Joanne O'Sullivan On Finding Inspiration

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.

Today's guest for the WHAT is Joanne O'Sullivan author of BETWEEN TWO SKIES. Joanne is a journalist for the Asheville Citizen-Times. She lived in New Orleans for several years and returns to southern Louisiana frequently. Between Two Skies is her debut novel. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina, with her husband and children.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

I tend to pick up threads for several places and weave them together. When Hurricane Katrina hit, I tried to understand the full impact it had had on the people in an area I love. I started to draw a parallel between the people displaced by Katrina and the characters in one of Louisiana’s most iconic stories “Evangeline:” an epic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow’s “Evangeline” starts in Acadia (what’s now Nova Scotia) at the time when the French-speaking population is being driven out by the British, becoming refugees and eventually settling in Louisiana. It struck me that there was a new exodus of people leaving Louisiana. They were called “Katrina refugees” and like the Acadians (the original Cajuns), many ended up far from home. My mom is an Irish immigrant, and I grew up listening to old Irish ballads filled with heartache and longing for a home you could never return to. I think those songs subconsciously supplied a melody for my story in a way, while “Evangeline” supplied a bit of the lyrics. 

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

Because I had Longfellow’s “Evangeline” as a very loose inspiration, I had the idea of a painful separation in a young love. That led me to envision a new Evangeline and a love interest for her. The plot around that had two obvious poles: coming together and separating, but everything else in between took some work! The family story was interesting: I knew that there would be tension; that everyone in the family would want something different in the face of the disaster. That turned into some interesting opportunities for character development. 

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

Oh, absolutely! In fact, when I met my wonderful agent Claire Anderson-Wheeler, she suggested a major plot change from the original story I showed her. When you’ve been working with one idea for a long time, it can be hard to see a story any other way. But once I let myself imagine something different for these characters, I realized she was right: it was what was needed to keep the story moving forward. 

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

I get loads of ideas, but a lot of them are fleeting. I feel like I would never have enough time to write all the stories I’ve come up with. 

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

That’s a great question. I give it time. Whichever idea sustains my interest over the long term is the one I pursue. Because I know I’m going to be spending a lot of time with it, I’ve got to be really invested. 

I recently got stitches in my arm and was taking mental notes the entire time about how I felt before, during, and after the process of being badly injured. Do you have any major life events that you chronicled mentally to mine for possible writing purposes later?

I try to be in the moment during major life events, so I’m not great at being meticulous about my observations. I’m better at remembering the details of smaller moments and everyday interactions: the snatch of conversation I overhear in line at the coffee shop or a look exchanged between two people. The major life events I remember more in impressions and feelings, but that can actually be really helpful in guiding a narrative, too.