10 Questions with Dawn Corrigan
1. Ms. Corrigan, thank you for this opportunity to be interviewed for my blog. Your debut novel, MITIGATING CIRCUMSTANCES, came out in December. Tell us a bit more about this book.
My pleasure. Thank you for the invitation.
Mitigating Circumstances is an environmental thriller set in Gulf Breeze, Florida, in the spring of 2009. The idea for the book came in December 2007. I was working for the Planning & Zoning Department of Highland, a small city in Utah. One morning the new issue of Planning magazine arrived. I started flipping through it and ran across an article by environmental journalist Craig Pittman, “Banking on a Loss,” about the wetlands mitigation industry in Florida.
In a nutshell, Pittman’s thesis was that the industry is failing to achieve the goal of “no net loss” of wetlands acreage, which has been our national mandate since passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972.
I found the article very persuasive. It also struck me as having the kind of argument that could be conveyed well through fiction; the way Chinatown made the human and environmental costs of the California Water Wars more apparent, or Jurassic Park enacted questions of bioethics, as well as chaos theory.
When my husband and I moved to Gulf Breeze, a small town on the Florida panhandle, a few months later, I knew I had the perfect setting for my story. I began work on the book in 2009.
2. Who is Gail LaRue and where did the inspiration for her character come from?
Since Mitigating is a work of fiction, I have to point out that all characters are fictional, and any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.
With that disclaimer out of the way, I’ll admit that many of the characters in the book were influenced by my coworkers in Highland, though I relocated them to Florida for the purpose of the mitigation bank plot.
Gail LaRue is the protagonist. She’s the 20-something junior city planner for my fictionalized version of Gulf Breeze. Much of the story is told through her 1st-person point of view.
Gail was modeled in part on the woman who served as junior city planner while I worked for Highland City. She was young, attractive, laid back, capable. She was feminine, but also strong and athletic. Her job involved interacting with a lot of men—developers, builders, contractors, residents—and she often had to deliver news they were going to find unpleasant: turning down requests, issuing warnings, writing citations, charging fines.
She sailed through all of it with a cool, unflappable demeanor. I thought she was great. I wanted to give Gail a similar mixture of qualities, then send her into a series of increasingly dangerous situations and see how she would do.
3. What kind of research did you do for MITIGATING CIRCUMSTANCES? How much of what your write in this novel is real and how much is fiction?
As I mentioned, the impetus for this book was an investigative article, so in that sense, the research process was sort of flipped. I already knew the ideas I wanted to address, and needed to invent fictional settings and characters (mitigation banks, mitigation bank owners) to express them.
As I worked through the manuscript, it began to seem like the mitigation bank industry, in addition to being a less than ideal solution to the “no net loss of wetlands” mandate, could be seen as an extension of Florida’s long tradition of land scams, which you could say goes all the way back to Ponce de Leon’s search for the Fountain of Youth, and then continues through the various land schemes of the twentieth century. I spent some of my research efforts following that thread. I also used research to familiarize myself with the history of Gulf Breeze.
4. Why do you write?
It’s a mental health thing, really. If I’m writing, I’m happy and optimistic. If not, my mental state gets all twisted up.
5. A word of advice for new writers?
Work hard, and have lots of patience—with yourself, and with your process, whatever that turns out to be. I’ve been writing for almost 30 years, and I feel like I’m just now starting to learn exactly how long my revision cycle is. (Answer: very long. In the past few months I’ve finally finished some poems I started 25 years ago.)
6. What have you learned during the writing process for crafting a novel?
I decided to start working in the mystery/thriller genre specifically to address plot, which I felt was one of my weaknesses. I like the genre because I think it allows writers to engage the reader’s problem-solving instincts.
Constructing Mitigating was a tremendous learning experience for me, particularly when I had the opportunity to work with Five Star’s editorial staff. Most of what we did was cut; my editor helped me realize how much I’d overwritten. We reduced the manuscript by more than 6,000 words before it went to print. I think it was a big improvement.
7. How do you interact with your fans? What is something significant you have learned from them?
First: I’m extremely charmed by the notion that I might have fans.
Having said that, occasionally I do hear from readers who’ve come across a piece of mine they liked. (I’m very easy to find online, with profiles on a number of social networking sites including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Goodreads.) I think what I’ve mainly learned from such experiences is that the work takes on a life of its own once it’s out in the world. It’s like tossing a message in a bottle into the ocean—you have no idea where it will end up, or whom it will meet along the way.
8. What are your writing habits?
I’d like to write every day, but I work a full-time job, on a 4-day work week, and those 10-hour workdays get pretty long. As a rule I’m usually too wiped to draft new material on work nights. Sometimes I do have enough energy to edit in the evening, or to prepare submissions. Otherwise, I devote as much time as I can to writing during my 3-day weekends.
In terms of my editing habits, I was pleased recently to come across William Gibson’s Paris Review interview, in which he describes his editing practice. It’s so close to mine it seems simpler just to quote him than to attempt my own description:
“Every day, when I sit down with the manuscript, I start at page one and go through the whole thing, revising freely … The beginnings of my books are rewritten many times. The endings are only a draft or three, and then they’re done … I think revision is hugely underrated. It is very seldom recognized as a place where the higher creativity can live.”
9. What are your favorite pastimes?
As I mentioned, I work full-time at a demanding, though fulfilling, job, so my free time is limited. Much of it is devoted to the written word in one way or another—writing or reading. Aside from that, my husband and I spend a lot of time catering to the whims of our canine and feline overlords.
10. What is your next book going to be about?
I currently have several complete or near-complete manuscripts I’m tinkering with or shopping around: a novella-length amateur detective murder mystery set at a software company in Utah; a YA novel that takes place in the near future, also in Utah; a short story collection; and a collection of poems.
The thing I’m most excited about, though, is the manuscript I just started writing. It’s a family saga spanning the twentieth century, set in New York City and New Jersey. It’s the book I’ve always wanted to write; in fact, I tried to write it back in 1997. At that time I got around 65 pages in before realizing I didn’t have the skills yet to do what I wanted.
It seems to be going much better this time. I expect this project will keep me busy for at least another year or two. After that, if there’s enough interest in Gail and her adventures, I’d like to return to the world of Mitigating. I’ve had a sequel in mind all along, and I can imagine Gail carrying a 3-4 book story arc, if reader interest supports the idea.