How I made my writing career – novelist, playwright, photographer, actor Steve Zettler @szettlerauthor

How do you become a fiction writer? For some people, it’s almost by accident. That’s how it was for Steve Zettler, but after a series of cosy mysteries, another series of thrillers and a play, he seems to have found a good groove. His latest title, Careless Love, puts romance and thriller together, and is released today.  

Roz Steve, you’re a photographer, actor and author. And according to your website you have an even wider CV. In the great tradition of adventurous arty folk, you’ve done an encyclopaedia of jobs. To pick a few: bricklayer, bartender. And that’s just the Bs.

Steve Ha! I read this as BS.

Roz I had a feeling you would.

Let’s continue being predictable. Those jobs must have given you great material.

Steve It’s been an interesting ride, which has left me penniless on more than one occasion. I’ve always travelled in whatever direction the wind is blowing, even from an early age. There’s never been anything that vaguely resembled a master plan; I’ve never once considered where I might be, what I might be doing, at age 40 or 50. Thus the endless list of assorted occupations – I get bored easily and don’t like going in reverse, so it’s always been something different, a new way to pay the bills. It’s put me in close proximity with a whole gaggle of very interesting people.

In the early 70s no one had come up with the term PTSD (they were still calling it shell-shock), but if they had labelled it PTSD I could have been one of their poster-boys. Seventeen months’ combat duty in Vietnam had left my brains resembling scrambled eggs and I found photography to be the perfect escape. I was a freelancer in NYC and it allowed me to live a life where I spoke to almost no one. It took me about seven years to become a socially acceptable animal.

The downside of freelancing; I was broke most of the time and needed to tend bar, drive a taxi etc to pay the bills. But photography forced me to become a consummate observer, which I’ve been to this day. So with all of the twists and turns my life has taken I’ve been able to study a very divergent assortment of people and landscapes. And I’ve never ceased to be fascinated by what I see and hear.

I ended up doing a lot of photography for theatre companies and taking headshots for actors. One theatre company was doing a children’s show and an actor injured himself. They were in need of a warm body and asked me to take his place. They neglected to tell me that the Handsome Prince was blind as a bat and we would have a sword fight, but I lived through it and this kicked off my acting career.

So I was now a new person with a new title; the wind had taken me elsewhere. I threw all my black and white negatives in the trash and sold my cameras.

And by the way, acting is a fabulous training ground for writers. I’ve often suggested just that to fellow writers; take an acting class, get to know your characters from the inside out, live their lives.

Roz Yes! I’ve often thought this while polishing dialogue. You have to know what it’s like to be the character. Also, know why it’s good to be them, especially if their actions aren’t nice. But I’ve never had the chance to discuss this with an actor. Glad you raised this.

Steve Anyway, I worked as an actor for a number of years in NYC and Los Angeles. My wife was an actor as well but when we moved to LA she began to write. Her first novel was published by Simon and Schuster, and her agent was the infamous Irving ‘Swifty’ Lazar. We moved to an island off the coast of Connecticut. The wind just blew us back east. But there wasn’t a lot there, acting-wise, so I started to write. And this will annoy the hell out of every writer who reads this: I simply gave my first novel to my wife’s agent and he got me a two-book deal. I remember thinking, holy crap, I’m going to have to write another book.

Roz Holy crap, indeed. So that’s how writing became ‘the thing’?

Steve I never did give up acting and photography altogether; I bought another camera when things went digital. I now live in Philadelphia. My passion for stage acting has left me but I work with young filmmakers getting their careers off the ground and the occasional independent film shooting in the area. It’s more of a desire to mix it up with the younger generation than anything else. Their energy is contagious, even though the money’s short.

Photography-wise, I generally do stuff for free, unless it’s a commercial entity. Since everything is now digital it’s easy enough for me to help an organization, or author, or actor, with photos and send jpegs. There’s no longer the cost of film or the annoyance of darkroom work, so why not help people?

Roz Were your family artistic in any way?

