Carole Stivers was born in East Cleveland, Ohio. She received her Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She went on to post-doctoral work at Stanford University before launching a career in medical diagnostics. She now lives in California, where she has combined her love of writing and her fascination with the possibilities of science to create her first novel, The Mother Code.
1) First, I want to thank you for taking the time to do this interview with me! 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 always loved reading as an escape. And I dabbled in creative writing—quite a different animal from the technical writing I did for my work in medical diagnostics—many times over the years. But I never had much time for either until I quit my last full-time job in 2003 to start consulting. At my daughter’s urging, I took a few creative writing classes at the San Francisco Writing Salon and realized that I had a knack for it. Soon, I couldn’t stop thinking of stories to tell. I love the solitude of writing, and the places where it takes my mind. And I find I can combine it with my other passion, travel.
2) Can you tell us a little about your book(s) and where our readers can find out more about them and you?
I’m a Goodreads author, and my two longer published works can be found there on my profile page: my debut novel, The Mother Code, a science fiction published by Berkley Penguin Random House; and The Butterfly Garden, a cozy mystery novella published online by Arbor Teas.
Short interviews or profiles about me can be found in places such as SFX, Inverse, and the April 27, 2020 “Breaking In” column in Writer’s Digest. I also got to write a really cool piece about The Mother Code in Hodderscape, the blog of my UK publisher Hodder & Stoughton. But I especially love an interview that my friends at Arbor Teas did with me when they published The Butterfly Garden.
With regard to The Mother Code, I post all of my updates on my Facebook Author Page. My website is currently rather sparsely populated. But maybe I’ll get to work on that…
3) Where do you draw your inspiration from for the stories that you manage to weave together and the characters that you create?
I usually start with some sort of theme, one that is separate from but served by the plot. For The Mother Code, it was the maintenance of the parent-child bond in a world turned upside-down by a disastrous human error. In The Butterfly Garden, it was the opening of old societal wounds in post-Katrina New Orleans. I like to put people in harrowing situations and watch them work their way out. For my novels, I am currently sticking to science fiction. But I also have a love for historical fiction that may pop up some day!
My characters are all amalgams of people I know or have known. I can’t say that my plots are designed around my characters. Rather, my cast of characters are recruited to act out the plot—if they don’t serve the plot, no matter how much I have grown to love them, they must go! But at times, a character arises whom I love so much that they wind up running off with a good portion of the story. Such was the case with Hayden Kayne in The Butterfly Garden, and with Kendra Jenkins in The Mother Code.
I do have an annoying habit of creating ridiculously complex plots, filled with characters rife with back story. It seems as though for every story line I think of, there are entire casts of characters waiting in the wings who want to tell their own tales!
4) 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? What projects are you currently working on?
I wish I could say that I keep to a careful writing schedule. But so far, I don’t. Sometimes when I am lost or stuck on a plot point, days might pass where all I do is think (best when I first wake up in the morning) or read fiction or nonfiction that I think will help me get past the block. When I am on fire or on deadline, I can easily spend eight or nine hours writing. I’m easily distracted; I write best in a quiet room, in a comfortable chair, at home. Though this was not always the case, these days I only work on one project at a time. And I absolutely never write at night—that would keep me up and totally knock me off my rhythms!
As for outlining, that doesn’t work for me. I operate on a hybrid model: Starting with a clear beginning and a defined end, I map out the general steps to take me from one to the other. But I allow my plot and characters to take on a life of their own, not binding myself to set plot points or characters. I have the most fun when the story starts to tell itself, and it can’t do so if I reign it in too tightly. Along the way, I dictate endless notes into my phone, and transfer them to Word files for later reference. The sheer number of pages of notes that I generate in this way can easily be equal to or greater than the number in the final manuscript.
The Mother Code, at 352 pages, took me eight years to write; The Butterfly Garden, which I wrote later at 89 pages, was written on a schedule over about eight months. I like to think that I have learned to write less material that winds up on the cutting room floor.
The novel I’m working on now is a near future “climate science fiction” thriller featuring a researcher who encounters extraterrestrial life. I’m hoping for this to be ready for the editor by this April, two years from the time I started writing it. But only time will tell!
5) What’s the first book you ever read that really moved you emotionally? Who is your favorite author to read? What book are you currently reading?
