Please welcome Kelly O’Connor McNees. Her novel, IN NEED OF A GOOD WIFE, was just released to many glowing reviews. Kelly was kind enough to answer some of my questions for her about the writing process, the book itself, and her first novel, THE LOST SUMMER OF LOUISA MAY ALCOTT. Kelly is charming and I can’t wait to read IN NEED OF A GOOD WIFE.
1. What inspired you to write IN NEED OF A GOOD WIFE?
Since I read Sarah Plain and Tall, probably when I was about nine years old or so, I think this story has been rattling around in my brain. Can you imagine anything more simultaneously thrilling and terrifying for a woman in the nineteenth century than the prospect of leaving behind the life she knows inNew York City to travel to the frontier by train for the prospect of love, or, at least, a kind of freedom? And there are so many ways in which it could go wrong! The town could be awful, the man a dud, the marriage dull. Or he could be a lunatic. I read a story in my research about a mail-order bride who, while traveling west, was robbed at gunpoint on the train. She made the rest of the journey, penniless and traumatized, only to arrive at the house of her future husband and recognize him as the robber!
Real-life women entered into these pacts for all sorts of reasons–in search of love or financial support, to escape overbearing parents or a spoiled reputation back home. And once they arrived, they found that nothing worked out the way they expected it to. Many returned home, but some stayed on. And I just had to know, by reading as much a I could about those women, and imagining some characters of my own, why they stayed, and what happened to them.
2. What is your favorite part of the writing process?
Well, there is something sweet (and fleeting!) about the beginning, when the majority of the book is still living inside your head intact, and you have yet to disappoint yourself by inadequately capturing it on the page. Second to that would be revision, when rough becomes smooth and you have the chance to make the book something special. Maybe. I always feel a real sense of urgency during that process. For one thing, I want to try as hard as I can to fix what’s wrong while the answers are fresh in my mind. For another, I do not want to get hit by a garbage truck while it is half finished and leave the impression that I couldn’t do any better. I mean, I would prefer not to get hit by a garbage truck at any time, but if it has to happen, lord let it be after I finish the book.
3. What part of the process is not your favorite?
The doubt, the fear, the anxiety about the garbage truck. Seriously, the hardest part is calming my mind enough to get good work done. It seems we are all losing the ability to concentrate. I worry about this.
4. If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your debut author self before the launch of THE LOST SUMMER OF LOUISA MAY ALCOTT?
Ha! I would probably tell her to slow down and enjoy it a little more, not to worry so much about what was going to come next. But I doubt she would listen.
5. W hat is your favorite novel of all time?
Oh, dear. That’s impossible to say, I think, because it changes all the time. But I can name some authors whose work has had an enormous impact on me as a human: John Irving, Alice Munro, Ethan Canin, Laurie Colwin, Marilynne Robinson, Willa Cather, Kent Haruf… the list goes on, you see!
6. What is your first memory of writing?
Ooh, what a good question. I don’t know if this is my first memory, since I wrote a lot as a young kid and even more as a teenager. I always kept a journal and took notes on everything and thought about stories. In seventh grade I took a very boring required science class and each day would put my head down on my desk as soon as the bell rang. I came home with a poor report card at the end of the marking period, which said that I slept in class. But I wasn’t sleeping! I wrote an entire novel in my head. Each day I would pick up where I had left off the day before.
Here’s another good writing memory: In high school I worked as a waitress. I was always scheduled to work the same shift as this other waitress named Helen. She was petty and lazy–never did her fair share–and she had these long fake fingernails of which she was very vain. I was too chicken to confront her, but I did go home one day after realizing that between her hooves and her little flat nose, she looked kind of like a pig, and I wrote a soaring epic poem about her in which she was transformed into a pig by a witch. It was not very nice. I never showed it to anyone. But every time I saw her after that I felt like I was part of this wonderful inside joke about her. I realized writing could be a way of dealing with the world, of digesting what was happening to you, of calling a spade a spade.
7. What do you most want readers to take away from IN NEED OF A GOOD WIFE?
I came to love the three women who are the focus of this novel, which is about a group of women traveling to a tiny Nebraska town to marry men they’ve never met. I wanted this to be a story about what kind of a person you’d have to be to survive such a thing. Not just survive, but endure, carve out a life for yourself. And if you weren’t that kind of person, what could you do to become her? So I hope IN NEED OF A GOOD WIFE is about resilience and also friendship, and how then, as now, women could forge their own path if they were brave enough to do it.
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What a beautiful message. I can’t wait to read IN NEED OF A GOOD WIFE! For more on Kelly, visit her website at http://kellyoconnormcnees.com/. Also, find her at the links below:
Kelly O’Connor McNees Online Tour Schedule:
Oct. 2: http://stylesubstancesoul.com/category/interviews/
Oct. 3: http://www.greatthoughts.com/
Oct. 4: http://nomadreader.blogspot.com/
Oct. 5: http://www.erikarobuck.com/Blog.html
Oct. 8: http://www.2readornot2read.com/
Oct. 9: http://themaidenscourt.blogspot.com/
Oct. 10: http://literatehousewife.com/
Oct. 11: http://www.luxuryreading.com/
Oct. 12: http://readingthepast.blogspot.com/
Oct. 25: http://womensfictionwriters.wordpress.com/
Oct. 29: http://www.wondersandmarvels.com/
I read and LOVED Nancy Bilyeau’s historical suspense novel, THE CROWN, and reviewed it back in January. It was also a finalist for the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award from the Crime Writers Association in the UK.