Steve Not remotely. My dad owned a bar/restaurant and we lived above it. It was in the county north of Philadelphia and was basically a country inn. It was a very rural and very charming place along the Delaware River and essentially a shack-up spot for New York writers, actors, directors and producers. Some crazy people drifted through when I was a kid. I would never mention who spent the night there, but I still have the guest registry from 1936 through 1965. Regular customers at the restaurant included Pearl Buck, John Dos Passos, Robert Frost, James Michener, Oscar Hammerstein and the like. I was much too young to know who they were, let alone converse with them, but they attracted quite a bit of attention when they walked in for dinner. It seemed like the life I wanted to live.

Roz What would you tell your 16-year-old self?

Steve I’m afraid the 16-year-old Stevie never listened to anyone or took anyone’s advice. He’d look at me and say. ‘What the hell do you know?’

I’ve made some really bad decisions in my life and had to live with them. In a strange way that has become a blessing. I don’t lie to myself. I guess if I told Stevie anything it would be to slow down a little. There’s a wonderful Billy Joel song called ‘Vienna’. I’d tell him to listen to it over and over. Unfortunately it wasn’t around when Stevie was 16.

Roz Your novels are mainly suspense thrillers – the Joe Bradlee series (Double Identity and The Second Man), also Ronin, a standalone thriller. Why that genre?

Steve I really enjoy the format, both in reading and writing. You know from the beginning who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy, and most likely, by the end, the good guy is going to crush the bad guy.

I love the ride of a thriller. You can go wherever you want. People walk into the story out of nowhere and you have to deal with them; give them a life and a purpose for being there. You can’t disregard them. You can’t tell them to get the hell out of your book because they won’t. They stay there and pester you until you give them that purpose. I think writing thrillers is as much of a joy ride for the writer as it is (hopefully) for the reader.

Roz What’s the characteristic flavour of a Zettler thriller?

Steve I take nothing too seriously. My protagonists are always self-deprecating and I can’t seem to prevent myself from pointing out some of the lunacy that exists in the world. Hypocrites are often my favourite target.

Roz What’s the Steve writing method?

Steve I have to admit, I’m not a consummate writer. I can go a long time without writing a thing and it doesn’t bother me. I don’t have that burning desire to write. My wife does; I don’t. At some point I seem to get visited by a spirit that tells me to write and if that spirit is off fishing in Alaska I’m not going to write a damn thing. But then the spirit shows up and gives me the first sentence of a novel and informs me where the novel’s going to end and tells me to fill in the middle. If I don’t have that first sentence, I’m not going anywhere.

And interestingly the first sentence never remains anchored as the first sentence, but it always shows up in the novel somewhere; it becomes the driving metaphor.

Roz You also write crossword mysteries under the name Nero Blanc, with your wife, Cordelia Frances Biddle.

Steve There are 12 Nero Blanc titles. Each book contains a series of crossword puzzles – solve the puzzle, solve the crime. Crossword puzzles are black and white, thus the pen name; nero is black in Italian, blanc is white in French.

The mysteries fall into the ‘cosy’ category, meaning no swear words, no sexual situations. There’s a cute couple who solve the crimes, with sort of a Nick and Nora relationship. They have a lot of fun with one another, which is pretty much how Cordelia and I travel through life. More often than not at book signings people would say they didn’t bother with the puzzles; they only read the books as romance novels.

Roz Doh. Why didn’t I spot that?

Steve Cordelia and I had, for quite a while, been scouting for something we could write together; anything, travel books, cookbooks, whatever. Remember we were on this island with a lot of time. We were having lunch one day, sharing the crossword puzzle, when she got so frustrated she threw down the pen and said ‘Someone should just kill this guy’, referring to the person who had edited the puzzle. We were off and running.

Roz So it’s good, working with your spouse?

Steve Cordelia and I worked together as actors; that’s how we met. I’ve always maintained that acting teachers should understand that if they assign students a scene from La Ronde, those students are going to end up sleeping with one another to properly research their characters.

But once again, this acting background was invaluable when it came to collaborating as writers. As actors we had become very comfortable with taking direction. Directors can be very blunt. Actors need to listen and make it work, no matter how biting the criticism might be. Often Cordelia and I would act out dialogue scenes and write them as we had improved them. And the main characters were simply a reflection of our own relationship. We had a great time writing Nero Blanc together, but eventually wanted to get back to the swear words and sexual situations.

Roz Your latest novel, Careless Love, is published by Vine Leaves Press. How did you end up there?

