Monday, August 11, 2014

Interview with Martha Woodroof, Author of Small Blessings + Giveaway! (Open US/Can)

I'd like to welcome Martha Woodroof to the blog today to celebrate the exciting release of her first novel from St. Martin's Press, Small Blessings. Stick around until the end for a fabulous giveaway that you don't want to miss!

Welcome to Books à la Mode, Martha! Let's get this interview started.

Will you please share a brief introduction with us?

I’m both a college dropout (Mount Holyoke) and a grad school dropout (the University of Virginia).

My first real job was as a teacher’s aide in a pilot Head Start program in Greensboro, North Carolina. Since the turn of the century, I’ve been attached to WMRA, the Little Public Radio Station that Can, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and actively freelanced for the NPR Culture Desk and for npr.org.

Before that, among a lot of other things, I co-owned restaurants, did a bit of acting, was fired as a magazine editor, hosted local TV talk shows and anchored the news, wrote a book called How to Stop Screwing Up: 12 Steps to a Real Life and a Pretty Good Time, cooked for an artist’s colony, was a country music disc jockey and a psychiatric occupational therapy aide, taught preschool, published a bunch of essays, was a morning drive-time personality on a tiny AM radio station, ran a college bookstore coffee shop, directed a college’s co-curricular programming, and failed to sell cars.

I love words and their power to tell other people’s stories.

My first novel, Small Blessings, is a really big deal... to me, anyway.


It's a big deal to EVERYBODY! Readers, here's a bit about the book, which hits stores tomorrow:


From debut novelist Martha Woodroof comes an inspiring tale of a small-town college professor, a remarkable new woman at the bookshop, and the ten-year old son he never knew he had.

Tom Putnam has resigned himself to a quiet and half-fulfilled life. An English professor in a sleepy college town, he spends his days browsing the Shakespeare shelves at the campus bookstore, managing the oddball faculty in his department and caring, alongside his formidable mother-in-law, for his wife Marjory, a fragile shut-in with unrelenting neuroses, a condition exacerbated by her discovery of Tom’s brief and misguided affair with a visiting poetess a decade earlier.

Then, one evening at the bookstore, Tom and Marjory meet Rose Callahan, the shop's charming new hire, and Marjory invites Rose to their home for dinner, out of the blue, her first social interaction since her breakdown. Tom wonders if it’s a sign that change is on the horizon, a feeling confirmed upon his return home, where he opens a letter from his former paramour, informing him he'd fathered a son who is heading Tom's way on a train. His mind races at the possibility of having a family after so many years of loneliness. And it becomes clear change is coming whether Tom’s ready or not.

A heartwarming story with a charmingly imperfect cast of characters to cheer for, Small Blessings's wonderfully optimistic heart that reminds us that sometimes, when it feels like life has veered irrevocably off track, the track shifts in ways we never can have imagined.
Buy the book from: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | The Book Depository | Books-A-Million | iTunes | Kobo | Google Play | Publisher

Describe the Small Blessings in six words.

A nice man gets a life!

What was the inspiration for the book?

I’m a long-term sober alcoholic/addict (hallelujah!). Sobriety has taught me that there’s always another chance. Or conversely, as the Doobie Brothers once put it: “You always have a chance to give up. So why do it now?” I wanted to write a story in which basically nice, well-meaning people have allowed themselves to settle into unfulfilling ruts. Then—either by running into each other for the first time, or interacting in new ways with someone they’ve known for a while—they develop enough courage to take risks. And, for me, acknowledging happiness requires a huge leap of faith.

As a huge fan of first lines, I’d love to hear the first line of Small Blessings. Could you give us a brief commentary on it?
There she was, as welcome in this insular community as fresh air in a multiplex, a woman who, rumor had it, risked being happy.
That line just came to me. I saw Tom catching sight of Rose across the crowded bookstore and having an aha moment. Yes! There she is!

If I stop an analyze it, I guess I’d like to think I’m doing an Elmore Leonard knock-off. The late Mr. Leonard, in my opinion, wrote some of the best opening lines ever. They establish character and setting, while at the same time beginning to tell a story that’s already in motion.

So, what do you think about that first time? Have I managed to pull off an E.L.?


Tell us about your road to publication, such as how you first queried, unexpected challenges, and things you picked up along the way.

First of all, I did quite a lot of reporting on books and publishing for NPR, so I had contacts in the industry. Second of all, I’m too old to dilly-dally around and play strictly by the rules. Thirdly, as I’ve had a lot of fun over the years, when I made my bucket list it was one item long: Publish a novel.

I am not professionally (as opposed to personally) shy in the least, and so I forthwith sent the first ten pages of my manuscript to the editor of a novel that reminded me a bit of Small Blessings—insofar as it told the story of nice people who bumble around for a while and then eventually get things right.

The editor liked it, but said it wasn’t for her. As my then-agent didn’t much like my fiction, this same generous-hearted editor sent me list of agents whom she thought would like it.

The fabulous Kate Garrick of DeFiore & Company did like it... and one auction later, Small Blessings found a home with the equally fabulous Hilary Teeman at St. Martin’s Press.


It's refreshing to hear about how you managed to to sell your book even with a few bumps along the road! Are the characters from your books based off anyone you know in real life? How much else of your actual life gets written into your stories?

My characters are not deliberately based on anyone I know, but I am in awe of the power of the subconscious.

As for my own life informing my fiction, I’ve been a busy person who has lead an interesting life. So an alarming number of my fictional incidents are drawn from that life.


Which character from Small Blessings was most difficult to write?

