Q&A: Toby Ball

Toby Ball (photo by Juliet Grant)
There are a lot of wonderful writers living in our state, some full-time, some part-time.  As the Director of the NH Center for the Book I get the opportunity to talk to many of them. This interview series of Q&As with New Hampshire authors here on Book Notes lets me share that experience a bit with my blog readers.   

If someone hasn't read your work yet, where should they start?
The books all stand alone, but there’s no reason not to start with the first one, The Vaults. My hope is that it is interesting and rewarding to watch the changes in the main characters and the city in which the books are set, as the years (and books) go by.
When did you first think of yourself as a writer?
That’s an interesting question, because I think the way I have defined the idea of “writer” and how it pertains to me has changed. To a certain extent, I think that you become a writer when you are working on your fourth draft of something, or when you edit out a passage of writing you really like because it doesn’t serve the work as a whole. In other words, I think being a writer means showing a commitment to doing the difficult, not-so-fun work on projects and a willingness to make sacrifices to produce a better work.
Another important aspect for me thinking of myself as a writer was being paid for my writing. It’s not that the money itself was so important (though it never hurts), but the recognition that my writing was, in some people’s opinions, at least, compelling enough that people would be interested in reading it.
How did you end up living in NH?
I got my master’s in education at U. of New Hampshire and really loved the Seacoast area. My interest in UNH stemmed in large part from having spent summers on Bear Island in Lake Winnipesaukee when I was growing up. My great-grandparents bought a cottage there in the 1930s and I have been up there every summer of my life. Why wouldn’t I want to live close by?
Where do you like to write?
I’m honestly not very picky. I probably do most of my writing in the guest room or living room at my house, but I enjoy working at Bear Island (preferably on the dock) or sitting at a coffee shop in downtown Portsmouth or pretty much anywhere with an empty chair and relative quiet, or at least not too much distraction.
How important is place in your writing?
My three books all take place in a fictional city, called the City. The City is in many ways a character in the books. It is vast, crumbling, multi-ethnic, riven with tension between rich and poor, and systemically corrupt. The plots generally revolve around changes in the City and how the people live there react or adapt to these changes.

What do you do when you aren't writing?
I have two kids (8 and 17) who I spend a lot of time with – playing games, doing projects, things like that. I play basketball and indoor soccer and summers at Bear Island include a wide range of water sports. I’m also a big Washington Wizards and Syracuse Orange basketball fan.
I also have a full-time job as the Program Manager at the Crimes against Children Research Center and Family Research Lab at the University of New Hampshire.
What’s the best piece of advice (writing or otherwise) you were ever given?
Write another draft.
It’s so easy to convince yourself that you have completed a novel because you are fatigued or impatient. But it is crucial that everything be as strong and polished as you can possibly make it before submission to an agent or editor. You have one chance to impress; don’t squander it by not putting in the necessary work. I typically have written four to six drafts (real drafts, not just fixing errors) before I even send it to my agent. There are usually a couple more drafts (at least) before sending to an editor, and another two or three drafts at that point.

What books do you love and what about them speaks to you?
I love many types of books and for different reasons. I really like books that show me a different way of looking at the world or that tackle an issue from an angle I hadn’t thought of before. But I also like books that plunge me into a life completely different from the one that I lead – preferably one that is suspenseful and dangerous. My favorite books, such as The Smiley trilogy by John LeCarre and the Thomas Cromwell books by Hilary Mantel, manage to do both of these things.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a novel outside of the City series. While it possesses the same basic sensibility, it is set in the here and now and would probably be less likely to wind up in the mystery section of your library or bookstore.

        What do you want to share that I neglected to ask about?
I think the most important things for a writer trying to get published are persistence and a thick skin. You are going to accumulate rejections - that's just the way it is - but you can't be discouraged by them. Everyone gets them. It's a subjective business. That doesn't mean that persistence alone will lead to success - the first novel I wrote was never picked up and I finally realized that it simply wasn't good enough - but it is a rare person who finds publishing success quickly.

Learn more about Toby's work, and check the calendar to see when he will be at a bookstore near you at http://tobyball.com

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