A Conversation With Laura Caldwell

by Claire E. White

Novelist Laura Caldwell was born in Chicago and raised
Photo of Laura Caldwell
in Crystal Lake, Illinois. She attended the University of Iowa, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa. After receiving her law degree from Loyola Law School, she spent a month with two girlfriends in Italy and Greece, a trip that was to have a profound effect on her life. She came back from the trip to begin what would be a successful career in the law; she married, and became a partner in a downtown Chicago law firm where she was a trial lawyer first, practicing medical malpractice defense and entertainment law. After she had been practicing about a year, she started to feel a lack of creativity in her life. She remembered that trip to Europe and it sparked an idea for a novel. She began taking writing classes, working on her novel at nights, and eventually took a sabbatical from her law practice to finish it. The result was her first published novel, Burning the Map (Red Dress Ink).

But her road to publication wasn't easy. She worked on the book for eight years and collected many rejection slips before she met Margaret Marbury of Red Dress Ink, while attending the San Diego State Writer's Conference. Red Dress Ink was a new imprint which was focusing on women's fiction, which some call "chick-lit", which had really taken off as a genre since the publication of Bridget Jones Diary. Soon, Laura had a three book contract and Burning the Map was receiving rave reviews. The story of three friends who take a life-changing trip to Europe is funny, moving and very entertaining.

Booklist says of Burning the Map, "Caldwell's debut is a fun, snappy read." And Barnes and Noble selected Burning the Map as one of its Best Romance Books of 2002, calling it a "touching story of a young woman at a crossroads in her life."

An avid traveler, Laura now lives with her husband in Chicago, where she is an Adjunct Professor of legal writing at her alma mater. Her works have appeared in Woman's Own, The Young Lawyer, the Illinois Bar Journal, and many other magazines. She spoke to us about her new book, and how she made the move from attorney to novelist.

What did you like to read when you were growing up?

I was a ferocious reader as a kid. By the time I was seven, I'd finished all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and was onto my father's suspense novels. I read the plane crash story, Alive, when I was eight. In retrospect, this was probably not appropriate for a girl my age, but I think my parents were flummoxed about what to give me, since I seemed to eat books.

Did you always know that you wanted to be a lawyer?

I never wanted to be anything. I was not one of those kids or teenagers who always knew what they would do with their life. I think, in the back of my mind, I assumed I'd never grow up, I would never have to do anything. I definitely never considered being a writer. In fact, I went to University of Iowa, which is arguably the best writing school in the nation, and I took one writing class, which I got a "C" in, and never went back for more. I took the entrance exam for law schools only because I realized that I was about to graduate, and, with a general communications degree, was qualified for absolutely nothing. My father was a lawyer, my father's brother was a lawyer, and my father's father was a lawyer. It seemed a natural progression for me. Although it wasn't a well thought-out career choice, I was lucky enough to enjoy the law very much.

Let's talk about Burning the Map. What was your inspiration for this book?

Cover of Burning the Map by Laura Caldwell
I got the idea for Burning the Map after I took a post bar-exam trip to Rome and Greece with two girlfriends. The trip was filled with too much sun, way too much beer, and just enough hot guys with cool accents. When it was over, I came home and started my job at a big law firm, just like I was supposed to. Nothing particularly earth-shattering had happened. But I became obsessed with the 'what if' scenario. What if my life had somehow changed during the vacation? What if a woman went on a trip and her entire existence was altered-everything from her family to her friends to her relationship to her job? Despite the fact that I had no prose experience, I decided to write that story. Casey Evers, my narrator, was born. She took a trip with her girlfriends, and her world got rocked.

What led up to Burning the Map being published?

Initially, no one much cared about Casey. She was sent out to agents and editors aplenty. I had to purchase a larger mailbox to handle all the rejection letters. Right around this time, Bridget Jones' Diary -- the novel that is thought to have started the 'chick-lit' craze-was released in the US. It didn't help.

I decided to move on. I went next to The Other Rebecca, a suspense novel that garnered about as many rejections as Burning the Map. Unfortunately, these rejections were harder to accept because I'd taken a sabbatical from my law practice, and all I was doing was writing (and collecting rejection letters). As a last ditch effort, I flew to California for the San Diego State Writer's Conference, where I basically mulled around, pitching The Other Rebecca to anyone who would listen. One editor shook her head almost as soon as I started talking. She didn't publish suspense, she said. She was starting a new imprint, and they would put out edgy, interesting women's fiction. As I talked with the editor, who I soon learned was Margaret Marbury of Red Dress Ink, I became more and more excited. Suddenly, Casey had a second shot at the big game. Ultimately, she was drafted. I truly believe that although talent helps tremendously in the publishing world, persistence is more valuable.

The book's heroine is Casey Evers. How much of Laura Caldwell is there in Casey Evers? Did you husband get nervous after he read about Casey's adventures on her trip?

The main character, Casey, is a recent law school graduate who seemingly has everything-boyfriend, great job, etc. -- but just doesn't feel fulfilled. She hopes that a trip to Rome and Greece with her girlfriends will make her forget her problems, but instead they follow her, and she ends up making choices that will change the rest of her life.

