COMPASS NORTH has been hailed by readers as the "... must read book for today's generation of women." We are thrilled to bring you this exclusive interview that introduces you to the writer and the setting behind COMPASS NORTH.
What is the high concept in COMPASS NORTH?
What if a desperately unhappy woman had an unexpected chance to disappear and reinvent her life, when she’s presumed dead in a catastrophic accident?
What is the book about?
COMPASS NORTH is a book about a desperately unhappy woman from Florida who slips away into a new identity and a new life in Alaska after she’s presumed dead in a catastrophic accident. At first she is pulled along by circumstances, but then she starts to make her own choices. She finds it’s not that easy to leave behind the baggage of her past, but she discovers that she can peel back the layers of unhappiness that have weighed her down, to find her strength and joy again. But not everyone back in Florida is convinced that she is dead, and someone is looking for her, someone who could destroy her dream of becoming a new person.
What is your inspiration for COMPASS NORTH?
The concept of the book bloomed after the catastrophic events of 9/11, when so many lost their lives as the World Trade Towers fell, and under such circumstances that their bodies will never be recovered. Yet I realized that some people must have avoided being killed just as a result of luck: They were late for work in the towers, or they had just darted out to run an errand. In most cases, they would soon be happily reunited with their loved ones. But, I wondered, after that kind of disaster, what if a person who narrowly escaped death was terribly unhappy? Would he or she be tempted to stay “dead” and take the opportunity to slip away? So Meredith came into being, a woman betrayed by her husband and worn down by years of emotional abuse, who is thrust onto a new path after a terrible accident in Alaska.
COMPASS NORTH also reflects my personal conviction that everyone experiences periods of desperation and despair, and during those times any future happiness may seem elusive at best. But joy is always out there, waiting. Really.
Please describe the setting for COMPASS NORTH.
Homer is a small quirky town located on Kachemak Bay in Alaska, not too far from Anchorage. You can see some lovely pictures of Homer on my website.
Homer is the perfect location for Meredith’s story. First of all, it’s just drop-dead gorgeous. Gleaming glaciers pour door the flanks of the high mountains that circle Kachemak Bay. The bay abounds with sea and bird life. According to Wikipedia, the Homer Spit, an isthmus of land that spins out into the bay for over four miles, is the longest road into ocean waters in the entire world. And Homer is one of those communities that exudes character. You’ll find fisherman, ex-hippies, tourists, artists, business people...the list goes on.
Meredith had to be in a place where she could disappear. Homer was a very long way from her home in Florida, but more than that, Alaskans all over the state pride themselves on their rugged and individualistic spirits. The land and weather can be harsh, but some manage to live a subsistence lifestyle and barter for their needs, disconnected from the kind of life most of us lead.
Are any of your characters anything like you or your life?
None of my characters are autobiographical, and I don’t base my characters on people I know in real life. Having said that, an author’s values and attitudes always leach into her books. It’s one of the reasons that it’s so darn hard, at first, to allow anyone to read your work. It’s always personal.
I lived for many decades in Alaska (and still have strong ties there and visit often) so Meredith’s observations and experiences about life in Alaska are drawn from my own personal history.
You’re from Alaska... I can’t imagine anyone would ever want to move away from such a pristine environment. What brought you to Seattle?
Well, lives are complicated. I lived in Alaska from 1976 until fairly recently, and I loved all those years in the last frontier. My husband and I still own property near Homer and we visit Alaska several times a year. As you can imagine after all our decades in Alaska, we have friends there who are like our family. And Alaska is beautiful. But Alaska is harsh too: The winters are lengthy and dark, and it’s a long journey from Alaska to anywhere else. We decided that it was time to try urban living for a while, so we moved to Seattle, a city we already knew fairly well. Seattle and the Pacific Northwest are pretty wonderful too. I’ve done a lot of hiking in the Cascades since I’ve been in Seattle, and the wilderness around the Washington is spectacular.
In your opinion, who will enjoy reading COMPASS NORTH?
COMPASS NORTH is a novel that could fall into a number of categories, including mainstream fiction, women’s fiction, Alaskan fiction and romantic suspense. As such, I think the story has an appeal for a wide audience.