Nancy’s novel is coming out in paperback, and she was kind enough to answer some questions for her readers (and fellow writers) while she’s hard at work on the sequel. I hope you enjoy this interview, and if you love thrilling, atmospheric, historical novels, you must read THE CROWN.
1. What inspired you to write THE CROWN?
I’ve always loved English history, reading biographies and novels set there. My favorite century is the 16th, so when I started to think about writing a novel, I thought, “Put your book in the time you find most interesting.” My protagonist is a young Catholic novice because I wanted to write about a pursuit that does not often get attention in fiction. I didn’t know anything about nuns, and had to do a lot of research.
2. What is your favorite part of the writing process?
When inspiration strikes, and my fingers fly across the keyboard.
3. What part of the process is not your favorite?
When inspiration does not strike, and every sentence seems bad. It’s scary, and I have to push myself to keep going, to know that I can revise and revise.
4. If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your debut author self before the launch of THE CROWN?
Try to enjoy it as much as you can, and don’t get caught up in the business of publishing any more than you have to,
5. What is your favorite novel of all time?
That is such a hard decision! I guess I would have to say “The Great Gatsby,” because it is so lovely and every time I read it I discover something else. Runners-up: “Anna Karenina”, “The Age of Innocence,” and “Rebecca”.
I have to tell you that in college I started reading Hemingway and had a pretty strong reaction to his books. It’s difficult to rank my “favorite” Hemingways. I would have to say “The Sun Also Rises” and “The Snows of Kiliminjaro.” I re-read “A Farewell to Arms” while writing my second novel, “The Chalice,” and was humbled by Hemingway’s descriptive power and use of point of view. But I wanted to jump into the book and say to Catherine Barkley, “Run, don’t walk! He’s not the soldier for you.” Ha.
6. What is your first memory of writing?
The first memory I have of feeling good about writing is when my third grade class went on a field trip, and the teacher said she liked my report afterward, she said she liked the way I wrote about the leaves on the trees.
7. What do you most want readers to take away from THE CROWN?
The feeling that they were part of the 16th century for a time, and saw it through the eyes of someone pretty special.
Nancy, thank you so much for these answers. I think we are reading soul-sisters. I wish you all the best with your paperback launch!
For more on Nancy and her fabulous novel, visit her website at : http://www.nancybilyeau.com/
Kristina McMorris is one of my favorite authors and is also one of the most generous writers I know. Her novels LETTERS FROM HOME and BRIDGE OF SCARLET LEAVES have earned her much critical acclaim and thousands of loyal readers. Her advice and encouragement have helped me immeasurably through my forthcoming book launch, so I asked her to stop by and share her wisdom with others. Whether you are a new writer or a veteran, McMorris’ insights will inspire you.
Q: BRIDGE OF SCARLET LEAVES was published in February with many excellent reviews. How has this release differed from the release of your first novel, LETTERS FROM HOME?
It’s definitely been a nice advantage, knowing more of what to expect this time around. I suppose you could say it’s much like preparing your very first Thanksgiving dinner. The first time can be overwhelming as you try to multi-task and experiment with recipes you’ve tasted but never cooked yourself, yet upon completion comes an incredible sense of accomplishment; then the next Thanksgiving, though the milestone isn’t at remarkable, you understand what works and what doesn’t, and where you should place your greatest focus. (Hmm…I’m suddenly craving candied yams and creamed corn casserole!)
Q: Now that you are a seasoned publishing veteran, is there anything you would have done differently with the launch of the first book?
Ack, that description makes me feel so old. Ha! Looking back, I think I would have spread out some of my promotional efforts, rather than cramming so much into the first few weeks of the release; and what I mean by that is determining which events and activities could have waited a week or a month or more. With LETTERS FROM HOME, both my US and UK launch happened simultaneously, so I should have taken this into consideration when I agreed to do three blog visits per day, for example, or to guest speak at a teacher friend’s high school English class—a great experience, mind you, but probably not so pressing that I needed to squeeze it into that first month, when sleep hours were nearly nonexistent.
Q: What is the single most important piece of advice you’d give to debut authors as they prepare to launch their novels?
You, alone, are your book’s best and strongest advocate. Start planning early, stay organized (an advantage for both current and future releases), get creative (so much today can be done online and on a limited budget), and don’t forget that the most important promotions you do are not as much for as to your own pub house. That’s where the buzz begins. If you’re not excited about the release, displaying clear potential for your book’s success, how can you expect anyone else to be?
Q: With the ever-changing landscape of publishing, many debut and midlist authors will have to be their own best advocates. If their publishers are unable to provide large marketing budgets, where do you recommend that authors make their biggest investments of resources?
Online promo is wonderful, particularly when it’s free—blog posts, interviews, reviews, Goodreads giveaways, etc. Speaking engagements can also be very effective in spreading word, including outreach to non-literary sites and organizations that share your target audience. For example, for LETTERS FROM HOME, I partnered with websites that promoted pen pals and the art of letter writing, and together we ran giveaways of fancy stationery baskets.
