IT’S VHP WEEK ON SMOKY TALKS BOOKS!
I had the privilege of sitting down and interviewing nine other Vanilla Heart Publishing authors recently. We talked about writing; we talked about books. We got to know each other a bit better, and now, you can get to know us all better!
Read the interview. post a comment, and you’re automatically entered to win an eBook by one of these terrific authors. Free eBooks! What could be better than that!
I invited all VHP authors to take part in a Q & A session with me where they could talk about themselves and their books. Nine authors choose to participate: Malcolm R. Campbell, S R Claridge, Melinda Clayton, Charmaine Gordon, Robert Hays, Collin Kelley, Marilyn Celeste Morris, Vila Spiderhawk, and Janet Lane Walters. Some were chattier than others, as you will see! They write in a variety of genres: romance, mystery and suspense, contemporary, fantasy; you name it, they write it, because they are a gifted bunch of writers.
Our publisher thinks so, too. Kimberlee Williams, who is Vanilla Heart, said, “Vanilla Heart Publishing is very proud of our authors! Can you tell? They continue to amaze us with the quality of their writing, the storylines they work so hard to develop, the flow and easy readability of their novels, multi-dimensional characters with a depth of character that includes flaws and quirks readers can relate to, their energy and enthusiasm, and their fabulous ideas for the next manuscript.”
It was a delight, talking with these other members of the Vanilla Heart family, and getting to know them better. Without further ado, here is how our discussion unfolded:
Smoky: I’m so happy you nine chose to participate in VHP Day. As many of you know, I used to be a community college community education writing instructor. In fact, my book Front-Word, Back-Word, Insight Out is the workshop I taught in book form. One thing I used to tell my students was, to be a writer, you have to want to write because you can’t not write. So what is it, other than not being able to not write, that led you to a career as a writer?
Collin: While my friends wanted to be firemen and astronauts, I always wanted to be a writer. I started writing stories when I was a kid and made an attempt at a novel in my teens, but when I discovered the poetry of Anne Sexton, Alice Walker, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Stan Rice I fell in love with poetry. I honed my writing style with poetry, and I try to carry that over into the novels.
Janet: I started writing as a child as a child too, Collin, and dabbled off and on during my growing years. In 1968 I sold my first short story, but I still mostly dabbled. After a stint as a nurse to help put my children through college I returned to writing full time.
Charmaine: While performing in The Fourth Commandment Off Broadway a few years ago, I had an idea for a story. I wrote two pages and sent them to my youngest son. He said, “Nice, Mom. How about writing a few more pages.” Not possible, I thought. I had no experience and nothing to say. He threw out the challenge and I bit. A computer purchased so I didn’t have to use a quill and bottle of ink, son set up margins and gave me a flying course in use of said computer, and I was off and running. By the time the play ended, I had written 72,000 words. Proves a point. You want to do something, do it.
Robert: I loved to read from the time I first learned how, and love of writing seemed to flow naturally from that. I began writing little stories in the second grade. In high school, I liked my creative writing class and, later, a journalism course. After a stint in the U.S. Army I went to Southern Illinois University and earned a journalism degree. I enjoyed being a reporter very much and eventually went into journalism teaching. When I retired from that, I returned to creative writing and published my first novel at age 73.
Malcolm: My father was a journalism professor, textbook author and reviewer. His typewriter seemingly churned out books and articles 24/7. My becoming a writer happened more through osmosis than choice. I had supportive parents and supportive high school teachers. My favorite writing teacher at Florida State University was author Michael Shaara who ultimately won the Pulitzer Prize for his civil war novel The Killer Angels. We met once a week in his home where we sat on the living room floor with coffee and snacks and talked about our work. His approach to writing influenced me a lot and, as it turns out, The Killer Angelsis my favorite book. His son, Jeff—who was just a little kid when I first met him—ultimately became a bestselling author of well-written historical military fiction.
