Katherine Towler spent eight years writing her first novel Snow Island, published in February by MacAdam/Cage, an independent press in San Francisco. The novel tells the story of 16-year-old Alice Daggett and a reclusive World War I veteran, George Tibbits, who live on a New England island during the first years of World War II.
Snow Island was a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Authors selection for Winter 2002. In January the novel was chosen for the Borders Books Original Voices program and was a Booksense 76 pick. The paperback edition of Snow Island will be published in February 2003 by Plume Books, an imprint of Penguin Putnam.
Towler works as a freelance writer in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where she and her husband live in a brown-shingled Cape-style house tucked away on a tidal inlet. Poets & Writers Magazine asked Towler how she conceived the characters in Snow Island.
Katherine Towler: The book was inspired by the time I spent living on Prudence Island in Narragansett Bay. The real island is six miles long and two miles wide, with 125 people and 300 deer. I was there for about five weeks in May. I visited again in the fall a couple of times. There's a wonderfully deserted feel to it—of being untouched by modern life. I think it was that sense that enabled me to write about a time before I was born.
P&W: At what point did you know that these characters and this story would be a novel?
KT: I began writing a collection of linked short stories spanning the 20th century. There was a military base on Prudence Island during World War II and remnants of it still existed. It suggested that period of time.
I was very stuck on the short story. After I lived on Prudence Island, I was awarded a writer-in-residence fellowship at Philips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. I was still working on a short story with Alice as the main character. I gave it to an English class there to read and one student said, "This really reads like a novel-why are you writing a short story?" I had been struggling with this story and the others in the collection and when he said that it was like a light bulb went off. I said to myself, "He's right-this should be a novel."
I was actually fairly alarmed to be writing a novel, something of that length, about a time before my own birth. The character of Alice is essentially the same age as my mother at that time in the war. Both my mother and father shared a lot of memories with me.
P&W: At your Barnes and Noble reading in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in February you mentioned that Snow Island is part of a trilogy and that you are working on a second novel set in the 1960s. How did the idea for a trilogy come about?
KT: I had all these stories left over and more characters. I was still interested in spanning time and how the lives of the women changed over all these years. I pictured a second novel set in the sixties and a third in the eighties. By doing that I hope to achieve my original idea of covering a chunk of the 20th century and the wars that defined them. I think I can do that more persuasively if each book goes into a year or two of the characters' lives at a time.
I learned not to talk too much about a trilogy in the beginning. One time I applied for a fellowship and in the rejection letter I was told "a trilogy is much too ambitious an undertaking for a first-time author who has never written a book." After that, I never mentioned this again; it was my own little secret. It shows you should ignore what agents who reject your work say, what editors who reject your work say, what grant committees say about your work. Just ignore anything they say.
P&W: How did Snow Island come into print and how did you find an agent?
KT: I spent eight years writing the book and three years trying to get published. It was rejected 22 times. So, I do tell people you have to believe in the writing and if you love it, you have to keep writing despite the rejections.
All that time I was making a living as a freelance writer, developing publications and materials for schools and nonprofits. That kind of work allowed me a certain flexibility. There were whole months when I had a big project due and I would have to put the book aside. I took the book through complete drafts and individual portions of the book were revised many more times than that. I write fiction first thing in the morning and then I do my work for hire. When things are ideal, I have two to three hours for my fiction and then the rest for paid work. I also taught for a while in the Artists-in-the-Schools program in New Hampshire and now I teach creative writing for a regional fine arts program in high schools in Maine.
I collected names of agents from other writers and I paid attention to articles about agents, like those in Poets & Writers. I spent time carefully developing a one-page query letter that was enticing, succinct, and professional. I sent out ten query letters. One went to an agent who was recommended to me—Deborah Schneider of Gelfman Schneider Literary Agency—and she took the book. I was extremely fortunate because she loved the novel and believed in it. Deborah told me it was not going to be easy to sell and she stayed with me despite all the rejections. MacAdam/Cage is a small trade press, and they have done an excellent job promoting new novels. They've developed a niche publishing interesting new work-fiction and first novels. Working with my editor Patrick Walsh was like having my own personal cheerleading squad, and I got some very solid suggestions.
P&W: You grew up in New York City. Did the September 11 attacks have an impact on your work?
KT: My book was accepted in August 2001. Within a month of acceptance Snow Island was accepted as a Barnes and Noble "Discover" book for February. That put us on a very tight deadline with the final edits due October 1. Then September 11 happened.
For the first few days, I sat at my desk and cried. I felt very overwhelmed. I was hearing—as many were—from people directly affected. Writing felt very frivolous and self-indulgent. Why worry about editing my novel at a time like this? What does adding another book to the pile matter? I wished that I was doing important medical research, that I was saving people's lives. Yet, I had just been given the greatest gift of my life-to have my book published. I could only say yes to that.
One editorial criticism I had was that the emotional register in the second half of the book, the part that unfolds after Pearl Harbor, was not as strong as the first half. After September 11, I felt that I could understand what people in the U.S. felt after experiencing the attacks on Pearl Harbor. When I did get back to work, I rewrote the opening chapter to the second part of the book. I had been hesitant to write about World War II as I did, a slant angle, not directly. I didn't want to romanticize what people on the home front were feeling, but now I realized how full of fear, anger, and sadness people would have been, and that there was nothing wrong in portraying those emotions.