Next Chapters: Bonnie Waltch

Next Chapters is a biweekly feature spotlighting graduates of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, which has been running since 2010.

Novel Incubator Year: 4

Current Project: historical novel set in 1963 Newton, Massachusetts

Photo credit: Jesse Beecher

What writers have most influenced your writing?

Since my incubator book is contemporary YA, I’ve read most of Sarah Dessen’s books. She really spoke to the inner teenager in me! I also drew a lot of inspiration from Diana Renn’s international mystery and suspense YA novels. For adult fiction, growing up I loved Anne Tyler, Alice Hoffman, Daphne du Maurier. I devoured all of Barbara Pym’s books, loved their dry wit and setting. Later, Andre Dubus III, especially House of Sand and Fog, and Tom Perrotta’s Little Children. I read both those books at a time when I was itching to focus on fiction writing, and they both made a big impression on me.

What’s the origin story of your incubator novel? 

I was jogging, and this line popped into my head: “My mother is driving me crazy!” But instead of it coming from a teenage voice, it came from a middle-aged woman talking about her own mother. I had this vision of three generations of women: a hippie, flaky, political activist grandmother; her uptight, career-driven daughter; and her teenage granddaughter, who has a fraught relationship with her mother and idolizes her grandmother. I envisioned the dynamic if the three of them were thrown together. At first, I had the grandmother, Helen, forced to leave her expat life in Honduras because of the 2009 coup and moving in with her daughter Vanessa and granddaughter Chloe. But when I was writing scenes in Becky Tuch’s Novel Generator class, she suggested I set the book in Honduras instead. I tried it, and the story went in a completely different direction. Now, Chloe runs away without her mom’s permission to visit Helen in Honduras, and the following night the coup happens. When Chloe gets there, Helen is missing, so it became a story of Chloe trying to find Helen against the backdrop of the coup and political unrest and discovering Helen’s clandestine life as a political activist. Eventually, Vanessa arrives on the scene, and family secrets are revealed, and relationships shift. And, of course, Chloe has a romance with a cute Honduran guy. I chose Honduras because I had spent three months there working at the Maya site of Copán for a PBS series about archaeology and anthropology.

What is your greatest struggle on the page? 

Ugh, so many struggles! Since I’m trained as a documentary script writer, my writing tends to be very succinct and to the point. Fiction is a completely different skill set. I struggle with drawing out scenes and conveying emotions on the page. I think I’m pretty good with dialogue and overall structure (though I constantly study structure to try to understand and absorb it better).

What is your work when you’re not writing? 

I’m a documentary producer/director/writer for television and museums. I’m currently producing media exhibits for the Niagara Falls State Park Welcome Center, post-producing a project for Dinosaur National Monument, working on social impact and outreach for my Climate Emergency series of short films, and developing a multiplatform film project about the bipolar spectrum. My work doesn’t leave a lot of time for fiction writing, but I try to devote time to writing on the weekends.

What is your favorite punctuation mark? Why? 

I’m obsessed with commas because I tend to write long, run-on, compound sentences, as you may have noticed!

Bonnie Waltch is the award-winning senior producer and writer of the one-hour PBS and international broadcast documentary, Earth Emergency, and series of five short films, Climate Emergency: Feedback Loops, narrated by Richard Gere. She has worked for a variety of television science series such as NOVA, Scientific American Frontiers, and Discover Magazine. She has produced, directed, and written films for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Pikes Peak Visitor Center, the Tennessee State Museum, the Mob Museum, and the National World War II Museum, among others. She was executive director of Filmmakers Collaborative, a nonprofit support organization for independent filmmakers, for 10 years. She is about to begin yet another round of querying her incubator novel, Finding Black Jaguar.





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