Vila: I didn’t choose to be a writer. Writing has been almost a compulsion from the time I could hold a crayon. I have written all my life, and all my life people have told me that I absolutely had an obligation to publish. And all my life I fought against that. Then years ago someone published a poem I wrote in French. The thing won a prize. No one was more shocked than I was. After I took a course with a woman who required me to write short stories, she nagged me mercilessly to publish them. That’s how Hidden Passages was born.
S R: I don’t think it was a choice for me either, Vila, as much as it started as an emotional outlet after my grandmother died. Then just became a way of life.
Melinda: For me it was a favorite book. When I was around eight years old, I read Heidi, by Johanni Spyri. I’m not sure what it was about that book, but ever since then I could picture myself sitting up on a mountain somewhere and writing a book.
Smoky: Me, too, Melinda—both on the favorite book account and picturing myself writing on a mountain top. For me, that favorite book was Harriet the Spy. I even started running around, writing down observations in a notebook like Harriet did. Being only eight or nine years old, I quit doing that after a few weeks, but it did give me good practice for my future life as a journalist. And with where I live now, at least I’m writing on the side of a foothill, if not the top of the mountain.
That leads me to my next question: if you couldn’t write, what would you be doing to express your creative self?
That question led to a bunch of blank screens. It would appear that VHP authors can’t imagine being anything other than writers! Finally, S R and Robert spoke up.
S R: If time allowed (and it doesn’t right now with two young kids at home) I would get back to performing in theatrical productions, which has always been a true passion of my heart.
Robert: If I couldn’t write I’d love to be a musician—which is highly problematic because I have no musical training nor ability!
Smoky: I can identify with that, Robert. I always wanted to be a singer, but when my son was a tiny boy of about two, I was singing him to sleep one night, and he stuck his tiny fist in my mouth and with a solemn expression said, “Mommy no sing.” It was a statement of fact, not a question!
Okay, that question didn’t go over so well, did it? Let’s switch gears. What inspires all of you?
Charmaine: I wake up in the morning and look out the window, thankful to greet another day. This alone is an inspiration.
Melinda: People, without a doubt. I spent many years working as a psychotherapist, and I’ve always been fascinated by the way we make decisions. What thought processes do we go through? Why do some people make good decisions, and some bad? That fascinates me.
Smoky: I agree, Melinda. My degree is in psychology, and my fascination with the human personality inspires my character creation. In On the Choptank Shores, I tried to use that knowledge of human personality to show why my antagonist, Luther, made his bad decisions. How about the rest of you?
Vila: Many things inspire me. Life inspires me. I walk out into the woods and I’m inspired. I hear a turn of phrase and I’m inspired. I hear a piece of music and I’m inspired. I’ve even gotten inspiration from jokes.
Smoky: It’s hard not to be inspired by a walk in the woods, I agree. I wrote a good portion of both my novels at a writers and artists colony in Southern Indiana. When I got stuck, all I had to do is take a walk through the forest and meadows, and within minutes, I’d have the problem worked out.
Robert: I’m inspired by someone else’s great writing. It makes me want to write better, develop better characters, and tell better stories.
Collin: I get mine from music, films, and travel. My novels, Conquering Venus and Remain in Light, would not have been possible without visiting England and France, which is where most of the action takes place. The people I met on those adventures have all found their way into my novels (and poetry). Arrivals and departures have always been a catalyst for me.
S R: I get my inspiration from anything and everything. Sometimes it’s simply a song,a word someone says, a dream, something I’ve read or heard. Sometimes it’s nothing short of divine intervention, plopping ideas into my head to jump-start me out of a dry spell.
Smoky: Speaking of inspiration, I think most of us would agree we get a lot of inspiration from the books we read. Malcolm just mentioned The Killer Angels by his former professor and Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Shaara is his favorite book. For the rest of you, what is your favorite work of fiction, and why is it your favorite?
