Thursday, May 05, 2005

New Feature: Author interviews!

Yes, I know. Author interviews abound in the lit blogosphere. So what? I like reading, I like writers, and if some authors are willing to 'talk' to me, hey, I go for it.

My inaugural interview is with Jane Guill, author of Nectar from a Stone. Nectar, published in March 2005 as an original trade paperback by Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, is Guill's first novel, though not her first publication; she has published several Pushcart-nominated short stories. As you probably remember, I heard about Nectar from Guill's Backstory at MJ Rose's Backstory blog. And of course, I just had to get it. And reader, I liked it! [You can take a look at my original posts: A little Nectar and Now reading.]

Nectar from a Stone is a historical novel, set in Wales in 1351, just after the Plague swept through Europe. What sparked your interest in medieval Wales?

I'm American but my family is Welsh, several generations removed. During a mid-life crisis, I went to Wales to find my 'roots' or to at least find something that might help me figure out who I was. But I found more than that. Halfway into my visit, I watched a crazy man rappel down a cliff from a rope tied around a car. The next day I met this same maniac in person and I fell in love--just like a besotted teenager. He was a Welsh geologist who specialized in ancient mining, and I had a very limited time, a couple of weeks, to convince him that I'd make a dandy life companion. (He certainly seemed to need a keeper.) Four years later, in 1996, we married in North Wales at Conwy Castle, which was built by Edward I in about 1285.

My husband, Andy Lewis, adores Wales. He spent his childhood on Anglesey, a strange and wonderful island. It's where in 57 AD a Roman army commanded by Suetonius Paulinus slaughtered a defending force of native Britons made up of Druids, women, and children. Andy's love for all of Wales is contagious. The two of us have a marvelous time traipsing around some pretty obscure places over there. We climb windy slopes like Pen Llithrig-y-Wrach (The Head of the Slippery Witch) or sit in the shadows of Taliesin's Monument at Geirionydd Lake. There's always some new/olde thing to investigate, so we never get bored.

As far as my medieval interest, that I can claim independently. Andy's main love, history-wise, is the Bronze Age. But to me there's something absolutely fascinating about the Middle Ages. There was so much shocking tragedy and yet such compassion and humor in those centuries, and I somehow feel a deep connection with them.
What are you working on now?
It's another medieval novel, and once again British. This story deals with the supernatural, or at least the supernatural as it was perceived hundreds of years ago. It features a woman who runs afoul of the powers-that-be. (Alienated women seem to be a constant theme with me.)

Do you think of yourself primarily as a writer?
Yes. I also do a lot of drawing and painting but my interest in art is more recreational than soul-felt. That is, when the writing isn't going well, I'll often 'goof off' and turn out some grotesque, detailed cartoon or silly collage that takes me half the day. Glitter sometimes flies and there are splots of paint all over the place. But it's relaxing and at least I feel like I'm doing something, rather than just staring into space trying to come up with one halfway decent sentence.

When did you first realize that you wanted to write?
About twelve years ago. Progress on my artwork had slowed to an absolute crawl and it suddenly occurred to me that maybe I could 'say' all the things I wanted to say with words instead of images. My drawings have always been fairly narrative anyway, and the leap seemed natural. So I started to describe images in words instead of using images to tell stories.

The change has been a terrific challenge, but a wonderful one.
Are you a full-time writer? Or do you have other work? (Motherhood, wifehood, and housework count too!)
Yes. Historical fiction requires tons of research, and that naturally takes time. I'm also not a fast writer (I just agonize and agonize and rewrite everything a thousand times liked a demented idiot) so I have to be a writer who works long hours, whether I want to or not.

