Alchemy of Writing with Claire McMillan

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Show Notes

In celebration of the paperback release of her latest novel, Alchemy of a Blackbird, Claire McMillan discusses the art and life of Remedios Varo, historical fiction, surrealism, and Pamela Colman Smith, the artist behind the world’s most famous tarot deck. She also dives into the alchemy of writing, from finding the perfect title to writing “drawer novels” and beyond. Finally, McMillan answers questions from Page Count listeners surrounding the challenges of the sophomore novel and talking (or not) about current works in progress.

Claire McMillan is the author of Alchemy of a Blackbird, The Necklace, and Gilded Age, which was inspired by Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth. She was the 2017–2018 Cuyahoga County Writer-in-Residence and currently serves as a member of the board of trustees of The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, Massachusetts. She practiced law until 2003 and then received her MFA in creative writing from Bennington College. She grew up in Pasadena, California, and now lives on her husband’s family farm outside of Cleveland, Ohio, with their two children.

In this episode:



Laura Maylene Walter (00:00):
I wrote down a line from ALCHEMY OF A BLACKBIRD that I really like that relates to this, which is: "Art is for the things we don't have words for. So what is the purpose of talking about it?" Which I love...which might not be the best thing for a literary podcast host to be saying, but you know. That's fine.

Claire McMillan (00:16):

Laura Maylene Walter (00:21):
Welcome to Page Count, presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. This podcast celebrates authors, illustrators, librarians, booksellers, literary advocates, and readers in and from the state of Ohio. I'm Laura Maylene Walter, the Ohio Center for the Book Fellow and author of the novel BODY OF STARS. Today we're speaking with Claire McMillan, author of three novels, most recently, ALCHEMY OF A BLACKBIRD. In addition to discussing this novel, which just came out in paperback last week, we'll also answer a couple of writing and publishing questions from our listeners surrounding talking, or not talking openly about a work in progress and career considerations after the debut novel. But we'll get to those questions in a bit after we learn more about Claire and ALCHEMY OF A BLACKBIRD. Welcome to the podcast! Thanks for being here with us today.

Claire McMillan (01:14):
Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

Laura Maylene Walter (01:17):
I'm excited to talk about your latest novel, which is a fictional imagining of the life and work of Remedios Varo, a Spanish surrealist painter who rose to fame during her time in Mexico City after World War II. But can you tell us a bit more about Remedios Varo and why you felt driven to write a novel about her?

Claire McMillan (01:37):
Well, I felt really drawn to writing a novel about her when I saw her kind of iconic work, The Call. It's a painting that hangs in the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, DC. And I saw this piece and it really moved me and changed me like no other painting really ever has before or after. And looking at it, I thought, I need to know everything about whoever it was who painted this. So I started reading about her life, not thinking I would write a book about it, but when, as you mentioned, she came to fame after she fled Europe and the Nazis for Mexico City. And when she was there, she became really good friends with another painter, Leonora Carrington. And they both became really fascinated and interested in the occult tarot crystals, all these sorts of things. And I had been interested in the Tarot just independently for a number of years and those interests really coming together, learning about her life, which was so interesting, had me thinking, well, I think this might be a book. And that's really where the book came from.

Laura Maylene Walter (02:45):
Yeah, it was really interesting. I didn't know much about her. I know she's very famous in Mexico, right. But here, not quite as much. Can you just as much as you can in an audio only podcast, describe her paintings or just what her style was like?

Claire McMillan (03:01):
So she was finally technically trained painter. She studied at the Academia, San Fernando and Madrid, which at the time was the premier art school in Madrid that was really known for installing rigor in its students. It wasn't necessarily an experimental place. So she, in her education, received this really solid background in technique. And her paintings are finely, finely detailed almost like a Renaissance master. She was highly influenced by the Renaissance masters such as Hieronymus Bosch and others. And she painted these very fine paintings of like the weirder parts of the interior of your mind almost. They often feature these kind of androgynous characters that are kind of stand-ins for her. They're highly mystical. They often have other worldly kind of themes to them. And they're highly narrative too, I think too. There's always kind of a story behind them. So as a writer, I think that's part of what really pulled me in, but they're beautifully done. There was this summer, there was a exhibition of her work at the Chicago Art Institute. I went to see it and they had some of her brushes there and they had one that literally had one hair on it.

