Ali Standish's absorbing, poignant debut novel THE ETHAN I WAS BEFORE was bought at auction in the UK and North America and was published to critical acclaim in the US and the UK in 2017.
Ali Standish was raised and now lives in North Carolina and spent several years as a teacher/program administrator in the Washington DC Public School system. She has an MFA in Children’s Writing from Hollins University. Classic in feel, thought-provoking and moving, THE ETHAN I WAS BEFORE is her debut novel. It was published by Harper Collins (North America) and Orchard (UK) in 2017. Her second book – AUGUST ISLE (North America)/THE SECRET SUMMER (US) – is published in Spring 2019.
When and how did you start writing?
The first story I remember writing was about a lion and a parrot eating waffles in the jungle. I must have been four or five, and my mom typed it up for me to send to my brother at summer camp. Remarkably, he forgot to write back to tell me how genius it was.
Ever since then, writing has been a constant companion for me—an itch that I have to scratch. I’ve been encouraged by many wonderful communities of writers, which I sought out along the way. As a kid I spent my summers at Duke Young Writer’s Camp, which is where I started to view writing as a really complex art, and one I wanted to master. As a teenager, I took poetry lessons after school. I took creative writing classes in college, and afterwards, I did a master’s program in Children’s Writing at Hollins University. Those communities have been invaluable in my journey as a writer.
Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?
I have always gravitated towards stories that make me feel deeply. The books I remember loving most were those that ended with a sucker punch to the heart. Margery Williams’s THE VELVETEEN RABBIT is the reason I could never make myself throw out my childhood stuffed animal collection, and WHERE THE RED FERM GROWS made me a life-long dog lover. I sobbed through BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA more times than I can count. And Sharon Creech’s WALK TWO MOONS taught me the heart-stopping, jaw-dropping power of the twist ending. Those stories shaped my view of life as a thing that is utterly fragile but entirely precious, and love as thing that gives those lives meaning, even after they are gone.
Can you talk us through the writing of your first book? What were the key moments?
THE ETHAN I WAS BEFORE started with a question. Why do kids lie? That question stretched into many answers, which stretched themselves into a story that called to me to be written. And that story was one which I hoped would help fill what I see as a gap in the MG canon: books that deal with grief in a meaningful and accessible way.
I wrote the first draft over the course of about three months. Fortunately, the timing worked out such that I took that draft with me to a summer semester at Hollins University, where I had a tutorial group who critiqued it meticulously and brilliantly.
The professor of that tutorial, Nancy Ruth Patterson, extended an offer to her students to keep reading and critiquing our works in progress beyond the summer. Together, she and I worked through many drafts of the manuscript. Her constant feedback and encouragement kept me writing and revising even when I had those inevitable dark days of doubt.
When I signed with Polly and Sarah, they gave me some editorial feedback on how to make the manuscript stronger. And I could feel that their suggestions were right because I went home excited to revise. I knew it would take the book to a whole new level, and it did.
Was it hard to get an agent? Can you talk us through the process?
I was fortunate enough to find Greenhouse fairly easily. As an American author living in the UK, it stuck out to me early on as a good fit, and I had heard fabulous things about the agency through the grapevine. So I did my research and sent a cold query to Polly Nolan. This was after my manuscript had been written, workshopped, rewritten, critiqued, rewritten, and critiqued again until all the niggling doubts I had about it were gone and I knew that if it was going to get any better, it would be because I was getting feedback from a new reader. Once Polly requested the full manuscript, she and Sarah moved very quickly on it, and I had an offer of representation just a week or two later.
As an aspiring author, I heard a lot how hard it would be to get an agent, like a constant mantra. That kind of thinking can make you feel discouraged and desperate, and, in my opinion, isn’t useful in the least. I think it’s important to remember that getting an agent is not the ultimate goal for you as an author. I made very careful choices about the agents to whom I submitted. There’s no point submitting to an agent who you don’t feel would do a great job with your manuscript or working with you personally. You might miss out on the right agent in your haste to just find an agent.
Describe your writing day. Where do you write? How do you organize your time? Where do you look for inspiration?
When I was very small and very bored at family reunions, my mom and I used to lie in a hammock outside my grandparents’ house and play a game. I would give her three things (blueberries, a panda bear, and a cowboy hat) and she would connect them into a story. She probably has no idea I still remember that, but in some ways, that game is still at the heart of my writing process. Writing is all about finding connections between things, ideas, people, and places that no one else has seen before. So I spend a lot of time, before my pen ever touches paper (or, more accurately, my fingers touch the keyboard), just thinking about connections, dreaming, keeping my eyes open and my ears to the ground for inspiration. Then, I write. Whenever I can, wherever I can. Once I start, I tend not to let up until I have a complete draft. Then I breathe again.
Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers who are looking to get published?
Writing tends to be one of those vocations that everyone thinks they could excel at if they just had a little time to sit down and write their masterpiece. But that’s a strange way to think. No one thinks that they could get up one day, walk into Fenway Park and pitch a no-hitter. The guy sitting next to you on the plane probably won’t mention his casual plans to become first chair in the Royal Philharmonic after he retires. It’s easy to forget that great writing (like great anything) comes with practice. You work every day at it, you cry about it, you agonize over it, and you pour your life into it. (Because deep down, you love it!) So my advice would be to focus on making your writing the best it can be. Not on what you think will make you a bestselling author. If you do that, nothing is wasted, and every word you write serves a purpose. Once you’ve made your work the best it can be (in other words, revise and revise more), then send it out. And if your manuscript doesn’t get the responses you’re looking for and you have to shelf it, know that all that practice is going to make your next manuscript twice as good as the first.
Can you describe three aspects of writing craft that have been most important as you’ve developed as an author?
Probably the thing I have to work hardest at is keeping my stories character-driven. I can’t sleep at night sometimes because I get so excited about potential plot twists and turns. Which is well and good, but your protagonist has to drive the story, and their choices and reactions have to be genuine to the character you have created. Character always comes first, plot always second. And sometimes that means sacrificing!
Another thing I have to be diligent about is deciding what to leave out and where to stop. I once had two writing mentors tell me at the same time that I had written far past my ending. They were talking about different manuscripts! That’s when I first realized I had a problem. It’s hard to let stories go once they take hold. But let go we must.
Finding my narrator’s voice is easily one of my favorite parts of writing. But that takes work, too, and lots of experimentation. I want to write characters with voices who echo in my head long after I’ve finished writing, and who readers will hear in theirs long after they’re done reading. That means not settling, but instead being patient until the right voice comes.
Which favourite authors would you invite to a dinner party? What fictional character do you wish you’d invented?
That’s a long list. I have always been very intrigued by women writers who are very private and thus enigmatic. Emily Dickinson, Emily Brontë, Elizabeth Bishop. But I’m afraid I would rather want to pry into all the juicy details of their lives, which I don’t think they would take very kindly to. I would love the chance to quiz Kazuo Ishiguro and Ann Patchett on their masterful character development. I’d love to quiz J.K. Rowling about everything. Oh, and Martha Stewart will have to come along, too, of course. She has authored cook books, after all, and I certainly won’t be wasting my time in the kitchen whilst I have such esteemed company to entertain!
There are so many characters I wish I could lay claim to, but perhaps topping the list would be J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (come on, who wouldn't want to have come up with Peter Pan!) and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca (I’m still trying to figure out how Du Maurier painted such a rich character without ever actually putting her on the page).