Interview with Author Gail Cleare

gailMany years ago, I participated in an online writing community that has since closed. Authonomy had a section of comment boards where different topics were discussed and one of the most helpful of those were the critiquing groups. They were organized by genre and Gail Cleare ran the Women’s Fiction Critique Group. When the site closed down, it was this group that many of us were most distraught to lose. And so we didn’t. We moved the group to another forum where it continues to run under Gail’s care.

I was able to read her new novel for that group and I’m thrilled to announce it’s being published today! Gail talked to me recently about her life as a writer.

When did you start writing and when did you start calling yourself a writer?

I wrote my first poem when I was ten. It was selected to appear in the literary journal at my school, the first time a fourth grader’s work had ever been chosen, and that was it for me—I wanted to be a Writer. I wrote stories all through high school, won two big contests, studied the craft in college, had my poetry performed in live theater in Boston, and then…remembered I needed to earn a living. So I wrote marketing/PR copy for many years, while dreaming of having the time to write novels because then I would be a real Writer. Instead, I raised three boys and settled for writing ads and content for AOL until 2010, when the stars aligned just right and I wrote my first full-length work, DESTINED, a novel of the Tarot. That’s when I started calling myself a Writer, though I had been a writer of another sort for my entire career.

Talk to me about your writing process. What is your preferred writing environment? How long does it take you to complete a book? At what stage of writing do you find outside feedback helpful? How do you sift through differing advice? When do you think about the audience your book appeals to? 

I write in a blue room at the very top and back of my house, sitting in front of a double window that looks out over many acres of fields and forest. Birds fly by at eye level. It’s lovely. My first book took only five weeks for the first draft and I worked on it every day, straight through. THE TASTE OF AIR has been rewritten three times and took a total of five years, with several stops and starts. After the first draft, I took started looking around for an online writing group because I needed feedback, and I found HarperCollins website for authors, Authonomy. Unfortunately, that site is closed now, but it’s where I originally started the Women’s Fiction Critique Group (WFCG), which has since moved to WriteOn. I find it incredibly helpful to be critiqued by other serious writers in the same genre. If you get a dozen or more opinions all at once, you can see the trends and understand which comments are personal taste vs. which views are held in common, and clearly identify flaws in the work. At that point, I make a judgment call and go with whichever path seems both practical and likely to take care of the unresolved issues. I think about the audience for the book all along, starting from the first draft of the first chapter. I shape the voice and the story with that in mind.

You run an online critique group for writers of women’s fiction. What has that group meant to you as a writer?

Yes, I mentioned the WFCG above. It has meant an enormous amount to me, in terms of making friends like you, Katie, who I met there on Authonomy, and because access to the group mind has been invaluable. We share reviews, information, experiences, leads, jokes and sympathy. There are several writers’ groups locally where I live, but they are for all genres. I am much more interested in having my work critiqued by authors who like to read similar books, rather than by writers who enjoy science fiction or detective stories, for example. By going online, we’ve been able to collect WF authors from around the world, and many current and past members of the group are doing really well, I’m glad to say.

Your new novel, The Taste of Air, is being released today. What is the book about and who should read it?

The Taste of Air is the story of two sisters who discover their mother has been hiding a secret life for over forty years. When Mary Reilly turns up in a hospital hundreds of miles from the senior community where she lives, Nell and Bridget find out she has a lakeside cottage in Vermont, a Westie named Winston, and a set of complex relationships with people her daughters have never met. The family drama plays out from the middle of the 20th century into the present, revealing the sacrifices all three women have made and the secrets they carry.

If you ever wondered what your mother is really like, you should read this book. It’s a family saga with mystery/historical elements, exploring the woman’s journey through three strong main characters. Readers of Sarah Jio, Kate Morton, Susan Wiggs and Luanne Rice will enjoy this story.

What’s your next project?

I’m working on the second draft of something much lighter called “Love & Chocolate, a romance with recipes.” It’s the story of a young woman who has been burned by a bad marriage, and tries to protect her heart by substituting chocolate and cybersex for the real thing. Every chapter ends with a chocolate recipe, or a bit of cocoa trivia. This book is nearly finished and I hope to have it out next year.

I’m also working on a sequel to The Taste of Air. A young girl introduced at the very end of the first book becomes the main character of the second, and the saga of the Reilly clan continues.

More information about Gail Cleare can be found on her website.


