Kia Corthron: On Writing Epic Novels

Playwright turned novelist Kia Corthron discusses her process in writing her new literary fiction novel, Moon and the Mars.
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Kia Corthron’s debut fiction, The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter, was the winner of the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and a New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice. She was the 2017 Bread Loaf Shane Stevens Fellow in the Novel. She is also a nationally and internationally produced playwright. For her body of work for the stage, she has garnered the Windham Campbell Prize for Drama, the United States Artists Jane Addams Fellowship, the Horton Foote Playwriting Award, the Flora Roberts Award, the Simon Great Plains Playwright Award, and others. She was born and raised in Cumberland, Maryland, and lives in Harlem, New York City.

Kia Corthron: On Writing Epic Novels

In this post, Kia discusses her process in writing her new literary fiction novel, Moon and the Mars, what she learned from publishing her debut novel in 2016, and more!

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Name: Kia Corthron
Literary agent: Malaga Baldi/Baldi Agency
Book title: Moon and the Mars
Publisher: Seven Stories Press
Expected release date: August 31, 2021
Genre/category: Literary fiction
Elevator pitch for the book: A girl of African American and Irish parentage matures from childhood to adolescence on the rough-and-tumble streets of Five Points, New York City, during the years leading up to and into the Civil War. Her two ethnic communities sometimes clash, but more often cooperate, while she rides the rollercoaster of work and play, dance halls and riots, cigar factories and Barnum’s sensationalist museum, abject poverty and great comets.
Previous titles by the author: The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter

Kia Corthron: On Writing Epic Novels

Moon and the Mars by Kia Corthron

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What prompted you to write this book?

I was interested in exploring historical events during the Civil War related to the African American and Irish communities in Five Points, which was the most impoverished neighborhood of Manhattan. Much has been said about tensions between the two populaces, but there was also much camaraderie, as detailed in Tyler Anbinder’s seminal Five Points. My protagonist is symbolic of that intersection: an orphan girl who lives between the homes of her black and Irish grandmothers.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?

For most of my life, I have identified as a playwright. Then, in the spring of 2009, I got an idea for a novel. I fiddled with it briefly, then went back to playwriting until a year later when I fully embraced the challenge of a book. My debut fiction, The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter, was published in early 2016.

Later that year, an idea came to me about New York City during the civil war, and I started doing some research. I had an early 2017 residency at MacDowell in New Hampshire, and used the time to tinker. One evening I read aloud from a raw chapter I’d just written. The other residents were very taken with the text, and excited for the book. Until that moment, I wasn’t sure if I would write a second novel—there seemed to be no point unless a great idea for one came to me—and if I did undertake a sophomore project, I wasn’t sure this would be it. But the validation of my artist colleagues confirmed for me that I must be on the right path, and I followed it.

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

The cool thing about staying with Seven Stories Press (who published my debut) is that I know everybody there, among them Dan Simon my publisher, Veronica Liu my editor, and Ruth Weiner my publicist. It’s nice to start with that foundation of familiarity, and we continue to learn from each other. One very pleasant surprise was that, for our second voyage together, Seven Stories brought in two fabulous freelance publicists to focus on Moon: Lauren Cerand and Yona Deshommes. I feel very fortunate.

Kia Corthron: On Writing Epic Novels

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

Numerous! I didn’t know Frederick Douglass spent time in Ireland and found comradeship there! I didn’t know the largest slave auction in U.S. history occurred on the eve of the Civil War! I didn’t know that, long before he went into the circus business, P.T. Barnum ran a nationally known popular museum in lower Manhattan with performers such as Charles Stratton (a.k.a. Tom Thumb)!

The novel covers the seven years from 1857-1863 (plus an epilogue). Before I undertook each new year (which would be comprised of several chapters), I went through historical lists of significant local and national news events. Before I began each new chapter, I again sifted through the events pertaining to the months I would address. So there was always a constant learning of historical facts while I was engaged in the creative learning of how my characters would respond to that history and to each other within that history.

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

Of course I don’t like to dictate my readers’ experiences, as it is their right—and my delight!—to hear about, and to be surprised by, the myriad ways they have received my story. Meanwhile, I hope that I have provided a channel for readers to envisage how history has shaped our present situation so that they might take that into consideration as we build our future.

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

Because I came from playwriting, I entered the world of fiction unaware of established publishing rules, such as: Don’t debut with an 800 page novel! I didn’t know any better, and by the time I found out, I was too far in to turn back. (I did some editing on my own—but that only brought it down from what would have been 1,000 published pages.) Most publishers flat-out rejected the manuscript without reading it, and the few who took an interest hoped I could slash it down to “normal.” But I knew the size was normal for the story I had written. What was the point of decimating the book in order to sell it? I decided to wait until I found a publisher who understood the story in all its heft and was willing to take the chance (and, believe me, there were some melancholy days when I wasn’t sure there was such a publisher). I’m very happy Seven Stories Press took it on. It went on to win the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and to become a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. I don’t believe any of that would have happened had I discarded two-thirds of the narrative.

I am not advocating for authors to write epic novels! Though if you want to, you absolutely, absolutely should. Because my advice is to write what is right for your story, regardless of the conventional modes of practice. The rest will take care of itself.

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