So new year, new you? How are those New Year’s resolutions going thus far? For myself, as I mentioned last week, one of my intentions for 2014 was to offer more author and artist interviews on this blog. I’m delighted to introduce Lisa Alber, author of KILMOON: A County Clare Mystery. Lisa will be generously sharing about creating a positive moments jar, one of her favorite tools for keeping herself encouraged and inspired.
You might be wondering what a positive moments jar is. It’s exactly as described: a jar to collect scraps of paper upon which you write positive moments. What I especially like about this simple concept is that it makes happiness visually tangible. And what could be better than that?
Without further ado, here is our interview. And thanks, Lisa, for helping me keep my resolution!
Kris Waldherr: My pleasure! What inspired you to create your positive moments jar?
LA: I have Facebook to thank! Last year someone mentioned it on a post. I wish I remembered who because I’d thank her. I thought it was the perfect idea. I was completely swamped and stressed because KILMOON, my debut novel, was jetting its way toward publication in March — so much to do! — and I knew that if I didn’t take one little concrete step to memorialize all the good things, they’d slip past me in a blur.
And? I’m prone to depression, which means I tend to linger on the negative. So, a happy jar felt like just the thing. The act of taking that extra minute to savor a good feeling was helpful. And, of course, reliving the moments at the end of 2014 was a blast.
KW: How long have you been doing it? How often do you add to it?
LA: Last year, 2014, was my first year. I’m proud of myself for filling the jar because I’m not always consistent with rituals and routines. That said, I wasn’t consistent through the year, and I forgot a bunch of great things too. (Some of my book launch week festivities, for example.) But that was OK — making any part of the practice mandatory would have soured the experience.
So, I added to the jar as I remembered. There were times when I was more aware of my happiness than other times. For example, I didn’t write any notes in July and August. Zero. This seemed odd until I remembered that I was practically psychotic from lack of sleep around then. I was miserable, barely functioning, and working a lot with my doctor. I’m sure I had happy moments during that time, of course, but I wasn’t on the happy jar wavelength.
I also had a period of about two months, April through June, when I didn’t drop notes in the jar. This corresponds to post-partum book launch depression (which I’ve since heard is pretty common!) and putting my beloved dog, Luna, to sleep.
Seeing the larger pattern to my year comforted me — the two downer periods passed and they weren’t actually that bad even if in my memory they take up the whole year. Hardly!
KW: Has the jar influenced your creative process, especially as you published KILMOON? If so, how?
LA: I don’t think the happy jar influenced my creative process — not in a direct way anyhow. I can tell you this though: I’m starting 2015 in a positive frame of mind. I feel some energy around my writing, and I’ve already done some great work on my work-in-progress. I suspect that reminding myself about the good stuff in 2014 has helped me begin 2015 on an optimistic note, which is great for my creativity. The benefits of the happy jar will be in the long run, I think. I hope that the practice of happiness will become easier over time. There’s that saying about what we pay attention to flourishes. Sometimes these things take practice.
KW: How do you use the jar? Is it only for moments when you feel discouraged? Or is it to keep you going?
LA: I didn’t use it when I felt discouraged — just the opposite. I wrote notes when I was legitimately happy or proud of myself or elated or awed, not when I was trying to manufacture a happy feeling by, say, reminding myself to be grateful for the roof over my head. Gratitude lists are a different thing. (I do those too — in a journal.)
Seeing the jar fill through the year did buoy me up sometimes, but mainly it was an exercise in savoring the happy moments. If I was down, I didn’t put anything in the jar.
KW: Anything else you care to share?
LA: This year, I’m doing two things differently. One, I placed the jar in a central location where I see it all the time. Two, I have scraps of paper and a pen sitting right there. I seem to be forever scrabbling for pens or paper.
A few examples of my notes:
Jan: GOOD REVIEW FROM KIRKUS!!!! (I can tell how happy I was by the capitalization and exclamations points.)
