Margaret Ann Philbrick is a writer I know from Redbud Writers Guild, and she has just recently released her first novel, A Minor. On the blog today, I’m asking her more about her book and her process as a fiction writer.
My children all play the piano, and our oldest son’s teacher requested that a parent sit in on the lessons and take notes. We would then review with him during the following week. As he moved on to college, I was left with a notebook full of wisdom that needed to be shared, but I didn’t have the framework for an idea. While I was having lunch in South Haven, Michigan, I started talking to my husband about what it would be like for a concert pianist to lose his or her memory. That question took me on a one year research journey to find the answer.
2. How did you go about your research?
I started with Oliver Sacks because he is one of the most well-known neurologists in the field. I read his books and watched YouTube videos of him talking about his patients. His work led me to many other experts and their writings. Once I completed that investigation, I embarked on several more months of research into the life of a concert pianist. Howard Reich’s biography of Van Cliburn was one of the most helpful. Also, I interviewed many people who had been touched by dementia and Alzheimer’s. Once I assessed all the research, I knew there was a story to mine out of that mountain.
3. Are you a musician yourself?
While in high school, I was a serious flute student and was accepted into a college conservatory, but my parents were moving toward a divorce at the time and I wanted to get as far away from their situation as possible. Instead, I became an English Literature major in Texas, which is why I have wrinkles today. I spent a lot of time lying out in the sun and reading novels.
4. Can you name a few of your favorites?
I tend to think about this question as a list of the books I wish I would have written. The first ones that come to mind are: Jane Eyre, Georg Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, all books by Milan Kundera and Gabriel García Márquez, and recently my neighbors’ books—The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin and Sing For Me by Karen Halvorsen Schreck. I also adored Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. For teaching, I read a lot of classic YA novels. My favorite this year was Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Black Arrow.
5. Talk about your creative process. How did you write the book?
I’m a pretty insecure writer having been a Lit major and constantly reading books that I feel are beyond my own creative abilities. I actually think this is a good thing because I relied on the discipline of prayer before I sat down to write each day, knowing I couldn’t do this project alone. I’d spend time asking the Lord for creativity, original thought, wisdom, memory, whatever I needed to write the next ten pages. I’m disciplined when I get into a project, so I would write every day and then revise the next day what I wrote the day before and then move on. I always set goals for myself—another ten pages, finish the chapter. As I’d move along, another piece of research would be required, and I’d go off on a tangent for a day or so and then come back to the writing.
6. Did you use the notebook from your son’s piano lessons?
Oh, definitely. In many ways the voice of the main character is the voice of my son’s teacher. There are aspects of her in the work that I’m sure she’ll recognize when she reads it, like her clogs. She always wears these precarious, high-heeled wooden clogs. I’ve never known anyone to wear shoes like this in the summer with bare feet. She’s a fascinating conundrum.
7. Your book has some unique features, like a Discussion Guide in the back and recorded music in the ereader that anyone can hear while they are reading and live links to other resources. How did all that happen?
Well, I love Koehler Books because they are open to thinking outside the box of what a book can be. When I created A Minor, I thought about the music first. If you were only listening to the story, what would it sound like? Then I outlined all the musical works, and I’d listen to them while writing. It was important that the music told the story as well if not better than the words. Eventually, the idea came to me that I wanted the reader to have the same experience. Koehler Books was open to partnering with me in creating that experience. My husband, who is a lawyer, was an enormous help as well. The Discussion Guide is for the classroom or book clubs. As a teacher, it comes naturally for me to ask questions so people can learn more. The live links send the reader to the places where they can get help with memory issues in their own family or even for themselves.
8. One of your questions in the Discussion Guide addresses the importance of the protagonist maintaining the innocence of her protégé even though she could have taken advantage of him. Why did you decide to go that way and do you think American culture has lost its innocence?
Clare knows that the purity of Clive’s imagination is tantamount to his artistic interpretation of the works; it is a competitive advantage he has and a winsome one. She chose to not compromise that advantage. Yes, the loss of innocence in American culture is negatively affecting the power of our imagination and ultimately our innovation, which has always been an edge for us. When everything is openly revealed it hinders our ability to create, to make pictures for ourselves and interpret through the lens of what we know and experience. Dean Koontz has just written a novel that addresses this beautifully. It’s called Innocence. Making the choice to maintain one’s innocence and even more altruistically, the innocence of another, is expanding the pure heart of the child in all of us, and that is a great gift.
9. What were some of the disappointments along the way to getting published?
Oh, all the “noes” that had been so close to being “yeses”—I never cared about the folks who were too busy to respond, but the ones where I had provided the entire manuscript and even changed things upon their request all to be told “no” months down the road. Those were tough, but I always believed in the story and knew there was a home out there waiting to bring it to life. I remember sitting on the edge of Lake Michigan, crying and praying that God would give my story a home. A few weeks later, He did.
10. Is it hard to raise a family and write a novel?
I can say my writing drives my kids crazy. My youngest son calls me the “bat.” Sometimes he comes home from a piano lesson, and I’ll be at my desk in the dark, writing by the light of the screen, too engaged to turn on any lights in the house. I try to write when they’re not at home, during the school day. It’s definitely not good for them if they feel like my “callings” are taking the place of them. Sometimes I’ve had to drop everything or step away from a project entirely, but raising children is a very short season and hopefully, I can write for the rest of my life.
11. What would your advice be to someone hoping to write their first novel or write anything for that matter?
Know your purpose, why you are writing what you are writing, and stay tethered to that vision. Write for the joy of creating and do not allow yourself to think about publishing, which is such a distraction, until you’re done. Then let your work simmer for a while. Take long walks and think about it. Do you still love it? If you do, pray and turn it over to God. Ask Him to reveal the next step and then trust him to do so. In the Redbud Writers Guild, we embrace the truth of Psalm 37:5:
“Commit your way to the Lord, trust in him and he will do this.”
Go at it with God. Writing is too lonely to do alone.
About Margaret Philbrick
Margaret Ann Philbrick has been gardening since her mother gave her a pansy garden to plant and tend when she was five. She grew up in a small Illinois town with a busy street out front and a big river out back. Ranunculus is her favorite flower and T.S. Eliot or Gerard Manley Hopkins are her favorite poets. After several years working in advertising, selling Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts, she stayed home with her children and helped them plant their own gardens. Now they have grown, so she cultivates a garden of words with her fifty writing students and her own words at the old “Lincoln desk” in her living room. A long time ago it belonged to Lorenzo Lincoln, not Abe Lincoln. The laundry, if it gets done, doesn’t get folded.
With gratitude she thanks her parents and husband, Charlie, for providing for her education at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, Cambridge University, England and National Louis University in Chicago. Margaret and Charlie fell in love in Harry Caldwell’s Theories of Rhetorical Analysis class and despite being married twenty-four years; they still try to read a poem to each other every night before the light goes out. She is exhilarated by the beginning of things, planting seeds in windowsill trays, researching a new novel or heading out on a fall trail run. Like George Bernard Shaw, she hopes to be “thoroughly used up when I die.” Her unfulfilled dream is to teach writing and literature in a school or orphanage in Africa, then come home and write about it.
She serves on boards and has won awards, but all that is pretty boring to talk about. Most important is the living reality that Margaret is surrendered to the cross of Jesus Christ. Her favorite part of the day… morning prayer while walking or running her dog, Snuggles.