Interview with Author Jim Nelson

jim_nelson_author_photoJim Nelson’s new novel, The Bridge Daughter, was released last month. This alternate history/science fiction tale is a bit of a departure for him genre-wise and he talked to me about that and about his writer’s journey.

Do you know what genre you are going to write in before you start, figure it out as you go, or only decide what it is after it’s finished?

For Bridge Daughter, the genre kind of came and found me. The idea of a world where bridge girls are surrogates for their mothers, carrying their mothers’ child to birth, is not subject matter I’d normally write, but I was fascinated with the concept and the character. When I put it all together and began writing chapters, I realized it would be considered science or speculative fiction. But I wasn’t thinking of that when I started.

What other genres do you write in and did you write in that genre since you began writing?

I was a huge science fiction fan in my youth, but other than a terrible short story I wrote decades ago, I never took a stab at writing in the genre. Most of my work would be considered straight-ahead fiction, although some of it veers into the absurd (Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People, my short story “A Concordance of One’s Life”).

Writing Bridge Daughter has made me re-think writing science fiction, and I’m now sketching ideas for another book in the genre. Going back to science fiction feels a little like returning to my hometown as an adult an re-seeing it all through new eyes.

When did you begin writing and when did you decide to work toward publication? What has that journey been like?

I grew more serious about my writing when I was in my late 20s. I’d started a web site in 1995, what we’d today call a blog, but this was before that word existed. Writing regularly for it got me thinking of authoring stories and novels. My first serious attempt at a novel (Edward Teller Dreams) I started in 1999, although I only published it in 2014, so that gives you an idea of how rocky the journey’s been.

Do you read in the same genre(s) you write in? Are there particular authors who inspire you?

One science fiction author who inspired Bridge Daughter in an oblique way was William Gibson, a writer I admire a great deal. His early cyberpunk novels were a blast of fresh air in the 1980s. I was especially drawn to their near-future feeling, the way their world did not seem wildly alien to the world we lived in back then, just more gritty and claustrophobic. His world was the 1980s fast-forwarded instead of a new world invented from the top down. That partially inspired me to set Bridge Daughter in a world almost exactly as our own, save for the biological difference.

Tell us a bit about your most recent book. Can you share an excerpt?

Bridge Daughter regards a 13 year-old girl named Hanna who learns she is a “bridge daughter,” that she has been carrying her mother’s fetus since birth. In a few months she will grow visibly pregnant, give birth, and die, leaving her parents with their “real” child. Hanna refuses to accept her fate and is determined to find a way to live to adulthood.

Hanna had a vague idea about bridge parties. She’d heard the term many times. She knew it didn’t involve cards, that was a nervous slip on her part. She also knew a bridge party was for adults and not children. In particular, it was not for the bridge daughter, at least in the sense that the bridge daughter did not participate in it.

Family television shows often featured episodes about bridge parties. Hanna never understood the fuss. The bridge daughter would sit off to the side staring into the camera, pregnant and mute, as she always did in these TV shows. Family and neighbors arrived at the house with food, flowers, and wine. Every so often, the bridge daughter would rise from her isolated chair and go about the party gathering dirty plates and discarded wrapping paper. If the party went late, the bridge daughter would be sent to her bedroom while the revelry continued.

Often in these television shows some major dramatic moment would occur. The family doctor, Scotch-and-soda in hand, would let slip he’d diagnosed the father with cancer. Or the eldest sister would announce she’d been accepted to a prestigious university like Harvard or Stanford. The bridge daughter never spoke, of course. On television, everything important happened to other people, never the bridge daughter.

Hanna never quite understood why they were called “bridge parties.” The bridge daughter had little to do in these TV shows. She stood to one side while the rest of the family went through their weekly crises and upheavals. The bridge daughter served dinner and cleaned the house and answered the door when the bell rang. On shows set in the costumed past, she darned socks and tended the sheep pen and threw logs on the fire when the flames drew low. Even that afternoon at the bakery, a few bridge daughters were helping their mother with the day’s errands. Mute and deferential, clad in neutral-color dresses and soft-soled shoes, they were easily overlooked, but not by Hanna.

To learn more about Jim, check out his website.


Interview with Author Alison Boulton

Years ago, I discovered a book called Tom’s Daughters on a writing website and it was so good that I bought a version when it was self-published. It was the first e-book I ever purchased and remains one of the best I’ve read. I still remember the characters like they were real people. So when I heard that the author, Alison Boulton, was publishing a second novel – I jumped at the chance to do an interview.

