Rebecca Entel’s novel, Fingerprints of Previous Owners, was published by The Unnamed Press in 2017. Her short stories and essays have been published in such journals as Catapult, Guernica, Joyland Magazine, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, Cleaver Magazine, and The Madison Review. She is Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Cornell College, where she teaches multicultural U.S. literature, Caribbean literature, creative writing, and the literature of social justice. She also sometimes teaches fiction workshops for Catapult and the Iowa Writers’ House.
1. Will you tell us about your most recent published work?
My debut novel, Fingerprints of Previous Owners, was published by The Unnamed Press in 2017.
At a Caribbean resort built atop a former slave plantation, Myrna works as a maid by day; by night she trespasses on the resort's overgrown inland property, secretly excavating the plantation ruins. Rapt by the crumbling walls of the once slave-owner's estate, she explores the unspoken history of the plantation— a site where her ancestors once worked the land, but which the resort now uses as a lookout point for tourists. When Myrna discovers a book detailing the experiences of slaves, who still share a last name with the majority of the islanders, her investigation becomes deeply personal, extending to her neighbors and friends, and explaining her mother's self-imposed silence and father's disappearance. A new generation begins to speak about the past just as racial tensions erupt between the resort and the local island community.
2. What personal challenges do you face as a writer?
One major challenge is that my job takes up a lot of my time, including most nights and weekends during the school year. So finding time to devote to my writing (without sacrificing my personal life and health) is a major challenge.
3. What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
I write in a very fragmented way; I tend to begin with small details or scenes, and it takes me a very long time to put all the pieces together and see the big picture. This isn’t a problem in terms of the quality of my writing in the end – lots of writers proceed this way – but It’s hard not to feel frustrated by the time and inefficiency of the process sometimes. I’ll never be a fast writer.
4. How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
I don’t think my process changed much, but my confidence in my process changed, and that helps me push through the low points that always come with a long-term project.
5. How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have? Will you tell us about them?
Good question! Most people don’t know that a writer’s “first book” is often not their first book. I have a short story collection that has never been published as a book, though many of the stories have been published. I also have uncountable shorter pieces that have either not been finished or not published, mainly short stories and some poetry. My doctoral dissertation was never published as a book, though I have published some pieces of it in articles. I made the conscious decision not to spend the years needed to turn it into a book so that I could devote that time to my first novel. There’s only so much time.
6. Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
I have read the reviews, though I understand the advice not to. For me the most important thing to remember is that every reader can’t have the same exact reaction to your work. There are people who absolutely loved my book, and others who weren’t into it at all. It’s hard, of course, when you see someone post a low rating or a review that seems unfair/uninformed on places like Goodreads, but ultimately there’s nothing you can do about it, and thinking about it won’t help your writing in any way. It’s probably best to stay away from them. Personally, though, I did find that the professional reviews that came out before my book came out – by reviewers who really seemed to “get” the book – helped with my nerves about the book launch. But I don’t think any reviews play a role in your actual writing.
7. Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
I wouldn’t define them as “secrets,” but I did choose every little detail deliberately, so careful readers (or those rereading) will notice more and more small details that connect to larger aspects of the story.
8. If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Someday you will write things you couldn’t ever have imagined writing right now.
9. What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Two traps I see lots of people falling into:
1. Not understanding how hard the process is and giving up on a project when your work needs more revision or you’re not sure how to work through something. Talk to other writers. Finding out that what you’re going through is all part of the process and not a failure (of you or the work) can be the best way to get out of or avoid this trap.
2. Trying to write a book-length work as the first thing you ever write is probably not the best way to go for most aspiring writers; you end up giving up. I’d compare it to trying to run a marathon if you’ve never run much or at all – you need time to train, to work up to the larger goal.
10. What’s the best way to market your books?
This is a tough question that depends on how you’re published, what kind of books you write, and what your goals are. But I think one factor that applies to all writers is that making genuine connections with people is an important part of long-term marketing. You never know when a connection – with another author, with a member to a book group, with a librarian, with a teacher – is going to lead to more readers.
11. What is your favorite childhood book?
I have so many! I’ll go with the ones I remember taking out of the library over and over again: Noisy Nancy Norris by Louann Gaeddert and Elizabeth by Martha Alexander.