The Fourth Novel: An Interview with Rufi Thorpe

What does it take to get your first novel published? According to author Rufi Thorpe, make it your fourth. In this interview, the author of The Girls from Corona del Mar breaks down the process of getting the story right, making a living as an author, and how becoming a mother has changed her. The paperback will be released in June 2015.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I had been writing and wanting to be a writer since I was fifteen. I had heard a quote that your fourth novel is the first one to get published. And it made sense to me that you wouldn’t be really good at doing something the very first time, so of course you would have to do it a number of times. But writing a novel is really time-consuming. So I thought, “Shit. I’d better get started.”

Was this novel always in you?

This is actually my fourth book. I don’t know if I made the prophecy come true by believing in it or what, but by the point that I had started writing it, it was a routine for me to write a novel every two or three years. I was always looking for material for my next project.

This book started for me when I was horribly unemployed. I had just finished graduate school and had moved back to California from Virginia. I was listening to this NPR story about women with severely disabled children. I was listening to the choices that these women would have to make and what it meant for them to try and take care of these children.

The Girls from Corona del Mar
The Girls from Corona del Mar

What was your process of envisioning this story through these characters?

I write a lot of drafts. I started to do some exploratory writing about who this woman would be. At first, the novel was just about Lorrie Ann (the character with the disabled child) and it was originally set in Charlottesville, Virginia. There was something that I was doing that was weird and inauthentic for the setting. The moment that I set it in my hometown, where I actually grew up, all of a sudden it changed and these girls became really real to me.

The other thing that really changed it for me was that I felt that there was something kind of sacred about the testimony of what it’s really like to have all that “mother love.” At the point where I first started working on this novel, I hadn’t had [my son] Booker yet. And I finished the book when he was seven months. So I was writing it during my own pregnancy and early motherhood.

When I was first envisioning the book, I wasn’t even pregnant yet. I didn’t even know what it was like to be a mom, let alone what it was like to be a mom of a severely disabled child. I could read about it and explore all I wanted, but there was something where when I tried to write in first-person, I didn’t have the balls to pull it off. I didn’t feel like it was my story to tell.

But I did know that I could write authentically about how to love somebody while they were going through that. Failing to love someone when they were going through something hard felt like a life lesson that I had authentically earned and could write from. And so that’s when I understood that maybe it was a novel about friendship and about these two girls. I invented Mia as a lens, as a way of seeing Lorrie Ann.

That all happened in a succession of drafts and exploratory writing. I put together a full first draft right after my son was born.

So now you’re published. What is it like to go into a store and see something that you wrote on a shelf?

So weird. It’s surreal because you’re having this interaction with the shelf and other people are just shopping. People who work there are like, “Can I help you?” and you’re like, “I wrote that.” And they’re just like, “Oh. Cool.”

How are you making a living?

I’ve also sold my second novel. At this point, I’m desperately trying to finish the second one and write the third one before I have to get a job. We are using my advance money and trying to live. Our cost of living is relatively low and kids aren’t that expensive until they get older. Luckily we have insurance through my husband’s work at the University of Maryland. It’s a huge struggle. [I taught] before I sold The Girls and part of the reason I’m not teaching right now is because these years, when you have a toddler, feel like they’re so precious and you’re not going to get it back.

In music, there is the idea of the “sophomore jinx,” where your second album flops because critics say you “lost the passion.” Are you afraid of something similar for your next major release?

First of all, I started writing the second book to get me through the agony of publishing’s incredibly long pipeline.

It was a year between the time when they bought the book and the time the book actually came out. Even when your book comes out it’s a weird time when you’re waiting for reviews, waiting to see how it’s gonna sell and find out about awards. It’s slow the way it all happens. So for me, the safe place was writing. All the “business” stuff was scary and felt really unnatural and foreign.

I was really lucky that writing was already a habit for me. I wasn’t panicked that I wouldn’t be able to write another book because I had already written several books. I already knew what I wanted to write next and I know what I want to write after this book is done.

Tell me about reading the reviews of your book.

One of the things that made me successful as a writer really was a willingness to get punched in the face. Going to workshop and hearing “This is terrible” makes you say “Okay! I’ll come back! I’ll do it again!” I think I only had one review where the person said, “This is terrible.” I had lots of Amazon reviews where people were like “I didn’t like it. There was so much swearing.” Of course you didn’t like my book if you don’t like a book with swearing in it. You must have been appalled. You poor woman, you should get your money back!

And if you are turned off by a book that has swearing in it, did you really get through the whole thing? Or did you just stop after page 3 and hop on Amazon?

The internet is such a jungle. I feel like there were some small portion of readers who saw The Girls from Corona del Mar and saw that beautiful photo of two girls and thought “This is gonna be a nice beachside girlhood memoir.” If that’s what you were looking for, you would be deeply appalled by what I wrote.

Now that you’re a published author and a mother, how do you look at your life?

It’s terrifying having children. My whole life, I’ve been so curious about what happens after you die. It’s not that I’ve sought death out by any means. I just thought “Well, I’ll die when I die.” But now that I have a child, I cannot die. It’s not acceptable. I have to finish this first. I can’t leave these little beings behind until they’re fully grown.

It’s like falling in love. With my first baby I didn’t know how profound it was going to be. But now with my second baby I know, it’s like being told in advance that you’re going to get to fall in love. Like, “In this many months you’re going to fall in love as hard as you ever have in your whole life.” What a weird thing to anticipate.

Photos courtesy: Rufi Thorpe