For BRIDGE OF SCARLET LEAVES, I connected with museums, universities, Asian cultural groups and historical societies. I also joined forces with other WWII authors and organized a contest in which the winning book club won a Skype party with us, plus a prize box filled with copies of our books and WWII goodies. And, of course, local media can be a great source of free promotion. Just do your best to think outside of the box, brainstorm how you can tap into an applicable already-established audience, and, most of all, don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. The worst anyone can say is no.
Q: What do you enjoy most about book promotion? Least?
As a former event planner, I absolutely love organizing large launch events—from the media pitches to invitation outreach to creative itineraries. And I absolutely love the social aspect, especially befriending fellow authors and visiting book clubs.
What I enjoy the least is the travel. As a married mother of two young boys, I hate being away too long! (Granted, by the time our kids hit their teenage years, my view on that might change drastically.)
Q: I loved your two novels so much that I can’t wait to read more. What is your next project?
I’m so thrilled you enjoyed them, Erika. I can’t wait to share more stories with you!
As for my next projects… I’m happy to report that my novella, The Christmas Collector, will be published this coming November by Kensington Books in a holiday anthology headlined by New York Times bestselling author Fern Michaels. (Very exciting!) After that, I have two more two women’s fiction novels under contract with my publisher, the first of which I’m working on right now, titled Through Memory’s Gate. I’m eager to share more details soon!
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Here is the trailer for BRIDGE OF SCARLET LEAVES:
“[Bridge of Scarlet Leaves] gracefully blossoms through swift prose and rich characters…this gripping story about two ‘brothers’ in arms and a young woman caught in between them hits all the right chords.”
– Publishers Weekly
“A sweeping yet intimate novel that will please both romantics and lovers of American history.”
– Kirkus Reviews
Yesterday was the pub date of THE KITCHEN DAUGHTER which I LOVED. I met Jael at a recent Tweet Up in New York, and she is every bit as charming as her fiction. She was kind enough to answer some questions I had for her after reading the book.
It was such a pleasure to read such a unique work of fiction. Where did you get the idea to have ghosts conjured from handwritten recipes?
Thank you! I’d been writing fiction and trying to get it published for a long time, but it just seemed like I couldn’t quite break through. So I started doing some soul-searching. I realized that I love to cook – it’s something I’m passionate about – but I had never written a character who had that same passion. So I was just walking around every day trying to think of how cooking could drive a plot. And I was literally standing in my kitchen, staring into an open refrigerator, and boom – the idea hit me. What happens when she cooks? The ghosts of the people who wrote the recipes are drawn back into her kitchen. Everything flowed from that moment of inspiration.
It’s clear that you love cooking. Will future novels center around the kitchen?
I may come back to the kitchen for a future novel, but the one I’m writing next isn’t based there. That was a two-fold decision. First, I worried that if my second book was also foodie fiction, that I would basically need to write only foodie fiction for the rest of my career – which certainly wouldn’t be the worst fate in the world, but I like to keep my options open. Second, I just didn’t have another great food idea to write about! I’m not a chef and I’ve never worked in a restaurant, so I didn’t want to write about those worlds, and I didn’t want my second book to be too much like the first. So, I’m headed in a different direction for now.
Have you always written magical realism, or did it surprise you? Do you think you’ll continue to write fiction with magical aspects?
I do really like this particular type of magical realism – it’s a very real world, it’s recognizable as the world we live in, except for a single game-changing supernatural element. It’s not a completely magical world. It’s real enough that when Ginny starts seeing the ghosts, she’s not going to share that information. Some of the other book ideas I’ve worked on either have a supernatural element or a supernatural question – is this character imagining things or is something impossible actually happening? – so I think that’s likely to be a common thread in most, if not all, of my fiction.
How long does it take you to write a novel? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
It really varies. I’m a very fast drafter, but I go through a lot of revisions. I try to plot beforehand, but I end up veering away from my outline pretty quickly, because I discover as I go. So I think I’m an aspiring plotter, but I may just be an inveterate pantser.
Who are some writers who inspire you?
My number one writing inspiration is Margaret Atwood. I just love her work, especially her novels Lady Oracle and Alias Grace. She’s not literary, she’s not commercial, she’s not sci-fi, she’s just an excellent writer who finds inspiration in a thousand different places. And she writes beautifully, of course, but I never find her work self-indulgent. It’s never just about the sentences. There’s always a compelling story.
Thanks so much for these insights, Jael. I wish you all the best with your debut.
I’ve been profoundly affected by the works of Susan Vreeland, and had many questions for her on process, theme, and subject. Ms. Vreeland was kind enough to answer some of my questions. If you’ve never read her books, I hope, after reading this, you’ll venture into the worlds she creates with her writing.
1. From painters to glass designers, the subjects of your historical fiction are artists. Do you have a background in art as well as in literature, and how did you decide to devote your writing to those subjects?
No, I don’t have any formal training in art, though I have a deep love for many works of art and for the artists who created them. As a child, I loved to visit my grandfather’s painting studio, and was entranced one day when he took my little hand in his large, gnarled one, and together we painted a calla lily. I loved how the colors blended together instead of being sharply defined as they were with my crayons. My mother and grandmother were china painters and my mother referred to colors by their flower and fruit names–violet, hyacinth, tangerine, peach.
