Teri Bailey Black, author of Girl at the Grave
The TBR and Beyond Facebook group did a group read of Girl at the Grave back in October. It went fantastic and everyone seemed to really enjoy this Gothic romance/historical fiction. We asked Teri to answer some questions for the group and blog. There are spoiler questions at the bottom that were asked by various members in the group – the spoiler section is well marked, so you can avoid it if you haven’t read the book yet.
How did you get started in writing?
When I was about ten, I discovered this clunky old typewriter handed down from my grandparents and started writing my own stories. (Home computers were invented a few years later, but nothing beats the awesome clickity-clack of a typewriter.) I envisioned my future-self as a mother who wrote novels in between gardening and baking cookies. But I actually quit writing after I got married and had four kids. My first child was born with severe disabilities, which brought a few extra challenges. Plus, I started a home business that took off and kept me creatively fulfilled. Life was busy and happy! But once my kids were all school age, I itched to write again. I spent a few years just playing around, then got serious.
What has been your experience with the publishing world?
When I first started writing again, I went to the big SCBWI Conference in Los Angeles and submitted my first chapter for a critique with an editor. I sat down with much fear and trembling, and her first words were, “This is amaaazing! How fast can you finish it?” I thought—wow, that was easy. I spent four months finishing the manuscript, sent it to her with confidence, and a month later received a 2-sentence form rejection letter, not personalized at all. Ha! Welcome to publishing. But thank goodness that book never went anywhere, because I still had a lot to learn.
After writing a few more practice novels, I started GIRL AT THE GRAVE and had a feeling it was the one. The original version of GIRL started with 100 pages of her childhood. One agent asked me to revise and resubmit, with a suggestion to make it either a full children’s story or full YA, not an awkward combination of both—which suddenly seemed so obvious. I completely rewrote it, making huge changes, send out more queries, and received quite a few requests for the full manuscript. My agent Barbara Poelle read it and called quickly (no surprise, if you know Barbara), which led to a stressful weekend as I emailed the other agents and they all scrambled for a chance. But I knew I wanted Barbara. About a month later, she sold it to Tor Teen in a 2-book deal.
Looking back, I’m glad those first few practice novels didn’t land me a book deal because I wasn’t ready for it. Once you sign that contract, you’re off and running. They want revisions—fast. They want the next book—fast. Those practice novels allowed me to play and learn without pressure.
How long did it take to write Girl at the Grave?
It took a year to write the original version, writing occasionally in cracks of time, sometimes not writing for a month at a time. After feedback from agents, I started over, making huge changes, which took another year—again, writing in cracks of time. I sent that second version around to agents and got oh so close—high praise but no offer of rep. I spent a few more months fixing plot issues and polishing every paragraph, and that third version landed me an agent and book deal. But I wasn’t done yet! My wise editor spotted some issues at the core of the story, which led to a mad dash to completely rewrite the entire book YET AGAIN. She gave me six weeks. I ended up taking eight. It was a stressful few months, I’m not gonna lie. I finally pushed the send button and collapsed, knowing the story was finally, truly done.
What made you decide to write a YA historical fiction novel?
I started out writing middle grade fantasy action, because that’s what I loved reading with my kids, but soon realized my voice is more YA and atmospheric. I started and stopped a few YA fantasies that didn’t feel quite right. I love fantasy, but there are already so many amazing YA fantasies on the market. As I wondered what to write next, the image of Valentine as a little girl popped into my head, not fantasy but a true historical setting, probably 1800’s. I decided her mother had hanged for murder, which led me to think—hey, it’s a murder mystery! I’ve always been a huge mystery reader, so it was a fun direction to take.
Were there any specific historical influences to any of the characters?
I love the research part of writing and had a big Eureka moment when I realized that the women’s rights movement in the United States started in that exact time and place. I couldn’t read and learn fast enough. I decided women’s rights was a great cause for Mrs. Blackshaw—a strong-willed businesswoman at a time when married women couldn’t even own their own property. Then I stumbled across an article about Dorothea Dix, a woman in the 1800’s who fought for better treatment of the mentally ill and intellectually disabled, and that immediately felt like a great cause for Valentine, who also feels like she doesn’t fit in. I loved incorporating those historical details.
Did you relate to any of the characters personally?
I love sewing and baking, so I gave those skills to Valentine. I love artwork, so I gave that talent to Rowan. And I love a creepy old house! The Barron house always felt like a character to me, knowing all the family secrets but unable to speak them. Whispering hints.
Did you know how the book was going to end before you wrote it or did it happen during the writing process?
Wow, I have to think about this one. (I won’t give spoilers.) Honestly, looking back, I figured out the ending when I got there. I just got to that point in the story and thought—it can’t go THAT way, it must go THIS way. The book was completely rewritten several times, with huge plot changes, but that final scene never changed much.
Do you plan on staying in the YA category or would you consider writing an adult or middle-grade novel?