I admit that there is piece of me in Casey. At the close of law school, I was panicked about working, about settling down, which at that period of my life, I considered a fate worse than death. But at the same time, the adventures that Casey has are solely her own. I think there is a little bit of me in all the characters in this book. I can be obsessive and rigid, like Casey's friend, Sin, and I can be a great connoisseur of denial, like Casey's other best friend, Kat.

As for my husband, you've never met a more confident or generous man. He knows that fiction, for me, is a way of stepping into other people's lives and getting to be them for a while.

What was the greatest challenge in writing Casey?

Although the novel takes place in the wonderful settings of Rome and Greece, and although there are many adventures to be had, the crux of Casey's journey really happens in her mind. The novel is about the way Casey's viewpoint on herself, her relationships and her world goes through drastic change. For that reason, it was tricky to get the right balance of internal dialogue and external movement. I think some mystery writers have the opposite issue. They have so much plot driving the story that they have to make sure to stop and give the character's thoughts, their motivations. For me, I had to try not to go overboard in that direction.

Casey's companions on the trip are Kat and Lindsey, better known as Sin. The three women have some tension between them, but they do have a good time together. How did you approach writing the characters of Kat and Sin?

"I never wanted to be anything. I was not one of those kids or teenagers who always knew what they would do with their life. I think, in the back of my mind, I assumed I'd never grow up, I would never have to do anything. I definitely never considered being a writer."
I usually get a picture in my head, physically, of a character, and then I work back from there, figuring out where they were born, what there parents were like, who was their first love, what was their first job, etc. As these things fill in, I get a larger picture of the character. In terms of Kat and Sin specifically, I saw Sin as a tiny woman who can be larger-than-life professionally. She just hasn't learned to figure out her emotional road map yet. And Kat, while somewhat a sexual predator, is really quite innocent and kid-like when it comes to the rest of her life. I liked the dichotomies in these characters.

If you were casting the film version of the book, who would you cast as Casey, Kat and Sin?

I'm shooting big, here, but I'd love to see Drew Barrymore as Casey, Selma Blair as Sin, and Cameron Diaz as Kat. Oh! and do you think Colin Farrell could play Billy?

Sounds great to me! One of the themes in the book is a women's female friendships. It does seem that oftentimes when women get in a serious relationship, they let their female friendships slide. Why do you think this is? How important are sustained female friendships for women?

I think it's natural to pull away from your friends slightly when you get into a relationship, but you have to be careful not to pull too hard. In my life, it's always been my friends that have anchored me. As Casey says in the novel, "I've always had this innate sense that while schools and boys and jobs might pass through my life as if on a high-speed conveyor belt, my friends will be the one steady force." I think that's true for a lot of women, but if you don't work at those friendships the same way you might your relationship, they can slip away from you.

What are your thoughts on love scenes in novels? Do you find love scenes more or less difficult to write than other types of scenes? Are there any things that you specifically try to avoid?

Hate 'em, hate 'em, hate 'em. If you'll notice, there is no outright sex ever described in Burning the Map (or in any of the novels I've written thus far). I can refer to sex obliquely or directly, I can tell the beginning of the scene (the kissing, the taking off of clothes, etc.) but I have never been able to successfully write an entire sex scene. Do you think this has anything to do with my twelve years of Catholic education?

Burning the Map is in the "chick-lit" or women's fiction genre. What attracted you to this genre? Have you ever had a hankering to write, say, a legal thriller?

Like the phrase "chick flick", chick-lit is supposed to connote a work that appeals mostly to women and has, as its primary objective, the desire to entertain. One thing is always true with "chick-lit". Namely, you tend to see yourselves in these characters. Maybe it's a sliver here or maybe you feel like you are in some ways the character you're reading about. Either way, it's tremendously comforting. You are not the only screw-up on the planet.

On the other hand, I love suspense novels and literary novels, as well. My suspense novel that I mentioned, The Other Rebecca, was, alas, never sold. However, I'm just finishing up another one, so cross your fingers. Ultimately, I'd love to write fiction that is a combination of these three types of writing. I want to write chick-lit or women's fiction that's suspenseful and keeps you guessing until the end, but I want the novel to be literary, too, a dance with words. I'm not there yet, I'll be the first to tell you. But I've got a few more books coming up (like A Clean Slate, due out by Red Dress Ink in November 2003), so keep checking back with me.

I'd like to talk about the actual creative process. Would you take us through a typical writing day for you?

When I'm actually writing a novel, I try to write a scene a day (that's five to ten pages for me) directly into the computer. If I can get up in the morning and write my scene without checking email or phone messages, the rest of the day is mine, and I feel wonderful. Oftentimes, though, I get out of this habit. I can't avoid the pull of Hotmail or the allure of what surely must be hordes people on my voicemail inviting me out for fabulous dinners. When I don't do my morning pages first thing, I feel off, like I'm limping all day and am chasing those pages around.

When you begin a new book, how much of the plot do you know before you start writing? Do you use outlines or character bios?

