Exclusive with Shawn Nocher, author of A Hand to Hold in Deep Water
By Emily S. Martin
TSM: What provided the inspiration for your book?
Shawn Nocher (SN): The first chapter was originally a short story written years ago in a workshop. Over the next decade, I spent a lot of time imagining an entire backstory that would have placed those characters (Lacey, Willy, and Tasha) in that short-story moment. I wanted to know why a young mother would leave her husband and daughter with no explanation. I had a strong sense that Willy and Lacey were loved by her and that made it all the more difficult to understand why May would have left them. By the time I sat down to write the novel, May’s entire backstory was clear to me and I only needed to plot the current story in real-time to reveal it and then let each character react organically based on what I had come to know of them. That sounds incredibly simple—and it wasn’t at all—but much of the story felt written before I actually sat down to write it if only because I knew the characters so well by then.
TSM: How is your writing process or similar between novels and short stories?
SN: I work on both short stories and novels at the same time. Short stories give me a chance
to explore micro-moments with a sharp eye and novels feel more like a long math
problem. Both ways of examining are satisfying to me, and I don’t favor one over the
other, but my short stories are intensely focused and require a deep immersion on my part
when I’m working on them. I tend to shut out the rest of the world when I’m working on
the first draft. But the crafting of a novel feels more open, and I find myself watching the
world carefully to see what I can bring to the novel—what fits, what lends itself to the
story I’m telling.
TSM: What are some of your favorite books?
SN: I have a deep admiration for Denis Johnson’s work, but especially Jesus’ Son. I
cofounded a non-profit for parents suffering the collateral damage of their child’s
addiction and that book hit me hard and precisely. I also love Ocean Vuong’s On Earth
We’re Briefly Gorgeous. The language is both tender and violent—often in the same
sentence—and I sometimes felt as if it was slicing at my heart when I least expected it.
Elizabeth Wetmore’s debut novel Valentine is one of my most recent favorites. It’s
powerful and the voices are authentic, the misogyny of the 70s so finely drawn, and I
couldn’t put it down. I’m also drawn to family stories and some of my favorites over the
years include the early works of Anne Tyler, Anna Quindlen, Jane Smiley, and Amy Tan.
They are the authors I choose to curl up to with a glass of wine and allow myself to drift
into their world.
TSM: What are you working on now?
SN: My second novel, The Precious Jules, just landed with the publisher a few weeks ago and
will be released summer 2022, and so I have started on my third novel. I’m only a few
chapters in so far but excited to see where it’s going. I’ve already fallen in love with the
characters—and that’s always a good sign. I continue to work on short stories and hope to
have a collection released in the future.
TSM: What’s your writing process like?
SN: I get about three hours of focused writing in on most days, but I also consider my
thinking time to be part of the process. When I’m stuck on a plot point or unclear as to
how a character might move forward, I allow myself to step away from the keyboard and
clear my head. A long shower or a walk with the dogs usually opens my mind to where
the work might turn. A lot of writing takes place in my head, and I cherish the
opportunity to let my imagination unfurl without the pressure of staring at a keyboard. I
have a routine of working in the morning until I feel a bit burned out and then coming
back to it at night very briefly. The work I do at night is usually terrible, but when I sit
back down to it again in the morning the clouds clear and I jump into crafting the
previous night’s scribble. It’s a rhythm that works for me.
TSM: What advice do you have for a beginning author?
SN: Read like a writer. Ask yourself what the author has done on the page to make you feel a
particular way. Likewise, identify what isn’t working and why. Being able to articulate
these things will transfer to your own crafting process. I also think it’s important to
become part of a community of writers. I take my responsibility to my critique group
very seriously and put a lot of time into workshopping. Think of it as being a good
literary citizen. Members of your workshop or writing group deserve thoughtful and
constructive critiques that identify strengths and offer actionable crafting techniques
where there are weaknesses in a piece. I believe that almost anyone can learn to write,
and while we may have been blessed with particular gifts it is the crafting that makes us
writers. Hone your craft.
TSM: How did you spend quarantine?
SN: Editing and then twisting myself in knots over the release of my first novel, rationing my
exposure to election news, and way too many zoom calls. The anxiety was not
productive. I don’t recommend it. But I also learned to make some killer cinnamon rolls.
TSM: The industry has seen many changes, are you optimistic about what this decade has
in store for us?
SN: I’m not enough of a publishing insider to know what the future holds, though I do my
best to track the trends. But I will say that I am very excited about all the authentic new
and diverse voices arriving on the scene. And I’m always cheering for the mature writer
who makes a slam dunk (like Elizabeth Wetmore) with their debut novel.
TSM: What do you enjoy most from doing events?
SN: I’m always nervous before an event. It’s just my nature. I’ve stuck my foot in my mouth
so many times in my life that I assumed I was sure to do the same at an event. But once
the event starts, and especially once audience questions come up, I find myself
completely relaxing and enjoying a chance to talk with engaged readers. I especially love
to hear how readers feel about various characters because my characters are very real to
me and I’m learning that they are also real to the readers. An audience member once
asked me what I thought one of my characters was up to right now and my heart soared. I
have been daydreaming about Willy ever since I closed the page on the last chapter, and I
didn’t even have to think about the question. In my mind, I knew exactly where he was
and what he was up to. That question was incredibly gratifying.