I’m pleased to introduce the writing team of Sue Boggio and Mare Pearl. Friends since childhood, Sue and Mare have been collaborating for 50 years.
(Kathleen): Please list your book awards and nominations.
(Sue): A Growing Season won the 2013 Tony Hillerman Award for Best Fiction by New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards. (We tied for first place with Lesley Kempes for Bone Horses.)
A Growing Season was a 2013 Finalist in the New Mexico Press Women’s Zia Award for Fiction and a 2013 Finalist in Women Writing the West’s Willa Award for Contemporary Fiction
KMR: How long have you been friends and when did you start writing as a team? Tell us briefly about your background growing up in Iowa and how you both ended up in New Mexico.
SB: Our friendship began fifty years ago when I moved into Mare’s neighborhood in West Des Moines, Iowa. We were creatively energized by the Beatles invasion and decided at age ten that if Lennon/McCartney could collaborate, so could we. The whole idea of two people creating something together was transformational. We began writing stories and passed them to each other in intricately folded notes. By adolescence we wrote poetry and co-wrote some short stories for our creative writing class in high school. Our teacher, the wonderful Mary Swenson, nurtured our writing collaboration.
Life intervened and after high school, we began to drift apart. I pursued a career in nursing while Mare moved to NYC to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy.
December 8, 1980, the night John Lennon was murdered, Mare called me and we talked all night, reunited in tragedy. Mare was in Pennsylvania and I had moved to Albuquerque in 1979 and was working as an RN at UNM. We began writing long letters back and forth, sending stories one of us would begin and the other would add on to and mail it back until it was too big for an envelope, no email or internet back then!
Mare made several trips a year to New Mexico to visit and fell in love with the Land of Enchantment. By 1989 she moved here and we began to get serious about our writing in the early 1990s, joining Southwest Writers Workshop, and learning as much about the publishing industry and fiction writing craft as we could.
KMR: What did it feel like to have Tony Hillerman’s endorsement on the cover of your debut novel “Sunlight and Shadow” when it was first released by New American Library (Penguin Group) in 2004? Tony Hillerman wrote, “Filled with emotion. A real winner of a story.”
SB: We got to know Tony Hillerman through Southwest Writers. He got a kick out of our collaboration and always asked us, “What are you two girls working on now?” In 2001, we won second place in the SWW novel contest with Sol y Sombra, Sunlight and Shadow. And after we told him it had the mystery element of a missing person, he offered to read it for a blurb. Even before we found an agent, we had a blurb from Tony Hillerman. He said, “I never could figure out what happened to that guy until you revealed it at the end!” His endorsement helped us get our agent and I know it impressed New York editors as well and helped us get published. So winning the Tony Hillerman award for Best Fiction this year is especially meaningful.
KMR: Can you describe your journey in getting “Sunlight and Shadow” published by a major house? Did you have an agent? How long did the entire process take?
SB: We spent some years writing and trying to sell a first novel and like many first novels, its purpose was for us to learn our craft. When we accepted it belonged locked away in a drawer, we began our second novel. “Sunlight and Shadow” was conceived as our love letter to New Mexico. After it won second place in 2001 SWW contest in September, an assistant editor, Jennifer Jahner from NAL/Penguin who attended the conference requested it for the new Accent Books they were launching to appeal to book clubs, i.e., “Oprah Books”. She loved it and pitched it to her senior editor who turned her down because they were only launching 6 books that year and they already had one with Hispanic characters. Jennifer was about as disappointed as we were. She sent us the editorial notes she had planned to use if she had been green-lighted. We took about a year to re-write the book based on her pages of detailed notes.
In the fall of 2002, we began to query agents using Jeff Herman’s Guide (our first agent for our first unsold novel, but that’s another story!) and Sandy Choron of March Tenth Literary agency offered representation by December. She sent out a first round in late January, which included sending it back to NAL/Penguin Accent Books, to Jennifer Jahner. It was Jennifer’s last day there, but after seeing it was our book from the previous year and that we had rewritten it using her notes, she hand carried it to her boss, editor Laura Cifelli who read it and loved it and called our agent four days later with an offer.