March: Surprise and delight to see a lone viola blooming on my neglected deck.
April: LAUNCH PARTY. Owner of Annie Bloom’s said she’s reading KILMOON and loving it. Said their best launch party ever — set a new threshold. Woohoo!
June: FAWN!!!! (my new dog)
September: Such glorious sun and shadows and golden light.
September: Another authorial milestone to add to honorarium library talk and award nomination: XXX asked me to blurb his novel!
Thank you, Lisa, for an inspiring interview! I think I see a positive moments jar in my future.
More information about Lisa and her debut novel KILMOON: Lisa Alber’s County Clare mysteries feature Merrit Chase, a recent transplant from California, and Detective Sergeant Danny Ahern. KILMOON has been called “utterly poetic” and a “stirring debut” and received an Elizabeth George Foundation writing grant. Ever distractible, you may find Lisa staring out windows, dogwalking, fooling around online, or drinking red wine with her friends. Ireland, books, animals, photography, and blogging round out her distractions. Visit Lisa online at LisaAlber.com.
Top photograph: Lisa’s positive moments jar—I like that it has a big bow on it, like a gift.
Here at Chez Art and Words apre le NaNoWriMo, I’m deep into design and holiday projects (see above). Like many in December, I’m on a push to finish everything up between now through the end of the year. Regardless, I can’t let the following friends’ and colleagues’ news go uncelebrated:
1. Congrats to my friend Heather Webb whose new novel RODIN’S LOVER was featured in January’s Cosmopolitan magazine (right). They wrote, “You’ll be drawn into this story of obsession and passion between the artist and his apprentice/muse.” High praise indeed!
2. Author Robert Goolick (A RELIABLE WIFE) has just published a Christmas story entitled THE FINAL BALL OF ORIANNE DE PREMONVILLE. It can be found on Amazon under the Kindle Singles section, and involves the most beautiful red dress in the world. (I workshopped my opening chapters of A GATHERING OF SHADOWS with Goolrick at the Salt Cay Writers Retreat.)
3. There’s a massive giveaway of 22 books going on at the Historical Fiction Co-op. To enter the giveaway, click here. I’m a member of this wonderful group, along with C.W. Gortner, Lynn Cullen, Michelle Moran, and other notable authors.
4. Finally, on my author friend Christy English’s blog, I loved her thoughtful, funny interview with indie author Ellen Seltz (MR. MOTTLEY GETS HIS MAN). When I contacted Ellen about featuring the interview, she wrote regarding her decision to self-publish: “I think publishing is going the way of music and film—content with a broad appeal is going to benefit from that large distribution network, and niche content is better off in a focused channel.”
Other sage advice from Ellen:
Being an unpublished novelist may or may not correlate with being an inexperienced writer, or creative professional. If you have already developed your artistic sense and professional distance, great – go on and start learning the specifics of the form and the business side. If you don’t yet have a reliable sense of what professionalism is, or more importantly, how to tell whether you have written crap or not, then put publishing on hold till you get your crapometer calibrated. Put your stuff in front of strangers (Strangers! Not your friends!) and see how they react. This is one of the benefits of the query/rejection/polish/resubmit process of legacy publishing, it forces you to see and relate to your work differently.
Read the rest of the interview here.
“My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. People called me Sue. I know the year I was born in, but for many years I did not know the date, and took my birthday at Christmas. I believe I am an orphan….”
—opening lines of FINGERSMITH by Sarah Waters
The novels of Sarah Waters came to my attention soon after I finished writing my first draft of A GATHERING OF SHADOWS (aka The Novel Formerly Known as THE LILY MAID). My reading of Waters arrived in an inadvertent manner, as many momentous things do: my literary agent had given me a recommended reading list to aid my transition into writing historical fiction. Sarah Waters was not on her list. Even so, that first reading list spurred me into looking beyond for something I couldn’t quite name yet. And then I happened upon Sarah Waters’ FINGERSMITH—and knew I’d found what I was looking for. Here was a historical novel encompassing stunning language, richly realized characters, an immersive sense of time and place, narrative tension, intense sexuality, and deep sense of humanity. And I haven’t even touched on Waters’ masterful use of plot to propel her novels.
