Jul/Aug 2009  •   Reviews & Interviews

A Conversation between Ellen Meister and Saralee Rosenberg

by Ellen Meister and Saralee Rosenberg

Thomas Edison once said that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Can the same be said about creativity in general? Novelists Saralee Rosenberg, author of Dear Neighbor, Drop Dead, and Ellen Meister, author of The Smart One, had an online chat to discuss this issue.


EM     A friend on Facebook recently paraphrased a quote from the artist Chuck Close, saying, "Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us put our ass in the seat every morning and get to work." Do you agree or disagree with that?

SR     Agree! People think that inspiration is synonymous with a lightning bolt. Writers get struck in the middle of a field with a brainstorm and run back to their computers. For me, that's not how it happens. I get my best ideas while food shopping or bending over a dishwasher. That's because the pressure is off to be brilliant. In fact, I do my best work when there are zero expectations—like people who sing in the shower and swear they're Celine Dion. How does it work for you?

EM     For me it's all about hard work. I don't wake up in the morning with a dream and then rush to my computer to type it all into a novel. Rather, I collect small pieces of ideas. Sometimes I write them down, but most of the time they're just floating around in my head. Like a crazy collection. But after a time it becomes obvious that one particular idea won't let go. I keep thinking and thinking about it. And, I have to say, it's not usually a plot idea that grabs me at first, but something about a character or a relationship between two people. Then I have to find a story that can bring it to life.

SR     That's how it is for me as well. An idea comes to me, either by the power of observation, or by hearing a news story, and then I'll begin the game of hundred-and-one "what if" questions. I'm actually in that phase now. I have been working on six different ideas for a next novel, and like the song says, I love the one I'm with. Then I'll get a totally different idea and the first one is history. The idea I'm working on this week is really grabbing me by the throat and I think I'm in love.

EM     You're such a great idea person! When you think of these things, is it "That concept would really appeal to readers," or "That idea really appeals to me"? A combination of the two?

SR     Great question and it can go either way. I was working on an idea about Facebook and my first thought was, readers would love that! Everyone is on Facebook now... but in trying to work out the plot, the story got too convoluted and lost its edge . BTW, you're a great idea person too! Your plots are so clever, but I don't know how you can just sit there and think. That's amazing to me how you corral your concentration powers. What's your secret?

EM     I have to force myself to focus, or my mind wanders. I don't work on ideas by staring into space, but by making notes. (I'm a firm believer that we use a different part of our brains when we write than when we just sit and think .) My notes might look a little schizophrenic to anyone but me, because they're all over the place ... a kind of stream of consciousness where I ask myself questions and provide answers. Sometimes I make 25 pages of notes before a true idea even starts to emerge.

SR     Yes, I do the Q&A with myself when I'm brainstorming. I call it my inner Katie Couric. Actually, I interview my characters to see if I can find out what they're hiding, because they're always hiding something.

EM     I LOVE that! I never thought of interviewing my characters, but I think it's an excellent technique. I might try it on the book I'm working on now ... I'm really in the early stages of figuring out what it's all about.

SR     What I love about the process is that I can't judge the writing and get frustrated. At this stage, it's not about the quality of the writing, it's about allowing yourself enough creative space for nuggets to drop. If the character is properly developed, you'll discover their dreams, fears, personality traits, ambitions—the stuff just pours out. Back story is critical for a solid novel. No history, no future.

EM     Do you continue this technique even after you have some chapters written?

SR     Hopefully by then I don't have to because I've written volumes about each main character. The chapters are where I take off the leash and let them go—see where the story heads. That's why I don't create outlines. Waste of time for me. I'm never going there. What about you? Do you outline?

EM     I make rough outlines in an effort to get me from the beginning of the book to the end. (I usually do know the ending when I start—or at least the arc I want my main character to have.) But the process is equally organic. I stray from the outline all the time. And besides, it's always in broad strokes, and doesn't help me on a scene by scene basis. For that, I make more notes. The same kind of stream-of-consciousness I mentioned before, where I ask myself questions and explore every option.

SR     I start out with a full synopses (5-10 pages) so I also know how I want the story to start and end. But how I get there is a mystery, which is why I always liken it to driving with a man. You know you're going to get lost, you know stopping for directions is out of the question, you know by the time you get there you're going to be in a pissy mood, but by God, you will get there!

EM     Ha!

SR     And it works, at least for me. I wrote all four novels this way and am proud that I followed my instincts and didn't feel the need to stick to the script. I always say, no surprise for the writer, none for the reader either.

