An Interview with Elizabeth Wetmore, Author of Valentine

This interview with Elizabeth Wetmore about her debut novel, Valentine, originally appeared on A Mighty Blaze. We at Dead Darlings are delighted to share it as part of our Virtual Author Tour.

Give us the elevator pitch for your book. 

Set in 1976, in the oil-patch city of Odessa, Texas, VALENTINE explores the aftermath of a vicious crime against a 14-year-old Mexican-American girl and its lingering effects on her and her family, as well the other women and girls in town.

The story is told through the voices of six characters–among them, an old woman who thinks she’s made all the big decisions she’s going to make, a young girl whose mother has left town without her, a waitress who hopes to make a better life for herself and her young daughter, and a teenaged girl who is struggling not to let one terrible moment define the rest of her life.

What were your plans for book launch pre-Covid?

‘Pre-Covid’—Feels like a hundred years ago, doesn’t it? My plans for the book launch were probably the same as a lot of other writers—a couple of conferences, festivals, a passel of bookstores scattered across the country. Some friends and I were going to have a book launch party at a studio/work space/music venue here in Rogers Park called the Pottery Studio. Two days before we sent out the invitations, news of the pandemic started to really sink in.

Of all the cancellations, the ones I’m most disappointed about were those scheduled in my home state of Texas—and more particularly, those that were scheduled in my hometown of Odessa. I was planning to do a couple of readings in Midland and Odessa, a book club in Big Spring, and a book festival in downtown Odessa. And I was so looking forward to sharing VALENTINE—which, more than anything else, is a love letter to my hometown—with the women and men who still live there, who are working hard to raise their families and pay the bills and keep on.

Where were you when you heard your book tour/ launch was cancelled? 

My book tour has been cancelled piecemeal (death by a thousand emails!). I was at home in Chicago with my husband and son.

It’s such a strange sensation. I’m a bit of a hermit, and I had a fair amount of anxiety about going out into the world with this book in the first place. So I’ve been surprised by how deeply disappointed I am that I won’t be able to share this with people in person.

What went into writing and selling your book? 

I feel as though this question should have a more straightforward answer than it does.

I’ll start with the easy part, selling the book: I’ve got a great agent (Samantha Shea, at Georges Borchardt) so selling the book, once I finally finished the damn thing, was a pretty straightforward and quick process. In that, I was lucky beyond my wildest dreams.

But writing the book—that’s a bit of a hornet’s nest, to be honest. I worked on Valentine, on and off, for about 14 years. During that time, I worked, taught, free-lanced, and helped raise an amazing person. I also wrote some short stories. But Valentine was so important to me, and so fucking hard, so terrifying, that I often set it down and walked away for a few days, months, even a couple of years. In the end, I was only able to do it because of an enormous amount of practical support (grants and residencies) as well as the love and faith, and sacrifices, of those who believed in the book–and in me.

What is the weirdest job you held on your path to publication? 

In the winter of 1995, I drove a cab for one really long day in Phoenix, Arizona. The sweet old man who was training me was, I think, maybe a heroin addict—but I never knew for sure and now, typing this, I can’t remember why it occurred to me at the time that he suffered from that particular addiction. At any rate, he disapproved mightily of me, a young woman, driving a cab. But I needed the extra money, to augment a waitressing job that wasn’t paying as much as I had hoped, so there we were, on one of those spectacular winter days in Phoenix when the temperature is perfect and anything feels possible. While I drove, he directed me through traffic, lectured me on safety, encouraged me to find a different job, and told me stories about his twenty or so years driving a cab. Once, he directed me to a little brick house in downtown Phoenix and told me to wait in the cab while he went in to see his “lady.” Half an hour later, a middle-aged woman wearing a tie-dye t-shirt came outside and handed me a Diet Coke. She told me to sit tight, that he’d be out soon. Later, we drove to a strip mall that was nearly abandoned, and I sat in the car while he disappeared around the side of the building for about ten minutes before returning with a brown paper bag. We drove on.

Strangely, I do not remember the details of a single fare from that day. But I have a distinct memory of the old man claiming all of my tips at the end of the shift—that’s how training often works—and I remember clearly telling him that I had decided to look for a different job. Good, he said. This is no job for a girl. (I was 28 years old.)

What do you want readers to take away from your book? 

Well, I hope they love the characters as much as I do—or at least a few of them–and that they love the stories. And I guess I hope VALENTINE will have the same effect on at least a few readers that other books have had on me—that it will make them feel a little more hopeful, and a little less of a stranger. Less alone, more up to the task of being courageous, speaking truth, carrying on—at least for a little while.

What’s your favorite Indie Book store?

There are dozens of great bookstores in Chicago. The two that are closest to my house are Women and Children First and Booked–and they are both first rate. Anything you want, they either have it or they can get it.

Can you recommend one other debut? 

Yes! One of the best things about this whole book selling business is that I have had the opportunity to get a sneak peek at a few books that are coming out this spring and summer.

Kelli Jo Ford’s CROOKED HALLELUJAH is coming out soon, as is Stephanie Soileau’s collection of stories LAST ONE OUT SHUT OFF THE LIGHTS. Both are beautiful, smart, and generous of spirit, and I expect both will blow the lid off the world.

I’m reading the first English translation of Fernanda Melchor’s novel HURRICANE SEASON, and really loving it.

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