In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing
victim author and they choose their own interview by picking which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer. Ursula DeYoung’s novel, Shorecliff, is about a large extended family’s vacation to their house in the Maine during the summer of 1928 – as told through the eyes of Richard, the young protagonist. Here is what Ursula had to say about reading, writing, and each reader finding a few characters to love.
Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?
I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I’ve recently been able to make writing my full-time occupation, thanks to the release of my debut novel, Shorecliff. I’ve been writing ever since I can remember, and I’ve always connected it with my love of reading, which has been a life-long passion. My earliest surviving piece of writing is a paragraph about an orange cat going over to his friend’s house and eating a cookie; I typed it on the computer when I was four years old and some years later added a translation because the spelling was so bad. I wrote my first longer pieces—fifty to sixty pages—in eighth grade, and I finished my first full-length book, a children’s novel set in Cornwall during the 1940s, in the summer before starting college. Since then I’ve tried several genres, but the novels I most enjoy writing are character-driven dramas that focus on the many relationships one forms throughout life—family ties, romantic attachments, friendships, rivalries. Shorecliff incorporates all of these themes by exploring the dynamics of a large extended family spending a summer together in a big, rundown house.
I like to set novels in places where I’ve lived, though I often fictionalize the specifics so as not to be tied down by details. I grew up on the North Shore of Massachusetts and set Shorecliff on the coast of Maine, which has a similar environment to my hometown but is more wild and isolated. I went to Oxford in England for graduate school, and I’ve set two novels in that most romantic of cities. Because I studied history for many years, I enjoy writing historical novels and exploring the ways in which the social customs of different eras affected personal interactions.
In all of my novels, whether they’re set in the present day or in the past, and regardless of their setting, I try to make the characters interesting and believable. One of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received is that the characters in Shorecliff “seem like real people.
I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?
I’ve been writing for a long time, and for many years it was a side project: I was either in college, or working at a school in New York, or attending graduate school in England, so I didn’t have a regular writing schedule; I wrote fiction because I enjoyed it and would take an occasional afternoon or evening to write as a break from other obligations. Then as now, writing fiction gave me more pride and pleasure than I found in any other type of work. Nevertheless, it’s always required some discipline. My rule is that I must write at least ten pages before ending a session. Sometimes that takes an hour and a half, sometimes three hours. I’m usually a quick writer, allowing the story to flow onto the page as it comes to me. I rely on extensive editing and reworking after finishing my first draft to get the novel into its final form.
For my latest novel, with the luxury of more time in which to write, I imposed a schedule on myself for the first time: every morning this winter I devoted to writing, adhering to the same ten-page limit, and though I was wary of the daily schedule at first, I came to appreciate it. For three months, I lived in a pleasant world of my own every morning and returned to earth in the afternoons. It was an effective regime and one I plan to follow in future writing projects.
What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors? Has writing your own book changed the way that you read?
Right now I’m rereading The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham, an old favorite of mine that I think is an incredible book—beautifully written, thought-provoking, and riveting no matter how many times you return to it. Before that I read Coromandel Sea Change by Rumer Godden. My mother stumbled upon this book by chance and gave it to me: Rumer Godden is one of her favorite authors, but I had only ever read her children’s stories. I ended up loving Coromandel Sea Change and am now happily researching Godden’s list of titles in the hope of finding more gems.
Together these two novels demonstrate the way I like to read. I reread books frequently and have explored much of the traditional canon of Western literature: not surprisingly, there are countless amazing books to be found there. But I also like discovering lesser known or forgotten authors, often with the help of my parents, who are excellent book hunters. I tend to read older books, especially those from the first half of the twentieth century, but I also occasionally venture into modern and contemporary fiction—as well as mysteries, children’s books, and biographies, especially those of scientists (my doctorate focused on Victorian science and culture).
If you could have everyone read five books, which ones would they be?
I don’t think there are any five books that would suit everyone or that everyone should be required to read, but I often entertain myself by writing a personal list of the Five Best Novels Ever Written. My list changes over time, and of course it’s not really possible to name five at the expense of all the other wonderful novels out there, but currently the list is as follows (in no particular order): Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford; Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence; Moby-Dick by Herman Melville; A Glastonbury Romance by John Cowper Powys; and War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.
