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Monday, November 16, 2009

Author Interview: Juliet Blackwell

Today we have the accomplished author Juliet Blackwell's interview that she graciously agreed to do.  You can read the review I did of her last book "Secondhand Spirit" here.  Enjoy finding our more about this wonderful author.  Ms Blackwell also writes the Art Lovers Mystery series with her sister under the pseudonym of Hailey Lind.

You had written several books in a collaborative fashion with your sister, what are the good and bad sides to joint writing efforts?

The good part is always having someone to bounce ideas off of, and to tell you when you’re off track. My sister and I are good friends with a similar sense of humor, so sometimes when the mood’s right we really get each other laughing and coming up with ideas. The bad part is the constant need to re-write, and re-write again, since it’s so important to keep a single, unified “voice” in the narration. Plus, writing on my own means I get to go off on whatever tangent I like, or have the romance go the direction I want, without having to argue with my sister. Unlike me, of course, she can be so unreasonable…;-)

I loved Lily Ivory in Secondhand Spirits as well as Annie Kincaid in the Art Lover's series, what is your process for developing a character? Do you use pictures, a worksheet or just let the character tell you about him/herself as you write?

For me, developing character is the easiest—and most exciting-- part of writing. I love imagining the characters in different scenarios, how they would react, that sort of thing. I usually list their favorite food and drink, funny quirks, a few things like that on a piece of paper I keep for each one, but beyond that I just let them develop organically. I’m always shocked at how characters seem to fix themselves, and then tell me exactly what they would or wouldn’t do in a situation. Many’s the time I’ve had to change a storyline because my character simply wouldn’t do what I had planned for them to do. Sounds a little crazy, but it’s true.

Do you outline the plot or some variation of that (use a strict 3 act structure or not and little/alot of detail) before sitting down and writing?

I have to turn in an outline to my editor before writing, which forces me to think through certain plot points and storylines. But other than that, I’m more of an organic writer – I like to be taken by surprise by my own writing. If I try to stick too closely to an outline or formula, I find I get bored. And if I’m bored, I’m willing to bet my readers will be bored.

How do you find time for writing - what works for you?

This is a tough one. The simple answer is that there’s never enough time for writing. Just as there’s never enough time for so many things in our modern lives. But since writing is a priority for me, I make time. Most days I get up at four in the morning, believe it or not. I hate it (I am so NOT a morning person!) but it’s the only way I can find a couple of completely quiet hours to work without interruption. I also don’t watch television, which gives me extra time in the evenings. I never do more housework than absolutely necessary, and the garden has to get by with a minimum of intervention. I have a teenage son, so he takes priority over my writing, but otherwise the writing has to come before fun time with friends and that sort of thing. I try to keep some balance in my life, and do cherish my good friends, but by and large I guard my writing time jealously.

For your mystery series' there is a lot of detailed information - how much research goes into your work and do you complete that up front or "just enough" as you go?

I love research. I was trained as an anthropologist, and one of the reasons I love being a writer is that it gives me an excuse to read about interesting things every day! I just finished the fourth Art Lover’s book, Arsenic and Old Paint, and I learned all sorts of gruesome things about poisons, and also lots of details about bats.

I read constantly, and obviously use the internet for research. But I also do a lot of walking around neighborhoods where I set my stories, and I’ve interviewed FBI agents and bounty hunters and parole agents and medical examiners. With the Witchcraft series, I studied the history of the famous witch hunts in Europe and Salem, and about the persistence of witchcraft in parts of the modern world, especially in rural areas of Africa and Latin America. I also interviewed witches one-on-one, and attended coven meetings. And I get to do it all in the name of work!

As to how much…obviously, a writer can only include a small fraction of her or his research in the actual books – otherwise you run the risk of boring your reader. I usually do some research prior to writing, which gives me a lot of ideas. Then I research as I go along –sometimes it’s as simple as looking something up on Google, or sometimes it’s something I have to make time for (such as interviewing or walking the streets).

I read once that a romance writer would put on sexy lingere to prepare for writing - do you have anything special you do before writing, particular music or a special room/location that helps you get in the zone and write?

I really love writing in my office – boring, right? But I live in a beautiful old house full of ghosts, beautiful light, and wavy-glass windows, so it puts me in the mood for magic and art. I look out onto the hills of Oakland – which are truly beautiful, by the way. Very European looking. And my neighbor’s black cat, who just happens to be named Oscar (and I didn’t even know him when I named Lily’s familiar Oscar!) won’t leave me alone. He’s convinced I’ll fall for his feline ways…and he’s right. Having a black cat around makes writing about witches seem just right.

I also have a rather fierce –but cute—looking gargoyle who overhangs my computer monitor – he always makes me think I’m in the company of Oscar from the book.

Do you have any secrets to success for editing?

Hmm, that’s a tough one. I write my first draft with great verve and make myself turn off my internal editor – I want the story to flow without restraint—but that means that I have to do some serious re-writes and thorough editing once that first draft is done. For that, I think Stephen King said it best: you have to be willing to kill your darlings. Be tough on yourself – no matter how much you love a scene or iteration, if it doesn’t work for the story, cut it. Don’t give too much backstory, let the story unwind bit by bit to keep the reader intrigued. Use lots of dialogue to move the story along, and make sure you have a good mix of action, dialogue, and description throughout.

