Interview with Carol Bodensteiner, Memoirist Turned Novelist
Meet Carol Bodensteiner. Pershaps you already have. Fellow writer Janet Givens refers to her as my twin!
That’s because both of us wrote memoirs about being country girls and growing up on dairy farms. But only one of us is a blonde.
1. Your first book was about growing up on an Iowa dairy farm in the 1950’s and ’60’s. I loved your well-told stories and felt like we had lived parallel lives when I read your memoir. Did people expect you to write a sequel to your first book? Why did you choose not to do that for your second book?
I felt a kindred spirit when I read your memoir BLUSH, Shirley. I’m glad our childhood experiences connected us. The stories in my memoir Growing Up Country dealt with the time in my life when my world revolved around the insulated nucleus of our family, church and country school. The stories felt complete as they stood. A sequel didn’t occur to me until I heard from so many readers that they wanted more stories about growing up on the farm. But by then I had moved on to writing my novel.
Still, my readers planted a seed that may yet come to be. Should the seed germinate and grow, it would need a title something like, She Got On The Bus, because the stories wouldn’t be confined to the farm, they’d engage the broader years and experiences of high school and college.
2. When did the idea for your novel come to you?
Go Away Home was inspired by my maternal grandparents. My grandfather died of the Spanish Flu in 1918. Throughout my life, I’ve been intrigued by my connection to this major world event. Of course I never knew my grandfather and even though my grandmother lived until I was well into my 20s, I never asked her a single question about him or their lives together. And she was not the type to share. So, this story is fiction based on a few facts. It creates a life for the man I never knew and for the grandmother I only knew as a stern old woman.
3. Was the novel easier or harder to write (than the memoir) as a first draft?
The novel was a much greater challenge. My career had been spent in business writing where I communicated facts as clearly and concisely as possible. Memoir writing was an easier step because I knew the stories, the people, and the places. The challenge was to write in a way that would show that life to readers.
With the novel, I started out with a few places and dates and family stories in mind, but I eventually learned I had to let go of even those few touchstones because they didn’t serve the plot that was developing. While I thought it would be easier to start with some facts because that was what I was used to, the reality was there was great freedom in starting with nothing.
4. How about the revision process?
This novel went through at least three significant rewrites. Because I’d never written fiction before, I was learning the craft as I went. It took these rewrites to help me finally break from the starting point facts and let the story be what it needed to be.
5. Plot construction for the beginning novelist is often a challenge. Did you find it so? How did you educate yourself on ways to keep the reader turning the page?
Plot construction was perhaps my largest challenge. The thing that helped me most was attending advanced novel workshops at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. It would have saved a lot of time if I’d taken a “plotting the novel” workshop before I even started. As it was, I retrofitted what I learned in each workshop to where my manuscript was at the moment and went from there. Now, I analyze every novel as I read with an eye toward plot construction and keeping the reader moving along.
6. You have chosen to self publish. You have rave reviews in good quantity on Amazon and Goodreads and a following on social media. What benefits have you found in self publishing?
When I decided to indie publish my memoir, a friend who’d gone that route herself said, “Well it’s not a mountain; but, it’s not a molehill either.” There’s considerable work in self publishing, but it’s not impossible to learn. I’m grateful to all the friends who’ve so willingly share publishing wisdom. I ‘m successful because of them. My background in public relations prepared me well both for managing the process of publishing and for doing the marketing. Authors who commit to writing and publishing a high quality book – and then commit to getting the word out – can enjoy the benefits of greater control over their own product and greater financial payback.
7. Like me, you’ve always been a writer but have only become an author after leaving a professional career behind. Can you comment on how your writing has changed over the course of your career and what you are still learning about the new world of books, publishing, and social media.
My writing has improved because I have more tools in my writing toolkit. As a public relations professional, I was accomplished at business and journalistic writing. Since taking up creative writing, I’ve learned the power of various prose styles, the value of a strong analogy, the importance of plot and conflict, and much more. There is always something new to learn, which is why I love writing. The changes in social media give me more to learn daily. We’re all lucky the social media world is such a helpful place.
Speaking of helpful places: here are two other posts from Kathy Pooler (with Mary Gottschalk) and Jerry Waxler (David Kalish) on the same subject of moving from memoir to novel. I think we have spotted a trend!
Carol Bodensteiner is a writer who finds inspiration in the places, people, culture and history of the Midwest. After a successful career in public relations consulting, she turned to creative writing.
She blogs about writing, her prairie, gardening, and whatever in life interests her at the moment. She published her memoir GROWING UP COUNTRY in 2008. GO AWAY HOME is her debut novel.
Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl is available in paperback and ebook formats from Amazon.
Go Away Home will be available in paperback and ebook formats from Amazon in July. Read the first chapter now.