Steve My thrillers and mysteries were published by big houses, and quite often, as I’m sure you know, literary fiction and poetry get the short end of the stick from the big boys. And their editors can be somewhat, shall we say, mercenary? They want you to stay on the horse you rode in on.

But it seemed with each book the editors became more and more hands off. I wanted a smaller, more personal, literary publisher, so that’s the direction I went. Vine Leaves Press was the first to respond to my query. They did so very quickly, which was tremendously encouraging. They were very positive, and I have to say they’ve proven to be far more supportive than my previous editors and publishers. Other publishers have since contacted me about Careless Love. There is something wonderful about being able to say, ‘Sorry,  that ship has sailed’.

Roz What inspired Careless Love?

Steve It came from my soul. It’s been bouncing around in there for decades. The spirit finally visited me, gave me the first sentence, and told me how the novel was going to end.

Roz What would readers of your previous work recognise in Careless Love?

Steve Oddly, it does almost have that thriller format, and I think readers of my previous work would enjoy it for that reason. But I would call it literary romantic suspense – is that a category? It is inspired by true events. Every incident in Careless Love has happened to me or someone I’ve been very close to.

Roz Why that title?

Steve It was inspired by a blues song written in 1921 by WC Handy. It’s been recorded by almost every blues singer since, but Madeleine Peyroux’s cover just brought it all home for me. There are some blues songs that really must be sung by a woman to hit the mark, and this one of them. It’s just two words, but they can be interpreted so many ways. My novel is very much a woman’s story. Like the song, I’ve interpreted careless love to mean that love is careless, it will grab your heart, rip it out and stomp on it if you’re not careful. But when you’re deeply in love it’s not so easy being careful.

Roz What’s coming next?

Steve I’m halfway through a memoir focused on the year I was eight years old, discovering my great aunt dead in her bedroom, living above my dad’s restaurant and rubbing elbows with the celebs out front and the down-and-outers who worked in the kitchen. It was a wonderful way to grow up.

Roz Rich material indeed. Give me some unzettling final words.

Steve A seminal moment was the day I returned to the US after my months of combat duty in Vietnam. As the other Marines filed into the terminal I dropped onto my knees and kissed the tarmac. This brought on a fair amount of laughter from the others, but I stayed there, on my knees, for some time. Eventually a lieutenant joined me and did the same thing.

He then said, ‘You know we’re a couple of lucky bastards, you and me’.

I said, ‘I’d guess we all are, sir’.

He responded by saying, ‘No, you and I are luckier that the rest’.

‘How’s that, sir?’

‘Because we know how lucky we are. They don’t.’

Find Steve on his website, on Facebook, on Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/stevezettlerauthor/

And tweet him on @sZettlerAuthor

Find Careless Love here

If you’re looking for writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Win a signed print edition of #EverRest

This novel I’ve been telling you about. You can win one of three signed copies by taking part in a simple game at the TripFiction website.

TripFiction is a massive online library that categorises books according to their setting. So if you have a yen for the Fens or a penchant for Peru, you can find the books to take you there. Ever Rest scores for a number of locations – Nepal, obviously, and closer to home (my home) you’ll find London and the hills of Shropshire.

If you’ve read my travel memoir Not Quite Lost, you might recall Craven Arms, the Shropshire town that Dave and I became trapped in on a bleak winter afternoon. I transplanted the Craven Arms experience into Ever Rest and created Bonnet, the depressing, provincial town that makes two of the characters desperate to bust out and do something remarkable with their lives.

To enter the giveaway, hop over to Tripfiction.

Back with a proper post tomorrow!

If you’re looking for writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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How do you like to talk about books? Themes, juxtapositions and the complication of being human – an interview at Late Last Night Books @L8NiteBooks

I have a Bachelor’s degree in English literature, but if I’m honest, I didn’t enjoy the course. However, I loved studying English literature in the final two years of school, at A level. (Note for non-Brits: you probably call this high school, age 16-18.)

My degree disappointed me because it was too wideswept; it seemed chiefly to value an author for the way they represented a historical period, a concern of the age or a step in the evolution of a form. I was disappointed because it gave little priority to the literary work itself – the novel, poem or play as a creation of beauty and power, enduring resonance and relevance.

