About the Author:
Born in the Chicago suburbs, Amy Gail Hansen holds a BA in English from Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. A former English teacher, she works as a freelance writer and journalist in suburban Chicago, where she lives with her husband and three children. The Butterfly Sister is her debut novel.
Connect with Amy:
MF: Tell us about The Butterfly Sister. What inspired you to write this story?
AGH: The Butterfly Sister is about Ruby Rousseau, an emotionally fragile twenty-two-year-old who dropped out of a liberal arts women’s college a semester short of graduation. Ten months later, a mysterious suitcase arrives, and when Ruby tries to find the rightful owner of the luggage—an acquaintance from college named Beth Richards—she learns that Beth has been missing for several days. In order to figure out what happened to Beth, Ruby must revisit the demons of her own past. The novel was inspired by a real-life incident. In 2004, I was checking my suitcase for my honeymoon in Italy and looked down to see another girl’s name and address on the luggage tag. I quickly remembered how five years prior, I had lent the luggage to a college acquaintance, who obviously left her luggage tag behind when she returned it to me, though I never noticed. While I swapped her tag with one of those flimsy paper ones the airlines provide, I thought “What if the suitcase had gotten lost and went to her instead of me?”
MF: What made you choose to write in the mystery genre? Are you interested in writing in other genres?
AGH: The basic plot to any story is a problem that needs to be solved, a conflict that needs a resolution, and mysteries always fit that mold. I grew up reading mysteries, from Encyclopedia Brown to Nancy Drew, and have always delighted in the mysterious aspects of novels not classified as mysteries. Think about Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and the mystery of Boo Radley, the strange neighbor who supposedly stabbed his family with scissors. Lee keeps you guessing about Boo until the end of the book. I am challenged by unanswered questions and enjoy figuring out the answers, so it’s no wonder I wrote a mystery for my debut novel. I plan to stay in the mystery/thriller/suspense genre because those are the books I most like to read. But I do have an idea for a future book that would blend mystery with science fiction and paranormal.
MF: You began writing The Butterfly Sister in 2006 and it was published in 2013. You’ve said it went through many changes from the first draft to publication. What kept you motivated to never give up?
AGH: I will admit there was a moment when I wanted to give up, when I considered just scrapping the book and deeming it “the first novel that never got published.” But giving up is not something I do easily on things that really matter to me. Of course, I get discouraged, but at my core, I have a fighting spirit that does not take no for an answer and keeps at something until it is close to perfect in my eyes. That said, there were plenty of times when I took “breaks” from the book—sometimes only a day or two, sometimes a month. For me, writing is organic and stories reveal themselves to me in due time, so I try not to rush myself and instead, follow my gut instincts. If I am supposed to be writing, but instead feel like taking a walk or cleaning out my closet, I will abandon work for the other whim. This may sound like procrastination, but it’s not. Because while I’m on my walk I will probably see something or meet someone who inspires something in the book, or while I am cleaning the closet, my mind also clears and I have an epiphany about the story.
MF: You have a BA in English and you’ve taught the subject to middle school through college aged students. What did you learn from writing a book?
AGH: I learned something I already knew: Writing is rewriting. As a teacher, I always talked about the revision process and asked my students to submit several drafts of a paper before the final version. But when I first finished The Butterfly Sister, I thought it was pretty darn awesome. I had never in my life finished an entire manuscript, so that alone made it seem perfect at first glance. Time went by of course and after some distance—and comments from literary agents and peer readers—I realized that I had written a first draft, one that would need to be revised heavily. Almost no one gets it right the first time. Great writing comes with rewriting and revision.
MF: Name two or three authors who have inspired you. Is there a particular author you want to emulate?
AGH: I am a huge Wally Lamb fan, ever since I read She’s Come Undone when I was 18. I was fortunate to interview and meet him when I worked as a journalist and must say I was surprised by his humility. With his successes, he could have been pompous and full of himself, but he is so humble, sweet, honest, and grounded. He taught me that no matter how many books you write or how well-known you can become, at the end of the day, you are simply an artist. Style wise, I am inspired by John Searles. His book Help for the Haunted opened my eyes to different writing techniques, especially in regards to exposition. An author I want to emulate is Gillian Flynn. I loved all three of her books, especially Gone Girl. She inspires me to push the envelope.