Laura Maylene Walter (04:18):

Claire McMillan (04:19):
That she used to paint because she was so finely detailed and she, you know, would take her three to four months to complete a painting.

Laura Maylene Walter (04:27):
Yeah, I remember in the novel there's a mention of a brush with I think three hairs on it and picturing just that, thinking of the level of precision. Well, I'll be sure to link to some of the images and the artwork in the show notes. So if listeners are not familiar with Varo's work, they can look it up. I visited Mexico City years ago before I knew much about her work. And now of course I'm kicking myself that I didn't explore more of it while I was there, but I can always go back. So I would love to talk about this novel structure, which I find so fascinating and it's complex, but it works so well. So I'll try to summarize it the best I can. The chapters alternate, we get a third person point of view of Varo, followed by an image of a certain tarot card with a description of the tarot card that is relating to something that's happening in the novel.

Laura Maylene Walter (05:18):
And then we get a first person chapter of a different character, someone else in her life or who's kind of on the outskirts or deeply enmeshed in the story. And those first person narrators don't repeat. So we have a new first person chapter every time and then it cycles back to her third person point of view. So I don't know if I described that well.

Claire McMillan (05:39):

Laura Maylene Walter (05:39):
But can you talk about that structure? Was that part of your vision from the beginning? Especially those tarot cards, the images are printed right in the book, which I, which I loved. So tell us about the structure and how you worked it out.

Claire McMillan (05:54):
Yeah, I was thrilled that they could reproduce some of the tarot cards I used in the book. I started out writing Varo's, I guess it's Varo's point of view in the third person, but I always find it so hard to choose point of view. I had written portions in a first person point of view from Varo's point of view. I had written chapters that way and I was going back and forth trying to decide what I want to do. And as you know, you make that choice and you're hemmed in in certain ways. And I was also thinking a lot about Elizabeth Straus book, OLIVE KITTERIDGE, which I loved, and how she used that kind of, she's different characters to give you this like kaleidoscopic view of Olive in that book. So I was thinking a bit about that. I was thinking about choosing point of view.

Claire McMillan (06:43):
I was thinking about including definitions of the tarot cards that kind of spoke to the way I think of them. Their my personal definitions. And so I had written the majority of the novel in third person, but I looked back at some of the scenes and thought, could these be told by a different person in the scene? And then I thought, well, if I'm going to do that, maybe I'll put them in first person, because first person I think is more immediate for the reader. And to have that kind of energy injected into the book I thought would be helpful. Yeah, it made for a complicated structure when you describe it, but I think people, when they read it, you understand pretty quickly what the structure is. But it allowed me to kind of open up, I think, and include everything I wanted to include in the book.

Laura Maylene Walter (07:33):
So you had written most of all of Varo's point of view first, and then you went back and added the first person chapters.

Claire McMillan (07:40):

Laura Maylene Walter (07:41):
That's really interesting. Yeah, and I think that's a good lesson for writers. I know I've done things like that too, where you think your point of view is going to be one thing and you end up adding new layers or needing to add more. It was also inspiring for me because I'm dealing with my own point of view complications right now and something that I'm working on. And my first novel was all in one point of view, first person, and adding new points of view. It can be a challenge because sometimes readers connect with one voice more than another, or maybe it can feel either confusing or you're pulled out of the world. And one thing I found so fascinating about this book is even though we were getting a lot of different first person narrators who kind of enter, share something and then leave it worked for the story to bring it all to life. And so I think that is so much easier said than done. And so I just want to commend you for that. I'm sure it was a complicated undertaking, but it really worked well, especially with the tarot cards.

