“Writing My First Novel Was Like Stumbling in a Dark Room”: An Interview with Author Stephanie Carroll

I invited Stephanie Carroll, author of the historical novel A White Room, to stop by and share some of her story. She has a candid, lighthearted way of talking about her life as a Navy girlfriend-turned-spouse (“the first time he told me about deployments…I thought to myself, Well, I won’t be around long enough for one of those!”) and offers some great insights into the grueling, often-discouraging, but ultimately rewarding process of writing a first novel (reviewed here on the Mil Spouse Book Review). I’m glad she took the time to answer a few questions! – Andria

1. Hi, Stephanie! Can you tell me a little bit about yourself — how you came to be a Navy wife, what your experience has been like so far, where you’ve been stationed?

I was 16 when I met my husband. We both lived in Palmdale, California. He was 18 and had just gotten home after graduating from military school, so he was cutting loose. Not exactly relationship material at the time. Yet, I fell in love instantly, which made for a passionate and messy end to our initial relationship.

So, things were already intense when our paths crossed again three years later when he had become a sailor and I become a college student. We already knew each other and were mature enough for a real commitment. The first time he told me about deployments, though, I thought to myself, Well, I won’t be around long enough for one of those. Haha!

stephanie_carrollAuthor Stephanie Carroll. She tried to hold onto this fence, but the Navy life carried her off anyway.

I was still living in Palmdale and his duty station was in Lemoore, California, a small town only about two hours away, so we did the long-distance thing for about six months. We got married in a courthouse less than a year into the relationship. It was rushed in preparation for our first deployment.

I had a hard time as a 19-year-old Navy girlfriend and eventually Navy wife. I felt alone and like I didn’t have anyone to go to for help. There were resources available to me but for some reason I was afraid or ignorant of them, even after the deployment brief. For a long time, I felt like an outsider.

Further, I had moved to a new place, and we lived off of base. I didn’t make friends easily, so other than the occasional visit from Palmdale, I was literally alone for eight months. That first deployment was one of the hardest things I have ever done. That experience is why I started the blog Unhinged and Empowered. I wanted to use my abilities as a writer to reach out and help others who were going through something similar.

After being stationed in Lemoore for five years, we were finally up for new orders. I was so excited for the opportunity to live somewhere new and exciting. Sooooo . . . we got orders to Fallon, Nevada! It’s a town smaller than Lemoore. This poor town—the Navy folk hate it! There were so many rumors when I got there about how everyone leaves Fallon divorced and wives can’t find jobs, and even stuff about poisoned water. All bogus, BTW!

Stephanie, this made me laugh. We were once offered a tour in Fallon that came up on short notice, and we considered it, but the rumors scared us off. We heard that the water would LITERALLY KILL YOU AND YOUR CHILDREN/ PETS.  Now I feel bad!

Moving to Fallon was difficult for me, not just because it was a small town and kind of ominous with all the rumors, but everything in my world was changing. For the first time I was done with college, we were going on shore duty, we were going to be eight hours from friends and family, and I had my first real writing job as a freelance reporter for the local paper. I was terrified and overwhelmed.

Those emotions, though, lead to the inspiration for A White Room, and as a reporter, I ended up learning everything there is to know about the mysterious little town called Fallon. I can tell you, Fallon is what you make of it. They have so much stuff going on out there, but you have to look for it, otherwise you just end up wallowing on base.

So after three years, we were finally due for another duty station change and once again I was giddy for the prospect of getting to live somewhere new and exciting, soooo . . . we chose Lemoore again! Lol!!! We chose the duty station based on what would benefit my husband’s career. As a writer, I really couldn’t claim the need to be in any one specific place, and he has always supported me as an author and artist, so I supported him and our need to return to Lemoore, where we decided to purchase our first house. I knew I could make the most of it though, because I had learned, when you start to look around, you start to find out how awesome little places can be.

2. Have you always written?

I have always written, but I didn’t know what I could do with it for a long time. I started with short stories, journaling, poetry. I tried to write my first novel at 13-years-old but didn’t get very far. The first elective I chose in high school was a typing course and then I tried for the school paper.

I expressed a love for fiction early on, but my mother had some experience writing romance novels as a hobby, and she tried to warn me that the world of publishing isn’t easy or lucrative. She was trying to make sure I didn’t romanticize the idea of being a novelist, but I took this to the core and told myself, writing fiction could only be a hobby. So I put writing out of my mind and spent my youth searching for my career-worthy talents.

Of course that didn’t go anywhere. I ended up majoring in history, the main skills of which are researching and writing. I rediscovered my passion for writing (in general not fiction) and a new passion for research and history, but alas, there wasn’t much I could do with a history degree unless I wanted to become a professor, so upon graduation, I decided to check out the writing job market before going on to a master or doctorate degree.

I wrote for the newspaper at our duty station in Fallon, Nevada for about three years. That was fun, but what was really illuminating was when I decided to finally pursue that hobby I put aside as a child. I started my first novel for fun, but within a couple of weeks, I had the idea for A White Room, and I knew this was what I wanted to do with my life. Screw my “money-making” career — like those really exist!

3. Has being a military spouse informed what you read and write?

No and yes. There are a lot of great books out there that are actually about military spouses, but I haven’t read many. I’ve mostly focused on historical fiction, because I write historical fiction, but I also read fiction that intrigues me, and that can change at any time. For a while there, I never thought I’d read Young Adult (YA), and then I checked out Twilight and The Host and it was all over.

My Navy wife experiences impact what I write but not in a direct way. The emotions I experienced as a Navy wife inspired A White Room and fuel much of my fiction, not to mention my blogging. Because of this, a lot of Navy wives and Navy girlfriends relate to Emeline Dorr, the main character in A White Room, even though she is not a Navy Wife.

