Monday, November 5, 2018

TBR: The Sound of Holding Your Breath by Natalie Sypolt

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and, from time to time, a recipe!  

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

My book is a collection of short stories, loosely linked by place; all are set in West Virginia, most in an imagined town called “Warm.” The characters are primarily working-class folks dealing with trying times in their lives and communities. There is a bit of love, vengeance, and murder.

Which story did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which story gave you the most trouble, and why?

I love when a story just comes to me, whole, as though it’s a gift, so my favorite stories are the ones that seem to just pour out in one setting. “My Brothers and Me” was like that, and it is one of my favorite stories not only for that reason, but because the characters—for better or worse—remind me a lot of my own family and I connect a with that protagonist. As for the second part of this question, I think all stories have their own challenges. The stories that are the “oldest” are probably the ones that gave me the most trouble when putting the collection together because I feel like I was a much younger, much different writer when I first wrote them, so getting everything to work together was a challenge.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

I don’t know if I ever would have felt like my collection was good enough or ready to send out. My friend and an excellent writer, Laura Long, told me to send her my draft—which was an incredibly generous offer—and I did. I still can’t quite believe that she was willing to do that for me. She read and told me that I should send it to West Virginia University Press, which had previously published her collection. She essentially told me to quit thinking I wasn’t good enough and that women, especially, do that too much. So, I listened to her advice and sent my collection to Abby Freeland and she was encouraging. I cannot give enough thanks to Laura and other writers in my life who have been so generous with their time and support. I hope someday to be able to do that for someone else.  

One of my biggest challenges on my road to publication was getting permissions for some of the quotes I used in my stories. Luckily, I was able to secure permission to use an excerpt from a CD Wright poem for my epigraph but was quickly rejected by the Thornton Wilder estate when I requested permission to use some lines from Our Town. Apparently they never give permission, and I’ve heard from other writers since—like you, I believe, Leslie*—that they were also denied. Perhaps we should start a support group.

All in all, though, this might have been a blessing in disguise. I had to re-write the section of the story that used the quotes from Our Town and it actually turned out better.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

I don’t know that I have a favorite piece of writing advice, other than to just write the truth, whatever that truth might be. I try to do that. I don’t mean I write non-fiction, but that I try to be true to the heart of the place, the people, the issues that I’m writing about. I can’t do more than that.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

So, I don’t know if the writing of the book was as surprising as some of the early reviews have been. One of my first reviews talked about my book as though it was the darkest piece of literature ever to hit the shelves. It was essentially “Violence, violence, everywhere!” It wasn’t a bad review—in fact, it was a good one—but it was surprising to me to see that this is what a reviewer thought my book was about. I thought it was about family, friendship, resilience, perseverance. Sure, there is violence, but that was only part of the story to me. I joked to someone that maybe that reviewer just didn’t get Appalachians. I sent the review to Laura to see what she thought since she’d also already read the book, and she said, “I just don’t think they understand the Appalachian sensibility.” Apparently, I’m a dark little thing and didn’t even know it!

How did you find the title of your book?

The title of my book is the title of one of the stories, “The Sound of Holding Your Breath.” This story isn’t necessarily the “star” of the collection, if there is such a thing, but the idea of people holding their breath, the waiting, the anticipation, the expectation for the other shoe to drop does, I think, represent the feeling I wanted readers to have. I think it also fits well with the really beautiful cover designed by Than Saffel. The cover has shocking, hot pink lettering, layered over a faded landscape (which is also layered under a film of notebook paper). Than said that his concept behind the cover was meant to evoke that feeling you have when the sun comes up after a terrible (or just difficult) event, when everything is just really bright and cheery for everyone but you. I really love that.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? Any recipes I might share?

No, but I wish there were! There are campfires in a couple of the stories, and people roasting things on sticks.



READ AN EXCERPT: the title story, “The Sound of Holding Your Breath”:

*Yes, I could be a member of this support group! The estate did not allow me to quote from "Our Town" in my novel A YEAR AND A DAY. I assumed anyone that rigid wouldn’t hesitate to sue me if I did anyway, so I rewrote and had to hope that most readers would be familiar with the few iconic lines I wanted to include (that I don't dare type out here!).


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.