Claire McMillan (08:38):
Yeah, thank you so much. I mean, I think like you're saying, we make these point of view choices and they can be quite constraining and looking at a scene, you know, that scene with Oscar or something, I thought, well what would Oscar tell you if he was not stuck in this third person over here? What would he directly say to you? Like, yes, I'm in love with her. Yes, I threw that glass. Yes, I, whatever, you know. So I thought, what would this character want to say to the reader? And also, how can I move the plot forward through this character and not obviously repeat the whole scene from their point of view or something like that and move everything forward. So yeah, thank you so much for saying that.

Laura Maylene Walter (09:17):
Yeah, and I think it's also a good lesson for writers to follow the energy of a piece because I know I, when I was writing something recently, I thought it would all be in one point of view. And when I got to a new section of the novel, I felt so drained and not excited about continuing on in the same point of view. And I decided to change and I felt so excited by it. The new point of view presented so many more opportunities. And so you have to follow that energy. If you're bored by what you're writing, that's not good, that's not going to be good for anyone.

Claire McMillan (09:46):
I think that's such a good point. Like if you don't even want to write it, how's somebody going to want to read it. Do you know what I mean?

Laura Maylene Walter (09:52):

Claire McMillan (09:53):
And so to find those ways that re-excite you about the work, I think is so important. Yeah.

Laura Maylene Walter (10:00):
Yeah it's hard enough to find readers, otherwise. So let's not make our jobs any harder than they need to be. Well, can we talk about the Tarot a bit, both in terms of what it means to you, why you're interested in it, and also the role it played in Varo's life and maybe art?

Claire McMillan (10:17):
I started studying the Tarot maybe ten years ago. And again, with no idea that it would show up in my work. It wasn't specific research and I think I was really drawn to it. Each card kind of tells a little story almost based around action. So I think for a writer storyteller or reader, even somebody who's interested in story, they're really compelling. And for me, they just provided a perspective to think about things, to think about life, to think about whatever informed by synchronicity, of course, you know, to the extent you believe in that or don't believe in it. But it offered a way of thinking about things and offered a practice, kind of akin to meditation, to thinking about things going on in your life, issues in your life. And for Varo, I mean, she was very inspired by the Tarot. She had a number of artworks that are based directly on images in the Tarot.

Claire McMillan (11:11):
She painted tiny little like tarot cards almost. Although she didn't paint a full tarot deck. Her friend Leonora Carrington did paint a tarot deck that was reissued a couple years ago while I was writing the book, which I have back there. But it was very much a part of her life, the Tarot. And I think it has been a part of a lot of different artist's life. I love the writer Italo Calvino. He of course wrote a novel based on the Tarot. Alejandro Jodorowsky, the Spanish virtuous filmmaker, super into the Tarot as well. I mean, I think it speaks across time.

Laura Maylene Walter (11:50):
Definitely. Well, one last Tarot question. So the tarot deck that the images are from, and that is most discussed in the book, is the Rider–Waite Tarot, which is very famous. It's probably what most people have seen in terms of a tarot deck. It's very common and popular. I own some tarot decks. I actually don't own that one. And I have to say, I never thought about who created the Rider–Waite Tarot deck. And so it was reading your novel that I learned who did create it, and it infuriated me a bit.

Claire McMillan (12:21):

Laura Maylene Walter (12:21):
Can you talk about that? Share with our listeners if they don't already know.

Claire McMillan (12:26):
I like to call it the Smith–Rider–Waite Tarot Deck because Pamela Colman Smith is the artist who actually painted those cards in 1907. She was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which was a Victorian society in London. Basically that was interested in all things kind of esoteric and occult. So the Kabbalah, astrology, the Tarot, all these things. She was a member of the society, Pamela Colman Smith. She went by Pixie Coleman Smith. As well as Bram Stoker and William Butler Yeats, all these kind of artists. And there was a fellow member Arthur Waite, who came across a collection of documents really. And until this time, the Tarot, the most famous deck until this time was the Marseilles Tarot, which had a series of trump cards that were illustrated. And then it had basically what was essentially just a playing card deck with no illustration that was used from probably the 15th century, up until the creation of the Smith–Rider in 1907.