Rose, I think. I don't know why.


What do you consider your biggest strengths and weaknesses as an author?

Golly, is it okay to let you answer this one?


Safe answer! ;) Name the top five authors that have made the biggest impact on your life or on your writing.

Off the top of my head, I’d say Jane Austen, Elmore Leonard, Ann Tyler, Maeve Binchy, and Ian Rankin. They all tell such cracking good stories.


What’s the greatest thing you ever learned?

Not to take myself too bloody seriously.


How do you react to a negative or harsh review to your books?

I did a lot of theater in a past life, and the rule there was if you took the good reviews of you as an actor seriously, you also had to take the bad seriously. I think the same applies to writing.

I’m also fully aware that my writing will not be to everyone’s taste.

That said, I love working at writing, getting better at the craft of it. So, if someone doesn't like my work, I read their thoughts calmly to see if there’s anything useful there. If not, I shrug them off and go to the gym.


That's probably the most helpful, most genuine response I've heard to that question! Blog babes, click "Read more" to find out Martha's random favorites, her best personal and professional advice, and what she considers necessary to remain sane as a writer. We're also hosting a giveaway for finished copies, so you don't want to miss that either!

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Some randomness...

Favorite kind of chocolate? Dark, milk, white, coffee-flavored, the kind with nuts or berries inside?? Am I allowed to love them all?

What kind of kid were you in high school?  A change-the-worlder...

All-time favorite quote? “Just do it!”

Favorite quote from the book? I do love that first sentence. And the last one, as well. They both felt right in my gut, if you know what I mean.

Most romantic thing a guy has ever done to you? For our twentieth anniversary, my husband gave me a heart he’d carved out of a piece of Pure Oil tile. He'd found the tile at the demolished Oak Hill, West Virginia, gas station where Hank Williams was found dead in the back of his Cadillac. I wrote a NY Times “Lives” essay about ending up in Oak Hill on one of our road rambles and poking around until we found the vacant lot where the gas station once stood.
Hank Williams died a drunk; I am a recovering drunk. I keep Charlie’s carved heart close to remind me that it matters to him that I keep on recovering. Which I think is as romantic as it gets in real life.

How do you get over heartbreak?  What's that?

Currently reading? The Son by Philipp Meyer. Yum!.

Currently wearing? T-shirt, nylon outdoor pants, canvas slip-ons.

Most visited websites? NPR, ESPN, Washington Post.

Favorite vegetable? (Yes, you have to pick one!) Fresh spinach.

Biggest celebrity crush? Little Ricky Nelson when I was about twelve. He moved his jaw from side to side when he was singing in the absolute dreamiest way ever!

Dreamboat! Guiltiest pleasure? I just say no to guilt.

Good protocol. What did you want to grow up to be when you were little? The first woman major league baseball player.

Go-to comfort food? Does coffee count?

Charity or cause of choice? Support groups for those coping with addiction and mental illness.

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Out of all the fantastic books out there, what makes Small Blessings stand out from the rest?

Other than it's the only one I've written, I'll leave it to you.

Give aspiring writers a piece of advice you wish you had known before getting published.

Be disciplined about social media. Turn off your computer dinger when you’re writing!

Now give us your best personal advice—something you wish you had known when you were younger and would offer to your own kids.

Make mistakes—as long as they don’t harm your health or land you in the slammer! All making a mistake really means is that you’re stretching yourself.

What are you involved in when you aren’t writing?

Making public radio and gardening.

What’s a question you’ve always wanted to be asked in an interview?

I’ve been the interviewer much more than the interviewee. So all questions are still new and exciting!

In that case, all the more meaning to have you over today! What would you say are the most important attributes to remaining sane as a writer?

A sense of humor and an unexaggerated estimation of your own importance.

Are there any occupational hazards to being a writer?

Tense shoulders.

What is the message in Small Blessings that you want readers to grasp?

Life can be messy and enjoyable and hard and sad and joyous and scary all at the same time. Our only chance is to figure out what we want out of the experience and go after it!

What are your goals as a writer?

To get better and better at telling stories.


What dreams have been realized as a result of your writing?

I got a novel published by a major house.


And what a huge achievement and dream that is! What’s next for you?

Shall we stay tuned together?


It would be a pleasure, Martha! Where can you be found on the web?


Before we conclude this interview, is there anything you'd like to ask our readers?

I’d love to ask what you as a reader want to get out of reading fiction.

It was an absolute joy to be able to get to know you better today, Martha! Thank you again for dropping by, and best of luck with future endeavors!

Giveaway!

Books à la Mode is giving away two print copies of Small Blessings—that's two winners total! Woohoo! To enter, all you have to do is answer Martha's question:
What do you want to get out of reading fiction?
Please make your comment MEANINGFUL. Comments solely consisting of stock responses or irrelevant fluff like "Thanks for the giveaway!" will not be considered for entry. Martha and I really want to hear your thoughts! :)

Don't forget the entry eligibility terms and conditions!
Sponsored wholly by the publisher—a huge thank you to St. Martin's Press!
Giveaway ends August 25th at 11.59 PM (your time).
Open to US and Canadian residents only. Sorry, everyone else! Please check my sidebar on the right for a list of currently running giveaways that are open worldwide—there are plenty to choose from!
Void where prohibited.
Winners have 48 hours to claim their prize once they are chosen, or else their winnings will be forfeited.
Although I do randomly select winners, I am in no way responsible for prizes, nor for shipping and handling.
As a reminder, you do not have to follow my blog to enter, though it is always very much appreciated ❤
Good luck!