Chasing Sylvia Beach by Cynthia Morris
What we do says more about us than what we speak, and if we commit ourselves to a creative practice, we’ll learn a lot about who we are and what we’ll fight for.~Cynthia Morris
A few weeks back, I received a package in the mail. Inside a US Priority mail envelope was a book covered in brown paper and tied with string. I was charmed and delighted. My on-line writing coach, Cynthia Morris, author of Create Your Writer’s Life: A Guide to Writing with Joy and Ease, has just published her first novel, Chasing Sylvia Beach, and I held Limited Edition Number 40, which included a fold out “Novel Shrine” tucked into a library card holder in the back of the book.
What if you found yourself in Paris 1937, with a ticket to hear Hemingway and Stephen Spender read at Shakespeare & Company, the legendary bookstore owned by Sylvia Beach?
This is the question Cynthia Morris poses as she takes us through an enchanted passage back in time with a Denver bookseller named Lily Heller. Lily’s alternating delight and dismay at her predicament as she navigates Parisian streets and cafes culminates in a hunt for a rare book and meets those responsible for her adventure. It is a fun book to read, but also contains moments of insight that catches the reader’s breath, as this is a book about a woman who wants to do something with her life, only just what eludes her.
Cynthia graciously answered some questions I put to her about the novel.
Q: I’m intrigued by the way you were able to combine your artwork in presenting Chasing Sylvia Beach in a limited pre-sale. The result is fantastic, aesthetically pleasing, and labor-intensive. Can you discuss the process of hand-making the shrines or library cards?
Thank you! I’m glad you like it.
I wanted something special for my readers. I won’t be selling the book through my company online, but I wanted to offer a treat for the people who have been behind this book for years.
It took a long time to figure out what to make. I knew I wanted to use a library card pocket in the back, and I knew I wanted to do a folding panel. I keep illustrated journals in Moleskine’s Japanese Album and I love the folding structure.
I came up with several ideas and discarded them all. Then one day it all fell together. I spent seven hours on the couch making what turned into the final art piece.
I also knew how I wanted to wrap and present the books. My novel takes place in a bookstore in Paris in 1937. So I wanted the books to be wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine like they were then.
Now that those sales are over, I can look back with gratitude for the art. Launching a novel requires a lot of clicks and screen time. I was so happy to have breaks where the work was to interact with paper and glue and cards and all the things I love.
Q: When in your writing life did you feel you had a novel to work on?
I started writing in 1994. I gave myself five years to write without worrying if my work was any good or would go anywhere. It was a kind of self-imposed apprenticeship. I took writing classes and started teaching writing in 1996.
I worked my way through the genres: essays, poetry, short stories. It was inevitable that I would attempt a novel.
Q: Can you describe your rewriting process of the novel?
Well, I did seventeen drafts over twelve and a half years. I always wanted to write the best book I could. It was surprising to me to see how much better each draft could get.
I didn’t use the workshopping method, because I find it time-consuming and not always very useful. Instead, I hired professional editors to point me toward better drafts.
Several times it was industry feedback – rejection from agents and editors – that drove me to revise. I got an agent in 2008 and he really nudged me toward some major changes in the tone and flavor of the plot.
By draft 14 or so, I was pretty fed up with the process. The penultimate revision found me working with a man in France to help develop the male characters. This made the plot a lot more dynamic.
Of course, you think each draft is the last one. With each subsequent draft I really had to suck it up and overcome my resistance and frustration.
Q: You recently won a yoga asana competition though you had no desire for the prize—do you think it might have had anything to do with completing the novel?
I don’t know. I have discovered that I am a very resilient and persistent person. I don’t know that I would have gotten that without writing this novel to its publication and without that crazy 70-minute horse pose.
What we do says more about us than what we speak, and if we commit ourselves to a creative practice, we’ll learn a lot about who we are and what we’ll fight for.
Q:You believe in celebrating the steps during the process of working on a project. Can you describe this further?
Lack of confidence is one of the biggest challenges for artists and writers. When you’re working on a major project that takes a long time, you need to feed yourself encouragement over the course of the work.
There are so many distractions. It’s very easy to be discouraged when you’re trying to make something original. So I encourage my clients to celebrate each week’s little victories.
It’s truly remarkable how much difference this makes in a writer’s attitude and ability to stay with it. But sadly, most of us don’t take time to acknowledge and celebrate our progress.
What is your next project?
Getting this book out into the world is my next project! But my next creative project will likely be of a visual nature. An illustrated book, perhaps. If I don’t write a sequel to Chasing Sylvia Beach!
As Cynthia says, Go to Paris for the Price of a Book! It’s well worth it. Chasing Sylvia Beach made me want to return to Paris, learn more about Sylvia Beach, but mostly, it was a book to enjoy. Hope you enjoy it as well!