Today we have Rena Olsen on the blog, author of The Girl Before releasing August 9, 2016 from Putman, an imprint of Penguin. The Girl Before is an adult psychological suspense novel that literally has me drooling. I seriously can’t wait for this book. Not only does the blurb entice me to no end, it’s written in alternating timelines which is a technique I adore (but don’t think I could ever pull off). Don’t forget to follow Rena and make sure you get this book!
In this powerful psychological suspense debut, when a woman’s life is shattered, she is faced with a devastating question: What if everything she thought was normal and good and true . . . wasn’t?
Clara Lawson is torn from her life in an instant. Without warning, her home is invaded by armed men, and she finds herself separated from her beloved husband and daughters. The last thing her husband yells to her is to say nothing.
In chapters that alternate between past and present, the novel slowly unpeels the layers of Clara’s fractured life. We see her growing up, raised with her sisters by the stern Mama and Papa G, becoming a poised and educated young woman, falling desperately in love with the forbidden son of her adoptive parents. We see her now, sequestered in an institution, questioned by men and women who call her a different name—Diana—and who accuse her husband of unspeakable crimes. As recollections of her past collide with new revelations, Clara must question everything she thought she knew, to come to terms with the truth of her history and to summon the strength to navigate her future.
Now, without further ado, let’s ask some slightly difficult writerly questions!
- First, let’s talk about your upcoming novel, The Girl Before! I’m always curious to know what triggered the idea for a story! How did The Girl Before come about, and which came first—the premise or the main character?
This is one of those questions that I feel like I should know the answer to, but I really don’t. I have a degree in psychology, and a master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy, so I’ve always been interested in human behavior. I also have a probably unhealthy love for villains, mostly because I always wonder what happened to someone that they turned out like that? And if you think about it, every villain is the hero of their own story.
At the same time as I was contemplating that, I was researching a lot about the world of human trafficking, and how so many times the victims had opportunities to escape, to change their fate, and didn’t take those opportunities. It got me thinking…if someone grew up in a world like that, where most people’s morals are flipped on end, how would they see the world? How would they justify what to the rest of us seems insane? That’s when Clara started speaking to me, telling me her story. She was the most powerful and unique voice I’d even encountered in writing. I couldn’t NOT write her story.
- What’s one juicy fact about yourself readers may not already know? And please, provide tons of details!
Oh my goodness. I promise you I’m really quite boring. I think the most crazy thing I ever did was ride in the back of a friend’s truck while sneaking through the ice cream factory loading zone in high school. We wanted to weigh ourselves in the truck with this giant scale they had. After being chased off by security, we zoomed through the Wal-Mart parking lot and my friend hit a shopping cart. Small-town life, man.
Or I suppose there was the time we moved to a new town where my dad was the new pastor at a church, and my sister and I were invited out to dinner and the movies with a group of kids from church. I was 16, and this group of church kids snuck me in to see American Pie.
See? Clearly not terribly wild. My parents won’t be able to read this though, right? There’s gotta be a filter for that.
- What do you do when you’re faced with “no-writing-feels”—those days all writers face where we’re certain we’re not meant for this writing-thing?
This has been very timely this year. Or last year, I suppose. I got a promotion at my day job which required me to basically work two jobs for a while, I bought a house and had to move, and was also working on several rounds of edits for The Girl Before. There were many days were the prospect of sitting down and squeezing out more new words was not appealing in the least.
The most important thing to remember when those days hit is that it’s perfectly normal and it’s OKAY to take some time off. Let your brain work in the background while watching Netflix or hanging out with friends or sitting at the pond and talking to the ducks (maybe that’s just something I do). But I can say from experience that taking too much time off isn’t good either, because it takes that much longer to get the juices flowing again. So I try to let myself have a couple days if I need them, but the only way to get words written is to sit down and write them, whether it’s a hundred words or five thousand.
Now to show off my hard-hitting journalism skills—try to contain your laughter as I adjust my sleuth’s hat!
- Let’s go back to your querying days for just a moment, to when you first signed with your agent. How long were you in the querying trenches? Was The Girl Before the manuscript that caught your agent’s interest, or something different?
I queried for about two years before The Girl Before. It was the third manuscript I’d queried, the second one I had been really serious about, and it was my first adult manuscript, because I always thought I was a young adult writer. I knew as soon as I sent queries out that TGB was going to be different. Even with a lot of agent interest, I queried for about four months before signing with Sharon, including a pretty significant R&R with another agent.