Claire McMillan (13:31):
Anyway, he receives these documents and he thinks I'm going to reissue a tarot deck that kind of, he thought rectifies the tarot back to what it should originally be. But he wasn't an artist. So he hired his friend, Pixie Colman Smith to paint this deck for him. And he was super concerned about the Major Arcana and he was not concerned with the Minors. And he gave her kind of carte blanche to create the Minors how she wanted to create them. And I guess there was one other tarot deck that had illustrated Minors called the Sola Busca tarot from the 15th century that's in the British Museum. And at about the same time that she was painting her deck, the Sola Busca was exhibited in London at the British Museum. So all these things are kind of swirling around and she creates this incredible portal of a tarot deck that's the most famous tarot deck I think that we have.

Claire McMillan (14:28):
And it took her two years to paint them. And I think part of what's infuriating is she wrote a letter to her friend William Butler Yates, saying, I have a commission to paint a set of cards for not a lot of money. So I don't think she was paid very well for it. Her name was omitted from the deck. You know, Arthur Waite became famous and you know, she was kind of lost to obscurity until recently when people have more and more said, wait, you know, he wasn't an artist, he didn't create these, who created these. So that's interesting to me. It's interesting to me too that she exhibited part of the original paintings at Alfred Stieglitz's Gallery in New York, who was the husband of Georgia O'Keeffe. And it's amazing to me.

Laura Maylene Walter (15:12):
Well, Pamela Colman Smith has a point of view chapter in your book as do some other real life famous names just appearing in the novel in general, Peggy Guggenheim, Frida Kahlo. Um, you had mentioned Leonora Carrington. Can you talk about this? I mean, this is a work of historical fiction and a fictional imagining of some real people who existed. Can you talk about what it was like to write about or from the points of view of these really well known figures. What was that like for you and what was your, your research process like?

Claire McMillan (15:47):
Right. Well, of course, love research could research all day long forever and never write anything. So that was the enjoyable part. I have a chapter from Frida Kahlo's and then from Frida Kahlo's maid's point of view. And my agent actually said, are you sure you want to do this? Because you know, Frida Kahlo's like a saint to people and you know, you might get people coming after you, but so far I have not. And you know, I felt comfortable with the small appearance that she makes in the book. Peggy Guggenheim, I think is often fictionalized. She's, you know, shows up in books and movies here and there. So I felt a little more comfortable with that. And Leonora, I felt she really needed to have a voice in the book because she was such a big part of Romania's life and their friendship was such a defining thing in Remedios' life. So yeah, I keep getting asked like, how do you do that? And I guess I should be more daunted than I was to do it. But I enjoyed researching their lives and thinking about what they would say if they could, so.

Laura Maylene Walter (16:55):
Yeah, it made me think of THE LACUNA by Barbara Kingsolver. I don't know if that was one of the novels that was either part of research or inspiration, but that also has Frida Kahlo in the book. Not a point of view character, but still.

Claire McMillan (17:08):

Laura Maylene Walter (17:09):
So for any listeners who want more Mexico City of a different time, I think that would be another recommendation. So one of the themes in the book is women and women creating art, which I really loved. And you know, Remedios is she's spending a lot of time fleeing, fleeing Spain and then fleeing France, you know, from the Nazis. And now she's in Mexico and she takes on a lot of commercial work to make money. And she is sort of being pressured by, in a friendly way from people in her life about making her own art. And she thinks about how women can make art.

Laura Maylene Walter (17:47):
There's one moment in the book where she's looking at other women making art and how men have maybe created that space for them or have helped them allow them to make their art. And she thinks the difference with Remedios was that if she wanted that life, she'd have to create it herself, which I, I really found compelling. Can you talk about that a bit? About the novel and, and her own journey of coming into her own art and also just a woman at that time. What was it like for a woman who is an artist at that time trying to make a name for herself? Especially in the Surrealist circles?

Claire McMillan (18:22):
Especially in the Surrealist circles.