Which would you rather read — a memoir or a novel? Of Carol’s two books, does one interest you more than the other? Why?
Your interview with Carol Bodensteiner was so helpful. Shirley. Interesting that her background mirror’s yours in so many ways. Thank you for sharing these wonderful connections on your trip across the country.
Jane, so good to see you again on this fine Monday morning. I’m writing from Amtrak on the way back to Virginia.
Having a little trouble with the Wi-Fi but hope to get better reception soon.
Thanks for your comment. Hope you find other kindred spirits here. I think you will!
Hi, Jane, My older sister’s name was Jane, and I always enjoy meeting others with her name. The connections are everywhere.
Shirley and Carol, thank you for this fascinating interview that gives us a glimpse into the writing process of a memoirist turned fiction writer–a path I find myself on as well. I’m adding Carol’s memoir to my “to read” list as well as her soon to be released novel. Oh yes, also adding Carol’s blog to my reader. A blog about writing, PRAIRIE, and gardening? Count me in!!
Best wishes on your pending book release, Carol.
Delighted to meet a kindred spirit and writer, Linda. Thanks for adding me to your TBR list and for checking out my blog. Search “prairie” and you’ll find a multitude of posts. My prairie has taught me so much.
So happy to connect two good writing friends. And to know how much you’ll enjoy each other. One of the great benefits of social media! Thanks, Linda, and enjoy.
When I’m reading a good memoir, my favorite thing to read is a memoir. And when I’m reading a good novel, my favorite thing to read is a novel!
I love this post–I, too, grew up in the midwest. I lived in town, but spent large portions of my childhood, especially the first 9 years, on my grandparents’ farm.
And, my first book was a memoir. I’ve spent 20 years writing about myself and my experiences–because that’s what my creative writing classes (in poetry and creative nonfiction) pushed, and honestly, I’m sick of talking about me. But I can’t stop writing (I simply must write to understand what I think), so now I’m writing a novel because I really need to write something that’s NOT about me. And I’m having a grand, fun time of it.
Now I”m going over to Carol’s blog to follow her. Thank you so much for the introduction!
P.S.–the link to Carol’s first chapter isn’t working…
Tracy, Your comment “I simply must write to understand what I think” describes me perfectly. I’ve found that even writing my novel gave me a chance to understand myself better.
Sorry for the link problem. Shirley is fixing it, but in the meantime, here you go: http://carolbodensteiner.com/go-away-home-a-novel/
Tracy, you make an interesting point. Sometimes we tire of our own first-person voices, and our own stories. Willa Cather once said that it was a great relief to her to think because feeling tired her out. 🙂
I know you’ll love Carol’s work, all of it!
And I want you to know that I got your note in the mail and am delivering Catherine’s to her in a few minutes on my walk. Thrilled that you have been blessed by each other.
Already a fan of Carol, it was fun to find her here and learn even more. Her books — GROWING UP COUNTRY and GO AWAY HOME are on my “to read” list and I’m looking forward to diving in, head first.
As a non-fiction writer (who is currently working on a novel), I related to her answer to your third question: “Was the novel easier or harder to write (than the memoir) as a first draft?”
Like Carol, facts and concision have always been my strong suit, but I’m learning to swim in the creative end of the pool and love it!
Hi, Laurie, It’s been a delight to get to know you through social media. “Concision” is a new word for me. It’s perfect. I’m keeping it!
I’m a wordy person so concision is a challenge in non-fiction and even in fiction. In all cases, the goal is making each word count.
Carol – When I teach “The Anatomy of Blogging” at the Writers’ Institute (UW-Madison), CONCISION and BREVITY are my mantra. I don’t actually have the students get the words tattooed on the backs of each typing hand, but I highly encourage their use 🙂
Writing shorter takes effort. As French philosopher Blaise Pascal is quoted as saying:
“I am sorry I have had to write you such a long letter, but I did not have time to write you a short one”
Carol – Oh my gosh, I love this quote. THANK YOU for sharing it!
No doubt about it. Both of you dazzle with creative concision!
You’re welcome, Laurie. I’ve always remembered Pascal’s comment because I find myself in that very position so often.
I had a dream a few nights ago that I was writing a novel. But I have to finish my memoir first. Then I land here. Thanks Shirley and Carol for a great post.
Wise woman Carol may be pointing you toward your destiny, Joan. Or perhaps you have extrasensory perception and knew that the two of us were having a conversation that was calling you too.
In either case, thanks for coming to the party. Keep writing!
If you can imagine it, you can do it. Follow those dreams, Joan! Thanks for reading.
Carol, I am just now reading your memoir Growing Up Country and savoring the sense-ational experience of the chicken house and dairy barn along with the aroma of fresh-baked mulberry pie. I am more of a tomato patch than cow girl, but I can certainly relate to rural life.
