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Susan Vreeland

By Meredith Allard

Susan Vreeland is the author of the much-loved, best-selling historical novels Girl in Hyacinth Blue and The Passion of ArtemesiaThe Forest Lover, about the rebel Canadian painter Emily Carr, is available in paperback and Life Studies, a story collection about Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters and sculptors, has been published.

Meredith Allard: What inspired you to write Girl in Hyacinth Blue? Why do you think Vermeer’s paintings have been the catalyst for several novels?

Susan Vreeland: In 1996, a few weeks after attending Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, I was diagnosed with lymphoma. Wanting to fill my eyes and thoughts with beauty as I began chemotherapy, I pored over art books and absorbed the placidness of Monet’s garden, the sparkling color of the Impressionists, the strength and solidity of Michelangelo’s figures showing the titanic power of humans at one with God, and the serene Dutch women in Johannes Vermeer’s interiors. These women took on added significance because I had a Dutch name. It was comforting, in case I had to leave this world, to find, through them, my heritage and place of origin, and perhaps something of the strength of Dutch character. I began to recognize that art can emerge from extremity. In my case, long, uninterrupted days free from teaching high school became a gift which resulted in Girl in Hyacinth Blue.

Paintings with people feed my imagination. Who sat as model for the artist? I always wonder. What was their relationship? Did any urge for physical intimacy pass between them or was their coming together at this moment in time merely a business transaction? Was there a deeper aesthetic collaboration? Was the painter sick with dread over how he would feed his family? What did his children want from him that day? Was his wife happy? Was he? Was he contented with his work?

Poring over the National Gallery catalog of the 1995-96 Vermeer exhibition while I was undergoing my treatment, I found a healing tranquility. His paintings of women in their homes, as I was, caught in a reflective moment, bathed in that lovely honey-colored light which also touched with significance the carefully chosen items in the scene, reminded me of Wordsworth’s line: “With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony and by the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things.”

Vermeer’s work exhibits a reverence for home, for quiet moments. In an age when we live at too frenetic a pace, his paintings invite us to be still a moment, to reflect, to value the life surrounding us. That, together with the paucity of information about him, a circumstance ripe for the imagination of fiction writers, I believe to be the reasons he has inspired novels recently.

Vermeer painted only thirty-five canvases. There could have been another, I reasoned, which survived the ravages of time. Survival was foremost in my thinking. I constructed in my mind another painting incorporating elements he frequently used, and added objects of my own imagination—a glass of milk left by a sickly child, a sewing basket, a young girl’s new black shoes with square gold buckles. I had a painting—and with news reports of so much art stolen from Holocaust victims by members of the Third Reich, I had an idea for a story.

Not having fully realized the painting in that first story, I wrote another, this time from the point of view of the painted girl dressed in a blue smock, in my mind, Vermeer’s daughter who longed to paint. That would set the second story in the 1660s. Then I began to fill in the time gap with other stories illuminating the effect of this painting on individual lives.

The imagined painting certainly had a remarkable effect on my life. The more I imagined my way into the characters’ lives associated with the painting, the less I thought about my own dire circumstances. The creative endeavor inspired by his work, I am certain, has been a vital element in my survival and healing.

M.A.: In your novel The Passion of Artemesia, you are once again inspired by an artist, this time Artemesia Gentileschi, the first prominent woman painter. What can people learn from Artemisia’s story?

S.V.: We have in Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) a model of womanly strength in a time not friendly to women who desire to achieve. Despite a rape at seventeen by a friend and colleague of her father, Agostino Tassi whom he had hired to teach her perspective, despite her torture in the ensuing rape trial, despite the resulting scandal that accompanied the unresolved case, Artemisia produced paintings of startling invention tinged with a feminist sensibility evident in her strong heroines caught in moments of danger or tension, thinking and acting against the grain. Artemisia was the first woman to paint large scale history paintings executed from life, the first woman to be admitted into the Academia dell’ Arte del Disegno in Florence, and the first woman to make her independent living entirely by her brush, any one of which would be enough to hold her up as a formidible heroine. Anyone who has appreciated the art of Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keefe and Emily Carr, ought to stand in reverence before their predecessor and inspirational source, Artemisia Gentileschi.

M.A.: What is the greatest challenge when writing hsitorical fiction about art and artists?

S.V.: No different than other historical fiction about a human subject that one loves: One mustn’t let love and awe for the individual render one blind to faults, failures, shortcomings. We are apt to stand in awe at the great art of the world, and rightly so, but the creators thereof are not gods and goddesses.

M.A.: What is your research process for writing historical fiction?

S.V.: For me, the process of writing historical fiction goes something like this: Study broadly—discover an interest in a time or a person—decide on a focus—select and eliminate—invent where needed—track down needed information—perfect the voices. It involves first discovering the history, then selecting within it the story I wish to tell—in my most recent case, the inner Artemisia, her developing state of mind, her transcendence over misfortune and resentment, the possibilities of forgiveness and love in a ruptured life. Once the narrative has focus and a thematic aim, I have to eliminate individuals and events that my research reveals but that does not contribute to my chosen themes. Mine is not the business of a biographer sweeping from birth to death. In a contrary fashion, since archival and published history often doesn’t record the relationships that are significant, I have to invent characters and scenes, trivial and momentous, to allow the subject to reveal intimate thoughts and feelings through interaction.

Once I have the basic story, I must work for scenic truth and time period accuracy. For Girl in Hyacinth Blue, for example, I consulted seventy six books, and probably as many paintings for visual references (food, clothing, furniture, townscapes, landscapes, architecture). When dealing with locales as well known as those in Rome and Florence in The Passion of Artemisia, I had to ascertain whether certain streets, architectural features, sculptures and paintings were in the same place in the year in which the action takes place as they are today. For example, only a chance reference alerted me that the Scalinata up to Santa Trinità dei Monti, later dubbed the Spanish Steps, wasn’t built at the time Artemisia climbed the Pincian Hill. Sometimes nothing can be depended upon other than being there, a privilege I did not have while writingGirl.

In truth, all of the research, both the major character biography as well as the tiniest scenic detail, is enjoyable to me because I feel it directing me and giving the work depth and authority.

M.A.: What is your advice for writers of historical fiction?

S.V.: Love every step of the way, every moment of discovery. Love your characters, your time period, your scenes. If you don’t love a scene, then find out what’s wrong with it. Love the story enough to ferret out details, though don’t include them, no matter how delicious, if they don’t contribute to your narrative arc. Love the revision process whereby your story develops texture, multiple dimensions and deeper thematic reach. Love the work enough to leave no stone unturned in its pursuit and refinement. And read, of course. Read widely and voraciously. Read fiction written at the time period you wish to write about. And read your work to discerning critiquers who have the best interest of the work at heart, as you do too.

M.A.: What projects are you currently working on? Will you continue to use art as an inspiration for your writing?

S.V.: My next three books will continue my exploration of the human stories behind the brush.

Cedar Spirit, a novel, explores the power of place to provide personal identity and fulfillment. Canadian artist Emily Carr seeks to encounter and understand the British Columbian wilderness, and struggles to find a way to express her profound and complex feelings for it. In defying public scorn and hypocrisy by painting native villages and totem poles, she is caught in a dilemma of appropriating the very culture she reverences. Loving those in the margins of society, like herself, she develops deep connections with native friends, particularly the relentlessly tragic Salish basketmaker, Sophie Frank, under whose influence she shapes her individual religion to embrace a native spirituality. Quirky and rebellious and independent, with a compelling urge to find Soul in a personal trinity of art and nature and God, Emily Carr ripens into a true original.