Laura Maylene Walter (18:24):

Claire McMillan (18:24):
You know, I found it through the research really interesting that the male Surrealists were kind of all about blowing up convention, blowing up the conscious mind, like running on the unconscious, running on instinct, bringing that all to the fore, like throwing off the rules and bounds of society...for them though. And when it came to the women in their lives, they had, I thought a huge blind spot kind of as to what that meant to the women in their lives. And you know, I was thinking about so many books and tales that are told about women who kind of create these spaces for like great men to operate in, great artists to operate in. And how hard that is I think sometimes for a woman who wants to be her own artist to create that space around herself, as you were saying, she took on a lot of commercial work because she did have to support herself.

Claire McMillan (19:22):
And it wasn't really until she found a certain level of stability in her own life through actually her marriage to Walter Gruen who really believed in her art that she really could enter into a time in her life where she could devote herself specifically to her artwork. And it is interesting, there's not a lot of her non-commercial work that is around prior to that time. And so she really just kind of, I feel like burst out in this personal creativity that she had. She had an initial show with four pieces and it's sold out and then they gave her a solo show and I think it sold out the opening night. And ever since then there's this huge long waiting list for her work. But she spent so many years I think, in service to other types of work that when she had like a minute just to express herself fully, it just kind of burst out of her.

Laura Maylene Walter (20:19):
Well another big theme is female friendship, especially between artists, her friendship with Leonora Carrington. Can you talk about that a bit in terms of what you discovered or imagined in her life, the role of having this friend and maybe an artistic confidant and if you would like also in your own life in terms of friends or friends with other writers and how or what that community might mean to you?

Claire McMillan (20:49):
Yeah, I mean, thank God for our friends, right?

Laura Maylene Walter (20:52):

Claire McMillan (20:53):
Yeah, I am, I feel lucky and blessed to have really close female friendships. I've seen me through all things of life that we go through. And to have also dear friends, female friends who are writers who will talk in kind of a no, a no BS way with you about what's going on with them, their career, you know, talk about whatever publishing, gossip, whatever it is. Yeah, I feel very blessed to have that. And one of the reasons I really wanted to write the book was to create a portrayal of female friendship that was similar to my experience of it, which is not, hasn't been catty or competitive or anything like that, but is more like something that is so base level necessary in life. And so in researching both of them, I didn't really find a time when they had a huge fallout.

Claire McMillan (21:47):
I didn't find a time that spoke to a lot of drama between them. I mean, I create in the book little bits of like staticky stuff between them because of course as you know, you're writer and you need some conflict and some whatever going on. But they really supported each other and they kind of were a almost an art movement of two. Because they were interested, they were so well trained, they were such great technicians and then they were interested in the same things. And their paintings in style are very different. And in energy when you look at them are very different. But they are concerned with the same subject matter, which was also fascinating because it didn't create competition as far as I could tell between them. But more support between the two of them to really go there.

Laura Maylene Walter (22:37):
The paperback just came out for this novel. Before we move on to a few listener questions, are there any parting words you'd like to leave our listeners about ALCHEMY OF A BLACKBIRD? Maybe you'd like to talk about the title a little or if there's anything else you would like to share about this book.

Claire McMillan (22:54):
Yeah, I mean I think the title came about by my thinking about Remedios herself kind of as a blackbird and the alchemical transformation and change she went through in her life and goes through in the book to be a fully realized actualized person. And I mean, for lack of better word to fly, you know? So that's really where the title came from and I didn't think my publisher would let me keep it, but they did. So I'm super happy about that.

Laura Maylene Walter (23:25):
That's always a good thing. Because you never know writers, publishers might end up wanting to change your title for many, many reasons. So it's always a win.

Claire McMillan (23:33):
My first book, they did change the title.

Laura Maylene Walter (23:35):
Oh yeah?

Claire McMillan (23:36):
And they made it better, thank goodness. But I now have learned that I keep a document open usually while I'm writing, where I'm just dumping words that I like for the title. So the document for this, for ALCHEMY BLACKBIRD was like two pages long of this word. I feel like if I get a little stuck, I start thinking about the title, you know? And sometimes that helps and sometimes that doesn't.

