The Who, What, When, Where and Why with Camille Pagan
By Jade Craddock
For the first Who, What, Where, When and Why of 2017, we’re delighted to have Camille Pagan, who is no stranger to We Heart Writing. ♥
Who is your biggest inspiration as a writer?
I’m inspired by a great number of writers. Laurie Colwin, who died too young but wrote half a dozen pithy, emotionally insightful novels and short story collections. Barbara Kingsolver, Louise Erdrich, Sharon Olds, Gail Caldwell, Nora Ephron. I’m moved by Zadie Smith and Junot Díaz — incredible writers who are also stellar social activists. The list goes on and on.
But when I’m struggling with writing, I think back to myself as a young woman, wishing that I would one day make a living and find fulfillment as a writer. Recalling why you began can inspire you to keep going.
What motivates you to write?
Knowing that I have the opportunity to touch another person’s life keeps me going. When The Art of Forgetting came out, I heard from dozens of readers, most of whom related to the struggle Marissa went through with her critical, weight-obsessed mother. Seeing that my story had helped them fueled my desire to keep at it, even when the stories I was attempting to create didn’t come out right. Now that I have two more books out, that’s remained true. There’s nothing better than hearing from a reader who says, “Your book meant something to me.”
Where do you write?
I always write in my home office — but my actually writing routine has varied widely over the years, depending on my work and family schedule. My children are six and eight now, and both are in elementary school all day. I usually drop them off in the morning, then spend the first three hours of workday writing fiction. After lunch, I switch gears and work on journalism assignments, then squeeze in more fiction before the kids get home.
When I was working as a full-time journalist and magazine editor, I wrote mostly at night, but I just don’t have it in me anymore — I’d much rather wind down with a good book.
When did you first start writing?
I always wanted to write novels, but it wasn’t until shortly after my daughter was born, nearly nine years ago, that I was ready to start writing fiction in earnest. I’m glad I waited. If I had tried to be a novelist in my twenties, I wouldn’t have had much to say.
My first published novel, The Art of Forgetting, was also the first book I wrote; it was published in 2011 and 2012 by Dutton and Plume, which are imprints of Penguin, and half a dozen foreign publishers. After Forgetting came out, I spent several years writing novels that I didn’t love, which never saw the light of day. It was hard to spend so much time on books that weren’t published, but looking back those manuscripts were hugely instructive and helped me become a better writer.
In 2013, I was on assignment in Santa Monica and had a few hours to kill before I flew back to Ann Arbor. I was on the beach when the idea for my second novel, Life and Other Near-Death Experiences came to me at once. (The book is about a woman whose life falls apart in a single day, and who reacts by running away to a small Puerto Rican island called Vieques.) My agent sold Life to Amazon’s Lake Union Imprint, and it several weeks as the #1 bestselling book on Amazon, and has continued to sell well since. My next two novels, Forever is the Worst Long Time (out 2/7/17) and another untitled novel (out February 2018), are also with Lake Union.
Why did you write this book?
My son inspired this book. Four was an explosive year for his mind; every night when I put him to bed, he lobbed a new question at me:
“What happened to wooly mammoths?”
“Do plants sleep?”
“Why do we have tailbones?
“Good question,” I would respond, because — well, they were, even if I had to rely on Wikipedia to fill in the gaps in my knowledge.
One night I was lying next to him in bed, staring up at the glowing plastic stars affixed to the ceiling, when he said: “Mommy, what are bones made of?”
Finally, a question I could easily answer! “Mostly collagen, which is a sort of soft protein, and a mineral called calcium, too,” I said, drawing on my experience as a health journalist.
“Yeah, but what is all of that made out of?” he insisted. “Where does all that stuff come from?”
So much for easy. I thought about it for a moment, trying to figure out how best to describe a concept I didn’t fully understand myself. “Well,” I said, “Experts think that much of what we are comes from the inside of a giant star that exploded billions of years ago. The star’s parts contained material that makes up the parts in your body. Like the calcium in your teeth and bones — it comes from that.”
He looked at me like I had just confessed he was secretly a Jedi knight. “So we’re made of stars?”
“In a way, yeah.”
I had not yet kissed him goodnight when the plot for Forever is the Worst Long Time came to me.
Like every novel I’ve written, the skeleton of my latest book existed long before I was ready to flesh it out. In 2014, I had written down a single line — “At the end of his life, a man tells a child about his relationship with her mother” — and filed it in my “ideas” folder. Then I promptly returned to another novel I was in the middle of writing.
Two years later, my son’s awestruck response to a simple question formed the emotional core of Forever is the Worst Long Time. That is, one of the gifts of parenthood is the way your child’s fresh eyes and sense of wonder can remind you — the jaded, seen-it-all adult — of just how amazing it is to be on this planet, at this particular moment in time, with the people you love.
Forever is the story of James Hernandez, a struggling novelist who falls in love with his best friend Rob’s wife Louisa (Lou). Determined to act rationally, James manages to keep his feelings at bay for a full decade. But when Rob betrays Lou, she and James make what they both deem a bad decision. The result of their decision unfolds in such a way that makes James — speaking to Lou’s daughter Emerson at the end of his life — question whether a so-called mistake can truly be called that if it places you on the same path as those you love most.
Camille Pagan is a journalist and the bestselling author of three novels, including Forever is the Worst Long Time and Life and Other Near-Death Experiences.