Author Interview: Jill Carroll
I am a freelance writer and scholar who lives with my partner, Nishta Mehra, and our son in a suburb of Houston, Texas. I hold a Ph.D. from Rice University in philosophy of religion and spent much of the last 25 years as a university professor and scholar. I left academe 4 years ago and now work as a freelance journalist for the Houston Chronicle, as a program consultant for the American Leadership Forum-Houston/Gulf Coast, and as a speaker/expert on topics of religious diversity in America. I also write fiction–Quail Fried Rice is my first novel.
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Please tell me about your book, “Quail Fried Rice.”
Quail Fried Rice is a love story featuring two middle-aged, professional women who end up in the same small West Texas town due to varying life circumstances. The novel explores the themes of life transition, dealing with change and death, living a life of meaning, and finding true love. Although it’s a love story between two women, its written is such a way that it appeals to a broad audience. Many of my readers are heterosexuals (both women and men) and they have given it positive reviews.
That is an interesting title. Tell me how you came up with it and how it connects to your story.
The title comes from a recipe that Elena Rios, one of the main characters, develops for use in the camp kitchen that she and her business partner, Tori Reed, run for their ranch guests. The recipe captures Elena’s simple elegance, which appears in both her person and in her food, and evokes the tones and textures of the West Texas experience their ranch offers to their guests.
Are there any scenes you have written based own your own life experiences?
The novel is not autobiographical in any way–none of the characters are rooted in my own personal life, or mirror my life. However, much of the novel is rooted in my own experience as a lesbian who has found a life partner and soul mate (for 11 years now), as a former landowner in West Texas, as a bird hunter, as someone who lives deeply sensitized to the natural world around me, as someone who seeks to live a meaningful life consistent with my values, and as someone who believes in love as the most important quality in life.
How do your characters voices come to you?
They come from composites of all the people I’ve met and remember, from the details I remember about them–the way they wear their jeans, the crinkle at the corner of their eyes, their distinct dialect or way of stringing words together, the aura they project when they are at their best as well as at their worst—-I tend to observe people and the world at this level, so these type of things naturally make their way into my characters, and their personas emerge from these details.
How do you start your writing process?
I brood about the general storyline and arch of the novel for a while–weeks, months, and in this case, years. But, I don’t really have all the details down pat when I sit down to write. The general storyline is set, but the winding trail that gets us to the end emerges in the actual writing. It’s a very different mode of writing than what I’ve done for most of my academic career and currently do as a freelance journalist. Academic and journalistic writing is more planned, outlined and researched down to the minute detail–at least the way I’ve done it. Fiction writing, so far, feels like writing in the dark much of the time.
Were there any challenges you faced while writing your story?
I started the story 7 years ago, wrote 2 chapters and then let it sit and didn’t go back to it until November 2012. At the time, during those 7 years, I called myself procrastinating. But, looking back, I had life experiences–like fighting cancer, deepening my relationship with my partner, quitting my job– that rounded me out as a person. Without those experiences, I couldn’t have written the novel I ended up writing. I used the structure of NaNoWriMo to write the first 50K words, then took another few months to finish it (at almost 150K words). I really liked the NaNoWriMo structure–it helped me avoid the usual obstacles writers deal with all the time that are just part of being a writer (writer’s block, finding time to write, staying on task, etc.).
In your book description on BRAG you said, “Quail Fried Rice is a romance novel written in a somewhat literary style outside the usual “romance” formula.” How so?
Genre romances, in both straight and gay subgenres, are written mostly according to a formula in which the two protagonists are set up to be opponents, or rivals, or at least not to like each other. The erotic sparks fly between them, however and they are forced to admit (and consummate to some extent) their attraction or love for each other. But, a huge obstacle (circumstance, personal trauma or baggage from the past, etc.) threatens to doom their love forever. They collapse into a huddled ball of misery until something happens that allows them to fully embrace their love and they live happily ever after. In many instances, the plot line that follows this basic narrative functions merely as the scaffolding that gets the reader to the best parts, namely, from one sex scene to the next. QFR does not follow this narrative format at all with regard to the two protagonists. Also, I wrote the novel with a dominant “third” protagonist, and that is the West Texas landscape itself. The novel has a strong and distinct sense of place and location, and both main characters come into themselves and into each other in the midst of a rootedness in the natural world. So, this lends a philosophical or spiritual component to the novel that most genre romance novels don’t concern themselves with. Thus, QFR fits more in a literary category than in a straight genre romance category.
Also, QFR is much longer than most genre romances–twice as long. It’s a slow, soaker of a novel rather than a faster-paced, more action driven style of novel that dominates genre fiction. Those who prefer faster paced novels won’t like QFR (and have said so on the Amazon reviews). Others, though, who like to linger with characters as they work through the situations in the story, and like to spend a weekend reading just one book, will like this novel (and say so on the reviews).