Alena Dillon is the author of Mercy House, a LibraryReads and Amazon book of February 2020, and the humor collection I Thought We Agreed to Pee in the Ocean. Alena’s work has appeared in publications including LitHub, River Teeth, Scary Mommy, Slice Magazine, The Rumpus, The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review, Bustle, and The Smart Set. She teaches creative writing at Endicott College and St. Joseph’s College and lives on the beautiful north shore of Boston with her husband, newborn son, and little black pup named Penny.
1) When did you know that writing is what you were called to do? What is it about being a writer that you love the most?
I’ve been writing novels since fifth grade, when my dad accidentally defragged his computer and erased the first draft of a terrible Kid In King Arthur’s Court spinoff. We cried on my bed, and then I started again the next day. That was my first lesson in rewriting. I’ve been at it ever since.
Perhaps my favorite thing about writing is the satisfaction in having written, the endorphin release of crafting a beautiful sentence, or the pride in reading something and thinking, “Damn, that’s good.” The last one doesn’t happen often, but when it does it makes me dance.
2) Can you tell us a little about your book(s) and where our readers can find out more about them and you?
My books are often inspired by true events, and feature ordinary women doing extraordinary things. My debut novel, Mercy House, was released just this month, about a nun investigated by the Vatican for breaking church doctrine at her women’s shelter in Bed-Stuy. This was inspired by the real Apostolic Visitation of nuns. You can find more about me at my website, or follow me on Instagram @alena.dillon or Twitter @TheAlenaDillon.
(Note about the last handle—I created it ironically almost a decade ago when there was no reason for anybody to know me. Now that there are a handful of people that might have read my books, it seems arrogant at best, pitiful at worst. But the origin was pure in its irony!)
3) What projects are you currently working on?
I am so fortunate to have a second book deal with HarperCollins for April 2021. This one is about a gymnast training for the Olympics, and the sacrifices required of an athlete and all those around that athlete. Again, it’s inspired by the abuses that have come to light in this sport.
4) What has been your most significant achievement as a writer thus far? Where do you see yourself within your career in the next five years?
Having a novel published was no easy feat. I’d spent almost a decade working on different manuscripts, so to have readers contact me and to read positive reviews has been immensely gratifying. I hope to be able to continue writing and publishing, maybe have another two (or three??) books out there in the next five years.
5) How have you dealt with rejection within your writing career?
I always had another stoke in the fire so that when a rejection came in, it didn’t feel hopeless—there were other possibilities. Whether that was other submissions or other manuscripts, I always had something else cooking. And then when I opened emails, it was with the mindset, “Here is the rejection I was waiting for so I can move on to the next thing.”
6) Do you have a schedule for when you write? Do you outline your novels? How long does it generally take you to finish a novel?
I write in the mornings. This has always been the case, but is even more scheduled now that I have a child and my husband and I split childcare.
I’ve taken different approaches to novels to see if there is a strategy that is easier or more efficient. So far I haven’t found one. I’ve structured to the point that I outlined the plot scene by scene, and I’ve entered the story and wandered blind, as well as everything in between. Very rarely does the first draft yield the true story or the true character. I find I only realize what the story is about by the end, sometimes only after a few tries, and then I have to go back and reroute the whole thing.
Usually a first draft will take me about a year, and then I take another couple shaping and finessing the story.
7) Do you believe that there is ever a point in life where it’s too late for an aspiring writer to become successful in this industry? Do you feel a late start would hinder their chances?
I don’t see why there’d be a cutoff. A good story is ageless. An agent can’t tell from your query if you’re just out of college or a grandmother of six. Maybe I’m being naïve about the industry, but it seems like something we can tackle until our mental faculties fail us.
8) What’s the first book you ever read that really touched you emotionally and moved you? Who is your favorite author? What book are you currently reading?
I remember reading She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb when I was a teenager, the age of the protagonist, and identifying so viscerally with the pain of those years. He remains one of my favorite authors to this day, along with Elizabeth Strout and Ann Patchett.
I am two thirds through Saints for All Occasions. It’s always fun to see another author’s take on similar topics, and this one captures nuns in a different but lovely way.
9) So many writers say that they hate reading their own work? Do you ever just sit down and curl up with your own book?
This question made me laugh. I never curl up with it, no. But I hunch over it with a green pen. Does that count?
10) What are your thoughts about how the publishing industry is drastically changing?
I’m thankful for how audiobooks are becoming more pervasive. They have been invaluable to my reading habit since I’ve started spending so much time following a toddler around the house. But overall I think we have an appetite for stories, so publishing will find a way.
11) I feel like writing is a remarkable tool to help people not only express themselves, but also to cope emotionally and mentally. I know for me I write to be and feel more authentic. What unique quality is there about you, about your art, that you feel represents your authenticity? How does writing help you to be more empowered in your purpose?
Writing nonfiction helps me understand how I feel about an experience or issue and why. Fiction—reading and writing it—hones emotional intelligence. It trains us to interpret how people are acting, what they are saying, what they really mean, how they are feeling, and why. But more generally, writing is my purpose. If I don’t write for too many days in a row, I begin to itch. I’m angsty and irritable and overall not pleasant to be around. My husband notices. He’ll look at me and say, “Time to get back to work.” And he’s usually right.