I know that I certainly did! There were aspects of her character that felt very familiar to me. You captured that sense of waiting, and being tethered to a place that was utterly unwelcoming to her, very well.

4. What was the process of writing A White Room like — how long did it take, and were there any times you thought you might not finish?

There were plenty of times I feared I might not finish, but a ravenous drive demanded that I did. The process started with the idea I had for a woman trapped in a white room, kind of a metaphor for the way I felt when we moved to Fallon. I teased this initial idea out, and it turned into a story set at the turn of the century.

I sat down to write it, and realized I couldn’t write a word because I didn’t know how Victorians lived day-to-day. Sure I had studied them a little in college, but nothing along the lines of what they wore, ate, said, etc. So I went on a six-month researching spree. As I delved into more and more history, I discovered more and more of the story. I only had some ideas at first, but learning the history gave me options as to where I could take those ideas.

Finally, the writing began. I had written random scenes and chapters during my research stage, so I tried to piece them together. What I produced was a big mess! I started researching how to properly write and edit fiction. I took that research and used it to polish the work, slowly building the rest of the story.

I started all this effort in 2008 and felt I had a finished manuscript by 2010, but really I was nowhere near ready. I started querying agents and getting lots of rejections. All the books said when you get rejected to go back over the manuscript and try to improve it. That’s what I did for two more years. I also wrote a second book in 2010.

(Did she just casually say, “I also wrote a second book in 2010?” – Editor)

In 2011, I battled the closest thing to quitting and not finishing. I had been rejected so much, I figured I should consider the possibility that I wasn’t good enough. Coming out of that was like biking uphill one pedal at a time. Ultimately, it just came down to the fact that I love writing. It’s my life. Once I got myself back, I got my passion back too. I’ll admit, in 2010, the book really wasn’t ready, but by 2012, it was pretty darn good. That’s when I finally started getting excited responses from readers and even some professionals in the publishing industry. By 2013, A White Room was on the digital shelves.

white_room_2Beautiful!

Writing my first novel was kind of like finding my way in a dark room. I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I was learning by trial and error. Now, I know so much, so the process has changed a bit. It’s a lot easier, and there’s less stumbling!

5. What has it been like transitioning from the Navy back into civilian life [am I right that your husband got out a couple of years ago — and has he really started a winery?!].

When we got married, my husband already knew he wanted to go career. I accepted this as a well-worth-it sacrifice for the love of my life. Ten years later, my husband was on the fast track, having made Chief in eight years and being up for Officer—but he was miserable, absolutely miserable.

Every day he came home and said he had a terrible day. Every single day. When his reenlistment came up, I asked if he really wanted to keep doing this because he didn’t seem happy. He had committed to the military so whole-heartedly that the idea of getting out was unthinkable, not to mention he had reached the ten-year mark. No one gets out at ten years! They push through and get the retirement . . . but was it worth his happiness?

Just wrapping his brain around the possibility of getting out was one of the hardest things he has ever done, and it was really hard to watch him go through it too. I think the crucial deciding moment came when one day he posed the question, “What will I do if I get out?” I asked him what he wanted to do, and he couldn’t come up with anything, so I asked what he would do if he retired tomorrow, and he said he would open a winery. My response, “Why wait?”

Stephanie_&_hubby_in_front_of_vineyard

So he got out at eleven years. We couldn’t actually open a winery the next day, but we could figure out a path for that to actually happen sooner rather than later. So my husband is currently finishing his degree with the intention of adding a viticulture and enology certifications to the end. Lemoore happens to be next to Madera, which is actually a big wine area, and Lemoore is a big grape area, so until we have our very own, we get the pleasure of living next to two beautiful vineyards.

Meanwhile, my husband used the amazing skills and work ethic the Navy provided to land a managerial position at a tomato factory, which is giving him all kinds of knowledge about how to handle produce and turn it into a product. He comes home with a smile almost every day. Recently, he excitedly compared the experience of running the factory to being the Captain of the Enterprise. He’s happy. That’s for sure!

kissy_vignette_sepia_standingthe author and her now-happy Navy man

So far the transition has been kind of weird, but not that difficult for me because we have never lived on base. For him, though, it’s an ongoing process because the Navy engrains itself into the Sailor. It’s not just a job. There’s a mental mindset and psychology to it. You can’t just shrug that off. It takes time.

My blog has been the biggest thing I need to transition with. Even though it’s only been a year, I feel the separation from the Navy causing a distance from myself and the perspective I can provide. Because of this, I’ve been recruiting Navy Wives and Girlfriends to write on the blog with me, and so far I have several amazing women from the US, the UK, and Canada writing for U&E. It’s creating a really strong community and hopefully it means that even when I can no longer write for the blog, the help provided there will continue on.

Thank you so much for stopping by, Stephanie! I really enjoyed A White Room — it was tense, lushly historical, and dark, and unexpected. It’s great to hear more about how the novel came to be.

—————————

About Stephanie Carroll

As a reporter and community editor, Stephanie Carroll earned first place awards from the National Newspaper Association and from the Nevada Press Association. She holds degrees in history and social science and graduated summa cum laude from California State University, Fresno.
Her dark and magical historical fiction novel A White Room is inspired by the classic authors Charlotte Perkins Gilman (The Yellow Wallpaper), Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden), and Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights). She also writes science fiction and nonfiction, including the blog Unhinged & Empowered.
Stephanie lives in California, where her husband was originally stationed with the U.S. Navy. Sign up for her newsletter to be notified of new books and free goodies at www.stephaniecarroll.net. Or find her @CarrollBooks on your favorite social media site.
A White Room is her debut novel.

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