Life Studies is a story collection of imaginary encounters between painters and people in their lives whose own situations and moral choices are wrought out in their interaction with the painters: Monet as seen by his aging gardener at Giverny, troubled by the question of what one leaves after one dies; Cezanne from the point of view of a little boy who throws stones at him and his easel, then must rebuild his garden wall in penance; Van Gogh as an influence in the life of the postman’s son in Arles just before he joins the French Foreign Legion. Eduard Manet’s longsuffering wife tolerates his numerous affairs with models, nurses him in illness, but cannot give over her obsession with discovering which of his models gave him syphilis. Berthe Morisot hires a wet nurse to feed and care for her baby, a symbiotic relationship in which each depends on the other in order to work, until tragedy and the nurse’s discovery of Morisot’s secret tilts the social order.

And now Van Gogh’s haunting painting, “The Potato Eaters,” is speaking its stories to me.

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Meredith Allard is the executive editor of The Copperfield Review.

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Steven P. Unger

By Meredith Allard

Steven P. Unger is the author of In the Footsteps of Dracula: A Personal Journey and Travel Guide.

Meredith Allard: It seems like you’re a big fan of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. What was your first experience with that novel? Are you a fan of paranormal fiction in general, or were you just captivated by that particular book?

Steven Unger: Growing up, I voraciously read science fiction books and horror comics, and especially loved watching the old Hammer Films about Count Dracula on TV. They were produced between 1958 and 1974 and almost always starred Christopher Lee in the title role. Although they plummeted in quality from superb to abysmal over the years, I saw them whenever I could.

Around 1980 I found a large-format paperback published in 1975 titled The Annotated Dracula, with surreal artwork by Sätty, copious notes, maps, and even a calendar of events. I read every word. I loved Bram Stoker’s imagery and his skillful foreshadowing of dire events; at the same time the annotations helped me to understand how his imagery boiled up from the collective unconscious of the Victorian mind and the sexual repression of the 1890s when Dracula was conceived.

M.A.: What inspired you to write In the Footsteps of Dracula: A Personal Journey and Travel Guide? When did you first come up with the idea? Why did you decide to write it?

S.U.: My obsession to travel to every site related to either the fictional Count Dracula or his real historical counterpart, Prince Vlad Dracula the Impaler, grew out of a visit to Whitby, England, where part of the novel Dracula takes place. I stood on the cemetery hill where, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Lucy Westenra and Mina Murray spent hour after hour sitting on their “favourite seat” (a bench placed over a suicide’s grave near the edge of the cliff), gazing out toward the “headland called Kettleness” and the open North Sea beyond—while Count Dracula slept just beneath them.

In my mind’s eye, I could see the un-dead count rising at night from the flattened slab of the suicide’s gravestone to greedily drink the blood of the living.

The graveyard where Count Dracula spent his days sleeping in the sepulcher of a suicide looks the part that it plays, with its weathered limestone tombstones blackened by centuries of the ever-present North Sea winds. That graveyard made the novel more visible, more visceral, to me, and I wondered if the sites in Transylvania and in the remote mountains of southern Romania would evoke the same feelings. As I was to discover—they did.

Old Parish Church Cemetery—Whitby, England

At that moment I decided to visit and photograph every site in England and Romania that is closely related to either Bram Stoker’s fictional Count Dracula or Vlad the Impaler—to literally walk in their footsteps and to write a book about my experiences.

But my journey would have to be postponed. The country of Romania was in the grip of the ruthless regime of Nicolae Ceau?escu, and travel there was impossible. I waited for years and continued my research; when Romania was opened to Western tourists and I could finally fly there, I planned my return trip to Whitby to coincide with its April Gothic Weekend (seehttp://wgw.topmum.co.uk/.) My pictures of Whitby’s Dracula-related sites would be enhanced, I was sure, by the costumed revelers thronging the town. I wasn’t disappointed.

M.A.: What was your process for writing the book? And how did you combine your research with your travel experiences?

S.U.: The initial research took many months. The primary scenes in Draculatake place in Whitby, where much of the book was written; London; and, of course, the Borgo Pass in Transylvania, the site of Count Dracula’s castle. I knew I would travel to those places.

Researching the life of Count Dracula’s historical counterpart, Prince Vlad Dracula the Impaler, took considerably more time. I read all I could find on him, tracking down obscure references and unpublished theses online. I needed to separate myth from reality (he was not a vampire, but he certainly was bloodthirsty, with a penchant for impaling his victims regardless of gender or age), and to eliminate from my itinerary those places in Romania that were geared toward tourists on the Dracula Trail but had no connection to the real Vlad the Impaler.

I decided to go to his birthplace, Sighi?oara; his center of power, T?rgovi?te; his hidden fortress, Poenari, and his purported tomb, on Snagov Island. I also tried to research how to journey to those places using public transportation, and got nowhere. There are no tourist offices in Romania as there are in Western Europe, and I wound up waiting until I arrived at one site to find out how to travel to the next, whether by bus, by train, or by the Romanian equivalent of stuffing a telephone booth, the Maxitaxi. That was all part of the experience, certainly, but not one that I would wish upon my readers.

Therefore, for the independent traveler who would leave his armchair for the Great Unknown, In the Footsteps of Dracula: A Personal Journey and Travel Guide contains a Practical Guide to the Dracula Trail, with a complete sample Itinerary featuring recommendations for lodging and detailed instructions on traveling to each British or Romanian Dracula-related town or site.

M.A.: Most authors (even Bram Stoker himself) are content reading about and looking over pictures when they are writing about other countries and cultures. Why did you decide to travel the Dracula Trail for yourself?

S.U.: I love traveling, I love writing, and most of all, I love travel writing. I’ve had photo articles published on Etruria, bicycling from Madrid to London, and tree soaring in Colorado, among others, and this seemed like a perfect—and as yet untapped—subject for what would become a mix of travel guide, memoir, and historical revelation.

M.A.: As you did your research, what did you find most interesting about Dracula, either the fictional count or the real-life man he was based on? What was something you learned that most people don’t know about the vampire count?

S.U.: In my research and travels I discovered two fascinating coincidences linking the historical and the literary Draculas. First, Bram Stoker chose to name his villain “Dracula,” based on the translation of the Romanian word “dracul” into “devil,” never knowing that the historical Voivode (Prince) Dracula he had read about was also Vlad the Impaler, with a horrific biography of his own.

In fact, Bram Stoker’s Transylvania bore little resemblance to any Romania that ever existed. For example, Stoker wrote of “hay-ricks [haystacks] in the trees” based on illustrations of Transylvanian haystacks built around stakes, with the ends of the stakes poking out like branches. Thus, generations ofDracula readers assumed that Transylvanians put their haystacks up in trees.

Haystacks on Transylvania’s Borgo Pass

The second coincidence is the uncanny resemblance of the real Castle of Dracula—Vlad ?epe?’ fortress at Poenari, which Stoker had no knowledge of—to Count Dracula’s fictional castle in Transylvania. Perched on a remote peak near a glacial moraine in the F?gar?? Mountains of southern Romania , Poenari, in its time, mirrored Count Dracula’s fictional castle at the top of the Borgo Pass almost stone for stone.

M.A.: What did you enjoy most about writing this book? What was the hardest part about writing this book?

