Elsie Augustave spent 18 years crafting her first novel The Roving Tree. A French and Spanish teacher at Manhattan’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School, and a consultant for the College Board, the Fulbright scholar says the book had to take a backseat to more pressing priorities.”As a single parent, I was only able to write in the summer when my child was at camp and when I was off from teaching,” she explained via email.
Augustave says she used the time to learn how best to tell the story. Here, she shares some of the wisdom she earned along the way.
What inspired you to write The Roving Tree?
As I began writing the novel, I could not help focusing on the two months I spent in Haiti with a research grant to study Haitian folk life and the Vodou religion. I also decided, during the process, to address historical and political issues that are meaningful to me. And, as I tried to decide on the plot, I recalled hearing that the daughter of a woman who worked for my grandmother had been adopted by a French missionary couple, and I began to imagine her life in a foreign land, away from everything and everyone she knew.
It is my hope that with The Roving Tree, readers will discover the cultural, social, and political life of Haiti and Zaire during specific eras.
How did you go about getting objective feedback in the early stages?
A few of my friends looked at the manuscript in its very early stage. But I basically wrote the entire novel without having any idea of the craft. I was oblivious to the fact that most fiction writers nowadays have [an] MFA degree and had never taken a creative writing course. But a friend of mine took the manuscript to Marie D. Brown who, bless her soul, took the time to read it. She then wrote me a long letter to basically say that she believed I had a good story to tell, but I needed to learn how to tell it. Upon her recommendation, I took a few workshops at New York University, Gotham Writers Workshop, and at the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center, where I met some people who later included me in their writers group. We met at a Starbucks every other week to critique each other’s work for about a year.
What’s your agent-to-publication story?
My agent is of course Marie D. Brown. I wouldn’t think of having anyone else because she believed in me even when I didn’t even know what I was doing. When she thought the manuscript was ready, she presented it to Open Lens, an Akashic Books imprint. Marie and I subsequently worked on the final edit, mostly on technical stuff. The Roving Tree, their second imprint, was published right after Randall Robinson’s Makeda.
Akashic Books is an indie publisher. What’s been your experience working with them?
It is a privilege to work with such a dedicated team. I imagine, as a first-time author, I would have been lost with a major publishing house because I knew absolutely nothing about the industry until recently.
This being your first book, how has the dream of being published measured up to the reality?
I had no expectations because I have learned, from past experiences, not to have any to protect myself from disappointments. But I’m finding that there’s a big difference between being a writer and being an author. The writer needs solitude, whereas the author needs to be in the public eye.
What are the advantages and challenges of working and promoting a novel?
I cannot think of any advantages at this point, only challenges. While being busy traveling, making appearances at book events and giving interviews, I must also make sure I do an adequate job teaching my students and grading papers.
Augustave is currently writing her next novel.