By Janelle Fisher
City Pages Editor
Lion’s Mouth Bookstore hosted two Wisconsin authors — Carol Dunbar, a resident of northern Wisconsin and author of A Winter’s Rime, and Jill Stukenberg, a professor of English at UW-Stevens Point and author of News of the Air — for an evening of conversation and a shared reading of two new novels set in Wisconsin with an audience of aspiring local writers and book lovers.
A Winter’s Rime is Dunbar’s second novel — her first being The Net Beneath Us, which won the Wisconsin Writers: Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award.
The novel follows the story of Mallory Moe, a 25-year old veteran army mechanic, as she figures out what the next phase of her life will look like while navigating changing relationships and past hardships.
News of the Air is Stukenberg’s debut novel and follows the story of Allie Krane and her family, who trade in their urban life for life in the northwoods — fleeing the ecological disasters and problems of the modern world — until two children come into their lives nearly two decades later, forcing the family to face the sort of news and problems they fled all those years ago.
The evening at Lion’s Mouth had both authors reading passages from their novels and discussing them with each other and with attendees, but also discussing the process that brought their novels to fruition, reminiscing on what it was like to find out their work would be published and offering advice to those in attendance looking to do the same.
“Agents are easy to find… They want to be found and they tell you what they’re looking for,” Dunbar said. “But there’s so many of them and it’s hard to match an agent with who you are.”
A writing conference was where Dunbar finally connected with an agent to handle her book, but she noted that the process didn’t go exactly as she expected, offering up her own experience as advice for aspiring authors.
“I went to this conference and I was ready to pitch my query letter,” she said. “I signed up for a pitch session — and you have to pay to sign up for this pitch session — and I learned that we get one sentence, and I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. One sentence to say what your book is about?’… I was taking classes at this writing conference and one of the teachers there gave me some advice. She said that one sentence needs to have a goal, a motivation and a conflict… And my writing colleague and I stayed up all night writing our one sentence… I sat down with the agent and I told her my sentence, and she said she was interested.”
That one sentence turned out to be just what Dunbar needed to get her book off the ground.
“I sat down with the agent and I told her my sentence, and she was interested,” Dunbar said. “She gave me a card and she said, ‘Send me the first 50 pages.’ That’s called a partial. Normally, when you query cold, you send them the first page or 10 pages, and if they’re interested, they’ll ask for the first 50. That’s the first hurdle. It’s a big deal if someone wants to read your first 50 pages. I was so excited.”
Stukenberg’s path to publication looked a bit different, forgoing the process of finding an agent and instead finding a press.
“I just started writing, thinking this was never going to go anywhere,” she said. “I tried for a long time at finding an agent, but I never quite succeeded in getting an agent… I did get as far as having some good conversations with agents and they gave me some feedback, which was really cool… But at the same time I was submitting to small, independent presses and contests.”
After several years, Stukenberg’s writing caught the attention of a press, earning her the Black Lawrence Press’ Big Moose Prize and the publication of News of the Air.
“I was submitting to this press that’s located in upstate New York called Black Lawrence Press,” she said. “I had heard of their contest for several years and the Big Moose Prize — they just give one a year. I entered it three years in a row before I won. The very first year, I was a semi-finalist and I was like, ‘Am I really going to enter again?’ Then I entered again, and I definitely remember I was like ‘I’m not [entering a third time.] It’s just embarrassing.’ Then it was the deadline and I was like, ‘Yes, I am. I have to do it.’ And then that was the year I won… I had won this prize, which was something I had been working toward for years of my life. I was absolutely overjoyed. I was so happy.”
Now acting as the co-editor of Midwest Review and having served as a reader for the following year’s Big Moose Prize submissions, Stukenberg said an important thing to remember when trying to get writing published is not to take rejection personally.
“It’s really fascinating to be on the other side because you realize it’s not personal at all,” she said. “Here were so many manuscripts that I loved or stories that I loved, but there’s just so man other reasons you decide whether you can publish something or not — like even something like, ‘Well, we published one sort of like that last year.’ It helps so much when I look at something from my editor point of view to understand that if I get a ‘no’ on something I’m sending out, it’s not because everyone hates me and it’s not because it’s terrible writing.”
Both A Winter’s Rime and News of the Air are available for purchase through Lion’s Mouth Bookstore.