One boring day in the library, I was searching Amazon for books with debut authors coming out in 2011 and I came across the name Anne Heltzel. Huh, I thought, that sound familiar. Upon further inspection I discovered that this debut author was not only a graduate of our fantastic program at New School, but also attended my alma matre, The University of Notre Dame (Go Irish!). It dawned on me that I had actually met Anne Heltzel at ND (through my musical-comedy writing brother, Danny Carter) long before any of us were writers. I caught up with Anne to congratulate her on Circle Nine which is debuting in September, and to catch up with her on life post-ND and post-New School.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a writer.
I’ve wanted to be a writer as long as I can remember, but I always assumed it was unattainable as a career. I’ve always been passionate about books (and in particular, what books do for kids). I wrote for myself, in local contests, and later for undergrad electives. I did it because it brought me all kinds of enjoyment, but there are so many things that seem impossible when you grow up in a small Midwestern community. (Namely: creative/impractical careers.) I imagine it would have been different had I grown up in New York and been exposed to professional writers on a regular basis as a kid. (Not better, just different.)
I didn’t really do anything much post-college before “officially” becoming a writer. Once I decided to work toward my MFA, there was never a moment when becoming a published author was not the final goal. But I did random filler things to make money while in grad school. I had a bizarre experience working for a fitness company (where I was lawsuit-worthy harassed, by a Brazilian jiu jitsu master). I babysat every day after work for two years for a family I am still close to. (They now live in Paris, and I’m visiting them in the fall!). I was an assistant to a literary agent; I was an editorial assistant; I tutored algebra and geometry and writing on the weekends; and I moved to India for a year to travel and write. I also sold old clothes at Beacon’s Closet or on eBay when short of cash, and I came frighteningly close to nude modeling for a painter and, on a separate occasion, a photographer. (In the end I just couldn’t do it. I mean, I was trying to write children’s books, for God’s sake.) Right now, I’m working as an Associate Editor at Penguin.
Can you give us a quick synopsis of Circle Nine? How did you come up with the concept for the book?
Circle Nine is the story of Abby, a girl who loses her entire identity following a traumatic incident. She wakes up near a burning building next to Sam, a guy who says he knows who she is. She trusts him because she has no memories and therefore no choice. They have an intense romantic relationship that, to Abby, seems perfect…until memories of her past slowly begin seeping through the façade of the life she and Sam have built. Then she realizes that the things she thought were perfect have a sort of sinister underbelly. She has to figure out who she is and who Sam is and make some difficult choices about moving forward.
This book was so weird to write. It started as a story about a girl who meets a guitar-playing guy in the subway, and she gets off at his stop and realizes he’s from a totally different world. Aside from the obvious (though not purposeful) Harry Potter-rip-off aspect, it sounds way better than Circle Nine, right? Anyway, I kept writing it and writing it and it just didn’t feel right. Then this random voice popped into my head in the form of a sentence, so I wrote it down. That was the voice that felt right, so I scrapped 100+ pages and started over. Once I had the voice, I wrote the story in two months. I dreamed about it all the time. I was in a very difficult emotional place, and I think that’s where the darkness that permeates the book came from. So then I gave it to my agent (Adams Literary, whom I’d signed based on a different project) just before Christmas in 2009. Josh called me just after Christmas to tell me he’d stayed up all night reading the book, and he took it on submission right away. It sold a couple of weeks later in early 2010 to Hilary van Dusen at Candlewick. The book is coming out in September, so it actually sold a full 20 months prior to publication.
We notice that a lot of the reviews call Circle Nine a “psychological thriller.” Do you agree with this categorization? Did you realize that’s what you were writing while you were writing it?
Yes, I guess it’s a psychological thriller. (Heavy on the psychological, light on the thriller) No, I had no idea what I was writing. I just went with it. The voice had me so tight in its clutches that (this is going to sound insane and melodramatic, sorry!) it felt like Abby was telling me the story and I was just transcribing. It was the weirdest writing experience I’ve ever had, and it has not happened to me again since, alas!
