Alle C. Hall, writer and first reader at Creative Nonfiction magazine, recently published her first novel, As Far as You Can Go Before You Have to Come Back.
It’s the story of Carlie, a young woman who travels through Asia on a journey of abandon and escape. Ultimately a story of healing and survival, the novel deals with difficult subject matter, but Carlie finds the light by the end.
Alle C. Hall shares the background to the story, lifts the lid on the writing process and what’s up next.
How did you go about creating the characters and the story for this book?
When I lived in Tokyo, one of my co-workers told me she was terrified to sleep alone. At that time, I’d never written anything longer than a letter. I remember thinking: “What if a young woman who was terrified to sleep alone was traveling around Southeast Asia?”
I put no further energy toward my little tingle of a question. Maybe five years later, when I was freelancing as a journalist and trying my hand at short stories, the idea for the novel popped: the sexually abused teen—Carlie—who steals money to run away … where? ASIA! Of course she would go to Asia.
The novel has been 30 years in the creation. Can you share some of this journey?
For a long time, I felt ashamed that it was taking me so long to get signed a deal for As Far as You Can Go Before You Have to Come Back. I felt this way even after I signed my contract. My thoughts have changed. I believe that more writers would have stories such as mine if they’d kept at it. I hope more do.
The writing and publishing part of this novel’s story is pretty much what every writer goes through. You struggle to get down that ‘Crappy First Draft’. Then you revise until you believe you have something good enough for an agent or publisher to sign it. Most of us find out we are wrong. Then you revise and resubmit, repeat, repeat, until you get a deal or give up.
One thing that I think helped get this book to its first real draft—about seven years of work—was that I didn’t have the idea until I was five years into deep recovery. I did not do what’s called trauma reduction in order to write As Far as You Can Go Before You Have to Come Back. I did trauma reduction to stay alive. One of the unforeseen benefits was that when I sat to write the novel, I was free of my baggage at least to the point that the story could be what it needed to be. I didn’t need to tell my story. I’d already told it.
How important is it to have chapters published as short stories or excerpts?
I was a first time novelist writing a first-person story about surviving sexual abuse. Very few agents or editors had any reason to think that this book would sell. The more literary magazines I published in, and the higher up on the food chain those magazines were, the more seriously I was taken by people who could get me published. As I got into the last round of submitting, the one that led to my book deal, several agents noted that I had a publication history that was up to snuff. What a relief!
How important is it to canvas this kind of subject matter in fiction?
It’s essential for us to have more and more books published on the topic of sexual assault and ongoing abuse—of all sorts. I think the success of the #MeToo movement shows how many people have been forced to suffer these crimes. Fiction is a great way for the writer to address the horror—partially because fiction allows the writer to make the story what it needs to be rather than, “I changed everyone’s hair colour and called it fiction;” and partially because some of us think in fiction rather than in nonfiction.
That said, I do not see the #MeToo movement fully facing incest. It is a whole dimension to the issue that is ripe for literary investigation. With some exceptions, we don’t have enough books about incest by BIPOC writers, by queer and trans writers. Those writers hold such a huge part of the story. I love reading those books. I find it such a relief, when writers bluntly bring it to the table. I feel validated.
Any advice for would-be novelists?
Never give up. Unless you are doing it for the money. If making millions is your true desire, become an actuarial analyst. Also, write for five minutes a day. That’s all. Those five minutes do not have to take place at the same time every day, or in the same location–-although those are elements that help to create consistency. But all you really need to do is write for five minutes a day. The time that you write will grow.
Finally, never assume that the piece is good enough that you can get an editor to work with you on it from the get-go. Most editors are what are called “acquisition editors.” They rarely develop a project, especially with a first-time novelist. They want to take something that is near perfect over the top.
What are you working on now?
As Far as You Can Go Before You Have to Come Back is one-half of an exploration into why some people chose light while others, the dark. I’m working on the companion novel, called Crazy Medicine that follows a young woman backpacking through Asia who chooses a different, dark path.