Beth Fehlbaum is a teacher and an author.
Her debut novel, Courage in Patience tells the story of a teenage girl's first foray into recovery from sexual abuse.
In this interview, Fehlbaum talks about the factors which compelled her to start writing.
How would you describe your writing?
All of the writing I do has truth as its foundation. I don't buy into sugarcoating. I won't do it.
Currently I'm working on the sequel to Courage in Patience. It's called Hope in Patience, and it continues Ashley's story.
I want to explore where Ashley goes from the realization she has at the end of Courage in Patience and how she continues her road to recovery. I also want to deal with the fall-out from the censorship controversy that takes place in Courage in Patience, and continue to address the problem of homophobia. Hope in Patience will have an openly gay character.
When did you start writing?
I have always written, ever since I can remember. But in terms of serious-writing-of-a-novel, I started about a year or so ago.
I was working through some personal stuff, and writing a lot about how it felt. I shared it with a good friend of mine, and he suggested that I write a novel.
Initially, I was writing it just to see if I could do it. After I finished writing my book, I realized that I had a message of hope for victims of abuse -- something that there was a need for, that I wanted to share.
I started finding out how to be published by reading everything I could get my hands on, including columns and blogs online, as well as books on the publishing process like those big thick directories with agents' names, etc. I wrote a query letter, researched the types of agents looking for [Young Adult] YA fiction, and submitted at least a hundred queries. I landed an agent a few months later and sold Courage in Patience about six months later.
Who is your target audience?
Ashley, the protagonist of Courage in Patience, is around fifteen years old, but the book is written for anyone who wants to read a story of hope.
I was motivated to write this story because I wanted to see how it would turn out. I know that sounds funny, but it's true. I had this idea in mind of a young woman who has been basically tortured by her stepfather for the first half of her life. What would happen if she escaped that existence and had to start over from scratch with a father she never knew? Could she ever learn to trust him? Would she be able to pull herself out of the closet she had been hiding in, both mentally and literally?
Then when Ashley made friends in Patience, she discovered that everybody is challenged by something, whether it's having been sexually abused or being the target of a racist bully or having a physical deformity. As Dr. Matt, Ashley's therapist in Courage in Patience says, "Life's messy."
Who influenced you most?
In terms of being able to write a story like Courage in Patience, a person I will call A Very Wise Person has helped me overcome a lot of challenges. He has influenced me more than anybody else in my entire life, including my parents. He's really made me the person I am today.
In terms of writing style and a commitment to writing the truth, whether it's scary or hopeful, Chris Crutcher has been a mentor to me, whether he knows it or not.
How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?
I've been a teacher for about ten years, and I channel a lot of what I know about the education world into my writing. I have worked with adolescents for a long time, and because of that, I'm able to capture the way they act and talk in an honest way.
You know, all writers start with their own lives as the foundation of their stories. It's just a natural thing to do. I have made the point again and again in interviews that Courage in Patience is everyone's story. The problems the characters deal with are universal, as are the emotions they feel and the victories they experience. Not everyone may have been sexually abused; not everyone may have experienced racism; not everyone may have had a book they love censored by people who are afraid of their kids growing up -- but everybody knows somebody who has faced those situations, or knows of someone, any way.
What are your main concerns as a writer?
I want to tell the truth in as authentic a way as possible. I want to capture the voice of each character in a way that is realistic. Sometimes, that means the characters use language that might make people uncomfortable. But I stand by my commitment to truth, and truth's not always a comfortable thing to deal with.
Do you write everyday?
I don't work on my current book every day as far as typing, but I am constantly thinking about how I want to take the plot. I jot down notes or zap myself an e-mail if I have an epiphany but I'm not able to sit down and write at the time. I tend to write in spurts; the story just flows from my mind through my fingertips.
In writing Courage in Patience, I learned that I am very much a middle-of-the-night writer; I will wake up with an idea and just have to get it out right then. I plan to work on Hope in Patience extensively this summer, when I'm out of school.
How long did it take you to write Courage in Patience?
It took me a little over a year to write, if you consider the time starting with the idea germinating in my mind through to the final edits of the manuscript.
I chose Kunati Books because they like controversial, provocative books, and Courage in Patiencewill definitely provoke discussion. Kunati was unafraid of the subject matter of sexual abuse.
In terms of the business-side, I like the way they don't backlist books; in other words, my book will never end up in the bargain bin. They list their books indefinitely and continue to promote them heavily. And that's another reason I like Kunati: it was founded by the three principals of Persona Corp, an advertising/marketing agency in Canada who worked for such giants as IBM and Nestle. Kunati has been called "What a publishing house would look like if it was run by the marketing department." I like that about them.
What did you find most difficult when you were working on Courage in Patience?
Writing the scenes where Ashley is attacked by her stepfather was a challenge. I dealt with it by going very slowly and making sure that none of the violence or details were unnecessarily graphic or sensationalized.
I enjoy creating scenes that readers tell me they feel pulled into. I like that because it means I've done my job well.
What sets the book apart from other things you've written?
Courage in Patience is the only novel I've written. I've always written poetry and short stories -- just for me or people close to me, though. I've published a short story I wrote called "The Closet" on my blog. Occasionally I write opinion pieces about such topics as immigration, politics, teaching and child advocacy.
What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?
Courage in Patience becoming a reality, as in, a published book that I can hold in my hands.