Friday, September 9, 2011

Madeline Sharples Interview on Leaving the Hall Light On

Dear writers and readers,
Madeline Sharples and I crossed paths in a writing course at UCLA a couple of years ago and have stayed in touch.  Her book is a moving account, full of poetry as well as prose, of her son's life and his death of suicide, called Leaving the Hall Light On.  I'm very interested in how people create beauty from painful experiences, and I hope you'll find Madeline's thoughts on this subject as interesting as I do.

Hi Madeline, what got you interested in writing?

It seems that I always wanted to be a writer. Writing came so easy for me – even in grade school. I studied journalism in high school and wrote feature articles for the high school newspaper. Then I took all the course work toward a degree in journalism in college though I ended up with a degree in English because I transferred schools just before my senior year (that’s a story all its own). So, when I got out of college I wanted in the worst way to write for a magazine or newspaper. After a few attempts I turned to the aerospace industry. I got a positive response after one call asking, “Do you ever hire people with a degree in English?” Easy, right? But hard on my dream to become a “real” writer.
And though I never gave up on that dream, for the next several decades I took creative detours and continued with my day job working as a writer/editor and proposal manager in the aerospace business. I learned to draw and paint, I learned to sew, I made needlepoint pillows, I quilted and gardened. And, I co-authored a non-fiction book, Blue Collar Women: – a little less technical than my work in aerospace. Anything to keep my hand in creativity, until finally I could stand it no longer.
I took a workshop called, “Writing about Our Lives” at Esalen in Big Sur, California in the late 1990s. It was there that I wrote about my misgivings about ever being able to make the transition. Here’s what I wrote: “My writing is so factual, so plain, so devoid of descriptors, feelings, and imagination.” Later I learned that was okay. Once I discovered a private instructor in Los Angeles who taught me to “write like you talk,” I knew I was on my way.

What kinds of books do you enjoy reading?

            I’m very eclectic about the books I enjoy. I read mostly fiction, non-fiction, memoir, history, and poetry. Right now I’m reading The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon and recently finished and thoroughly enjoyed a noir detective story Swann’s Last Song by Charles Salzman, someone I met on Facebook. I have a huge stack of books to be read, including those my book club chooses.  

You write both poetry and nonfiction.  Is it a challenge to combine the two into one book?

I never even considered leaving my poetry out of my book. They were instrumental in my book’s organization. I had journal entries and other writings to draw from and a poetry manuscript, and I arranged my book’s chapters according the order of the poems in my poetry manuscript. However, I still worried about what others would think. So many agents state that they don’t look at poetry. A memoir workshop instructor wasn’t keen on the idea either. However, one of the people who had read my poems several years ago says he can relate to them better now because of their context in the story. The bottom line is: I was fortunate to find a publisher who not only liked the poems I initially had in the book, but asked for more.
One of the first reviewers of my memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On, said, “….The poetry and photographs add an extra dimension that is missing from most memoirs like this since as a reader you get much closer to the reality of what is being described on the page….” (Mark Shelmerdine, CEO, Jeffers Press). Another reviewer said my book is “poetically visceral.” Those statements helped validate any misgivings I had in adding other creative works into my manuscript.
By the way, I have gravitated over to the world of fiction as well. I started a novel last year and though it’s on hold because of all my book marketing work, I’m about half way through and hope to get back to it soon.

Your book is about a very painful subject, the suicide of your son.  Do you have any advice for writers who are dealing with such sensitive personal topics themselves?  Are there ways the writing process helps with the grieving?

I think my first piece of advice would be to take your time. Think about caring for yourself first and foremost, and if that means getting words onto the page, that’s good. Otherwise, don’t pressure yourself.
Writing became my therapy. I just had to write or I’d feel itchy. Even the very act of pounding the keys on the keyboard helped. The page was always ready for my tears, my rants, my sorrow, my complaints, and my thoughts and ideas. The page never told me what to do or how to handle my grief. The page never told me it was time to stop grieving already. The page became my everyday friend – a special place I could go to empty my full heart. And, as a result, writing through my grief totally turned my life around. I made a “real” writer out of me.
How long did it take you to write this book?

