Upcountry is the story of Jane Schumacher, a strong and sassy woman who is working to get her boss elected president. Shortly before Thanksgiving, she learns that she has a serious illness and, abruptly, decides to return to her upstate New York home only to discover her sister is the victim of serious spousal abuse.
How long had the idea of your book been developing before you began to write the story?
Upcountry was inspired by a true story, and one that has been brewing for almost a decade. It began first as a screenplay called The Last Carousel, which I co-authored with my wife, Shelley Anthony. From the beginning, however, I felt this story would make a decent novel and began writing it in the summer of 2009. With my wife’s help, it took me 13 months to complete it.
What inspired you to write this particular story?
Upcountry is the result of a conversation I had in 2002 with a close friend who told me about how her oldest sister was being abused by her husband, with the emotional and physical pain that that created. She also told me that another sister, who was afflicted with a deadly illness, seriously considered solving her sibling’s problem once and for all.
Tell us a little about your main characters. Who was your favorite? Why?
The principal characters in Upcountry are a pair of fraternal twin sisters named Jane and Joanne. Their story is one of estrangement, reconnection, redemption and rebirth. Joanne, who stayed behind in their mostly forgotten hamlet of Morgantown, has led an unhappy, almost irrelevant life with few friends and married to a vulgar and violent husband. She’s spent 15 years as a cashier in a hardware store, and is liked by her boss and her customers. But it’s clear that her existence has been one of drudgery. Though her father lives next door, she seems very alone in her world. Her sister Jane, on the other hand, escaped the vice-grips of their small, upstate town when she was eighteen, put herself through college, began a career in journalism, and is now one of the principal advisors to the front-running candidate for the presidency. She has walked the halls of power, and she is obsessed with moving to the White House.
To your second question, though I’m not sure I have a true favorite, I am partial to Jane Schumacher since she is a former journalist who became a savvy political operator. She holds strong, shrewd opinions on the state of her world, and is thoroughly honest in her dealings with just about everyone she encounters. Yet, as we learn very quickly, Jane is a vulnerable, troubled woman with a haunted past whose life has been sent into shock. It is her journey, juxtaposed with her sister’s plight, that pushes the story forward.
Who is your most unusual/most likeable character?
Perhaps you should ask my readers that question, but the most likeable character might be Jane’s Argentinean immigrant, lawyer and lover, Roberto Alvarez. He is a man of integrity and perseverance and affection—and seems to be willing to do the right thing, whether it’s for his girlfriend, or for his girlfriend’s family.
My most unusual character might also be a candidate for most likeable, and his name is Matt Booker. Booker, who is modeled after a number of people in my life, past and present, is a kind and considerate bar-owner and stage singer. He first enters the girls’ lives by fixing a flat tire on the side of a deserted, upcountry road, and then re-emerges a short time later at his motel and roadhouse. Instinctively, he senses they are in a heap of trouble, but doesn’t care about why; he just feels the urge to help them out in any way he can. Matt also discovers Joanne’s hidden talents, and encourages her to think she can do better in life.
There are other characters that might meet a reader’s fancy as well, including my sheriff, Brian Boychuk, who was Jane’s first love, and a man who really wants to help his friends, Jane and Joanne, through their toughest times. I liked how Boychuk—like Alvarez, he exhibited a great deal of integrity and devotion—handled the situation. I feel the need to bring him back in another novel.
Then there’s Hubie, the girls’ father. Though he is a grizzled Vietnam veteran, Hubie was a beaten man himself. But he finally finds the courage to change.
How long did it take you to write your book?
This story has been on the burners for nearly a decade, but really didn’t reach fruition until the late fall of 2008, and early winter of 2009. That was when my wife, Shelley, and I, began story-boarding a screenplay called The Last Carousel. It was from the screenplay that Upcountry evolved, but in a much more in-depth story. A novel gives a writer much more room to bring every character alive. So, I began writing Upcountry in August, 2009, and completed it in September, 2010.
Did you do any research for the book? If so, how did you do it? (searching Internet, magazines, other books, etc.)
