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Friday, February 3, 2023

Consider your Manuscript Like an Architect's Blueprints: Author Interview with Kaya McLaren

What inspired you to write that first novel? Did it get published?

In 1998, I was teaching in a small, isolated wheat-farming town. Since I was paying off student loans, I didn't have two dimes to rub together. When my television broke and I couldn't afford to replace it or fix it, I started writing to entertain myself...mostly imagining what my life would look like if I wasn't lonely and if I had supernatural powers to fix the things in life that I wanted to fix. 

I began during a cold snap when I had to stay right next to my woodstove, but I had so much fun in my imaginary world that I wrote for about an hour each night while I took a bath! Isn't that funny? Yes, I wrote my first novel by hand on notebook paper in a three-ring binder. Initially it was published by DayBue Publishing, Ink and I couldn't tell you how many revisions we did except that I was grateful in the end for each one. Several years later, Penguin picked it up and we did a few more revisions. I blocked most of it out of my memory.

What is the hardest part of writing for you? 

The hardest part of writing for me is coming up with a plot because I don't like problems. This always makes me laugh to say aloud. Other people are fascinated by problems. I'm exhausted from real problems, so I'd really rather not create imaginary ones to solve in addition, you know? But since problems are central to a plot, I really have to force myself. My grandmother taught me that what I give my attention to grows, so I'm always afraid that by giving my attention to these imaginary problems, I'm going to create them in my real life. It's okay to laugh at all of that.

What’s the best encouragement you’ve had in your writing?

I always loved writing letters. There was a time in my life when I could no longer write individual letters to all of the people I had met along the way-- friends from summer camp, friends from archaeology projects, friends from college, extended family, etc... and the Internet wasn't a thing yet, so I wrote these Xerox letters (sometimes illustrated) and mailed them out. I heard that two different recipients read them at dinner parties at their homes and that people who didn't know me looked forward to the next one. That was the moment that I realized that I might be able to make a little money at this-- at least enough to cover Xeroxing costs and postage stamps.

Marketing is the biggest key to getting sales. What is the best marketing source you've used that has produces more sales rather than just clicks?
Oh, girl, that is the million dollar question right now. It feels like such a moving target. I've watched this business change so much in the last twenty years and truly, I do not know what the rules are. I've decided not to worry about it and just do what I like doing. I like making friends with bookstore owners. Bookstore owners and managers are always really interesting, intelligent, compassionate, insightful people. 

I like road trips, and I like stopping in and introducing myself. There are some stores where I've enjoyed having events, though I haven't in a long time. I think events need to be more than book signings, though. Book club meetings are more interesting to me. I like discussions more than speeches. I appreciate that feedback from readers. I especially love it when they share a passage that was meaningful to them. Social media isn't a comfortable way for me to promote, though I do some. It's just that I'm an elementary teacher, and I don't want parents making judgments about the content of my stories and bringing any controversy around that into my teacher-life.

What do you know now about writing you wished you had known sooner?

When I wrote CHURCH OF THE DOG, I really didn't understand the fundamentals of plot. At some point after it was out, I met an award-winning screenwriter in the Methow Valley who read it and told me that my main character wasn't who I thought it was because she didn't change; my main character was the one who changed. I read books about screenwriting that I checked out from the library there and that really helped me grow in ways I wanted to grow.

What is the best writing advice you’ve received or could give?
Write about what you know. Classic.

I tell people to go out and live an interesting life instead of holing up and writing in solitude all the time. HOW I CAME TO SPARKLE AGAIN was my biggest commercial success and I wrote it after spending a few winters skiing with a very animated group of friends from different walks of life. Go live. Live big. Let life feed you book material.

Are there any other points about writing you would like to add?
I'd like to thank the librarian in Heppner, Oregon, who in 1998 saw me looking to see who published my favorite books and asked how she might help me. I told her about my manuscript and how I didn't know what to do with it, and she put a copy of THE WRITERS' MARKET and a copy of HOW TO GET HAPPILY PUBLISHED in my hand. In doing so, she forever changed my life. Libraries are the great equalizer. When I didn't have enough money for food and sure couldn't afford a fat book like THE WRITERS' MARKET, the library gave me access to it. Libraries are a beautiful thing.

