When debut author Sandi Ward isn’t writing fiction, she puts her MA in Creative Writing from New York University to good use as a medical writer at an ad agency in New Jersey, specializing in psychiatry and pain management. She lives on the Jersey Shore with her husband, teenagers, dog and a big black cat named Winnie.
Your new book, The Astonishing Thing, comes out October 31st, 2017. What was the inspiration for the story?
My novel is the story of a broken family, told from the point of view of their cat. I was inspired to try writing a novel using an unconventional narrator after reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: A Novel (Alex Awards (Awards)) by Mark Haddon. It’s a story told by an autistic teenager. Since writing my novel, readers have alerted me to other stories with unexpected narrators, like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne. I love books where the narrator doesn’t quite have full insight into what’s going on, so the reader must figure it out, piecing together clues as the story goes along.
If you could be one of your characters, who would you be, and why?
Wow, that’s an interesting question! I think I’d prefer to be one of the humans rather than my narrator, Boo. She’s an indoor cat, and never goes outside. She’ll have a short life, compared to the rest of her family. And although she’s a cat, she’s just as susceptible to stress as the rest of the Sullivan family.
I might have to choose Jimmy, the oldest teenager in the family. He’s been through the darkest of times with his family, yet always remains optimistic for the future. Some kids are resilient despite the worst that gets thrown at them. I think his sense of humor carries him through.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
I was excited to be a mentor this year in an online contest called Pitch Wars, where aspiring authors seek a mentor to help polish their query and manuscript. After reading almost 200 submissions, I can tell you that the top issue writers struggled with was trying to juggle multiple first person points of view in one story. It’s not easy to do well! I was surprised at how many authors used this literary device, and jumped abruptly back and forth from inside one character’s head to another.
So this isn’t exactly a trap, but more of a technical issue that writers should be aware needs to be polished in order to work. If you’re going to try writing in multiple first person points of view, I’d advise studying the format used by a successful published author like Jodi Picoult, and sticking to one point of view per chapter so the reader can settle in for an entire scene.
How do you select the names of your characters?
I keep it simple. The Sullivan family in The Astonishing Thing lives on the coast in northern Massachusetts, and they’re Irish-Catholic. The names are simple: Jimmy, Mary, Tommy, Sean, Carrie. In some areas around Boston, names often get reduced to a nickname that ends in that “ee” sound. I imagine that the baby, named Finn, won’t get called Finn when he’s a teenager—they’ll call him Sully.
How did other authors help you become a better writer?
Other authors have been extremely helpful to me! I read all the time for inspiration. I appreciate critical suggestions on works-in-progress. And authors like those in my writing group ‘17 Scribes (authors with debut novels coming out in 2017) share great ideas about marketing and all aspects of book publishing. Authors are very generous, and I always appreciate the help!
About The Astonishing Thing:
Pet owners know that a cat’s loyalty is not easily earned. Boo, a resourceful young feline with a keen eye and inquiring mind, has nonetheless grown intensely devoted to her human companion, Carrie. Several days ago, Carrie—or Mother, as Boo calls her—suddenly went away, leaving her family, including Boo, in disarray. Carrie’s husband, Tommy, is distant and distracted even as he does his best to care for Boo’s human siblings, especially baby Finn.
Boo worries about who will fill her food dish, and provide a warm lap to nestle into. More pressing still, she’s trying to uncover the complicated truth about why Carrie left. Though frequently mystified by human behavior, Boo is sure that Carrie once cared passionately for Tommy and adores her children, even the non-feline ones. But she also sees it may not be enough to make things right. Perhaps only a cat—a wise, observant, very determined cat—can do that . . .
Wonderfully tender and insightful, The Astonishing Thing explores the intricacies of marriage and family through an unforgettable perspective at the center of it all.