KO: What did you learn about self-publishing from your first book? How are things different this time around?

AB: An acquaintance suggested that he helped me self-publish Tom’s Daughters as an e-book to see if he could ‘make us both a fortune.’ I was happy to accept this as it hadn’t been picked up despite being sent to numerous agents. I wasn’t comfortable negotiating the formatting and the technical stuff required to put in on Amazon for Kindle. He also did the cover from a photo I provided and set up a website. I think the deal was that he got 25% of revenues. The downside was that when sales were slow he lost interest and I got frustrated nagging for information and at not having control to update accounts myself.

This time round I wanted control from the beginning, and I also wanted a book that I could hold in my hand. I’ll put it on Kindle later, of course, but having the paperback makes publication and being a writer feel much more real. I think other people’s reactions have been more positive too.

KO: Where do you get your story inspiration from?

AB: For me a story starts with an image or a couple of images that are linked in some way. With Tom’s Daughters I wanted to write about sisters, but there was also the picture of a young woman with a small child in North London. The issue of the mysterious father was hovering in the background.

With Chasing Sunflowers it was again the image of a child, this time a boy, painting sunflowers for his mother. It was clear they were in Amsterdam where I also lived for a few years, and that the mother was lonely.

I then have to sit and try and work out the bones of a plot. Sometimes I write random scenes or conversations. Chasing Sunflowers was written first as a short story, but then it slowly grew into a novel, changing and developing in the process. The actual ending was the last thing to become clear.

KO: What kind of writer are you? Do you plot everything out before writing or does it evolve throughout the process? Do you force yourself to write every day? How long does it take to write a novel?

AB: The writing definitely evolves, but there has to be a certain amount of plotting too, plus a timeline of events. It always takes me a while at the beginning to sort dates out – how old was that character when this happened, etc.? And some thought must go into how the threads of the story entwine and unfold to keep the reader interested. There should, I think, always be some sort of denouement at the end. And I don’t really like sad endings, so I haven’t written one yet!

And it takes me ages to finish a novel, maybe even two or three years, because other stuff – like teaching and running our holiday complex – get in the way. I have to earn a living, unfortunately. I’m hoping the next one, currently called The Red Balloon, will be quicker though. And I do try to at least look at it every day but I don’t always succeed.

KO: Tell us about Chasing Sunflowers. Who is your audience?

AB: Chasing Sunflowers is the story of Kate, who moves to Amsterdam with her husband and young son. Lost and lonely in a new city, she develops a passion for the paintings of Vincent van Gogh. Her decision to study them leads her to artist Rudy de Jong and following in Vincent’s footsteps, she makes a trip to Arles which transforms her life.

So, it’s a book about a woman who steps outside her own life, and how the experience changes her. There’s quite a lot about Amsterdam, the south of France and Vincent van Gogh too.

My first audience is me, since it was me I told the story to first and I liked it. So after that people a bit like me, I suppose; usually female, maybe over 25, though my daughters who are 20 and 22 enjoyed it too.

KO: What are your favorite books?

AB: I mostly read books about ‘real’ people and characters in plausible situations. I’m not a fan of Magic Realism or Fantasy novels. I hate anything sensationalist, badly written or too soppy. I love Ian McEwan, AS Byatt, Anne Tyler, and Doris Lessing amongst many others. Some of Lessing’s writing is futuristic, but then I love the prophetic nature of her work. Also EM Forster; I always say Howards End is my favourite book. I don’t know if it’s really true but it’s definitely up there.

KO: Alison, thanks so much for sharing and best of luck with the new book.

Interview with Self-Published Author Kevin Keely

I “met” Kevin on, a site where writers support or compete with each other. (Sometimes both.) Kevin has a big personality behind that tiny avatar. He pulls no punches and takes no nonsense. He has the kind of blunt, unapologetic style that makes him a great writer and, I figured, a great interview. So I made him agree to sit down with me (virtually, I assume we were both sitting) and talk about the release of his new book, A Fistful of Salt, and his thoughts about the publishing industry.

Where are you from? Are the characters in your novel from the same place and does it factor into the story? Is place important?