Laura Maylene Walter (24:03):
Yeah. I find sometimes titles either come really quickly and easily or like you I'll have those pages of notes. BODY OF STARS originally...

Claire McMillan (24:11):
Which is a great title by the way.

Laura Maylene Walter (24:13):
Thank you. It took me a long time to come up with it. It had a different title for years while I was working on it. And then I, my agent just suggested, "Maybe think of some other ideas," and it took me forever. I mean, sheets of paper with just those words, you know, blank of blank or you know. And then when I finally hit on it, I was like, oh, this is so perfect for the book, how could I not have seen it? And when the book sold the whole time I was wondering like, is my editor going to say we have to change it? You know, I was wondering the whole time and it never came up. So I was glad. You never know though, there sometimes are strong marketing reasons why a title might not work, right.

Claire McMillan (24:46):
I don't know if you've ever seen that movie Julia and Me, about the woman who cooks all of Julia Child's recipes.

Laura Maylene Walter (24:53):
Uh huh.

Claire McMillan (24:53):
Well, there's a scene where they're trying to come up with a title for MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING. Meryl Streep playing Julia Child is in her editor's office and the editor has like all these note cards on the wall and Julia's like collapsing in her chair and exhaustion as the editor's like going through all the different ramifications until they come up with MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING. So I actually think of that scene every once in a while, you know, when you think of titles.

Laura Maylene Walter (25:22):
Because especially now that title seems so obviously right and how could there have ever been another title? But it's not always that easy. I've also, speaking of writing friends, I've had writing friends, there are publishers or editors have sent lists or asked for alternate titles. And then I'm getting the list from my friends, which one do you like? Let's vote on it. You know? And it can be, it can be really, really hard. So that's a whole process. Alright, well let's move on to just two questions that we received from Page Count listeners. Thank you listeners for writing in with your questions. It's often common on podcasts like this for the host to ask, what are you working on now? Which kind of leads into this question, which came from Liz in Lakewood.

Laura Maylene Walter (26:07):
"Do you prefer to talk about new works in progress while you're in the early stages of working on them? Or do you prefer to say as little as possible and why?"

Claire McMillan (26:17):
Yeah, so that's such a great question. And you're right. When you have to go out and talk about your book, they'll ask, what are you working on next? And I hate to talk about what I'm working on. I think it's horrible for a number of reasons. Number one, I think just energetically, it lets all the air out of the balloon, you know. For a number of reasons. Number one, I feel like because a novel is such a big thing, if you can boil it down like that while you're writing it, then it's kind of like, why are you writing it?

Laura Maylene Walter (26:50):

Claire McMillan (26:51):
I mean, once you're done writing it, you'll have to boil it down and your agent will help you, your editor will help you. Like the marketing people will help you. But if you can do it while you're doing it, it might be too simplistic in a way, I think.

Claire McMillan (27:04):
Or if you go into like an overly long explanation of all of it, then it's almost like you've written it already in a way like you've told the story so all the air goes out of it. I also think that so many books sound so ridiculous.

Laura Maylene Walter (27:19):

Claire McMillan (27:21):
If you say what the plot is? Yeah, actually, I heard Ann Patchett say this. She, she was like, I had to like tell people the plot of BEL CANTO, right? Which is like an opera singer, terrorist takeover, a South American embassy. And like there's a Japanese opera fanatic and what...She's like, it sounds so dumb. This is not me. This is Ann Patchett's.

Laura Maylene Walter (27:43):
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Claire McMillan (27:43):
Her own work. She says, it sounds so dumb when you boil it down. But of course I love that book and I think it's beautiful.

Laura Maylene Walter (27:49):
Me too.

Claire McMillan (27:50):
Yeah. And Ann Patchett's actually a really good example of the reason why I don't really care about what a book's plot is a lot of the time. Like if Ann Patchett wants to write about whatever she's writing about, she is a favorite writer of mine, like I'm going to read it, you know?

