Q&A with Author Gerry FitzGerald
New fiction Redemption Mountain is set in West Virginia and tackles love, friendship, and even mountaintop mining.
Gerry FitzGerald is proof that dreams can come true. For nearly 30 years he has owned a small advertising agency in Springfield, Massachusetts. In 1999 he began writing as a hobby, staying late in his office, evenings and weekends, to work on a novel. Eventually he completed and self-published The Pie Man in 2008—a romantic story set in West Virginia that takes a critical look at mountaintop removal. The book later became Redemption Mountain (Henry Holt and Company, 2013), out now. We recently talked with Gerry about what inspired his novel set in the Mountain State.
Your novel takes place in a fictional town called Red Bone in the heart of coal country. What is your connection to West Virginia?
I have never been to West Virginia. My education in the culture of southern West Virginia came from a great deal of reading over an eight-year period—books, websites, and a subscription to the Welch Daily News, which I read religiously for many years. Early in my research I happened across a wonderful book entitled The Heritage of McDowell County, West Virginia, 1858–1999, an exhaustive and fascinating collection of photos and accounts of people, families, history, and events that I literally spent hundreds of hours reading. The book was edited in part by Geneva Steele from Bradshaw, West Virginia, who provided me with valued advice over the years while I was writing my novel.
How did you become interested in coal mining?
Since I was a boy, I’ve had a fascination with coal mining, particularly coal mining disasters. I can still vividly recall the news stories and a magazine article about the 1968 explosion and fire at a mine in Farmington, West Virginia. It seemed so foreign to me growing up in Western Massachusetts that men would go off to work in the mines in the morning and might never see their families again.
What inspired your novel?
I became fascinated by the history of West Virginia. I was convinced a romantic story of two people from different cultures held great opportunities to create an interesting novel that would allow me to make a personal statement about two issues that had come to occupy much of my consciousness in the late ’90s. The first was the economic polarization of the social classes and the relentless pursuit of wealth that became an epidemic in America throughout the 1980s and ’90s. The second was … mountaintop-removal coal mining.
There are three distinct voices in Redemption Mountain: Charlie, Natty, and Pie Man. How did you develop these characters
Natty Oakes was the character I knew best, right from the beginning. I had a clear vision of who she was, what she looked and sounded like, and the central role she would play in the story. She was probably the most enjoyable character to write because she has all the funny lines—often self-deprecating, and many times, witty in the face of misfortune. She is a character I imagined everyone would love, but not a superwoman—a character very similar to many of the people we all know.
You are enjoying a "Cinderella story" right now. How did you go from being self-published to finding a traditional publisher?
What’s interesting about writing is that while you can spend 10 years writing and editing your novel, and you may think it’s a story other people would be interested in reading, the fact is that when you’re done, you really have no idea whether it’s any good or not. So I published the book through a print-on-demand publisher—a wonderful company, booklocker.com—and a great many of my friends and acquaintances read it.
The book sold a handful of copies every month, and I was happy and satisfied with that. Then it was discovered by a bookstore owner who recommended it to her St. Martin’s Press representative. It was subsequently read by St. Martin’s President Sally Richardson who liked my book and wanted to publish it. That led me to securing a literary agent and the final deal with Henry Holt and Company.
In today’s brutal publishing climate, you have to be very lucky to get the interest of a traditional publisher, but to get lucky you need to have a very good product that will generate enough word-of-mouth recommendations to get someone’s attention. The second time will certainly be sweeter financially, but it was also a sweeter experience to have the services and expertise of two fine editors. Editing your own work as I did for the self-published version is never a good idea.
Was it easy to transition from advertising to novelist?
I do think advertising copywriting is great training for novel writing. The key to good advertising copy is to get to the point quickly, economically, and remove the writer entirely from the communication to the point where it is totally about the reader and the story (product). Just as with advertising, my writing is for the customer.
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