Author Interview: Erin McCole Crupp

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Author Erin McCole Cupp Today I have a special post–a chance to chat with the author of a new Catholic novel: Don’t You Forget About Me, by Erin McCole Crupp, also known online as Mrs. Mackerelsnapper, OP (how can you resist a name like that?).

Can you start by telling us what the book is about?

20130713-095421.jpgSure, Kate!  Thanks for hosting me.  Don’t You Forget About Me follows Mary Catherine Whelihan, or “Cate,” a successful single woman more than happy to leave her ugly duckling past behind her.  Cate is also one of those “fallen away” Catholics, and incidental to that fact, she has been treating her feminine health issues with hormonal birth control pills since her teens—that’s a long time to be on The Pill.  Well one day Cate gets this cryptic email from her grade school crush, Gene, asking if he’ll see her at their grade school principal’s funeral—because he has a question he wants to ask her in person.  So against her better judgment, Cate goes to the funeral and finds out that she’s not the only one in her graduating class who is sick in some way.  In fact, it looks like the popular, athletic kids have grown up to fare even worse!  Gene is now a doctor—a faithful, Catholic OB/GYN—and he wants to find out why so many of their classmates are sick and dying.  Cate wants no part of it… until she finds herself a suspect in the questionable death of the worst of their class bullies.  Cate and Gene now have to find out who or what is making their classmates so sick.  In the process Cate has to tear down a lot of the walls she has built to protect herself.  After all, why would she even want to help these people who did so much damage to her as a child?

I enjoyed Don’t You Forget About Me for its humor and the vitality of the writing. Your characters are very real. I love how you have an extremely sympathetic lapsed Catholic, a lovable Jewish chemistry-professor best friend, and a sassy, winsome literary agent–all in the first chapter. In fact, the “Catholic” never really takes center stage in this book; it’s a thriller with Catholic elements. How long did it take you to create this world?

Is it too weird to say it took my whole life?  I feel like my brain is just this bucket of random facts and quirks that I’ve picked up from people I’ve met or experiences I’ve lived.  Got made fun of in grade school?  Plink! Into the bucket.  Have to text my BFF with every thought that crosses my brain?  Plink!  Into the bucket.  Endometriosis?  Cheddar cheese popcorn?  A nun who wore black oxfords and prowled the recess yard looking for troublemakers?  Plink!  Plink!  Plink!  Then God comes along, shakes up the basket, and those details and quirks link up where He wants them to.  If I just obey the call to write and keep my butt on the seat and my fingers on the keyboard long enough, a book comes out.  This time it was Don’t You Forget About Me.

Mary Cate’s experience underscores a sad truth: that our Catholic schools aren’t always the haven of holiness we imagine them to be. Children are capable of lot of cruelty. Do you worry about drawing attention to that? How do we, as authors, walk the line between admitting the “warts” in the system and giving fodder to enemies of the Church we believe in?

Joseph Pearce says, “To live a creative life we must lose our fear of being wrong.”   If I point out the window and say, “Hey, the sky is blue!” I’m not drawing attention to anything we don’t already know.  We’re a Church of sinners.  If a wart is there, the only way it will heal is if I give it the attention of a doctor’s visit and some liquid nitrogen.  It might be painful attention, but ignoring it certainly won’t make it go away.  I worry more about not telling the truth in my fiction than I do about making things prettier than they are.  If fiction serves any practical purpose, it’s to teach us how to resolve our conflicts.  When we are afraid to admit there’s a conflict to begin with… “…so your sin remains”  (John 9:41).  Jesus was never afraid of the truth. We don’t need to be either.

All that being said, you mentioned “enemies of the Church.”  I’m fully aware that several of those enemies are more than happy to write of the warts of Catholics but won’t give a second of their time to write examples of faithful Catholics being the love of Christ in the world.  That’s where Catholic writers really do need to come in.  I don’t think anyone is more equipped to write along the whole continuum of human activity more than those people fed frequently and completely with the Real Presence of Jesus Who Is Truth.  So, I beg you, Catholic writers, don’t shy away from writing of human failings, but do show human goodness as well.

That’s such a good word of encouragement. Now, you know I have to ask how much of Mary Cate’s experiences are autobiographical! 🙂

Yes, they are completely autobiographical… about the life of a fictional character named Mary Catherine Whelihan!  Oh, you’re asking if I was bullied as a child at a Catholic grade school!  Well… I certainly had a less-than-pleasant experience myself, but I also own that I was a less-than-pleasant child.  There is such a difference between being victims of our childhoods and being survivors.  Which we are is a choice we make.  At the beginning of DYFAM, Cate is very definitely a victim and even relishes seeing herself in that role.  Do her experiences change her?  You’ll have to read the book to see.