S.U.: The same answer applies to both questions: it was the traveling itself, particularly in Romania, that proved to be a constant mix of frustration, trepidation, and sheer exhilaration. I was warned of bandits that never appeared, there were cab rides to Maxitaxi stations that passed through the half-abandoned outskirts of towns flanked by smoldering fires of gypsy encampments—and I couldn’t even ask the driver where exactly he was taking me because I couldn’t find the words in my Romanian phrasebook.

And yet, there were moments of such high adventure, especially at Poenari. I had traveled to other remote, forbidding places before entering the almost lightless forest of Poenari. Near Albania’s southern border, I hiked the Vikos Gorge, a dozen miles from the nearest stone-housed village. I baked beneath the unrelenting sun of the Timna Valley close to the Red Sea, where 120º in the shade is considered picnic weather. But never before or since have I felt the apprehension and isolation I did while climbing to Vlad the Impaler’s mountaintop fortress. The forest was as quiet as a tomb; I can’t recall hearing the song of even a single bird.

The ascent was exhausting. At last, I encountered a grizzled, elfin gentleman sitting on almost the very top step, who indicated with his fingers the amount of the small entry fee. From there the lone approach to the fortress is by a wooden footbridge.

Of all the places I explored that are associated with Vlad the Impaler, only at Poenari did I feel that he was somehow still keeping watch. Perched on a remote peak near a glacial moraine in the F?gar?? Mountains of southern Romania , Poenari remains pristine and almost inaccessible.

Thousands of boyars and their families had been force-marched there from T?rgovi?te to die rebuilding the castle for Prince Vlad; it was here that his treacherous brother Radu stormed the fortress with cannons, reducing the once courtly residence into broken turrets and formless rubble. And it was here that Prince Dracula’s wife cast herself from the highest window of the eastern tower, choosing a swift death over the torture of the stake.

M.A.: Why do you think people are still so fascinated by Dracula? By vampires? After all, vampires are more popular today than ever before.

S.U.: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with its imagery and sheer sexuality, much of it stemming from Stoker’s unconscious mind, captured the imagination of the public in 1897 and has never been out of print. Dracula was published during the height of Victorian sexual repression—two years later, in 1899, Freud would publish The Interpretation of Dreams. It’s not a coincidence that vampires have remained so popular. They’re immortal, powerful, and seductive—who wouldn’t want all of those attributes? Or at least two out of three.

Above all, vampires are creatures of the night, as are dreams, and, just like dreams, they can never be controlled.

M.A.: What are you working on now?

S.U.: I’m writing the accompanying text and the Preface for Before the Paparazzi : Thirty Years of Extraordinary Pictures, a collection of over 300 photos taken by Arty Pomerantz, staff photographer and assignment editor for the New York Post from the 1960s through the early 1990s. Almost all of the pictures in Before the Paparazzi appeared in the Post, and a great many of them were on the newspaper’s front page. The text and Preface for Before the Paparazzi, about 23,000 words, were gleaned from extensive research and hundreds of hours of interviews with Arty.

In the Footsteps of Dracula: A Personal Journey and Travel Guide is available from World Audience.

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Meredith Allard is the executive editor of The Copperfield Review.

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Jeff Shaara

By Meredith Allard

Jeff Shaara is the acclaimed author of the best selling historical novels Gods and GeneralsThe Last Full MeasureGone for Soldiers, and Rise to Rebellion, among others. You can visit Jeff online at www.jeffshaara.com.

Meredith Allard: A family vacation to Gettysburg inspired your father, Michael Shaara, to write The Killer Angels. A few years later you helped him research his novel. What was that experience like? How did that time prepare you to research and write your own Civil War novels, Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure?

Jeff Shaara: First, I would never take credit for making some kind of invaluable contribution to the research of The Killer Angels. By 1970, when my father and I toured the battlefield at Gettysburg for the second time, he had suffered his first heart attack. I was 18, and as such, was in much better physical condition than my father, thus it was my job to do the “grunt” work- climb the hills, crawl all over the place through the brush to try to locate troop positions, the lay of the land, etc. I look back at that time now and realize it was as close as my father and I had ever been. Soon after, he had a motorcycle accident that damaged his head severely, and affected his mental state for many years. This had a dramatic impact on his relationships with everyone in his life, including his son. The lesson I learned was clear: if you’re going to try to tell the story of these events and the characters who were such a part of the history, first and foremost, you must walk the ground. There is a magic to the experience, to seeing what they saw, to stepping in their footsteps. I could not tell any of these stories now without having that experience.

M.A.:The director of “Gettysburg,” Ron Maxwell, was instrumental in prompting your journey into writing historical fiction. What role did he play?

J.S.: I met Ron Maxwell during the filming of “Gettysburg,” the film based onThe Killer Angels. Ron wrote the screenplay and directed the film. After the film was released and received so enthusiastically, Ron called me with the idea of continuing more of the stories of these characters, both before and after July of 1863. I had never written anything before, and that’s no exaggeration. But after giving his idea some thought, I decided that continuing my father’s work was something I wanted to attempt. This is the very reason I dedicate The Last Full Measure to Ron. Without his inspiration in the first place I would never have begun to write.

M.A.: What are the joys and frustrations of writing historical fiction? Does writing about the Civil War have its own specific joys and frustrations?

J.S.: One distinct frustration of writing historical fiction is that you are dealing with real events, and thus, must stay true to the history. Many times it would be convenient if some character was in a different place, or if events occurred in different order. But I don’t dwell much on that, because the particular stories I am trying to tell are so very interesting, the characters to intriguing, that I never feel as though I should perhaps sneak something in that is pure fiction. Specific to the Civil War, of course, is the ability to bring the reader both sides of the story, from (I hope) an equal perception. One great joy in telling the story of Lee vs. Grant, for example, is getting into the minds of such opposite personalities and show how they interacted in such a chess-game kind of way. That was enormous fun. Plus, the Civil War is the most awful bloody time in our history. It is not hard to find the enthusiasm for exploring the minds of these characters, to try to understand why this happened and how it was finally ended. I have to note one distinct frustration: eventually, the story ends. All of these characters are gone, and writing their deaths is one of the hardest things I have had to do.

M.A.: Most authors of historical fiction write their stories from the perspective of fictional characters. Your style of writing historical fiction is different, however, because you write from the perspective of real-life figures who become fictionalized through your portrayal of their thoughts, actions, and dialogue. Describe your process of creating a fictionalized character from a real-life figure.

J.S.: There is an enormous risk in putting words in the mouth of, not only a real historical figure, but a figure who carries the iconic status of a Lee or Grant, Lincoln, or Washington. That adds considerably to the responsibility I feel about doing the right kind of research. If I intend to put you into the mind of one of these characters, then I must first go there myself, through whatever original sources are available. In most cases, I rely on diaries, letters, memoirs, the accounts of people who were there with these characters. I am painfully aware that some writers have no qualms about imposing modern thought processes, modern terminology, or modern interpretations of 19th century figures. I despise that kind of storytelling. Before I can ever write the first word of dialog, I have to hear those words myself, as each character might have spoken them. I have to feel I know the character personally, as though I was standing beside him or her when the words were spoken. I can never claim of course, that any one of these people actually said, word for word what I write. But, I am very comfortable that, in every case, they could have, that each of these conversations could have taken place.

M.A.: There are those who think that every fact in historical fiction should be exact, but there are also those who think that dramatic license should be allowed in works of fiction. What are your feelings on this subject?