Yes, I think I was researching this book right up to the time it was published. The Internet is wonderful resource for every writer; it allowed me to verify every facet of the story that I had introduced. Let me give you an example. My lead character, Jane Schumacher, is the press secretary to the governor of New York, who is running for president. She is also a former television reporter who was tapped by the governor to run her media office. Well, there’s a scene in which she is describing her journalism career, and how she was always on the lookout for a big break in TV (which never came). Lamenting the fact that nothing of consequence ever happened in Albany, Jane relates how Dan Rather got his big break in the early ‘60s after CBS liked his coverage of a Gulf coast hurricane, which catapulted him to Dallas, in 1963. Well, the details of Rather’s career were critical to her point; sometimes you have to be in the right place at the right time, and that luck often plays a role in your life. (It mirrored my own career; I was in the right place at the right time, and took advantage of the situations I faced).
But I used a multitude of sources for my novel, Wikipedia being one of the primary ones. It is excellent in providing fast facts that needed to be corroborated through other sources. Since my story revolves around a road trip through the Adirondacks and other points in upstate New York, I don’t know how many times I poured over maps as I planned the sisters’ emotional (and geographical) journey following that fateful Thanksgiving night.
How do you develop and differentiate your characters?
Like most novelists, my characters are based on many real people. I liked to take one quirk here, one detail there from many different individuals and create a new person. Once you build a character, particularly a principal player, the most important questions I had to ask myself were: would he or she DO something like this? Would he or she SAY something like this? Are they true to themselves? You must give them a personality, but at the same time a very human element. Humans are not perfect. They make mistakes in judgment, and so it was important to keep them true to themselves. That’s where Shelley was so helpful to me; she’d read a passage and say, “I don’t think a woman would do something like that, but here’s how I’d do it.” I couldn’t have written Upcountry without Shelley. It’s as much her story as mine.
Most of my reviewers have said my characters are rich and real, and that they loved getting to know these people. Which is very flattering. That’s the ultimate test of a novelist, in my opinion. If I can create ‘real’ people who readers can love and hate, then I’ve done my job. One of the first questions out of the mouths of most of my readers is: when are we going to get the sequel? That says they not only liked the story, they loved the people in it!
Do you have specific techniques you use to develop the plot and stay on track?
My number one goal in writing a dramatic suspense story like Upcountry is to move the story forward. I’ve never been a fan of tangential writing where novelists move sideways—for tens of pages or more—in the pursuit of their story. Every reader can name an author who does that. But I’m not one of those writers, or at least I hope I’m not. In one or two instances, I’ve been criticized for a bit of repetition (I repeat: I’ve been criticized for repeating myself J)
Seriously, I do think the writer’s one and only responsibility is to be read, and if I head off in a tangent too often, with one or more sub-plots that aren’t necessary, then I haven’t done my job. A good movie writer knows that you need to keep the story moving forward, and in this way, keep the reader’s attention.
How (or when) do you decide that you are finished writing a story?
When my wife says, ‘Enough…let it go!’ Seriously, no writer likes to sign off on a script if he or she is thinking, ‘can I do it better?’ ‘Can I make it more intelligent and interesting?’ But as an agent friend said to me, ‘Remember, Rick, most readers will read that one page you’re laboring on only once and will never return to it again.’ But that’s not entirely true. If a number of reviewers zero in on a page or a particular passage as evidence of poor writing, then it’s clear that I should have spent more time on that part of my story. For example, I recently read Franzen’s ‘Freedom’, the big book of 2010 and today. To be honest, and I don’t think I’m alone given all the one-star reviews the book has received on Amazon, I found Freedom very difficult to read; the characters are insipid, the dialogue was amateurish, and the story uninteresting. There were so many passages in Freedom that caused me to cringe. (But what do I know? He’s sold millions of copies. I just wish Obama had my book in his hands when photographers caught him on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard last summer)! It just goes to show you that many writers, who have achieved critical and financial success, can rest on their laurels and reputations, and their subsequent products can often be lame, uninspiring and even boring. I can name a good number of rich and famous authors who are in this camp! I’ll leave you with a quote that I live by: as the great crime writer Elmore Leonard once said, ‘if it looks like writing, re-write it!’
Is there a message in your writing you want readers to grasp?
The message in my novel revolves around abuse, both spousal and parental. Very serious stuff, and although I didn’t set out to deliver such a message, per se, that’s how it evolved. My initial goal was to tell the story of a woman facing a life-altering choice; a woman who up till now thought she had life figured out, only to discover that life can throw you one hell of a curve, and she was forced to react.
In essence, I tried to ask and answer the ultimate ‘what if?’ question and go from there. In Upcountry, I wanted to find out what Jane would do if she discovered her sister was being beaten to a pulp, and she had nothing to lose?’ I’m strong believer that real drama is the result of real conflict, and how they manage to overcome the problems in their lives. That’s what I set out to do with Upcountry.
