Hayley Kirley interviews Stephanie Knipper about her beautiful book, Peculiar Miracles of Antoinette Martin. Knipper discusses her writing inspiration, her experience at NKU, and her advice for other authors.
HK: You have published the book, Peculiar Miracles of Antoinette Martin. The story is about a young woman with special abilities. You have mentioned in past interviews that it is in part inspired by your own experiences. Can you explain more about the inspiration for your book?
SK: This was a very personal book for me. It came together after two difficult events in my life. The first was the birth of my son, Zachary. I went into preterm labor when I was six and a half months pregnant. When Zach was delivered, he weighed two pounds fourteen ounces. He fit in the palm of my hand. Miraculously, he only spent four weeks in the neonatal ICU and experienced no ill effects from his traumatic birth. I was not so lucky. When doctors performed the emergency C-section, they discovered that I had developed peritonitis. I was put on life support and spent several days in ICU. No one expected me to survive. I ended up spending almost two months in the hospital and was later diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. After my health stabilized, and Zach and I had been home for several months, I started to wonder what life would be like for a child whose mother had died at birth. Would they feel responsible? What would that child do to try to keep their mother alive? In 2005 we adopted our first child from China, Grace. We had been told that she had a heart condition that had already been surgically corrected. When we met Grace, it was obvious that her problems went far beyond a small heart condition. She was almost two and couldn’t hold her head up, couldn’t walk, and couldn’t eat solid foods. Still, we hoped that once she was home she would get better. Unfortunately, she didn’t. Grace was diagnosed with autism, developmental delays, and seizures. After the shock of Grace’s diagnosis wore off, I once again thought about a child whose mother died during childbirth. How much worse would it be for a disabled child to lose their mother? With that thought, the character of Antoinette was born, and the rest of the book fell into place.
HK: Can you explain for me the process in which you got published?
SK: I had been researching agents while working on my manuscript. Once it was finished, I began submitting the book to agents. Dan Lazar from Writer’s House was one of my dream agents. I never thought that he’d be interested in representing me, but within a few weeks of submitting my manuscript I had signed a contract with him! After that, we went through several rounds of revision. It was a long and grueling process but the book is so much better for it. Finally, Dan submitted the book to publishers and Algonquin made an offer!
HK: How did the Master’s program at NKU help you in your process?
SK: My time at NKU gave me permission to admit that I was a writer. Too often, those of us who write fiction feel as if it’s a silly little hobby. There’s a lot of pressure in our culture to be “productive”—which usually translates to “something that makes a lot of money”. From the start, the English Department faculty treated me as someone whose work had value. Not only that, but the professors went out of their way to help students develop their own voice. There was no pressure to write only “literary” fiction. Writers in all genres were encouraged and supported. I believe this culture is unique to NKU and should be celebrated. The safe and supportive atmosphere gave me the courage to push the boundaries of my writing.
HK: What advice would you give writers trying to get published?
SK: First, don’t quit. Writing a novel is grueling. There will be days you want to run your manuscript through a shredder and delete it from your hard drive. Don’t. Push through. By simply finishing your manuscript, you’re already ahead of most people. Second, edit your work. Not just once or twice, but fifteen or twenty times. Don’t be one of those people who believe every word they write is precious. If you want to be a writer, plan on spending 90 percent of your time editing. Finally, after you’ve edited your work, you have to send it out. Don’t be afraid. The absolute worst thing that can happen is that you’ll get a form email turning down your work. Don’t worry about it. When you get that rejection, turn around and send that book back out.
HK: What is your next project?
SK: I’m working on my second novel. It too is set in Kentucky—this time in Appalachia—and centers on a fractured relationship between a mother and her grown daughter. That relationship becomes even more strained when the mother’s mental health deteriorates after past traumas resurface and the daughter must move home to care for her.