I also want to say that being an archaeologist helped prepare me for the publishing process. In archaeology, there weren't a lot of opportunities. Back in the '90's, I'd send my resume to fifty or a hundred archaeology or environmental consulting firms and hear back from one or two. I understood that there just weren't many availabilities and that it wasn't personal. In the publishing world, publishing houses only publish a certain number of each kind of genre a year. Maybe they're looking for what you've got, or maybe that spot has been filled. Keep trying. Don't get discouraged. Most of all, be willing to rewrite. 

The first draft is for you. Enjoy the process of writing it. If you don't want to change it, self-publish. But if you want commercial success, be humble and open-minded. Allow your manuscript to become something entirely different if that is what's going to happen. I see it like being an architect. Ultimately, I'm creating a product for a customer and I want that customer to be satisfied and come back for more. I see my editor/publisher as that customer, and as a representative of their customers. But that first draft, oh, enjoy writing it like you would enjoy falling in love during a vacation romance. Then, get back to work.

What is the next book coming out? Can you give me a short synopsis?
I don't know when my next book is coming out. I sent a manuscript to my agents last month. 
I would like to plug my last book though, because I think it's the best one I've written so far. It's not the cheeriest. It's heavy, and it's not for everyone. I wrote WHAT'S WORTH KEEPING after my own experience with breast cancer, which left me reeling from trauma and feeling extremely disoriented in my own body and in my own life. I had to find a way to make peace with the uncertainty and absolute certainty of life and I really struggled to do so. 

So, I changed the the manuscript I had been working on and put Amy, one of the main characters, in the place that I was--the place where everything seemed like bullshit except nature and all I wanted to do was be with the big trees in the kindest forest I knew. Amy sets off from Oklahoma City on her way to Mt. Rainier National Park, visiting a few national parks and monuments along the way. Unlike me, Amy had a husband. Paul, a cop in Oklahoma City, had his own trauma from being a first responder to the Oklahoma City Bombing years ago, and had grown increasingly more distant ever since. 

Their daughter, Carly, had always been the model of perfection until after Amy's cancer, when she learned of the genetic aspect to her mom's disease. After that, she saw little point in delaying gratification and went off the rails. Through no agreement of her own, she finds herself at Great Aunt Rae's in Chama, New Mexico, where she works with Clydesdales in her aunt's outfitting business. Amy, Paul, and Carly, all find their way out of trauma through different means-- nature, music, a project, the comfort of horses, and miraculously find their way back to one another. 

While intense at times, it's ultimately hopeful. It turns out that medical trauma is a thing, and it's hard to talk about when we know many people weren't lucky enough to get the gift of more time. We know we should be grateful and we are-- but we also grieve the way our lives and our bodies were before everything changed. I think this book will help many people know they're not alone in those moments, and really help those who are close to someone going through it understand what is happening and why.

That's all for today's interview. Lot to absorb here. If you'd like to learn more about Kaya's books, here's the link to her website:


  1. Very nice interview! Thank you both 🤗. Btw, I was a library page at a Carnegie library in my neighborhood while I was in high school. I even thought about becoming a librarian. I travelled the world instead. And as Kaya advised, I'm now writing/sharing about those experiences.

  2. Excellent advice here. Take it from a retired creative writing prof. I loved WHAT'S WORTH KEEPING and highly recommend it. It includes wonderful
    Insights not only for those who have been sick w cancer but also for those wishing to be supportive.

  3. Thanks for your candid comments. I may pass your interview to those on my email list. It's nice to hear someone else discuss beginner's missteps. I agree that marketing can be a real 'beast' and a moving target. Good luck to all of us on that one!

    1. If you do add the interview to your email list make sure you still attribute it as from this blog.

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