Minnesota novelist spins November challenge into her first book
Even though I am a baby boomer who recalls the old duck & cover exercises in which we hopelessly clambered under our school desks to protect ourselves from nuclear attack, I’ve not given much thought to where I might end up in the event of a nuclear attack.
Afton, Minn., author Sharon Grosh has, and she has chosen to set her first novel, Lazarus Rising, in what might be a dream post-apocalyptic location for some – a giant underground marijuana growing and seed bank operation where a group of dedicated marijuana testers have been identifying specific medical benefits from different hybrids of indica and sativa strains of the sacred weed, largely unbeknownst to the surface world.
In an interview with The Reader, Grosh said the novel was launched during the National Novel Writing Month in November, an annual event that attracts a lot of would-be novelists, few of whom see their work grow from idea to finished book, as Grosh has just done.
The idea behind the novel had been percolating in her perhaps as early as 6th grade, when she first read Hiroshima, John Hersey’s slim 1946 masterpiece of reporting (it began life as the entire Aug. 31, 1946, edition of The New Yorker magazine, and was published in book form two months later by Alfred A. Knopf; it has never been out of print).
If the imprint of that catastrophic tale was not cast when Grosh was a child, then certainly it happened upon her second reading as an adult during a train trip from Kyoto to Hiroshima. Hersey’s novelistic technique of telling the story of five people in Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945 stuck with her.
“The other part of the inspiration was just how to write,” Grosh said. “He really focused on people before, during and after and that’s what I did in my book. I followed five characters before, during and after. That kept me on track, but it also complicated the book because then you have to figure out each individual character. Eventually they come together, but it’s getting them to that point.”
From the start, Grosh said the driving force behind the concept was about leadership in a time of catastrophe.
“That’s kind of a common thread for any book, but because the context was so catastrophic, their changes might have been faster and more dramatic, living in the moment. It’s not as science fictiony as some people might expect, or even apocalyptic. I did try to stay away from the post-apocalyptic thing, even though I’m a big fan of post-apocalyptic books and movies.”
Asked to name her favorite post-apocalyptic vision, she did not hesitate. “Road Warrior was first and best of all. I’m also a fan of Larry Niven.”
Grosh said she really found her voice when she sat down for that November novel challenge. She had read all the standard stuff about how you have to start with an outline and timeline and character back stories.
“For me, that would not have inspired me,” she said, admitting that she is an adherent of a priori writing.
“You just write,” she said. “It got enough legs for me that I said, I can do this. Get it out there and see what you’ve got. You don’t have to keep it all. Write it, then edit. I know there are two points of view. That’s my point of view. I did project planning and all that kind of stuff in my career. I’m just so done with that.”
She added that you must be disciplined to bring your brilliant idea for a novel to life. She set aside 8 to 10 am each day.
“I just found two hours a day,” she said. “Writing or not writing, you’re there and doing something with your book. It is the hardest thing, interruptions. If you start something else in the morning, you’re going to find yourself unloading the dishwasher instead of writing.”
She also worked with a writing group in Waukesha, Wis., and a writing coach.
“I started with the writing group,” she said. “I found it helpful working with people who read it as a book and give you feedback. What I couldn’t do is join a group where everybody reads everybody else’s stuff. I just didn’t have time for that.”
Then she met virtually once a week with the writing coach.
“It’s kind of like a personal trainer for writing. It was great. I learned a lot,” Grosh said. “It’s just input, you can choose to use it or not. I felt it was good to get a feel for how it’s received. Things you wouldn’t normally think of are brought up. A friend has five reviewers that give her feedback on a book. I just need one point of view that I can choose to accept or not.”
Grosh said the writing coach also served as real-time editor.
“So there was a final draft that didn’t require a lot of editing,” she said.
There was one other significant contribution from the writing coach.
“There are different stages of writing,” Grosh said. “There are times when you really love it, and then there are times when you can’t stand it, when you want to drop it, so having a cheerleader is important.”
While everyone has their own approaches, Grosh said from her experience, she would advise first-time novelists to write the story and worry about editing later.
“Keep it simple. Don’t go over and over,” she said. “I think I wrote I don’t know how many drafts. I never wanted to write the ending. I wanted to go back and start it over again. I highly encourage, finish the book before you go back and edit.”
She pauses and laughs, “Especially if you don’t have an outline.”
Lazarus Rising was published by Black Rose Writing in April, and, so, Grosh has yet to do a live bookstore event, though she is hoping something might happen in the near future at her favorite bookstore in Cambridge
Grosh is already at work on her second book, something completely different. She points out that she wrote an epilogue to Lazarus Rising so she would not have to write a sequel. She is also a fabric artist and is busy at the moment eco-dying with plants from her own garden. You can see some of her work at sharongrosh.com.