We have a real treat today: I recently conducted an e-interview with Jessica McCann, a magazine writer and freelance editor whom I’ve worked with several times over the years. She’s also a budding novelist — her novel “All Different Kinds of Free” is due to be published in April of next year.
Her story of how she got her start in nonfiction writing, and how she reclaimed her childhood love of fiction in order to start writing it, is inspiring and contains valuable lessons for any writer would would like to work in both fiction and nonfiction.
Write Livelihood: How did you get your start as a nonfiction writer?
McCann: I’ve worked at least part-time as a freelance writer since I was 17 years old. I started freelancing as a high school senior for an amazing group of women in the communications department at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. Each of them mentored me in their respective areas — external communications, media relations, community outreach and employee communications. They exposed me to so many types of business and journalistic writing styles and approaches. I consider the time I spent there to be my formal education in the writing profession.
A few years out of high school I landed a full-time job in communications, then as went on to work as the editor of a regional business magazine, and finally editor for a custom-book publisher. To make extra money and build up my portfolio, I continued to freelance on the side. In 1998, I quit my editing job to freelance full time, and I haven’t looked back since.
What role has fiction writing played in your development as a professional writer?
Fiction didn’t have a role in my professional writing career for a very long time. When I was a little girl, I dreamed of being a novelist. In eighth grade, a misguided English teacher told me a short story I had written was lazy and unimaginative — that he expected more (out of me). Maybe his assessment was accurate. Maybe he was hoping to fire me up and get me to work harder. But all he really did was crush my confidence.
It took me 20 years to work up the courage to dabble in fiction writing again. I focused instead on nonfiction and built a successful career as a business writer and journalist. Once you’re on a certain path, it’s pretty hard to find the motivation and courage to wander off into the dark scary woods in search of something different. So for a long time, I stayed with what I knew I could do well, stayed with what was safe.
What inspired you to write your debut novel, “All Different Kinds of Free”?
The work was inspired by the U.S. Supreme Court case Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 1842. I first read about it when I was doing freelance copyediting on a book for MIT about Supreme Court justices. The case appealed the conviction of a bounty hunter charged with kidnapping Margaret Morgan, a free woman of color who was alleged to be an escaped slave. The court case focused on state’s rights, and the ruling represented the first time a major branch of the U.S. government made a proslavery stand. But I was most interested in Margaret and what became of her.
My original goal was to write a biography, and I spent about three years researching her life — or, at least, attempting to research her life. The sad truth is that Margaret and her fate were irrelevant at the time. The issue for most people in the mid-1800s was much bigger than one woman’s fight for freedom. Yet, to me, it was all about Margaret. When I realized I didn’t have enough facts to write a biography, I was devastated and grudgingly packed away my research. Then my mother-in-law loaned me a book, a fictional biography about George Washington, by Mary Higgins Clark. It was a fun read, and it gave me the idea that a fictional biography might be the only way I could tell Margaret’s story and really do it justice.
At what point did you decide the novel might be publishable?
In its earliest stages, I never really believed it would ever get published. It was just a story I felt compelled to write, and I was enjoying the creative process. Then I entered the first few chapters in some writing competitions as a novel in progress. I didn’t win, but I received semi-finalist recognition in two respected contests. That’s when I started to believe I might have the chops to actually write a novel that people would want to read. When All Different Kinds of Free was named a finalist in the Freedom in Fiction Prize, publishing my novel was no longer just a fun dream. It became a tangible goal that I wrote into my business plan.
Does your writing process differ for writing fiction?
Not much. I enjoy the research phase of writing. That’s often what fuels my creativity, whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction. The interviews, digging through articles and books at the library, searching online for little-known facts and resources — it’s a process that helps ideas form in my head, helps me arrange the pieces of my story to create the picture I want my readers to see.
How does writing fiction impact your nonfiction writing, and vice versa?
As I mentioned earlier, for many years I was quite literally afraid to try my hand at fiction and was content writing magazine articles and corporate work. Then, after more than 10 years freelancing for the same clients, I hit a sort of road block. I was bored out of my mind, to be blunt. My clients were still happy with my work, but I felt like I was writing the same old articles again and again. I could do it with my eyes closed.
I felt stifled creatively, felt I was doing my clients an injustice, and felt it would soon catch up to me in a bad way. So I started writing short stories based on writing prompts, just to flex my creative muscles and work my brain in a different way. A couple of amazing things happened. One, I remembered how much I enjoyed writing fiction; and two, I realized that good fiction writing isn’t a whole heck of a lot different than good nonfiction. Being efficient with the language, using vivid imagery, telling a compelling story — these are universal to good writing, regardless of the genre.
Going forward, how do you see your fiction writing fitting in your career overall?
I would love to become a full-time novelist. It’s a challenging, slow transition, but that’s the ultimate goal. My debut book releases April 2011 from Bell Bridge Books, and I’m deep in research for my second novel.
What advice would you have for nonfiction writers who’d like to get started writing fiction?
Just get started. Start small to build up your confidence if you need to — write a short story or two, enter a contest here and there, research literary journals and submit your work. As you gain momentum, the fiction writing will start to play a bigger role in your writing life. If it’s important enough to you, it will eventually take on a life of its own.
Any final thoughts or advice for writers who work in both genres?
Be brave. Keep writing. That may sound trite or hokey, but for me it’s that simple. Look to other writers for inspiration, encouragement and motivation.
The following quotes in particular have come to mean a lot to me recently:
“To write something, you have to risk making a fool of yourself.” ~Anne Rice
“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” ~Mark Twain
“The one talent that’s indispensable to a writer is persistence.” ~Tom Clancy
“Forget about becoming a great writer. Work instead on writing great stories.” ~William Tapply
That pretty much sums it up for me. Writing is scary. When you’ve already experienced some measure of success in one type of writing, switching genres and starting from scratch is even scarier. You’re putting yourself out there, vulnerable to fresh criticism, with every new thing you write. Why subject yourself to the hard work, the anxiety and the potential rejection again and again? Because you have a story to tell. So tell it, in whatever genre does it justice.
You can learn more about Jessica’s work by visiting her website.