But A level was mainly about appreciating the work. While context wasn’t ignored, each novel, poem or play was examined in its own right, as an entity worth detailed attention. We learned to notice how the author might be playing with our hearts and minds. We discussed themes and juxtapositions and narrative devices. We might have found patterns the author did not intend; we might have overthought things. That did not matter; decoding this richness was part of the joy, a quest to discover why this work enspelled us so. We were discovering a wondrous thing – the author’s craft.

I still love this. It’s my favourite way to talk about a book.

If you like that too, you might enjoy my interview here at Late Last Night Books,

The subject is Ever Rest and my interrogator is Garry Craig Powell, a former creative writing professor and author of the prizewinning short story collection Stoning The Devil (which you might remember from his appearance on The Undercover Soundtrack).

We talk about juxtapositions. Why I put this with that. The man frozen in the ice, as young as the day he went in, and the people who remember that day and are now 20 years older.

We talk about themes and narrative aims. We talk about places where we can be gods (playing music to a crowd of 10,000) and places where we are too fragile to survive (the top of Everest). We talk about love and death and loss, the massive complication of being human. And things I wasn’t aware of until Garry asked. Do come over.

Do bring your own questions too if you’ve already read the novel – or you can drop them in the comments here.

Would you enjoy Ever Rest? Here are a few reviews to help you decide.

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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On nailing your novel, finding your blind spots and writing with artistic integrity. And a few horses. Interview with @CarlyKadeAuthor

Today I’m at the online home of Carly Kade, an award-winning author and creativity coach who helps authors start and develop their writing careers.

We talk about writing, writing processes and deepening your craft by learning about your own blind spots – and strengths.

Carly was interested in my career as a ghostwriter. We talk about that and about the challenges of discovering my own voice after writing in the voices (and souls) of others. (I have a professional ghostwriting course if you want to know more.)

Whoa. You’ll have spotted the word ‘equestrian’ in the description. Carly’s own writing revolves around her lifelong love of horses – she writes the In The Reins series of equestrian romances. So we compare notes on being rider-writers, the particular challenges of horse life, how this affects our approach to writing problems… and probably the odd heartwarming anecdote. A mention of my novel Lifeform Three, too.

Our interview is also available on video – follow this link to find us on her YouTube channel. Though I’m afraid we couldn’t bring our horses to our computers for the recording so these pictures will have to do instead. Do trot over.

Meanwhile, I have a new novel out this month –Ever Rest. Find it in all print and ebook formats.

What’s it like? Here are a few reviews to help you decide.

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Comments from experts… how to use factual feedback wisely in your story (and not go mad when your plot falls apart)

For the novel I’ve just released, Ever Rest, I needed a lot of expert input. I consulted musicians, artists, doctors, priests, music lawyers, morticians… the most significant, of course, was mountaineers.

I’ve been reading about Everest, high-altitude climbing and lost climbers for more than 20 years. I also had help from my friend Peter Snell (my bookseller co-host on So You Want To Be A Writer), whose brother Robin went trekking in Nepal and sent a tireless stream of photos.

Robin sent me domestic details such as teahouse menus.

Loos.

Near the end of his trip, Robin had a brief mishap that required a hospital stay. Trooper that he is, he continued to send despatches. So even the scene in a Kathmandu hospital came from actual experience.

So I was well set up to write the Nepal sequences. But my ghostwriting experience has taught me to check everything, even when sure. For this, I was lucky to find a mountaineer who has summited Everest. And despite my painstaking care, he found numerous glitches that confirm the value of actual feet on the actual mountain.

Feedback can look daunting, especially when it runs to several pages. Especially when some might seriously disrupt the book.

I got to work.   

Small errors of terminology and fact

There were two ways I dealt with these.

1 – I marked the errors I should correct, lest I look like a numpty.

2 – I marked the errors I decided not to correct – these errors were made by characters who did not have specialist knowledge, and would credibly make the same mistakes as non-climber Roz. However, my expert was right and conscientious in pointing them out because he wanted to make sure I knew. If I knew, I could then decide if the character should know. Big takeaway – not all your characters will be experts.

Bigger problems that made plot sequences impossible

There were bigger problems. My expert made several suggestions for solutions, all ingenious. But none of them fitted my dramatic needs.

Sleepless night.

I looked again at my expert’s solutions. Some would be too cumbersome for the narrative. But still, something had to be done. So I analysed the reasons for my expert’s objection, went back to my reading, now with more understanding, and found solutions that were possible from real-life examples. And, as often happened, these solutions eased a few other issues.

Sometimes you have to do a lot more thinking and research… but your expert gets you there.

Emotional corrections

Sometimes I had underestimated how strongly characters would feel about events. In this case, my expert also turned out to be a sensitivity reader. And his feedback allowed me to adjust the characters’ reactions according to their natures. Some were sensitive; some could be obliviously offensive.  

Points where we disagree!

What’s at the top of Everest? In my research, I found mention of an alloy pole at the summit. I liked that. I put it in. My expert commented that there wasn’t an alloy pole at the summit. I double-checked my references. In my novel, the characters climb the mountain in 1994. Two sources from 1996 mention a pole at the summit… one of them is a documentary, so I’ve seen it for myself. My expert was there in the 2010s, by which time the pole might have gone. So I could decide whether I wanted a summit pole or not. I chose to have a summit pole.

Facts… are only half of it

David Mamet said: ‘It’s not our job to explain.’ An expert will deluge you with generous details, but you as a writer, a storysmith, have to decide how to use those details – here is Mamet, explaining the difference between information and drama in loud capitals (see below)

But Roz, most readers won’t know it’s wrong! Look at the physics in The Martian

The physics in Andy Weir’s The Martian is somewhat squiffy. Or so I’m told, because I know a lot of physics graduates. So is the physics in the movie Gravity, apparently.

Most readers and viewers don’t know; that’s true. But I will know. I don’t want to release a book that I know has inaccuracies. And knowing about them has pushed me to find better solutions that fit my dramatic needs and keep the book’s credibility and truth.

Meanwhile, here is Ever Rest. Find it in all print and ebook formats.

What’s it like? Here are a few reviews to help you decide.

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Your first pages – 5 more book openings critiqued by a literary agent, author/Bookstagrammer @KateESalisbury (and me!) at @Litopia

I’ve just guested again at Litopia, the online writers’ colony and community. Each week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five manuscripts are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox @agentpete and a guest, or sometimes two. This time the other guest was one of Litopia’s producers, Kate Salisbury, who I’ve corresponded with numerous times but never met. She’s formidably qualified for the critic role, being herself a memoirist, YA author, school librarian and Bookstagrammer.

The format is simple. Five manuscripts, each with a short blurb. We hear the opening pages, then discuss how they’re working – exactly as agents and publishers would consider a manuscript that arrived in their inbox.

As always, the submissions had many strengths. Issues we discussed included how much detail to include in a blurb, setting up an emotional hook for the reader, the suggestions inherent in a title, what literary fiction is in today’s market, whether a story has to be made socially relevant, introducing the world in science fiction and historical fiction, digressions and flashbacks in memoir, and how the author’s voice can create a sense of charm or bleakness.

Enjoy! And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.

PS I’ve had a release of my own this week – my third novel Ever Rest. Find it here in all print and ebook formats.

What’s it like? Here are a few reviews to help you decide.

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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I made this! Ever Rest is now available

Trust the process. Although there has been much muddling and rewriting; although I started with a short story and wasn’t sure how I’d make it into a long one; although I had to learn about the technicalities of two artforms (music and visual art) and one elite sport (mountaineering)… I got safely and securely to The End.

Ever Rest, my third novel, is now available.

What’s it like? Here are a few reviews to help you decide.

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How I made my writing career – novelist, writing coach and educator Connie Biewald

How do you get a career working with words? We each have our own routes. In this occasional series, I’m interviewing people who’ve made writing the centre of their lives, have been recognised with awards and grants and have become a guiding light for other writers. Today: Connie Biewald, who teaches literacy and creative writing to both children and adults, and is about to publish her fourth novel, Truth Like Oil.  

Roz How did you start writing?

Connie As soon as I could hold a pencil. My first novel was about two friends, entitled Josie and Susan. My mother typed it up and made carbon copies. (That shows how old I am.)

I always read and I always wrote. When I read this Eudora Welty quote, it resonated.  “Indeed, learning to write may be part of learning to read. For all I know, writing comes out of a superior devotion to reading.”

