both immensely satisfying and really funny—I’m still laughing about it.

What are your favorite ways to spend your non-writing time? What are your hobbies and interests?

In my spare time I read like my eyesight is going, experiment with new recipes, binge watch BBC crime dramas on Netflix, play trivia games, catch up with friends over coffee and participate in a twice-monthly film club. I also enjoy whatever time I can get with my husband Will and our pets (two dogs and a cat). When it’s possible with our schedules, we travel. We have a trip to Canada (Toronto, Montreal and Prince Edward Island) planned for this summer. At home, you’ll find us around the firepit with friends and a bottle of wine.

Which genres or types of novels do you enjoy reading most?

I read a variety of fiction—wherever I can find a good story.Some of my recent favorites have been Life Drawing by Robin Black, Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler and Life after Life by Kate Atkinson. I feel like an evangelist for Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead, too. (Put this on your TBR list!) I also enjoy narrative nonfiction—again, anything that tells me a good story.

How would you describe your personality?

I’m quiet until you get to know me, and at that point, it’s hard to get me to stop talking. I used to be ashamed of just how big a nerd I was, but now I embrace it. I never miss a TED Talk, and I collect obscure facts about little-known historical figures. Also, I think I’m getting funnier as I get older—although maybe what’s changed is my standard for what’s funny.

Do you have any plans for future novels at the moment? Are you working on anything right now?

I’m under contract for two more novels, to be published in 2016 and 2017. I’ve recently completed a first draft of my third book, and this summer will be spent revising the manuscript. For the last few years, I’ve had a nonfiction “passion project” that I’m toying with, too—so sooner or later, that will demand more of my attention.

Thank you very much for your time, and all the best for your future!

For more information, please visit Paula Treick DeBoard’s website.