MF: Do you read your reviews and if so do you respond to them? Do you have any advice on how to deal with the bad?
AGH: When my book first came out and I started to get reviews, I read them all with bated breath. Most people said some truly flattering things about my debut novel. Of course, some people were less kind and a few were even downright cruel. Despite this, I always understood where the readers were coming from, even if I didn’t agree. After the first few months, I started to feel that reading reviews, especially the negative ones, was a waste of my time for two reasons. 1) There was absolutely NOTHING I could change about the book at that point, and 2) I had pretty much heard every negative comment out there and felt I had already “learned” from the constructive criticism and felt ready to apply it to my future writing. So I stopped reading negative reviews. For instance, on Goodreads, I read only reviews where the reader gave me 4 or 5 stars. I haven’t read reviews in a while but when I do, I don’t comment on them, good or bad. If someone tweets a kind review, I will star it and retweet it. Something that made me feel better was reading negative reviews for books I absolutely loved. I couldn’t believe the horrible reviews for books that I cherish, like To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone Girl, and She’s Come Undone. And I thought, if Harper Lee and Gillian Flynn and Wally Lamb can get one out of five stars, who do I think I am?
MF: What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer?
AGH: I never expected my writing could help others. The Butterfly Sister was chosen for a Ladies Night Out book club fundraiser for The Lake County Haven, a shelter for homeless women and children in the Chicago suburbs. The evening raised $1,700 for their organization. A month later, I helped raise money for Curious Kids Museum in St. Joseph Michigan, a darling town on the shores of Lake Michigan, through a similar type of event. When I wrote the novel, I never imagined this kind of impact. That feels really good.
MF: What has been the toughest criticism given to you as a writer? What has been the best compliment?
AGH: One of the toughest things said to me was by a literary agent who replied to the first 50 pages of my first draft. She said, “Your narrative is not compelling.” That was a dagger to the heart, but I stopped and thought, “Why isn’t it compelling?” and I went about revising the book to make it more compelling. The nicest compliment is one I get on a regular basis. Most readers tell me, “I couldn’t put your book down,” and to me, that’s a huge compliment. I never wanted to write a boring book. I think I would cry my eyes out if someone told me that my book was so boring, they just couldn’t get through it. I don’t want to write books to be ignored on a nightstand. I want to write books that people actually read.
MF: Aside from polished and engaging writing, what three things do you think every new writer must do in order to succeed in this highly competitive and ever-changing industry?
AGH: 1) Grow a thick skin: You will never make it in the world of publishing if you take things personally or can’t handle criticism. You must be able to handle rejection and use it to fuel your ambition.
2) Read, read, read: A good writer is a good reader. I learn so much from the books I read. I am always a better writer when I am reading a book. Reading keeps your vocabulary sharp and sentences flowing. It inspires and motivates me.
3) Follow your gut: You know that little voice in your head, in your heart? Listen to it.
MF: If you could jump into a book, and live in that world … which would it be?
AGH: I never thought I’d say this, but it’s Harry Potter. I am reading the very first one in the series with my eight-year-old son right now, and it is our special time together every night before he goes to bed. I didn’t read the books when they first came out and didn’t understand all the hoopla. But I get it now. I am as invested in the story as my son. I never thought I liked magic and wizardry, but Rowling sure pulls you in. Second place goes to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, though. A chocolate river? I’m in.
The Butterfly Sister:
Twenty-two-year-old Ruby Rousseau is haunted by memories of Tarble, the women’s college she fled from ten months earlier, and the painful love affair that pushed her to the brink of tragedy.
When a suitcase belonging to a former classmate named Beth arrives on her doorstep, Ruby is plunged into a dark mystery. Beth has gone missing, and the suitcase is the only tangible evidence of her whereabouts.
Inside the bag, Ruby discovers a tattered copy of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, the book she believes was a harbinger of her madness. Is someone trying to send her a message—and what does it mean?
The search for answers leads to Tarble. As Ruby digs into Beth’s past, she has no choice but to confront her own—an odyssey that will force her to reexamine her final days at school, including the married professor who broke her heart and the ghosts of illustrious writers, dead by their own hand, who beckoned her to join their tragic circle.
But will finding the truth finally set Ruby free . . . or send her over the edge of sanity?
Click here for Missy’s review of The Butterfly Sister
Purchase The Butterfly Sister: