When characters are “like family”. Interview with John R. Bell

Every book gets written for a different reason and every writer’s journey to becoming an author is different. Today I’m sharing what I’ve learned about John R. Bell and his World War II thriller, The Circumstantial Enemy. Here is our Q & A:

Why did you write this particular story?

Screen Shot 2018-03-06 at 11.00.34 PMThe list is long of authors who’ve had a burning desire to write a novel from an early age. I am not one of them. The inspiration came late in life with one potent statement from my daughter. Fifteen years ago, she said, “If you don’t write it, Grandad’s story will be lost forever.” I’ll never forget the yearning in her eyes. Grandad was 80 at the time and though in good health, he wasn’t about to be the first person to live forever. The family had heard his tales and tribulations as a young Croatian pilot coerced into the Luftwaffe in 1941. Writing a record of events stapled together became a biography with enough books printed for the family and several generations to come. I thought I was done with writing. Not so.

Three years later, I re-read the biography and wondered if I could dramatize that fascinating journey to freedom and redemption into a thrilling novel. If I added elements such as hatred, betrayal, lust, and revenge, would a bona fide publisher share it with a larger audience? Writing historical fiction would become the greatest challenge of my adult life. Eight years of research, writing, editing, rewriting (ad nauseam), and seeking an agent and/or publisher finally came to fruition with the release of The Circumstantial Enemy at the end of 2017. At age 71, I was a novelist.

Final CoverTalk about a favorite scene or character in your novel.

When you are on the wrong side of a war, there is more than one enemy. That assertion appears on my book’s cover. At page 120 of the 324-page novel, I introduce the main antagonist, SS Major Helmut Mauer. Mauer is interned at a POW camp for Germans in Rockford, Illinois in 1943. Mauer is the quintessential Nazi with three peculiarities—he puts his own interests ahead of Hitler’s ideals, he loves catch-and-release fly fishing, and he is infatuated with strangulation. At this point in WWII, the US War Department pays little attention to what goes on behind the barbed wire of the 400+ POW camps on American soil. At Camp Graham, a gang of Nazis rule with an iron fist. A few pages beyond Mauer’s introduction, he meets and interrogates the novel’s protagonist, Tony Babic, the latest arrival. Each man’s cautious and orchestrated interface hints at their personal motivations and establishes a conflict that will accelerate.

Describe your process in writing this book. (e.g. did you outline? Did you choose one pov and stick to it? What did you add? How many drafts did you write? How long did it take?

After penning a few chapters of what would become The Circumstantial Enemy, I was struck by my naivety. I was in over my head. I knew nothing about writing fiction. Eager to learn, I didn’t write a word for a year, throwing myself into every book I could find on how to write fiction. I learned about dialogue, characters, plot, viewpoint, even romance. After preparing a plot arc and compiling a sizable portfolio of research, I began writing for the second time in 3rd person omniscience. My next mistake was a bloated first draft of 225k words. When literary pundits said it was too long, I cut out 45k words. Then, over the course of 3 years, another 200 pages went into land fill. By the time the remaining tight manuscript reached the promised land of publishing, 8 years had passed. The first draft was complete in 18 months. I needed another 4 years for rewriting and editing as well as checking the historical facts and all those little details of the 1940s that had to be error free. Another couple of years of fine-tuning kept me occupied while I tried to persuade bona-fide publishers to take on the project.

Share some book love. Please recommend at least one novel you have read and loved.

Screen Shot 2018-03-07 at 3.37.34 PMMy favorite book is the unabridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo. (ME TOO!) At 1276 pages it is also the longest book I have ever read. Alexandre Dumas’s epic classic chronicles the protagonist’s imprisonment and his subsequent persecution, suffering and retribution. This is the book that Tony Babic’s lover sends to him during his incarceration. In some ways it parallels Tony’s predicament. I am also a fan of the late Australian novelist Bryce Courtenay. I’ve read all of his books, but my favorites are Bryce’s early works, The Power of One and The Potato Factory.

