When Marie Bacigalupo was nine, she read Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins and was instantly hooked on fiction. She grew up to teach high school English before focusing exclusively on fiction writing, studying under Gordon Lish at The Center for Fiction, taking classes at the Writers Studio, and attending a number of university-sponsored craft workshops.
Marie won First Prize among 7000 entries in the Writer’s Digest 13th Annual Short-Short Story Competition with her entry, “Excavation.” Her other works have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Journal of Microliterature, The Examined Life Journal, Romance Magazine, and elsewhere. Ninth-Month Midnight is her debut novella.
The author is a native New Yorker who lives and writes in Brooklyn. Visit her at www.mariebacigalupo.com.
Ninth-Month Midnight is contemporary women’s fiction with a paranormal twist. The novella focuses on Dolores Walsh, a bereaved mother who, hiding a guilty secret and verging on mental breakdown, defies her husband and her religion to get what she wants. With another pregnancy highly improbable, she wants the seemingly impossible: she wants her baby back. The loss has transformed Dolores into a zombie-like chain smoker who stays unwashed and unnourished until her husband, Joe, bathes and feeds her.
Enter Salvador Esperanza, a charismatic psychic who helps the grief-stricken communicate with their dead. Dolores cannot resist this new hope or the man who offers it. But in order to attend Sal’s séances, she must do battle with her jealous husband’s hard-core rationalism. When Sal decides to move on, only a miracle can save Dolores from the numbing despair that threatens her sanity.
Why don’t you begin by telling us a little about your writing background?
I was always reasonably proficient in writing. As a copywriter and school administrator, I produced promotional brochures, departmental reports, and curriculum materials. But my dream was to write fiction, and I lacked training in craft. To address my shortcomings, I enrolled in The Writers Studio, took a number of workshops at NYU and The New School, studied at The Center for Fiction, and participated in Narrative Magazine and One Story programs. In addition, I attended numerous writing festivals, conferences, and readings. Supported by this training, I wrote a number of short stories that were picked up for publication. Ninth-Month Midnight is my first book-length work.
Were you an avid reader as a child? What type of books did you enjoy reading?
I haven’t stopped reading since I got a taste of my first book, Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins at the age of nine. I devoured Little Women next and just kept on reading. In adolescence Maureen Daly’s Seventeenth Summer left an indelible imprint on my heart. To this day I can feel the poignant yearning of first love and the sense of loss at its abrupt ending.
Fiction has always been my favorite genre, perhaps because of its immersive qualities. I escaped a lonely childhood by entering a multitude of fictional worlds and to this day I go back to my favorites time and time again.
My husband wonders how I can keep reading the same books over and over. It’s easy, in fact, a pleasure. I don’t read to find out what happens but to hang out with old friends like Elizabeth Bennett, Holden Caulfield, George Smiley, Lily Bart, Scout and Atticus Finch, the second Mrs. De Winter—the list goes on.
Ninth-Month Midnight is a story about love after life. After struggling for years to conceive, Dolores Walsh, my protagonist, loses her four-year-old daughter to cancer. At a bereavement support meeting, she meets Sal Esperanza, a charismatic psychic who reportedly connects people with deceased loved ones.
Dolores attends Sal’s séances despite the fact that Joe, her husband, calls him a con man and pressures her into a psychiatrist’s office. There she lays bare a festering secret that explains her obsession with the psychic.
Before too long, Dolores, though infertile, becomes convinced she’s pregnant, and Joe feels just as certain she’s deluded. But if she is pregnant, who is the father? And just as problematic, who is Esperanza? Is he a selfless savior or a self-seeking seducer?
The inspiration for Ninth-Month Midnight arose out of the questions, What if the souls of the dead linger among us for a while? Would we be able to communicate with them on some level? When Hamlet says, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” I say, You betcha! I combined this idea with the story of a troubled woman who develops a desperate attachment to a male psychic.
How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline?