As far as other work, I've been a vegetarian for over twenty-five years and seem to do a lot of cooking because we hardly ever go to restaurants. (Andy has an organic garden here in Illinois, and another back in Wales. His brother minds the latter.) In the summer I'm always preparing spinach soup or salsa or stuffed sweet peppers. Three times a week, all year, I make homemade yogurt for the fresh fruit smoothies I whip up for breakfast every day. As far as housework, yes, I do it, but not often enough to be very effective and not with great relish. My two wonderful kids are out of the house; my daughter is recently married and lives in Denver, and my son goes to the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
I love the story about how you and your husband, met, courted, married. How is married life, with such an interesting backstory behind it?
Married life is excellent. It's such an amazing pleasure to live with someone with truly similar and passionate interests. (My first husband--who's now looking among the embryonic set for Wife Number Five--was, is, a capitalist and an avid golfer. He used to instruct me, just before business functions/parties, not to talk about books or art because no one was interested. He suggested I learn to play bridge, do volunteer work, or redecorate the house, unless I wanted people to think I was odd.)

But now my life really feels like my life. In the old days, I often had this strange, disturbing notion that someone somewhere was calling my name. Sometimes I'd actually look over my shoulder. Sad and spooky, in a way, like the world wasn't quite in alignment. But after I met Andy, that all stopped. It was as if I'd found the person who'd been calling me. Fanciful and maybe foolishly romantic, yes. But it's true. And it's been such an indescribable relief. Now, if he ever ups and leaves me for some Glamour Babe who hates history and books and who watches reality TV and wears lots of make-up and giggles constantly, then I'll just have to go back to looking over my shoulder. Or, more likely, I'll throw in the Love Towel completely and become a celibate and bitter martini drinker. Not that I'm insecure or anything like that.

Where do you usually work? Do you have any particular habits, rituals, or even superstitions regarding writing?
I work in my study, when I use the computer. But before I can type, I sit in a chair in the living room and compose everything on a pad of yellow paper, in long-hand. I start about 9 in the morning, take an hour for lunch, then finish around 5. If I have a deadline or I'm really chugging happily along, I sometimes work until 6 or 7. I can't listen to music, any music, when I'm working. As far as superstitions, I don't like anyone to touch any of my research notes or reference books. And in the winter, I'll light a candle or two or burn cedar incense for atmosphere. When it's really windy and wintry outside, I wear fingerless mittens while I type because my hands get cold.
About your reading habits: what is/are your favorite genre(s)? authors? Why? How much do you usually read?
I can't actually say what my favorite genre is; my reading habits are all over the place. On my bedside table right now, for instance, you'll find Salman Rushdie's STEP ACROSS THIS LINE (collected nonfiction), Kate Atkinson's latest novel CASE HISTORIES, then THE APPEARANCE OF EVIL: APPARITIONS IN WALES by Edmund Jones, then 1215, THE YEAR OF THE MAGNA CARTA, by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham, then a novel called EVERY INCH OF HER by Peter Sheridan, then Shalom Auslander's story collection, BEWARE OF GOD, then an old book about Welsh herbal medicine, and finally, under everything, is a recent Vermont Country Catalog. I really ought to be more orderly and put something away. Ha.

Some of my favorite authors are William Trevor, Zoƫ Oldenbourg, Penelope Fitzgerald, Barbara Pym, Hilary Mantel, James Lee Burke, James Joyce, Jeanette Winterson, Elizabeth Atwood Taylor, John McGahern, Dorothy Parker, Taliesin, and so many others. For research I like Simon Schama, Colin Platt, Malcolm Jones, Norman F. Cantor, Barbara Hanawalt.

What is the best piece of advice anybody's ever given you? Do you follow it?
I keep a quote from Jonathan Winters on a bulletin board next to my computer. It reads: 'I couldn't wait for success, so I went ahead without it.' It's kind of like another saying I like: The harder you work, the luckier you get.
How long did it take you to write your novel? Was it hard to find a publisher?
It took about five years altogether. An agent read one of my short stories in a magazine and contacted me. He asked if I had a novel. I did, but it was less than a quarter done. So he urged me to finish it. I finished it (about eighteen months later) and he sold it to the first publisher who read it, Simon & Schuster/Touchstone.
I know you got two Pushcart nominations. For what stories? Have your short stories been collected or republished since their original publication?
I had a third Pushcart nomination late in 2004. The first was for "A Templar's Tale," a story about the imagined fate of a Templar who escapes execution in Paris in 1314. The second was "Something Akin to Glory," in which a grief-stricken man joins the flagellants after his family dies of the Plague. And the last was for "Bad Birds," a contemporary tale about book conservators involved in a love triangle as they work on restoring an ancient bestiary to its former glory.