I look back at journals from elementary school and I always wanted to be a teacher and a writer.  There were other ideas like being a pathologist—I thought cutting up dead bodies would be interesting. But teaching and writing were the through lines.

Roz Was anybody influential in this?

Connie My schooling felt boring and restrictive. But in fourth grade, I had my first experience of a teacher reading aloud to us. We put our heads on our desks and for a beautiful half-hour I was happy in school. I wasn’t even in school. I was in the NY subway with Mario and his cricket, (George Selden’s Cricket in Times Square) on the Saskatchewan prairie with the owls, Wol and Weeps (Farley Mowat’s Owls in the Family). And time passed more than pleasantly. I was not used to that happening in school.

My mother read to me before bed. I remember one night listening to Louisa May Alcott’s Old Fashioned Girl, watching the clock hit the 8:30. My mother was not one to extend bedtime by a minute, yet the big hand kept moving. There were more pages to the chapter. The combination of anxiety and wonder…the power of literature to make even my mother forget the clock.

Roz Were any of your family in the creative arts or are you the trailblazer?

Connie My parents encouraged creativity—all that typing my mother did! One of my brothers is a musician. Our mother loved genealogy and sewing. Our dad was an industrial arts teacher. They built all our furniture.

Roz Did you do other jobs before you concentrated on literary arts?

Connie Literary arts were always my passion on the side. I was realistic about needing money. I worked in a bakery in high school which provided material for my book Roses Take Practice. I also worked with children through high school and college which became the foundation of my career in education. I didn’t want to do a job in literary arts, thinking that it would take my writing energy away. And I think I was right. I have been able to write what I want.

Roz How did you start to prioritise writing?

Connie The first writing I did with real intention of publishing was after college when I took a day care program director’s job so I could use the morning for writing. That book later became Digging to Indochina. When my children were young I wrote every Saturday morning.

That was enough for a while. As my kids got older I was able to go away to residencies. Grace Paley, my most significant mentor, said, “If you want to be a writer, keep your expenses low and don’t live with anyone who doesn’t support your writing.” I’m grateful to my parents for providing childcare while I went to workshops and residencies and to my husband who has never questioned my need to write.

Roz If you went back to age 16 and saw where you are now, what would your thoughts be?

Connie At 16, I was a mess. I had an idea that if I was going to be a writer I needed to have as many life experiences as possible and some of those experiences were risky. And some were psychological issues as much as intention. I’m lucky I made it through.

Roz What would you tell your younger self?

Connie I’d tell myself, “You will still have these female friends when you are 63. The approval you are craving from these boys doesn’t matter. You’re so much more beautiful in every way than you realize right now.”

Roz That’s exactly the kind of advice we can’t believe at that age.

Moving on, you have four novels – Bread and Salt, Roses Take Practice, Digging to Indochina and – about to be published – Truth Like Oil. Do they share any common themes or concerns? What makes a Connie Biewald novel?

Connie Connie Biewald seems obsessed with 17-year-olds. There’s something very powerful to me about that age. My novels all seem to have this theme—life is tough, but ultimately worth it. And power fascinates me.

Roz Did any of that come from your life experiences?

Connie Yes! The first three books seemed to come from within—Digging to Indochina and Roses Take Practice are autobiographically inspired fiction from my own experiences. Bread and Salt is a fictionalized account of my grandmother’s life, coming of age between World War I and II in Germany.

Truth Like Oil is different. When I finished Bread and Salt I thought I’d written everything I had to say. I was being pushed to write nonfiction about my work and parenting, but that wasn’t fun for me.  I write to escape my daily life; not that it’s a bad life, but people crave escape and writing is mine. I had an effective writing habit established , but nothing to say.  

At a reading, an audience member asked what I was working on next. I said I had no idea. My mother, who was also in the audience said, “You do have another grandmother, you know.” This was true, but I was not close to her. At that point she was in a nursing home and pretty bitter, also very racist. I wasn’t interested in writing about her, though she did become the inspiration for Hazel in my novel. Then a new character, Nadine, a Haitian-American nursing assistant, began whispering in my ear.

I travelled to Haiti because of her. I wanted to understand her background. I ended up returning to Haiti for the next decade, working on literacy projects with teachers and kids at Matènwa Community Learning Center on Lagonav—all because of Nadine.  It’s amazing that a fictional character had such a powerful impact on my life. 