Recommend a work of non-fiction.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers tackles a fundamental question about high-achieving people. What differentiates them from the rest of us? He introduces the notion that 10,000 hours of practice is vital to greatness and uses several examples including The Beetles’ 3 years in Hamburg where they played 8 hours a day, 7 days a week. I invested 10,000 hours into my novel. Does that put me up there with Steinbeck? Of course not. But there is no doubt in my mind that the 5,000-hour version of The Circumstantial Enemy can’t hold a candle to the published novel.

What is the best piece of advice you have for other writers?

By the time I finished reading those self-help books on writing novels, I was left with the indelible principal that characters and conflict are critical to great fiction. But nothing surprised me more than discovering that when it came to POV, I found it no more difficult to express the POV of a romantic female as a chauvinistic male. Why is that? It comes down to knowing your characters. When you know a character like a close member of your family you know what they will do and what they won’t do.

I love this advice! Thank you for sharing John. To find out more about John R. Bell and The Circumstantial Enemy, please find John on Twitter, Amazon, Goodreads or at his website 🙂

 

 

“Never give up, never surrender!” Book love and advice from author G. Elizabeth Kretchmer

WEB_Kretchmer__0446Today I’m introducing a fellow novelist – G. Elizabeth Kretchmer. Kretchmer is the author of two novels – The Damnable Legacy and Bear Medicine – and a collection of short stories – Women on the Brink (a great title, I think!)

We have been talking about her latest novel, Bear Medicine and also about books and writing in general. Here’s our Q&A:

Why did you write Bear Medicine?

I have to laugh when I’m asked this question, because the story has evolved over the thirteen years between when I first sat down to write it and when it finally came out. My life has changed and the world has changed so much during this time, so my reason for writing the story (actually the two intertwined stories) has also transformed.

One thing that has remained constant is my love and concern for the grizzly bear and what she represents, and it so happens the novel finally came out at a critical time for the grizzly, who has lost her status as an endangered animal in the Yellowstone area and who is now eligible to be hunted in some regions.

Another constant is the strength of my love for my kids, but what has changed is my maternal role as my kids matured, as well as my understanding of how parent-child relationships don’t always wind up the way we hope they will. The relationship between mother and child was always a part of this story but it is certainly quite different now than it once was.

The part of the story that emerged to become most critical stemmed from my growing commitment to the idea that women must help women in our male-dominated world. We must respect our contributions to humanity and put a stop to the idea that our innate roles of care and compassion are less important than roles that generate money or celebrate power. We need to honor women who have come and gone before us and who, except for a select few, have been deemed unimportant and omitted from our history books. And we must continue to raise awareness about abuse against women, both physical and psychological, until it’s finally stamped out of our culture for good.

In sharing what happens when people use power as a means to control others, and the healing power that comes from supporting one another, my book, according to one reviewer, serves as “a rallying cry for those believing in humane co-existence with all life on this planet.” While I can’t say I set out to write a rallying cry, I think I can honestly say my purpose was to evoke thoughtful consideration about the state of our world and particularly the status of women and grizzly bears.

 

Talk about a favorite scene or character in your novel.

perf6.000x9.000.inddOne of my favorite scenes is the opening of the novel. Brooke sets off on a trail in Yellowstone National Park one morning to train for an upcoming marathon. The landscape is stunning but savage. She stops to snap a photo with her phone to send to her estranged college-aged daughter, and then this:

A horrible stench. A distinctive blend of musk and rot. A slow-motion image of my phone being jettisoned from my hands, bouncing down an embankment, and landing against a fallen pine. The subtle taste of sandy dirt. Followed by the stabbing penetration into each of my hips, blinding pain, liftoff from the ground. Heavy and helpless, I was hefted into the air like a tree stump raised by a bulldozer.

It’s a wonder that, in the midst of all my agony, I had enough wits left to figure out was was happening. But I did.

I’d been attached by a bear. A very big bear.

 

Can you describe your writing process for this novel?

After writing my initial draft and a few rounds of revisions, I secured an agent. But the book didn’t sell so I put it on a shelf. I got an MFA, created a writing workshop series for survivors of domestic violence, and wrote and published an entirely different novel and a short story collection. I never forgot about Bear Medicine, though, so I finally went back to it.