I read the rest of Waters’ five novels soon after in a grateful rush. They offered me a roadmap for what historical fiction could be as literature—for what I wanted to write one day if I worked very very hard at the craft. Since then, I’ve reread Waters’ novels whenever I’m in need of writerly inspiration. The ending of FINGERSMITH still makes me cry no matter how many times I’ve read it.
This is a roundabout way of saying that when I learned Sarah Waters was publishing THE PAYING GUESTS, her first novel in five years, I was beyond excited. I went out of my way to locate an advance copy in Europe, which I read in nearly one fell swoop on the plane back. Even better: Waters was giving a reading in New York City, my home town. Of course I had to be there!
To be honest, I was a bit nervous to meet Sarah Waters in person. I love her novels so much. Authors are only human (hello!), and it’s far too easy to project our own idealizations and insecurities onto them. It’s unfair —cruel even—to expect anyone to live up to this.
To my delight, Waters was even warmer and more charming and intelligent in person than I could have hoped. She was funny, generous, and shockingly modest about her work. She spoke at length about writing her novels, researching historical fiction, lesbians and sexual identity in fiction, and more.
A few highlights, paraphrased from memory and notes:
On whether she plans to write about characters from previous novels: Nope. Waters described herself as a “serial monogamist” when it comes to her characters. She really falls in love with them while she’s writing them. (She said this in particular regarding Frances and Lillian from THE PAYING GUESTS, whom she became very fond of over the five years she was immersed in the novel.) Waters always thinks she can never leave her characters behind, which makes it hard for her to finish a novel. However, once she’s done, she’s shocked how easily the characters leave her consciousness. She imagines them walking off and waving goodbye. So, no desire to revisit characters.
On deciding on point of view in a novel: Waters replied that her plot dictates her choice of point of view. For example, in THE PAYING GUESTS, she chose a third person point of view to increase narrative tension; in THE LITTLE STRANGER, first person. That said, she finds herself second guessing her point of view choice as she writes, hoping she made the right decision.
On the use of houses in her fiction: The “great houses” in Waters’ novels THE LITTLE STRANGER and THE PAYING GUEST pay dominant roles in shaping her plot. She explained that houses enact a moment in human history, and become stranded there as time moves on; what’s interesting to her is how humans adapt them as environments as their needs change.
Her favorite books: Waters loves literary novels that incorporate the tropes of genre fiction, such as cliffhangers. She’s a fan of Victorian sensation novels, including those by Wilkie Collins. Other favorite writers: Willa Cather, Hilary Mantel, and Patrick Hamilton. She mentioned Hamilton’s THE SLAVES OF SOLITUDE as a particular inspiration for THE PAYING GUESTS.
As for me, I asked Waters about a quote of hers that I use as a credo:
“Novels are for readers, and writing them means the crafty, patient, selfless construction of effects. I think of my novels as being something like fairground rides: my job is to strap the reader into their car at the start of chapter one, then trundle and whizz them through scenes and surprises, on a carefully planned route, and at a finely engineered pace.”
I said, “Bearing all this in mind, are you ever surprised by your plot taking an unexpected turn as you write?”
Waters answered that she really does know the plot from the beginning; what takes her the longest is figuring out how her characters feel and act in response to plot. She said that with THE PAYING GUESTS she must have written thirty times as many scenes to what went into the final novel. Another interesting fact about her process: She prints out all her scenes whether she uses them or not. She said that by the time she finished THE PAYING GUESTS, she had about thirty inches of draft in comparison to one inch of finished novel! In her writing log, she admonished herself in big red letters: DO NOT WRITE ANOTHER NOVEL WITHOUT KNOWING THE OUTCOME.
