Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Meet New Author Rebecca Elwick!

author, Rebecca Elswick

Hey literaries, ready for another excellent new author interview? Today I'm interviewing Rebecca Elswick, author of the book Mama's Shoes. Rebecca, like many of us, had been casting about for agents and publishers without any bites--until a very unique opportunity came her way! Keep reading for more about Rebecca and her publishing journey!

First off, Rebecca, can you give us a brief little blurb about your novel? What is the central story-line and theme?

Spanning twenty years, Mama’s Shoes is a haunting tale of love, despair, and forgiveness as a cadence of female voices weaves a spell of mountain lore and secrets, defines family as more than blood kin, and proves second chances can bring happiness.

Your novel was published, as I understand, after you won a contest from Writer’s Digest Magazine. Tell us about your participation with the magazine and what winning this contest meant for you as an emerging author.

The contest was sponsored by Writer’s Digest and Abbott Press and was called #Pitch2Win Writing and Publishing Contest. I discovered it on Twitter, and to enter, I had to describe my novel in a single tweet of 140 characters or less. I had just completed revising Mama’s Shoes, and had waded into the frustrating world of agents and publishers. I was sending out queries but had no “bites.”

I decided to enter the #Pitch2Win contest and looked up details. That’s when I discovered it was the last day to enter the contest, and if I was going to do it, I only had until midnight. By the way, it was after 11:00 PM when I discovered the contest! I began to type and erase; type and erase; type and erase. Just before midnight, I filled the space with a line from my novel, “Mama always said you can tell a real lady by the shoes she wears, but then nobody ever accused Mama of being a lady.” I clicked send.

I knew I had found the perfect tweet to describe Mama’s Shoes. After all, it was that line that was runner-up in another contest, this one in Writer’s Digest Magazine, October 2003 issue - “Your Opening Line #8 Contest.” The object of the contest was to write an opening line for a novel based on a tiny black and white picture of flip flops on a beach. It took me eight years, but that’s exactly what I did. That line, “Mama always said you can tell a real lady by the shoes she wears, but then nobody ever accused Mama of being a lady” became the foundation for the book Mama’s Shoes. And even though it ended up not being the opening line, it is in the first chapter.

It’s still hard to believe I won the contest! When I do readings and book signings, it’s difficult to believe the book I’m signing is mine! I am so happy I grabbed the opportunity to publish my book. I had never considered Indie publishing, but this fell into my lap like a gift wrapped in silver paper with gold ribbon.

The setting for Mama’s Shoes is an Appalachian coal town. Is this setting similar to the place you grew up in VA? How is it similar? How is it different?

I live in Grundy, VA in Buchanan County, the most southwestern corner of Virginia. The only industry here is mining coal. My father and grandfather were coal miners, but more importantly, they were story tellers. My daddy loved to tell stories about growing up in southwestern Virginia; in fact, his favorite television show was “The Waltons.” He said it portrayed what life was like when he was a boy. My maternal grandfather was also a big story teller. He used to tell me about working in the coal mines when they used a pick and shovel and ponies to carry the coal out of the mine. He was a miner when they carried canaries underground with them.

My character, twelve-year-old Sassy, helps her mother around the beauty shop much like I did when I was growing up. My mother was a beautician and I grew up in the midst of the beauty shop where she worked. It seemed natural to weave my characters into the world I knew so well. My father was a World War II veteran, and I used his path through the war for my character Gaines Richardson, but unlike my character, my father survived the war.

Since Mama’s Shoes ends around the time I was born, the coal town I portray is based on the one where I grew up, but the time period is earlier. Much of the town I created came from stories and my imagination.

I’m wrapping a few questions into one, here: Would you consider this novel a “coming of age” story? Can you tell us a little bit about Sassy, your main character? And what about the mother-daughter dynamic in this novel? These kinds of relationships are often the most complex and certainly can be a challenge to weave into a fictional plotline!

I do consider Mama’s Shoes a coming of age story, but not just for Sassy, but for her mother, Sylvia, as well. Sylvia marries at age 16 to a man who is 10 years older than her. By the time she’s 18, she is a mother and WWII widow. Sassy grows up in the little coal town her mother had vowed to leave behind.

Mama’s Shoes is the story of strong, hard-working women who struggle to survive in an unforgiving world. With hard work and the help of kith and kin, they prevail, often with humor, always with grace. Ultimately, Mama’s Shoes is a love story. Love between a mother and child, woman and man, and those we love like family even when we’re not related by blood. Mama’s Shoes is a testament to the healing power of love.

What would you say was the most challenging part of writing Mama’s Shoes?

I teach Advanced Placement English, Appalachian Literature, Photojournalism, and Creative Writing at Grundy High School in Grundy, VA. I am an adjunct English Faculty at Southwest Virginia Community College and Adjunct Writing Faculty at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. I am a teacher consultant for the Appalachian Writing Project at UVA Wise, and as such, conduct writing workshops for teachers. Besides teaching all the time, I have 3 children, a husband, and at last count 5 dogs! Finding the time to write was the biggest challenge.

What have you learned about yourself as a writer throughout this writing and publishing process?

I have learned how to take criticism as well as compliments. Rejection is difficult, but if you view it as part of learning to become a better writer, then you understand it is necessary. I have learned that I have stories to tell that others want to read, and I have learned that my instinct was right – write a book that I would like to read and it will be successful.

What books have most influenced your writing?

I believe the best way to be a good writer is to be an avid reader. I read all genres, classics, new authors as well as best sellers. I read an abundance of Appalachian literature and those books are among my biggest influences. James Still’s River of Earth, and Harriet Arnow’s The Doll Maker were tremendous influences on my writing as well as books by contemporary Appalachian authors like Lee Smith, Silas House, Amy Greene, and Pam Duncan.

I can remember when I was in high school was the first time I read Lee’s book “The Day the Dog Bushes Bloomed.” I have been her biggest fan ever since! I adore Silas House’s books, especially Eli the Good. Amy Greene’s debut novel Bloodroot and Pam Duncan’s books, especially The Big Beautiful are wonderful novels. I also must say To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee has been a tremendous influence on my writing.

What books are you currently reading?

I have just finished The Paris Wife by Paula McLain and I’m reading Jodi Picoult’s Lone Wolf.

If you had to choose, which author would you consider a mentor?

The award winning Appalachian author Lee Smith has been a wonderful mentor. She wrote a heart-warming endorsement for my novel’s cover as did Amy Greene, author of Bloodroot. Lee Smith is also from Grundy, and I’ve known her for many years. I frequent writer’s workshops and a couple of years ago I told her I was writing a book. She encouraged me and was one of the first people to read it before it was published.

Finally, what would you say to aspiring novelists?

I have learned that writing a book and seeing it published is an incredible dream come true. I have also learned that the work does not stop there. In fact, it begins there. You are the biggest and best advocate for your book. You have to be tech savy, especially with social media.

I have also learned the meaning of the old Appalachian saying, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat!” Which is - there are other ways to see your book in print than the traditional publishing route. Do not give up just because your book is rejected. I believe that every good story will find a home. And don’t forget about contests! Enter them or someone else will win!

I hope you enjoyed this author interview! If you found it insightful or have any questions for Rebecca, I know she would love to hear from you! Shoot her a comment, below! You can also visit her website HERE!


  1. I never imagined that a tweet could be the key to publication. It really is true that the path to turning a story into a published novel can take all manners of twists and turns.

    Definitely an inspiring interview.

  2. I'm going to read this! It sounds so good! Thanks for the interview Laura. Very inspiring and the synopsis is awesome.

  3. You have a writing style that is undeniably unique from the rest. Thanks for posting this.

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