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Behind the Scenes at Thoughtful Dog

Behind the Scenes at Thoughtful Dog

They are sisters, writers and the co-founders of Thoughtful Dog. Launched in February 2017, Thoughtful Dog, the literary magazine created by sisters Loie (above right) and Constance Sayers (above left) celebrated its first year of publishing fiction from emerging and established writers as well as lifestyle pieces on the writing life. The digital literary journal, which published 8 issues last year, operates dually out of Pittsburgh, PA and Washington, DC.

Both sisters hail from Pittsburgh where Loie still lives. Constance moved to Washington DC in 1993. They both went to the University of Pittsburgh for their undergraduate degrees with Loie obtaining her MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Pittsburgh and Constance earning an MA in Writing from George Mason University. When not reading through the Thoughtful Dog submissions, they both write literary short fiction and novels. Oddly, they discovered they have the same writing process (it must be genetic)!  Since they usually ask each writer five questions, TD turned the pages on them:

TD: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Loie: In seventh grade. I wanted to be a sketch artist before that. I hated seventh grade. Mean girls. So, I began to write, first poems then stories. My friend, Diane, was a better poet, which was discouraging, yet I pushed on and began to write first plays and then stories.

Constance: When I was about ten, Loie gave me her old Smith Corona typewriter—it was baby blue and sat next to my Barbie Dreamhouse. During the height of General Hospital’s popularity (in the 1980s) I began writing a soap opera treatment and continued to work on it for about four years, totaling 300+ pages. But, I went into college to study opera as a music major. My first writing class changed all that. Immediately, I switched my major and never looked back! Our parents weren’t happy with me after all the money they’d spent on piano, flute and voice lessons.

TD: What are you reading now?

Loie: The non-fic Leonardo da Vinci book by Walter Isaacson. Just finished Less by Andrew Sean Greer—written to perfection and also just finished A Gentleman in Moscow, another book that’s beautifully written. When I’m not reading a book of literary consequence, my recent obsession is Icelandic who-done-its, by Ragnar Jonasson and Arnaldur Indridason as well as Swedish and Norwegian books—don’t knock it til you try it. I listen to those on Audible when driving or working out. I’ve found they are my solution to winter’s clutch on my soul. My solution is to go deeper, colder, darker, and embrace it like the Scandinavians do. I live in Pittsburgh and hate those two months of cold weather. Normally I would strain to spot any signs of spring but since Nordic folks delight in their weather, so have I found the courage to embrace the cold. Compared to them, we have nothing to complain about. Plus, I’m loving these stories. Go Iceland! Go Norway! Go Sweden! They’ve shown me another reading venue—seasonal reading, which can be done anytime you need to commiserate. Connie and I both read a ton—so this time next year, we will be on a totally different track I’m afraid.

Constance: I’ve been doing a ton of research for my current book including this great book called The Belle Epoque: Paris in the Nineties by Raymond Rudorff and a Jean Harlow bio, Harlow in Hollywood by Darrell Rooney and Mark A. Viera that features fabulous photos of Harlow at the Agua Caliente Race Track in Mexico. On a personal note, I just finished The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro which led me to a bunch of non-fiction books on the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum. Obviously, I tend to wander in my reading. Like my sister, I’m a fan of audiobooks and podcasts. My audiobooks tend to be mysteries and historical novels—they need to hold my attention for my daily commute down Beach Drive in DC. Last year, my favorite book was Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night. I read it twice.

TD: What do you see for your future in writing?

Loie: My future is only one day ahead of me (and no, I’m not an addict). I’m writing my second novel (of a four-part series), so I’ll try to get it published. For me, that means trying to secure an agent and going from there. I’d also like to publish more of my short stories. I have several short stories that are connected by music, which wasn’t my intention but when I looked back I thought, isn’t that something!

