We here at Chickster have all dreamed of hitting it big as novelists, so when I was introduced to local author Helen Ginger, I couldn’t wait to pick her brain about writing and publishing. Then I read her poignant and enthralling novel “Angel Sometimes” and found myself with even more questions to ask her, so I thought I’d share them in a Q&A.
But first, let’s talk a little more about “Angel Sometimes.” Angel’s story sucked me in from the first chapter, and I found myself having a hard time putting the book down. The 2013 winner of the USA Best Book Award for Fiction: New Age, “Angel Sometimes” is the story of a woman who was abandoned by her family as a girl and forced to carve out a life on her own. By age 22, Angel has left behind her life on the streets for an unconventional job as a mermaid at a Downtown Austin bar. Angel’s workplace serves as the central setting in the story and for good reason—Helen drew on her own time swimming as a mermaid at the legendary Aquarena Springs in San Marcos to flesh out the details. Drawing on flashbacks, Angel struggles to put together the broken pieces of her past so she can finally begin to focus on her future.
Why did you want to write “Angel Sometimes”? How did you come up with the idea for the story?
Twelve-year-old Angel Sometimes came into my head and wouldn’t leave. She was a compelling character, so I started writing. I’d written an entire book when I was awarded a scholarship to the Vermont Studio Center. While there, I edited the story and realized that, while her childhood was pivotal in her life, her story really begins when she’s grown up. So, when I came back home from Vermont, I began writing her as a young woman.
Why did you decide to set the story in Austin?
I’ve lived in the Austin area most of my adult life, so I knew the town. Austin, being a pretty laid-back town with a bustling downtown area, fit the scenario. It’s probably one of the few towns where a bar/restaurant with a mermaid show could easily be real.
Angel works in a bar where she swims as a mermaid, which is similar to your time swimming as a mermaid at the legendary Aquarena Springs in San Marcos. How much of your experience at Aquarena Springs made it into the book, and how much of Angel’s work at The Aquarium was fictional?
The mermaid training at The Aquarium is similar to the training at Aquarena, except the swimmers at The Aquarium train in a large pool, whereas Aquarena mermaids trained in the show arena and in the river. Another difference is that if something went wrong during a show at Aquarena, the mermaids could get to safety by swimming to the staging platform under the volcano or swimming to the hole under the volcano to get out of the water. Or if things were really bad, they could surface. The girls swimming at the bar have only one way out of the water. If something happens in one of the outer walls at the bar, they would have to make their way through a long overhead tube to get to an air hose, the staging hole and safety. The mermaids at the bar do a lot of the same things I did: eating and drinking underwater, synchronized swimming moves like forward rolls, reversed splits, etc., and waving at viewers.
What’s your best memory from your own time as a mermaid?
I don’t know if this is the “best” memory, but it’s certainly the most memorable memory. The performers showed up for work one day and were told that due to rains upriver, we could expect a wall of water to come our way. (Aquarena was fed by hundreds of springs.) We were put to work to secure everything in the arena area. As fast as we could, we tied things down, moved anything loose. We moved anything that might get washed away by the water, like swimming goggles, loose swimsuits, etc. We moved the Ralphs [the famous swimming pigs] to higher ground. (The public only saw one Ralph, but there were always two trained and one or two baby pigs in training. Unlike the human swimmers, Ralph never swam two shows in a row.) Once the Ralphs were safe, we swimmers were told to get in the water and do a show. The water was so murky that we couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces. We had to swim right up to the submarine and hold onto the window frame to do the picnic. Even then, we couldn’t see inside the sub. Afterwards, we went up top to wave goodbye to the audience. One man and a dog came out.
How much time do you devote to writing (either on a daily, weekly or monthly basis)?
I’ve never tracked how much time I spend writing. I get up in the morning, turn on my computer and am on it most of the day. I try to focus on whatever book I’m working on. I find it too easy to get distracted by posting on Facebook and Twitter and my blog, Straight From Hel, and so many other things. I know I should be doing those things, but I need to find a way to keep up with social media without getting totally distracted from other things that I need to do.
What inspires you to write?
The characters in my head. Angel probably is the most compelling character I’ve written. She wouldn’t quit talking to me. But the characters are what make the book, for me.
What has your experience as a published author been like?
Overall, good. I think most writers sit at their desks and write. It’s a solitary job, for the most part. But that moment when someone asks you to sign their book … that is amazing. Recently I was at a conference (not a writing conference) when a guy appears, says he loved “Angel Sometimes” and asks me to sign his copy. He had brought it with him and told me how much he loved it. That’s something I probably will never forget.
What advice do you have for other writers who are looking to break into the business?
Make sure your manuscript is ready for publication. That may mean reading it over and over, looking for minor errors. Have others read it for things you overlooked. Don’t rush to publication. If you have an agent, that’s great. If you don’t, don’t give up. You can publish your book yourself.
What are you working on next?
The protagonist in my next book is a Private Investigator. I’m hoping that book, “Dismembering the Past,” will be out soon — if I can ever quit reading and re-reading it, looking for tiny things that need to be changed or edited.
Private Investigator Matti McAllister is looking for Mabel, 67, who’s been missing since she rode off on her bicycle. The Texas Butcher is looking for the next victim in his killing spree. He’s already killed twelve around the state, dismembering them and displaying the body pieces. He’s hiding among the thousands of visitors in Mesquite Cove for the Texas Teacup Sailboat Festival. He’ll add three more in Mesquite Cove — unless the FBI and Matti can stop him. If he doesn’t kill her first.
“Angel Sometimes” can be purchased in paperback or Kindle edition on Amazon.com. Find out more about Helen Ginger’s novels at http://helenginger.com, and check out her insightful book reviews or read up on industry news on her blog, the cleverly named Straight From Hel.