It’s difficult for me to articulate my feelings about Julie C. Gardner’s debut novel, Letters for Scarlet. Not because I didn’t fly through my advance copy, thinking I’d solved the mystery twice, thinking I had the end figured out, only to be surprised with each turn of the chapters. Not because I wasn’t drawn to her complex, achingly human characters, not because I didn’t feel the California settings as if I were in them.
Because the story conjures up so many memories and feelings.
Letters for Scarlet resonates deeply with me. Objectively, no moment in my past is as desperate and charged as the one which defined a decade for Julie’s protagonists, but there are relationships from those giddy heartbeats on the cusp of adulthood that certainly define parts of who I am, even now.
Though a continent divides us, I recently got to spend an hour picking Julie’s brain, and I promise the only thing that could have improved the experience would have been sitting down with her, some M&Ms, and her puppy.
CDG: So first I’m going to gush a little and say that I loved reading Letters For Scarlet. I know I’ve said it fourteen billion times, but seriously.
CDG: One of my favorite things about it was actually that your characters frustrated me. They were so real, complex and human and flawed, but trying. Did either Corie or Scarlet come first to you? Or was it more about the ideas/storyline?
JCG: I’m glad you saw the complexity because I worked hard at making sure the characters had both good and bad traits. As a reader, I appreciate characters who aren’t on one end of the spectrum. Real people are more complicated than that. The idea/storyline was the seed, from a five-year letter assignment I did with my own seniors for years. I extended the timeframe to ten years so the characters would be older and more would have happened to them. Originally, I had FOUR main characters (can you imagine? talk about biting off more than I could chew) then condensed them to two. So Corie and Scarlet had bits of two characters in them, honestly.
CDG: I kind of love that. We so rarely talk about what actually happens when the darlings are killed.
JCG: I wrote 100 pages before calling it quits on the four narrators. That was a tough one. And I still LOVE one of the characters I lost; she just didn’t have a real place in the story as it developed. I might save her for her own novel.
CDG: Oooh! Your teaching experience is obviously a huge part of LFS, so was it fun to write characters like Tuck and Scarlet with such specifically non-teaching jobs? Even Mrs. Harper being in real estate, do you have experience with those fields, was there research?
JCG: I had to research Scarlet’s situation at a law firm, but since her job really didn’t shape any of the storylines, I included as little as possible to avoid tripping up and writing something implausible. One of my lifelong best friends is an attorney, so I had her read for accuracy and kept those parts of the book simple. I know several real estate agents, but again, Laura’s day-to-day actions weren’t important to the story, so I cut them. Better to move forward than get bogged down in details just to show I know my stuff, right? As for Tuck, my husband has been in surgical sales for almost 15 years so I had a very clear vision of his job and its impact. Although I must say Bill is NOTHING like Tuck and he doesn’t travel. (Phew!) That aspect of the job was something I know about from others in his field.
CDG: We approach profession research very similarly #keepitsimple I am fascinated by the whole surgical sales thing. I’d never heard of that until I met Tuck Slater.
JCG: I never heard of it until I married Bill – ha!
CDG: Confession: my favorite character was Clara. I am a sucker for a solid BFF/wingman. I love her mix of practical and flip, and her unflinching loyalty to Scarlet, even when Clara has clearly taken on more than she planned.
JCG: I love Clara. I was a little nervous about the whole “she hasn’t lived in England since she was a toddler but still tosses around a ‘bloody hell’ in conversations” thing but in the end, I thought it worked for her. One of my struggles in the book was to get the reader to buy into the fact that Clara would put up with Scarlet. I’m still not sure I totally pulled that off. I’m aware that most friends would cut and run, which is why, I think, people fall for Clara.
CDG: I think you found the balance. Clara’s not a Pollyanna about their situation.
JCG: Oh, good about the Pollyanna thing. Like I said – I worked hard to make the relationship plausible. I wanted them to call each other out and also forgive, move on. Like life! But Clara probably comes the closest to being “all good” in this book. And Gavin. I’m a sucker for Gav.
CDG: I write romances, I love a little impossibly amazing in my men. And he’s not perfect, either. Just good.
JCG: My brother-in-law read Letters for Scarlet and he said he loved the book, but his first reaction/comment was to feel sorry for Tuck and Gavin. I have to admit, I was not really focused at all on the feelings of the men in the story. I loved the male characters, but my concern lay with the women and their pain, growth, hope. I mean, I didn’t IGNORE their feelings. But they were secondary, if that makes sense.
CDG: I think that is a case of “know your audience.” The story is about two women, written by a woman, and in a genre dominated by female readers.