So from writing the first draft to publication offer, it took around three years, then another year until its release in February 2004, moved up from November 2004 due to our editor’s pregnancy/maternity leave, which is a very compressed production schedule. (Especially since we were presented with 8 pages of single-spaced editor’s notes which resulted in an entire overhaul of the manuscript, complete with new characters and accelerated investigation timeline in the story.) Normally it is closer to 18 months between contract and release, so all deadlines were moved up and it got rather frantic at times since we were both still working full time. I was going over final line edits with our editor over the phone as she was going into early labor with her third child. She was a talented editor who helped us make a better book and you can’t hope for more than that. As a bonus, both Laura and her assistant, Rose Hilliard, were completely wonderful to work with.
We pursued traditional publishing because we believed it was the best way to go, given the options at the time. We wanted the validation of being vetted through the crucible of mainstream publishing at a major house, even though the path is fraught with rejection and heartbreak. It’s a great way to learn tenacity and self-belief beyond all reason. We still can’t believe our luck.
KMR: Your latest novel “A Growing Season” was released earlier this year by University of New Mexico Press. If you’re both comfortable discussing the details, can you explain why you chose to go with a university press over a major house?
SB: We wrote the first draft of A Growing Season the year Sunlight and Shadow was released, 2004. I had several detailed phone conversations about character arcs, etc., with our editor who expressed enthusiasm for the project. But then (cue heartbreak music) she passed on it saying it was “too regional” and she was also changing her focus to editing Romance books for the new Eclipse line.
On the shelf it went while we worked on other projects. Then in early 2011 I got a call from a writer friend who had heard that UNM Press was looking for “quality regional fiction”. We quickly brushed up A Growing Season and then requested a meeting with John Byram (Director of UNM Press, whom we had just met at the UNM Writing Conference) and Clark Whitehorn (Editor in Chief). At the conclusion of our thirty minute pitch, they both wanted to read it. We pulled out our two copies of the newly revised manuscript and gave them each one.
Once they approved it, it went to two outside professional reviewers for evaluation. The reviewers fill out extensive forms, citing strengths and weaknesses, and state whether they recommend publication. Both recommended publication with specific feedback on how it could be improved. We did another rewrite incorporating their suggestions. Then Clark presented A Growing Season to the University Press Committee (Twelve professors representing various specialties) at their monthly meeting. The committee voted in favor of publication. We signed the contract and a publication date was set for one year from that time, September 2012.
It was fun to work with Clark and UNM Press. We met with Clark and other UNM Press staff throughout the process. When I was still working on campus, I could just walk over for impromptu meetings or to drop something off and actually conduct our business face to face a lot of the time. So it was a much more personal experience than working long distance with New York.
But whether it is a major house or small press, it is pretty much the same process and we approached both situations with humility and gratitude and strove for a high degree of professionalism, so hopefully it was a pleasant experience for everyone concerned.
KMR: Give us a brief summary of “A Growing Season.”
SB: In A Growing Season, authors Sue Boggio and Mare Pearl return to Esperanza, New Mexico, where a devastating drought threatens the farming community’s survival. Vultures circle in the form of developers who see failing farms as ripe pickings. Court battles pit the endangered silvery minnow against the farmers as the once mighty Rio Grande shrinks from its banks even as demand for its precious water increases.
Abby Silva and her adopted son Santiago must heal from the violence of the past to claim their futures. CeCe and Miguel Vigil must care for CeCe’s octogenarian Jewish parents, whose disapproval of their marriage is now played out under their own roof, threatening their once solid union. Their daughter Rachel finally confronts the Jewish half of her ethnicity through her grandparents, Holocaust survivor Zeyde Mort, and feisty Brooklyn Bubbe Rose. But cultures must cross divides if all are to thrive. Love is risked and secrets are revealed as the community of Esperanza struggles to preserve its traditional way of life despite overwhelming odds.
KMR: How difficult was it to write a sequel to “Sunlight and Shadow”? Can “A Growing Season” be read as a stand-alone story or do readers need to first read S & S?
