Congratulations to McCormick Templeman, whose deliciously creepy THE LITTLE WOODS comes out from Schwartz & Wade/Random House today! Booklist calls it “a smart, moody debut” and Templeman a “talent to watch.”
McCormick was kind enough to sit down with Lucky 13er Kristen Kittscher for a chat about —among other topics—her debut, her passion for Nabokov and Poe, boarding school, and maintaining a sense of wonder while writing. We’re especially grateful that she took the time for a real back-and-forth — a rarity in the blogosphere!
First, a bit about THE LITTLE WOODS (from www.mccormicktempleman.com):
I opened up The Little Woods and read it in a day and a half, I found it so riveting. Boarding schools, creepiness, murder, and beautiful prose -- what's not to like? The constant sense of danger pulsing below the surface and your marvelous attention to language made me think of Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Who are your influences? Your favorite authors?
Thank you! I’m so excited that you liked it. And thank you for comparing it to The Secret History. I love that book.
I would have to say that my main influences are Edgar Allan Poe, and Vladimir Nabokov – not that I write like them, just that they influenced me at key moments in my development. I read a lot of Poe when I was little, and it totally messed me up in a good way. I discovered Nabokov in high school when a friend lent me Lolita, and it changed everything for me. When I was writing in high school, I was really struggling to find my voice, and I noticed that I was always trying to tone down my language, to make it more serious, and in Nabokov, I found someone who could be playfully transcendent. It changed the way I looked at literature.
But there are so many books that I love. I’m a huge mystery fan, so I will really read anything in that category. Some of my favorites are Reginald Hill, Tana French, and Iain Pears. Classics-wise, I love Tolstoy, Zora Neale Hurston, Virginia Woolf, Borges, Garcia Márquez. Newer stuff: I love Kiran Desai, Karen Russell, Camille DeAngelis, Scarlett Thomas, John Green, Tayari Jones, Nova Ren Suma. Oh! And I love Stephen King. When I was a kid, I used to read him obsessively. Recently I’ve started going back to my favorite early books and really seeing what he’s doing – the skill he has, his gift for realism is astonishing. The reason he is so terrifying is because his characters are so human you can almost smell them. He pulls you in and makes you believe that these characters really exist, and then suddenly, he gives Jack Torrance a weapon, or sends in a killer clown, and it’s terrifying because it feels like it’s actually happening.
“Playfully transcendent"! I love that description for Nabokov and -- while I know it's uncomfortable to discuss influences -- I do see that playfulness in THE LITTLE WOODS, too. Your book is dark, suspenseful, and creepy, but it's also funny.
I find it interesting that you were a particular Stephen King fan as a kid. I was, too, and I've noticed that many other writers, especially YA authors, had the same obsession. Speaking of YA writers, I notice you didn't mention many as influences. If I recall correctly, you didn't write THE LITTLE WOODS with the YA market in mind. Can you give us a little peek at your road to publication?
I was in my fourth year of Chinese Medicine grad school, and I was really busy, so writing was something I did to entertain myself and to blow off steam. The Little Woods was a project I’d been toying with off and on for a few years. I was writing it as a historical mystery with a female medical examiner as the main character. I’d enjoyed writing it, but I just couldn’t get the feeling of claustrophobia I wanted from the town. Then one night, I was lying out underneath the stars, avoiding studying for my herbal formulas class when it just came to me all of a sudden. Boarding school! There is nothing more claustrophobic than boarding school. I got this rush of energy, and I scrapped all of the characters except for Iris and Jack, and I started writing from scratch the next day. Then I fooled around with it for a couple of years, did a revision for my agent, and eventually it sold. I’ve always tried to take kind of a laissez-faire attitude toward publication because that’s the only way for me to do it and stay healthy. I didn’t want to define my success or sense of self through publication. I knew how unlikely it was, and how many wonderful books don’t find homes.
It looks like your laissez-faire attitude and focus on the long term got results and kept you sane! That's great to hear. As for your boarding school epiphany, I have to ask: to what extent did your own experiences in boarding school seep into THE LITTLE WOODS?
Boarding school was not a happy time for me. It was terrifically lonely to be surrounded by people, and yet to feel completely isolated. I had wonderful friends, and lots of good times goofing around, but it was still a very sad place for me. I think for Cally, that sadness is front and center and colors the way she views her daily life, but I was more like Jack who thinks he’s okay now, but is probably going to realize sometime during college that his high school experience was profoundly messed up.
I’m not surprised to hear you say that. The characters in THE LITTLE WOODS feel startlingly real to me, and I felt that sense of sadness throughout. I’m curious. What does your writing and revising process look like?
Thank you! I’m so glad they feel real to you. One thing about my process that is kind of weird is that I don’t write every day, not even remotely. I started writing for fun when I was really young, and I still approach each story like a little kid playing make believe. I feel so lucky to get to do this, and I want to maintain a sense of wonder about it. Although I don’t write consistently, I do think about my projects every day. I fantasize and daydream, and then when it feels like the book is ready to go, I start drafting. I’ve written four books now, two that sold, one that didn’t sell, and one that is kind of my secret love that I haven’t done anything with yet. For each of those books, the process was entirely different. Some were written slowly and blind, as if I were telling myself a story. Some were sketched out and imagined in their entirety before I wrote a single word. Some, like The Little Woods came slowly, and with lots of pauses. Some, like my next book, came incredibly quickly without my coming up for air.
My revision process, though, has remained pretty constant, and is a bit more roll up your sleeves, put your feet solidly on the ground, and get to work. When I’m revising, I usually work every day, and I can be really intense about it. I will rip out characters and plot lines without blinking, and when I line edit my manuscripts, they end up looking like something out of splatter movie. I really enjoy both aspects of writing so much, but I feel like I use totally different parts of my brain and my personality when I’m writing versus revising.
It looks like you’ll be able to enjoy plenty of that work ahead. I read that you recently sold a manuscript to Krista Marino at Delacorte, at auction, in a two-book deal. Congratulations! What can you tell us about it?
Thank you! It’s called The Glass Casket, and it’s a twisted retelling of Snow White. It’s set in a classic fairytale universe, very lush and cozy, but with a definite darkness to it. There’s a snowy mountain village, and a gruesome murder. There’s a beautiful girl, and an ancient curse, and all the while, a beast is stalking the woods. I had so much fun writing it, and I can’t wait to share it.
Finally, since we’re The Lucky 13s, we have to ask: do you have any superstitions, writing or otherwise?
I don’t really have any superstitions, but I do believe in ghosts and goblins and fairies and monsters, and I wish on everything – the stars, the moon, the ocean, eyelashes, because why not? Free wishes!
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk, McCormick. It was wonderful to be able to have an honest-to-goodness conversation. THE LITTLE WOODS is out today! Available at your local independent bookstore and wherever books are sold.
McCormick Templeman is descended from musicians and criminals. She holds a BA in English Literature from Reed College and an MFA in Writing and Poetics from Naropa University. She lives in California with some people and some stuff. You can visit her online at www.mccormicktempleman.com or on Twitter.