Your blog is called “Will Write For Tomato Pie,” and you kept talking about this dish all the way through Don’t You Forget About Me. I was just waiting for that recipe to show up at the end. Do you have a recipe you’d recommend?

On Friday, November 22, our family’s adventure in making tomato pie at home will be up as a Meatless Friday recipe on CatholicMom.com.  I was impressed that I was able to make a tomato sauce for it that had the right consistency—as in I cut into the pie to serve it and ½” of tomato sauce just stood there and didn’t ooze off the crust.  However, the flavor, while good, was not quite the perfection that is Corropolese’s tomato pie.  So I’ll be trying my recipe again, but we’re in no danger of putting Corropolese out of business!

Oh, good! I can now try to make a tomato pie. 🙂 Now I can move on to other things. Let’s talk publishing biz! I saw in your interview last week at Ellen Gable’s blog that your focus is on story rather than theme. Do you have an overarching “philosophy” that directs your fiction writing?

I just want to rip out your heart, stomp on it, bury it, then give it back to you, healed and with wings.  That’s been my mission statement as a writer, so that even when others haven’t seen value in my work, I still have a great time writing it and can feel the smile of Mary when I do!

Since you said in the Full Quiver interview that you have another manuscript under consideration at a major Catholic publisher, you’re obviously pursuing several paths simultaneously. What makes you choose one avenue over another? What are the differences in the process?

It’s really important for a writer, in order to be of a professional mindset, not to be desperate.  If you know you have a polished, quality manuscript, then approach the publisher who has a better chance of welcoming it.  Don’t just send it out all willy-nilly, hoping for a nibble.  Do your research.  Full Quiver Publishing specializes in Theology of the Body fiction.  My other manuscript, a YA historical about St. Catherine of Alexandria, would probably look pretty weird in their catalog.  Asking them to spend time with an MS that doesn’t fit their mission is kind of insensitive on my part.  It’s just good manners, which makes it good business (in the sense of bringing Good to business, not in the sense of “manipulating people to get what you want”).

I “met” Ellen of FQP during a chat presentation at the 2012 Catholic Writers Conference Online.  I met (no quotes) the representative of the other publisher when I went to a pitch session at the CWG Live conference this past August. The larger house sent a rep to CWG live, who accepted my proposal packet and sent it on to their fiction editor, who has since asked for the full manuscript in order to help them make a decision as to whether or not investing time in this manuscript—not in me as a human being, but in this particular story the way I happen to have told it—would be a good investment on the part of their company.  In other words, if the MS is rejected, I’m not allowed to take it personally.  I did my best with the art, craft and business end of the writing.  The rest is up to God.

In both cases, the editor wanted to see the first three chapters and some sort of summary.  Since FQP is on the smaller side (though I don’t feel right calling them “small” as they grow), the decision-making process was less complicated and only one person had to make the decision whether or not to ask for the full manuscript.  At the larger publisher, there are several levels to go through before they’ll request a full manuscript; in the event they do like the full, there will still be more filters for it to pass before a contract would be offered.

Now, that’s the process for a solicited manuscript—one the publisher asked to see.  The process for an unsolicited MS (meaning you looked up the publisher and sent it to the editor in hopes they’ll consider) is a lot longer and more impersonal.  That’s why I am a huge advocate of attending writing conferences.  Your appearance at one of those is a testament to how seriously you’re taking this.  Conferences also help you build relationships with other writers and editors.  It’s hard to feel bitter about a rejection from someone whose sick grandmother has been on your prayer intention list.

Did you always know you wanted to pursue small/niche press publishing, or did you ever consider traditional or self-publishing? What nudged you this direction?

I’ve just always wanted to tell stories.  When I first started out, of course I wanted to land a huge contract with a big house and get gazillion dollar advances and bazillion dollar royalty checks and be on the front page of the New York Times, and win awards and and and and… See, I considered myself a storyteller years before I considered myself a Catholic first.  Anyway, as my reversion grew deeper and my writing changed to reflect that, I realized that what I write is not so likely to be promoted by the secularly-minded, profit-first world of Big House Publishing. I even tried forming a small press starting with my first novel, Jane_E, Friendless Orphan to create a fresh marketplace for Catholic fiction that would appeal to non-Catholics, but that was at a time that my primary vocation as wife and mother had a sudden increase in demands.  I knew I had to choose my Vocation over my vocation, and my writing went by the wayside for several years.  When it was time to take up the keys again, God led me to the Catholic Writers Guild… and the rest is history above!

I hope this wasn’t too lengthy and that my answers are helpful to others!  Please know that I pray for my readers daily and include them in my intentions at daily Mass.  Thanks again for hosting me, Kate.

You are most welcome! Good luck!

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