So I’m still young, but already people I knew in college are becoming fabulously successful! Rachel Waxman, who I first met in a cafe at a writing session with my group No Strangers to Fiction, is coming out with her first book this May. Naturally, I wanted to interview her!
Her book is The Crickhowell School for the Muses:
When Awen is kidnapped from her rural village and confined at Crickhowell, where Miss Nina runs a thriving business in the muse trade, her misery eventually fades into relief. She finds a kind music teacher, discovers a new friend, and her only requirement as a student is to study the art of singing-her favorite thing in the world. However, Awen soon realizes that Miss Nina’s goal is not simply to train voices. She is trying to take them away. Determined to escape this fate, Awen becomes swept up into the intrigues of a scheming subordinate teacher, a salacious workman, a quirky artist-patron, and a handsome blond horseman. When both her own voice and the music around her mysteriously fade into silence, Awen’s only hope is to turn against the very artist she was commanded to inspire.
Where did you get the idea for The Crickhowell School for the Muses?
I remember walking through a parking lot back in Kansas City when a question popped into my head: What if there was a school that trained young girls to become muses? And this image I had wasn’t the happy, inspirational one we typically get when we think of muses. It was something darker. These muses were kidnapped—victims of a sinister trade—and had no volition of their own.
Looking back on it, I think that parking lot was in front of a movie theater and I’d just seen Memoirs of Geisha. I was fascinated by the idea that there were these beautiful, inspiring women who were essentially captives. They could be incredibly talented, but they had to use those talents to charm and entertain men. This idea combined with my growing frustrations as a musician—how I felt like sometimes my music was no longer my “own thing”—and turned into my novel.
You wear a lot of hats, from getting a degree in history to selling handmade chocolate truffles to book marketing. When did you first start writing, and how does it fit in with all your other interests?
Writing was practically the first thing I ever did. I remember running around the house as a young child, writing sentences on any scraps of paper I could find. I didn’t even know how to spell at that point, so I’d ask my mom “How do you spell the?” “T-H-E.” “How do you spell dog?” “D-O-G.” There was something about the process of putting words on paper that I really enjoyed—and still do. Although I hope my sentences have become more sophisticated!
I think all of my interests come together under the umbrellas of “story” and “big picture.” A novel is its own little world. So is a small business, and a truffle, to some extent. And my interest in book marketing is really an interest in what image an author is trying to convey with everything they do—not just their books, but their blog posts, Facebook updates and interviews.
Have you had any formal training in writing? Do you think formal training is necessary to be a good writer?
Yes and no. I took the high school English classes like everybody else, and I majored in history, which requires a lot of writing. But as far as creative writing goes, I’ve been involved in a long-term writing workshop and I took a couple of writing classes in college. However, I did not major in creative writing, nor do I have any plans to pursue an MFA—at least not any time soon.
I have really mixed feelings about formal training for writing. I cringe at the idea that studying creative writing or getting an MFA makes you a “real writer,” but I do see the value in those programs. Then again, these programs also promote a certain style of writing, which may not be right for everyone. When I took writing classes in college, I felt obligated to write in a particular way, like I had to fit this stylistic mold, and that bothered me.
I think it comes down to this: to be a good writer, you need to write and you need to read. You need to have an interest in language and the way words sound when they’re strung together. You need to be a good listener. I think a class here and there on the mechanics and craft of writing can be helpful, and I think it’s important to find a supportive writing group or workshop. But beyond that, it’s all you. If you want to take more classes, learn a musical instrument. Seriously. I think that’s done more for me in terms of the way I hear language than any writing class ever has.
That said, I could see myself doing an MFA some day. I want to make sure I haven’t missed anything!
What is your favorite part of writing: story, characters, setting, or language?
Oh my gosh, that’s a tough one! I think language, first and foremost. Then characters, story and setting all tie for second.
The Crickhowell School for the Muses is about, well, muses. Do you have a real life muse? Did writing about muses inform your own artistic process?
It’s funny you should ask, because I’ve been thinking a lot about heroes, inspiration and muses. I don’t have a real-life muse in the form of a person, but in the form of a place and time. I’m really inspired by the idea of the pre-industrial countryside, with rolling hills and meadows and castles. Perhaps it’s a bit kitsch, but I just picture this ancient, candle-lit castle on a hill, with this ominous grey sky above it all. It’s that image that inspires me, and it was especially important for this book.
What was your publication journey like?
It was a long one. I started the book my freshman year of college and finished it the summer after my sophomore year. After that it went through a few rounds of editing, and then I started querying agents the summer after my junior year. I had a few bites—the first request for the manuscript actually came when I was in Belgium and had sketchy internet access—but nothing ever panned out. Then I started submitting directly to small publishers who didn’t require agents, all while toying with the idea of self-publishing.
My book deal came through kind of at the last minute, and I’m so glad it did! It took about a year and a half from when I first started querying. While I’m a full supporter of self-publishing, there’s something to be said about having a publishing house behind you, no matter the size.
Will we see more books by Rachel Waxman?
I sure hope so! I’m working on a manuscript right now about a college student who gets caught up in a questionable underground society. It’s quite different from Crickhowell, both in terms of language and subject matter, but it has that same nostalgic, dusty-books-in-the-library feel. It’s also narrated by a guy, which is new territory for me. I’d love to score an agent with this one, but we’ll see. And, well, I have to finish it first!
Rachel Waxman is a writer, oboist, and entrepreneur who makes and sells handmade chocolate truffles. While at Northwestern University she studied music and spent her Sundays writing. She has a contradictory affinity for old books, castles, and new technology and is nostalgic for the eighteenth century. A Kansas City native, she now lives and writes in New York City.