A Conversation with Theresa Weir
I first became aware of the waif-like woman with the warm, big eyes at Once Upon a Crime Mystery Bookstore. Theresa Weir was one of 50 or so authors scheduled for the annual Write of Spring daylong book signing. When I shook her hand, she introduced herself as “Anne Frasier.” Embarrassed, I mumbled that I hadn’t read any of her novels. Her subsequent laughter made me feel so welcomed. I immediately purchased one of her books. After reading her thriller Hush, I decided to read all of this author’s work—a daunting task because Anne Frasier’s real name is Theresa Weir.
Theresa Weir/Anne Frasier is the best-selling author of 19 books in multiple genres, including suspense, mystery, thriller, romantic suspense, and paranormal. Theresa was born into a blue-collar family and when divorce hit she grew up in poverty. After high school, she worked as a waitress, then at the Levi Strauss factory and ended up tending bar in rural Illinois. There she met an apple farmer and three months later, they were married. After moving to the farm, Theresa, a natural-born storyteller, decided to write a novel. At the time, she was so unaware of the writing process she didn’t know if a manuscript should be single- or double-spaced, or what she should do with the book once she finished it. A year later she mailed her manuscript to the address of a publisher she’d found inside a book. As happens with most novice writers, her manuscript was sent back with a rejection notice. She sat down, rewrote the story, and mailed it off again and again. Three years later, the cult phenomenon Amazon Lily was published.
Here was a high school graduate who rose to literary stardom while writing as a young bride in a freshly painted Illinois farm kitchen.
Recently I read Theresa’s riveting, brutally honest, and mesmerizing memoir. The Orchard contains the elements of life that so many of us deal with—desperation, dark secrets, the cruelty not only of strangers but of family, forces of nature, the destruction of the environment, and finally love, death, life, and hope.
You have had phenomenal success in writing both award-winning romance novels and best-selling suspense thrillers. Why did you decide to write a memoir?
It’s something I always thought I would do; it was just a matter of when and how. Fiction writing was my only means of support, so I had to figure out a way to live while writing a memoir. My strategy was to sell my house in Saint Paul and live off the proceeds of that sale while I wrote. That’s what I did.
I found The Orchard to be amazingly revealing and painfully intimate. Did you experience any trepidation in exposing your life to the world?
I couldn’t think about that when I was writing the book. It was just a matter of writing what happened, but I guess more than that, it was about examining the emotional truths in that life. I think all writers are searching for the truth no matter what they’re writing—fiction or nonfiction.
I’ve heard your book described as a cross between Eat, Pray, Love and Silent Spring. Now that I’ve read The Orchard, I totally agree. How do you feel about the comparison?
I have to confess I haven’t read or seen Eat, Pray, Love, so I can’t comment on that, but I do love that people are comparing my book to Silent Spring. In 1975, I was a naive hippie, and when I married I really expected to be living this back-to-nature, granola kind of existence, but instead found myself swimming in pesticides and feeling helpless to do anything about it. People didn’t want to hear what I had to say back then, so I’m glad The Orchard is being embraced as an environmental book.
When you are dealing with such painful memories, from both your childhood and your adult life on the farm, how do you manage to keep your writing objective?
I had to think of the main character as someone else. That’s how I did it. And she was someone else. I’m no longer that person, so that helped too. The childhood material was easier because of the time and distance. That was like two lives back. The hardest thing was spending a couple of years in a world I’d left behind—returning there and living there every waking hour. I really started to think I’d lost my mind, immersing myself in a past I’d worked very hard to put behind me. That does seem like a crazy, self-destructive thing to do.
At the beginning of The Orchard, I kept hoping you would come to your senses and divorce Adrian. By the end of the book, it reads like a love story. Do you think writing the memoir gave you a greater insight into your difficult marriage?
Definitely, although Adrian will remain quite a bit of a mystery to me. I have theories, but that’s all they are. It’s odd when I think back, because I do have questions. And as I wrote, I often found myself wondering why he and I didn’t discuss certain things, but we didn’t. I included some of my childhood so readers who wonder why I stayed might come to understand that I wasn’t used to being treated well by anybody, so at the time I simply accepted my marriage.
Adrian died in 1996. Did you ever feel your husband’s presence while you were writing the story?
I can’t say that I ever felt his presence, but it’s a very strange thing to think about how he lived his entire life, birth to death, within a radius of a few miles. I always thought he would do something big, have some kind of impact. He had that quality about him. He was an environmentalist in a place where environmentalism was unacceptable. With The Orchard he’s finally getting off the farm, and that’s gratifying.
You grew up in either small towns or suburbia, moving from one place to another. Was it your experience as a farm wife that gave you such a deep connection to the land?
I think it’s always been there, but it definitely blossomed on the farm. Until then, I’d loved the outdoors but had no idea how the land was being misused.
When your husband was diagnosed with cancer, was your immediate thought pesticides?
Yes, that was definitely our immediate reaction. Just the other day I came across some of my husband’s journals, and he was talking about the pathologist telling him to stay away from pesticides. This would have been after his initial diagnosis. It came up in almost every conversation we had with the doctors. I was frustrated, because there were no studies being conducted about the connection between esophageal cancer and pesticides, yet we knew many farmers who had this rare form of cancer.
Are you hoping The Orchard will motivate people to take some sort of action to protect our lands and water from pesticides and agricultural mismanagement?
I didn’t set out to lecture or preach. That was one thing I knew I didn’t want to do, but I certainly hope it makes people think. And even though my story took place some time ago, the apple has just been named the most pesticide-laden fruit in the country, so things haven’t really changed.