Coming out of the Louvre for the first time in 1971, dizzy with new love, I stood on Pont Neuf and made a pledge to myself that the art of this newly discovered world in the Old World would be my life companion. Never had history been more vibrant, its voices more resonating, its images more gripping. In a fashion I couldn’t imagine then, I have been true to this pledge.
2. How long do you typically take to research and write a novel? Are the two processes separate or woven together?
Usually it takes me three years, the first six months of which is research, although that continues during the writing of the first and second drafts as I discover more that I need to know.
For me, the process of writing historically-based fiction falls into four steps.
a. Discovery. Finding the story one wishes to tell burind in known history is as exhilarating as discovering hidden treasure. The moment a novel idea presents itself, I must ask, Is this my story to tell? Does it allow me to express my sensibilities and offer something that reaches us in our contemporary world?
b. Focus. I have to decide upon a premise, conflict, themes, and I have to find a yearning of the main character. The sooner I am conscious of the themes and moral questions, the clearer the work ahead becomes. Research continues in these first two steps.
c. Select and Eliminate. In order to avoid narrative sprawl, I must select only those people, events, and aspects of a figure’s life which contribute to the themes and focus, and I must eliminate those who don’t.
d. Invention. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf, barred from the library as a woman, notes that women’s history cannot be studied since the books are written by, for and about men. Instead women’s history “will have to be read into the scene of its own exclusion. It has to be invented–both discovered and made up.” Ah, made up, she says. Therein lies the historical novelist’s permission.
Archival and published history don’t always record personal relationships so characters must be invented to allow the subject to reveal the interior realm through intimate interaction. Scenes must also be invented to develop plot and themes, but I take care not to change known history or the character of a historical figure.
Typically, I write twelve drafts, and that’s why it takes me three years.
3. Are you often able to visit the places and works of art that are the subjects of your novels?
Often, yes, but that has not always been so. Sometimes I’ve been to a place many years before I conceived on a novel in that place, as happened with Girl in Hyacinth Blue and the Netherlands. Sometimes my time is extremely limited in those places–one week in Italy during the last stages of writing The Passion of Artemisia, but three trips to British Columbia wilderness for The Forest Lover, two trips to Paris of ten days and two weeks for Luncheon of the Boating Party. I must admit that as I consider various subjects, I ask myself if the setting is a place I would like to visit.
4. What is the most challenging part of writing historical fiction?
Many challenges. One thing I try to avoid is including delectable bits of research that are not organic to the plot. Good historical fiction can make us feel, as the protagonist does, what would otherwise be dry facts, dates, numbers, place names, with people and feelings completely left out. In avoiding this, I try to present a truth broader than what the history books present, and more human–a truth of the heart. To do this, I must have interiority of the characters as vibrant and appealing as the exterior story.
The most rewarding?
Making the past alive with sensory detail is an exquisite delight. For example, “Milk-white oxen wearing flowered wreaths and hauling carts of olives blocked the road, but Pietro didn’t seem to mind. ‘I like that wooden chuk-chuk-chuk sounds of the olive pickers, the way it echoes through the orchards.”
–from The Passion of Artemisia
I must admit that beyond the rewarding moments in the process of writing, I am profounding affected by letters from readers that validate my efforts. For example, these one line letters from around the world:
After reading your Passion of Artemisia, Florence and Rome are, for me, more beautiful. Thank you.
“Still Life” from Girl in Hyacinth Blue is the greatest meditation on art ever written.
Charlo in Malta
Portions of your book approached Dostoyevsky. Thank you.
5. You once said that historical novels can teach us so much. Did you mean the writing of them or the reading of them?
Both, but I must answer from my perspective as a writer. Louis Comfort Tiffany wrote, “Beauty is what Nature has lavished upon us as a Supreme Gift.” Here I believe that he was speaking of visual beauty, and certainly Clara Driscoll loved the sensual beauties of the eye and ear. However, she, or rather the act of rendering her story, taught me that there are more types of beauty than just the sensual beauties. There is the beauty of instinctive acts of generosity and caring, as evidenced by Edwin, her one-time fiancé, leaping off the streetcar to tell the Russian woman of the job he found for her son. There is the beauty of Clara’s compassion for the immigrant Tiffany Girls Julia and Olga who would both lead limited, hard-scrabble lives. There is the beauty of non-judgmental acceptance, as evidenced in her deep and genuine friendships with four gay men. In the last analysis, these beauties may be more profoundly important than the beauties of the visible world.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful answers.
For more on Susan Vreeland, visit her website at www.svreeland.com.
“He was thinking about the night they’d arrived in Naples, the way the city had seemed an undifferentiated chaos of gray buildings and broken plaster and lights spreading up over the hillside, Sophie’s blue linen dress, the singer in the restaurant.”
The Singer’s Gun, Emily Mandel
I “met” Emily on Twitter, and read her book, The Singer’s Gun, because it had an interesting premise and was picked as an Indie favorite. I quickly learned that it deserved its endorsements. It pulled me in right from the beginning, and I devoured it quickly.
