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.