Emily Gray Tedrowe: Write the Book You Want to Read

Emily Gray Tedrowe shares how a perspective shift improved her latest novel (The Talented Miss Farwell), what she hopes is not a one-time thing, and more!
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Emily Gray Tedrowe is the Chicago-based author of the novels The Talented Miss Farwell, Blue Stars, and Commuters. She earned a PhD in English literature from New York University, and a BA from Princeton University. She has received an Illinois Arts Council award as well as fellowships from the Ragdale Foundation, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Sewanee Writers Conference. 

Emily Gray Tedrowe (photo credit: Marion Ettlinger)

Emily Gray Tedrowe (photo credit: Marion Ettlinger)

(36 Plot Nots: Plot Clichés to Avoid.)

A frequent book reviewer for USA Today as well as other publications, Tedrowe also writes essays, interviews, and short stories. Learn more at EmilyGrayTedrowe.com.

In this post, Tedrowe shares how a perspective shift improved her latest novel, what she hopes is not a one-time thing, and more!


Fearless Writing William Kenower

If you love to write and have a story you want to tell, the only thing that can stand between you and the success you’re seeking isn’t craft, or a good agent, or enough Facebook friends and Twitter followers, but fear. Fear that you aren’t good enough, or fear the market is too crowded, or fear no one wants to hear from you. Fortunately, you can’t write while being in the flow and be afraid simultaneously. The question is whether you will write fearlessly!

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Name: Emily Gray Tedrowe
Literary agent: Alice Tasman
Title: The Talented Miss Farwell
Publisher: Custom House/William Morrow
Release date: September 29, 2020
Genre: Literary Fiction
Previous titles: Blue Stars (St. Martin's Press, 2015); Commuters (Harper Perennial, 2010)

Elevator pitch for the book: Catch Me If You Can meets Patricia Highsmith in this electrifying page-turner of greed and obsession, survival and self-invention that is a piercing character study of one unforgettable female con artist.


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What prompted you to write this book?

The Talented Miss Farwell was inspired by the true story of a woman who worked in a small Illinois town government and who embezzled $50 million over 20 years. When I heard an NPR story breaking the news of this epic crime (which would eventually be found to be the biggest municipal fraud in American history), I was instantly captivated. I wanted to know how someone perpetrates a crime like that for so long while living in a small town, where everyone knows everyone's business. 

(Wendy Holden: Unlocking the secrets of historical fiction.)

I stopped following the actual story and began to imagine my own character, Becky Farwell, and what it would take for her to be the kind of person who could create and sustain a double life. I've also been fascinated by con artists for a long time, so the chance to write a novel about a female con artist was immediately appealing.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication?

This novel took me longer to complete than my others—I would say that maybe from idea to publication was about five years? This includes a year or so of thinking through my conception of the story and its main character, Becky, as well as probably another year of filling notebooks with questions, sketches, notes and plans. 

Writing a full draft took me about a year as well, with some excellent reads and commentary from my writers group. My amazing editor Kate Nintzel then worked with me on a substantial revision of the draft to help the novel become the best version of itself. Throughout this process, I honed my idea about how to tell this story, moving from a version where the novel included a peripheral narrator who observed and told us about Becky Farwell. 

With Kate’s incredibly perceptive guidance, I came to realize that the story didn’t need this character—and that Becky Farwell's life and crimes was the true center of the novel. Luckily, I always had a clear understanding from day one of who Becky is—my idea of her character never changed much over these years of writing and rewriting The Talented Miss Farwell.


Were there any surprises in the publishing process for this title?

As I mentioned, the initial version of the novel was told through the awareness of a character who wasn't a key part of the action. Instead, she was a witness to Becky—close enough to observe but not enough on the inside to know what was really going on. 

(POV: Choosing between first-person and third-person.)

What I learned as I moved through the editing process was that I had created this character almost as a way of deflecting my fear about fully committing to telling Becky's (outsize, intense, elaborately criminal) story. When I got up the courage to cut the narrator character, I found that the novel moved faster, cleaner—and focused the reader's attention where it should be, on Becky Farwell and her art world con.

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

The biggest and best surprise is how much I fell in love with the writing of this book. Writing is—as we all know—fraught with difficulty, confusion, disappointment. But every once in a while you hit the sweet spot with a project where the challenge and the joy of the work are equally matched, and you look forward to opening the document every morning, and you delight in imagining events for your plot. You smile on the bus when you think about the story you are building. 

This was my experience with The Talented Miss Farwell. I can only hope it wasn't a one-time thing, but if that's the case, I'm incredibly grateful.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

To be honest: absorption, of the enjoyable kind. Distraction. Pleasure, entertainment, and perhaps some new ideas about obsession, the art world, self-invention, friendship, or country music. 

Life is hard right now, in so many ways. I know as a reader I am thankful every time a novel takes me deeply and contentedly into another world, even if only for the span of a novel. If The Talented Miss Farwell could do that for readers, I’d be more than satisfied.

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

Write the book (the story, the scene, the sentence) you want to read.

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