Rather than dusting it off for revision, I started from scratch. By now I had a clearer idea of what I thought the takeaways from the novel might be. I wanted to tinker with the historical genre and introduce some magical realism, but I wanted to retain the contemporary flavor, too. I embarked on a new round of research including a trip to Yellowstone for rich inspiration in the field. I spent a lot of time analyzing who I really wanted my characters to be and what stories they needed to tell. Finally, I came up with what ultimately became the final version, not counting numerous rounds of editing revisions along the way.

 

Can you share some books that you love? Not more than 3 though!!

I’m a sucker for stories about family, especially families with lots of flaws. It’s hard to choose only three!

Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng

This reminds me of Defending Jacob by William Landay, another great novel surrounding the mystery of a child’s death, how it destroys a family, and how mutually fragile each member of the family can be. Ng’s story also depicts how generations rebel against that which their parents most want for them.

LaRose – Louise Erdrich

You probably think I’m obsessed with stories about children dying. I’m not, but you’ve got to admit that’s a premise that immediately tugs on your heartstring. This novel weaves together three stories: how a boy’s death destroys the relationship between two families; what happens when more than one man is in love with the same woman; and the power of strength and peace that can be handed down through the generations.

Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty

I loved this long before it became one of the most talked about HBO shows in recent history. It’s another mystery as it’s written, but the guts of the story surround the unfortunate competition that can arise among young mothers who sincerely want the best for their children but who, in their quest for maternal perfection, let their ugliest shadow selves surface and take control of their lives.

(I think that’s 4 books really!!)

And what about a work of non-fiction/a TV show/a movie/an album?

Screen Shot 2018-03-01 at 10.17.59 AMAgain, an impossible request, to recommend only one. So much to choose from! I was planning to recommend a memoir with the same structure and tropes as a novel, but then I got a wild idea to recommend a journalistic nonfiction. It’s so relevant to our society today and in all likelihood will ring true for some of your readers:

Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol – Ann Dowsett Johnston

I drank wine almost every night for my entire adult life, and just a year ago I decided it was time to give it up. Doing so was one of the greatest challenges I’ve ever faced, and this book was the final kick in the derriere that made me do it. It articulates just how pervasive wine is in our society and how the alcohol industry has specifically targeted women in its marketing efforts.

 

What is the best piece of advice you have for other writers?

“Never give up, never surrender!” That was actually a line from the film Galaxy Quest which wasn’t an inspirational movie in the slightest. But the line stuck with me. If you love to write, then you must do it. If writing makes you crazy and grumpy, you must also do it. If life throws you curve balls (which of course it does), then you must write about these flaming balls to help you process and figure out how you feel and what to do.

But along the way, you must also read, read, read. Devour books in your genre but explore plenty of books—both fiction and nonfiction—in other genres. (Joining a book club to be forced to read books you wouldn’t otherwise have chosen, and to hear how other readers analyze books, can be extremely helpful). And don’t forget craft books! There are too many great books about the craft of writing to mention here, but I will recommend four fabulous inspirational books that I highly recommend. In fact, I’m due to reread them again!

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft – Stephen King

You don’t need to be a fan of his novels to appreciate his experience and advice.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life – Anne Lamott

A down-to-earth, touching, and sometimes humorous peek into one writer’s life.

If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence, and Spirit – Brenda Ueland

The author’s convictions that anyone can write, and that everyone has something important to say, can inspire the new writer to pick up the pen and the seasoned writer to put her butt back in the chair.

Gift from the Sea – Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Not a writing book per se, but a book that invokes our inner voices to express our observations and musings about life.

I have read 3 out of 4 of these! Definitely need to check out Brenda Ueland’s book after this recommendation!

Please do check out G. Elizabeth Kretchmer’s books on Amazon and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

 

 

 

10 top tips for attending a bookfair

In the last month I have been to two bookfairs to sell my novel, Charlatan: the Collingswood Bookfair in New Jersey and the Hockessin Art & Book Fair. Both times I went with members of my local writing group, the Write Group of Kennett Square, PA. As a debut author, I was pretty nervous and not sure what to expect. So here are my top ten tips for surviving and maybe even enjoying selling books.