Roz Three of your books are self-published with iUniverse…

Connie I had folders full of positive rejections that all said ‘We don’t know how to market/categorize this book. Is it commercial or literary, young adult or adult?’ My dad kept suggesting self-publishing but I resisted.

Roz You were reluctant to self-publish?

Connie For me there was something shameful about self publishing. But whenever I ran into former students or their families, they’d ask about my books. I was tired of having no publishing news.

I picked the book least important to me, Digging to Indochina, and put it out. It was a big success. And fun! I did lots of readings, and won some awards. IUniverse republished it as one of its star award books. Then I published the others. I wish I’d had the benefit of a developmental editor like I had at Vine Leaves Press. They would all have been better books. Yet I am still proud of them.

Roz Truth Like Oil is published by Vine Leaves Press – how did you find your way to them?

Connie On the website, Vine Leaves says it seeks work that blurs the line between commercial and experimental. I sent the novel and forgot. When I received an acceptance, I was thrilled. My school had just switched to online teaching because of the pandemic and it was a shock to all of us and the technology was tough for me. At that point there was so much fear. The publishing offer was a giant consolation prize. The Vine Leaves developmental editor told me to cut 60 pages and helped me do it. I knew I was in good hands.

Roz All writers have to build a relationship with their readers. What are your thoughts on this?

Connie Marketing is a stretch for me as it is for many writers. I’ve depended on word of mouth. I need to step it up and am not sure how. I signed up for a three-session class at Grub Street.

Roz What other kinds of publishing do you do? Short stories, personal essays… Do you do that too?

Connie Sometimes. I do have short writings on my website. But novels are my thing. Once I know a character well enough to write a short story about them, I’m attached enough to write a novel.

Roz Me too. My soul works in longform.

You also have another defining role – for several decades you’ve taught reading and writing in schools, including a programme for homeschoolers. And you’re a librarian and growth education specialist. Education seems to be a personal crusade for you.

Connie Thank you for noticing that! I really enjoy being with kids. I appreciate their energy, their sense of humour, their ways of looking at the world. I’m constantly learning from them. So many of our issues with power start with how we were treated as children.

As a progressive educator, I think deeply about teaching and how we teachers use our power. I use the way the environment is set up and the schedule and the kid culture of the classroom as much as possible, instead of being an adult who tells kids what to do. I always strive to understand each kid and their interests, strengths and challenges.

I struggle with the fact that I am a better teacher than writer. There’s a passage in Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life about how no cares if you write. They’d rather you do things to benefit them! And I think about Grace Paley’s poem  which I love, “The Poet’s Occasional Alternative” about people preferring a pie to a poem. But I need writing to make me a happy teacher and a happy baker so that’s something.

Roz Being a teacher requires considerable energy. As does writing. How do you juggle these demands?

Connie Grace Paley talked about how balance is impossible. At any time in life, one demand supersedes another. That’s okay. During certain times in my teaching year, I can’t write at all. During the summer, I don’t teach so I have lots of time to write. When I was parenting young children it felt much more difficult than it feels now.

Roz You’re building a body of creative work and helping others to flourish. Are you living the dream?

Connie You know, I really am. I never thought of it that way until you asked. I love having grown children who more than earn their carbon footprints and the time that frees up to do my own thing.

Roz What do you like to read? Are there any writers who changed you, either as an artist or as a person?

Connie I read constantly, deeply and widely.  On the “reader” section of my website, I list many of the books that affected me most.  I’ve also crafted my own writing education, taking workshops from writers I admired. Grace Paley, Michael Cunningham,  Allan Gurganus, Marie Howe, Elizabeth Strout,  to name a few. I love Alice Munro’s work and my husband and I have read most of it out loud.

Recently I LOVED the book Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. I’ve read it twice and listened to the audio version, which is amazing. I also love Danielle Evans’ work, most recently The Office of Historical Corrections.

Roz What’s next?

Connie I have two projects that I haven’t been able to do much with during this pandemic. One is a novel for adults that takes place in 1870 in a New England mill town. The other is a middle grade novel.  I’m excited about diving into one or the other this summer.

Roz Give me some stirring final words!

