Fiction Writer Cate O’Toole Chooses Her Own ASFA-CW Interview Adventure!

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Cate O’Toole was awarded a Rachel Carson Fellowship and earned her MFA in fiction from Chatham University. She is the author of the chapbook Big Women, Big Girls (Stamped Books, 2011) and her stories have appeared in Six Sentences and the 6S Vol. 1 anthology, Wanderlust Review, The Linnet’s Wings, shady side review, and elsewhere. Cate was the 2012 recipient of the Poetry & Prose Winter Getaway’s Jan-Ai Scholarship. She lives and writes in Seattle, WA.

Her collection of flash fictions, Oh My Darling!, re-imagines the folk ballad “Oh My Darling, Clementine” into a haunting choose-your-own-adventure (CYA) narrative, of which Harmony Neal writes: “All roads lead to death — it’s the choices along the journey that make the life. Cate O’Toole has masterfully created the parallel stories of Clementine, letting the reader choose her path, which, while not pretty, is made of choices, as all lives are. Grim, sure, but choose your own adventure never goes out of style, especially when the language sings and the setting gets dirt in your teeth.”

After reading (and loving) Oh My Darling! for this past year’s Senior Thesis seminar, ASFA-CW Seniors Norah Madden-Lunsford and Willow Tucker devised their own CYA adventure for Cate to navigate. Here’s the path she took: 

1. When did you first listen to “Oh My Darling Clementine”?

  • Young; go to q. 2 [I can’t remember exactly, but I feel confident that I was very young. I remember listening to these tapes my parents had of old, traditional folk songs – I must have been 5 or 6 – and it was probably on one of those.]
  • Old; go to q. 5

[For the uninitiated, here’s a rendition of the song:]

2. Did you play games like Dungeons and Dragons as a kid (that incorporate choose your own adventure)?

  • No games; go to q. 3 [I was not a big gamer as a kid – it never had the same draw for me that reading did, and I wasn’t really aware of D&D or similar games at the time anyway. True story: I played D&D for the first time when I was 29.]
  • Games; go to q. 4

3. How did you learn to write a “choose your own adventure”? Did you just wing it?

I thought it would be fun to try, and the project seemed to suit that style, so I just dove in – and pretty much made it up as I went. There was a lot of trial and error and revision as I figured out how to fit all the puzzle pieces together, and how to carve them up in a way that made sense in the format and served the story. A piece I didn’t anticipate, that ended up being one of the hardest things to navigate, was not letting the different streams influence one another. Clementine is the same character, but she’s also a different character over and over – she can’t grow a certain way along one path and also reflect that growth in a completely different, disconnected path.

Also I did lots of checking and double-checking and triple-checking the page numbering. And then checking again, just in case.

4. What games did you play?

5. Did you listen to the song and analyze the lyrics before you conceptualized the various storylines?

  • Yea; go to q. 6 [Yes and no! I started writing and did my research later, to see what else I might pull from the song, and that research did inform some of the arcs.]
  • Nay; go to q. 9 [No and yes! I was familiar enough with the song that I knew there were going to be pieces I had to hit – herring boxes, geese, drowning – so that gave me a place to start. That said, it never occurred to me to stay true to the song’s comedic origins. I always planned to take Clementine and her life seriously.]

6. Did you plan out the different variations of Clementine separately?

  • Individual arcs; go to q. 7
  • Individual sections; go to q. 8

[Yes to both, at least partially.]

7. Did you write individual arcs straight through?

I focused on each arc one by one, and didn’t move on to another arc until I had a solid draft finished. In part this helped keep me focused on that particular storyline without getting distracted by the details from the others – in writing and life, I prefer minimal juggling. In a project with eight different endings, it was also nice to work towards an ending and take advantage of that momentum, even if it wasn’t the end. You have to take the little victories where they come!

8. When you were writing did you write each individual sections?

Even as I focused on individual arcs, I wrote them in sections, rather than trying to write through the full arc and then decide later where to cut in and offer a choice to the reader. This largely meant that my early drafts of each section were HUGE – they went on and on forever, just ambling around Clementine’s world and exploring until I got to where I knew I was trying to end up. That’s a typical part of my personal writing process – just throwing it all at the page and seeing what matters – and I think it was especially valuable for this project. Writing with clear delineations between sections meant I could indulge in all that word-vomit without bogging down other sections. Later, when it came time to revise, having boundaries for each section helped me focus on what each one needed to accomplish and made cutting away the fluff much easier.

9. How often do you write?

My preference is to write every day. I say preference because things get in the way – I have a job and a life and lots of competing priorities, and there are only so many hours in the day. It’s easy to find excuses not to write, to be busy or tired or just lazy, or tell yourself you’re waiting for a flash of inspiration. You have to cultivate a certain amount of deliberate, conscious spark within yourself, to decide to write and then be ferocious about making sure it happens.

When I was working on Oh My Darling, I wrote constantly. I wrote notes and ideas on any scrap of paper that came my way. I camped out at Starbucks for days, hammering away at my laptop. I even wrote while I was at work, pretending to do my real job. I don’t necessarily recommend that as a sustaining part of your writing routine, but…I was very bored there and writing filled the time, and I was too consumed with Clementine to focus on whatever I was supposed to be doing anyway.

Also, since you asked [I know you didn’t ask, but when one reaches a big life milestone one is obligated to bore everyone around oneself by talking about it constantly], I recently bought a house, which has – among many fine features – a dedicated office space with a door that can be closed to distractions and interruptions. I’ve written in coffee shops and on buses and hunched over a desk in a dark bedroom while my partner slept, but never in a private space that was mine all mine, and dedicated completely to my work. I cannot overstate how excited I am to get to it!

10. How did you know each arc came to an end?

Early in the project, I mapped out every section and every arc, with an eye to their endings. These changed as the stories and characters evolved, but I always had an idea of what the end was going to be when I sat down to write. And then, simply put, I wrote until I got somewhere.

This is going to sound cheesy, but I’m a big believer in letting characters take you where they want to go, and not stifling them by over-planning. A lot of writing Oh My Darling was like having a conversation with Clementine. I’d say, “OK, this is where we’re going – how are we getting there?” Sometimes she would lead me to the ending I’d envisioned, but sometimes I’d end up somewhere completely unplanned. Fiction is beautiful like that.

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