What stood out to me were several things. First, it had a unique plot with unique characters—something hard to come by when thousands of books are published each year. Also, the book had great pacing. Every chapter ended with a cliffhanger, and not the obvious, manipulative cliff hangers you find in genre suspense, but real questions about characters, motives, and plot. Finally, and most enchanting, were Emily’s settings. Setting development is sometimes brushed aside in favor of plot or character development, but when done well, actually enhances those elements. For me, a busy mother of three with a blog, lots of book club visits for a first book, and major revisions for a second, if a book doesn’t grab me immediately each time I pick it up I stop reading. I can say that each time I picked up The Singer’s Gun, the world that Mandel created—from the basement of a New York City office building to the seaside in Capri—rose up around me and became my world.
Emily was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the book, her writing process, and what she’s working on now. For more on Emily and her books, visit her website at www.emilymandel.com.
1. A crime family dealing in smuggled goods, a son trying to escape his family’s legacy, immigrants, lounge singers, and people exiled from their homes—the cast of characters in The Singer’s Gun is so interesting. How did you come up with them? Did they make the story or did the story call for them?
Thank you – I’m glad you found them interesting! When I’m writing a book I’ll start with a vague image or a premise (for Last Night in Montreal it was a car driving through the desert; for The Singer’s Gun it was a man leaving his wife on their honeymoon), and then I just start writing and see what happens. The characters develop along with the plot; it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when in the process they develop. Some of them develop as a function of the plot — I knew with this book that I wanted to write about illegal immigration, and that informed the existence of characters like Elena and Ilieva — and others, like Aria and Anton, I have some ideas about before I know what the plot is going to be.
2. Anton is complex. He longs to leave his family, but uses them to jump start his new life. He wants to live a “normal” life with a normal woman, but he can’t be faithful to it. Yet, in spite of his flaws, I found him enormously likeable. How do you balance characters’ flaws with their strengths?
I really liked Anton too. It’s a difficult balancing act — on the one hand, I want my characters to be human. I don’t have a lot of interest in characters who are entirely good or entirely bad; I think most of us are deeply flawed, capable of both kindness and cruelty and prone to making bad decisions. On the other hand, I don’t want to make them so flawed that the reader starts to find them unappealing and doesn’t care what happens to them. In The Singer’s Gun, the line I drew for Anton was that although he’s not above participating in criminal activity, he would never hurt anyone on purpose. He’s interested in the idea of living an honorable life, although he doesn’t really have any idea how to go about doing this, and he does always try to do the right thing.
3. Publishers tend to like to classify books according to genre, but this book seems to transcend a single category. How would you describeThe Singer’s Gun?
I think perhaps I’d describe it as contemporary noir. I’ve seen the book described variously as literary fiction, general fiction, a thriller, a suspense novel, and crime fiction, and I’d like to think that it’s all of the above. I’m happy that the book’s difficult to classify; I think that the classifications of genre have a limiting effect.
4. Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on now?
Sure. I’m about a hundred and fifty pages into a rough first draft of an as-yet-untitled third novel. It’s about a disgraced journalist, but it’s too early to say much more about it. I have no idea how it ends.
5. How do you balance book promotion with writing? Do you have any routines?
Balancing book promotion with writing has been difficult. I haven’t really been able to work on my third novel very much over these past two months. I miss working on it, but at the same time I don’t really mind, because I feel extremely lucky to be in this position of having a recently-published book to promote, and also because it’s a temporary situation — I think that by September the book promotion will have died down a little bit and I’ll have more time for writing new fiction. As for a routine, I work five days a week as an administrator in a cancer research lab; it’s a part-time job, so I get home around three in the afternoon and then I write or do promotional/business things until it’s time to make dinner. After dinner I might work a bit more in the evening. On the weekends I work full-time on writing, research, and promotion.
Thanks so much for these insights. I can’t wait to read more!
Thanks so much for interviewing me! I’m glad you enjoyed the book.
I found Hyatt Bass on Twitter, and was thoroughly impressed by her debut novel, The Embers, an honest and compelling look at the tragedies and imperfections of a New England family. Ms. Bass is hard at work on her next novel, but was kind enough to come up for air to answer some of my questions. For more information on Hyatt, visit her website at http://hyattbass.com/.
1. Your stark, realistic portrayal of a family—with all of its angst and flaws—is what most drew me in to The Embers. When you begin writing, do you start with the characters or the plot?
I start with whatever comes to mind, which is usually a random collection of characters, places, situations, and plot-lines. After I’ve spent some time gathering all of these ideas, I start trying to see how I can weave them all together and create a story that works as a whole. Of course I have to throw some things out. But I really enjoy that early part of the process when I am still figuring out what my story is and who my characters are. Then, once I start writing, I often have to stop and flesh out the story and the characters a bit more. So it’s really a situation where the characters shape the story and vice versa, and that continues through the entire process for me.
2. You’ve been involved in film in the past, working as a screenwriter, producer, and director. When did you decide to write a novel? Which form do you prefer?
