By Donna Kortes, SBF volunteer and Low Country Sisters in Crime member
Early reviews use the words powerful, beautiful, and raw. Haunting, hypnotic and empowering. In Wilderness, by Diane Thomas is described as “… a suspenseful and literary love story—a daring and original novel about our fierce need for companionship and our enduring will to survive.” Diane joins us today from her home in New Mexico.
Donna Kortes: You have a diverse background in your field. You began as a science reporter with the Atlanta Constitution, then wrote features for Atlanta Magazine and finally worked as a freelance writer. What motivated you to write your first novel and what was the spark for In Wilderness?
Diane Thomas: In Wilderness was my first book. I wrote it the first time 35 years ago because I was extremely ill from an antibiotic reaction and thought I was dying. I wrote it to distract myself and as a way of putting myself into the north Georgia mountains, which I love, without actually having to get myself there (I was bedridden). The second time I wrote it, we had moved from north Georgia to Santa Fe and I was very homesick. I went to work rewriting the old manuscript, once again as a way of getting to the Georgia mountains when I couldn't be there. The Year the Music Changed was my first published novel. It was inspired by my fascination with the 1950s, and the fact that I used to be an Elvis fan back then.
DK: In Wilderness has two very unique characters, Katherine and Danny. Where does your writing process begin? Does your inspiration come first from character, theme or plot?
DT: None of the above, or all of them maybe. Every one of my novels, including the one in progress, has started with a weird mental image I couldn't get out of my head. For Music it was the inside of a radio station control booth at night with someone on air and someone watching. For In Wilderness it was a woman in a red coat disappearing into a thickly wooded forest. Both these visuals made it into scenes in the finished novels.
As for process, I like to approach each book differently. That’s part of the joy and challenge in writing fiction. For Music I had a basic plot and timeline because part of the story played out against real life events – Elvis Presley’s actual tour schedule. For In Wilderness, the original manuscript served as an outline but edits, changes and additions grew organically during the rewrite.
DK: Were there any special challenges in bringing In Wilderness to the page?
DT: Plotting in general is a challenge for me. It's more left-brained than I am. In Wilderness was special in that I was doing a complete rewrite of a 35-year-old draft. In the first draft my male and female characters were too similar and I needed to create someone new for Katherine. I started by listing her traits and worked at finding the opposite of each. By the time I finished Danny began to appear. In the end only five pages from the first draft made it to the final book.
DK: We will have many aspiring authors visiting the Savannah Book Festival. Do you have any advice for them?
DT: A writing group has been vital to me. It kept me writing and gave me a deadline because my work was going to be critiqued. They were my first readers and offered valuable feedback and lasting friendships with other artists. Every time my husband and I moved the first thing we did was find a group. If we couldn’t find one, we started our own. Other advice? Its like the Nike ads, "Just do it." Even if you can only make 15 minutes for it a day. And try to do it every day if you can. Don't worry if you think your writing's bad when you start out. We all did. But we kept at it anyway.
DK: What do you plan on doing while in Savannah and what will we hear from you at SBF on Saturday?
DT: We’re planning to visit friends and generally enjoy the area. Saturday, in addition to my lecture and Q&A, my reading will give everyone a taste of Danny and Katherine.
DK: In Wilderness doesn’t officially launch until March 3rd. Will SBF have advance copies available?
DT: Yes. I’m excited to say my publisher has sent books to Savannah and I’ll be signing as well.
DK: What’s next for you?
DT: My husband and I plan to travel back to the north Georgia mountains while we’re here and I am working on my next novel. It’s set in a gated community in Florida. I’ve found, from personal experience, those communities to be a social study in themselves. The new book, like my others, was inspired by a mental image. Now comes the fun part. Asking myself, who are these people I see? What is their story?
DK: Thank you Diane. To read more about In Wilderness be sure to go to http://dianethomas.net
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Diane Thomas is a southern writer and the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Year the Music Changed. She is a graduate of Georgia State University and received her MFA in Theatre and Film History and Criticism from Columbia University. A lifelong resident of Atlanta and the Georgia mountains, she now lives in New Mexico. In Wilderness is her second novel. It will be released from Penguin Random House’s Bantam Imprint in March 2015, seven weeks before her 73rd birthday.