Oyster River Pages: What does becoming a “better” writer or artist look like to you? How do you define success?
Jill Caugherty: One of the things I enjoy about writing is stepping out of my skin into another person’s life—a character I’ve created, whose circumstances may be completely different from mine. This process is somewhat analogous to an actor playing a role that requires extensive research and study, because his or her character is unfamiliar—at least on the surface. For that matter, I think the common wisdom to “write about what you know,” if taken absolutely literally, can potentially limit artistic expression. In fact, I’ve discovered that it can be liberating to write about a time period or person who is radically foreign. At the same time, I think it’s important for a writer to capture emotions and conflicts that resonate universally with readers.
Years ago, when I took the “write what you know” advice to heart and created an autobiographical novel, I found that the details of my past and my conflicting feelings about it interfered with the overall plot and ultimately damaged the story line. This, of course, does not happen with everyone who attempts autobiographical pieces. But since then, in my novels, I write about different time periods and different circumstances, while trying to conjure up how the protagonist feels, thinks, and acts in a way that rings true.
As a result, my definition of success now includes the ability to realistically portray a character who, although she may have very different life experiences and circumstances from mine, still manages to evoke interest and sympathy from readers. While writing novels, I continue to work toward this goal, while striving to balance plot pacing with language.
ORP: Who are your biggest influences?
JC: Wallace Stegner, Margaret Atwood, Anthony Doerr, Chang-Rae Lee, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jane Smiley, Edith Wharton, TC Boyle, Charles Frazier. These authors use beautiful, poetic-like language and character-rich plots. They often write about people and places in unusual and difficult circumstances. Almost universally, the emotions they stir ring true, and I find myself engrossed in their stories, eager to learn what happens to these characters.
ORP: What role does research play in your work? How much do you research do you do before or during the creation of your work?
JC: When I’m writing historical fiction, I research the period—the clothes people wore, the food they ate, the housing, typical prices, vernacular expressions, landmarks, popular destinations, and current events of that era. Although those details don’t necessarily play an important role in the plot, I want the novel’s setting to be as realistic as possible. At the same time, because I often write about people who are quite different from me—for example, a musician, or a girl whose father was a longshoreman during the 1930s—I also conduct research into different professions and tools that play important roles in those jobs.
ORP: What advice would you give someone who has never been published?
JC: Above all, don’t give up. Passion for your craft, along with persistence and practice, are equally important. Continue writing for yourself, first of all, because you love the craft. Read short stories and novels of authors you admire, and note the language they use, the plotting and pacing, and the type and amount of dialogue they include in scenes. Join writers’ groups and conferences for feedback, and submit your work to wonderful new online literary magazines like Oyster River Pages who are willing to accept material from unpublished authors.
ORP: What are you currently working on?
JC: I’m working on a second historical fiction/coming-of-age novel, set in 1934 in San Francisco and at a CCC camp in Yosemite National Park.
Jill Caugherty has worked in the high tech industry for over two decades in positions ranging from software development to marketing and management. She is currently a Senior Product Manager in Research Triangle Park, NC. She received a B.S. in Computer Science from Stanford University, an M.S. in Computer Science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and an MBA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Creative writing has been her passion since she was a child, and in her free time, she devotes herself to the craft. Her debut story was published in the April edition of 805Lit, and she recently completed a historical/literary novel. She lives in Raleigh, NC with her husband and daughter. Read Jill’s story “Third Grade” from Issue 2.