J.S.: I am very careful about exercising any kind of dramatic license. If there is license at all, it is in the dialog and the thoughts of each character, a process I described above. I am painstaking in my research of the events. The actual situation each character finds him or herself in is real. The time line, the positioning of each person in to the events that were happening around them, all of that is as accurate as I can make it. I have had one historian suggest that he has no respect for historical fiction because the history can be so easily tampered with in the name of “license.” I object to that and would never violate the spirit of these characters by tampering with the history. I have never considered writing “alternative” history, some exploration of the “what-ifs.” It is too important to me to keep the facts straight.

M.A.: Your current project, Rise to Rebellion, centers around the American Revolution and will feature George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, among others. What inspired you to write about the American Revolution?

J.S.: I felt that I had gone as far as I could with the Civil War characters, at least for a while. (One day I would like to tell the William T. Sherman story, but that’s down the road a ways). As I began to explore other ideas for stories, the Founding Fathers were impossible to overlook. What these few men accomplished is almost miraculous. The more research I did, the more I came to appreciate not only their achievement, the birth of the United States, the creation of our government, but the wonderful uniqueness of the characters themselves.

By the nature of the kind of books I write, if the characters are not very interesting, I don’t have much of a story, regardless of what the historical events might be. I was thrilled to dig into the minds of Ben Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Gage (a man most Americans have never heard of, the British army commander who started the war). That’s the most fun for me, finding a character who is somehow overlooked by history, and bringing him to you. One example is Winfield Scott. Again, most Americans have no idea who he was. He is quite simply the man who taught Robert E Lee, and nearly the entire roster of Civil War commanders on both sides, how to be soldiers. We all know who Ben Franklin is, but do we really? I absolutely despise the latest attempts by Hollywood and television to “reveal” these characters by showing us little more than dirty laundry. It is too convenient, too lazy a way to tell a story of a man, such as Jefferson, by pointing to one aspect of the man’s life: he may (or may have not) fathered an illegitimate child with a slave girl. That kind of “history” may sell commercials in prime time, but it does a serious disservice not only to the man himself, but to Americans. Was he human? Of course. Was he perfect? Of course not. But did he not author the Declaration of Independence? That is the story I’m interested in. Most Americans don’t know that both Franklin and John Adams played a key role in helping Jefferson write that document. It was a moment that changed the history of the world forever, and that’s no exaggeration. That’s far more interesting to me than some titillating exploration of their personal scandals. It’s not to say I ignore or avoid the truth. But there is a much larger story than what Hollywood believes Americans want to see. I have more faith in my readers than that.

M.A.: Who are your favorite historical fiction authors, and what are your favorite historical fiction novels? Have these works influenced your own style in any way?

J.S.: It will sound too obvious when I say that my favorite author of historical fiction is my father, Michael Shaara. The fact is, I can’t think of anyone who has influenced my writing (or my life) more than my father. As for his influence on my style, I am asked that a great deal, if I purposely patterned my writing style after his. Absolutely not. If a writer focuses so much on mimicking someone else, they can’t focus much on the story, and the story must come first. My sister commented when she read my first manuscript that “this is being written by the ghost of our father”. I take that as a compliment. But it was never anything I set out to do. I find that I don’t read much historical fiction any more. One reason is that I have to be very careful about the possibility of picking up some bit of “information” that might find its way into my own stories. If that information is fiction, I could be accused of plagiarism. It’s ironic in one way, because I sponsor the “Michael Shaara Prize”, awarded each year by the U. S. Civil War Center, to the best work of Civil War fiction published. But I am not one of the judges (despite their continuous requests). I just can’t make a judgment like that on someone else’s work of fiction. And if I were to read something really, really good, some style or approach that caused a strong reaction in me, I can’t take the chance that some part of that might seep into my own writing.

M.A.: What is your advice to aspiring writers of historical fiction?

J.S.: I’m asked for advice a great deal. It makes me somewhat nervous, since I can’t possibly explain how I have arrived at this point where my books are best sellers and I am doing interviews and appearances all over the country. I appreciate that there are enormously talented writers out there who are doing wonderful work who are having a difficult time finding someone to read their work. It’s an unfortunate fact of the publishing business. No one can go into this believing that they will write a best seller. That can’t be your motivation. Write because you have a story you want to tell, something that is important enough for you to exercise the discipline it takes to put it on paper. If you are focusing on history, then be honest about the history. Unless, as I mentioned before, you’re writing “alternative history” (in which anything goes), above all, gets the facts straight. If you are dealing with real-life characters, then do them justice. And, please, stay away from the temptation to pass judgment based on modern standards, or modern frames of reference. That’s a lazy way to write. If you want to take the reader back to another time, you have to go there first, and leave today behind. And, by all means, if it is at all possible, walk the ground.

M.A.: What other historical periods do you think you might like to write about?

J.S.: We are very fortunate in this country to have a history that is ripe with wonderful characters. I find it humorous when Europeans dismiss American history as being too brief to be interesting. History is not a measure of years, it is a measure of deeds. In some ways, I feel I’m not ready to answer this question. Every era in our history has some great story that I would like to tell. I am considering several new stories now, including, as I mentioned before, a story about W. T. Sherman. But I can’t allow myself to get too excited about a future project. My focus right now is on completing the story on the American Revolution.

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Meredith Allard is the executive editor of The Copperfield Review.

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Lee Nelson

By Meredith Allard

Lee Nelson is the author of the popular The Storm Testament series books, which portray western life during the 1800s. He has also written RockwellWalkara, Black Hawk JourneyMoriah Confessions, and Ephraim Chronicles. Most recently, Nelson completed an unfinished manuscript of Mark Twain’s, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians, which has been published by Council Press.

Meredith Allard: How did you come to co-write Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians with Mark Twain?

Lee Nelson: It all started when I wandered into the Brigham Young University barbershop in 1968, a time when I was finishing up my work on a degree in English literature and had been reading a lot of Mark Twain. There on the reading table was the new Life Magazine with a photo of Twain on the cover, and the announcement that his unfinished sequel to Huck Finn was printed inside.  Huck, Tom and Jim were heading west to have adventures with the Indians. It wasn’t long until they were riding with a mountain man to rescue two white girls kidnapped by Indians. Interesting character, wonderful western setting, and a great conflict… then it stopped in the middle of a sentence, after about fifteen thousand words. I was so disappointed, and wanted so much to know how it ended.

I learned that Twain started the story in 1885, the year Huck Finn was published. Though he lived 25 more years, he never finished it. It didn’t occur to me at the time that maybe I could finish it.

Then two years ago, while watching a Ken Burns documentary on Mark Twain on a PBS station where the subject of the unfinished story was discussed, it occurred to me that I was probably more qualified to finish this story than any other living author, having published a dozen or so historical novels with settings in the American west of the mid eighteen hundreds. In my research I’ve learned how to chip arrowheads, build fires without matches, I’ve even killed a bull buffalo from the back of a galloping horse with a bow and arrow.

I located the Mark Twain Foundation on the Internet, and e-mailed my proposal. My request was shuffled back and forth, from office to office, until I finally ended up at the legal office at the University of California Press where copyright matters were handled. The exchange continued for a few more weeks until permission was granted for me to finish the copyrighted story. The Mark Twain Foundation wanted a share of future royalties proportionate to the number of Mark Twain composed words in the finished work. I had no problem with that. They sent out a contract and I signed it.