SB: When we wrote Sunlight and Shadow, we put great emphasis on creating a fully-realized fictional world in Esperanza, New Mexico, complete with a detailed cast of both primary and secondary inhabitants. We hadn’t planned to write another Esperanza book until 3 things happened. First, we began to hear from Sunlight and Shadow readers who said the book ended rather abruptly and they wanted to know more about what happens with the characters. Second, New Mexico was hit by a devastating and continuing drought that hit farmers along the Rio Grande very hard, resulting in rationing of irrigation water, battles over the endangered species silvery minnow that was federally protected, and we wondered how this would affect our family chile farm. And third, I came upon a beautiful, fallen cottonwood tree on a walk and had a vision of Santiago as a young man finding such a tree on his property, and seeing it evoked a very unsettled reaction in him. That vision became the scene that opens A Growing Season.
Writing A Growing Season had both the comfort of returning to a (fictional) place and characters we knew well and loved, combined with the challenge of researching and presenting new characters, the details of chile farming, and the complicated issues concerning water use from the Rio Grande.
We wrote A Growing Season to stand alone. It takes place seven years after Sunlight and Shadow’s conclusion. So both books may be read independently, however, the mystery element in Sunlight and Shadow is revealed at the beginning of A Growing Season. We have readers who have read them out of order and still enjoy both, but if you want to preserve the mystery in Sunlight and Shadow, read that one first.
KMR: Your cover art on “A Growing Season” is breathtaking and captures the essence of New Mexico. The same can be said for the artwork on the UNM Press re-release of “Sunlight and Shadow.” Tell us what it was like to work with New Mexico artist Barbara Clark. Did you know her before you signed your contract with UNM Press?
SB: When Nal/Penguin published Sunlight and Shadow, our editor talked about a cover that would focus on the dappled sunlight through a towering cottonwood tree, CeCe’s garden in full bloom, perhaps a basket of chiles…then she went on maternity leave and the cover that ended up being selected had none of that and we didn’t have a say. Granted we didn’t push the issue out of diplomacy and we loved that our names were on the cover—but beyond that we were less than thrilled.
So when A Growing Season was under contract, we began searching for New Mexico art that would do justice to a book set in New Mexico and that is so much about the beauty of the land. I went to the Corrales Bosque Gallery and saw work by Corrales artist Barbara Clark who did gorgeous pastels of New Mexico landscapes with arroyos and mountains.
I went home and looked at her website and it was as if I saw the setting of our book come to life. I called Mare and we selected our favorite eight or so and sent them to Clark at UNM Press. He and others at UNM loved them and once we narrowed it down to two or three, UNM Press made the final selection, though they did pick our first choice. I called Barbara Clark and introduced myself and asked if she would be interested in having her work on our cover and she was thrilled. Then after UNM Press decided to re-issue Sunlight and Shadow (and liberate it from its previous cover) it was a no-brainer to select another Barbara Clark painting. We’ve met Barbara on a number of occasions and become friends. She is a fabulous person and amazing artist. Please visit her website: www.bacpastels.com.
KMR: Give us a peek into how you work as a writing team. Do you meet in person for brainstorming sessions? How do you decide who writes what sections and scenes in your novels or do you both work on the same scenes together?
SB: We talk a lot about a project before we begin writing, taking notes. We talk about theme, define our characters and their arcs, we talk about setting in detail, and sketch out the broad strokes of the plot. We meet once a week for about half a day to read aloud to each other the scenes we’ve each written for that week. Reading aloud is so critical to our process. We listen intently to dialogue, description, whether the scene accomplishes its mission and give our feedback. We might say ‘this goes too long and needs trimming’ or we might say ‘expand this part—needs more development.’ So we do revise as we go along to an extent. Then we decide what’s next and assign scenes to write for the following week (along with rewriting anything problematic from the week before). We each write at least one POV (point of view) character, sometimes two, and we write our scenes through their thoughts and feelings. (In A Growing Season, I wrote Abby and Santiago. Mare wrote Rachel and CeCe.)
Brainstorming is a lot of it since we like to allow for discovery of something we hadn’t thought of before that moment. We plan ahead with a loose outline but it changes as we go along. Usually we pretty much know the ending. We use tools like scene cards, charts, time-lines to track everything. We draw maps of our settings, floor plans of houses, etc., since we both need the same mental image of shared settings and detailed character appearances/clothing/eye color. With two writers, you constantly check for continuity issues. We don’t worry about chapter divisions until we’re finished with the first draft. We use scene cards to decide the final order, then Mare gives me all her files and I merge them with mine and figure out chapter breaks. Then I go through everything multiple times, line editing, cutting as much as possible (we tend to over-write), and re-working rough spots. I confer with her about anything significant of hers that I think I should change, reading it over the phone to get her approval.
