Rachel Stone writes stories of hope and redemption, often set against vibrant Canadian backdrops. Her writing placed first in the 2022 OBOA Writing Contest and has appeared in international literary and visual arts magazines, journals and blogs. Rachel holds degrees in psychology and industrial relations.
“Big, Full-Circle Moments,” an interview with Rachel Stone
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Phoebe Nguyen. Of the process, she said, “Rachel Stone has created a stunning portrayal of found family, love, and the bravery required to forge one’s own path. Infused with sincerity and empathy, Rachel develops her characters with a profound sense of humanity. Readers of her novel, The Blue Iris, cannot turn the last page without feeling immense grief at having to say goodbye.” In this interview, Rachel Stone talks about developing complex characters, the courage and faith required to share art, and making space for her writing.
Superstition Review: You wrote your cast of characters with both honesty and compassion. They are relatable, loveable, and flawed. What was your process for creating such a well-rounded ensemble of characters?
Rachel Stone: It definitely took a while to figure them all out!
I approached each one individually, just sitting inside their headspaces until the layers began to appear. I put lock-and-key diaries under their mattresses and wrote page after page of what might be in them. I played (what I thought would be) the songs they had on repeat. I had them write letters to each other, or to me about why I was all wrong about them.
Once I caught hold of the why behind their actions, I had an easier time developing their stories and quirks. Then I started pairing them up, writing out dialogue until I figured out how they connected.
SR: How did becoming a mother to a daughter influence your perspective and approach when writing about Tessa’s relationship with her mother, Beth? How about Darryl and Sam’s relationship with Iris?
RS: I’ve heard it said that to become a parent is to feel a love like no other, with the fear to match. I could barely contemplate Tessa losing her mom, yet in a way, it was that idea driving me to write the book in the first place.
The Blue Iris was an effort to distract myself from news that a benign orbital tumour (successfully removed twice in my early twenties) was growing back. That phone call should have been the least terrifying of the three; I’d already been there done that. But I was a wreck like never before, because this time around I was a mom. I think Tessa and Beth’s relationship, and Darryl and Sam’s with Iris, was my way of wrestling the fears I was feeling in that capacity.
Of course, none of this occurred to me until long afterwards! That’s the part about writing fiction that blows my mind; you’re free to dream up anything you want, but it always ends up being the one thing you need.
SR: In your Author Express Interview you spoke about the inspiration you drew from the story of the Canadian hero Terry Fox. Can you tell us about other authors or writers who have had a significant influence on your work and creative journey?
RS: I vividly remember picking up The Best of Times by Penny Vincenzi on holiday years ago. It’s a huge book, both physically and in narrative scope, and I never wanted it to end. I couldn’t get over how masterfully she used the multiple narrator format to show completely different motivations and stakes, all stemming from the same event.
I’m also incredibly inspired by television shows This is Us and Ted Lasso. There’s such heartache in both, yet the tone is beautifully uplifting. The characters play off each other perfectly, the plotting is airtight, and those big, full-circle moments at the end of each episode left me awestruck. I’d be sitting there thinking, did those writers really just pull that off? I could watch ten more times and still find nuances.
SR: I love the way you approach your life and writing with such humor and humanness. In your blog post recounting your first experience with online judgment from a stranger, I admired your ability to laugh at yourself. How did you get to the mindset where you are able to approach those criticizing you with love and understanding?
RS: I’ve always been someone who feels (and hence reveals) too much. I used to filter that out of my writing, producing pieces that didn’t leave me feeling exposed. But then I’d read them back and think, what’s the point? Sure, I’d polished the sentences until they sounded pretty, but they said nothing—at least not to me. Certainly, nobody cared to read or publish them!
It takes tremendous faith and courage to share art in any form; how do you not take judgment personally when it’s pieces of your soul on display? For me, the key was to get good with myself first. Once I reached that point of, this is who I am and what I’m going to do, because my heart won't have it any other way, I stopped relying on outside opinions to gage my worth as a writer. It became easier to laugh at myself, show the mess behind the closet door—everyone has one, and I believe being real about it takes pressure of all of us.