I know that you feel like you scored big with landing Marly Rusoff as an agent. I can easily understand why Marly would want to represent you, but why did you want Marly to represent you?
As you know, my agent of 20 years turned down The Orchard once it was finished. I knew nothing about agents, and I knew very few agents. So I went on a quest but couldn’t find an agent interested in reading the manuscript. I put it away for a long time, then did an online search in one final attempt to at least find someone to read it. Just one agent. Agents were interested until they realized I’d written a nonfiction book and not an Anne Frasier suspense. “I’m not interested in reading a memoir, but what else do you have?” That’s what I kept hearing. They all wanted suspense from me. Two years passed before I found someone to read the manuscript, and that was Marly Rusoff. She’d never heard of me, so she had no preconceived idea of what I should be writing. And I had never heard of her. That’s because I wasn’t moving in the literary world, and I’d had no reason to pay attention to agents. So it was just a magical thing that happened. And the moment I heard back from her in response to my query e-mail, I had this feeling. Even before she read the manuscript I just knew this was right, that she would understand what I was doing and that I could trust her in every way. And when she read the manuscript, she said it was a brave and important book. I think I probably cried, in part because the journey had been so long, not only my life story but also that initial rejection of the memoir that set me back two years because I put the material away. I came so close to never pulling it out again because at that point it represented failure on a massive scale. It almost wasn’t published.
Coincidently, Marly is not only a legend among publishers and editors in New York City, she’s our own Minnesota treasure, the person who started the Loft years ago above her bookstore in Dinkytown.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’d like to share with yet unpublished authors?
The agent quest is demoralizing. One of the reasons it took me so long to find an agent for The Orchard is because I gave up very quickly. I believed what a few people told me: that no publisher would buy a memoir from me because I wasn’t a celebrity. Try not to let the search beat you down. This whole gatekeeper issue is one of the big things behind the self-publishing movement. People don’t want their souls crushed over and over, but this is a soul-crushing business. Sometimes I wonder if some of the best books are books we will never read, manuscripts that are put away and never pulled back out because it’s too painful. Just remember that I almost didn’t try one last time.
Is there anything you dislike about writing?
I hate that second draft. And I always have a hard time getting back into a story once I’ve put it away. But once I get going I’m fine.
Do you write daily? If so, do you write so many hours a day, or words a day?
I completely immerse myself in the story, every day, every waking moment until I simply have to take a break. It might be two weeks. It might be a month. I have a very set page count. Five pages a day for five days. Edit on the weekend, start over on Monday. I typically write a hundred pages a month with this method.
I know you participate in social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. Do you find it beneficial to your career?
I don’t know about that. Years ago, an editor at Penguin Putnam suggested I start a blog, and I did. I became addicted to it, and it became more important than my writing. So I quit for a while, and now I don’t blog that often. Looking back, I do actually think blogging helped me develop my nonfiction voice. I grew comfortable talking about myself, so I think social networks can affect a person in ways that aren’t always so straightforward. Do people stumble across me online and then purchase my books? I don’t think that happens very much, at least not in my case. I’m a shy person and I think social media is a nice outlet for me.
If you were not Theresa Weir/Anne Frasier, best-selling author, what do you think you would like to do to earn a living?
I might be an organic farmer. Just a small bit of land. I’ve also toyed with the idea of starting my own organic cookie business. That might be more my speed. I’m an awful cook, but I’m a good baker.
The Orchard ends with you moving away from the farm. With two teenage children under your care, how difficult was it to pick up the pieces and form a new life?
It took a long time. I hid from the world for about four years. I wanted the world to leave me alone and go away. And it’s odd, but when you’re in the middle of that kind of grief, you don’t recognize it. You think you’re okay. I actually wrote during that period of time. I had book deadlines. I had one book half done when my husband died, and I somehow finished it a few months later. It was a lot shorter than it should have been! I think I basically just wrapped it up. That was a book called Cool Shade, and it went on to win a RITA for romantic suspense. I might have gotten a sympathy vote there.
As far as forming a new life, I don’t know if that will ever happen completely, but moving to Saint Paul was a good decision. That’s when my Anne Frasier career began and all my new friends called me Anne rather than Theresa. It was very much like starting over. I’ve met a lot of good people here, and I feel very lucky. The Twin Cities writing community is unbelievably wonderful.
Now that we’re at the end of the interview, what question do you wish I had asked?
“If your husband hadn’t died, how do you think this story would have ended?”
I firmly believe Adrian and I would never have left the farm. My daughter would still be there. I’m not as sure about my son, but he would certainly have some connection to the place if the rest of us were still there. I most likely would have bought a little house across the river in Iowa, a place we could have used as an escape. Something that would have belonged to us, but otherwise nothing would have changed. His death redefined the trajectory of our lives in a powerful way.
Theresa Weir’s The Orchard has been released September 2011 by Grand Central Publishing. www.annefrasier.com
Pat Dennis is the author of Hotdish to Dish For and Stand Up and Die. She is the contributing editor for Who Died in Here? and Hotdish Haiku. Her short stories have been published in Minnesota Monthly, Woman’s World, Resort to Murder, Silence of the Loons, and Once Upon a Crime Anthology. Her short story “Dead Line” will be featured in Anne Frasier’s Deadly Treats, a Halloween anthology from Nodin Press, released September 2011. Pat works as a corporate/special events entertainer. Visit her at www.patdennis.com.