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The (Gillian) French connection - Local author discusses new book “The Missing Season” and more

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If you haven’t already heard of Gillian French, well … it’s just a matter of time.

The Maine author’s latest offering is “The Missing Season.” It is her fourth YA novel – her previous works are “Grit,” “The Door to January” and “The Lies They Tell” – and one for which she will likely receive levels of acclaim similar to (if not greater than) those achieved by those earlier books.

It’s a wonderful piece of work, one that once again demonstrates French’s taut prose and storytelling acumen.

(Editor’s note: Check out our full review of “The Missing Season” elsewhere on the site.)

Ahead of the release of “The Missing Season,” French was generous enough to take the time to answer a few questions from The Maine Edge. The author shares thoughts regarding the craft of writing, her process and – of course – her new book.

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What is your writing background? What series of events resulted in you becoming an author?

My love of storytelling and vivid characterization sparked my passion in writing when I was just a little kid—I was lucky to have parents who passed on their passion for reading to me—but I’m the furthest thing from an overnight success. I started writing and shopping my books around to agents and publishers when I was fourteen years old, but it was nearly two decades before I signed my first book contract. In the meantime, I wrote short fiction, mostly suspense and horror, trying to earn some professional credits; I had a bit of luck with “Writer’s Digest” and “Zoetrope: All-Story” contests, which gave me the extra boost of confidence I needed to keep going.

What led you to write YA fiction? Was this something you specifically set out to do? Or are these simply the stories that have demanded to be told?

It’s a combination of both—I love the energy and immediacy of YA fiction, but I never sit down to pen a “realistic contemporary teen novel” without inspiration driving me; it’s never that calculated. The major characters, a big scene or two, and the general atmosphere of the novel come to me first, and then the excitement of discovering who these people are and what their world is like, what’s at stake for them, pulls me through the book. Thus far, my published books have been categorized as YA, but I’m eager to branch out into other genres and age groups.

What does a typical writing day look like for you? Do you have a dedicated space at home or elsewhere?

I have two young sons, so my writing time is very much catch-as-catch-can, but my husband and parents are incredibly supportive and make it possible for me to write about a book a year, piecemeal. I have a desk in the far corner of our bedroom with a window that looks out on the woods. I’m a big advocate of having a focal point in your writing area to distract your lizard brain while your higher cognitive wheels are turning, whether it’s a view, an interesting painting, or a snow globe. When you’re done watching the glitter fall, you just may have figured out a way to patch up that plot hole.

Is your process always more or less the same or does it change from book to book? Is there any sort of gap between finishing one project and starting the next?

Every novel-writing experience is different for me, and I’ve found a lot has to do with how much upheaval is happening in my life at the time. I’m not an outliner—often I just jot down some notes, maybe a paragraph or two—and from there I let the flow of the book take me. Which is not to say there isn’t plenty of agonizing involved, as well as tough spots and times when I have to go back to the beginning to figure out how the heck the plot became so tangled. For example, when I began writing “The Missing Season,” my youngest son was only a few months old and we moved twice in one year, so I was fighting against serious sleep-deprived brain drain. The journey of the book was subsequently dark and mazelike, which I hope, in the end, added to the story’s strange, surreal atmosphere.

How long does a book take to come together for you, from word one of draft one to publication?

In the past, it has taken about two years total for the book to hit shelves after I begin. I’m not working under deadline right now, which is freeing in a way, but I also have less writing time than I once did, so my current project is meandering along on more of a two-and-a-half, three-year schedule. I think the biggest challenge for a writer is loosening up and reminding yourself that you can’t rush a good cookie.

You seem to have an affinity for the outsider in your work, whether it’s someone held apart by class distinctions (as in “The Lies We Tell”) or simply by being the new kid (in this new book). What is it that attracts you to that sort of character?

I think the sad fact of humanity is that almost none of us feel like we “belong” on this planet; some are just better at hiding it than others. I’m fascinated by the people who can’t or won’t fake it, who drift, or are pushed, to the fringes of society, and the various ways they’re ostracized by others. As a reader, that poignant combination of fear and empathy elicited by a well-drawn outcast character keeps me devouring stories in every form; I think it’s the best way to understand those conflicts in others and ourselves and have more compassion.

There’s a romantic element – a love story, if you will – inherent to your books, but it seems as though you make an effort not to let the romance hijack the narrative. Is that a difficult balance to strike, particularly when you’ve proven so good at capturing the naïve extremity that comes part and parcel with young love?

I’m not much of a romance reader — the central romantic relationship idea in book or film seldom hits the right note for me because the characters often seem so unrelatable — so I work to make young love one facet of my character’s lives, not their entire driving force. I enjoy the fragile yet overwhelming passion of those early infatuations, and how easily your illusions are shattered once the object of your affection shows themselves to be just as flawed as you are, if not more so. Painful, but hopefully you walk away a little wiser.

Which would you say more accurately describes your books: mystery/thrillers that prominently feature relationships or relationship stories that prominently feature mysteries? And why do you think that is?

Overall, I’d describe my books as slow-burn, character-driven mysteries. While I’m writing them, they seem like fast-paced page-turners to me, but compared to a lot of what’s out there for the age group, my storytelling is more “literary” — using the word of the critics here — and yes, definitely focused on relationships and getting inside the characters’ heads.

Your understanding of the social dynamics of small-town Maine is evident throughout your work. What prompted you to use Maine as the setting for these stories?

I’ve lived here my entire life and come from a long line of Maine natives. I’ve done a bit of traveling around the U.S., but generally, my life experience has happened right here in rural New England. A large part of what I wanted to talk about in “The Missing Season” — “Grit” was also largely about this issue, but told from a different angle — is the boredom and suffocation teens can feel growing up in a fading small town, and how this influences their choices, driving them into dangerous situations which can be somewhat different from those found in more urban areas.

Is the legend of the Mumbler something you gleaned from real local lore? Or is it purely a product of your imagination?

The Mumbler, a kid-eating bogeyman who, legend has it, divides his time between the salt marsh and woods of fictional Pender, Maine, is made from whole cloth, but he was heavily inspired by my own love of urban legends such as the Bunny Man and Resurrection Mary. It’s fascinating to me how these stories pop up seemingly out of nowhere in certain areas and are retold for decades, often used as a tool to frighten young people out of rebellions behaviors. The tantalizing question remains: is there grain of truth to some of these terrifying tales? A bogeyman made just for Hancock County seemed the perfect backdrop for a story about low-income, disenfranchised teens testing their boundaries and living on the edge.  

Finally, any advice for our readers who might be looking to become writers themselves? What would you say to the aspiring novelists out there, looking for guidance as to what the next (or first) step should be?

Your first step should always be pinpointing the story your heart is crying out to tell, knowing who your main character is and what it is they want most from life in this moment. Outside of that, the details can remain relatively hazy—just dive in and see where the words take you. There’s no right or wrong way to reach “the end”; pushing through self-doubt is a normal part of the process, but in the end, there truly is no better satisfaction than completing that messy first draft, and saying to yourself, “I did it.”

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