Last May, I reviewed the novella, Women Float, that I received from CCLaP. One of the amazing things about CCLaP is that you can download many of the books there for free, such as this one: Women Float by Maureen Foley.
Maureen, what brought you to writing, and to be published at a fabulous small press like CCLaP?
I like telling the story of how I connected with CCLaP because it may give hope to other writers who feel like an ancient project is unworthy or lacks promise. What I say to them is: don’t give up. I believe publishing is about timing and connecting with the right people. Just like dating, it takes a lot of duds to find the stud. (Did I really just write that? Wow. I think I may have just hit a new low.)
But back to Women Float. Basically, here is the evolution of the book from idea to published product with CCLaP. To start, I wrote Women Float while attending Kenyon College as a senior honors project, back in the late 1990s. Right after graduating as an English and Creative Writing major, I was extremely gung ho but totally naive about the publishing world. I’d worked really hard on the manuscript and had this insane notion that the book would be in print within the year. This really dates me to say it, but there was no Internet in the publishing world at the time, so I spent the whole summer sending out physical paper copies of query letters to small presses.
Eventually, two of the publishers actually wrote me back asking to see the whole manuscript, despite my incredibly awkward query letter. What makes this story even more remarkable is that during that time I was moving, starting a new job or dating someone new every month during. So, eventually I remember getting this letter at my third-floor, rent-controlled pink apartment near the projects. The envelope was stamped all over and had been forwarded several times within San Francisco. It was from one of the publishers who’d requested my full manuscript and they actually wanted to publish the book. Just the fact that the letter found me is amazing.
I called the publisher up right away and even got as far as having them send me the contract. But in the end I walked away from the deal. It turned out that they wanted me to pay for half of the publishing costs for producing the book. After that, years passed and Women Float just sort of treaded water. I used three chapters from the manuscript to get into a graduate school MFA program for creative writing at Naropa, but then my voice changed dramatically and the whole project seemed so juvenile and far away.
Enter James Claffey, my love, my collaborator, my starkest critic and fellow writer. Ten years after I’d first written Women Float, I gave it to James and he thought it was great and encouraged me to dust it off and send it out. Then, months later at a literary conference, a very kind agent gushed about the writing but then refused to sell it because she couldn’t.
“It’s a novella,” she said. “And no one buys those. They can’t make money on them.”
By “no one,” she actually meant no big publishers and instead of being discouraged by her feedback, I just refocused my search to small presses who wanted to publish novellas. That’s how I finally found CCLaP. I’d seen an article about them in Poets & Writers and noticed they were looking for novellas. I sent my manuscript to them and very quickly began editing things with the publisher’s suggestions. That led, eventually, to a book deal and within about six months the book was in my hands. Fifteen years almost exactly after first completing the book, I held the final published version in my hands.
In Women Float, Win, the main character, can’t swim, and the book focuses on the water motif. Where did the inspiration for the water motif come from?
Water is my natural habitat, so the book is just an extension of me in that way. I grew up and now live in Carpinteria, California, a small beach town just south of Santa Barbara. There, the sea is a constant backdrop to daily life. Groceries, dog walks, break-ups, grand decisions and petty fights are all framed by the rhythm of the ocean. At the same time, I grew up as a farmer’s daughter during a drought (which we’re now in again), so I loved the rain because it made my parents so happy and shined our avocado trees into glistening slicks. More directly, many of the scenes and ideas in the book are drawn from the years I spent working as a swim instructor and lifeguard at various swimming pools.
There was a quote in Women Float that really spoke to me, “We all create a wake when we leave a place. Not something we can always predict but an invisible trail.” What does this quote mean to you?
I believe in fate and in genetics. I would call myself a Darwinian mystic. Or a Zen bird watcher. So, this phrase is both literal, as we all leave behind the DNA we slough off in our daily life, but also there is the energetic, metaphysical con trail that flies behind our aircrafts while we remain oblivious. The idea of not knowing how we affect those around us until we die is as hackneyed and played out as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Still, it remains alluring. I guess on some level, it is like trying to understand why we’re here or whom we’re meant to touch during our time on this planet. And of course we’ll never know.
As a teacher, I’ve seen many examples of the lamest student in the room thanking me years later for my efforts, even though if you’d asked me at the time I never would have known they cared about my course. That’s probably not a very satisfying explanation but I work very intuitively with my writing (and I wrote that line nearly 20 years ago, now.) So, I hope it remains as delicately mysterious to readers as it still does to me. Who was that 21 year-old woman and where did those words come from? I don’t know.
You’re so well rounded! You edit, teach, write poetry and novellas, and even sell your own jam at Red Hen Cannery! I’d love to know: what was the most interesting job you have ever had?
That is a very tough question. I’ve held dozens of jobs throughout my life, from bike messenger in San Francisco to raspberry picker (on our family’s farm) to working as a stringer for the New York Post during the Michael Jackson molestation trial. Whoa. That was a trip.
I love to teach college English. I love making and selling my own jam with Red Hen Cannery. I see writing and painting as jobs, but they don’t always pay the bills. And then there’s mothering my daughter and stepson. And wife-ing. Look I just made that into a verb. What’s your field? Being a wife.
Who knows. There is one job that my friend Holland stays friends with me for just so she can say: “So, when my friend worked for the circus…” I was an usher for the Cirque du Soleil for about nine months. Sadly, I didn’t take full advantage of the all staff access because I was in a decidedly miserable state of mind. Still, it was a memorable time. I loved working the door and rolling my eyes as people came in, complaining loudly, “Man, sometimes it feels like I’m working for a real circus.”
Who is your favorite author or what is your favorite book?
Favorite. Such a final word. No, I can’t do it. I refuse. My favorite book or author is the one I’m about to read. Or my husband, James Claffey, or Roald Dahl or Jeanette Winterson or The Genjo Koan or a million and one others. I can’t do it. I’ve failed. I’m sorry. I’m a bad interviewee.
Thank you so much, Maureen, for answering all of my questions!
Want to know more about Maureen Foley? Check out her website!