What was the most difficult part about writing the book?
Well, my gender played a part. Upcountry is about how two sisters come together after many, many years of estrangement. Thus, how does a man get inside the brains of two women? How can a man ever believe he has captured the voice of a woman? Is this how a woman thinks? Is this what a woman would do? Would a woman say something like this? It was a big challenge for me.
Do you think writing this book changed your life? How so?
Great question, Pat! Yes, this book has changed my life enormously. This book has been a wonderful experience. I’ve been a journalist, speechwriter, and public relations executive for more than three decades. But since high school, when I enjoyed writing short stories and dramas, I’ve always thought I had a novel or two in me. That is not to say that I had not harbored doubts; every writer, at least those who tell the truth, surely questions whether he or she possesses the discipline, creativity and powers of observation to put pen to page. While Upcountry has become a literary (if not financial) success, to date, it has been hugely satisfying to me, and has inspired me to continue in my craft.
How does your environment/upbringing color your writing?
I grew up in a small town in northern Ontario and can recall so many colorful characters. But for the past six years, my wife and I have owned a summer place in upstate New York, where I came to meet even more people and experience some interesting things. In addition, I have always been enormously interested in the US presidency, and American politics as well. That is why I made my main character, Jane Schumacher, an important political figure with an interesting job. Her life is hectic and challenging but I liked developing the contrast from her position on the world stage and the story that develops in ‘upcountry’ New York.
What’s your writing schedule like? Do you strive for a certain amount of words each day?
Once I’ve finalized the outline for a project, and begin writing, I start work at dawn, or sometimes before if I feel energized, and work till around noon. I don’t set goals, in terms of words produced daily, but I usually can produce anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 a day, seven days a week. But the real work is not in the first draft; it’s the fifty to sixty drafts that follow!
What are you working on right now?
As a result of the characters and story we created in Upcountry, I’ve discovered that I like these people, and am interested in what happens to some of them. So, while I’m not developing a sequel, per se, I am putting together an outline for what I’d call a follow-up to Upcountry. I want to bring back a number of characters, in their current roles, and new roles as well. The story will be set in my fictional town of Morgantown, in the shadows of the Adirondack Mountains. If Upcountry’s theme was spousal and parental abuse, my new work will center on prejudice and bigotry, and how my characters work to overcome these unfortunate aspects of everyday life.
Does writing come easy for you?
If any writer answers this question in the positive, then I don’t think he or she is telling the truth, or is very good at it. I consider myself to be a prolific writer, and can put together ideas and thoughts reasonably easy, and a first draft usually comes on schedule. But the essence of good writing is constant self-reflection. Is it good enough? Can it be better? Those are the questions I try to ask myself daily.
What writer influenced you the most?
A pair of great writers, in fact. John Updike, who was a master of the human condition, and one who could make very ordinary characters become so interesting and compelling, was a hero to me. And John Irving, who is likely one of the quirkiest writers on the planet today, is a superb storyteller. Now, not all of their novels worked for me, but Updike’s five novels about Rabbit Angstrom and his seemingly pathetic life in southwestern Pennsylvania were exercises in fine fiction. He won a Pulitzer, but should have won a Nobel. Irving’s novels, from his first big book, The World According to Garp, to his latest, Last Night in Twisted River, are at once hilarious and tragic—and his work is magnificent. I’m never going to be compared to those men, and my work is not at all like theirs, but I do admire them.
What advice you would give to an aspiring author?
Every time I’m asked that question, I’m reminded of my son’s high school graduation ceremony. It’s a good little story. As all of the kids trooped on stage for their diplomas, the master of ceremonies had something personal to say about each recipient. When it came to one young man’s turn, the MC said, “And Chris…would like to write a book one day.” A not uncommon but very laudable goal for some smart, aspiring writers. But in this kid’s case, it was altogether unbelievable, since a parent behind me quipped, “Well, he’s gonna have to READ one first!” All of this to say to writers young and old, the best advice I can give is to READ and read a lot. Not only good fiction and non-fiction, but some of the better manuals on the art of writing. And I’d add a caveat to that. With texting, Twitter and assorted other media out there, it’s all too easy to dumb down the English language. So, my advice to all writers: read quality.
My website contains a great deal of information on my book and my career. www.upcountry-the-novel.com or check out Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords.com, indiereader.com and many others.