Interview with Charlotte Rogan, author of The Lifeboat

I was lucky enough to meet Charlotte Rogan the other night at an event hosted by Write Yourself Free, in Westport, CT. Charlotte is a local resident, and kindly spent a couple of hours talking to local writers and fans about her recently published book, The Lifeboat, described by Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times as “a really accomplished first novel”. The novel takes as its premise a group of 39 people stuck in a lifeboat after their liner sinks in 1914. The lifeboat is too small, and, unlike the passengers of the Titanic, these people are not rescued for three weeks. Some have described the book as harrowing, but I found it fascinating, as well as beautifully written. The power struggle between the two main characters (other than our unreliable but intriguing narrator, Grace Winter) hinges on the male and female styles of leadership. There are moral dilemmas aplenty, and I predict this will be a firm favorite with book groups.

The book hit #12 on the NY Times hardback fiction list and has been on the extended list for 7 straight weeks – an amazing achievement for a debut novel.  And it’s being translated into 24 languages. What’s interesting about this is that Charlotte has been writing for 25 years, and has several (unpublished) novels under her belt. She took a creative writing class with Harold Brodkey, and then simply wrote and wrote and wrote, improving as she went along.  Judging by The Lifeboat, this method seems to have worked. (Memo to self: write more…) When I interviewed her, I asked Charlotte what had made her decide to publish at last.

GC: What made you decide to try and get the book published?

CR: I think all writers want to be published, but I was busy with my family and I didn’t like doing the things it took to try to find a publisher: searching out appropriate literary agents, writing endless query letters, writing short pieces in the hopes of breaking into print through magazines, making contacts among publishing professionals. Still, I knew I was getting better with each novel I wrote, so when I looked into the future, I could see two equally reasonable scenarios: one where I continued to write only for myself and one where I finally found an audience for my work.

GC: How did you find an agent?
CR: Over the years I occasionally set my mind to finding a publisher, but none of them came to anything until my children were seniors in high school. One day I got a call from a journalist who was writing an article on the challenges for multiples (Charlotte has triplets) of applying to college. Over the course of things, she and I became friends, and after reading one of my manuscripts, she introduced me to her literary agent, who sold The Lifeboat to Little, Brown (note: publishers of J.K. Rowling’s next book. GC) in the fall of 2010.

GC: How much help have your publishers given you in promoting the book? I notice that you have great quotes on the back cover (from the likes of J.M. Coetzee, Hilary Mantel and Emma Donoghue), and interviews/reviews with all the main newspapers/publications.

CR: Little, Brown has a phenomenal publicity department, which has been wonderfully effective at getting The Lifeboat in front of various media outlets. Of course, no one can control which books the reviewers choose to read of the many thousands they receive each year or whether or not they like a particular book. As for the blurbs, I was shocked to discover that finding authors to write them was my responsibility. I didn’t know any authors! I decided to use the opportunity to write letters to my literary heroes and thank them for their books, which are really the things that taught me how to write. Out of fifteen letters, five authors agreed to write blurbs for me: among them two Booker Prize winners, an Orange Prize winner, a National Book Award winner, and a Nobel laureate. I will always be grateful to them for taking the time to help a new-comer.

GC: And as always, writers want to know how a typical day goes…it seemed to me, hearing you speak, that you’re a pretty disciplined person. Is that right?

CR: I am quite disciplined, but how a day goes really depends on the other elements of my life. My family has always come first, and I find that even twenty-something children require a certain amount of time. One of the first things established writers will say to you is to treat writing like a job. That means blocking out distractions and saying no to a lot of things. I am a morning person, so I like to use the morning hours to work. Ideally, I fit exercise, errands, and household tasks into the afternoon, with more work before dinner if time allows. I find it impossible to do more than 2-3 hours of really creative first-draft writing per day, but there are always other writing-related tasks I can do. These include editing, research, and reading books that are inspirational for my work. When I am editing a more finished piece, I might work for 8-10 hours a day if life allows it. Finally, taking care of your physical needs is an obvious but sometimes overlooked element of productivity: eating right, getting enough sleep, and regular exercise pay huge dividends when it comes to writing.

GC: You seem very self-possessed. Do you feel pressured to produce your next novel?

CR: Oddly, I do feel pressure, but only some of it is related to worry about finishing the novel I am currently working on. That’s probably because there are so many new tasks vying for my time. Fiction writers tend to be introverts, but once published, they are given a microphone and asked to speak, set to writing essays for magazines, and interviewed on live radio. Those are things I have never done before, and they have taken a lot of time and energy. But the next big challenge is to balance my time more effectively because I do want to get back to working on my book.
GC: On behalf of my readers and myself, thanks, Charlotte for such an encouraging interview!

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