2021 Debuts author Shawn Nocher is a person I hope to meet someday. She grew up with a mother who loved books (and passed on that love of reading); she adores animals; and she writes about families and the emotional moments, big and small, that surround them. In fact, her debut novel, A Hand to Hold in Deep Water (which released last week), features mothers and daughters, and her next book The Precious Jules is a “family story [that] asks what is best for one child in light of what is perceived as the greater good.” Novels are not the only genre Shawn is interested in; she’s also writes flash fiction and maintains a blog. Which means her life is very full. I’m so thankful Shawn took the time to answer a few of my questions.
Christina: A Hand to Hold in Deep Water “is a deeply felt narrative about mothers and daughters, the legacy of secrets, the way we make a family, and the love of those who walk us through our deepest pain.” What inspired you to write this particular story?
Shawn: In my twenties, I took a workshop with Richard Bausch, who is an amazing teacher. A version of the first chapter of this novel came out of that class. I tried to place it as a short story in a number of literary magazines but couldn’t seem to get anywhere with it. But for nearly two decades, the characters stuck with me and over the years I built up an entire backstory around them in my head, explaining how they found themselves in that short story moment. Two decades later, I dusted it off, rewrote the first chapter, and continued to fill in the pieces until it finally dawned on me that I was writing a novel.
Christina: Motherhood comes in all shapes and sizes. What about motherhood is so compelling to you as a topic to include in your stories or write about?
Shawn: Motherhood is so complicated, isn’t it? It’s so raw and secretive and hopeful and utterly terrifying. There’s this merging between a mother and child when a child is born, and then there is this long process of letting go and all of it is so painful—or can be. Most mothers would do absolutely anything for their child, and yet our motives aren’t always pure and our choices for our child are often misguided or made impulsively depending on what we bring to the relationship and our own histories. As a mother, I am struck by both the depth of our love for our children and our inability to always do right by them in spite of our best intentions. As both a mother and a daughter, I am fascinated by how faceted this relationship is. I can’t help but examine it in my writing.
Christina: In addition to novels, you write short stories. Which do you prefer to write? Do you feel one genre had an advantage over the other? How do you decide between a short story and a novel for each idea?
Shawn: Most of my short stories are flash pieces. I love saturating myself in a moment. For me, having a novel in the works at all times has become natural to me, but the long-range structuring can get wearisome—a lot like a math problem, and I’m terrible at math. I think of my short stories as a focused moment where I don’t have as much angst over structure (or at least, it’s easier to work out in short form) and my novels are a project that entertains the heck out of me as I build elaborate backstory and contemplate plot points. I couldn’t live without being knee deep in both almost simultaneously.
Christina: You say that telling stories is your “way of examining the ways in which our hearts are tethered to one another.” What is it about connection that calls to you?
Shawn: My husband has always said “no man is an island.” I’ve taken that to mean that we are all affected by the actions and reactions of another. Even the most solitary among us responds to the world in a way that’s influenced by the action of others—the grumpy clerk at the grocer, the old friend who never calls, the jerk that cut us off in traffic. Between people who love one another, particularly family, that action-reaction thing is even more apparent. Our joys and sorrows overlap, and one person’s pain or joy can’t help but tug on someone else. Toss in some secrets and misunderstandings and you have an entire system malfunctioning in some way, each person reacting in their own unique way. Sometimes we move in a way that heals the person hurting, and sometimes we inflict more pain, but always we are reacting to the ones we love in a way that tends to set off a wave of motion, and we can’t predict where that’s going to take everyone.
Christina: It sounds like you’ve always had animals in your life. What do these friends mean to you, and what is the greatest lesson you’ve learned from them? Have they informed your writing at all?
Shawn: The animals in my life have almost all come out of distressing situations. I’m a serial rescuer of both wild and domestic animals. Right now, I have a dog who came out of animal testing and has complicated my life beyond measure. I love him to pieces. I have a lot of strong feelings about animals and the way we care for them. In domesticating some animals—dogs, cats, rabbits, not to mention the reptiles, the Guinea pigs and hamsters—I believe we’ve assumed a responsibility by virtue of making them dependent upon us. I take that responsibility seriously. You can tell a lot about a character by how they treat an animal—whether they notice the deer on the side of the highway, whether they forget to feed their cat, whether they point out birds to their toddler, whether they kill the snakes in their garden. If I let a character interact with an animal, I can tell you volumes about who they are. There is always the danger of anthropomorphizing, and I try to avoid that. But I can’t get around the fact that I feel like rescuing animals is an apology on my part for all the cruelty they’ve suffered, and silly as it may seem to some, I believe they are grateful.
Christina: People love to hear about the path to publication for debut novelists. Would you share a bit about your journey?
Shawn: I think very few novelists travel a straight and narrow path. A Hand to Hold in Deep Water, was written over a number of years—not because I am slow or it is a masterpiece—but because life got in the way. I had a busy event floral business and there were two significant health scares with my children. But I finished a good draft of it over a decade ago and was lucky enough to personally pitch it at a conference right after finishing it. A lovely editor was interested in it but then couldn’t get it through acquisitions. She was incredibly generous, however, and was convinced it would find a good home, so she put me in touch with twenty different agents and even went so far as to write an introductory email for me. I found a wonderful agent who really believed in the book. It went off to a handful of editors and there was good feedback but no takers. I was crushed, but my agent told to write another book instead. It was great advice, and I did start another novel, but I am also not one to leave half-finished work lying around, so I went back to Hopkins and got an MA in writing. I worked my tail off and threw myself into my classes with a panicked kind of gusto, revising and workshopping this novel until it was just where it needed to be. That same agent had kept in touch with me through the years, but a decade is a long time. She had switched agencies by the time I tracked her down again, and she was as welcoming and enthusiastic as she had been when I had first touched base with her ten years earlier. She loved the revision and sold it pretty quickly. Fortunately, I had started that second novel she suggested, and she was able to sell that as well in a two-book deal. Did I mention that I love her?
Christina: You’ve always been a writer. If you could tell your younger writer self anything, what would it be?
Shawn: Being a good writer is not a gift. It’s a craft. That took me a long time to understand. And a craft is something that needs to be honed. A younger me believed that you either had this writing gift or you didn’t, but that’s just not the case. Had I understood that, I would have gone back to school a long time ago and focused on the craft end of this. But I will say, even though it took me longer to get here and I would have loved to have published my first book in my twenties, I’m still thrilled to be here, and I certainly feel I’ve earned my place.
Thanks to Shawn for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an author who’d like to be featured in an interview (or you are an author who would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me via my contact page.