S R:I honestly don’t have a favorite. I like so many!
Janet: I have no real favorites either, but I will admit to reading Pride and Prejudice and Jane Austin’s other books a number of times. I’ve also read all of Tolstoy, including War and Peace, twice. But then I’ve been reading since I was three.
Vila: I doubt that I could choose a single favorite work of fiction. I like many for entirely different reasons. I like Dickens and Rice for their descriptions. I like Sartre and Camus for their explorations of philosophy. I like Flaubert for his precision with language. I like Alice Walker for her colloquial dialogue. Each author, indeed each book, offers something to be admired. Even if I’m not particularly fond of a particular book overall, I find I can learn something valuable from each one.
Melinda: As far as contemporary fiction goes, I love anything Barbara Kingsolver or Anita Shreve. But favorite ever? Maybe East of Eden, although I love all of Steinbeck. He was a master at exploring human motivations and choices.
Robert: I like stories with everyday people in everyday settings as heroes. I consider Kent Haruf the best of contemporary fiction writers because his characters and settings could be any of us, in the places we live, facing the difficulties of life. And the triumphs, too, of course. But Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is still my favorite work of fiction. Ma Joad is perhaps the most perfect character ever created, the story is compelling, and the book has the most unforgettable ending yet. This work is as readable today as it was when I first read it many years ago because stories about the human condition never become outdated.
Smoky: I love Barbara Kingsolver too, Melinda, especially The Poisonwood Bible. Her last novel, though, The Lacuna, I didn’t feel was up to her usual standards of excellence. I guess even our favorite authors can write sub-par books. And Robert, I agree with you about Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath containing a perfect character in Ma Joad. But I, too, have trouble coming up with a single favorite book, but if pressed I usually answer Death With Interruptions by Jose Saramago. What a brilliant author that man was.
Let’s talk a bit about genre. I initially promoted my first novel, Redeeming Grace, as women’s fiction, and to a lesser extent, historical fiction, because it is set in the 1920s. VHP recently re-released it with a new title, On the Choptank Shores, and we are now marketing it as romance suspense, which is a whole new thing for me, as I don’t often read romance or romantic suspense. I’ve written three nonfiction books, too. What about all of you? What genre do you prefer to write in, and what led you to writing in that genre?
Robert: I probably don’t qualify as a genre author. In my fiction, I tell a story that I want to tell and it may not fit well into any particular genre. My first three novels all have elements of romance, because I believe that love is a basic human emotion that plays a role in all our lives. But I don’t—and probably couldn’t—write genre romance. My newest work, Blood on the Roses, is about the ugliness of bigotry and probably doesn’t fit any particular genre very well.
Janet: I write in a number of genres: mystery, suspense, romance (from sweet to spice), historical, fantasy from YA to adult, paranormal (reincarnation and alternate worlds). I’ve also published nonfiction books, poems and short stories. I guess one might say I write what I like to read, and I read a lot.
S R: Me too, Janet. I write mystery/suspense, because that’s my favorite genre to read.
Collin: Poetry and fiction are equal for me.
Smoky: I’ve read some of your poetry, Collin. You are a gifted poet.
Malcolm: I’m a curmudgeon when it comes to genres. I don’t like being pigeonholed or having to worry about the “rules” for each genre, sub-genre, and dual-genre. I always tell people I write mainstream fiction. If I put a genre label on it, I’ll attract some readers while chasing others away. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Smoky: We’d expect nothing less, Malcolm! But you aren’t the curmudgeon you sometimes pretend to be. Come on, admit it. But back on topic, what about fantasy? My book, The Cabin, is historical fantasy. Any other fantasy writers here?