Laura Maylene Walter (28:10):

Claire McMillan (28:10):
Or Zadie Smith or Donna Tartt, or Daniel Mason or someone like that. Like, I don't care, are they writing sci-fi? Are they writing historical fiction based on the Civil War? Like, I'm going to read whatever they do kind of. And so in a way, I think plot is kind of a hard thing to talk about because there are certain genres or certain whatever, somebody to tell me about. And I'll be like, yeah, that's not my thing. But if they're like, it's an amazing book, it's really well written, you know, I can read anything. So yeah. So that's why I don't talk about what I'm working on.

Laura Maylene Walter (28:43):
Yeah, no, I, I completely agree. It takes the energy out of it. It like takes away some of the magic almost when it's in the beginning, this private nascent thing you're trying to figure out out. And yes, they books do often sound very bad or stupid when you're just trying to describe them and especially in the beginning of a project, I find it can be really fragile. So if I'm talking to someone at a party and I hear the words coming out of my mouth and I hear how stupid it is, or you see that their eyes are glazing over a little, it's, it can discourage you from continuing. So I personally don't like it either. I don't mind getting that question because I'll just answer it in a really non-specific way and talk about either one big theme or, or just something general, which might be unsatisfying for everyone. I don't know. But yeah, so no, I agree with you on that. And I wrote down a line from ALCHEMY OF A BLACKBIRD that I really like that relates to this, which is: "Art is for the things we don't have words for. So what is the purpose of talking about it?" Which I love...which might not be the best thing for a literary podcast host to be saying, but you know. <Laugh>.

Claire McMillan (29:47):

Laura Maylene Walter (29:48):
That's fine, that's fine. Okay, second question is from an anonymous listener.

Laura Maylene Walter (29:53):
"Many writers understandably put all their energy into publishing their debut novel, but what happens after that? What unique challenges or roadblocks might come into play at this point in a writer's career? And what advice do you have for authors working toward publishing a second or third novel?" So since you have published three novels, I think you're the perfect person to answer this. So what would you like to share?

Claire McMillan (30:17):
I mean, I guess I'd share, well, first of all, everybody knows the sophomore effort, the second book is the hardest. That's the, you know, that's the cliché. And it's, I think it's hard because yes, you put so much effort into the debut and so much hard work. And so I can only speak to my experience, I thought, oh, I know how to do this now. But of course what you learn through every book is every time it's a blank page and it's like, I have no idea how I'm going to do this. I think the only solace you have after publishing a number of times is I have done it in the past, so I'll probably figure it out again. But it never feels like, oh, I know what I'm doing, I know how to do this now. And you know, a lot of other writers have said that, you know, as well.

Claire McMillan (31:09):
So I actually, when years and years ago I was in a book club that we only read debuts because of the energy in a debut. But I do think, at least for me and for a lot of other writers, if you look at their books, their debut may land them, you know, in the zeitgeist or on the map, but it's often not their best work. And I do think writers get better as they go, at least I hope I do. And so that also is, is a solace to think it takes a good amount of energy to publish that first time and to get through it. But I think you do learn and you do get better as you go.

Laura Maylene Walter (31:48):
Your first novel was GILDED AGE. Was that the first novel you had written or the first novel you had published?

Claire McMillan (31:54):
<laugh> Yeah. No way.

Laura Maylene Walter (31:57):
Okay. No, that makes me feel better.

Claire McMillan (31:59):
<laugh> Yeah, no, no, I, okay, so my horrid history, I obviously have been writing for a long time, but I have a MFA from Bennington and, in Creative Writing. And so part of that is you write a thesis, which is a book length manuscript. So I wrote a thesis there and shopped it and tried to get it published. And I think I queried like 50 agents and I didn't even have a request for a full novel, you know, so I put it in the drawer and thought, should I really be doing this? I just got a degree and maybe I shouldn't be doing this, and blah, blah blah. And then I had the idea to write GILDED AGE, a retelling of Edith Wharton's HOUSE OF MIRTH, set in Cleveland, and I love Edith so much. And then that book, I found an agent relatively quickly and she sold it very quickly.