After the reading, Waters signed books for us, and even posed for photographs. I was so excited to meet her that I nearly tripped on the podium after getting my books signed. Not my smoothest moment, alas. But then again, how often does one get to meet a literary goddess like Sarah Waters? I am beyond grateful for my encounter with her.
Further reading about Sarah Waters and THE PAYING GUESTS:
I’m thrilled to announce that my author friend Susan Spann has a new novel out, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI. Here’s the juicy description:
June, 1565: When a killer murders the shogun’s cousin, master ninja Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo are summoned to the shogun’s palace and ordered to find the killer. The evidence implicates Hiro’s friend and fellow shinobi, Kazu, who was working undercover at the shogunate; however, the victim’s wife, a suspicious maid, and even the shogun’s stable master also had reasons to want the victim dead. The investigation reveals a plot to assassinate the shogun and depose the ruling Ashikaga clan. With enemy forces approaching Kyoto, and the murderer poised to strike again, Hiro and Father Mateo must produce the killer in time . . . or die in his place.
To help Susan celebrate, I’m reposting the wonderful interview we did last year for her critically acclaimed first novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT. In it, we discuss creative process, East versus West, the history behind her story, and her amazing Twitter feed, which is a font of generous publishing advice. Enjoy!
Kris Waldherr: What was your initial inspiration for CLAWS OF THE CAT? Can you describe the moment that made you say, “I must write this”?
Susan Span: It happened in spring of 2011. I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, getting ready for work, when a voice in my head said, “Most ninjas commit murders, but Hiro Hattori solves them.” I’d never written a mystery before, but I knew immediately I would have to write this one.
The plot and the setup took several months longer, but from the moment Hiro popped into my head I had no choice but to write about him.
KW: When I first met you at the Historical Novel Society conference in 2011, you had written a more traditional “marquee” historical about Joan of Arc. CLAWS OF THE CAT is quite a departure—a mystery set in sixteenth century Japan. How did you jump from one to the other, in terms of research and writing? Was a radical mind shift necessary?
SS: Until that morning in front of the mirror, I’d always considered myself a historical novelist. I love history—Asian history in particular—and also the challenge of weaving historical fact into fast-paced, compelling fiction.
I’m a lifelong fan of mysteries and thrillers, but always thought the challenge of writing one beyond me. Imagine my surprise when I tried it and discovered that my talents actually work better for writing mysteries than traditional historical story arcs. Mystery allows me to set the multi-faceted gems of history within a more puzzling and less straightforward framework, and I love the challenge that presents.
It also lets me kill my imaginary friends. What’s better than that?
KW: Your dual protagonists of CLAWS OF THE CAT are Father Mateo, a Portuguese Jesuit, and Hiro, a master ninja with a shady past. I can tell that you had a lot of fun writing about their interdependent relationship! Did you base them on anyone from history or literature?
SS: Yes, but not intentionally!
Hiro is a fictitious cousin of famous historical ninja Hattori Hanzo (aka “Devil Hanzo”) who ruled the Iga Ryu during the time in which I set the Shinobi series. Hattori Hanzo was such a famous shinobi, and so important to ninja history, that I wanted to include him in the books. It didn’t work historically to make him the sleuth, however, so I invented a fictitious (and somewhat rebellious) cousin: Hattori Hiro.
I had a similar issue with Hiro’s sidekick, the Portuguese Jesuit, Father Mateo. The Jesuits documented their missionary efforts in detail, and I wanted to respect the history in my Shinobi novels. As a result, I felt it best to create a fictitious priest who could act in accordance with history without being bound by calendar details.
