Interview with Tides’ Author Betsy Cornwell

TidesThis Sunday, I will be reviewing Tides by Betsy Cornwell. I’ve been excited about this book for awhile, not just because it sounds awesome, but because Betsy lived in the house next door to me at Smith College. We even had a class together, so I can attest that she is seriously smart. The book came out today you can buy it here. Check out my interview with her below and come back on Sunday to read my review!

Tell us a little bit about Tides.

 Tides is all about selkies and kidnappers, mysteries and science, and the fluid bonds of family and love. It’s the story of a boy named Noah who moves to his grandmother’s island cottage for a summer marine science internship, and brings his sister, Lo, along to help her get away from their parents. He and Lo soon learn of their grandmother’s decades-long romance with a selkie woman—and before long, Noah begins to fall for the selkie’s daughter. But when one of the selkie children is kidnapped, the tremulous bonds between them are tested, and they all must fight to keep the selkies’ secrets from being revealed.

How long did it take for you to write Tides and do you have a writing routine?

30 days, and four years! I wrote the first draft of Tides for National Novel Writing Month in 2008, but it was horribly discombobulated and rough (of course, being a first draft, a NaNo novel, and my first book ever). A few months later, I started a total rewrite that took me until May 2010—just a few days before I graduated from college—to finish. I revised that draft over the next summer, polished it up, and set about finding an agent, which took me about nine months. After that, it was about three months until Tides sold to Clarion Books, in fall 2011. I spent the better part of another year revising *again* with my editor, Lynne Polvino, and the manuscript was finally ‘delivered’ in its basically-finished form in June 2012. Even up until a few months ago, however, we were tweaking little things in the book, adding a few sentences and changing some repetitive language.

I had a good writing routine going at Smith—I used to wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning to write before class, and I may have sneaked in some plotting during class lectures, too.  I thought if I ever got to write full-time (as I’ve been doing this year) I would be very disciplined about my routine, but that hasn’t been true . . . I certainly don’t wake up at 5 anymore, at least. I’ve been traveling a lot this year, so my writing routine changes depending on where I am and what else I’m doing. But I try to stick to getting in at least 1,000 words a day when I’m drafting. Sometimes that takes all day, and sometimes much less. (Those days are awesome.)

While you were writing Tides, were there books you were reading at the time or favorite authors you had from when you were younger that influenced the book?

I grew up reading fairy tale retellings like Beauty, Ella Enchanted, and Briar Rose (written by another Smith alum, Jane Yolen!), and those books definitely influenced Tides. I also took a comparative literature class at Smith called “Fairy Tales and Gender,” taught by one of my advisors, Betsey Harries, and I absolutely adored that.

I’ve loved fairy tales and folklore since I was very little . . . but mostly I just loved books in general, and I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I learned how to read. So I think, if it doesn’t sound too pretentious to say so, that every book I’ve read has somehow influenced my own writing.

If you had to choose characters from your book to marry, date and dump, which characters would they be?

Oh man, I haven’t really thought about this before! I had way too much fun pairing them up with each other to imagine myself into the equation. But, after much consideration, I think I would marry Maebh, the matriarch of the selkie family. She’s incredibly faithful and has this huge capacity for unconditional love, and she would make a great partner.

I feel like I have to put in a good word for my two main characters, Noah and Mara, here—they’d be great to date, but I can’t bear to tear them apart. And, at eighteen, they’re just too young for me now. I love writing for teenagers, but I would never want to be one, let alone date one, again. I am thoroughly glad that’s over.

Anyway, as far as dating goes, for me it’s got to be Ronan, one of the other selkies—and not just because he’s a non-teen! He’s roguish and intense, and he puts up kind of a tough image, but he’s really kind and even a bit mushy at heart. And he’s, um, really hot. So. Yeah.

I would definitely dump The Villain, but for spoilery spoiler reasons I cannot reveal his/her/zir identity. (*insert evil laughter*)

Along with Alison Lee and I, you also attended Smith College (in fact you lived in our rival house right next door) do you have any quintessentially “Smith” memories and what was your most outrageous convocation outfit (gold stars if you send a photo)?

Does topless apple-picking on Mountain Day count as a quintessential Smith memory? (Better question: is anything topless *not* quintessentially Smith?) I still have a fierce love for Smith and all the wonderful people I knew there . . . even the denizens of Albright House. Who stole our bench every year. (Until we stole it back.) Somehow, my convocation photos didn’t make it to Facebook (I wonder why!) but I do have a few from Ivy Day, funny hats and all. (That’s me in the middle.)

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How did you first become interested in Selkie folklore?

When I was about eight, I went to an international culture festival put together by the state’s girl scout troops. At one presentation, an Irish-American girl and her mother sang a ballad about the Selkie Bride, a selkie whose skin is stolen by a fisherman; because he has her skin, she is forced to follow him away from the ocean. They marry and have children, and one day one of the children finds the selkie’s sealskin and asks her mother what it is. The mother takes the skin and goes back to the sea, leaving the fisherman and their children behind.

The mother and daughter sang most of the ballad in English, except for the verse in which the selkie tells her daughter she’s going back to the sea. The mother said she had to sing that verse in Irish, because otherwise it would make her cry.

On the way home, my mom said she wished they had sung the whole ballad in English, because she couldn’t imagine how a mother would tell her child she was leaving forever. I remember thinking to myself: but the selkie was kidnapped—of course she would want to leave, to escape. The story of the Selkie Bride has stuck with me ever since.

What is the most valuable thing you gained from participating in an MFA program?

An MFA program is great for a few reasons, but it’s absolutely not necessary to become a writer, or even to become a published writer. For me, it was useful because it gave me some great relationships with other writers, both professors and my fellow students, and it also gave me teaching experience of my own. It was great to be in a small, intense group of hopeful writers, too; we really became a loving and dysfunctional family (just like a real family!) over our two years of the MFA. And I’ve always liked being a student and being in school, so for me, going straight from college to grad school was a good fit. Even my ever-dorky self was burnt out before the end of it, though, so I think a break before grad school is usually wise.

The Notre Dame MFA in particular has a great opportunity called the Sparks internship—I got an internship with Park Literary Group, a prestigious literary agency in New York City, for the summer between my two years, and both the job itself and living in Manhattan were really fantastic. A funded MFA program with those kinds of opportunities is always worthwhile, and I will always be grateful I had it.

Looking back what you think you did right to break into this competitive business and become a published author?

I didn’t give up! I got rejected from, I think, about thirty-five agents (not to mention thirteen MFA programs) and countless literary magazines. Each rejection stings, but I kept telling myself it’s something every writer has to go through, which is certainly true. When I finally did get an agent—Sara Crowe, at that, a dream agent if ever there was one—it was one of the most thrilling and relief-filled moments of my life, and when I got my book deal, that feeling multiplied by about a thousand. All the little heartbreaks of rejection turned into this huge wave of happiness and triumph, because I had accomplished this thing that I had wanted so desperately for most of my life—ever since I learned how to read. Any amount of rejection is worth that.

7 thoughts on “Interview with Tides’ Author Betsy Cornwell

  1. Wow! Wonderful interview! And Tides sounds awesome!!!! I can’t wait to get it. And congrats to Betsy for landing Sara Crowe. Some of of my classmates signed with her too. She’s awesome.

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