M.A.: Obviously, you are an ardent fan of Mark Twain.  What is it about Twain’s writing that appeals so much to you?  What can writers learn from Mark Twain?

L.N.: Twain never let rules and social restrictions get in the way of a good story. And nothing was too serious that he couldn’t insert a little humor. He was more than just a good writer, he was an entertainer, and he could do it on the written page. Yet, as he romped happily along, there was a surprising amount of depth and wisdom that could not be ignored.

M.A.: How did you prepare to write this novel?  How were you able to slip into Twain’s (or, in this case Huck’s) narrative voice?

L.N.: After receiving permission to finish the work, I went through the Twain manuscript, line by line, word by word, taking copious notes, writing down every unusual use of grammar, every slang word, unusual sentence structure. I made notes on everything he did, that would not be part of my normal style of writing. I pinned these notes on the wall next to my computer, and reviewed them every few days while finishing the story, making sure I continued using the same devices. My goal was not to write like Mark Twain, but to tell a story in the voice of Huck Finn.

If I open the book and read a paragraph, I can tell if it’s mine or Twain’s, but everyone so far who has read the story and told me about it, says they can’t tell where Twain stopped and Nelson began. So I think I did a pretty good job of continuing the Huck Finn style.

M.A.: What has the reaction been to Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among theIndians? How do you answer the critics who think that Twain’s work should be left alone?

L.N.: I tell them I did leave Twain’s work alone. I didn’t change a single word in his portion of the story. All I did was add a middle and an end to the story, my middle and end. I don’t presume to know how he intended to finish the story, and I’m not sure he knew either, or he probably would have done it. Twain never earned a penny on this story while he was alive. Now for the first time, his foundation and interests are benefiting financially. So far I am not riding on his coattails, but he on mine because most of the six thousand people to buy the book so far are my fans, not his. I hope it catches on with his fans, but that remains to be seen.

M.A.: What would you like readers to take away from Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians?  What do you hope to achieve with this novel?

L.N.: Early in the book Twain introduced the theme of not making judgments based on things we read in newspapers and book when Huck finally realizes that “book Injuns and real Injuns ain’t the same.” I continue this them as Huck learns that “Book soldiers and real soldiers ain’t the same either.”  There’s real gunfighters versus book gunfighters, real Mormons versus book Mormons, even real honeymoons versus book honeymoons.

M.A.: You have written 30 books about the history of your home state, Utah, and the West.  What is it about the West, particularly Utah, that inspires your writing?

L.N.: About half my books are historical novels, with settings ranging from Missouri to California. Nothing in Texas so far, but I’ve done a lot with New Mexico’s early history. Done a lot with the early history of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. Nevada too.

M.A.: You have had some exciting experiences doing research for your adventure stories, including hunting buffalo, crossing the Green River on horseback, and team roping like a cowboy.  How does participating in these physical activities help your writing?

L.N.: Until you’ve actually bitten into a raw buffalo testicle it’s pretty hard to describe that. One time a newspaper accused me of thinking the Indians of the 1830s had freeways, the way they were able to get around in my books. As the years have passed, I have learned, if anything, I have been conservative in the distances traveled by my characters. When my character is going to go somewhere on his horse, or on foot, I get out a topo map and ask how long it would take me to go that far on one of my horses or mules—and I’m a sedentary writer with a paunch, not a 20-year-old Indian with no mortgage to worry about.

I feel guilty sometimes when I think about killing the poor buffalo from horseback with the bow and arrow. While it was a great piece of research, training the horse, learning to shoot arrows at full gallop, tanning the hide, making pemican and jerky, and all the other stuff—I benefited much more from the publicity generated by the research. Literally hundreds of newspapers published feature articles about it. TV camera crews drove hundreds of mile to film me training the horse and starting fires without matches. The fact that I did something like this set me apart from all the guys behind desks who just make stuff up. My fans want to come and ride the outlaw trail with me. At team roping competitions everybody wants to be my partner. All this has helped sell hundreds of thousands of my Storm Testament series books.

M.A.: Which authors have inspired you the most?  Why?

L.N.: When I was a kid I read all the best-selling authors. Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, John Steinbeck, Irving Stone, James Michener, Zane Gray—I was reading five or six books a week all through grade school and almost didn’t get to college because of it. I read in class instead of listening to the teachers. Soul on IceCatcher in the RyeTo Kill a MockingbirdGone with the WindThe Silver Chalice—I could fill twenty pages with titles I’ve read. Then at college I switched my major from Physics to English when I found out English majors were given a list of over 400 classic books to read if they hoped to graduate. I intended to read all those books anyway, even if I worked in a factory, but at BYU they would give me a degree for doing it.

M.A.: What are you working on now?

L.N.: Last summer I rode horseback across a large portion of outer Mongolia, research for a thousand-page historical novel on Genghis Khan. Hope to finish it next year.

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Meredith Allard is the executive editor of The Copperfield Review.

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John Jakes

By Meredith Allard

Named the “godfather of the historical novel,” “the people’s author,” and “America’s history teacher,” John Jakes has been one of the most respected authors of historical fiction since the publication of his novel, The Bastard, the first of the eight volumes of The Kent Family Chronicles. Since then, Jakes has gone on to write some of the most beloved historical novels of all time, including The North and South TrilogyHomelandAmerican Dreams, and On Secret Service. You can visit John Jakes online.

Meredith Allard: Like Charles Dickens, your earlier inclination was towards acting instead of writing; then, after you sold your first story for $25 your focus changed to writing. What was it about writing that appealed so strongly to you?

John Jakes: Early on, I was equally interested in writing and acting as careers. When I sold my first story in 1950 – I was living in Chicago at the time, a freshman at Northwestern – I decided, as I have often said since, that it was easier to go to the corner mailbox to mail a story than to go to New York and audition. That realization put writing ahead of the stage to the benefit of audiences everywhere, I have frequently noted).

M.A.: What prompted you to start writing historical fiction? Have you always had a great love for history?

J.J.: My first historical novel, a paperback original about pirates entitled, predictably enough, Strike the Black Flag, was written at the request of editor Don Wollheim at Ace Books. Prior to that, I’d always read and loved history, but had never tried historical fiction. With Black Flag, the die was cast.

M.A.: Where did the inspiration for The Kent Family Chronicles come from? Was there something specific in the American Revolution that you wanted to explore?

J.J.: Again, the idea for The Kent Family Chronicles (originally The American Bicentennial Series) was not mine. I was approached by the packager of the series, Lyle Engel, to write five (not eight) novels about a fictional family from the early days of the country to the 1976 Bicentennial (which I obviously never reached). As the series took off and became a giant success, a debate raged between Engel and the executives of Pyramid Books, the paperback house publishing the books, as to who came up with the idea first. I can only say that I did not. Everything else beyond the basic concept stated here, however, is mine: I shaped the characters, the stories, etc.

I accepted the commission to do the novels because I thought it a tremendous opportunity to enjoy relearning some American history, and presenting my feelings about the country. At the time, like the packager and the publisher, I hadn’t the slightest idea that the series would become the monumental bestseller that it has. When last I looked, The Bastard was in something like its 68th printing.

M.A.: What are the joys and the challenges specific to writing family sagas? Why do you think family sagas are so compatible with historical fiction?

J.J.: The family saga is a particularly happy form for me because the familiarsturm und drang of life in a large family provides ready-made drama, often from the author’s own experience. The saga works well for historical fiction because both family history and a larger historical experience happen over a long span of time, hence, using a family story as a vehicle, the writer has perfect justification for moving through a complete historical era.