Wow, that’s a tough question! Going beyond children’s books, though, I think the first one that wowed me enough to pull me right in was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I identified one hundred percent with the tomboy character of Scout, complete with the bowl haircut and overalls sported by the actress in the movie of the same name. Atticus was my sweet, all-knowing dad. Jem was my older brother Dennis. We even had a Boo Radley in our neighborhood, who went by the name of Mrs. Moseley. I found that story to be magical, one that I would read again and again over the years, each time gleaning something different from it.
Now, I love reading Isabel Allende, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Crichton—I’ve read multiple titles by each of them. But the book I just finished was The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
6) 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?
My most significant achievement to date has been simply to find an agent and sell my novel The Mother Code to a publisher—something that when I began seemed impossible. The film rights have been optioned by Steven Spielberg, but I have no control over what might happen there. I can only be proud of the Hollywood interest that the novel has generated, and I hope to one day see it on-screen.
Over the next five years, I hope to have another two published titles under my belt. Though that might be impossible due to the sheer time that publication takes, it will be a worthy goal nonetheless!
7) How have you dealt with rejection within your writing career? What are your thoughts about how the publishing industry is drastically changing in terms of traditional and self-publishing?
When I first started to write, I thought it might be easier to get short stories and essays published. But I had little success with that. I’ve since learned that one shouldn’t apply to contests, and that one always needs to have a pile of submissions out and ready to go, just to see one or two published.
While writing my novel, I suffered lots of criticism from the free-lance editors whom I hired, followed by more criticism and rejection from agents, then from publishing editors. Some of those criticisms really hurt. But I had to keep reminding myself that this is all part of the process—a process that, unlike my previous job in biotech, is very subjective. I learned to profit from constructive criticism. And I was extremely lucky to find “super fans” along the way, each willing to help propel me to the next step.
Traditional publishers operate on incredibly tight margins and within standard norms of genre that are not very flexible. I was lucky to be offering high concept, near-future science fiction at a time when that was “trendy.” But so many great stories are rejected simply because there is no perceived market slot at the time they are submitted.
Opening up the pipeline of Indie publishing has resulted in a new surge of creative work making its way into the marketplace. And the share of revenue for self-published authors can be higher. But there is so much noise being generated by the big titles and the big-name authors, it’s difficult for these self-published titles to get much visibility. So, while self-publishing helps more great writers get their stuff in front of readers, the number of those readers can be very limited unless the author is willing to put significant time (and money) into marketing—resources I’m sure he or she would rather spend writing that next novel!
This is why I’m so happy to have found a publisher—a situation that allows me more time to work on what matters to me most.
8) So many writers say that they hate reading their own work. Do you ever enjoy reading your own work back to yourself?
I don’t like reading my entire story once it’s out there. I’m always afraid I’ll hate it or think of some way that it could have been so much better—my editorial brain can never be quieted. But there are parts of things I have written that I find still resonate very strongly with me later. If they don’t give away too much of the plot, those are the parts that I will use for public readings.
9) 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?
By the time my first novel is published, I was 67 years old. So no, I don’t believe that it is ever too late. Writing is one profession, I think, where age (and its attendant wisdom, if one is lucky) is not a drawback.
10) How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you as an author?
Of all the strange things that have happened to me since I started writing at the age of 50, the COVID-19 pandemic is the strangest. My debut novel The Mother Code, which deals with a pandemic started by the ill-advised use of a man-made non-viral bio-weapon, was due to launch on May 5, 2020. Its release was delayed by—you guessed it—a pandemic. When it was finally released on August 25, 2020, the book encountered a much different landscape from the one I imagined just months prior.
My heart goes out to all the writers whose books launched into the teeth of this gale, and to all those authors, publishers, and booksellers who must now navigate this “new normal.” We must all count on our readers to keep us going strong!
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?
I started out writing science fiction because science is an area where I feel I have authority, and because I like the idea of promoting science awareness through my writing. But I have also found that my writing is an avenue for me to express my own brand of politics—in my views regarding social injustice, bio-warfare or the environment, for example—that is very rewarding. By telling stories where characters are caught up in such issues that are not of their own making, I can seek to help readers see these issues through the eyes of “the other.”