The Penmen Profile: “Snow Island” Author Katherine Towler

by Rebecca LeBoeuf

Towler HeadshotKatherine Towler is the author of the “Snow Island” trilogy, including “Snow Island,” “Evening Ferry” and “Island Light.” She co-edited “A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith,” alongside Ilya Kaminsky. This March, her first memoir, “The Penny Poet of Portsmouth: A Memoir of Place, Solitude, and Friendship” will be published.

Towler’s first novel, “Snow Island,” was selected as a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers title. “Snow Island” and  her 2005 novel, “Evening Ferry,” were both IndieBound selections.

Throughout her life, Towler has taught creative writing to students, been a freelance writer, and written creatively. Currently, she teaches graduate students in the low-residency MFA Program in Writing at Southern New Hampshire University. For more information about Towler and her published books, you can visit her website.

Have you always written?
Like many writers, I was a reader before I was a writer. I read a great deal when I was a child. Staying home sick from school was heaven – I could stay in bed all day reading. My passion for books and the way they could transport me anywhere and enable me to become someone else entirely made me want to become a writer. I began writing poems when I was ten and began keeping a journal a couple of years later. I still write poetry and keep a journal.

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
Place is very important to me, and I must have a clear vision of the setting for any story I want to tell. Evoking the mood and character of places has always interested me. The characters are also central to my work. I start with a sense of place and a dim outline of my characters and work my way from there. Writing a novel or a short story is a process of discovery. I come to understand the characters by writing multiple drafts. Plot emerges gradually from a few key scenes. I don’t use outlines and try to think about plot as little as possible, so that a deep sense of character rather than an imposed plot drives the writing. I revise heavily and go through repeated drafts, and I usually need to live with a story for some time (years, not months) before it gets anywhere near being “finished.”

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them?
I have always liked reading (and writing) fiction that is heavily based in scene because this style, if done well, allows the reader to piece together what is dramatized but not overtly stated. There is great pleasure in this sort of reading experience. But my reliance on scene in my own work is both a strength and a weakness. I fall too easily into relying on scene and not giving enough insight into the internal states of the characters. I try to work against this and to find a balance in my fiction between scene and summary, and dramatization and internal reflection.

The greatest challenge throughout my life as a writer has been to believe in my work and to persevere despite the inevitable discouragements. Rejection is a fact of the writer’s life. So are bad reviews. This doesn’t make them any easier to take. And then, of course, there’s the fact that it is difficult to make a living doing this. I teach and work as a freelance writer to support myself. I have to fit my creative writing in around my paid work. Having done this for many years, I am used to the juggling act, but it takes discipline and focus to carve out the time for writing – which I do because it’s what I love most.

What has the road to publication been like for you?Towler Book Jacket
I spent nine years writing my first novel. I was fortunate to land an agent fairly quickly after taking the book through its third complete revision. It then took my agent three years to sell the book, so it was a long process from first draft to publication. There were many times during this process when I doubted whether my book would ever be published.

My three novels are a trilogy set on a fictional New England island. They span the years from the early 1940s to the early 1990s and chronicle the lives of two generations in two island families. I continued to work on the second volume of the trilogy while my agent was submitting the first volume, though I questioned whether this was completely nuts and whether I was going to wind up with an unpublished trilogy. Fortunately, that’s not how it worked out. I have picked up a little speed over the years. My most recent book took about three and a half years to write.

How do you market your work?
I use social media, mostly Facebook, to publicize news about upcoming publications, reviews, and events. I have a website where I also give updates about my work and publishing news. I will do a book tour when my next book comes out. I work with the publicity team at my publisher to support their efforts. I’m also a member of Tall Poppy Writers, a collective of women writers who support each other with social media and other marketing efforts.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
When I first started working on short stories and novels, I often became paralyzed by imagining the perfect, completed work before I had even written a word. I compared myself to the great writers whose work I admired and became so self-conscious I couldn’t finish anything. Now I am more able to accept my work for what it is and to recognize my strengths. Probably the greatest mistake I made was staying at the desk too long each day, past the time when I should have quit. I wasted a lot of time pushing myself too hard and getting stuck as a result. I have learned now to be more fluid, to write in short bursts and then to set the work aside. I have learned the value of letting a draft sit and going for a walk. Recognizing your own process and accepting it, rather than fighting it, is the key. For a long time I fought my own process.

Who are the authors that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
There are so many writers who have inspired me, it is difficult to pick even a few. Different writers have been models and guides for me at different times in my life. As you grow older, it is interesting to discover that some writers you loved when you were younger no longer speak to you in the same way, and some you rejected become significant. One of the first books I loved as an adolescent was Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre,” and then I read Virginia Woolf and was awed by her prose. Henry James, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Dickens, and Edith Wharton have all been important inspirations for their great handling of character and story. J.D. Salinger is a writer I loved as an adolescent and still love. His mastery of voice and scene are superb. Alistair McCloud and Alice Munro are other favorites – and Tim O’Brien and his brilliant Vietnam novels. “Ceremony” by Leslie Marmon Silko and “Hunger” by Knut Hamsun. The short stories of Chekhov and James Joyce. And the poets! And nonfiction writers like Sven Birkerts whose essays are so beautiful. This list could continue . . .

If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
Well, this is another impossible exercise. I have somewhere around 2,000 books in my house. That’s physical books, not ebooks. How can I choose just three? But I would go with three writers I have returned to again and again and from whom I have consistently learned: “Collected Poems” of James Wright,  “My Antoniá” by Willa Cather, and “A Fanatic Heart,” the story collection, by Edna O’Brien.