While writing down those titles, though, I’ve been remembering Bleak House, Howards End, The Man Who Loved Children, Pride and Prejudice, One Hundred Years of Solitude. The list could be extended to twenty or fifty or a hundred—and thank goodness for that!
Do you ever look back at your early work? How do you feel your writing style or approach to writing has evolved since you first began?
My writing style has changed a great deal since I first started writing novels. Nowadays, when I look back on my early attempts, I’m often disgusted by their wordiness and clumsiness. I’ve been working steadily towards a style that, I hope, is simple and straightforward, without a lot of excess verbiage or unnecessary detail, but I started out, maybe because I was so enamored of Victorian novels, with a very flowery and formal style. Often, looking back on my early pieces, I’ll still like the plots and characters but find the writing terrible. I was also more influenced early on by the style of whatever author I happened to be reading at the time—I frequently, almost unconsciously, adopted different voices for different chapters. Over time, however, as I wrote more and more, I developed a more consistent personal style, and I stopped using other writers’ idiosyncrasies; I hope now that my own voice shows through in whatever I write.
I know, however, that I’ll never stop going back and tinkering with early work—some of it may be beyond hope, but my method of writing involves so much editing and rewriting that I often end up polishing (relatively) early works into finished pieces.
What were your experiences with reading when you were growing up? Was there a pivotal moment in discovering literature when you knew that you wanted to be a writer?
Reading has been one of my primary activities throughout my life. I have a vivid memory from when I was three years old of holding a picture book (it was Sam’s Teddy Bear by Barbro Lindgren) and pretending to read it—I had memorized all the text after having my parents read it to me countless times. My parents read to me for years, picture books when I was little and chapter books when I got older, and I read voraciously on my own from kindergarten onward. Books have taught me how to write, they’ve shaped my love of history, and they’ve taught me more about people and emotions and the complexity of character than anything else short of my own life experiences—and even those have not provided me with so broad a range.
Writing for me comes hand in hand with reading. I love stories and novels so much that there was never a time when I didn’t want to try writing my own. And reading taught me at least ninety percent of what I know about writing. I work part-time as a writing tutor, and I believe in studying the mechanics and techniques of writing, but there is really only one major lesson I can pass on to my students, and that is to read as much as they can, choosing great writers from every age and place. It’s the best—really the only—way to learn how to write.
How many works in progress do you have going at any one time? How do you know when one has potential and when one just needs to be scrapped?
I always have many writing projects on hand, at all stages of development. Some I’ve more or less scrapped, but I never throw them out, in case I change my mind, and some I’m just keeping on the back burner temporarily. Right now, for example, I have on hand, partially finished, a Victorian murder mystery, a story about a priest who falls in love with an atheist, and a young-adult fantasy novel. Once I get seriously started on a project, though, I usually like to work on it exclusively until it’s finished. And now that I’ve been published and am writing more directly for an audience—a joy, though one that comes at a price!—I can’t pick and choose with as much freedom which projects I’ll work on. Still, I enjoy having a smorgasbord of different options, and it keeps me excited about all the work to come.
Who was your favorite character to write, and why did you have an affinity for that character in particular?
One of the things I enjoyed most about writing Shorecliff was coming up with the personalities of all the different cousins and aunts and uncles. I never base my characters on people I know—it’s crucial for me to have each character feel like a real person, a distinct and unique individual—but, nevertheless, I often incorporate isolated characteristics, my own and those of people I know, to flesh them out. I can sympathize with all of the characters in Shorecliff because they carry some trace of me. I love going on solitary walks like Fisher, and I often feel cooped up and frustrated like Francesca, and of course I spend a lot of time observing people like Richard.
One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about having other people read Shorecliff is that each reader usually has one or two favorite cousins, and these vary from reader to reader. I didn’t expect this, but I’m delighted that nearly every character has found a sponsor, so to speak, in real life—even those whom I thought of as being more on the sidelines than in the spotlight. I find this especially reassuring because it means I’ve done a good job of distinguishing each character from all the others and of giving each one an engaging personality.