Every other Wednesday, I’ll be showcasing authors who got an agent in the last couple of years. If you’d like to be a part of this, let me know in the comments or contact me via Twitter @judi__Lauren
Today I’m so excited to be interviewing Rebecca Hopkins! Not only is she super sweet, she also has an awesome story, which got her an agent during Pitch Slam. Welcome, Rebecca!
What was the hardest part about writing your book?
The Orchid Girl’s Search was my first novel, so though I loved writing it, many things were hard as I figured out how to do it. The hardest parts, though, were related to the fact that I was writing a novel outside my own culture. All the characters are Indonesian. All are Muslim. The book takes place entirely in Borneo, Indonesia. Though I’ve lived in Indonesia for more than a decade, I was so afraid I’d get the cultural elements wrong and wasn’t even sure I had a right to write it. I wasn’t worried just that I’d offend my friends here, but that I’d miss the depth and richness of this little-known culture that I was striving to communicate. Little to nothing has been written for English speakers about this Borneo people group, so I felt the weight of the responsibility of doing it with the deserved respect for the culture. I’m very grateful for an Indonesian friend (also a talented writer and fluent English speaker) who read multiple versions of my books to make sure I’m on track culturally.
It was also very difficult to write the voice of my main character. She’s 13 and Indonesian. So, to write both a young voice and a foreign voice (written in English, but she isn’t an English speaker, so I couldn’t rely on a foreign accent to communicate voice) was a constant challenge. I spent a lot of time listening to my young Indonesian friends, reading Asian authors and reading young protagonists. And I spent tons of time rewriting again and again until (I hope) her voice rang true.
How did you meet your agent?
I entered Pitch Slam and I’m so grateful that my novel was picked. I love contests like those because they give us, writers, supporters who champion us in what feels like an otherwise solitary endeavor at that point. My agent, Mark Gottlieb of Trident Media, was one of several agents who requested pages. His request turned into an offer of representation, and I’m so honored to work with him.
Love Pitch Slam! That’s a great contest. Do you have a rough number of how many queries you sent out before being offered representation?
I started querying my novel much earlier than I should have. It just wasn’t ready, though I didn’t know it at the time. So, I faced a lot of rejection. I stopped counting after I reached 100. I’ve collected probably 120-150 rejections over the span of about four or five years. I used every bit of feedback I could get from those rejections, as well as feedback from gracious friends (both writers and non-writers) who became beta readers, critiquing readers from the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writing contest I entered, and the very talented author and editor Heather Webb. Agents, in particular, often told me I had a good idea, but was struggling to execute it. I desperately wanted to learn, so I kept doing that, kept improving it in the midst of (and because of) those heartbreaking rejections.
What inspires you to write?
The good things and the hard things I see around me inspire me to write. I’m a former journalist, so I’ve always been attracted to true stories and real people. Throughout these years of living in Indonesia, I’ve seen and heard about some tragic events, and some incredibly inspiring people, often in the same moment. Indonesia—this land of earthquakes and tsunamis and incredible beauty—both breaks my heart and fills it. Sometimes, though, I don’t see the good in things yet. Fiction allows me to ask the hard questions in my heart through characters’ eyes, and to see how the characters overcome things that seem impossible to overcome—things I’m not even sure if I would have the courage to overcome. I started writing this novel when I was pregnant with my first son, and right around that time a dear (young) Indonesian friend of mine suddenly died. On both accounts, I felt vulnerable and unsure of myself and the world around me. It actually took me several years of rewriting my novel (while simultaneously living and struggling here) to come to the main point that’s special about my main character, Anggreka. Anggreka believes in miracles, even if she has to make them happen herself. She’s who I want to be when I grow up. And I think she has a lot to bring to this often hurting world.
She sounds awesome! Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process? Where do you get your ideas and characters?
I base my novels on real, little-known people groups here in Indonesia. Indonesians are incredibly friendly, ready anytime for a chat over tea. So, through normal life, I hear many stories that inspire me. I try to write these down whenever I hear of them. And when I’m in research mode, I visit a friend, pull out my notebook full of questions and ask away while our kids play around us in my friend’s simple home. When I’m in writing mode and I get stumped, I leave my house and find an Indonesian friend or neighbor or complete stranger to talk with, preferably in their own home so I can enter into the culture as much as possible. There are many challenging parts about living on the other side of the world from my home country of the United States, but living among fascinating cultures is great for the kind of writing I love doing.
Many people have jobs along with writing. How do you balance that schedule?
I don’t have a paying job right now, but life here is very busy. I have three young kids (ages 3, 5, and 7). I live in a somewhat remote town in Borneo, so housework and cooking take more time. It’s hot here all the time, so simply moving can be tiring. My husband is a humanitarian relief pilot with Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF). He flies small planes into the jungle to serve remote Indonesian tribes with daily and medical needs. Sometimes the kids and I get opportunities to visit the sick patients he medevacs into our town.
I’m also incredibly privileged to have volunteered alongside some amazing Indonesian and expat workers in the community, working with women and children in various capacities over the years. I’ve also recently started homeschooling my kids due to their education needs here. Life is full and I enjoy all the variety. I write only about one or two hours a day on a regular basis, sometimes more if I have extra time. It’s not much, but I mostly do it consistently and at the same time every day and I try to work my other activities during non-writing hours. I figured out a long time ago that my writing is so good for me, and I deeply hope, someday if it’s published, good for this world. I also see my other aspects of life as inspiring my writing. My time with Indonesian friends deepens my understanding of the stories here. My kids stretch my heart. My husband cheers me on. And my friends, neighbors and MAF teammates here come around and help me all the time to shoulder my own burdens, which gives me more energy to write. So, even when I’m not writing, my writing is, indirectly, going forward.
Is there a fictional character or book you wish you had created? Why?
Though I write novels based on real worlds, I’m amazed by fantasy writers like Veronica Roth at their ability to create worlds and systems out of nothing. I also love how Laura Hillenbrand can write biographies that read like theme-rich novels, but are completely true.
Writers who do anything outside of contemporary amaze me! All the worlds and stuff are too hard for me to create. What do you enjoy most about writing?
I love connecting with people, whether in person through a great conversation or through that special writer/reader relationship. Much of writing is solitary. I enjoy that aspect of it, too—the thinking, creating, shaping. I usually start with a theme that resonates with me, that I either believe to be true, or hope is true. My first story holds themes of hope, resilience, forgiveness, redemption, love, sacrifice. My stories may take place in a foreign world, but the themes come from what I’m struggling with or thinking through on a deeply personal level. I enjoy the depth I get to go into within myself and the world around me, through writing. And then I enjoy connecting with readers in those themes, ideas and depth.
Can you describe your MC(s) in three words each?
Anggreka is hopeful, a fighter, and brave.
Before you leave, would you share the first sentence of your query that got you an agent?
I got my agent through Pitch Slam, so we were given a chance to write a 35-word pitch and submit our novel’s first 250 words. Here’s my pitch:
Muslim Borneo teenager Anggreka’s mom dies giving birth to her sister. Disabled—missing one arm—Anggreka leaves her village home to find their polygamous father, their only hope for staying out of an orphanage.
Thanks so much, Rebecca!
Rebecca Hopkins is an American who lives in Indonesia with her jungle pilot husband and three kids. She has a passion to write about other worlds to figure out what is familiar in all of us. The Orchid Girl’s Search is her first novel. You can connect with her on Twitter or at her website.