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Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Interview with J. Anderson Coats, author of The Wicked and the Just

It's taken us a while, with the demands of life with children, to settle on a blog schedule.  From this week forward, we'll be posting once a week.  We hope that way we'll have high quality posts, rather than quantity, with more interviews from mother writers coming in the future.  
Today, we are so lucky to have J. Anderson Coats with us.  Her book, The Wicked and the Just, was out in April 2012, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  She's going to share with us her individual path as a mother writer.  We hope you all get inspired.
How did/do you manage as your children became older? When your children were in pre-school did you have a child care arrangement or family close by? Alternatively did you only write in the evenings? 

When I was barely twenty, I moved across the country.  I got on a plane with a baby on my hip, twenty dollars in my pocket, and a handful of diapers in a carryon over my shoulder.  I landed three thousand miles from family or friends or anything familiar.  In more ways than one, I was a stranger in a strange land when it came to mothering.

I could hardly write at all, but what I did manage came out pure and uncut and straight from the vein in the very early hours of the morning.  I wrote with the kitchen counter holding me up, leaning hard on cold formica and scratching out words one after the other, stark and black, in journals I no longer have.

It did not help that I had one of those children that has lately been tagged with the euphemism spirited but in the late 1990s were at best called high-strung and at worst spoiled.  It was a good day when I got a shower, much less two minutes back to back to collect my thoughts enough to write.  He was in preschool and I was in grad school before I came out the other side and started writing for keeps again.

Ok, how about guilt? Most mothers suffer from this.  Did or do you have any guilt about the time you spent writing? It seems to be a common feeling amongst female writers that they love their time spent writing so much that it makes them feel bad for their family.  

I wish I could say that I’ve never struggled with guilt.  That’s the person I always pictured myself.  But you don’t undo millennia of conditioning with just an exercise in will.

I resisted the voice within that condemned me for not spending every waking instant enriching my kid’s life.  I wondered where the hell it even came from.  I resented the fact that male writers had the cheerful, clueless privilege of closing the office door on a handful of clamoring kids and a sticky kitchen floor without a single emotional penalty.

And I gradually became aware that they didn’t experience emotional penalties because they lacked the social ones.  No one judged them for creating the time and space - physical and psychological in equal measures - to write.  Writers who were also mothers are suffered to be both mothers and writers if we considered those personas in that order: mothers first, then writers.

That’s what started me toward a place where I could reject guilt as the insidious, artificial construct that it was.  Not that it was easy to tell a wailing preschooler that I wouldn’t be playing Legos until the big hand was on the seven, then ignore the resulting tantrum.  But it gave me a blueprint.  It let me redefine myself as a writer on my own terms, not those of a world whose expectations of me defined and confined me by my biology.

Briefly describe your journey as a writer before and after children.  How did motherhood change your writing?  Tell us about the essays you published that sustained you before publishing your book.

I had my son when I was pretty young, but I started writing novels young too.  I wrote my first book when I was thirteen, and before I graduated from high school I’d finished six more, each slightly less bad than the last.

But even though I considered myself worldly and edgy at seventeen, those hardscrabble years of early motherhood put me in a different place, a more thoughtful and humble and restless place - and if I’m honest, a more angry and radicalized place.  That’s when I started producing novels that had any chance of all at being published.

Those years produced the essays too, but sustain really isn’t the right word for what the essays did for me.  Those reflect my attempt to process how I got where I was.  They came from a different place than my fiction, and I needed to write them to get me back to a place where fiction could happen.

Tell us about how you found an agent and how long the process was for you.  Also, how did you manage the editing process around family demands?

I queried four different books over ten years.  This means I sent letters to literary agents asking if they’d like to represent me and my work to editors.  I kept hearing iterations of “thanks, but it’s not for me.”  I kept writing new books and querying and hearing “thanks, but it’s not for me.”  For ten years.  Then in November 2010, I went from being unagented to having a contract for W/J in less than a month.  It was a whirlwind!

What is in the pipeline for you?  When was The Wicked and The Just launched?  Tell us a bit about it and how it felt to publish it.

I’m working on several projects right now.  One is a companion novel to The Wicked and the Just which follows Maredydd ap Madog, whose father is the ringleader of the rebellion of 1294, as he negotiates the future his father wants for him and the future he wants for himself.  Then there’s a standalone book that’s set in twelfth-century Wales about girl con-artist, a warband, an abduction, a badly-timed war, and a charismatic but mercurial king’s son.

W/J came out on 17 April 2012.  Having a book published is a bit like sending a kid to kindergarten.  You spend those early years nurturing and guiding and carefully cultivating the book so it says please and thank-you and looks both ways before crossing.  More often than not, you get to pick and choose its friends and influences.  But then?  You walk your book to the school doors and it walks inside itself.  You have to trust that all those things you did to make it ready really did make it ready, and you have to accept that it’s going to live in the same harsh world you do.  Some people will love it.  Some will hate it.  Some won’t care about it at all.  But you have to let it go and let it be what you’ve made it.  And that?  Is difficult and terrifying and exciting all at once.

Finally, can you give one piece of advice on any aspect of writing that you think would be helpful to others. 

When I was just starting out, I learned this from Elizabeth Bear, a fantasy writer I admire very much: “Learn to write this book.”  There’s no one way to write a book, and every book is going to need something different.  Be openminded and let the needs of each book guide how you write it.  Very often your backbrain will surprise you with the answer you need without you having to think it up.

Thank you so much for taking the time to share your story with us today, Jilian!  If you'd like to know more about upcoming books, please visit her website at:


  1. I love Jilian more with every interview I read! Thank you for this interview. Can't wait to get my hands on that girl con-artist's story... :)

  2. Awesome interview, and I'm so glad Caroline pointed me over to your blog, Anna!
    I have The Wicked and the Just waiting for me at the library as we type--it sounds great, and as a writer of historical fiction, I'm super excited to see a "less popular" time represented.
    Thanks for the inspiration today, both of you!

  3. Thanks for joining us, Faith! More inspiration to come!

  4. Wow! Your dedication is so inspiring! Makes me want to get writing again.

  5. Jillian, one of the things I so admire about you is the way you shoot straight. It is evident in the honesty here and the soul-searing truth of THE WICKED AND THE JUST. Thank you for a look at your early days, for the things you took from those times, and for your commitment to story. I cannot wait for you next book. xo