Vila: I write what people like to call fantasy. I dislike that label, since to me the work is spiritual. In fact, I would very much prefer to categorize my work as women’s spirituality, if it must be categorized at all. I write this genre because that is what the characters of my current series dictate. When I write, I channel my characters. I see what they see, feel what they feel, smell, taste, hear, everything that they are experiencing. My stories are actually their stories, and so I need to tell their stories as they would have them told. Thus far, that has been in the fantasy genre. However, if a character wanted to tell me a romantic story, I’d write a romance. If she or he wanted to tell me an adventure story or a mystery, I’d write that. I am merely the conduit through which these people come. The genre really is up to them.
Smoky: I think most of us would agree on that last point, Vila. I know that when I wrote On the Choptank Shores it started out being a very different tale than the one I had envisioned. But the characters took over, wanting to tell their own story. And since the book was their story, I let them. I’m not about to ask you which of your books is your favorite. I know that’s like asking a mother or father which of their children is their favorite! But can you identify which of your characters is your favorite?
Melinda: Billy May Platte, without a doubt, because of the struggles she faced and the grace with which she faced them. In spite of everything she went through, she never lost herself
S R: Angel Maratinzano from the “Just Call Me Angel” series is my favorite because we get to watch her grow and find inner strength. She’s feisty and powerful, more powerful than she even knows.
Janet: My favorite characters are always the ones in the project I’m working on. Like you said, Smoky, mothers shouldn’t have favorites, and I look on the people in my stories as my mind-children.
Collin: In Conquering Venus, it has to be Diane Jacobs. She’s the cynical, sarcastic teacher who has absolutely no filter on her mouth. Writing her dialogue is fun because she’s the least like me of any of the characters in the novel. She has an even bigger part in the next book, Remain in Light, and I’m pleased to say she’s even more unhinged and opinionated than before.
Marilyn: I have two of them. The first is Trudy Cavanaugh, from The Women of Camp Sobingo. She marries her college sweetheart and finds herself thrust into the media spotlight along with her father-in-law, a powerful publisher who takes her under his wing, mentors her until she takes over as chairman of the board. Her inner strength emerges, and this shy, small town girl becomes a full-blown businesswoman of the 1950s, which was a rarity at that time. The second is Esther Wooster, who was a minor character in The Unexplored Heart, but lately has demanded a book of her own. She is the wife and researcher for her famous archaeologist husband, Charles Wooster. She is a thorough researcher of history, “disabusing my back in any number of hostels while on a wild goose chase,” and when she returns and presents her research on any quest her husband is considering, she minces no words about the futility of that quest. But when she strikes gold, historically speaking, she shares in her husband’s discoveries, while remaining in the background.
Charmaine: Carly Evans in Now What? is the one character closest to me, although I do love all my woman and some of the men (yowsah!) a lot. Carly experiences the sudden loss of her husband and must learn to live single when she’s been part of a doubles team for many years. Her journey is one that must be taken one foot in front of the other, even though the spirit of her husband calls to her.
Robert: If I absolutely had to choose just one, I think it would be Mack Brown, the used-car dealer in Circles in the Water who gives young Jimmie Broder his first job and becomes an importance influence. Mack came about more or less by accident; I needed a character to help carry the story at a given point and hurriedly created Mack out of thin air. I think that gave me the freedom to sculpt Mack as I wanted him to be, rather than forcing him into a preconceived mold. He’s a bit of a gossip and loves to stick his nose into everyone’s business, but he’s also generous and caring and you know he has Jimmie’s best interests at heart.
Smoky: I remember Mack—he was a terrific character. How about you, Vila? Do you have a favorite character from your Forest Song trilogy?
Vila: I couldn’t really choose a favorite character. I love each one, even the ones who aren’t on the surface particularly lovable. Once I become that character, as I always do, I see inside and understand what makes her or him tick. I feel each one’s disappointments and triumphs, her or his shame and pride. Each one is a special friend of mine, and I couldn’t choose one to prize over all the others. Each has trusted me with the most intimate details of his or her life. Each one is precious to me.
Smoky: How do you research the settings for your book(s)? For example, have you visited all the settings you’ve written about? Do you read other books set in the same locales?