I’m originally from Dublin, but I got away from there fifteen or more years ago when people started to go nuts on the Economic boom in the Noughties and my home town became inhabited by yuppy space aliens. Now I live in a rural cottage in the North West of Ireland. When I wrote the book I imagined Sligo Town, a small regional town and it’s environs, as being the setting. People who read the start might just recognise the initial descriptions, but I specifically didn’t want to get too parochial in the telling and exclude other people from being able to relate to it. But the characters are Townies through and through. Sligo was always a traditionally hard hit town, overlooked in many ways for a long time and the people have a humble yet proud resilience about them that I absolutely love. I drew from my own experiences driving taxis around here at night. The accents and the dryness of the humour, it was critical for me to include this in the story to give them an identity that I could paint in conversation and attitude. Most of the action takes place in France and I visited every location in the book and documented it in thousands of photos so as to ensure my executions of place are spot on. So you have these hard-necked Irish Townies against a backdrop of cosmopolitan France and the contrast was so much fun to write. People and place, definitely two of the most important facets of my story.

Okay, so tell me about your book. What is it about? What kind of audience is it for? Why should people read it?

Well they should read it because its an excellent story, why else? I specifically wanted to write a book with broad appeal across age and gender. I wanted the book to be the kind of thing you can read then pass to your husband and he can tell his mates down at the pub and they can tell their wives and mothers etc. It’s literally for anyone who just likes a good yarn about regular people getting themselves into a whole heap of trouble in a very short time. It’s a love story between an introverted cabbie and his childhood crush, who happens to be off the rails. But as they rapidly get themselves into hot water with some very evil villains their humanity inevitably begins to prevail over their societal roles and they become first friends and then lovers. It’s ultimately a story about human frailty and the fight played out in all out hearts between good an evil and how we sometimes fail but sometimes we succeed. It’s a feel good story with a lot of bad stuff in it. Pretty much the same as life.

How long did you spend writing this novel? When you began writing it, did you have a goal to publish? Did traditional publishing ever appeal to you and, if so, how many queries did you send and what made you stop?

I suppose It has taken me two years to get this far with it. I wrote it thinking if it was good enough surely someone will publish it. I structured it with the commercial market in mind, word count, chapter size and appeal so I thought I was writing a book that publishers would want. But I was naive about the state of play in the commercial market. So many “rules” for what the market wants. So after sending it to over twenty literary agents with no success I learned that I needed to take this book to the market myself with my own rules in mind. My main rule is that good writing makes good reading. I intend to see that one through regardless of what the experts preach.

What do you think about genre? Is it a helpful guide or a straight-jacket?
I think of it like sex. Some people like it one way, others like it another way, and most people just like it with a lot of action and a healthy amount of humour. So If you bring a straight jacket to your lover’s house then you’re going to get tied up and the best of luck to you. Me? I like to think passion and vigour are the greatest components to writing and sex. So that’s what I bring.
Give me an excerpt of your book that captures something meaningful about it.
The main character, Thomas Brody, remembers the conversation he had with his mother the night he found out Shelley, the object of his lifelong desire, was planning to marry another man.

     ‘Love won’t make you happy, Thomas, nobody else can fill in the missing piece for you.’ She put her hand on his chest. ‘You have to do that yourself.’
     ‘Okay then, I’ll do that over a pint—while I see can I figure out a way to break up this wedding. Shouldn’t be too hard if all she is is a liar and a thief.’ He winked at her as he slipped his jacket on. At the door she called to him and he stopped, looking back into the darkness of their home as she came from the kitchen.
     ‘Put out your hands, Thomas,’ she commanded.
     She tipped a drum of salt and filled them while she spoke. A science and history teacher for forty years in the tiny Protestant school, she had a lesson for even the most arbitrary of things.
     ‘After water and air, salt is the most precious necessity of life,’ she said.
     ‘Yeh?’ He looked in her stony white face and wished she would smile more. ‘Who said that then?’
     ‘A very wise Indian man.’ She stopped pouring and snapped the drum shut.
     ‘Sitting Bull.’ He smirked and watched her expression for any hint of weakness.
     ‘If you’re worth half of that by the time you die, you’ll have made me proud.’
     He went to walk away then stopped. ‘What am I supposed to do with this?’
     ‘Earn it,’ she said, and closed the door in his face.

