In my final year of high school, Luciano DiNardo taught my English Writer’s Craft class. I have many fond memories from the course, where I learned a ton about writing (and life). It was also in that class—in 2002—that I first heard about The Angel’s Kissing Spring, a novel Luc had written and was trying to sell.
We kept in touch after I graduated, with our shared interest in football, Seinfeld and, of course, writing. And every so often, I would ask about the novel, whether it was any closer to getting published, always receiving a similar response: not yet. So I was quite excited when I received an email last month saying that it was (finally) published.
Clearly, The Angel’s Kissing Spring had a long gestational period, but the wait was worth it. The book is fantastic—a dramatic and mysterious unconventional love story full of fascinating characters set in small-town America during the Second World War. I had a ton of questions when I finished reading and Luc agreed to answer some of them for this blog.
There are no spoilers here…the Q&A is mostly about the background of how the story came to be and about Luc’s writing process. If you want to get into the plot, well, you’ll just have to buy a copy for yourself.
In the meantime, here is Luciano DiNardo—a die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan and fellow Carleton University grad who once received a letter from Harper Lee—on opening lines, the frustrations of the publishing industry and his all-time favourite books:
What does your title mean and where did it come from?
I was always intrigued by James Cain’s title for The Postman Always Rings Twice because there is no postman ringing a doorbell in the story. I found out that Cain’s postman did ring the doorbell twice to let him know that he had mail waiting for him. Cain grew to despise the sound of the doorbell ringing twice because of the constant rejection letters he was receiving in his mailbox. There isn’t a clear connection with my title to the story. I always liked the sound of it, but if there is a link to the story, it would have to be the well where Charlie dies. In some circles people believed that an angel kissed a person before that person went to heaven, and Charlie would have had an angel kiss him in the well which is connected to an underground spring.
When did you first get the idea for the story and are any parts of it inspired by true events? If not, what did inspire the story?
There isn’t any factual connection to a particular person or event that triggered my motivation to write the story, but there are little bits and pieces of myself, some family members and other events that I’ve used in the story just to add some description or a quirky touch to help promote interest. Alice’s father had a Dalmatian that he eventually gave away. We once owned a Dalmatian for a brief period of time. Alice’s natural ability with numbers is connected to my younger son’s aptitude for math.
Your protagonist is a woman, and I know you had a few female friends read drafts to ensure the voice was authentic, but why choose to write a female main character—especially when she is such a solitary person and so much of the plot is revealed through her thoughts and words? Did you know you could accurately portray a woman’s thoughts and feelings before you started writing?
For some reason I just thought that the story would work so much better from a woman’s point of view. I could have had the story driven by Billy Johnson’s point of view, but I always thought there was more that could be offered from the point of view of a mother’s loss concerning the death of her young son rather than a father’s or a man’s loss concerning the death of a child.
When did you send out your first query letter? And how frustrating was it to have to wait so long for the book to be published, especially when you see how much crap gets churned out every year and somehow ends up in Chapters or Barnes & Noble?
I started sending out query letters about fifteen years ago. To my surprise, an agent in Manhattan with a fairly solid reputation agreed to represent the story and offered me a three-year contract that I accepted. I was disappointed with his lack of communication so at the end of the three-year contract, I decided not to re-sign with him. I was convinced that I would pick up with another agent fairly quickly, but that didn’t happen. Many agents told me the story was well written and interesting, but they “didn’t know what to do with it” whatever that meant! And it was frustrating going into bookstores and seeing some of the stuff that was in print. But it’s a crapshoot in so many ways. There are about a million new books published every year, so it’s like winning a lottery. It’s often been said that writing a novel is easy; getting it published is the hard part.
Publishers are increasingly looking for authors with ready-made audiences, so they can be reasonably assured a book will sell. Did you ever hear from an agent or a publisher that the fact that you don’t have that audience, say on social media or through a blog, hindered the book’s publication?
No one ever expressly mentioned that to me. Of course, a built-in audience always helps. That’s why celebrity biographies are always out there. A first-time writer always has the challenge of familiarizing himself to all the faceless readers out there.
You have a knack for building and keeping suspense, and for revealing just the right amount of information at just the right time. Is that something that comes naturally to you when you are developing a story or do you have to work hard at finding the perfect nugget of information to drop to keep readers turning the pages?