I am definitely open to writing adult or middle grade. I have ideas simmering! But my next two books are YA. The next one (almost done writing) is a murder mystery. The book after that—currently simmering in the background of my brain, begging to get written—is hard to categorize. It’s still evolving and rather unique.
Do you have a favorite thing about being an author?
I could write first chapters all day long. A snapshot of a scene, an intriguing situation, lots of unanswered questions. Then—the hard part—I have to figure out what happens next. (Yes, I’m a pantser.) For me, the joy is playing with words, being creative, wandering one direction, then another, changing my mind, murdering a different person. That said—nowadays, I do push myself to outline first and write as quickly as possible because publishing deadlines do exist.
Do you have a favorite author or any books that you could recommend our readers?
So many! As I’m glancing up at my bookshelf I see Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco, and In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters. And I adore anything by Marissa Meyer. She’s amazing.
We have to ask, what is your Hogwarts House?
Gryffindor! But, sadly, my family is not as unified as the Weasleys. My kids are a mix of Slytherin, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw.
Can you give us any sneak peeks on your next project?
Ooo . . . I am so tempted to say lots and lots of things. It’s a YA murder mystery set in a very fun place and time. Dead bodies. Romance, of course. Quirky side characters. I keep missing deadlines and my very patient editor keeps giving me new ones. But I’m almost done, and then some announcements will be made.
A reader asked, “WHY DID YOU KILL MY GIRL BIRDY”? I was told to ask the question in caps LOL.
I love this question so so much! One of my children was born with intellectual disability, so Birdy holds a tender place in my heart. My daughter can’t speak, but I’ve seen the way her sweet smile softens people’s hearts and makes the world a gentler place. I wanted Valentine to have a friendship that showed her loving, caring nature and reflected how Valentine feels about herself; when she stands up for a friend who doesn’t fit in, she’s subconsciously standing up for herself.
In the first draft, that friend was an elderly blind man, but it didn’t quite work and I cut the character. A year or two later, in final revisions, with a deadline looming, Birdy suddenly appeared in that early scene, walking with Valentine. Seriously, she just showed up. YIKES! I didn’t have time to introduce an entirely new character, but I already adored her and couldn’t stop. I wrote in a mad dash, placing her at the murder scene—describing her shack in the woods—having her find the money box. Then, suddenly, I hit a place in the story where Birdy needed to leave the page so Valentine’s focus could be elsewhere, and I knew what needed to happen. Authors joke about crushing their readers’ hearts. In this case, Birdy’s sad ending crushed mine a little.
Would you consider writing more with Rowan or Valentine or is their story completely finished?
I always intended the book as a standalone, and I’m pretty sure it will remain that way. Valentine has already faced the major turning point in her life and triumphed. But I do have their future story figured out in my mind—and it’s amazing. And happy. And involves kissing each other.
What made you decide to give Valentine unique ending (i.e. a third path)?
In the first draft, I was just having fun and making it up as I went, so when I got to the ending, I wrote it organically. What makes sense? I knew Valentine couldn’t stay in that town. Rowan also needed to leave, repressed in his own way. I never considered having them get married right away—too young—or having Valentine go to Europe—his dream, not hers. I had the aunt show up to give some closure to Valentine’s questions about her mother and realized it was the perfect answer—a fresh start for Valentine. That ending immediately felt right to me and never changed, even as the rest of the story was turned inside out in revisions.
Do you think that Valentine treated Sam poorly?
Yes—and no. Valentine isn’t perfect and doesn’t know all the answers at first. (That would be a very short book.) She’s genuinely torn between what she wants and what she thinks she deserves. Rowan Blackshaw is so outside her realm of possibilities, she can barely admit to herself that she’s falling in love. Meanwhile, Sam is her best friend and the obvious choice. It would be a decent life. But even Sam senses that they’re not a perfect match, which he throws in her face whenever they argue. “You think you’re too good for me.” (Because he doesn’t feel good enough for her.) When Rowan seems to turn his back on Valentine, she forces herself to close that dream and accept what’s real—Sam. Marrying Sam feels wrong, but she’s trying to accept it. So—yes! She does mislead Sam for a while because she’s misleading herself.
But never fear, I know Sam’s future! He falls in love with Emily Sweeney, they’re well matched and live happily ever after with lots of daughters. He has a successful career at Hale Glass, promoted into management.
Do you think Valentine and Rowan eventually ended up together?
A hundred times yes. Their love is true and lasting. I know their future. In a way, they switch places—Rowan becomes a wandering artist in Europe with a few coins in his pocket, while Valentine becomes something of a society girl in NYC and works with Alvina Lunt. They lose touch for a while, then reunite in a fabulous way. Eventually, they marry. But they don’t return to Feavers Crossing.
Teri Bailey Black grew up near the beach in southern California in a large, quirky family with no television or junk food, but an abundance of books and art supplies. She’s happiest when she’s creating things, whether it’s with words, fabric, or digging in the garden. She makes an amazing chocolate cherry cake—frequently. She and her husband have four children and live in Orange County, California.
You can find out more information about Girl at the Grave on Teri’s Official Site.