CDG: I recently confessed to writing my way back into a place I wish I still lived, and I tend to set my books in New England — in no small way because it’s what I know best. Is that the case with LFS? Will we see future characters set elsewhere? Is your setting a place you’ll revisit?
JCG: Conejo Springs, where Corie and Tuck live, is absolutely based on my hometown. I’ve only ever lived in the suburbs of LA so it was a no-brainer for me to include that as one of the settings. I think the suburbs of LA is a great place to be stuck if you must be stuck somewhere, but I’m a little jealous of authors who have spent parts of their lives in many places and can draw from those experiences. Authenticity is important. But ultimately, I think imagination trumps reality. If you write about a place with conviction and include the right balance of details, readers will believe. At least I hope so. So yes, I’m open to other locations. And if I have to visit to get a real feel for it…all the better!
CDG: Time for a Julie C. Gardner story set in the suburbs of Boston, then. Pronto!
CDG: The Freedom Trail is waiting for you. I suspected as much about Conejo Springs, as I get to call you a friend. There was a kind of casual affection in the way your write about it. And I’ve seen pictures of where you call home. Swoon!
JCG: It’s lovely here but I always thought I’d move away after college. I went to UCLA which took me about 30 miles from home – not exactly AWAY. I was ready and willing to move somewhere else, then I met Bill who had lived in New York, New Jersey, Maryland and DC. He finally felt at home HERE. So. Wherever he is, is home for me. And his “home” happened to be my hometown.
CDG: And then I actually swooned from how wonderful that is. We authors are expected to have a distinct social media presence, to let readers into our lives, which is a mixed blessing sometimes… But I admire the grace with which you handle yours. I also admire your dogs, whom I have fallen in love with through your social media.
JCG: Thank you for saying that about my social media presence. It’s a fine line we walk between letting people in and overstepping lines of intimacy. And yes. DOGS FOREVER! Honestly, the dogs have been helpful because unlike many of my publishing sisters who share adorable pictures of their children, I have teenagers whose privacy I labor to protect. My pups don’t care if I tease them in public! And also, I ADORE THEM SHAMELESSLY so yes. I will continue to post pictures even though my mother shakes her head. I also adore my children shamelessly. But I think that’s obvious, too.
CDG: My little boy is getting old enough that he is starting to care about how I portray him… I will have to start sharing more photos of my pug. I promise I will let you resume your life shortly, but I have to mention the Write Today First/#290minutes post on your blog. I was personally inspired by that piece of advice, and I loved following you as you walked the talk. Do you keep a lot of the handwritten words? Do they end up in your manuscripts?
JCG: GREAT question! I meant it when I said that half of my most recent WIP was written by hand in ten-minute-a-day increments. Of course I wrote for longer periods on many occasions. But those low-pressure ten minutes were my way back in every day. That was the first time I tried it and about 50% of the present draft was transferred from handwritten pages. It worked!
CDG: You set such a fantastic example.
JCG: I am fortunate to be in a position to devote time to something I love. I’m well aware that not every aspiring writer is in that position. In fact, I’m certain most aren’t. I try never to take that for granted!
CDG: I struggle with balancing needing a day job to pay the bills with building a platform for my writing, never mind doing the actual writing, so your reminder that it can be done longhand in ten minute sessions helps me stay invested when I feel overwhelmed.
JCG: This has been so great, Cam. You are just…a delight. I hope you’ll let me interview you when Sweet Pease launches. What’s the estimate on that these days?
CDG: I’d love to say it might come out this year, but I also don’t want to rush it and then disappoint myself or my readers, but it’s coming.
JCG: I LOVE Thornton. I would move there. Except Bill.
CDG: Maybe Julie and Bill will turn up at the Damselfly one of these days… I will officially wrap up the interviewish stuff by saying congratulations one more time, and asking one last tiny question… Can we get a teaser of what’s next from you?
JCG: Well, I’m about to begin a follow-up to Letters for Scarlet that won’t focus on Corie and Scarlet but will, instead, delve into the lives of some of the side characters (so I hope readers like them!). I’m editing/revising a novel about a woman whose life is turned upside down (in multiple ways) on the eve of her 35th birthday. For better or worse, multiple options for moving forward present themselves and she has to decide – for the first time – what it is SHE truly wants. So look for a sequel to LFS and also new women’s fiction. How’s THAT for a vague answer – ha!
Julie C. Gardner is a former English teacher and lapsed marathon runner who traded in the classroom for a writing nook. Now she rarely changes out of her pajamas. She lives in Southern California with her husband, two children, and three dogs.
To find out more about Julie, visit JulieCGardner.com