In this technology driven world there is more and more pressure on authors to use social media (blog book tours, twitter, facebook etc.) but what do you feel is the payoff for the amount of time invested as opposed to traditional methods such as brick and mortar book tours?

Wow, you really do ask the tough questions! I don’t know what the payoff is, and I wish I did. It’s so frustrating to spend so much time and energy in an arena that is so far removed from the ultimate goal –to sell books and introduce new readers to one’s work. So far no one has been able to show what the connection is, though as you say writers are expected to maintain a presence on the web. The only direct benefit I can see is that I get a lot of email from readers, and I imagine few of them would have taken the time and energy to write the old fashioned way.

I enjoy visiting bookstores, but obviously it’s expensive. My publisher doesn’t have the money to pay for my tour, so I do it on my own dime – however, I know so many great authors now that we often tour together, sharing expenses and making everything much more fun. It’s always a pleasure to meet booksellers and librarians face-to-face, and to interact with readers and fans. The only downside is that it’s truly exhausting, and does take away from writing – I always say “I’ll write in the evenings in the hotel”, but I usually wind up going out to dinner and drinks instead!

What is the "tipping point" where an author can support themselves from their writing? Is there a recognizable point at which you can dedicate yourself full time to writing books and not worry about a day job again?

I don’t know that there’s any one “tipping point” – the downside about being a published author is that unless you’re a HUGE name, you’re always having to look down the road to what’s next. Will I have a contract next year? Will it be enough to live on? Should I be changing genres? Supplementing my income? Maybe I should get a job at Peet’s Coffee….

Much of it, obviously, depends on your personal situation and expectations. I’ve been a professional artist for years, and before that I was a social worker, and before that an anthropologist. So frankly, I’ve never made much money! My demands are low, I live with housemates to share expenses, so I don’t need as much as other people might. I’d much rather have an interesting, rewarding career than a new car or fancy vacations…and I’m lucky, because my ex-husband is able to pay for our son’s school and important, mundane, things like his health insurance and new shoes.

A lot of authors supplement their writing wages through freelancing non-fiction, teaching classes, or sympathetic spouses. But I’m not sure that many of us are able to “not worry about a day job again” ever!

Can you recommend a fiction book that provides a great example of the writing craft to dissect and learn from?

Wow – in this case there are far too many answers to your question. I adore Richard Russo – his Empire Falls is a masterpiece in interweaving the story of individuals, families, and a whole town, as well as handling flashbacks and historical information. Nick Hornby is a master of using “voice” to establish character, almost without using description at all – try About a Boy or A Long Way Down. My friend Sophie Littefield’s debut novel, A Bad Day for Sorry, is another example of a strong, clear voice of character. Elizabeth Peter’s novels are wonderful examples of storytelling beyond a lot of modern conventions – she can write an entire mystery novel without actually killing anyone. Amazing.

How did you get your first break towards getting published? Was it sending in a query or meeting an agent at a writing conference etc?

I did go to a conference – the Willamette Valley Writers’ Conference in Portland, Oregon—and credit that wonderful event with meeting agents and editors for the very first time. I didn’t get an actual agent from that event, but I did learn what it was they were looking for, as well as important things like how to write a decent query letter. After that, I did a lot of research on the web for lists of agents, as well as looking through Jeff Herman’s guide to publishers. I had a goal of sending out 100 letters, hoping for a ten percent return. I only got up to 38, but out of that we received three offers for Feint of Art, which was later nominated for an Agatha.

Now I am President of our Northern California chapter of Sisters in Crime, and a member of Mystery Writers of America, so I realize there was a whole lot of support out there that I was unaware of – our Sisters in Crime chapter has ushered many aspiring authors through the process, recommending them to our agents and helping with the query letter process. Several are now published authors! Look around you for writers’ groups – they’re wonderful and willing to help!

Tell us about your upcoming book! What aspect of the new book did you particularly enjoy?

My next book will be A Cast-off Coven, the second in the Witchcraft Mystery Series (June 2010). I really enjoyed writing about the characters I established in the first book, plus adding in a few more. I researched a lot about ghosts for this book, and found some fascinating tidbits about the different way people view spectral beings. I also researched demons – a scary lot.

Arsenic and Old Paint will also be out next summer, either August or September. This will be the fourth in the Annie Kincaid Art Lover’s Mystery series, and it was so much fun to research – I spent a lot of time in Chinatown looking into rumors of underground chambers and tunnels. I also particularly enjoyed writing this one, because I got to come back to characters that I love, and which I haven’t been able to write about lately.

THANK YOU so much Juliet for this interview.  I am certainly looking forward to your next books with much anticipation!
Until Thursday and our next book review, I wish you dear readers many mysterious moments.
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Hector Macdonald said...

Hi Ariel

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Best wishes

Hector Macdonald
Editor, Book Drum

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