On my website, I describe how I visualize my typical reader. In my mind’s eye, I see a woman who has worked hard all day. She’s finally got a little time to herself, and she pours herself a cup of tea or a glass of wine, drops into a comfortable chair, puts up her feet, and picks up a book. She sighs, content that now she can relax and read a story that transports her away from the ordinary. For a little while, she wants to be somewhere else, perhaps be someone else. I’d like COMPASS NORTH to give her that.
I hope I’m not being presumptuous, but I think readers of books by Jodi Picoult and Kristin Hannah will enjoy COMPASS NORTH.
Are you reading any books that you would recommend to readers?
I’m currently on a Louise Penny reading binge, working my way through her Inspector Gamache mystery series. Right now I’m reading HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN. Her books are so entertaining, and her characters are engaging and fascinating. I’m going to be so sorry when I’m finished!
I recently read Amy Tan’s THE VALLEY OF AMAZEMENT. I loved the vivid historical detail and the multi-layered women characters.
Recently, a friend mentioned Amy Hempel’s wonderful book of short stories, REASONS TO LIVE, and I pulled it out to reread it. Hempel wrote amazing, fragmented, non-traditional short stories rich with poignancy. They’re short, but you have to read them slowly and carefully. And they can make you cry.
What challenge, if any, did you face turning COMPASS NORTH into fiction?
My biggest challenge was the depiction of my main character, Meredith. As the story opens, Meredith has been demoralized by years of emotional abuse inflicted by her husband. She has lost confidence in herself. So, at the beginning of the story, you don’t find the kind of spunky and bold heroine that many readers expect. If you remember GONE WITH THE WIND, you will find that Meredith is less like Scarlet O’Hara and more like Melanie Wilkes. She’s quiet and introspective. At first, as events unfold, Meredith is swept along by the circumstances, but then she begins to make her own choices. She starts to rediscover herself, and her strengths reemerge.
Writing from Meredith’s point of view was challenging, as was presenting her inner dialogue in a way that the readers could understand Meredith and her actions. If her dilemma doesn’t resonate with a reader, the reader’s first impression might be that Meredith is whiny or weak. She’s not either.
Is COMPASS NORTH the first in a series or is it a standalone read?
COMPASS NORTH is a standalone read, but I’m working on a sequel.
I hadn’t originally intended for COMPASS NORTH to be a series. It is a complete, standalone novel. But after I finished it (at exactly the point I felt it should be finished), I realized that there could be more of the story to tell.
I’m working now on the sequel, tentatively titled A LATE HARD FROST. We are back in Homer, several months after the point at which COMPASS NORTH ends. Many of the same characters have returned, but the main character of A LATE HARD FROST is Cassandra, the fiery and temperamental artist from COMPASS NORTH.
What has your path to publication been like?
I’ve always loved to read and write. When I was little, I hid under the bed covers at night and read with a flashlight, until my parents got wise to me. My first writing success came in elementary school, when my poem about riding on a Ferris wheel was published in the school paper. I was very proud of it! Over my life, I’ve kept journals and diaries, and I’ve written my way through many challenging times. Somehow putting my thoughts and feelings down in written words always helps.
When it came time to pick out careers, I went to law school. That decision was largely motivated by my strong desire to be self-sufficient, to be able to take care of myself, an idea my mother drilled into me. “You can fall in love and have a nice marriage,” she said, “but no matter what, you have to be able to take care of yourself. Don’t rely on a man.” I am lucky to have a very nice marriage, but I pride myself on being an equal partner in it. Law school delivered: Over the years I’ve had a very successful legal career.
My legal work, however, didn’t satisfy my creative urges to write. Over the course of several years, I attended night classes at the University of Alaska Anchorage and attained my MFA in Creative Writing, Fiction in 1993. My thesis was a book length volume of short stories.
After my husband and I relocated from Alaska to Seattle several years ago, I recommitted to writing and decided to tackle the novel that had been rattling around in my head. It took a couple of years, but COMPASS NORTH came into being. I was delighted when an editor I met at the Pacific Northwest Writing Conference invited me to submit my manuscript and then offered me a contract to publish. Leaving the world of writing for personal satisfaction and entering the world of commercial publishing has been an educational experience. I’ve learned a lot about how complex a process is involved in publishing a novel. Not for the faint of heart!