 Constance: I’d love to see my two novels, Rustic Mournings and Spooky Distance, get published. I have two more books churning around in my head—one is a sequel to Rustic Mournings and the other is a gothic southern novel. My agent, Roz Foster of the Sandra Dijkstra Agency, is amazing. It took me ten years to write my first book and it hasn’t yet sold. Through my interviews with writers and editors concerning Thoughtful Dog, I now know that most first novels fail to sell to the ‘big five’ publishers but no one tells you that. As a result, Roz spent a lot of time talking me off the ledge last year and, instead, helping me focus on my entire writing career, not just the one book. Anyway, I finished the second book which we’re taking out soon. Interestingly, I found that the first book wasn’t nearly as ‘precious’ when you have another. Mentally, that was a good lesson for me.

TD: What is your process?

Loie: Connie and I have never spoken about our process so this was a real revelation to me when I mentioned I write in layers, like a painter. Connie said, “Me too! I write the same way.”

First time through it’s the basics. Thereafter, I add layers, or revisions, until the story is more complex and complete. Each revision tightens the story. Genetics do come into play. Weird and makes me love my sister more!

When I have an outline, however loose, I find I can write the story quicker. There are times when I don’t immediately know where the story is leading, so I write until I get a clearer idea. Oftentimes, I know the ending and how it begins and that’s all.

As to work area, I work with the computer on my lap. Wherever I am, I find a corner or chair or sofa, plop the computer on my lap (generally, distractions don’t bother me) and I type away. Years ago, when I used a large desktop computer, I used a desk. In other words, no matter where the computer is, I will find a way to pound out the words.

Constance: I think my first book is where I learned how to write a novel. I tend to start with an idea or concept that I want to explore . . . almost like a first chapter and I tend to know the last chapter as well. Both of my novels have had fairly solid structures. The first one starts with a man disappearing and the rest of the book is trying to piece together what happened and the second book is structured by four distinct time periods. For me, I need that type of structure to keep moving or I’ll get lost. After I finished my first novel, I was terrified of the three-hundred pages sitting in front of me with no form or shape. Then, I took a class on editing and broke my story into three parts. That helped me break the story down into a strong first 100 pages with a hook, a solid middle and a poignant ending.

For the most part, I write on my sofa. I spend a lot of time obsessing about desks and workspaces and yet never write at them. Currently, I also have a “thing” about the Apple Radio Chill channel and just put that on and write. My writing soundtrack is very important. Since I work full-time, I find that work travel is helpful. I wrote much of the second book at the Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles and on various United Airlines flights from LA to DC.

I have a very distinct process when I write. As Loie said, we never talked about our processes before this interview. Like a painter, I lay down the foundation which is often dialogue-based. Then, I go over the piece again for detail (sight, smell) and then again for precise language. I can’t let a piece go until it has been through a few layers of writing. I also can’t write about somewhere I’ve never been. This has really helped me rack up the airline miles (I recently flew to Paris, where I got a tour with a marvelous guide at the D’Orsay Museum) and then to Taos, NM.

TD: Top five books?

Loie: Can’t do just five but I’ll start with Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, just because it is a work of art. Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust. Then almost anything by Emile Zola because he’s so passionate., I’d scoot to David Mitchell, Black Swan Green, just because it gets to me (Audible is the only way to go with that one). Can’t pass up William Faulkner’s, The Sound and the Fury; Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. More: everything the great writer and researcher, Lily King has written. I discovered Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April, which is still so damn current. A Gentleman in Moscow and Less (mentioned above) are beautifully written and a joy to read. Also, I’ve read and re-read the books of Kazuo Ishiguro. Masterful! I’m drawn to British writers (but Dutch painters!), many of which I haven’t mentioned but are so prolific. I’ll end with non-lit Karin Slaughter. Jesus, she’s brutal but brilliant at her craft as is Cheryl Strayed, especially Tiny Beautiful Things—a non-fiction must-read in my opinion.