I didn’t write a formal outline, but I wouldn’t characterize the process as stream of consciousness. For me writing is a slog of trial and error.
The first draft of Ninth-Month Midnight was a straightforward chronological narrative that began with the discovery of cancer in the protagonist’s child and chronicled its devastating effects over a year. Many drafts later, I decided Ninth-Month Midnight would be the story of the mother’s arc from suicidal depression to acceptance with a twist of fate.
While writing the book, I made a habit of jotting down on stray pieces of paper—napkins, the backs of envelopes, scrap paper—anything that flitted through my mind with regard to the section I was working on. This is the only time I used a pencil or pen.
A computer, I feel, quickens the pace of the writing and syncs with my mind as I add, delete, and reorder words and passages. I use Scrivener, a word processing program that makes it easy to organize notes, and integrates into a single project all aspects of the writing process from research to final draft. (I sound like a Scrivener spokesperson. Honestly, I’m not!)
Did your book require a lot of research?
“A lot” is relative. I researched contemporary and 19th-century spiritualism on the Web; read about Houdini who spent years trying to make contact with his dead mother, ultimately to no avail; perused the arguments of debunkers and believers; examined the practices and rates of storefront mediums; and sampled the writings of celebrity psychics, such as One Last Time by John Edwards and Anatomy of the Spirit by Caroline Myss.
My preparation covered fiction, as well, specifically, McShane’s Séance on a Wet Afternoon and Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time.
Do you get along with your muse? What do you do to placate her when she refuses to inspire you?
I often do battle with my muse insofar as I have many days when I don’t feel like writing. On those days, I usually force it, with mixed results.
But even if the writing doesn’t come or if it’s awful, the effort itself is worthwhile because it reinforces the habit of writing. Sometimes if I keep at it, I overcome the hurdle and have a productive session.
Often I struggle with the “Are you kidding?” inner voice, as in, “Are you kidding, taking yourself seriously?” The antidote to this particular poison involves ignoring the voice and plodding on.
More succinctly, I have a love-hate relationship with my craft. As Dorothy Parker said, “I hate writing, I love having written.” That’s pretty much how I feel about the writing life.
From the moment you conceived the idea for the story, to the published book, how long did it take?
From the beginning, I understood that critical objectivity and professionalism would be essential to the success of my venture, so I revised and then revised some more. After many drafts, I asked for comments from two trusted readers (not family members and friends—they’d worry about hurting my feelings!).
I made some minor revisions based on reader responses, but pretty soon I realized I didn’t have the technical skills to go it alone on this project, so I searched the Internet for professionals who could help me and who charged reasonable rates. I hired someone to do the layout and a graphic artist to create the cover.
Once I settled on a final draft, I self-published through Amazon and its paperback arm, CreateSpace. The turn-around between manuscript download and epublication was twenty-four hours. If I remember correctly, it took three or four days for the paperback to come out. That’s a lot sooner than the yearlong wait between contract signing and traditional publication.
So to answer your question, it took about two years to bring Ninth-Month Midnight to fruition once I began writing, but the idea for the book had been germinating in my mind forever.
They say authors have immensely fragile egos… How would you handle negative criticism or a negative review?
I’d call to mind the words of Stephen King, “If you write . . . someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.”
In the face of negative criticism, I allow myself to feel hurt and resentful for a moment. Then I examine the comments. If they’re persuasive, they’ve taught me something and that’s good for my work.
If, on the other hand, negative comments are the outpouring of a mean-spirited reviewer or an expression of the book that the reviewer thought I should write as opposed to the book I chose to write, then I try to ignore them and move on.
This principle also works in critique groups, which can provide a valuable resource for those writers who distinguish between comments that are relevant and helpful, and those that are not.
As a writer, what scares you the most?
Self-doubt. I try to analyze the source of the anxiety. Maybe it’s the anticipation of rejection. Or maybe it’s a fear that I’ll sit down and discover I can’t write worth a damn, or that the idea I’m trying to imbue with life is garbage, or that I’ll never write another book.