Sometimes an idea would just hit me. It would be the right thing to develop at just that moment in the story. I did re-write the story several times, and on one occasion I edited about seventy pages from the story because I felt there was too much psycho-babble going on and I just decided to concentrate on the linear development of the story. I did make deliberate decisions to make sure that my chapters ended with something intriguing or something that was satisfying with the character development or story development.
I love to hear about different writers’ processes, so I have a few questions on that: You were working as a teacher while you wrote it. How long did the first draft take and what was the process like? Did you write every morning or evening? A certain number of words per day? Cram it all into one summer break?
When I started writing the story I was working teaching full-time during the day and I was working as a night school teacher on Tuesdays and Thursdays. During the summer holiday that year, I also taught a summer school course. I would be teaching and lecturing and an idea would pop into my head and I would have to stop the class and jot on a piece of paper whatever had popped into my mind. I would be driving the car and I would hear something on the radio, and I would have to scramble for a pen and some paper. It took me about a year to write the story, and there would be periods when I wouldn’t write anything for a couple of weeks because I didn’t know where the story should go or what should happen to a certain character. I learned that there are a lot of uncertainties when you’re writing.
When you began writing, how much of the story was already mapped out?
I looked upon the writing of the story as being similar to drifting on a raft. You can drift and just let the current take you to wherever it takes you and once you get there at the end of your drifting, you’ll know you’ve reached the end of your destination. Or you can get on the raft and know in advance where and when you’re going to get off. I tended to just drift with the story. I didn’t know for certain how the story would end or what would happen to certain characters until I was almost forced to reach a decision.
How similar is the finished product to your first draft?
It was very similar, but I knew from the moment I began writing the story that the story’s conclusion had to have a finality to it. Yet, at the same time, I wanted to leave many unanswered questions because in life there are times when people aren’t given convenient answers or solutions for their problems or mysteries. My first draft tended to concentrate more on the town of Ashton Falls and its people, and then I decided to concentrate more on the central character of Alice Dempster. My first draft’s opening line was “Ashton Falls was always known by two of its buildings: the church and the jailhouse…” I changed the opening line to “The only thing Alice Dempster ever resented was the stain on the front seat of the car.” I think the change in the opening line reflects that the story was going to be foremost about Alice with the town in the background rather than having the town take centre stage with Alice imbedded into it.
Reading the book, I was reminded of the film Gone Girl, in terms of the mysterious, strong female lead and the feelings evoked by the story. I know you are also a film buff, so, when you wrote your novel, did you have one eye on the screen? The detail, such as your descriptions of the book’s settings, is certainly very cinematic and I think the story would translate very well to film.
I know the story would translate well to film because it’s a simple story involving a simple setting with simple people. Some people have commented on how visual the story is, and I’ll take that as a compliment. Many stories today are written with a cinematic style so that the reader can “see” the story. Long gone are the days of Charles Dickens when he could afford to devote four pages to the sound of horses’ hooves in an alley surfaced with cobblestones.
What interesting (or frustrating) things did you learn about the publishing industry throughout the process of bringing this book to market?
The driving force for many years now is how much money can this story generate. Publishers have always been preoccupied with how much money a certain story can make, but years ago publishers would put a story out into the marketplace if they believed in the story, crossed their fingers and hoped for some success. There’s so much competition now for people’s attention and money, that publishers have become very wary of taking chances. As I mentioned earlier, many publishers told me that the story was a good one, but they “didn’t know what to do with it”.
What advice would you offer to a young person who tells you, “I want to write a book”?
You have to have patience, be stubborn, listen to other people’s opinions and you have to have a thick skin.
Finally, what are your three favourite books of all-time? And please give a one-sentence pitch for each for why someone should read them. I’ve already penciled in To Kill a Mockingbird at No. 1…
To Kill a Mockingbird has one of the best circular narratives. Many people have commented on Harper Lee’s dual point-of-view narrative, that is, Scout’s observations as a child and her later recollections of those same events from a distanced mature adult’s point-of-view. I loved Larry McMurty’s Lonesome Dove and how he developed the characters of Gus McRae and Woodrow Call to be the foils they are. It’s about a thousand pages long and I’ve read it twice and I usually don’t read books twice. I would also have to mention Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed. He was very gutsy to use the Columbine shooting as a backdrop with his story, and I really identified with Maureen who was a nurse at the school during the shooting.
Get your copy of The Angel’s Kissing Spring here.