None of the stories has been collected or reprinted so far, but I'd ultimately like to write enough historical pieces to make up a collection. Whether any publisher would want to take a chance on such a thing is yet another story.

What's the strangest thing a reader has ever said to you?
A stranger at a book-signing for NECTAR asked me--no, he practically ORDERED me--to read his unpublished novel and give him advice on getting an agent and a publisher. The manuscript was a mere 750 single-spaced typed pages and concerned a family in Dark Age Britain who made apple cider and mead and lived right next door to King Arthur's castle. He promised me it was brilliant and said everyone in his on-line writers' group loved it. He (rather grandly) assured me that if I helped him, he'd even give me a cut of the royalties--and that would be a lot of money because it was sure to be a bestseller. Luckily I was able to say, in all honesty, that I didn't have time. I politely suggested he try query letters. He wasn't particularly pleased.

What's the most unexpected thing you've done to promote your book?
I created and reproduced about 25 different greeting card designs to sell at a local artisans' shop and at a local bookstore. Some cards are funny and/or strange, some are conventional 'medieval' designs. Inside each card is a little note with a blurb for NECTAR. And you know, those cards are selling pretty well! I guess that's what they call guerrilla marketing.
Describe your most memorable author event.
Near Barrington, Illinois, where I used to live, about 70 people came to an event for NECTAR. The store sold out of the novel that day (they had 60 copies) and had to call around to other stores for more. I had 8 books in my car and brought those in, too. It was so gratifying, after sitting alone in my study for so long, just typing and talking to my two cats. One lady had 6 copies, for her book club. A man carried four, one for each of his sisters. I only wish every event could be like that. (They aren't, of course.)

If you could change one thing about your book, what would it be? Why?
We received a wonderful blurb from Susann Cokal (MIRABILIS and BREATH AND BONES), but it didn't arrive in time for the print-run. Ah, well. Maybe next time.

What's the most surprising thing about being a published author?
I still have to clean the cat litter. Worse than that, I still lack self-confidence. Somehow I thought I'd just turn, voila, into some sort of ultra-cool ultra-assured Katherine Hepburn/Audrey Hepburn person, all gorgeous and witty and wondrous. Alas, no. I'm still an insecure dolt, maladroit, graceless, expecting literary disaster at every turn. WHY THE HELL IS THAT? Is my whole body, my whole personal aura just one big stupid Achilles' Heel, huh?
What would you like potential readers to know about you? About your book?
I'm not as insecure as I sound. Maybe. And NECTAR FROM A STONE was definitely written with love and care and earnest, honest attention to detail.
What is your favorite line (or passage, scene, etc) from your novel?
I'm not sure I have one favorite thing. Nicolas always made me laugh, and he very nearly wrote his own crazy dialog. I liked Elise's visions because they gave me a chance to really let my imagination run wild. When Gwydion was in Paris, held by Charles of Spain, I liked his interaction with his guard. Descriptions of herbal cures and concoctions were also fun to write and to research. In general, I love words. Certain words really resonate with me and the trick is putting those words together with other wonderful words to make beautiful sentences.
How do you feel about your author photo? Like it? Hate it? Do you feel it gives an accurate sense of who you are?
Lord, that's a loaded question. I'm hideously UN-photogenic. When the photographer took that picture, it was actually the best of a bad bunch of nearly thirty attempts. He was flummoxed, because none of the photos really looked anything like me. It's uncanny, like funky reverse magic. I always think my photographs make me look like Charles Laughton, or maybe Walter Matthau post-mortem. Does that particular photo give an accurate sense of who I am? Goodness, I hope not. A friend told me it makes me seem sinister. Now that's hilarious; me, sinister.
How would you describe yourself?
Decidedly un-sinister. A little odd, but not in need of strong medication. Well-meaning. Detail oriented and industrious. Stubborn. Secretive. Superstitious. Loyal. A bit shy. Self-conscious.
Of course, to that I would add talented, and decidedly generous with her time and her words. Thanks, Jane! And keep working on that next novel; I really want to read it!

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