KMR: Do you ever have disagreements over how a scene is written or how a character is portrayed? If so, how do you work through these issues?
SB: In our brainstorming, we debate about everything. It is pretty free-wheeling. We tend to explore things using, “What if –blah blah blah?” Until we hone down what feels right and it is usually a mutual gut instinct. Sometimes we’ll try something one way and then after a read-through decide to modify it or throw it out altogether. For us, story comes out of character, so sometimes we’ll call each other on “I don’t think she would do that, or say that.” We really rely on the reaction of the other a lot, which comes out of fifty years of trust. I think we trust each other even more than we trust ourselves when it comes to the kind of decision making necessary in writing a novel. I don’t know what I’ve written until I read it to Mare for her reaction.
KMR: Do you both still have day jobs? If so, when do you write?
SB: I retired from UNM fulltime RN work July 1, 2011. Mare retired one year later on the same day. Mare picks up night shifts at the children/adolescent psychiatric hospital maybe once or twice a week, if that. I work for UNM on particular projects that come up seasonally, with months off in between. Prior to our retirement, not only did we work fulltime, but I worked days and Mare worked nights and we had different days off. We still managed to write five novels and a screenplay during those years. But then we reached an age where something had to give and fortunately, it was fulltime work. We have balance now and our productivity—and I think our quality—have improved.
KMR: We all met at the Southwest Writers Workshop Conference in 1998 held in Albuquerque, NM. Are you both still active in the organization?
SB: We would like to get back into it. The times/days they hold their meetings haven’t been conducive for us to attend. SWW was instrumental in our development as writers, both learning our craft and how to navigate the industry, and obviously the contacts and friendships we made there are priceless. (Including and especially yours!)
We are more involved with New Mexico Book Co-op and attend their monthly lunchtime meetings. We can network with other writers, publishers, and hear the latest industry news, including opportunities to market our work.
KMR: How has the publishing industry changed over the years since your earliest attempts at writing novels? Since you are traditionally published, what are your thoughts on writers who choose to go indie?
SB: We’ve always been told how hard it is to get published, and with corporate mergers, it is even harder now. Things move at glacial speed. Rejection is the norm. But, we’ve always taken that with a grain of salt. We own our careers. We believe no matter how dismal the odds, if there is a chance, it is up to us to make it happen. Meanwhile, we love the process, we love our partnership, we love hearing back from readers.
We support all forms of getting the written word out there. Many writers are making a great go of it publishing independently and more power to them. We haven’t gone that route, but we don’t rule it out. Distribution and marketing, I think would be even more challenging, but you hear about indie books that rise to fame and make a lot of money for their authors, so who knows?
KMR: What are you both working on now?
SB: We have an agent shopping our novel, Four Fools, about a counterculture 1960s family. It is our most ambitious novel, spanning decades and required a lot of research into the events and politics of the 1950s and 1960s. We just finished a novel called Hungry Shoes, based on our work with adolescents in psychiatric care. It is now in the hands of our beta readers, a child psychologist/social worker, a child psychiatrist and a former mental health worker (and long-time trusted first reader). Once they report back to us, we will incorporate their feedback into another revision and then get it to our agent to see if it is something she wants to take on. If not, we’ll embark on another agent search!
We are in preliminary discussions about a third Esperanza book, if UNM Press likes our ideas that may be next.
KMR: And the final question. Is your partnership like a marriage? Till death do you part?
SB: We have a feeling we’ve already shared many lifetimes together and there will be many more. But, we have a particular attachment, at the moment, to this lifetime and want to wring all we can out of it. When we were little kids, I did a sketch of us sitting in rocking chairs as old ladies next to each other on a veranda, so we’ve always taken the long view. As we’re turning 60 this year, we’re completely boggled that we’ve gone through fifty years already! We have so much more we want to accomplish together that one lifetime will not be enough.
Cover art by New Mexico artist Barbara Clark. To read more about her work please visit her website at: www.bacpastels.com
Contact Sue Boggio and Mare Pearl at www.boggioandpearl.com