EM     I'm on board with that. If you're rigid about following an outline you're going to get in trouble.

SR     You'll be bored and so will the reader. The truth is, I know I'm on to something when the characters do take over, thinking and speaking for themselves. I used to joke that there are points where I'm not the writer as much as the designated typist. For example, when I was working on Dear Neighbor, Drop Dead, the dialogue that would rush out of my head between Mindy and her husband, Artie, was priceless. It would make me laugh and I'd want to hear more. I literally had to have silence in the room so I didn't miss a word, and I swear my fingers were flying off the keyboard. They would fight and laugh and talk and ask each other annoying questions, like real married people who were great friends, and I said to myself, I am home!!!!

EM     Love it! And that brings me back to something you said before. You get all these ideas, and then it becomes clear that ONE is the winner. How do you know that? How do you know that one particular idea is THE one that will make a great novel for you?

SR     It's like being engaged. You're so sure you're in love and this is the one and then something happens to upset you and you lose your confidence and before you know it, you're looking around to see who else is available. I know that it's the ONE when the characters start talking not to me, but to each other. What about for you? How do you know when you're ready to walk down the aisle and spend the next few years with these folks?

EM     I think it's when the idea just won't go away. If I find myself coming back to it again and again and again ... if it visits me while I'm driving, eating, showering, strolling the aisles of Waldbaum's ... then I know there's something there. I don't necessarily think about the readers, but I have confidence that if something interests me that much it will interest others, too.

SR     Good point. You can't write to the market, you have to write what resonates with you or there won't be enough passion to stick with it.

EM     For instance, my book that's in production now with Putnam (tentatively titled THE PARTING and due out in 2010) started out with an itch to explore something that would be an ultimate escape. And I had this vision of a married woman doing the ironing—the most domestic scene possible—and being able to slip through a crack in the wall to another life .... the one she would have had if she never took this straight path.

SR     This is such a brilliant concept—I know that readers will absolutely love this book and want to discuss it because it explores so many important issues, but especially the question of what happens to one's self when we get married. What happens if you feel that you're disappearing? Love it!

EM     Thank you! It really took hold of me. At first, I just thought about this woman who had an alternate life ... every time she made a major decision (like leaving her neurotic and famous boyfriend to marry her safe and reliable husband) an alternate reality existed in which she made the other choice. Once I started making notes, I realized that what pushed her to leave the one life and explore the other was a problem pregnancy, a fetus with a horrendous deformity. Then I probed some more, and discovered that her mother is dead in one life and alive in the other. That was the clincher. Once that part of the story occurred to me, it all came together.

SR     Yes, it's a great hook. Are you listening, Hollywood? Step right up and grab this story. It's got movie written all over it!

EM     Ha! That would be sweet!

SR     It is the Holy Grail! But they would be lucky to option this. It's such a strong message for women about exploring the decisions we make and then second guessing them, which, of course, we all do.

EM     Saralee, I'd also love to talk about the subconscious mind's gift to the process ... what Stephen King calls "the boys in the basement." For me, I like to think of it as the girls in the attic, but it's the same idea. Sometimes when I walk away and stop thinking about what I'm writing, my subconscious gets to work and solves my creative dilemmas. What about you?

SR     For me it can be a mixed bag. Sometimes inspiration and ideas come from reading an article in the paper, or by standing behind a crazy lady at the dry cleaners, or overhearing a conversation at a restaurant. Then it's voila, I know how I can use that. I guess I'm a reporter at heart. But the subconscious mind is at work too—I often wake up with ideas and if I don't run to the computer before the bathroom—forget it. They're gone.

EM     The terrible thing about the power of the subconscious is that you can't ever count on it. But the wonderful thing is that when it kicks in, it feels like a special gift. It works for me like this: I'm in the middle of writing a scene or struggling with that happens next. I simply CANNOT figure out how to move forward. In frustration, I walk away and get on with my life. But the next morning when I sit down at the computer, the answer is crystal clear. My subconscious had been doing the work for me when I wasn't thinking about it. Has that ever happened to you?

SR     Yes, that's when my muse returns. I'm so grateful he/she/it doesn't ask for time off and doesn't mind being overworked and underpaid—like an intern! But I am like you. I have to walk away and do something in order to clear the negative, I'll-never-come-up-with-another-good-idea thinking. Then when you least expect it, there it is. The BIG idea.

EM     I think that's a great place to finish. Thanks, Saralee!

SR     Thank you... and Eclectica, too.


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