Claire McMillan (32:48):
So yeah. And then in between every single one of my books, I write another book. So I think that's just part of my process. So in between GILDED AGE and THE NECKLACE, I wrote like straight formula, genre, romance novel that is so bad. <Laugh>. I gave it to my agent and she was like, um, yeah, no. And then in between NECKLACE and ALCHEMY OF THE BLACKBIRD, my background is, I was a lawyer for years and years, and so I wrote a legal thriller, which also was horrific.

Laura Maylene Walter (33:21):

Claire McMillan (33:21):
So the answer is yes, I have many unpublished manuscripts. You know, I say I strip them for parts. So yeah, I mean there are pieces and parts of each of them that show up in other places. Like nothing is really wasted, wasted. But yeah,

Laura Maylene Walter (33:37):
I really love that. And I think it's so useful for people to hear. Because often the first published novel is not the first novel a writer has written. That wasn't the case for me either. And I love that you also were writing books in between your published books that might not have ended up going anywhere in terms of publishing, but it was probably really helpful for you. I mean, it's, this is what it takes and not every book we write is going to be published. You know, I wrote a book after a BODY OF STARS sold, but before it came out, I wrote a novel. And during the pandemic, when we were all locked inside, I wrote a novel that I still, I have fond feelings for. So I am planning to return to it, but it's just not the right time. And I've put it aside to work on something else and this is just what it takes. And I don't think that's a bad thing. So listeners, if you love writing, just keep writing those novels and hopefully one of them will, will make it out in the world, right? That's all we can hope.

Claire McMillan (34:28):
Yeah. And I think the novels that are in the metaphorical drawer pieces and parts of them get incorporated into other things so they're not wasted.

Laura Maylene Walter (34:39):
No, nothing is a waste. No. No matter how bad it is.

Claire McMillan (34:41):

Laura Maylene Walter (34:43):
I kind of want to read your romance and your legal thriller now. I bet there are a lot of fun.

Claire McMillan (34:47):
Absolutely not. <Laugh>. They are so bad. And actually that's one of the things you think like, thank goodness. Like looking back years and years later, I'm like, oh man, actually I kind of dodged a bullet.

Laura Maylene Walter (35:01):
Yes, exactly.

Claire McMillan (35:03):
I might be a little embarrassed right now. If I published that, so, yeah.

Laura Maylene Walter (35:06):
Yeah, time for a writer is so important. And give yourself even just a few years and you can look at a work in a totally new light and maybe feel grateful that you started working on something new instead of sticking with that one sometimes. So.

Claire McMillan (35:19):
And I think to see really clearly where it didn't work. Like how it failed.

Laura Maylene Walter (35:25):
Definitely. Well, speaking, not of failure, but of success and a book that did work out. I loved ALCHEMY OF A BLACKBIRD and this is such a fun conversation.

Claire McMillan (35:34):
Thank you.

Laura Maylene Walter (35:34):
So thank you so much. Before we go, would you, you like to share with our listeners where they can find you online? Is there a certain favorite independent bookstore you recommend for them to pick up your book? What would you like to share?

Claire McMillan (35:44):
Yeah, I hang out mostly on Instagram, so you can find me there. Also my website, and my buddies at Appletree Books and at Mac's Backs always have signed copies.

Laura Maylene Walter (35:56):
Wonderful. Claire, thank you so much for joining us and answering all my questions and our listeners' questions. It was a delight.

Claire McMillan (36:04):
Thank you. I had a great time.

Laura Maylene Walter (36:09):
Page Count is presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, rate, and leave a review for Page Count wherever you get your podcasts. Learn more online or find a transcript of this episode at Follow us on Instagram @ohiocenterforthebook, on Twitter @cplocfb, or find us on Facebook. If you'd like to get in touch, email and put "podcast" in the subject line. Thanks for listening, and we'll be back in two weeks for another chapter of Page Count.

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