Then, while doing some secondary detail research for the later drafts of CLAWS OF THE CAT, I discovered a Jesuit record that mentioned an unnamed priest who arrived in Kyoto in autumn of 1563 – precisely the time my fictitious Father Mateo arrived in Japan. That Jesuit apparently reported to Father Gaspar Vilela, then the senior Jesuit in Kyoto, and then “disappeared” to conduct missionary activities in Japan.
My Jesuit, Father Mateo, lives and works separately from the other Jesuits (for reasons I explain in detail in the book), and if he had been real, the historical record about him would have read in precisely this way.
I set out to create an entirely fictitious priest, but it seems there’s an analog in the history after all. I found that pretty cool.
And no, I haven’t researched the phantom Father any farther—in the end, I like keeping Father Mateo fictitious, despite his hint of verisimilitude.
KW: In my book DOOMED QUEENS, I enumerated the various ways nobility can be ritually dispatched from life: guillotine, poison, burning, and beyond. In CLAWS OF THE CAT, you mention seppuku, or ritual suicide by disembowelment. As fascinated as I am with the macabre, seppuku is something that, for me as a Westerner, it’s very difficult to contemplate—the suicide is performed in a very ceremonial, artistic way. To my mind, it epitomizes how very foreign the Japanese culture can appear to outsiders, and reiterates the “East versus West” theme you have running through your novel. Can you offer other examples from your novel, good or bad, of cultural phenomenon we would never, ever find in American society? Are there any you wish we’d adopt as a culture?
SS: Great question!
I, too, find the seppuku ritual strangely fascinating. An early word for the process translates as “self-determination” – the idea that sometimes a person may find more honor in ending his life than continuing it.
Another strange dichotomy I explore in this novel (and will return to in others) is that involving the “proper” roles of women in medieval Japan. On the one hand, a wife was expected to serve her husband and care for his household, but women in the “floating world” [KW note: also known as ukiyo] of the entertainment district were permitted near-complete independence. Some women of the samurai class even shed their wifely roles and trained as warriors—such women were more rare than female artisans, but did exist, and I feature one in the book.
A positive aspect of Japanese culture involves the warrior’s attitude toward honor and family. To samurai, honor and family transcend all other values; they are the cornerstones upon which a samurai—male or female—builds a life. In modern times, we often bypass character in favor of wealth or “success.” I’m drawn to the samurai dedication to living an honorable life, though I’m not as keen on the samurai penalties for failure.
KW: Besides being a novelist, you’re also an attorney specializing in intellectual property and publishing law—your Twitter feed is a marvel of generous and helpful legal advice. How does your professional background as a lawyer feed into your creative work as a writer? Is it helpful to writing mysteries?
SS: First, thank you! I love authors and writing, and I love being able to use Twitter, and the #PubLaw hashtag, to help spread information that hopefully helps authors protect themselves and their work.
Some would probably tell you lawyers know all about lies from personal experience. That’s not entirely wrong. Unless, of course, I’m lying … because I’m a lawyer!
More seriously, I think the complexities of document drafting probably help me juggle the mystery plots and subplots better. The biggest benefit, though, is probably all of the time spent typing. I type over 100 words per minute, which really helps with hitting the daily goal in a shorter time!
KW: Can you tell us a little about your creative process for your writing? Are you a “pantser” or a “plotter”? Do you have any special tools, writing programs, or rituals?
SS: I’m a plantser! I write two outlines for every book, one of which details the “onstage” action and the other tracks where my characters actually were when they weren’t onstage. Characters in a mystery novel rarely tell the truth when a lie will do, so I need to track their movements to be sure I really know what’s going on behind the scenes.
Once I start writing, however, the outline becomes a guideline and the characters do more or less whatever they please.
As far as the writing itself, I always write first drafts on an Alphasmart Neo, a fabulous little device with a four-line display and no Internet connection. It keeps me moving forward until “The End” – at which point I transfer the file to my laptop and start editing!
KW: Now that you’re officially published, what advice would you give to writers starting on the path? What do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
SS: The best advice I can give is “whatever you do, keep writing.” It took me nine years and 5 complete (and polished) manuscripts—500,000 words—to find an agent and get a publishing deal.