Vila: In some cases I have visited, even lived in, the places I write about. In other instances I have merely read about them. Three of the five books of fiction I currently have on the market are written about Poland during the World War II era. And that requires research. So I gather up books that cover the era—biographies and histories and whatever else I can get my hands on—and I immerse myself in them. And then there’s my good friend Google.
Robert: To the extent possible, I use settings I know about. Natural settings, especially, help give a story an authentic identity. But it’s always essential to do some follow-up research—things change, and a place I visited a decade ago won’t look the same today. I look for contemporary sources of information, everything from books and newspapers to the Internet, hoping that what I describe is what the reader actually would see and feel if she or he were suddenly dropped into that setting at this very moment.
Collin: I’ve had the extraordinary opportunity to actually visit all the locales in my novels. Last summer, I was invited to guest lecture at Worcester College at Oxford University in the UK, and from there I went on to Paris, where I did research and wrote a large part of Remain in Light. To be able to sit and write in a park in Paris and incorporate your characters into what you see around you is one of the most exhilarating feelings I’ve ever had.
Smoky: And one that makes me insanely jealous, Collin. And I’m not the jealous type.
S R: I tend to place my characters in settings that are familiar to me. For example: No Easy Way takes place in Kansas, where I used to live. The “Just Call Me Angel” series is based in Chicago, which is one of my all-time favorite cities. I visit there at least once a year. All my novels make reference to my Alma Mater, Mizzou, and my characters have an affinity toward my favorite restaurants from college. For example, Murrys, where Tom and Kate get engaged in No Easy Way, is the same restaurant where my husband proposed to me.
Melinda: Two of my novels are set in West Virginia. My mother’s family is from outside of Charleston, and my grandfather was a coal miner. I had to do some research into West Virginia history, but I’m lucky in that we visited West Virginia every summer when I was growing up, and my mother has been invaluable in helping me figure exactly where the fictional town of Cedar Hollow is located. Sometimes we forget it’s fictional. After one long conversation after we were plotting on a map, my mother remarked, “Oh, I’ve driven through there many times.”
Smoky: My novels are set in Maryland and in Virginia. Like you, Melinda, these are places I visited every summer while growing up. Windy Hill Orchard in On the Choptank Shores was a real place; it was my uncle’s orchard. And the cabin in my novel The Cabin belonged to my triple-great granddaddy Benjamin. I guess a lot of writers must draw inspiration from childhood settings and experiences.
The next thing I’m curious about it, what do you think is the most important thing for your books to accomplish: to entertain, to educate, to instill moral values, or to enlighten? Why?
Malcolm: I like reading a good story. Good stories speak for themselves, I think, when we look at what they “accomplish” in addition to entertainment. Three of my novels are set in Glacier National Park. While one might say that my descriptive detail educates readers about the Rocky Mountains, that’s not my first duty. The detail is there because it figures into the storyline and/or because it impacts what the characters are doing and thinking. I’ll leave moral values to the preachers and enlightenment to the gurus. Whenever the choices my characters make when faced with important issues have a positive impact on my readers, I’m honored to know that they “got it” and felt moved to ponder it long after finishing the story.
Melinda: I feel pompous saying it, but I hope my books can enlighten in some way. Appalachian Justice deals with homosexuality, prejudice, abuse, and ultimately hope. Return to Crutcher Mountain encompasses some of the issues adult survivors of abuse face, and also introduces characters that have developmental disabilities. It would be wonderful if either books helps inspire compassion or understanding in some way.
Smoky: I don’t think that sounds pompous at all.
Vila: First and foremost, I want my books to be honest. It is very important to me that I tell the character’s story as she or he wants it told. As for the reader, I want her or him to think about my work. I want him or her to read my work and find a new way of looking at an issue. Of course, if a book isn’t also entertaining, no one will read it, and so I make sure that the story grabs and pulls the reader in. It is entirely possible, even essential, to write books that are both entertaining and thought provoking. In fact, I personally don’t find entertaining the books or movies or plays that don’t make me think.