I have no doubt you have transferred your facility for descriptive detail and dialogue into your new work, which I will put on my must-read list.
Shirley, to answer your closing question, I will have to agree with Tracy’s comment above. Memoir or fiction–I’ll read either if it’s well written. Also, the Q & A format is very effective. Great post!
I didn’t know about the Spanish Flu until an episode of Downton Abbey. And now I read it’s part of your family history, Carol.
Hi, Marian, Thanks for joining the discussion and for reading Growing Up Country. My hope was that readers would experience farm life the way I did through my stories. Many readers tell me the chicken chapter resonated most with them and reading my chicken chapter brought it all back.
Yes, the Spanish Flu hit the entire world hard. I expect as the 100th anniversary approaches in 1918, we’ll hear a lot more about it.
Thanks, Marian. Carol’s novel is just as good as her memoir, and that’s saying something! I give them both 5 stars.
Thank you for this interview! I have not yet read Carol’s memoir, but I will definitely put it on my TBR list. I, too, grew up on a farm, though it was in the South. I enjoy making connections with others who had a similar upbringing.
I love memoirs and novels–if it’s well-written and engages me, it doesn’t matter. 🙂 I am mostly a nonfiction writer, too, so when I’ve tried my hand at fiction, I’ve had a problem finding my voice. I can hear it in my nonfiction, but not my fiction.
Always happy to meet another farm girl, Tina. When I wrote my memoir, I thought those things only happened to me, but readers tell me we farm kids were out there having a lot of the same experiences. I expect some of the Growing Up Country stories will resonate with you.
Fiction or nonfiction, it takes a while to find your voice. Keep at it. That’s my sage advice 😉
Tina, always good to hear from you and to know you’ve connected with Carol. I can appreciate the difficulty of finding your voice in fiction. I tried a novel once — in eighth grade. The heroine’s name was Paige. 🙂 And that’s exactly the length of the novel: one page.
Carol, I was interested in your comment that plot was challenging for you in your novel. When I wrote my memoir/biography about my mother’s life, “Dolly: Her Story” it took me 40 or 50 years to complete it. I couldn’t decide what voice to tell the story in, first person, third person or ? After many rewrites I finally I just used all of them. I’d love to know what you think. By the way my mother was a nurse in the Spanish Flu Epidemic.
I have ordered Growing Up Country and will be reading it soon.
Point of view is a big decision. Each POV has its own advantages and disadvantages. I don’t recall reading a book that was from three different POVs. I think it’s even more difficult to choose when you’re telling the story of someone you know personally. If it worked, that’s what matters.
Bless your mother for stepping up to care for others during the flu epidemic. She was brave during a frightening time.
Thanks for reading Growing Up Country, Jane. I hope you enjoy the stories.
Jane, what a challenge. Three POVs in one book!
I had a thought when Carol pointed out the upcoming centenary year of 2018. You could query editors to see if they want a story about a nurse in the epidemic. I’ll bet you’d get a lot of interest in Dolly through this particular angle.
Wonderful interview Shirley and Carol! I have read and relished all your books– your two memoirs and Carol’s novel. As you know I didn’t grow up country but rather grew into it when I married a farmer so I was hooked from the start with both Blush and Growing Up Country and then with Go Away Home. It is fascinating to hear the story behind the story of your novel, Carol. I do know you accomplished the same with both your memoir and novel–engaging, well-writtten stories that drew me to another time and place. Delightful!
I couldn’t agree more, Kathleen! Thanks for stopping by in the midst of your own very, very busy days. All best with your upcoming launch.
Thank you for reading and for your very kind words about my stories, Kathy. I join Shirley in wishing you the best with your book launch.
Shirley, I always read both yours and Carol’s blogs with great interest. I think the common thread is that you are both good writers and enjoy writing about the process of writing. It’s neat that you interviewed Carol. I think of you as “kindred spirits” (remember Anne of Green Gables?) rather than twins.
Thanks for these kind words, Elfrieda. I love the term “kindred spirits” and that reminds me to point you to another blogger I think you’ll enjoy: Daisy A. Hickman. She invites kindred spirits to her Sunny Studio. Here’s her FB page:https://www.facebook.com/sunnyroomstudio
Hi, Elfrieda, It has been a pleasure to find kindred spirits through forums such as this.
Shirley – Thank you so much for inviting me to your blog. Twins or Kindred Spirits – I’m glad we met. I’m really enjoying this discussion.
Thanks for your suggestion, Shirley. I will query editors about the upcoming 100th anniversary of the flu epidemic.
Hm. Perhaps it’s time, Shirley. Perhaps it’s time to resurrect Paige.
🙂 We’ll see if the old girl has any life left in her.