I’d like to say I wish I’d known sooner that I was writing in the wrong genre—historical fiction vs. historical mystery—but the reality is that I needed to write those unpublished novels. I couldn’t have done the mysteries justice until I had put in the hours and honed my skills.
Thank you, Susan, for a wonderful interview! To learn more about Susan Spann’s writing, publishing law, and BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, visit her website here.
As I mentioned Wednesday, my guest today is the author and Pre-Raphaelite scholar Kirsty Stonell Walker. Kirsty has loved and researched Pre-Raphaelite art for almost 20 years, and is the author of STUNNER: The Fall and Rise of Fanny Cornforth. Her new novel, A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL, is based on the life of another Rossetti model, Alexa Wilding. It follows Alexa she experiences the madness, glory and beauty of Rossetti’s circle. A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL presents a bygone world where truth is reliant on who is painting the picture. I was fortunate to have beta read her novel, and found it a thoroughly enjoyable and immersive experience. Short version: if you’re as obsessed with the Pre-Raphaelites as I am, you’ll love A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL.
I first discovered Kirsty’s writing via her wonderful blog, The Kissed Mouth. (The title of this blog refers to Bocca Baciata, an oil painting by Rossetti.) Frequently hilarious but always thought-provoking, The Kissed Mouth casts an incisive and often political eye upon the PRB and their circle. Walker’s post on how fat is a PreRaphaelite issue is worthy of a standing ovation.
Without further ado, here’s my interview with Kirsty Stonell Walker. I hope you enjoy it!
Kris Waldherr: Your first book STUNNER: The Fall and Rise of Fanny Cornforth was a biography about one of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s most important muses. However, your second book, A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL is a novel about Alexa Wilding, another of Rossetti’s models. What inspired you to turn to fiction after writing a biography? Was there an “aha” moment that led you to decide to write a novel about Wilding?
Kirsty Stonell Walker: Simply put, I wrote the biography of Fanny because nobody else had and it seemed unfair. Before it, during it and after it I always wrote fiction but never got very farin terms of publishing, with endless, endless rejections from publishers and agents. I don’t know why I never gave up, I suspect I am extremely bloody-minded and delusional. That usually helps.
I was going to write a straight biography of Alexa, but her life as so much shadow, so much unknown and seemingly unknowable. This fed into a thought I had about writing a novel about Fanny, but Alexa seemed a perfect person to experience the world through because no-one knew her, no-one had any preconceptions. I could become Alexa and slip into the world unnoticed.
KW: So much has been written about Rossetti’s relationships with Jane Morris and Elizabeth Siddal: his affair at Kelmscott with Morris, his exhumation of Siddal’s coffin to retrieve his poems, and so on. These stories have become staples of Victorian folklore, so to speak. Yet many of Rossetti’s most famous paintings were modeled for by Fanny Cornforth and Alexa Wilding. Did you find yourself wanting to write about Cornforth and Wilding to redress the imbalance of coverage, so to speak? Or was there something else that drew you in?
KSW: The topic of stunners is dominated by Jane and Lizzie, there is no getting away from it. Both women had fascinating lives and are definitely worth attention, but I felt sorry for Fanny because she always ended up being the jolly tart with a heart, the cockney prossie who is a comedy diversion. As for Alexa, well she never got a look in at all. Something about the ignored status of the women made me want to find out more, to give them voice.
I was asked once whether I over-identified with Fanny, being a plump, jolly woman often not taken seriously, and I have to admit there is a bit of that. I do have to control how defensive I get about Fanny because I need to remember it’s not about me but then people do say the most curious things that ends up making it seem personal. I got a comment recently on the blog from someone saying that they found Fanny the least attractive of any of the Pre-Raphaelite women, that was purely their point. I felt like saying ‘I’m not sure she’d give you the time of day either!’