I hate it when I can’t find the right words to express my idea; when I don’t know where I’m going with the story; when something is not right, but I can’t figure out why.
As an antidote to self-doubt, I re-read the following appraisal from a major publisher:
Overwhelmingly nauseating…the whole thing is an unsure cross between hideous reality and improbable fantasy. . . . I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.
The book under review? Lolita! Then I take a deep breath, connect butt to chair, and start writing.
When writing, what themes do you feel passionate about?
I’m passionate about the nature of life. The epigraph in Ninth-Month Midnight is a passage from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which gives voice to the idea that life reasserts itself in constant replenishment. I’m drawn to end-of-life and after-life issues; they appear in my short stories as well.
Without giving away the ending, I’ll say that in Ninth-Month Midnight the theme of enduring life is expressed in the unbreakable bond between mother and child, and the existential pain that results when death intervenes to test that bond.
I’m also interested in the inner life of women. Their strengths are too often unacknowledged, their feelings and judgments too often dismissed, their spirit too often crushed by socially defined limitations.
Are you a disciplined writer?
Does a routine make one disciplined? If so, I guess I’m disciplined.
I get up around 7:00 a.m. and usually settle down to work after breakfast and a long perusal of The New York Times. Then I check any notes on hand about how I might integrate a new idea or take the work in a different direction.
If family obligations don’t interfere, I write for a couple of hours in the morning—sometimes productively, sometimes not. Then I break for late lunch and return to the computer for another hour or two. If the writing goes very well—and this is rare—I’ll write continuously for five hours.
When it comes to writing, are you an early bird, or a night owl?
I need natural light; I can’t write once the sun sets. As funny as it may sound, Daylight Saving Time boosts my productivity.
The fact that natural light nurtures my creative spirit reminds me how integral to nature’s cycle we humans are. When night falls, I turn to entertainments: I have film, ballet, and opera subscriptions. I do light reading; I dine with friends; I watch TV. I don’t work.
What type of book promotion seems to work the best for you?
Therein lies a tale! I had heard and read that it was very difficult to get past the gatekeepers of traditional publishers, and that they were providing less and less support in promotion and marketing. As a result, as I said, I took the direct approach and self-published through Amazon.
Unfortunately, I was pathetically inexperienced about how to promote my book once it was out. (I know now I should have started the campaign six months prior to publication.)
The hardest lesson I learned was that the most saleable book in the world—think Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code—won’t sell a single copy if your readers don’t know it exists. And wouldn’t you know it, I happen to be an introvert!
Promotion and marketing were huge challenges for me, but I bit the bullet: I established a website and blog, created author pages on Goodreads and Facebook, and opened a Twitter account. I’m currently engaged in a virtual blog tour.
Here’s the rub: Promotion now presents me with a continuous dilemma. I worry that maintaining a media presence will become so time consuming I’ll be left with little time to write. And what would I have to promote in the future if I stopped writing?
I’ve decided the best I can do is try to strike a balance between writing new fiction and promoting published work. For my next book, I may hire a social media publicist.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
I don’t remember who said it, but I’m forever grateful for having received the wisdom, and I’ll express my gratitude by passing it on: Allow yourself to write garbage. Once purged, you can sift through the waste to find the kernels of value to expand upon.
Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?
Yes, thank you for asking. The blog is part of my website—www.mariebacigalupo.com. I use it to have a conversation with my readers about fiction in its various aspects. It covers plot and other fictive elements, historical and contemporary writers like Robert Browning and Mohsin Hamid, and advice that helped me in writing fiction.
On the homepage, you’ll find thumbnail covers of my works – including an anthology and magazines in which my short stories appear—along with buttons that connect to Amazon for ease of purchase. Titles of the stories and links to the full text of some of them appear on the Other Writings page of the website.
Ninth-Month Midnight, my debut novella, is readily available on Amazon in ebook and paperback editions. The ebook can be read on any device with a free Kindle download.
Here’s the URL for both versions.