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Debut Author Interview: Sonja Yoerg, Author of HOUSE BROKEN

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview debut author, Sonja Yoerg, whose first novel, HOUSE BROKEN, is out now with NAL Trade (Penguin)!  
Here’s an excerpt from my review: “The cover may be adorable, but the story itself digs into the deepest, darkest parts of human (and animal) nature in the most truthful and straightforward kind of way. ” Check out the full review here: Goodreads

Tell me as much as you can about yourself in only one sentence.
I’m a Labrador-pit bull cross.

What got you interested in writing?

I like to dig for the truth, find out how things work. My career as an animal behavior researcher was one example of that, and writing is another. Attempting to tell the truth about human experience through storytelling is a profoundly difficult and rewarding task. 

What’s the toughest criticism you ever got?

My editor didn’t like the last third of my second novel. Not even a little. After I tended my wounded ego, I saw her point and we worked it out. I’m delighted with the outcome, and feel proud of myself for not having gone off the deep end about it.

What’s the biggest compliment you ever got?

Aside from my husband’s proposal? Both my agent and my editor were incredulous that I had no formal writing training, not even a critique group. I felt like an idiot savant, but in a good way.

Can you give me an elevator pitch for your novel, and tell me how you came up with the idea?

It’s the story of Geneva, a hard-headed veterinarian, who, like most women, is keeping a lot of balls in the air. Her alcoholic mother moves in with her, and Geneva uses the opportunity to excavate the family history no one wants to talk about, and with good reason. It’s told from three points of view—Geneva’s, her mother’s and Geneva’s sixteen-year old daughter—so we get to see the family dynamic from all sides.

I started, as I always do, with a character. Geneva is a member of the “sandwich” generation, with her desires squished between those of their children and her parents or, in this case, her mother. Once I got to know Geneva reasonably well, I started making trouble for her. 

As a debut author, what is the most useful thing you have done to get to this point?

I’m very stubborn. If someone tells me something is impossible, I say “Watch me.” It’s useful in publishing because even if you write well, it’s a game of persistence, plus luck.

What is one thing you wish you had learned sooner?

Only one? Joking aside, I try not to look back. Regret is a bummer. Life is all about learning, and I’ve learned a tremendous amount in every aspect of my life. I’m determined to stay open to new experiences—like publishing my first novel at age 55!

I just might have an overuse word problem. I just can’t help myself. There are just times when I just need to just express myself. What’s your biggest writing hangup?

I used to have a “just” problem, too! It morphed into an “only” problem, followed shortly by a “back” problem. The more I write, the sooner I catch myself doing this. I use to check for overuse of certain words. Reading my writing aloud is another way to catch repeats and clunker sentences. Our ears are sensitive to foibles.

Rejection: Tell me about it and how it has or hasn’t shaped your journey.
I queried well over 100 agents before finding the one who loved my work. A few things kept me going: the rejecting agents said I could write, I published a handful of short pieces, and I’m really stubborn. Did I mention that already?

For me, the critical lesson to learn along the way is to listen. Agents don’t give much, if any, feedback, so you have to use every tidbit they throw at you. You need to be open to criticism and be willing to use it. Based on comments from agents (a word here and there), I tweaked the beginning of my manuscript partway through querying. It made all the difference.

What did it feel like to sign your first contract?

The actual contract came a long time after the deal was agreed upon, so it was a bit anticlimactic. (No one wants to hear that, so you can probably leave that one out!)

What has surprised you most about the publishing industry?

It seems to operate with two speeds: Pedal-to-the-metal-we-need-this-yesterday and absolute standstill. You have to be prepared to be flexible and patient.

Without giving spoilers, what was your favorite chapter or scene to write and why?

There’s a scene about halfway along in which Geneva, her husband, her two children and her mother are having a discussion—although it’s more of a free-for-all because of the secrets being divulged. Although it’s a complex scene, it appeared wholly formed in my head. Writing it was more like transcription.

Besides your own novel, what other debut novel are you most excited about getting your hands on in 2015?

I can’t wait to read Christopher Scotton’s Secret Wisdom of the Earth, set in Virginia where I now live. It’s been compared to Ivan Doig’s Peace Like a River, one of my favorite books. And it will be released on the same day as House Broken, January 6th!

Getting to know Sonja Yoerg: SPEED ROUND  (4 quick questions!) 

a. Cat person, dog person, or I forgot to feed my fish, and it died?

All the animals, all the time. I had cats growing up but have had dogs as an adult. During my career in animal behavior, I was a nursemaid to hyena cubs, a trainer to pigeons and mice, a companion to a blue jay and a matchmaker to dozens of kangaroo rats.

b. Coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks, or I’m so undercaffeinated it’s frightening!

One giant cup of rocket fuel first thing in the morning. That’s it.

c. E-reader, print book, audiobook, or a combination?

Mostly my Kindle paperwhite, but I still pick up a real book now and then.

d. Do you have any irrational fears that you can completely justify?

I have Styrofoamaphobia. Squeak that stuff and I go running. Justify that!

I personally love your first novel, HOUSE BROKEN, and I’m dying to know what to expect from you next (and when): Thanks, Becky!

My second novel, Middle of Somewhere, will be published by Penguin in September 2015. It’s about a thirty-year old woman, Liz, who sets off on a three-week trek in the Sierras. She’s got more emotional baggage than will fit in her backpack and craves solitude to figure things out. At the last minute, her boyfriend decides to tag along. Liz is fiercely independent, but the trail, her boyfriend and her past put to the test her conviction to brave life on her own.

And I’m currently writing a coming-of-age story set in Vermont in the 1970s. I’m completely smitten by the main character, Alison. 

I’d like to congratulate Sonja on the release of HOUSE BROKEN and thank her for agreeing to be interviewed on B.A. Wilson Writes!

If you have any questions or comments for her, be sure to post below! Then run on out and see if you can get your hands on a copy of House Broken, because it would seem that I’m unable to share my copy with others.  After you read,  catch me on social media and let me know what you think! 

Sonja Yoerg grew up in Stowe, Vermont, where she financed her college education by waitressing at the Trapp Family Lodge. She earned her Ph.D. in Biological Psychology from the University of California at Berkeley and published a nonfiction book about animal intelligence, Clever as a Fox (Bloomsbury USA, 2001). Sonja currently lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with her husband, and they are often visited by their two college-aged daughters.

HOUSE BROKEN is her first novel.

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