KW: While reading A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL, I was especially struck by the depth of your research. I really felt like I was with Alexa at Tudor House and Kelmscott amid the Pre-Raphaelite milieu—a very immersive experience! What were you most surprised to learn about Alexa while writing your novel? Were there any preconceptions you held about her and Rossetti that were proven false?
KSW: I was surprised that she had gone to so many places and met so many people. I was surprised she went to Kelmscott, but then I was flabbergasted that Rossetti took her off to Bognor when he and Jane were ending their relationship. There are two ways of reading that situation – he either cared about Alexa and couldn’t be parted from her, or else he viewed her as a prop for his painting and her being present at the emotional crisis of his life was incidental, just as the presence of a vase would be.
Alexa’s love life was a revelation. I remember the first time I found the birth certificate for Maria, who was born in the late 1860s. There is no explanation, no father listed, just Alexa. Rossetti’s complaint shortly beforehand to Boyce that ‘Miss W-’ had vanished out of town and how inconvenient it was suddenly made sense. She had gone to give birth and no-one knew. What on earth was going on in her life?! When we visited her house in London, the affluence of the street was just puzzling. Fanny lived in some nice places but they were modest in comparison. Alexa had a man paying for her, had children, had a life that was beyond that of a butcher’s lass. That is interesting.
I’m not sure if I believed she was as stupid as she is said to be, thanks to Rossetti’s comment about her being ‘dull’ (which I quote in the book because it is one of the few things he said about her personality). I always assumed it was said in jest or spite, but I was intrigued to find that she did not leave any of her own voice behind in the form of letters. Well, not that have been discovered so far….
KW: When I first discovered the work of the Pre-Raphaelites in the 1980s, they were decidedly out of fashion, judged as too sentimental, too concerned with beauty for the sake of beauty. Today, the Pre-Raphaelites seem more popular than ever. Why do you think their art and stories speak to us now? What initially attracted you to them and led to you writing your wonderful blog, The Kissed Mouth?
KSW: I discovered the Pre-Raphaelites in the first year of my degree. I took a course on Victorian culture and there they were in all their glory. I immediately took a shine to Fanny because everyone was praising Elizabeth and Jane to the rooftops but not much was said about this glorious, blush-cheeked woman with a saucy look on her face. I read Jan Marsh’s works on the women in a mad rush to know more and took it upon myself to be Fanny’s champion because a woman that smart, resourceful and beautiful should have someone on her side. I began the work that led to Stunner when I was 20 and it was finally published over a decade later. Fanny has been a big part of my life for longer than I have known my husband, it’s impossible to just walk away from someone once you have dedicated that amount of time to them.
I published Stunner in 2006 and then did not know what to do with the knowledge I had gathered. It was only with the popularity of blogs, which over here in England didn’t seem to blossom until much later than in the States that I thought I could find an outlet for just chatting about pictures, people, themes and the suchlike. I didn’t think anyone would read it!
I think there are a number of reasons why the Pre-Raphaelite community online is so popular and vocal. Obviously, the works are beautiful and at a slight tilt from what we see as the norm for Victorian art. Their love of romance, morbidity, lust, beauty resonates with us as clearly as it did for them, maybe for different reasons. I also think there is an element of rebellion in our love of these beautiful, figurative works of art when ‘good taste’ dictates we should like modern art, abstract art, the stuff that is approved of. I remember being told over and over again on art courses that the Pre-Raphaelites were a dead end, a cul-de-sac of art. I have been told by friends that what they did was inferior to the strides Impressionists were making, but when something grabs you heart and mind and refuses to let go, you cannot dismiss it.
KW: Can you tell me about your writing process? How long did it take you to write A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL? Did you outline before you began to write? Or did you dive right in?