M.A.: Your novels have been praised for their historical accuracy. What is your method of research? How do you incorporate historical facts with your fictional characters and plot?

J.J.: My research process is the same for every book. If the period is largely unfamiliar, I begin by reading good secondary sources. From these spring ideas for characters, as well as aspects of the period that strike me as good background for the story. In American Dreams, for instance, I can cite the rise of the auto industry in Detroit as one area that immediately interested me. So did pioneer auto racing, early aviation, and the beginnings of the movies, both in the East and in California. With areas of concentration in mind, I dig into more specific sources, including biographies, letters, diaries, etc., relating to the subject. In other words, I travel from the general to the specific with each area in the novel, and with the novel as a whole.

As to blending history and fiction, that is something which I can only say I feel – I do it instinctively, out of years of experience as a fiction writer. In the past I have been accused by editors of ladling in too much history; a few extra paragraphs, interesting to me, can stop the story cold. Again, this is a matter of intuition, and an area in which a skilled editor can be very helpful.

M.A.: From your Civil War trilogy, North and South has become one of the most beloved Civil War novels of all time. What inspired you to write your Civil War novels?

J.J.: When I completed The Kent Family Chronicles, I signed a contract with Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (as it was called then) for three novels. I began discussing possible subjects with my wonderful editor, Julian Muller, and we jointly decided that it might be interesting to follow several generations of a military family (historical period or periods as yet unspecified). Early reading included, quite naturally, a history of the U.S. Military Academy. I came across a couple of pages that made me blink. The author included a list of all the famous men who attended West Point from the 1820’s to the 1840’s, and then went on to leadership in the Civil War, on both sides. They knew each other as students, then fought each other in the war. I knew that here was my story. The next step was easy: since we had three novels, why not divide the story into three periods – antebellum, the war, and reconstruction? My editor was enthusiastic, and thus The North and South Trilogy took shape. The idea was helped considerably by the importance of the background: the Civil War is not only of enormous interest around the world, but remains the most apocalyptic war in our short history, with vast social consequences that affect us today.

M.A.: What are the joys specific to writing historical fiction? Has there ever been a time when you were particularly frustrated by writing historical fiction?

J.J.: The pleasure of writing a new historical novel is easily stated, and I do so when I lecture: each book is like studying for a new graduate degree in a particular historical era. I learn an immense amount with each book, and love it, being, I suppose, just an over-age graduate student at heart. The other side of the coin is the same research process: sometimes I wish I could return to the days when I wrote science fiction or mysteries without having to read a couple of hundred books first.

M.A.: Your latest novel, On Secret Service, brought you back to the time of the Civil War. Why did you choose to return to this time in history?

J.J.: I’m not sure where the idea for On Secret Service originated. I have a faint memory of coming across the intriguing story of Civil War spying back when I was researching the North and South novels, and I expect I put it aside at the time because I already had more story material than I could handle. Then, the summer before I wrote On Secret Service, the idea simply popped into my head one warm afternoon, I put a couple of pages of character and plot points into the computer, and submitted them to the publisher with appropriate enthusiasm. Dutton and NAL were enthusiastic too and I leaped into the project, happy to be able to return to a time period about which I already knew a little something.

M.A.: On your website you named Charles Dickens as your favorite writer. Why do you believe that Dickens is the greatest novelist in the English language? What have you learned from Dickens that has helped you in your own writing?

J.J.: For years, I searched for a definitive statement of the difference between popular and “literary” fiction. Finally, an editor I met at a writers’ conference came up with it. He said popular fiction is about the story, while literary fiction is about the words. I have held to that definition ever since, and because of it, I realized what is, to me, the real nature of Charles Dickens’s genius: he could write both kinds of fiction in a single work. That is genius, of an order seldom found in literature. I think of a few examples. Shakespeare, whose plots are thumping good stories, enhanced by his gorgeous poetry. Or my favorite American novel of the 20th century, The Great Gatsby, which again satisfies with the story as well as the words.

As far as learning from Dickens, I expect that delineation of character would stand at the top of the list. I wasn’t really aware of Dickens’s cutting back and forth between story lines to enhance suspense until I read a biography of D. W. Griffith, who said he learned his film cutting technique from Dickens. Then I saw it.

M.A.: What is your advice to aspiring writers of historical fiction?

J.J.: The same as for all fiction: read voluminously; observe people carefully; practice your craft; avoid imitating other writers, and try to find your own voice.

M.A.: What are you working on now? What areas of history would you like to visit in your writing in the future?

J.J.: At the moment I’m writing a new multi-generational novel set against the enormously colorful but largely unknown history of South Carolina, where I have lived for the past 22-plus years. I would like to write about European history. The ancient world fascinates me, as do eras such as the Restoration in England, and the Napoleonic wars. Alas, the conventional wisdom in publishing suggests that I’m better off sticking to the subject for which I’m best known – American history. And there is, of course, the time constraint: I don’t have enough lifetimes to write everything I’d like to write.

______________________________________________________________

Meredith Allard is the executive editor of The Copperfield Review.

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Deborah Coonts

By Meredith Allard

Deborah Coonts is the author of the hilarious Las Vegas murder mysteryWanna Get Lucky?

Meredith Allard: At one time you made your living as a tax attorney, which seems like such a structured job, very different from the creativity of writing.  How did you find your way from lawyer to writer?  Is there any way that being a tax attorney helped you on your journey to becoming a published novelist?

Deborah Coonts: Sure, it taught me what I didn’t want to do.  You know, if my mother had only told me that I could make stuff up for a living, she would have made life soooo much easier.  I did corral a ton of discipline as an attorney.  And, to be honest, while the practice of law may seem to lack a creative component, nothing could be further from the truth.  Granted, as lawyers we better not make stuff up or we will find ourselves cooling our jets in the hoosegow, but a complex legal issue is nothing but a huge problem-solving exercise–much like putting together a romantic mystery. As for structured job v. the free-flow of ‘being your own boss,’ I never had to worry much about motivation.  I learned at an early age, I’d better keep myself busy.  Too much idle time….well, reform school would have been a possibility.  So now, instead of homework or legal briefs taking my time, I occupy myself with stories….way more fun!

M.A.: I always laugh whenever I think about your line about becoming an overnight literary success after being a professional writer for fifteen years.  It can be so easy for writers to become discouraged.  What kept you going during those fifteen years?  What did you learn about yourself during that time?

D.C.: Having been a lifelong reader, once I gave myself the challenge of trying to figure out how to write fiction, I was completely hooked.  Playing with words and characters is my passion.  Of course, when I announced this fact to my family, they were less than thrilled.  Leave it to me to pick a career path that had little hope of actually turning into a viable means of support. My personality is such that when I latch onto something, I’m a bit like a tick on a dog.  I wanted to see if I could eventually learn to write well enough for my own satisfaction–and I am probably my own worst critic.  I have done so.  No matter what sort of success or lack thereof Wanna Get Lucky? might find, I am proud of the story. Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? While talent is critical in the writing world, I think persistence is even more so.

M.A.: As with other literary success stories, you had written other manuscripts prior to selling Wanna Get Lucky? to Tor-Forge.  Why do you think Wanna Get Lucky? was the first manuscript you sold?  What was different this time?  Did you learn anything about the publishing industry that helped you finally succeed?