Marilyn: The most important thing I want to do for my readers is entertain, and if they become educated along the way, that is a bonus. I hope they find my characters believable and entertaining, and even if they are not even mildly interested in the subject matter, I hope they gain some insight into certain areas of history.
S R: Definitely to entertain. My hope is that a reader will lose themselves in the story and enjoy the temporary escape from reality. I want my novels to keep readers on the edge of their seats, with their hearts racing and when it’s over they are flushed with both excitement and a serious sense of longing for the next book.
Janet: Books are to entertain and if other things sneak in that’s great. I’m never on a soap box and really dislike books that attempt to educate or instill moral values with a heavy hand. Books are generally a way to escape and perhaps to learn something, but subtly, not with a sledgehammer.
Smoky: I know it’s hard to toot your own horn, so think back to a time someone else tooted it for you! What’s the best compliment you’ve received as a writer?
Collin: That my dialogue and settings are realistic. I’ve written a few screenplays and stage plays, so I’ve honed my ear for dialogue and I pay close attention to how people speak and try to translate that into the characters. Stilted, over-explanatory dialogue gets under my skin. Having visited Paris a few times now, I feel like I’ve captured the city in a way that goes beyond the usual tourist sites and landmarks. I tried to dig deep into the gritty underworld of Paris. I’ve tried to explode that whole romantic “city of light and love” myth and present a modern take on Paris.
Vila: People tell me all the time that they get lost in my books, that when they read my work, the rest of the world melts away and they are totally immersed in the story. That’s nice to hear, since that’s what I want for them. But on occasion someone tells me that I gave her or him a new way of thinking about something. That is golden. That is simply the best!
S R: “Your novels belong on the big screen,” and an agency said, “I wish we had her under contract,” referring to the “Just Call Me Angel”series. I was glowing.
Melinda: It came from my father, actually. After reading Appalachian Justice he said it stayed with him for days. He wanted to help Billy May, and he was so happy that she found some peace and happiness in the end. My father is an ultra-conservative retired minister, so for me to write something that caused him to cheer for the protagonist and want her to find happiness, even though her lifestyle was counter to his beliefs, was pretty amazing to me.
Charmaine: This review left on Amazon by a reader moved me to tears: Charmaine Gordon’s books are a “must read” for those who have experienced a loss in their lives, whether through death, abandonment, or divorce. The reader will so identify with the women in her books, who struggle, through their shock and trauma, to find the courage and inner strength they never knew they had, to face the future, and to create a meaningful life as the much stronger person they had never known they were. Her books are written with so much color, so much spiritual and emotional intensity, that you’ll never look at life in the same way again. I am eagerly awaiting the publication of her next book.
Smoky: And on that high note, our VHP Day discussion comes to an end. If you would like to learn more about these authors, you can check them out at the links below. Remember to leave a comment to be eligible to win a free eBook! Winners will be posted this evening.
Also, feel free to post a question for our authors, if you have one. We’ll post the answer for you ASAP. Thank you for attending VHP Day!
Vanilla Heart Publishing: http://www.vanillaheartbooksandauthors.com/
Smoky Trudeau Zeidel: http://smokyzeidel.wordpress.com
Malcolm R. Campbell: www.malcolmrcampbell.com
S R Claridge: http://www.authorsrclaridge.com/
Melinda Clayton: http://authormelindaclayton.xanga.com/
Charmaine Gordon: http://authorcharmainegordon.com
Robert Hays: http://home.comcast.net/~roberthayswriter/site/
Collin Kelley: http://www.collinkelley.com
Vila Spiderhawk: http://www.vilaspiderhawk.com/
Janet Lane Walters: http://wwweclecticwriter.blogspot.com