An interview with author Kate Brandes
An environmental scientist with over 20 years of experience, Kate Brandes is also a watercolor painter
and a writer of women’s fiction with an environmental bent. Her short stories have been published in The Binnacle, Wilderness House Literary Review, and Grey Sparrow Journal. Kate is a member of the Arts Community of Easton (ACE), the Lehigh Art Alliance, Artsbridge, the Pennwriters, and the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. Kate lives in a small town along the Delaware River with her husband, David, and their two sons. When she’s not working, she’s outside on the river or chasing wildflowers. The Promise of Pierson Orchard is her first novel. Learn more about her at:
Interview by BWG member Kidd Wadsworth
Bethlehem Writers Group: Kate, congratulations on the publication of your first novel, The Promise of Pierson Orchard. Can you tell us about the genesis of your idea for the novel?
Kate Brandes: Thanks.
I’ve spent most of my career, not as a writer, but as an environmental scientist. Ten years ago I decided I wanted to write fiction, in part, because of the people I’ve met during my career as a scientist.
Early on, I worked as a geologist for six years on water supply and contamination problems deep underground. Then I took a series of jobs over more than a decade that allowed me to use my environmental science knowledge to work on land and water conservation in the Lehigh Valley. Along the way, I chose work with a community link so that I could use my science background to serve as a bridge between the technical side of things and my community’s understanding of the problem at hand. My career gave me access to people’s response to problems with the land and water, which was always related to their backstory: their personal history, who they grew up with, emotions, influences, as well as where they came from.
I turned to creative writing as a way to examine people’s feelings about things I care about, drawing on my experiences as a scientist working with communities. Writing is my way to make sense of the world. If there's a crisis in my life or a difficult decision ahead, I’ve always reached for the pen to figure out what to do. So in order to contemplate some of the bigger societal questions I face daily about changes to the land and natural world around me, I turned to writing fiction to open the conversation within myself, from several viewpoints.
When I started this novel, almost no one had heard of fracking. I was fascinated by it early on because of my experience with looking at water problems deep underground. But also because I’m from a rural area of Pennsylvania, not unlike the rural places where fracking has taken place in this state. I could see the struggle from the rural perspective that I didn’t think anyone was really talking about it. It’s complicated and I wanted to explore it through fiction.
BWG: What kind of editing did you get?
KB: When I began the novel, I was just learning to write fiction and didn’t know how to tell a story. I got lots of editing advice from everyone who would give it: writing groups, friends, acquaintances. I also got professional advice from developmental editor, Kathryn Craft, which helped tremendously.
BWG: How long did it take you to write the book? How many drafts did you write before you thought it was ready to publish?
KB: It took seven years from when I started writing the story until I got a publisher. I worked on it steadily during that time. There were too many drafts to count. I waited until I thought it was really ready before I started to query the manuscript. That was after about five years of working on the novel. And those last two years while I queried, I kept working on it and improving it.
BWG: As you know, I loved your character Wade Pierson. He is so conflicted and troubled. How did you create Wade? Any suggestions for the rest of us? How do we create these half good/half bad people?
KB: I wanted to write a book in which every main character is complicated. Some of the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten was to love my characters, especially the bad ones. Wade came into his own on paper when I had to figure out how to love him. To do that I had to understand him. When backstory can explain the “bad choices” your character is making, then the reader understands their actions and even sympathizes with them. It creates an emotional connection, which is what every writer wants.
BWG: Do you plan to write another novel with the characters you created in The Promise of Pierson Orchard?
KB: I don’t. But I am working on another novel of book club fiction with an environmental bent, which is my thing.
BWG: Please tell our readers the story of how you acquired a publisher, an agent, and how you ultimately decided to pay for a Kirkus review.
KB: I’d been querying agents for about two years without much luck. A response I often got was that they liked the book, but didn’t think they could sell it. So I decided the novel might be better suited for a small press and I started to query them directly. I had a lot of rejections and just when I was about to give up and start working on my second novel in earnest, my publisher Nancy at Wyatt-MacKenzie contacted me and said she was interested. But at that time she wasn’t ready to commit and she hadn’t even read the whole book yet.
She encouraged me to get a Kirkus Indie review, which is something a writer has to pay for, unlike a traditional Kirkus review. The Indie review is objective, so all you’re buying is a review and not necessarily a good one. I researched it and found that many people didn’t have a good experience. At that point, I’d already spent what I considered a lot of money on my manuscript by hiring a professional editor several times over. I was also weary of the whole process and decided to pass on paying for the review, so I could get on with my second novel.
It was my husband who said – “Listen you might as well take this last shot if you’re going to call it quits.” And so I did end up paying for the review, which takes about six to eight weeks to come in.
Before I ever got the review, Nancy from Wyatt-MacKenzie called me back, said she’d read the whole novel and loved it and she was ready to sign.
I immediately sent emails to about thirty agents saying I had an interested publisher and I was now seeking agent representation. I had quick response from several agents. I ended up signing with my dream agent, Katie Shea Boutillier at The Donald Maass Agency. She then negotiated the deal with Wyatt-MacKenzie.
All of this took place without the Kirkus Indie review as a factor since I hadn’t received it nor had I mentioned to my agent or publisher that I’d pursued it. I did however get the review back weeks later and it was better than I might have ever hoped and now resides on the cover of my book.
BWG: Can you give a brief description of your marketing plan? Who designed it? You? Your agent? Your publisher? All three?
KB: My publisher had a hand in helping me develop my marketing plan, but mostly it’s been me. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to everyone I know who’s published before about what I should do. I’ve done this over several months and planned ahead. I’ve been laying the groundwork since last fall for a marketing blitz that began mid-February and runs until mid-May. It includes a book blog tour, speaking at events, blog posts, an Instagram campaign, contests, appearances, etc.
BWG: About your fantastic cover: Kate, who designed it? Did you get much input into the cover art?
KB: My publisher, Wyatt-MacKenzie, designed it. Nancy Cleary who heads up the press is a talented designer. She developed several options and we decided it would be fun to share them on my Facebook page and have people weigh in. We got A LOT of feedback, and that definitely informed the final cover design.
BWG: You are currently employed as an Environmental Scientist at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center. How do you balance your work/writing life? Now that you are published do you expect this balance to change?
KB: I do the best I can, like any writer. I don’t have a rigid routine because my life doesn’t allow for that. I have two younger children as well as my job and other demands on my time. I write when I can. I always say that my first novel was written 15 minutes at a time and that’s not far from the truth.
I don’t think having a published novel will change anything. I still need to make
an income and at present my writing doesn’t provide that for me.
BWG: Finally, do you have any advice for our readers with jobs and busy lives who would like to launch writing careers?
KB: Just go for it. You’re a writer if you’re writing. If you truly want writing as part of your life, you’ll find a way.