KSW: I suppose it took about three years from idea to publishing. After I relaunched the second edition of Stunner in 2011, I wanted to be brave enough to publish some fiction. I’ve written stories for as long as I can remember, poems too. I have a Winnie-the-Pooh note book at home from when I was about 6 filled with stories. Some of my poems were published in a literary magazines when I was a teenager. Having taken control of Stunner and made it into the book I wanted to be known for, I thought I ought to do the same for my fiction.
Curl came fully formed in a way – I had the story of the people around her, I just needed to weave Alexa into their lives whilst giving her a place of her own. I wrote a few scenes before really having the story settled as it helped me get hold of the characters. The two scenes that really haven’t changed since I first wrote them are the scene where Alexa firsts meets Fanny in Rossetti’s studio and the scene when she comes back from Kelmscott and sits with Fanny while she is cutting up plums. These two scenes helped me see Alexa and Fanny very clearly indeed and fed into how I progressed into the rest of the story.
KW: What advice would you give to beginning fiction writers? What do you know now that you wish you’d known before writing A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL?
KSW: Be brave. Writing is an act of courage because you are putting the contents of your head out there for everyone to see. In some ways I cannot see how anyone can write a book unless they have to because it is such an all consuming emotional experience for me. But then I write to entertain myself and so I love to create my own cure for my ills. When I am stressed, when I am sad, I reach for one of my own stories, my own characters to hep me through.
A vital thing is to finds friends who are like you. I could not do what I do without my network of writers who are there to help, advise, encourage and generally not let me get away with giving up. I think of them as my writing family and all but two of them were met on line through Stunner or the blog. My ‘alpha reader’, the person who gets first crack at anything I write, is my inestimable friend, Miss Holman, and I value her brutal honesty. We often have to combine her response to a first draft with a trip to our local cake shop to soften the blow, but every writer should have a Miss Holman to tell them when something doesn’t work, is self-indulgent or just boring. Again, it’s an act of bravery to let people read something then tell you what they think but if you intend to be a writer then people will do that anyway once it’s published. Trust me, it’s better to have someone tell you a home truth over a slice of lemon drizzle cake and you go away and fix it then it be shown to the world in an Amazon review.
The thing I wish I’d known is that it ends! In the publishing process I got to the point of just hating myself, the book, everything, because it wasn’t finished, wasn’t over and therefore might not be the best it could possibly be. I also was so desperate for people to like it that I was crippled by fear. A rational part of me merrily trundled on, getting my preview copies out, getting author postcards printed, writing blog posts, while the other part of me sat whimpering in the corner braced for impact. Then it was published and life went on and you move on to the next thing.
KW: Finally, what are you planning for your next book? Will you return to writing nonfiction? Or do you have another novel in the works? Will it be Pre-Raphaelite inspired? Or another era?
KSW: It was a tricky decision to know where to go next. I want to write more fiction because my non-fiction needs are met through my blog. I had four different ideas and so I picked the one I couldn’t let go of. I am returning to the Victorians but not the Pre-Raphaelites. My story concerns a poet and his best friend, a photographer. I have two time threads, one in the 1860s when they are young and one in the 1890s after a terrible event has taken place. The poet has a muse who he keeps at a distance and she in turn likes to imagine the poet is the man of her dreams without having to know him better. The reappearance of the photographer into the poet’s life brings with it the repercussions of their earlier friendship and threatens the very careful reputation the poet has built up over the years of their separation. It’s written in the third person, from the view point of the poet, Max Wainwright and his muse, Maud Blake. Maud is mainly in charge of the 1890 thread and Max is our eyes in the 1860s. I want the reader to see the difference between the Max we get to known in the 1860s and what Maud sees in the 1890s, but as the threads run side by side then we don’t find out why Max is the way he is until later in the book by which time the echoes of that event are being felt in his present. I hope to have it finished for somewhen later in 2015, as long as all my characters behave themselves! With Victorians, you can never tell.
Thank you, Kirsty, for a wonderful interview! You can learn more or purchase A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL here.