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Ashley Wolfe: “You need a writing community”

Because Pachamama is fictional, its message and truths will be different for each reader. What I hope people take away from it is a greater love and respect for Mother Earth (Pachamama), and a feeling that the natural world is indeed a living, breathing, feeling entity, rather than the stomping ground so many people treat […]

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Because Pachamama is fictional, its message and truths will be different for each reader. What I hope people take away from it is a greater love and respect for Mother Earth (Pachamama), and a feeling that the natural world is indeed a living, breathing, feeling entity, rather than the stomping ground so many people treat it as.


As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ashley Wolfe.

Ashley is an author and freelance writer based in Seattle. Her debut novel, Pachamama published in 2019.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

Thanks for the opportunity! I’ve been chasing the dream of making a living as a writer since I learned how to read. Through my school years, I wrote and read constantly, and felt the first thrill of being published when one of my stories appeared in my hometown’s local newspaper. It was a short and silly story about a too-tall Christmas tree my dad chopped down and brought home for us to decorate. I’ll never forget the feeling of surprise and pride when I saw my name and my very own writing in the Arizona Daily Sun. I was hooked and knew that whatever I ended up doing in life, writing would be a part of it. Eventually, I earned a degree in journalism, working at several magazines, a newspaper and in public relations, until I made the jump to freelancing almost 10 years ago. The flexibility and independence of working as a freelancer gave me the time and creative space I needed to fulfill my life-long goal of writing a novel.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

I’ve met a lot of inspiring people throughout my career, especially in my work as a freelance writer for technology companies. This has given me the opportunity to work with and learn from a lot of ambitious and focused entrepreneurs. Watching some of the technology industry’s brightest minds up close has taught me a lot about determination and the ability to improve in the wake of failure — two things that are critical to making any progress in a writing career.

One moment that stands out is when I took on a project as a ghostwriter for a venture capitalist who wanted to publish an op-ed about programs to improve diversity and inclusion in the technology industry. It was a topic I cared about, and the programs my client wanted to promote were doing great work. Those are always the best freelance projects — the ones where I feel emotionally connected to the subject matter. So, I wrote what I believed was a strong, authentic, publishable article for my client. Unfortunately, we weren’t aligned. I had to sit through a 30-minute meeting with her and others on her broader team, as she picked apart my choice of words, structure and writing style. She said it read dry and boring. It was some of the most critical feedback I’ve ever received — far worse than a form rejection. I ended up handing the project over to another writer who could attempt to strike a better chord with the client — I don’t know if her article ever landed anywhere because I checked out. My ego was badly bruised, but looking back later, I realized it was a good lesson: there is no such thing as universal appeal, and there is always room to improve. One harsh critique — or even 100 — does not define the value of a person’s work. What matters is taking what you can from feedback, learning from it, improving on it and getting up to keep moving forward.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

Self-doubt has always been and continues to be my most formidable adversary. I’m a perfectionist, so I often fail to meet my own expectations and I struggle with impostor syndrome. Not only is this counterproductive to the process of writing — you have to eventually reach a final draft, call it good enough and be confident in allowing others to read it — but perfectionism also drains a person of her creativity. When you are constantly worried about whether you are good enough, or your work is worth reading, it’s impossible to be vulnerable and genuine on the page.

Overcoming this is a journey I’m still on. Some writers never overcome it (Ernest Hemmingway and John Fowles are two great writers I admire who were also life-long perfectionists). But I’ve read enough about rejections and the importance of determination in becoming a writer to know that I need to stay out of my own way. So, I’m mindful about my perfectionism, and I force myself to trust my instincts as much as possible.

After I published my novel Pachamama, I was overcome with anxiety about what people would think reading it. Would they like it? Would they think I was a phony? Or worse, a bad writer? Would they be afraid to tell me what they really thought of it? Even after my closest loved ones had read and praised my work, even after I had received positive reviews from respected reviewers, I couldn’t accept that maybe it was actually a good novel. This was a sad place to be, because writing the novel was also one of my biggest accomplishments. Instead of celebrating my achievement as I should have been, I was burdened with worry over whether it was good enough to be proud of.