As for criticism that's mean-spirited, my character Darryl reminds me it takes a lot of hurt to be able to hurt others. If someone is taking time out of their day to tear someone else down for being vulnerable, for getting out on the field and trying, there’s something bigger going on that's totally unrelated, and all you can do is hope they heal.
SR: This is your debut novel. I wanted to ask what has been the most enriching and most challenging part of this experience thus far? How do you navigate the highs and lows that come with praise and rejection?
RS: I used to write everything BUT fiction; I just didn’t believe I could do it. But once I got going on The Blue Iris, it was magic. It was like being on a whole other plane. I’ll never forget the thrill of those characters beginning to form from thin air; hands down, that was the best part so far.
By equal measure, getting a manuscript to publication is excruciating in a way no one fully understands until they’ve done it. It was years of circling back, starting over, wondering if I had any business doing any of this at all. Rejections kept piling up. There was a long, dark stretch where it all seemed very hopeless and irrational.
As far as I can tell so far, this journey is all highs and all lows, all simultaneously. The Blue Iris was rejected over 150 times prior to publication, and the most common reason cited was the large ensemble cast. Yet when readers say they love it, the large ensemble is nearly always the first reason they give. How do I go about weighing one against the other? Who’s “right?” Which begs another question: how worked up should I really be getting over either?
At the end of the day, to create is a privilege denied to many, and no book is for everyone. The work is the only part I can control, so I just try to focus on making that as strong as possible, then hope it finds its people.
SR: I know that you have already begun writing your second book, with much of it already drafted. You stated in your blog post “Slow Down Where it Hurts” that you were experiencing some creative struggles with the process. How do you move past creative blocks? What can you share about your next project?
RS: In 2020, my developmental editor suggested I take a different direction with the climax scene of The Blue Iris. I agreed with her; I could see it would be much better that way. But it meant reshuffling everything leading to that point, and I couldn’t see any way to weave it in. Frustrated and getting nowhere for days, I went for a long walk. Along the way, a faint possibility started to form. I kept walking, every day. Sometimes two hours at a time. Finally, three or four weeks later, it all clicked into place and I flew through that part of the rewrite from there.
In writing and in life, whenever I’m at a loss for what to do next, I step away and get the blood moving. I go for a hike in the forest near my house, or run kickboxing drills on the bag. Eventually, the answers come—with the added bonus that I’m less stressed about them in the meantime. Physical movement hasn’t failed me yet!
My next fiction project picks up ten years after The Blue Iris, in a waterside town in rural Ontario overrun by the filming of a reality homebuilding show. Some characters are familiar, others are new, but all are questioning the paths their lives have taken—and whether they got it all wrong the first time around. I’ve been away from it for awhile with the launch of The Blue Iris, but I’m looking forward to getting back into it soon.
SR: Rachel, I find you incredibly brave and impressive, just like your main character Tessa. Her commitment to her values and dreams reminded me of your dedication to your health and well-being evident in your transition from a corporate career to embracing the identity of a writer. What advice do you have for those who want to listen to their inner voice but struggle with fear when it comes to making a change?
RS: Thank you for such kind words!
Inner voice was a huge theme for me while writing The Blue Iris, and that really came through on the page. Tessa’s is speaking to her from the get-go, and keeps getting louder. So much of her journey involves figuring out how to listen even when reason tries to overrule it.
I wonder if that inner voice is so terrifying because there’s seldom anything rational about what it's telling us. It goes against everything we’re taught, our proven strategies for keeping ourselves safe. Yet in hindsight, aren't we always glad we trusted it?
My advice is, when something speaks to you or lights you up inside, make space for it. Start small, whatever you can manage, but do start. Don’t worry about where it will lead, or stress because you can’t see the whole path! Just keep making more and more room, and you’ll be amazed at what starts to happen.
The more space I made for writing, the more I needed to write—meanwhile, the tumour in my head got smaller. You'll never convince me there’s no connection. I ended up leaving a stable career to write books, with zero indication it would lead anywhere—terrifying indeed, but not so much as sitting in a doctor’s office wondering if I’d lost the chance. It's not that I ever stopped being afraid to take the leap; the fear of not leaping just grew bigger.
Keep making room. At a certain point, what’s meant for you will stop feeling like a choice.