Interview With Author Valerie Fraser Luesse

# Please introduce yourself and your book(s)!

Hello! I’m Valerie Fraser Luesse, and I write Southern fiction, always rooted in a place that means something to me. I have to know where I am. My first book, Missing Isaac (Revell, 2018) won a Christy Award for best first novel and was set in rural Alabama during the 1960s—the Alabama of my childhood; the second, Almost Home (Revell, 2019) was also set in Alabama, but this time during World War II, and it was based on my own family history, when my great- aunt and uncle turned their Southern homeplace into a boarding house for workers supporting the war effort; the third, The Key to Everything (Revell, 2020) was inspired by an incredible journey taken by a friend’s dad right after the war, a trip that took him to Key West, which I love; and my fourth, Under the Bayou Moon (Revell, August 2021) grew out of my travels in Southwest Louisiana as a writer for Southern Living magazine.

# What is/are the real-life story(ies) behind your book(s)?

I would say the real-life element comes from what I mentioned before—leading with place and time, or maybe I should say place and circumstance, followed in short order by stories from my own family or my experiences as a travel writer for Southern Living. For example, Under the Bayou Moon revolves around a young, idealistic Alabama schoolteacher who accepts a job in a tiny Cajun community right after World War II. The teacher, Ellie Fields, experiences this rich culture as an outsider, just as I did when I covered it for the magazine. So even though my characters and their challenges are fictional, they have solid roots.

# What inspires/inspired your creativity?

The South. I’ve never lived anyplace else, and I’ve never found anyplace that made me want to tell stories the way the South does. Also, I’m inspired by my family. I grew up among talented storytellers, though none of them did it for a living. It was just our way of entertaining and connecting with each other. Their stories of the past always fired my imagination as a child—still do.

# How do you deal with creative block?

I try to remember an old adage that a teacher named Terry Roberson taught me in high school: “You cannot be a writer and an editor at the same time.” I think what we often perceive as a creative block is actually a critical one—we’re too distracted and inhibited by our internal critic to just let the ideas flow. You have to give yourself permission to write some truly awful stuff, knowing that no one will see it until it’s rewritten and rewritten and rewritten again—until it’s good.

# What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?

Being inflexible is a biggie. You have to be willing to let go of ideas that don’t work—and many of them won’t. Also, falling into the trap of treating fiction writing like a performance, hoping readers will take notice of that brilliant paragraph you spent days perfecting. The truth is that once readers are aware of you, the writer, they’re out of the story. Writers should be invisible. It’s the setting, the characters, and the story that need to shine.

# Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?

No! I’m terrible at it. I can’t write good magazine headlines either. I have no idea why.

# How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?

I try to pay attention only to specific comments from reviewers who are honestly trying to be constructive, while ignoring the snarky “who told her she could write” variety. I also try to remind myself that I can’t be all things to all people. Some readers just won’t identify with my stories, and I have to accept that.

# How has your creation process improved over time?

I’ve learned so much from my Revell editors since the first book, particularly on the technical aspects of fiction writing, like managing beats and dialog tags and maintaining a consistent point of view. And I find that I do more front-end work with each book. I absolutely cannot write from a detailed outline. It makes me feel too boxed in. But I like to collect images that look like the characters and setting I have in my mind and arrange those all over my office. They help me focus. I’ve also started writing scene sketches before I attempt the actual chapters of a manuscript. That’s a new process for what will be my fifth book, coming out next year.

# What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your book(s)?

Meeting readers, not meeting readers, and meeting readers again. I’m an introvert, so I have to psyche myself up to do signings and book club appearances. But once I’m there and I’m just talking with readers about my stories, I love it. And I’m always amazed that somebody I don’t even know actually read and enjoyed one of my books. I really missed that experience with The Key to Everything. Pandemic restrictions made it impossible to do any kind of events and talk to readers one-on-one, though I was able to Zoom with some clubs. Just recently, I found out a book club in the Netherlands was reading it—they tagged me on Instagram! That’s incredible to me—people thousands of miles away, reading a Dutch translation of my Southern story and taking the time to let me know they enjoyed it.

# Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?

I learned a long time ago that stories are organic, whether you’re writing novels or magazine features. If you try to force one into something it doesn’t want to be, it will fall apart every time. I have to tell the stories that I feel led and inspired to tell. And sometimes they take unexpected turns. Characters appear out of the blue. That’s the joy and excitement of writing, for me. So yes, I think about readers—what they liked or didn’t like in previous books—but in the end, the story has to take its natural course.

# What role do emotions play in creativity?

There are days when I just flat-out don’t feel like writing. When that happens, it’s completely pointless to stare at a blank screen. I try to get outside, clear my head, and give myself a break. Also, I’ve learned that I can write when I’m sad but not when I’m mad! Anger is too distracting, but writing is a welcome balm for sadness. There’s something very healing about it.

# Do you have any creativity tricks?

Readers often tell me they feel as if they’re watching my books instead of reading them. That isn’t something I intentionally set out to do, but I like the idea of it. So I’ve been reading up on screenwriting, not because I want to write a screenplay but because I want to see if I can take some of the techniques that make a film compelling and translate them into a novel structure.

# What are your plans for future books?
I just signed a contract for two more books with Revell. One was inspired by a mysterious year in my grandmother’s life; it’s set in turn-of-the-century Alabama, when she was a teenager. The other will be a laughter-through-tears story (channeling Dolly Parton in Steel Magnolias) about a young woman who has lost her way and a group of “silver angels,” senior ladies who take her under wing while she chauffeurs them into and out of their small-town escapades.

# Tell us some quirky facts about yourself

I can recall things said to me in elementary school but spend half my life trying to remember why I walked into this or that room.

As a small-town church pianist, I once accompanied the choir for an outdoor Christmas program on an upright piano in the back of my uncle’s Ford pickup.

I grew up in the motherland of beauty pageants, but the ONLY one I ever entered (in first grade) was held at the National Guard Armory in Vincent, Alabama, and the “runway” was the bed of a flatbed truck. (In the interest of good taste, the cab was removed for the pageant.)

Traveling for Southern Living, my husband and I have outrun a hurricane, listened to amazing gospel music under a tent in the Mississippi Delta, eaten crawfish and boudin and muffulettas and po’boys, gone 4-wheeling by the ocean on the Outer Banks, driven all the way around the state of Florida, and gotten completely lost in a Louisiana cane field. (I was sure we had wandered all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. We were actually 2 miles from Walmart.)