A turning point was when my book club — unbeknownst to me — selected my novel for the group to read. At first, I was flattered, but it didn’t take long for me to start obsessing over the possibility that they would hate it. But soon my friends from book club started texting to tell me how much they were enjoying it, that they couldn’t put it down, that it brought them to tears, that they were dying to talk to me about my inspiration and process. Those texts were a lifeline, and for whatever reason, I started to believe them. It’s been a year now since Pachamama launched, and in that time, I’ve learned that while my novel may never be perfect, it speaks to people. That gives me purpose.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Querying agents is a cutthroat process. I was so clueless about how to do it when I first started out, and made a lot of mistakes in my initial attempts. My query letters were terrible, my synopsis (which has to be one of the hardest things for a writer to write of her own novel) was a mess. It was through those mistakes — and a lot of rejections — that I started to fine-tune my submissions and learn about the formalities involved (and the thick skin required) in querying.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Right now, I’m working on my next novel, which will be very different from Pachamama. I’m in the thick of it, which is a good place to be — I haven’t hit any walls just yet. The goal is to have it ready to start shopping it around sometime in 2021. I’m also studying for my MFA in creative writing at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, which has blessed me with a talented and supportive writing community. I’m very excited about how my craft is expanding and improving as a result of my work with the professors and students in that program.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

Pachamama draws on the beliefs and mythology of indigenous peoples in South America. Their stories are rich, beautiful and complex. One of my favorite parts is when the three brothers who are central to the story — Gryph, Rani and Marev — reunite on the banks of the Amazon river, after each surviving harrowing encounters with evil spirits in the rainforest. It’s a moment full of so much emotion that it makes even me feel like the boys are real people rather than fictional characters I dreamed up.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

Because Pachamama is fictional, its message and truths will be different for each reader. What I hope people take away from it is a greater love and respect for Mother Earth (Pachamama), and a feeling that the natural world is indeed a living, breathing, feeling entity, rather than the stomping ground so many people treat it as.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Rejection and self-doubt are part of the deal. You will be rejected more often than you are accepted. This might hurt your ego, or your drive, but you need to embrace it as an unavoidable cost of pursuing your dream.
  2. You are not going to make a lot of money. Don’t try to become an author for the fame or fortune. I often think of it like athletics. A tiny percentage of the world’s dedicated, talented athletes make it to the pros — most end up playing recreationally, or if they are lucky, as a side gig to their day job. Similarly, a fraction of a fraction of the world’s great writers will earn widespread recognition and a hefty paycheck. Write because you love it, because you have a story to tell. If you make money, that’s icing on the cake.
  3. You need a writing community. It took me a long time, and embarking on graduate school to find mine. Fellow writers make all the difference in giving you the encouragement you need to endure through rejections and the feedback you need to make your work sing.
  4. The job description includes marketing and PR. Unless you have a big book deal, you are going to be solely responsible for promoting your book. Publishers and agents will give some support, but you need to be your book’s best advocate. For example, I use Instagram to find and reach out to influencers who I think might enjoy Pachamama. I offer them a free copy in exchange for an honest review. It’s pretty grassroots, but also good marketing for not too much up front cost.
  5. Be prepared to spend more time on editing and rewriting than you spent on the first draft. Writing the first draft of Pachamama took me about a year and a half of dedicated work. I spent another almost two years revising it. A completed first draft is nothing more than a starting point. Work it and rework it diligently (including incorporating feedback from your trusted reading/writing community) until you have the best possible version to send to agents and publishers.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

Grit. Angela Duckworth defines this as the meeting of passion and perseverance in the face of failure. I can’t think of anything more important to success as a writer than committing yourself wholly and unflinchingly to the pursuit of your passion. This also means learning from mistakes and putting in the hard work to continually improve. Writers also need to love reading. You simply can’t be a great writer without also being an avid reader.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

I’m partial to the classics, but appreciate great work from any genre and era. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is one of my all-time favorites. My sister and brother-in-law gifted me The Magus by John Fowles for my birthday several years ago and I was blown away. His writing is so clean and straightforward, but so easy to get lost within. I read Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir The Chronology of Water over the summer. It’s one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. I also love Gabriel García Márquez’s work for his magical realism and the way he tackles serious topics with a satirical, mystical edge. Orwell, Woolf, Eugenides, Grann and King are others on my list of favorites.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

It’s cliché, but do what you love and serve others. Don’t waste your one chance to have a bold, beautiful, messy life filled with the things that bring you joy. Lift others up and bring them along with you on that journey.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

www.ashleymwolfe.com

Instagram: @ashleywolfeauthor

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/19721904.Ashley_Wolfe

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!

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