D.C.: I didn’t learn anything mind-boggling about the publishing industry that set loose my inner writer. I learned it about me. As beginning authors we all want to know what the rules are.  We figure we can write to the rules and deliver a passably good story.  That’s probably right.  Unfortunately, New York rarely buys ‘passably good’ stories.  They are looking for a well-crafted story, but also one with a uniqueness that differentiates it from the tens of thousands of other manuscripts heaped on overworked agents and editors every year.

So, what the heck does this mean?  For me, it meant I had to discover what I write best, what resonates in my writer’s heart.  Of course, it also helped when one editor asked me to tell him what my writing style was.  “I write like Sandra Brown,” I replied, grossly exaggerating my talent.  He shrugged and said, “We already have a Sandra Brown. What do we need another one for?”  Bullet shot between the eyes. Sometimes the truth can be so obvious we overlook it.  So, I went home, threw out all the rules, uncorked the essence of Deborah Coonts,and let it fly. In writing from the heart, I found my home as a writer.  And I dared to make my heroine a smart-ass, her suitor a female impersonator, her mother a madam, her father absent and unknown…well, you get the idea.  So, break some rules. Don’t write about something you know, don’t write in the genre you like to read necessarily. As a writer before me once said, write something you can imagine…..

M.A.: You’ve talked about rules writers can break and others we should follow.  Which rules are okay to break? Which ones should we follow?  How did breaking some of the rules help you find success with Wanna Get Lucky?

D.C.: In Lucky, I tried something I had always been afraid to do–write funny.  And, if that wasn’t enough, I felt I needed to tell the story in the first person.  Both very tough for newbies…and I was still a newbie. I let my main character talk to the reader.  I not only bend stereotypes, I stand them on their ears.  One guy who read my book only gave it three stars because he didn’t think the stuff in the book could possibly be real.  First of all, it IS fiction.  But, it also is VEGAS–and the guy has no idea….  So, I cut loose.  I found what I do best as a writer.  And I trusted my gut and went with it.  And, when I asked my publisher why he bought my book, that is exactly why he did.  He said he loved Lucky.  So, bend the rules to breaking.  Write what is in your soul.

As for the rules that can’t be broken:  Your story still needs to be a good story.  It still needs to be well-told.  Dialogue still needs to sound the way people actually talk. Backstory and description need to be kept to a minimum so the story races along.  Other than that?  Write!  

M.A.: As I read (and loved) your novel, I had the feeling that you had fun writing Wanna Get Lucky?  I live in Las Vegas, and I learned a lot about the inner workings of the Strip hotels by reading your book.  What was your research process like?  How did you come up with the idea for your novel?  How did the city of Las Vegas itself  become a character in your story?

D.C.: I love Vegas.  I love the people who live here.  I love the folks who come here to blow off some steam.  I love the entertainers.  It’s all a hoot.  And that is what I wanted to write about, so Vegas actually became the first character in my story.  Then I had to figure out a way to tell the story, and that’s where Lucky came into being.  What better eyes to see Vegas through than the eyes of a young woman who also sees magic here, but whose job puts her on the front line everyday?  As for the idea of my novel, well, I read about the happenings here and my mind just starts working away….My ex-husband used to say I had the most devious mind of anyone he knew.  I’m not sure he meant that in a good way, but, as a writer, I was thrilled.

Research….ah yes.  Suffice it to say I have a waiting list of women who want to accompany me on my jaunts.  The ones who went to the male strip club with me have taken an oath of silence….

M.A.: Now that you have had your first novel published and working its way up the New York Times Bestseller List, is success what you thought it would be?  Is it easier?  Harder?  What are you experiencing as a published author that you were not expecting?

D.C.: My life is much the same.  I still have to carve out butt-in-chair time, although it is harder to do so now with more demands on my time.  Being published is gratifying and thrilling, but it doesn’t change the fundamentals.  I’m still the me I used to be, with my quirks, idiosyncrasies, and failings.  My son still thinks its fine to have me in his life.  My friends still love me in spite of myself.  I still think being a mom is the greatest job in the world–writing will always be second, a close second perhaps (especially during those teenage years).  I still love to write and think a day without a visit into the world of my stories is a less than fulfilling day.  One thing I realized before I sold my first book really helped avoid some of the self-doubt that creeps in after you’ve actually sold the first book in a series–the “can I do it again?” doubt.  After I finished Lucky–literally the next day–I sat down at the computer and typed Chapter One..and thus began Lucky Stiff, book two in the series.  By the time I needed to meet with all the head honchos at Forge, I had delivered the second completed manuscript so they too knew I could do it again.

M.A.: Which authors influenced you as a writer?

D.C.: Oh my gosh, anyone who can write funny. Erma Bombeck, Prudence Macintosh (a Texan like myself), Carl Hiassen, Janet Evanovich. I LOVE to laugh.  I think laughter makes all the difference.

M.A.: What are you working on now?

D.C.: I am working on book four in the Lucky series.  The third one, So Damn Lucky, has been turned in and I’m slaving away on Lucky the Hard Way. Suffice it to say, life in Vegas doesn’t get any less zany, nor does Lucky’s personal life get any smoother.

M.A.: What advice can you give other writers?

D.C.: Write from the heart.  Write every day.  And stay the course–refuse to be denied.

Wanna Get Lucky? is available from amazon.com and bookstores near you.

_______________________________________________________________

Meredith Allard is the executive editor of The Copperfield Review.

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Jean M. Auel

By Meredith Allard

Jean M. Auel is the author of the beloved Earth’s Children series, which includes the prehistoric novels The Clan of the Cave BearThe Valley of HorsesThe Mammoth HuntersThe Plains of Passage, and The Shelters of Stone. You can visit the fan site for the Earth’s Children series.

Meredith Allard: What inspired you to write The Clan of the Cave Bear?

Jean M. Auel: I married at 18 and had five children rather quickly, and I didn’t start college until I was 28. I spent a great deal of time and energy working full time, going to school, and raising a family. When I was 40, my children were nearly grown, and since I had just received my MBA, I was no longer going to school or doing homework. Then I quit my job, I thought to find another in business. After years of a very busy life, I found myself with no commitments. It was a very free-floating state that was open, perhaps, to new ideas.

I got the idea for the story of a young woman living with people who were different, late one cold winter night in January 1977, but I don’t know where it came from. I had never written fiction, though I had been reading it all my life. I discovered when I sat down to try it that it was fun, except I didn’t know what I was writing about. I had never studied archaeology or anthropology. I knew how to find out, though. Libraries are wonderful. They started me on a remarkable odyssey that I’m still in the midst of. They opened my eyes to the fascinating story of our Ice Age ancestors that modern science has to tell…not of knuckle-dragging apes, but the human story; and they gave me the means to learn how to tell it with books on how to write fiction. I got excited by it, and all the determination and purpose I had been devoting to work, school, and children focused into writing.

M.A.: Did you always conceive the novels as part of a series, or did the idea for the Earth’s Children series come after The Clan of the Cave Bear?

J.M.A.: The first draft of the entire six book series was written at one time, in one single burst of creative energy, over a four month period of 12 to 16 hour days of sustained writing, during which I did almost nothing else except additional research. I thought at the time that it would be one novel, Earth’s Children, but it fell into six parts. It was only on rewriting that I realized that I had instead written an in-depth outline for a six book series.

M.A.: Your novels come to life through your meticulous use of historical facts. What is your research process? Do you have any research tips for writers of historical fiction?