When I really sit down in earnest to write a book (as opposed to just playing around with theme and concepts) I know pretty much everything. I am a plotter. I know many writing teachers will tell you not to plan, to just forge ahead, and I know that works great for some people, but I like to have everything mapped out. I usually have a twenty page synopsis that sets out the basic movement and ending of the story. In terms of the characters, I do character development sketches before I start, where I figure out everything about the characters from the boring (what do they eat for breakfast?) to the monumental (what were the defining moments in their life?)

How has your training as an attorney (and as a teacher of legal writing) affected your fiction writing?

In terms of my actual prose, the legal writing really hindered me at the beginning. My pages were filled with "therefore" and "in conclusion" and "here into fore referred to as" (I'm kidding about that last one). I had to work very hard not to be so structured in my fiction, because legal writing is nothing if not structured, and it's a hard beast to break. On the other hand, I was a defense attorney when I was practicing law, which meant I had to bill hours. I had to keep a clear plan of my hours and what I was to accomplish in a given day. This discipline has helped tremendously, since my time is now my own to waste.

Let's talk about the editing process. Do you edit as you go, or do you come back to a previous day's work to edit? Do you get feedback from anyone else on your work?

As I mentioned, when I'm actually writing a novel, I try
"I'm so very grateful for getting published, and for having a book contract for my next three books, that I can't bring myself to complain about anything."
to write a scene a day (five to ten pages). The next day, when I start, I read over the previous scene and do some basic editing before I move on. I am also in a number of writing workshops where I exchange chapters with other writers and meet to discuss our impressions along the way. Once I'm finally done with a manuscript, my husband and some key friends get it. Their feedback is priceless. Some people feel that you should only have writers or editors comment on your stuff, but I couldn't disagree more. I've never received feedback that I couldn't use in some way or another.

What do you love most about being an author? What is your least favorite aspect of the profession?

It's noon, I've been working since eight, and I'm still in my pajamas. How do you beat that? I can't say I have a least favorite part at this stage. I'm so very grateful for getting published, and for having a book contract for my next three books, that I can't bring myself to complain about anything.

Romance is a key element in the book. Do you think that today's society is less romantic than it was in the past? Has modern life and attitudes taken any romance out of dating?

Life is fast these days for everyone. There's so much to do, so many emails to return! I think that time crunch threatens to take the romance out of any relationship, but once again the old advice is true -- you just have to keep working at it. You have to make time for each other.

How did you and your husband meet?

Hmm. How much to tell you? Is this site for readers over eighteen? I'm kidding, sort of. Basically, the short version is a very unromantic story of how we met in a bar, both of a tad too overserved, and we argued about basketball. I might have kissed him that night, but I'm not telling. We've been together for ten years now and married for three. It just goes to show you that you can meet someone in a bar!

What's your advice to someone who is hoping to make writing a second career?

Be disciplined. It's a bitch, I know, but if you don't set goals for yourself, years and years will slip by, and all you'll have to say for them is "I've got a great idea for a novel." I wrote for about seven years while I was practicing law at the same time. My first writing teacher, Jerry Cleaver (author of Immediate Fiction (St. Martin's Press)) was really big on making a writing goal each week, whether that was "I'll write one paragraph by Saturday" or "I'll write ten pages this week." That advice was invaluable. It got me moving and producing pages.

If you could go back in time to talk with an 18 year-old version of yourself, what advice would you give her?

Oh, what a great question! I think I would tell her not to take herself so seriously (God, the drama of being eighteen!), and I would tell her to experience everything possible. There's so much to do and see in this world, and so little time.

When you're not working, what do you like to do for fun?

My non-professional life is a mix of the extreme and the benign. On one hand, I am a traveling fiend. I just got back from Australia, where I drank too much Aussie wine and went skydiving with a bunch of friends. On the other hand, when I'm in town, my husband and I usually head to our cabin in Indiana, where we make fires and chili and refuse to answer the phone.

Can you give us a sneak peek into your next book, A Clean Slate?

Oh, thank you! I thought you'd never ask.
"Be disciplined. It's a bitch, I know, but if you don't set goals for yourself, years and years will slip by, and all you'll have to say for them is 'I've got a great idea for a novel.'"
Here's the jacket copy for the novel, which will be released in November of 2003:

A Clean Slate chronicles the days of Kelly McGraw, a Chicago woman who suddenly can't remember the last five months of her life, a time when she was dumped by her soon-to-be fiancé and laid off by the company she thought would make her partner. Overwhelmed and confused but otherwise feeling wonderful, she begins to realize that her life is a clean slate. She has more than enough money from the severance package she'd received after being laid off. She's not tied down by a relationship or anything else for that matter. She can do anything she wants, go anywhere she wants, be anything she wants to be. But what, exactly, does she want? The reader follows Kelly on a journey that includes her search to discover what caused her memory loss, an internship with a bad-boy British photographer, a Caribbean photo shoot, her boyfriend's desire to come crawling back, and, eventually, a brutal discovery that will cause her to reevaluate both her old and new lives.

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