I didn’t have a definite plan for a second book after COMPASS NORTH, but I find I can’t stop! I’m working on the sequel to COMPASS NORTH, tentatively titled A LATE HARD FROST. We’re back in Homer, Alaska, with many of the same characters, but Cassandra, the fiery and temperamental ceramics artist, is the main character of this second book.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Many books offer extensive advice to the aspiring author, and much of it is good. I have only one piece of advice: Write the book you love. When you seriously take on a writing project, you are going to be living with it for a long time. You will get discouraged, you will get tired, and at times you will be sure that you’re writing utter dreck. The only thing, I believe, that will get you through the bad times without your giving up is your honest affection for your book. That will keep you going, and in the end, your book will come to life.
Do you belong to any writers groups and/or charitable organizations?
I volunteer one day a week at Jubilee Women’s Center, a Seattle organization focused on providing support to women who are trying to reestablish their lives in the community. I love the small cadre of women I work with, and the work is a good reminder of, “There but for fortune go you or I.”
For decades I’ve worked as a Senior Associate Editor for Alaska Quarterly Review, a well-established literary magazine housed at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. It’s a continuing privilege to work with a tiny dedicated staff to produce a quality journal that publishes a wide variety of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I’ve been able to continue my work with AQR even though I now live in Seattle.
I’m a member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, 49 Writers (an Alaskan writing organization), and Hugo House (writing organization in Seattle), and I’ve attended workshops at Hedgebrook, a women’s writing association located on Whidbey Island near Seattle. I earned a Certificate in Popular Fiction from the University of Washington in 2011.
I’m a member of a wonderful writing group. We try to meet every week or so to help each other with our works in progress. We are from very different backgrounds and each of us is writing in a different genre, but it all works.
I also belong to an informal women’s hiking group. We try to hike in the spectacular wilderness around Seattle, especially in the Cascades, whenever we can.
Have you received any citations, honors or prizes?
I was named a YWCA Alaska Woman of Achievement in 2007. During my prior legal career, I was the Administrative Director of the Alaska Court System, the President of the Conference of State Court Administrators (representing all 50 states and several territories) and Vice-Chair of the National Center for State Courts. I was named a Fellow of the ICM Court Development Program in 1994, earning an Award of Merit. During my legal career, I was licensed to practice law in Alaska and California, but I’ve let those licenses lapse (resigned in California, inactive in Alaska).
Do you have any unusual writing quirks?
I know many writers listen to certain music, and some can write in any environment, from crowded coffee shops to buses and beyond. I write best is silence. That’s when I can see my story clearly and can hear my characters in my head.
I also don’t write chronologically. I have a good sense of where my story is going, but when I sit down to write, I write the scene that appeals to me at that time. At the end of the process, it’s quite the chore to weave all those scenes together into a coherent whole story, but that’s what I have to do.
Where can readers learn more about you?
My website is www.stephaniejoycecole.com, and my blog in located on the website: www.stephaniejoycecole.com/blog
I have an author page on Facebook: Stephanie Joyce Cole
Information about me and COMPASS NORTH is also provided on my publisher’s website: www.champagnebooks.com
Title: COMPASS NORTH
Author: Stephanie Joyce Cole
Author Location: Seattle, Washington
Genre: Women’s Fiction; Romantic Suspense
Release Date: December1st, 2013 (digital) April 1st, 2014 (print)
Pages: 224 pages
Publisher: Champagne Book Group
Format: Digital eBook, Trade Paperback
Synopsis: Reeling from the shock of a suddenly shattered marriage, Meredith flees as far from her home in Florida as she can get without a passport: to Alaska. After a freak accident leaves her presumed dead, she stumbles into a new identity and a new life in a quirky small town. Her friendship with a fiery and temperamental artist and her growing worry for her elderly, cranky landlady pull at the fabric of her carefully guarded secret. When a romance with a local fisherman unexpectedly blossoms, Meredith struggles to find a way to meld her past and present so that she can move into the future she craves. But someone is looking for her, someone who will threaten Meredith’s dream of a reinvented life.
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