In our Breaking In column in Writer’s Digest magazine, we talk with debut authors—such as Anissa Gray (anissagray.com), author of The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls—about how they did it, what they learned and why you can do it, too. Here, Gray discusses how she got started, the importance of creating your writing workspace, and more.
Tell us about your book.
The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls (February 2019, Berkley Publishing) straddles the line between literary and commercial fiction. "When a husband and wife are sentenced to prison, their devastated family must find a new understanding of love and loss, honesty and forgiveness."
Where do you write from?
I live in Atlanta, GA and write mostly at home.
What led up to this book? What were you writing before breaking out with this book?
Initially, I planned to write a story about a therapist in an eating disorders clinic. I had struggled with an eating disorder for much of my adult life before finally getting treatment, so I wanted to explore the sometimes rocky recovery process. Viola was the main character, but her story just wasn't coming together. However, once I started to look at her through the context of family—her sisters, her nieces, her relationship—that was when things really started to cohere. The voices of the other characters became more resonant, and I could see there was a story there about each of these women, the depths of their troubles, and the very different ways they coped.
What was the time frame for writing this book?
It took about three years to write. During that time, I was somewhat nomadic when it came to workspaces. My first writing desk was one of those small TV dinner tables. It was crammed into an unoccupied corner of our aptly named “junk room.” When we decided to renovate, I ended up at our kitchen table—a not entirely quiet area—for a fairly long stretch of difficult writing. There was also a brief stint of working in a pleasant corner of my local library. Finally, after renovations were complete, I had a lovely, well-decorated room of my own but, by then, the novel was all but finished.
It took more than a year to write that serviceable first draft of The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls. A portion of that time was spent coming to terms with the fact that I had to discard much of the story I’d originally planned to write and finding a new way forward.
How did you find your agent (and who is your agent)?
I attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference a few years ago and Michelle Brower was one of the agents on the roster. I’d heard good things about her, but my manuscript wasn’t ready for submission, so I didn’t pitch to her. Fast forward a year or so to the completed draft, and Michelle was among the agents I queried via email. We eventually spoke, but she didn’t sign me right away. She thought the manuscript could use some work (she was right) and, before making an offer, she wanted to make sure I was capable of addressing the issues she’d flagged. I addressed them and got a much better book—and a great agent.
What were your biggest learning experiences or surprises throughout the publishing process?
I learned something during every step in the process, whether it was while working with my editor—the very talented Amanda Bergeron—or through observing the thoughtfulness and creativity involved in producing the physical book itself. But, taken together, what struck me most was the seamless team effort involved in bringing a book to market in just the right way. I could see how incredibly fortunate I was to have such a talented, well-coordinated team behind The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls.
Looking back, what did you do right that helped you break in?
I got out of the way of the story. As I mentioned, I started out writing about a woman working in an eating disorders center. When I found that the story was not coming together, I took a pause. But I did not turn my attention away from the main character in that story. In fact, I started listening to her more closely. In this, other characters started to emerge. I followed their lead—instead of my own. And a very different book emerged.
On that note, what would you have done differently if you could do it again?
I don’t know that I would do anything differently. Every rewrite, every moment of doubt, every choice I had to rethink—all of it made the end result stronger.
Did you have a platform in place, and what are you doing now to build a platform and gain readership?
I have personal and professional connections that may prove helpful in marketing the book, but I am only now becoming active on social media. I was, to tell the truth, highly social media phobic. But I’ve found that it’s been wonderful having this opportunity to connect with readers in, what is for me, a new way.
Best piece(s) of writing advice we haven’t discussed?
Treat writing like a job and show up without fail. There are so many things that demand our attention. Having a full-time day job and family commitments myself, I definitely understand this. But carving out time for yourself and your craft is important, too. A nonnegotiable writing schedule is a crucial first step in becoming the writer you want to be.
What’s next for you?
Another novel. Broadly speaking, this one also centers around family and those early experiences that shape us.