            My book took years to write and organize. I never intended my journal entries would turn into a book. I just wrote for myself at first. Only when my writing instructor told me I should get my story out to the public did I begin to think about writing a book – that was about the year 2001. However, it took a lot more years of writing and classes, working with editors and readers, and revising until my book was finally finished and ready.

What is your writing process like?  Do you write in a special place or at a particular time?

            I treat my writing as if it is work – even though it is work I love to do. I get up early everyday, go to the gym, have breakfast, and shower and get dressed. Then I go to my writing room and get down to business. And some days I’m in there for hours.
I created my writing room and office from the room in our house where Paul lived his last two and a half years. Paul had been my muse for so many years; so I decided he could continue to be my muse in my new room.
I write in there alone. I sit at my large black draftsman table opposite a bay picture window. I look out to the garden, at the three palm trees, the small cement pond, and the ginger plants behind it, all designed to create a calming influence on my writing work. I can hear the gurgle of the fountain when the windows are open. Once in a while a bird comes to take a seed from the birdfeeder or a dip in the pond. If I’m not sitting at my table, I sit on the window seat or on the orange futon-like sofa.
At first I worried about how it would feel taking over his space, how it would feel to make it mine. And now I know. It’s a feeling of cleansing, healing, and of being in a safe and comforting space. I feel calm in there, and that calm helps my writing. Maybe the little reminders of Paul in there help too. His candlesticks are on the top shelf of the bookcase, his photo is on the next shelf and a portrait of me when I was pregnant with him hangs on the wall. I also have a photo of a sunset taken on September 22, 1999 – his last night alive – a beautiful reflection of an orange sun in a deep blue ocean – and so peaceful. I also have many of my Buddha statues in my office (Paul was a Buddha-like character) – besides the ones in other parts of the house and garden. They are on my desk and on the end table next to the sofa.

Do you use music in your writing process?

I listen to music while I write very occasionally. I always have my ear buds in when I work out at the gym.

Tell us how you approached point of view in your book. Did you consider first versus third person, straight memoir as opposed to a fictional approach, or was it always clearly as it turned out?

            Once I got down to the business of creating a book from my journal entries and poems I never thought it would be anything other than a memoir in first person. Early on in a creative writing class I wrote a story or two – still in first person – based on some of the facts in the book, but they didn’t work for me as fiction, so I discarded them.

Do you have an agent?  What are your feelings about working with an agent?

I am agent-less. I queried about sixty of them in my quest to get my book published and though a few asked to see my manuscript, none of them even took me as far as negotiations. And most of my queries went unanswered.  So right now, I’m happy I found my traditional small press publisher on my own and don’t have to share any royalties I earn from book sales with an agent. Of course I’ll revisit this when it comes time to shop my next book.

Has your publisher helped with publicity for your new books?  What thoughts do you have about publicity today?

Yes, my publisher has been very generous. She has paid for a publicist and she very frequently posts about my book and her other books in the social media. She works very hard at keeping mentions of our books out there.
I find getting publicity unless I do it myself very difficult. My publisher sent out review copies to newspapers but my book got very few notices. However, I scheduled and arranged my book launch and signing at our local independent book store, and I arranged a blog tour on Women on Writing (WOW). This allowed my book exposure and many reviews on other related blogs. However, being on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn has been most helpful. I also have a part-time publicist who got a book review posted on Shirley Showalter’s wonderful site, 100 Memoirs, and also got me a once-a-month writing gig on a great website, Naturally Savvy, as its over sixty expert. Even though I don’t write about my book’s subject matter there, we feel any way I can get my name out there helps.

Any other thoughts you'd like to share?

If you are in the Los Angeles area, I’ll be signing copies of my memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On, at the West Hollywood Book Fair on October 2 from 10 am to 2:30 pm. This signing was arranged through the Greater Los Angeles Writers Society.

Do you have web sites the readers can visit?

See my book trailer:

Become a fan of Madeline Sharples (for book news and writing tidbits) at

And website:

Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, Madeline!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this one with us, Laura. What a difficult subject to write about. I"m sure waiting and taking your time is essential, as she suggests.
Michelle S.

Anonymous said...

What an inspiring sounding book. I will definitely buy this one. You've found some really interesting authors to interview this round, Laura. Way to go!
Elizabeth Rohan

madeline40 said...

Thank you Anonymous X 2, I appreciate your reading my interview. I hope you'll let me know what you think of my book. Best, Madeline