Connie: The Collected Short Stories of Alice Munro; Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust, No Exit by Jean Paul Sartre, The Devil All the Time by Donald Rae Pollack; and Look Away, Look Away by Wilton Barnhardt.

TD: Top song in your life?

Loie: Redwood Tree by Van Morrison, almost anything by Queen and techno music to write by or the Welsh song, Suo Gan, put on repeat.

Constance: Rumble by Link Wray is my favorite song. Both of my books have a soundtrack and relate to music. Surf music is my favorite—The Mermen are a favorite soundtrack while writing.

TD: Favorite place you could travel to and write for a year?

Loie: Avignon

Constance: Spoleto

TD: What inspires you?

Loie: Life; and those small, weird stories and secrets you hear from other people or, better still, overhear and never forget. Past loves, past lives. I’m a prolific dreamer so inspiration often comes from my dreams. I wake and jot them down on my phone before I forget, no matter the time.

TD: Favorite word?

Loie: Iron because it should be pronounced I RON  and we say I ERN, which for some reason intrigues me.

Constance: Shenanigans. It’s playful, yet biting at the same time…as in “She’s up to her shenanigans, again…”

TD: Who is your greatest writing influence?

Loie: There’s JK Rowling’s because she wasn’t a child protégée, but instead, is hard working and she made it. And Shakespeare for his elegance, Toni Morrison for her poetic verse that cuts to the quick. Elizabeth Arnim for her incredible comedic timing and restraint. And Turold, who wrote/translated the Song of Roland, which I love, love, love (I’m thinking past life?) Kazuo Ishiguro and Haruki Murakami. Also Homer—hard to beat the Odyssey for adventure and weirdly, the tale I reference the most.

Constance: Alice Munro or Jean Paul Sartre. It’s a toss-up!  No Exit is brilliant and changed my life.

TD: What have you liked the most/least about the year working on Thoughtful Dog?

Loie:  I have loved the overwhelming amount of responses we’ve gotten. Wow. What a pleasure to read so many stories and interviews. The authors are lovely people. The least? I don’t know, maybe that there are so many stories to read and edit with only a limited amount of time to do so, then factor in the fact that I have a life and can’t read the submissions constantly, though I do my best.

Constance: I love every Q/A. I learn something from each one. It’s also great when the issue is finished and we push it out. Every issue has a different feel to it. Also, I get strangely excited when I find a photo or artwork that conveys the piece perfectly.

TD: Things about you that would surprise readers?
Loie:  I’m very private and I love to edit. I love editing almost as much as I love writing. I also love reading. That aside, I enjoy yoga and over the last year, having battled lung cancer, I’ve really come to cherish my friends and family a hell of a lot more than I did, say a year ago.

Constance: That I’m an introvert. No one believes it—and I also wrote my Master’s Thesis on the Barbie Doll.

TD: Best advice to a writer starting out?

Constance: Take up painting! Seriously! I’m constantly at odds with the fact that by the time a piece gets published, years have gone by. Most artists are a bit more connected between their production and their finished product than writers tend to be. We workshop and edit for years.

 I recall writer, Barbara Esstman, saying that most people don’t think about characters in their daily lives.  If you’re sitting at a stoplight and thinking about a character, then you’re weird—and you’re a writer!  So, I guess I’m doomed. I think the best advice is to get some good basic instruction on writing at a workshop and really listen to the advice you’re getting about your work. Listen to what characters are telling you—or aren’t—on the page. Know the strengths and weaknesses of your story. Trust me, it doesn’t get easier when agents and editors are giving you feedback.

Loie: My advice is find some writer or editor you trust (which takes time) and then listen to them. LISTEN TO THEM—CHANCES ARE, THEY KNOW MORE THAN YOU ABOUT THE CRAFT. Nothing shows you’re a new writer more than an unwillingness to take advice or try it another way. Thanks for the interview!

 Constance:  Lots of all caps in that last one, Loie.  You must feel strongly about that one!  Now, go and write.

Photo: Liz Lynch 

 


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