I actually started writing The Embers as a screenplay. I had just finished my film, 75 Degrees in July, and I thought I’d like to make a film about an unlikely friendship between an adolescent girl and an older man. The whole screenplay revolved around those characters (Joe and Ingrid in the book), but I kept feeling like I wanted to expand upon it, and explore everything I’d written more fully than I felt I could in a screenplay. When I switched to writing the story as a novel, it was really liberating. I was no longer restricted by the page count or by the necessity of telling everything in action and dialogue. Suddenly Joe’s family grew around him, and the book became about that family. I really liked being able to write from each character’s point of view so that the whole thing felt like a sculpture that was constantly turning, allowing the reader to constantly view the story from a different angle. I definitely prefer writing novels and plan to stick with it.
3. Writers in today’s market can no longer just hide in their caves and write. How do you manage social media, marketing, writing, and your life outside of writing? Do you have any routines?
Being online has been a fantastic experience because I’ve gotten to meet so many authors, bloggers, reviewers, booksellers, and other book lovers. It’s a very supportive community, and we all cheer each other on, share writing anxieties, and discuss books we’re reading. The only problem is that it’s so easy to get caught up in conversation online that my writing routine suffers sometimes. I’m trying not to go online now until I’ve finished my writing – or at least a good chunk of it – for the day.
4. As you begin the drafting phase of your second novel, what do you find most challenging? How do you wrestle with the Muse?
The most challenging thing about the second book is that I now know the way my agent, editor, publisher & marketing people think about books, so I’m constantly battling with thoughts about who the book will appeal to, and that sort of thing, which I don’t find very constructive. I try not to judge my first draft, just get it down, and then refine it later – but this time, the judgement keeps creeping in and really slowing me down. As far as wrestling with the muse, I just have to keep writing. Sometimes I feel completely uninspired when I start, and then out of nowhere comes some great idea. It’s a lot about persistence and blind faith.
5. Can you tell me anything about your new book?
Well, I’ve been telling people that unlike The Embers, this new book follows one person and is a love story. But I’m starting to find that the book is changing as I write it… So I’m not sure, it may follow a few different characters whose stories are intertwined. And although there is a large love story component, the book also focuses a great deal on family.
You have a lifelong fan in me, and I wish you much success!
Thank you so much, Erika. That really means a lot. I appreciate it.
I found Allison on Twitter and have since added her blog to my favorites. Allison’s novels often tackle serious subjects with humor, have strong female protagonists with strong voices, and inner journeys every bit as engaging as the characters’ external journeys. The beauty of reading her novels is watching these women grow, change, and reevaluate life’s priorities. Her books stay with you and leave you just a little sad at the end because it’s like saying goodbye to a friend.
Allison was kind enough to answer some questions for my blog. Her new book, The One That I Want comes out today!!
1. Your books are modern day fairy tales—women going back or forward in time to make better choices and live out second chances. What writers influenced you growing up? Have you always written in this style?
I was a voracious reader growing up and I think that love of books influenced my writing, though I’m not sure that specific authors did, to be honest. I read a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with out I write – Stephen King, for example, was my favorite author as a kid, and of course, I was addicted to the Flowers in the Attic series! I think, as an adult, what influences a lot of authors writing, or at least what influences mine, is my thinking and perspective on the world around me and what’s happening in my own life. That holds much greater power than the adored authors from my childhood.
2. Your protagonists have strong, honest voices. How much of yourself and your life do you put into your characters?
Great question. I would say that the emotional voice and threads throughout the books are mine but my characters’ circumstances are not. I get asked a lot if Jillian, from Time of My Life, is me, and she really, really isn’t. Like, so isn’t. But I tried to write her discontentedness as honestly as I knew possible, and sometimes, that means tapping into a latent emotion, in the way that an actor does on screen. Similarly with Tilly in The One That I Want, she has a lot of disappointment and suppressed anger at the people who fail her, and while I’m fortunate enough to never have experienced such crushing blows in my real life, I do try to put myself in her shoes and react as openly and honestly as I can. I think that’s the only way you can really pull readers in: they have a pretty high bs-detector.
3. In the excerpt from The One That I Want , Tilly has all the breathless enthusiasm of a high school student. I instantly loved her, knew things were about to get very sour for her, and wanted to protect her. When you start writing, do you know all of the struggles your characters will face? Do you outline or do you stick them in messy situations and see how it all plays out?
No to both questions, though I wish I did. Writing would be SO MUCH easier if I did. But I tend to let my characters lead the way, a statement I always cringe at because it sounds so cliched, but it’s true. I write them and they lead me where they want to go, and yes, I have to throw obstacles in their way – because that’s what makes books and character development interesting – but I truly don’t know what those will be – and how they’ll be overcome-until I write them. That’s actually what made this book quite difficult to write: because Tilly flash-forwards, I had to know what was going to happen on page 225 by page 70. And I didn’t, I couldn’t. So it wasn’t easy.
4. Your books would make great movies. Do you imagine them that way before or during the writing process, or does mental “casting” begin for you once you’ve completed the books?
Sometimes it doesn’t even begin then! I sincerely have no idea who could be (or should be) cast in The One That I Want should it be developed into a movie. With Time of My Life, which is being adapted by The Weinstein Company, I had a general idea once I finished it. But I don’t really write with actors in mind. At all. I mean, sure, sometimes I’ll think of someone and consider their quirks/nuances and that might shade something ever-so-slightly, but mostly, I have a picture of my characters in my head that isn’t a reflection of a specific actor.