What’s your writing process?
When I was writing full-time, my typical day looked like this:
-Wake up obscenely late. (Say 10 or 11.) Make coffee. Make eggs! Or maybe go to the bakery for a muffin. Read the news. Answer emails (if by some miracle my unreliable Indian internet was working). Dawdle. Open Word Doc. Stare at previous day’s writing. Write furiously for an hour or five, depending on level of inspiration. (Write 5 pages minimum, sometimes up to 20.) Go to gym? Or maybe just watch movie. Read book. Make dinner. Die of boredom. Even though I was in India, I lacked a community of fellow writers (at least for the first six months or so), and I felt lonely and claustrophobic. It was difficult. Amazing, but difficult.
Now I’m working full-time, so writing is relegated to the occasional weekday morning (at Café Regular across the street from my Brooklyn apartment) or weekend afternoon/evening. But I have writer-friends to hang out with, so writing has become a community-oriented experience for me. I usually write in cafes or bars in Brooklyn – anywhere out of the apartment! My inspiration can come from anywhere – any weird detail I notice during the day (like a burned-out jeep I noticed on the street, or a quirky exchange I had with my barista). I use basically anything that moves me emotionally, EXCEPT my personal relationships. Those are sacred, and I never want the people who are close to me to feel exploited. Okay, I broke that rule maybe once in Circle Nine. But never again. And I’m not telling you where.
What has your path to publication been like?
It’s been long and ever-intriguing! I suppose the most surprising part has been dealing with the public aspects of this private craft. Writing is so personal – and then there’s your manuscript in the world, for anyone to comment on. So far, people’s reactions (good and bad) have been much stronger than I anticipated. In terms of The New School: some faculty members were particularly supportive when I was a student there. Tor Seidler was emotionally supportive, because he seemed to believe in my talent. And David Levithan was the first to suggest, via my agent, that I try a YA voice — up to that point I’d been focusing on MG — and that paid off in a big way.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you yourself give aspiring authors?
I once read or heard somewhere that 80% of getting published is finishing the manuscript. I think there’s a lot of other stuff that goes into it, but knowing that a large part of writing is sheer work – and that you just have to sit down and do it, much like any other difficult task – has been somehow comforting.
My advice: care about your novel. If you’re emotionally attached to your subject matter, it will automatically seem more authentic and powerful.
What was your favorite book when you were a teenager? What are you reading now?
When I was a teenager, I was in love with This Side of Paradise by Fitzgerald. When I was extremely young, I loved Little Brother and Little Sister by The Brothers Grimm. Now I like to skip around. I’m reading Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. (So far so good! The writing is beautiful.) And I’ve been flipping through Nine Stories (Salinger) and some other short story collections while I’m on the train. I have a lot of reading to do for work, so personal reading is a rare and treasured experience.
What’s next for you writing-wise (and otherwise!)?
I’m writing a dark, grounded YA for Candlewick, and I have a thriller signed up with Penguin under a pseudonym. They’ll both be out in 2013. I think I might like to give fantastical Middle Grade another try after that. Otherwise, who knows? As long as my writing and my relationships continue to grow, I am not averse to adventure and change. Maybe more travel! I just want to live a good story. =)
Do you believe in being part of a “bloc” of writers? Are critique groups and writing communities helpful to you?
I do believe in the wonders of being a part of a supportive writing community. I don’t personally belong to any writing groups, mostly because of my day job – I read and critique manuscripts all day long, and I’m not sure I could take on any extra editorial-esque endeavors right now. Plus, I’m private and don’t like many people to read my writing prior to completion of a semi-respectable draft. But I do have one friend whom I exchange with on occasion, and I frequently write in close proximity to a bunch of amazing, Brooklyn-based writers (many of whom I met through the editing world). Going through the process with a bunch of other like-minded people helps a lot. And then when the successes (and setbacks) come around, it’s great to have people in your life who really get it.
Thanks so much for stopping by TWB, Anne! Readers: be on the lookout for anneheltzel.com coming soon!