Connie Hmmm.

You can find Connie on Facebook and her website. Truth Like Oil is published by Vine Leaves Press. Find it here

If you’re looking for writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’d like to know more about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Reading as a duty and reading for pleasure… plus the oldest book on my shelf. At @jaffareadstoo

A quick interview at the online home of book blogger Jo Barton, aka Jaffareadstoo. The questions are lighthearted, but they raise interesting issues about reading.

Writers and book bloggers have something in common – a TBR pile that’s neverending. We’re reading to keep up with recent releases. We’re reading as research. We’re reading to help our friends. And we’re reading a lot – an awful lot – to do our jobs. When do we read for ourselves?

Do you have a rule that if you start a book, you finish it? I used to. It was a habit instilled at school – abandoning a book was bad manners. I almost felt the author would know I’d sneaked out before they’d said their piece. I remember there was a moment when I decided I had to let go of that rule or I’d never get everything read that I had to. And I’m a slow reader. I like to appreciate a book, not bolt it. That raises another question – if reading is our job, do we still allow ourselves to read for pleasure? I know plenty of people in publishing who have lost their joy of the written word.

Anyway, tell me your thoughts, either here or at Jo’s blog. You’ll also see Jo and I discuss this, the oldest book on my shelves.

If you’re looking for writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’d like to know more about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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And then there were three – 7 steps of a long-haul novel

And so I have a novel coming out.

How long has it been since my last one? I released Lifeform Three in 2014. My Memories of a Future Life was a full 10 years ago. I’m a novelist, but my output is somewhat slow.

It’s not that I’ve been unproductive in that time. I’ve released courses, writing books, a travel memoir I didn’t expect to be writing. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words in my coaching and editing reports. And blogs, guest posts, journalism, newsletters.

If we totalled that as a words biomass, it would be substantial. My three novels – my now three novels – would be only a tiny proportion. So I’m a novelist who mostly does other things.

But my novels are my truest purpose. They are the work I am most painstakingly careful about. If I get an epitaph, I want the novels as the headline. Everything else is an also.

So how long did Ever Rest take me? Seven years, and it seemed to fall into seven distinct steps, though that is coincidental. Some steps took more than one year. Anyway, the sequence might be familiar if you’re also a long-haul writer.

Step 1 – short story to novel

Ever Rest started as a short story – here’s a post about expanding a short story into a long one. I wasn’t good at short stories, which is why you’ve never seen a short story from me. I get too involved. I can’t let them go. You’ll see this in later steps.

Step 2 – vow of silence

Authors on social media are used to sharing their work in progress. Character back stories, snippets of chapters. I wanted to join their ranks, share the proof that I was working as they were, get cheery encouragement. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t workshop my rough ideas in case they tarnished the finished book. Also, I couldn’t talk about it. It was too deeply difficult. I discussed that here – how much do you talk about the novel you’re writing?

Step 3 – losing faith

I didn’t know what I was writing. The same happened with Lifeform Three. For a long time, I was merely its baffled interpreter. I lost faith in it, hundreds of times. I wrote about that here, especially the idea of creative faith and long-term determination.     

Step 4 – write 100 pages, discard 80

In terms of word biomass, this book is substantial, but much was wastage. I wrote a lot; I binned a lot. During that phase, I read an interview where Marlon James said ‘you can write 100 pages and only use 20’. Even though I knew this to be the case from previous novels, I found his comment comforting. At the time, I was on my third draft and the book was already scar tissue. I eventually did 23 drafts. Here’s how that went.

Step 5 – never let it go

After 15 drafts, the novel operated as I hoped it would. I was ready for beta readers. For many years, the book had dominated my thoughts and my reading choices. I could now widen my diet. Pursue other interests. But did I want to? Very mixed feelings.

Step 6 – red pen and sweet reunion

I knew there would be more work after the readers’ feedback. Some was forehead-smacking, but most was a relief. It was good to be back. A final dance. No, several. Revise, revise, until draft 23.  

Step 7 – real writer again

Now, I have it ready. My third novel. Look, I’m a real writer again.

Ever Rest is released on 3 June. You can find out more here. Read early reviews here. Watch a video trailer here. Pre-order here.

For more about my creative wanderings, look here. And subscribe to future updates here.

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