5. I was so sad to finish with your characters in Time of My Life, and based on what I’ve read so far in The One That I Want, I’ll feel the same way. Do you ever see a sequel in the works for any of your novels?
Aw, thank you! So sweet of you. Hmmm, I doubt it. What I really enjoy about writing these books is that they take my heroines on journeys that are fulfilling in and of themselves. Like, they get to their end point, even if I don’t reveal all of the details of that end point to the reader – that lets the reader form his or her own opinion. So in some ways, because they reach the end of their journeys, a sequel doesn’t feel necessary. Let’s just all envision them living (mostly) happily ever after, and then I don’t have to write 300 more pages!
Thanks so much for answering my questions! Best of luck with the book release!!
Robin Black is the author of the critically acclaimed and just published short story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This. I first heard about the book on Twitter, and after reading an excerpt from it, fell in love with her style. I’d forgotten how much I loved short stories, and I’m happy to meander back to a form I’d left for awhile.
Ms. Black was kind enough to answer my questions about the book, her writing, and her future projects. For more information, please visit her website.
1. You’ve published your short stories in a number of places. How did you decide which stories to put into this collection?
For the most part, I just chose the stories I thought were my best work. There is one, “A Country Where You Once Lived,” that I wrote specifically because I knew the book needed another male point-of-view story and because I also thought it needed something I can’t quite describe but sense, another story with a kind of large scope to it. But with the exception of that one, I just chose my strongest work.
I have had a lot of time in the past few years to think about the whole form of unlinked story collections, and I’m going to write more about this, but basically I think it’s an odd conceit. Not at all a bad conceit, but an odd one. I didn’t write these ten stories to be read one after the other, or all in one sitting, or even all in one week. Each one was written to stand on its own, but now they’re discussed and experienced as a group, and sometimes I wonder about the impact of that. In a way, I wish I could sell the book with a sticker on it saying “TAKE ONLY AS DIRECTED; READ ONE PER WEEK.”
2. Your characters and plots are extremely original: a blind girl and her father meeting a guide dog, a woman whose father dies the day electricity gets into her water, an artist painting a portrait of a man nearing the end of his life. Where do you get your ideas? Do you come up with the characters or the situations first?
Some of the stories have roots in real life. Not because they’re autobiographical, but because some odd occurrence in my life sparked something. We actually did have electrified water once – our house wasn’t properly grounded, so that weird detail came straight out of life. But sometimes it’s just a matter of my preoccupations being reconfigured in a way that I don’t at all understand. I wrote the story about the blind girl at a time when my niece was about to go off to college and I was a bit worried about how my brother, one of the most involved parents I know, was going to do. It was also just a couple of years before my own daughter went off to school. So I know those concerns are all there, but why I made her blind and why she gets a dog, I really don’t know.
In a sense that’s the scariest thing about writing. If you don’t quite know how you get your ideas, you can’t ever be sure you’ll have more. But ultimately I think relinquishing the illusion of control over your own imagination is a good thing, if scary.
3. Your imagery adds depth that resounds deeply with the reader, and makes the reader pause and consider what you’re saying. The haunting images at the end of “Immortalizing John Parker” come to mind: the blue paint on Clara’s knuckles from painting John’s tie, the dent in the couch disappearing as he stands to leave. Also, Claire’s yellow beach chair on the soccer field at the end of “Pine.” Do these come in the first draft, or do you include them during the revision process?
Thank you! Sometimes an image just arrives early in the process. I know specifically that the blue paint was on Clara’s knuckle from the very first draft. When I’m writing a scene, it is a very visual thing for me. I have a vivid picture in my mind of what’s going on – almost like a mental movie running. And the paint on her knuckle, her noticing it just then, was always part of that. And the same goes for that couch dent – though I remember not being sure if I should say the couch was “exhaling” or not. I thought the implied metaphor of breathing might be too distracting. But the yellow chair was not even in the published version of “Pine.” (Colorado Review) There are a couple of stories in the book that I restructured fairly extensively for the book, and that was one of them. So in that case I had to write and write before I hit upon the image that I thought made the right kind of sense. And that’s a case of it being quite difficult because it’s the ending so that image has a lot of work to do. And the danger with such images, the ones that come at an ending or at some other crucial point, that aren’t just passing details but are really functioning in some important way, is that it’s very, very easy for them to be overdone, too obvious. So I do a lot of work on how to use fairly heavy symbols and images while somehow relieving them of that heaviness. It’s actually one of the things I work hardest at.
4. Short stories are notoriously difficult to sell to agents and publishers. How did you get an agent, and ultimately, a publisher for this collection?
I truly believe the real answer is that there was a huge element of luck involved. I found and connected with one of very few agents who actually, positively enjoys selling short story collections. I actually had offers from several other agents who had no interest in the collection at all. But he believes in them, believes in good writing whatever form it happens to take. I was shocked that he thought they would sell, and in fact they sold at auction as part of a two book deal with a novel, which I suspect made all the difference. I very much doubt that the same editors who bid on the books would have been interested had there been no novel. What I was told by the editors I spoke to at the time was quite simply that sometimes you have to buy books that you love even if you know that they are unlikely to be your big moneymakers. I’ll also say that every one of the interested editors (and there were, of course, uninterested editors too) mentioned the degree of craft involved, the intricate and technical aspects of the writing – which made me feel better about having taken so, so many years obsessing over that side of things. But that was October 2008 and I think that changes in the economy, and within the publishing industry specifically, have made it tougher and tougher for editors to have that view and go for quiet literary works. I think it’s even harder to sell literary fiction now than it was even just 19 months ago – much harder. So that was another piece of luck for me, that my book went up for sale then and not now.