  1. Be prepared to set your alarm. In the case of Collingswood, the fair opened to the public at 10am but we were there at…7.30am. I wasn’t sure why: until I realised lots of other people were there too. Arriving early (but far from the first) meant that we got a good space for our two tables. This fair was supposed to be outside (in which case we would have needed a canopy and some way of tethering it to concrete…) but bad weather forced everything inside. Here’s my view for the day… and yes, that is a cardboard cut-out of the Pope!

2. Don’t go alone. I’m pretty sure I would have struggled to go to either event on my own. In fact I might not have even known about them. This is just one of the many reasons why finding other writers is one of the best things you can do. Writing might be a solitary act, but if your writing is going to be read, then having writing friends who know what writing/drafting/editing/getting published/marketing is all about is essential. Plus it was a lot less lonely sitting there with these lovelies and we could mind each others stock, talk up each others books and help share the costs of the table.

From left to right… Ed, Maryellen and Aurora.

3. Work out how to STAND out. I was a bit on the last minute with this. The day before we went to Collingswood it occurred to me that my small pile of books was not really going to look like much on a table. Thankfully, this light bulb moment happened while I was out buying tablecloths (for our folding tables – my contribution because I don’t own a folding table) and within minutes I had my hands on a suitcase which I was able to deck out like this…

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4. Be able to describe your book: So I thought I was done with elevator pitches and the like when I signed my publishing contract but no, that was naive. I’m not trying to sell to agents etc any more but it felt eerily familiar, having maybe not even a minute to try and get over what my book was about to people who stopped and took a look at my novel. Work out what you will say in advance. Practice it. Grit your teeth and sell your book. Selling might not come naturally to you, but at least at a book fair you can guess that probably eighty percent of other people there to sell, feel exactly as anxious as you do.

5. Set expectations low: On my way out of Collingswood, at about 4pm, I overheard a couple of other writers discussing their sales as they packed their car. One asked the other how many books he’d sold. His answer? 3. But he also quickly added that he felt that this was a reasonable number given how others around had done. Depending on how you are published and what you have paid for each book you are selling, that can mean many different things in terms of money earned. What it does mean though, is that the book fair pathways are not paved in gold. Far from it.

6. But be ready to make change. In my case I sold 6 books at each fair. That may not sound like much but when you describe your book to someone and they are prepared to put their hand in their pockets and pay you for it – that’s a pretty good feeling 🙂 Both times people paid a mixture of cash, check and card. I don’t have the gadget that does that on your phone so thank you Aurora Cannon, for facilitating that for me! The gadget can be obtained free from Paypal – something else to add to the list of things I have learned in the last month or so. Also, think about your price. I sold my book for $5 less than the price on Amazon and made that a selling point.

7. Take bookmarks. Or at least take something you can give away. I love my bookmark which is a good thing since I’ve got a stack of them. I’ve also seen postcards and business cards, free magazines, pens, mugs, you name it. I can see very clearly how easy it might be to slip into a rabbit hole of costly self-promotion. But having something to hand out when someone doesn’t buy your book (and also when they do) is useful and hopefully does help spread the word that your book exists. Here are some examples that I picked up on a mooch around the fair…

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8. Smile: Okay so selling doesn’t always come naturally to writers – at least not to me. I’ve only ever had one sales job and that was in a really tacky jewelers in the centre of Manchester where much of the merchandise fell to bits in my hands when I held it out for customers to look at it. At least my book won’t fall to pieces – thank you Fireship Press! But my point is that although this selling of books is tiring and tiresome… it is also kind of exciting to put your book in the hands of someone else. Even if your book is not selling on the day, keep smiling and be proud to be behind the table with a finished product. It’s a big achievement.

9. Snack: With all the stuff you need to remember – books, display items, giveaways, table coverings, chairs (very important!!) and cash to name a few – it is easy to forget that you will need to eat and drink. My day at Collingwood was LONG! Hockessin was nearly as long. I needed water and I needed snacks. All that smiling takes energy 😉

10. Socialise: So I didn’t make my fortune at Collingwood or Hockessin but I did have a very nice time! I spent the whole day with my local writing friends and feel better and stronger friends with them for having done so. I also met other people and shopped too! I’m particularly pleased with this:

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