- There’s always a lot of buzz around agent contests (and contests are great for writers in so many ways), but most authors still find their agents through good old fashioned querying. Was it a contest or the slush pile that connected you with your agent?
It was actually a Twitter pitch party that connected me with Sharon. Before that, I had been in a blog contest called New Agent, and through that had connected with another agent who asked me for an R&R, which polished my manuscript and grew my measly 70K word adult manuscript to over 90K. While I do credit the pitch contest (#PitMad) with connecting with Sharon, in the end, it really comes down to impressing an agent, which is just as easy to do in the slush as it is in a 140 character pitch. I’d been in many (MANY) pitch contests before with hardly a bite. It just takes one.
- One of the least written about topics for writers is the submissions process itself. What can you share about being on submission for The Girl Before? How did you manage to stay sane? (One thing all writers want to know is how long you were out there before you had an offer, if you can share that.)
Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, for me at least), I don’t have a lot of advice for sanity in this area. My submission journey was pretty atypical from what I understand. My agency has a newsletter that goes out every four months, and I was in the January newsletter. That went out the second week of January. The third week of January, my agent sent out the first round of submissions. The next week, I talked with editors and received offers. I officially accepted the offer from Putnam on February 2, 2015, three weeks from when the newsletter went out. It’s all kind of a blur, and I still have to pinch myself some days to convince myself it’s real, even a year later.
- It’s not uncommon for writers to go through one or more rounds of revision with their agent before going on submission, only to do even more revisions with their editor once the manuscript is acquired. Can you share what the revision process was like for you and The Girl Before?
I mentioned before that I’d done a pretty serious R&R with another agent before signing with Sharon. I count that as my first round because it was intensive. Sharon and I did another two pretty intense rounds, and then a few back and forth changes. I’m not much for plotting (total pantser), but I even made myself a post-it wall to keep track of my scenes.
My edits with my editor were even more intense. My experience was a little different here too, as I worked with two editors. The first editor wrote a very detailed, and I mean detailed, edit letter. Painful, but so good for my story. Unfortunately, she ended up leaving while I was working through those edits. Fortunately, I got another rock star editor who shared the vision for the book, and we did another 2-3 rounds of edits between just us. After that there were several more rounds from copyeditors and cold readers. Sometimes it felt like it would never end, but each tweak made my book that much better. The team at Putnam is incredible, and they really know their stuff. I have felt very blessed throughout this entire process.
- What were a couple of your biggest surprises about the publishing process?
Honestly, everything has been a surprise. When I think back to when I first started this process, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Probably just how much goes into every decision that is made. So many rounds of edits, even down to the tiniest tweaks. (The last round I did was to check four word usages. Four.) The level of detail is what makes Putnam great, and what makes their books the high quality they are. It was also surprising to me how not scary everyone I’ve worked with is. I think I had this idea that these Big Important People in Publishing would be…cold? Unfriendly? I don’t even know, but I do know that couldn’t be further from the truth. Everyone has been wonderful, and they expect me to work hard, but they work hard as well. We’re a team, and everyone shares the goal of making The Girl Before the best book it can be.
- If you could whisper in the ear of the writer reading this, what one piece of wisdom would you share with them?
*whispering* Turn back now…
KIDDING. Here’s my real advice. Find a good support system and cling to them. Your support system should be a mix of people both in writing world and outside of writing world, because you need that balance. These are the people who are going to hope for you, believe for you, believe IN you, when you’ve lost that ability, and you will. Any creative process goes through valleys, through times of wanting to quit. Writing might be solitary, but surround yourself with people who aren’t going to let you wallow (for too long), who aren’t going to let you quit, who can dream with you and for you when things are hard.
- What’s next for The Girl Before and its illustrious author?
My deal with Putnam was for two books, so currently I’m working on Book 2, tentatively called Scavenger. It’s another thriller, not at all connected to The Girl Before. It’s a different feel, but still very psychologically based, this time asking the question, How far would a person go to protect someone they love?
Other than that, more naps, probably. And tacos.
Rena Olsen is a writer, therapist, teacher, sometimes singer, and eternal optimist. By day she tries to save the world as a school therapist, and at night she creates new worlds in her writing. Her debut novel, THE GIRL BEFORE, will be available from Putnam 8/9/2016. Represented by Sharon Pelletier of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management.