5. Finally, the most often asked, sometimes despised writer question: What are you working on now? (I ask because you now have a lifelong fan in me and I’m greedy for more.)
Thank you, again! I’m working on a few things. The central project is my novel which I’d like to have pretty much drafted by the end of the summer. But I am also always working on stories and also on essays. I’d like to write a craft book at some point and I’m taking notes for that. I do a lot of individual teaching and very small group teaching and I’d like to use those experiences in a book both about writing and about teaching writing. I feel very passionate about teaching and am on a little bit of a mission against the pedagogy that involves a lot of negativity and harsh critique. So, the novel is definitely my focus, but I do much better when I have a few projects going all at once. And really thank you so much for being a fan! As writers – as you know – it’s the readers who complete our work for us.
*(photograph by Marion Ettlinger)
M J Rose is a bestselling author and marketing expert. I won a copy of her book, The Memorist, at a Baltimore Writer’s Meeting, and have been hooked ever since. I just finished (and loved) The Reincarnationist, and I’m looking forward to the release of her third book in the series, The Hypnotist, in April. A television series called Past Life based on the series, started on Tuesday and continues tonight at 9 PM on Fox.
M J was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to answer some of my writing questions. You can find out more about her books, her blogs, and her business by clicking on the links. You can also download a free sample of each of the books in The Reincarnationist series by following this link.
Let’s talk about how you got your start. I was interested to read that you began as a self-published author ten years ago. Why did you decide to self-publish and would you recommend it?
For fiction, in today’s market I would not recommend it unless the book fits into a very specific niche. Nonfiction is a little different, but for the fiction writer who’s been rejected by agents and publishers and thinks they have a great book, I would not recommend self-publishing. I don’t think self publishing a book that’s been rejected over and over again by agents is a solution. First hire an editor, make it a better book, and then try again.
I didn’t set out to self publish. I had an agent and some great rejections from publishers. They kept saying the book was wonderful, but they didn’t know how to market it because it didn’t fit neatly into a genre. I had ideas for marketing the book, however, so I self published it to test the market. I ended up selling 2,500 copies and became the first self published book selected for the LiteraryGuild/Doubleday Book Club. I got a traditional publisher from there.
Your interests are broad, and range from erotic fiction to literary suspense and thriller. Have you had any trouble switching from one genre to the next? Do you prefer to write in one over the other?
All of my books can be classified as suspense. Some of the earlier ones had erotic elements, others didn’t, and the Reincarnationist books are really suspense with historical elements. I write the kind of books I want to read, without thinking of where I fit in the marketplace. I understand why publishers talk in terms of genre, but I can’t write to fit a set of genre criteria. I have great respect for genre writers–it’s not any less artful than other kinds of writing–I just can’t do it. I grew up reading good books, and that’s what I want to write.
What originally drew me to your Reincarnationist series was that it was set in multiple time periods, and featured music, art, and history. What inspired you to write the series?
I studied art, and wanted to be an artist, so that heavily influences my writing. I also live with a musician. But my interest in reincarnation began when I was a child. My great-grandfather believed I was reincarnated because I told him things about his childhood in Russia I couldn’t have known. My mother was skeptical, but we researched reincarnation together. On the anniversary of her death, my niece–who was a toddler–told me things about my mother she couldn’t have known. I’ve been hooked on the topic ever since.
In addition to writing, you also have a successful marketing business, Authorbuzz. How do you fit in writing? Do you have a set schedule, or do you write when time allows?
I do have a schedule. I write in the morning before anything else. From late morning to lunchtime I work on Authorbuzz. I write again in the afternoon, and then back to Authorbuzz at night. I probably work too much, but I do take time to rest now and then.
Can you explain the difference between what you do and what a publicist does?
Yes, a publicist pitches a book to various media in an effort to get press, coverage, or reviews. I advertise the book. I create an advertising campaign, buy ad space, do ad runs, and try to find creative ways to market the book. I place the book to expose buyers to it. Either way, there are no guarantees. With fiction, all we can do is try to generate interest to get people to read an excerpt from a book, and hopefully, buy it.
What’s the most important thing a fiction writer should do to build platform?
Novelists shouldn’t focus on platform. We need to focus on writing our best books. Once we have our best book and a publisher, we need to sit down with our agents and figure out how much to spend on marketing.
We can find ways to use other people’s platforms to market our books. For example, if your historical novel deals with the French revolution, find blogs and websites devoted to the subject and find ways to partner with them before the release of your book.
Six months before The Reincarnationist was published, I started a blog with news about reincarnation, stories, and links to books on the subject. Once I had a lot of people following the blog, I told them about my novel when it came out. Now, not all fiction lends itself to that, but you can find creative ways to use other’s platforms to help your own. I teach an online course at Backspace in January all about buzzing your book
But the bottom line is always to write a great book.
Thanks so much, M. J.!