The Writers Circle: Biggest Fan

One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

Today we want to know who your favorite author is.  Also, imagine you had the chance to ask your favorite author one question – and only one question – and they would answer it directly and personally for you…what would you ask them?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

Someplace in the World

WorldGlobesShariStories happen someplace in the world, but not just anyplace. Someplace special where I will take you. That’s the purpose of writing about specific locations and periods and incorporating them into our stories. We writers take our readers to places they may never have been at times they couldn’t have traveled. Try to imagine Khaled Hosseini’s young runner, Hassan, chasing a blue kite down the sidewalks of Parkway Avenue in Trenton, NJ rather than across the snaggletooth alleys of Kabul, Afghanistan before the revolution. Doesn’t have the same panache.  Or consider Charles Dickens’ famished Oliver Twist begging for soup from the cafeteria lady at the school lunchroom instead of the miserly master of a workhouse in 1800’s London. Not nearly as desperate. Floating in a hot air balloon over Albuquerque is a daily errand compared to the heart stopping thrill of racing around the world for 80 days at the imagination of Jules Verne. You can’t gallop the Pony Express in Manhattan or mush the Iditarod in the Everglades.

The places where our stories happen are as important as the characters that people them and the events that energize them. When well realized, each complements the others and creates memorable images that propel the plot. More, the plot is possible because of those locations. Even if you have never visited Kabul, Trenton, the Great Plains, Nome, or hitched a ride in a balloon gondola, you have a sense of the roiling sky above, the smell on the street, the sounds pummeling your ears, the motion that nearly makes you sick. Ignore location in your books and run the risk of readers dismissing your work. “Where in the world does this take place?” you can hear them ask, and if they do, you have failed.

How then, to include a genuine scene of the exotic or extinct in your story, to be in that place at that moment when you’re potatoing at your computer? My own stories have begun as much in a place as with a hero and a quest. They are lock stepped into a setting as distinctive and essential as The Great Wall is to China, into a period as horrific as the Inquisition is to 15th century Spain. The Inlaid Table was born in a shtetl in Poland between the two world wars and otherwise would have been a laminated TV tray. Where Did Mama Go? is as fastened to the current  zeitgeist of Alzheimer’s discourse as cell phones are glued to teenagers. The Tree House Mother would only have been a description of a backyard fort were it not for the twisting narrow roads that confounded fire departments when Lemon Heights burned in the 1960’s.

Our house was only a few miles from the center of that inferno. I remember the billowing black smoke that rained ashes on the flatlands where we lived. If there is an authentic voice to the fire in my story it’s because of a bit of luck forged years before. My parents were longtime friends with a couple who lived in the hills.  When the fire combusted, our family worried for everyone but we knew who we worried for the most. They were safe and their house stood, as it turns out, but many years later the woman proved an amazing source of first hand information. I recalled a lot about that week but I hadn’t been in the hills, a foot from flames. She had.

I phone-interviewed Anita for hours over several days and met with her in a restaurant where I could sense the anxiety she’d felt all those decades past. She told me things no one had reported, details that gave flesh to a skeleton of an event. About the lost fire trucks, the panicked horses, the police coming around twice to warn people to evacuate, the water department manager who stood on the roof of the building and watched the fire leap ridgelines.

Then she brought out a packet of newspapers in a plastic sleeve, an entire journalistic rehash for two weeks of detailed reporting, and allowed me to take them home. Studying those papers was a boon I couldn’t have planned. Small town reporters know that a once in a lifetime opportunity to write up something other than football scores and broken hydrants is to be mined for every ounce of fool’s gold and diamond dust, because it might be the only chance to move out of the minor leagues up to the real deal. The local newshounds honed their skills with attention to detail, accurate fact collecting worthy of the FBI, and local color so neon that everyone knew exactly who’d been interviewed and which houses burned. Thank you one and all, you young cubs, and I hope you went on to bylines and columns of your own.

I studied the papers, I re-wrote my notes, I pondered, and had plenty of true life detail to write into my otherwise fabricated story. My hero, a figment of my imagination, got sidelined by horses fleeing down the road. She gave directions to lost firemen. I know from personal experience the acrid scent of smoke, how hot are raging flames, but the frightened horses and lost firemen – that was the contribution of my friend, Anita. She doesn’t write stories but she remembered.

Do whatever you need to gather first person evidence. If you can’t interview Columbus or visit Spain, scour diaries, census records, personal letters, almanacs, ship registers, train schedules, old maps, and supply lists. Snoop where snooping will unearth something useful, even though you won’t know how useful till you’re writing. Get those facts and thread them into your story so your reader will smack his hand against his head and declare, “Feels like I’m right in the middle of this.”

Be well, friend.