Caroline Frost is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a native Texan. She holds a Master of Professional Writing from the University of Southern California.
Shadows of Pecan Hollow, her debut novel, won the Crook’s Corner Book Prize and was a finalist for the Golden Poppy Award and longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. Frost lives in the LA area with her husband and three young children.
Hi Caroline, welcome to Famous Writing Routines, great to have you here with us today! Congratulations on the release of Shadows of Pecan Hollow. What was the inspiration behind the story and how did you come up with the idea for the book?
Thank you for having me, Hao. I first wrote Shadows of Pecan Hollow as a screenplay in 2012. I had been watching a lot of thrillers from the 80s and 90s – Sleeping with the Enemy, Blood Simple, Hand that Rocks the Cradle. I was also going through a difficult time in my personal life, so Kit’s story emerged as a way of exploring the raw, broken, but also fierce and sometimes violent feelings I was having. I wrote it fast and loose over the course of two weeks, and that screenplay became the original blueprint for the novel I would later write.
The book is set in 1970-90s Texas and follows the story of a fierce woman and the partner-in-crime she can’t escape. What research did you do to bring the time period and setting to life in the book?
Pecan Hollow is set in a landscape I know intimately. I grew up in Houston, TX and spent a lot of time with my dad out on a ranch just west of Houston. Although I am a child of the 80s, the 70s were still alive in the small town that inspired Pecan Hollow, and still are in some places. So I didn’t have to do much research, but I did do a lot of googling, like “Can you geld a horse in the pasture?”
Shadows of Pecan Hollow has been described as “a gritty, penetrating, and unexpectedly tender novel.” How did you balance the grit with the tender moments in the book and what were some of the biggest challenges you faced while writing it?
The grit-to-tenderness ratio was something I had to feel my way through. I had a teacher tell me it was my job as a writer to put my protagonist through hell, and I think he was right. I put Kit and Charlie through a wild hell but I also needed the reader to feel for them, to form an attachment, so when they get into trouble the reader is viscerally invested in their survival.
One of the biggest challenges was in developing Kit’s inner world.She was so battered and mistreated that she had to grow a tough hide. And that can make for a flat character, one who doesn’t have a lot of self-awareness. The narrator is close third, and so not completely omniscient. So I had to show how she felt with her gestures, her subtle expressions, her regrets.
One example of this is where Kit wants to comfort her daughter but instead grabs the back of her neck kind of gruffly. I think the line is something like “with Kit, tender feelings seldom led to tender actions.” And that breaks my heart and I think is relatable, that feeling of wanting and yet being unable to say or do the kind, comforting thing.
With the book taking place over a period of 20 years, how did you approach the challenge of writing a story that spans such a long time period?
The book initially had a sequential structure, where we meet Kit as a youth, then teen, then the moment of decision with Manny where everything changes (I won’t spoil it!), flashing forward thirteen years to the day he comes knocking. Since it was conceived as a film, those time jumps felt within reach. When I wrote it as a novel I was advised to start “present day” i.e. in the 90s, then flash back to explain why this man showing up at Kit’s door caused her to panic. The backstory informs her very complicated feelings for him, and feeds into the tumbling forward of events from that point on.
You’ve received critical acclaim for your writing, including from Ben Fountain, who described Shadows of Pecan Hollow as “a tremendously wise and talented writer.” What does this recognition mean to you as a writer and how do you hope your writing will impact readers?
Ben Fountain was so generous in his praise of the novel, and of course I love praise! For so long, I was writing in a vacuum, with no feedback, just my own stubborn sense of purpose and my attachment to the story. I think that time of my life, writing for its own sake, without really any ambition to publish, gave me a groundedness that has been helpful in releasing my novel into the wild. I’m human, so the criticisms sting and the praise warms, but I don’t take either, the good or the nasty, as fact.
Can you take us through your creative process? What did a typical day look like when you were working on the book?
I have to say, I am having the time of my life. I don’t think I ever believed I could write full time, so I approach each day with so much gratitude and enthusiasm. I can’t wait to get to the page, even when–as is the case right now – I’m wrestling with difficult plotting, coming up against my shortcomings.
So on a typical day I have a crazy morning getting my three kids fed, dressed, and off to school, then I begin my writing day around 9:30. I will try to review the work I did the day before. When I’m on a first draft, and trying to crank out pages, I won’t spend much time with the previous day’s work. My goal is to keep momentum and lay down the story.
Right now I’m in revision mode, so I’m taking extra care with language and nuance, and I enjoy going over and over a passage, tinkering with the wording so it reads like music. This can mean a slower pace. It’s tedious, and it’s where I feel like a craftsman, but if i’ve done it right, it’s magic to read.
Do you have any writing rituals or habits that you find help you get into the zone and stay focused?
For many years I wrote whenever, wherever I possibly could. Breastfeeding, driving kids to school, a stolen moment during nap, in the middle of the night. So I am fairly flexible, and I try not to get too rigid with routine. That said, I do well at my desk or sitting on my couch, in a quiet, but not too quiet house, from about 9:30-2:30 every week day. I drink coffee in the morning, tons of water, tea around noon, take plenty of breaks and pace around.
In a perfect world I’d walk three miles every morning to get the cogs turning, but I haven’t made that a priority! Some people leave writing when they close their computer, but I think about my story on and off throughout the day. I pull ideas from life, turns of phrase, even situations from TV (I love TV) and books. I am very bad about zoning out on social media, even though I don’t even enjoy it that much. If I could change one thing about my habits, it would be to lock my phone up while I’m writing.
If you could have a conversation with any author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?
Virginia Woolf. She was so brilliant, sensitive, pissed-off, and expressive and a century ahead of her time. And her attention to the details of human nature astounds me. I bow down to her altar. She famously wrote about women needing a room, and money, of their own to write fiction. I heard this quote early in my development as a writer and took it very seriously. I have found even as a modern somewhat liberated woman I have struggled to dedicate time and space to my writing. The book deal helped with that.
I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite recent reads?
I have a two-decade long battle with trying to finish Lonesome Dove by one of my favorite writers, Larry McMurtry. For whatever reason, I can’t do it! I’ll always keep coming back, though. Books I’ve loved in the last year: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, Beasts of a LIttle Land by Juhea Kim, American Mermaid by Julia Langbein, Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins, My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent and The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris. It’s so hard not to gush about a book I love, and all of these worked a kind of sorcery on me.
What does your current writing workspace look like?
I do have a room (and money) of my own, and there’s a big window that looks into my backyard. I work from a laptop plugged into a monitor with a big clunky split gaming keyboard for my mild carpal tunnel. My desk is large and I like it clean and clear, but usually it’s stacked with books and papers. There’s a lamp rewiring project in the corner that I can’t seem to finish.
I have notebooks and printed out notes from my editor with my notes handwritten into the margins, some framed photos of my family, some drawings by my kids. Since we live in an old house and there’s no heat or AC in my office, temperature is always a negotiation. Right now there’s a heater plugged in my chair to keep my feet warm until the afternoon sun starts to cook me, then I turn it off and pinch the curtains shut with a binder clip.
Once my kids get back from school there’s no work to be done, but I usually try. I kind of love this time of day when I hear little knocks at my door and they run in with a million requests and dirty hands and no regard for my precious work.
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