Art Overlapping: An Interview With Bethany Pierce

First year Creative Writing M.A. student Erin Jamieson interviews Miami alum Bethany Pierce on her life as a writer, her time at Miami, and how her art has inspired her writing:

Born in Mount Vernon, Ohio, Bethany Pierce graduated with a BA in Art and an MA in Creative Writing from Miami University in 2006. Her novels, Feeling for Bones and Amy Inspired (Bethany House) have garnered critical acclaim, with her debut listed by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the top books of 2007. Also known for her paintings, Bethany currently resides in Asheville, North Carolina. For more, visit her website at www.bethanypierce.com.

EJ: You are perhaps best known for your second novel, Amy Inspired. Tell us a little about what it’s about, the inspiration for the story, and the process of both writing and finding representation for it.sm_website-bio-pic_123

BP: Amy Inspired had a rather convoluted origin.  Shortly after Feeling for Bones was published, my editor approached me with an idea for a story about a young English teacher struggling with issues of love and faith and writing. Chick lit was all the rage that year. So were serialized novels. The publishing house envisioned an entire series of books about this thirty-something “spinster” professor. I was wary but broke. I agreed to write the books under a pseudonym, thinking I’d managed a win-win—that I’d get to practice my craft while making enough money to support the writing I wanted to do.

Things didn’t exactly work out that way. I couldn’t keep to the plot outline the editorial team had drawn up; in fact, the story I wrote was so far removed from the original idea, the publishing house released me from my contract. I took my rejected novel back to the drawing board. I’d grown very fond of my characters and wanted their story to be heard, so I tried to find what was most honest in the book and give it room to breath, an effort that required weeding out all the influences of the industry: the dictates of chick lit, the rules of a religiously motivated publisher, the forced conclusions of a predetermined plot. As a result, the book became (rather self-consciously) about all of those things.

By the time I was done with the final rewrite, my editor had moved on to a different publishing house that was a better fit for both of us. I passed the revised manuscript on to his new team, unsure what I’d written exactly, but proud enough of my little Frankenstein to print it under my own name.

EJ: How did your time at Miami impact you as a writer?

BP: Graduate school was my crash course in plot and voice. My professors were wonderful. Through their edits, their criticism, and the example of their own writing, they taught me in two years what it would have taken a decade to learn alone.

Those two years helped discipline my mind for long hours at my desk, snatched at odd hours. They thickened my skin to criticism. They also gave me a valuable feeling of camaraderie. I was fortunate to land in a group of talented fellow writers who became close friends I still talk with today.

In practical terms, my time at Miami also helped me find a publisher. I’d been sending query letters out for Feeling for Bones for several years. While in the middle of my graduate work, my manuscript ended up on the desk of an editor in Chicago who’d graduated from the university a handful of years before. The familiar letterhead piqued his curiosity. We began an email correspondence that led to the revision of the novel and its eventual publication.

EJ: You also work as a visual artist. Do you see this connecting to your writing in any way?

BP: Just in the last year I’ve noticed the two overlapping. I want to push beyond my own limitations in both practices, and this requires a meditative stillness and an increasingly more open imagination. Cultivating that mental space seems to be breaking down an internal wall that kept the two fields of thought separate from one another.

For example, I’ve been exploring a new series of abstractions and in trying to sort out ideas of color and form, I’ve been journaling a great deal about the paintings themselves, something I’ve never done before. I’ll sit in my studio in front of a blank canvas and write about the possible painting for hours. This is exceptionally weird to me, because the paintings themselves are becoming less and less literal.

In return, I find that I’m bringing a kind of experimentation to the writing, a playfulness that wants to build an idea out of the usual order. I’ve had this idea for a collection of essays but instead of writing one at a time in a linear fashion, I’ve been jotting all the random ideas that come to me on 3 x 5 note cards that I file in a shoebox on my desk. Once a month or so I’ll sit down and puzzle out some order to the collected thoughts, assembling an essay the way I used to collage pictures.

EJ: If you had to give advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?

BP: Find a way to make the writing itself your first priority. Carve out a specific time for the work and then zealously protect that time from interruption. You mostly learn how to write by writing.

I also think it’s helpful to get to know your personal demons. Whether you struggle with procrastination, insecurity, codependency, envy – get friendly with your devil then find creative ways to diffuse its power during the time you have set aside to write. Whether I’m drafting a story or baking a Bundt cake, I struggle with perfectionism. I’ve found it enormously helpful to make up some rule like write five pages a day and then follow it with total devotion. This satisfies my perfectionist (she loves following rules) and my need to feel productive (no matter how horrible those five pages are, they are done, checked off the list before I’ve even put my pants on for the day) while at the same time allowing that inner creative spirit enough protected space in which to play and explore.

I’ll also repeat what most authors are going to tell you: read a lot.  I’ll add that it helps to read mostly what you love.