J.M.A.: My research has been quite extensive. In addition to hands-on field research, which has included some stone tool making, processing of animal skins by natural means, making cordage and digging roots, a bibliography of published material I have read would approach four thousand entries. I have established working relationships with many professionals and have traveled to both western and eastern Europe to visit actual sites and caves.

The research I’ve done has been very interesting, a wonderful way to learn, and a great deal of fun—and without some of those first-hand experiences, I would never have been able to write the books the way I did. It was necessary and in the process I’ve met some fascinating people.

M.A.: What are the particular joys or difficulties you have found writing about prehistoric times?

J.M.A.: I love being able to learn whatever I want and earn a living at it. Research is fun; writing is hard work.

M.A.: Why do you think the Earth’s Children series has struck such a chord with so many readers around the world? Why do people relate so strongly to Ayla and her journeys?

J.M.A.: I don’t know why my books are so popular. I’m writing to please only myself, a book I would like to read.

M.A.: Do you have a schedule that you follow when you are writing a novel? Do you work a certain number of hours a day, write a certain number of pages a day, etc.?

J.M.A.: I try for a minimum of eight working hours a day, but often fall short.

M.A.: What is your advice to aspiring writers of historical fiction?

J.M.A.: Write what you love to learn about.

M.A.: Tell us as much as you can about the new novel. And here’s the question many devoted fans want the answer to: when can we expect to find it in bookstores?

J.M.A.: Book 5 in the Earth’s Children series is the first book in the series that is set in western Europe—prehistoric France.

As to when it will be available—I wish I had an answer. All I can say is that I am working on it. The writing and the research are going well, but it is not finished. Once I have submitted it to the publisher, it will be several months before it is in bookstores, so don’t expect to see it too soon.

M.A.: Is there another period in history you would like to write about? Do you see yourself writing another novel series set in another time or place?

J.M.A.: I don’t know what I’ll write next. Maybe not another series, but certainly other novels. I’m intrigued by the beginning of agriculture and why after millions of years as hunter/gatherers we decided to start farming and domesticating animals.

M.A.: What are you most proud about with the Earth’s Children series?

J.M.A.: I’m most proud of the fact that I’m still writing only to please myself and that the scientific specialists are so positive and enthusiastic about my books.

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Meredith Allard is the executive editor of The Copperfield Review.

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Michael Simms

By Michelle Pretorius

Michael Simms is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Autumn House Press. He is the author of five collections of poetry: Black Stone, The Happiness of Animals, The Fire-Eater, Migration, and Notes on Continuing Light, as well as the co-author of The Longman Dictionary and Handbook of Poetry and has has taught at The University of Iowa, Southern Methodist University, The Community College of Allegheny County, Carnegie Mellon University, Chatham University, and Duquesne University.

Michelle Pretorius: What are the advantages a writer gains by choosing a small press like Autumn House Press over a larger one?

Michael Simms: The independent non-profit presses are now carrying the banner of American literature. With very few exceptions, the large commercial presses have stopped publishing high quality contemporary literature.

M.P.: Can you talk about some of the things you look for as editor’s in the fiction and poetry you’re aiming to publish? Is there a set criteria?

M.S.: I am the Editor-in-Chief and the poetry editor. Our fiction editors are John Fried and Sharon Dilworth. Our nonfiction editors are Sheryl St. Germain, Margaret Whitford, and Adrienne Block. That being said, there are certain editorial processes and choices, as well as a general aesthetic, which apply to everything we publish. We look for writing that is well-crafted and appealing to a literate, non-specialist reader.

M.P.: You recommended Drift and Swerve by Samuel Ligon to me, what other books in your catalog would you recommend to someone as most representative of Autumn House?

M.S.: In fiction, I would recommend New World Order by Derek Green. In poetry, I would immodestly recommend the new edition of The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, which I edited. In individual collections of poetry, I would recommend Blood Honey by Chana Bloch. In nonfiction, I would recommend The Archipelago, a travel book by Robert Isenberg.

M.P.: Autumn House uses a competition to select new books for publication. What are the advantages in that for the press? Is there a difference in the quality of work you receive?

M.S.: Originally, we started using the contests as a way to manage the large number of unsolicited submissions we were receiving. Having a set of guidelines and an annual deadline streamlined the screening process. Charging a submission fee encouraged people to send us only their finished manuscripts and to read our guidelines carefully. The fee also enabled us to pay our screeners and to recruit nationally known writers such as Naomi Shihab Nye and Stewart O’Nan to judge the contests. But the most important benefit of accepting submissions this way is that it generates enough money to publish the winning manuscript, give an advance to the author, pay for a reading tour, and advertise the book. Without the contest model, we could not produce quality books and give them the support they deserve.

M.P.: You have published books of poetry that were published by independent presses and have therefore been on both sides of the process. How did the experience inform your own work with authors?

M.S.: I was very fortunate as a writer to have wise and supportive editors. Mark Doty at Blue Buildings, Gorden Anderson at Longman, James Anderson at Breitenbush were among my editors. I’ve tried to emulate them in building Autumn House and working with authors.

M.P.: Once an author is published with Autumn House, do you aim for multiple book contracts?

M.S.: Whenever possible, we like to have a longterm relationship with the author. Once we’ve published a book by an author, we want them to share future manuscripts with us. Many of our authors – for example, Jo McDougall, Philip Terman, Ed Ochester, Sue Ellen Thompson and Sheryl St. Germain have published more than one book with us.

M.P.: How many people are involved in the decision making process for selecting manuscripts? What are their roles and what is the process a manuscript goes through until it is published?

M.S.: We have three annual full-length book contests at present – Poetry, Fiction, and Nonfiction. In addition, we have the Coal Hill Chapbook Contest. In general, the manuscripts are processed by our interns, then there is a quick read to eliminate the manuscripts that are obviously too weak to compete. Then the editors start the hard work of reading manuscripts to find the best ones. Then the best ones, usually 15-35 finalists, go to the judge to pick a winner. After the winners are chosen, we choose several additional finalists to publish, filling out our list.

M.P.: Do you accept manuscripts that still need rewrites? Will you hold onto promising manuscripts or do you pass if it’s not ready as is?

M.S.: If we’ve already published an author, then we will often work with that author in developing a new manuscript for publication. This process involves a great deal of staff time, so we are selective about which manuscripts we will help develop.

M.P.: How do you work with those authors you decide to publish? Are they involved in the entire process, from revising to marketing to distribution, or are they kept on the outside?

M.S.: We usually like to involve authors in every phase of the publishing process.

M.P.: What percentage of advance copies that you send out receive reviews?

M.S.: We send out 50 to 100 copies of each title as review copies.

M.P.: Does your press have a standardized market plan or is it based on the individual writer?

M.S.: Based on the individual writer.

M.P.: What are your goals in terms of marketing fiction that you publish? How does your intended audience fit into these plans?

M.S.: Our main concern is to publish the best books we possibly can. A secondary goal is to sell enough copies to continue our work. Author appearances — i.e. readings, signings, interviews, classroom visits, etc. — is essential to selling books and building a literary reputation.

M.P.: After rewrites and proofreading, is the author involved in the publishing process in any way?

M.S.: We try to involve the author in every stage of the publishing.

M.P.: Are your contracts geared for multi-book projects?

M.S.: No. We publish one book at a time. This is the only way we can maintain the high quality of writing we require.

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Michelle Pretorius was born in South Africa and has lived in London, New York and the Midwest. She is a graduate student in Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago and has been published in The Copperfield Review and The Columbia Review Lab.

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