Amy Gail Hansen’s THE BUTTERFLY SISTER, an original trade paperback, comes out this month from Harper Collins. She has a BA in English from Carthage College in Wisconsin and taught English in a community college before becoming a freelance writer and arts and entertainment journalist. THE BUTTERFLY SISTER is her debut novel.
THE BUTTERFLY SISTER has received some great reviews from the likes of Meg Cabot. Can you give us an elevator pitch for the book, please?
It’s about twenty-two-year-old Ruby Rousseau, emotionally fragile after dropping out of a small women’s college, who gets involved in the case of a missing girl after receiving a mysterious suitcase. To solve the mystery, Ruby must also revisit the demons of her past, including a heartbreaking affair with her English professor and an unhealthy obsession with women writers who killed themselves. But will finding the truth set Ruby free…Or send her off the edge of sanity?
What experience led you to come up with the plot of THE BUTTERFLY SISTER?
My honeymoon to Italy in 2004…Moments before I checked my luggage for that trip, I realized the tag on my suitcase bore someone else’s name and address. That’s because I’d lent it five years prior to a college acquaintance and hadn’t used it since. Removing her leather tag at the last minute and replacing it with one of those flimsy paper ones the airlines give out, I thought, “What if my bag had gotten lost? Would it have gone to her instead of me? And isn’t that a good idea for a story?” Thus, THE BUTTERFLY SISTER starts with the delivery of a mysterious suitcase, and the story spirals out from that jumping off point.
The plot of THE BUTTERFLY SISTER is intriguing. What was the hardest part of writing the book?
The hardest part was the revision process. Writing the first draft was so fun and exciting because at that stage of writing, anything goes. You write what you want, what feels good in the moment. You don’t know yet what works or what doesn’t. You just write. Writing a first draft is like collecting a huge pile of clay, and revising is the arduous task of shaping that clay into a detailed statue. Revisions require time and thought and insight. Because only then, can you step back and really see the pile of words you dumped on the page, what material you have to work with. Only then, can you really begin to shape that lump of a story into something refined. Revisions are the most challenging part of writing for me, but also the most rewarding.
What is your writing schedule like, especially with a family?
I’m a morning person, so my best time to write fiction is first thing in the morning after a cup of coffee.I try to wake up a few hours before my husband and three children, so I can work in the peace and quiet of early morning. I balance writing as a stay at home caregiver, so I also write during my kids’ naps. As they grow older, I will be able to work for longer periods of time, but so far, it’s worked for me. I write three to four hours a day, and that collectively amounts to a good amount of words on the page.
You’re a big reader. How important is it for writers, published and wannabes, to read?
It’s most important. You can learn so much about story structure, conflict, characterization, voice, and the power of setting from reading other books. It’s also very important to read in your genre. You need to know how your writing fits into the bigger picture. You need to know which books to compare your book to when you approach an agent or publisher. In fact, it’s a great way to find a literary agent. That’s how I found mine. When I read THE LAST WILL OF MOIRA LEAHY, a phenomenal book by Therese Walsh, I found the book similar to my novel in theme. On Walsh’s acknowledgements page, I found the name of her agent, Elisabeth Weed, and I tucked that name away in my heart (and in a notebook) for the day I was ready to query agents. And guess what? Elisabeth Weed ended up signing me and selling my novel to William Morrow/HarperCollins.
You have a BA in English and went on to be a journalist. Did working as a journalist help you as a fiction writer or hinder you? How?
Being a journalist helped my fiction more than I could have imagined. First, it was paid work with a byline, which made me feel like a “real” writer and gave me the confidence I needed to take myself seriously. Second, rigid word counts kept my vocabulary sharp. I learned to use one great word instead of two mediocre ones. And finally, as an Arts & Entertainment columnist, I got to interview some amazing authors, like Wally Lamb, Elizabeth Berg, Elizabeth Strout, and Jane Hamilton, to name a few. These authors inspired and encouraged me so much on my journey as a writer.
You write short stories and have said that THE BUTTERFLY SISTER started out that way. What made you see the potential in that story that made you want to do a novel?
This is a great question because it’s a hard decision to make at times. My short stories have never been very long—they generally range from five to fifteen pages. When I started writing the short story that became THE BUTTERFLY SISTER, it read more like a chapter of a novel and less like a self-contained short story. It didn’t have a beginning, middle, or end. There was no climax. It was more like a scene, a small part of something much bigger. And that’s when I realized that my short story was actually a novel.
How long did it take to finish THE BUTTERFLY SISTER, from short story to completed novel?
Five and a half years. I started writing in August 2006 and finished the first draft by March of 2008. I went on to revise for another three years, and after many drafts, ended up with the version with which I landed my agent in January 2012.
Which do you find harder to write, the short story or the novel and why?
Novels are so much harder. I could write a short story in an afternoon. It’s instant gratification for a writer, which is why I liked writing them at the onset. It’s an immediate sense of accomplishment. The novel is a huge commitment. Every time I worked on the novel, I would write a little bit, and I felt like I’d never be done. And then, one glorious day, I was.
Is THE BUTTERFLY SISTER a stand-alone book or do you see a series?
Right now, it’s a stand-alone book. Although I did end the novel in a way that would support a sequel, I have no intentions of writing one. But I’ll never say never.
Are you working on a new book? If so, can you give us an idea of what it’s about?
Yes, I am working on book two, which shares themes with THE BUTTERFLY SISTER but is a very different story. What I can tell you is that it’s largely about memory—how it works and also how it can deceive you.I’ve already said too much….
What’s the hardest and the easiest part of writing for you and why?
The easiest part is coming up with ideas. I am constantly inspired—by random things I see or hear during the day. The hardest part is writing even when I don’t feel like it. There are times when I sit down to write and nothing comes. But often, if I push myself, if I just start writing something, anything, the well flows.
Will you be doing signings? If so, will the information be on your website?
Yes, I am doing signings throughout Chicagoland, where I live, and in southern Wisconsin. I am also planning signings in other select cities, especially New Orleans, where a large portion of the book takes place. I used to live in New Orleans as a child, and my love for that city is evident in the novel. All of my signing information is on the events page of my website.
To learn more about Amy, please visit her website.