Food is fine, but great food is, well… Really fine. Imagine a job that takes you to the great restaurants of the world. Think about cooking great meals with the world’s finest chefs. Having the iconic Julia Childs as your mentor and master chef Todd English nurturing your culinary career. Add to this talent, your education and your awesome personality. Now everyone, including TV shows, are asking you to display your talent.
Annie B. Copps, Food Editor for Yankee Magazine, is my long time friend and guest today on The Novel Road. She is one of the finest people I’ve ever met. Her blog, Eating New England, will show you that I’m not the only who thinks the world of Annie.
A bit more about Annie from her blog:
“Yankee food editor Annie B. Copps thinks about food more than most people. If she isn't growing, cooking, eating, or writing about it, she's talking about it. Not just how food tastes and what is the newest restaurant, recipe, or technique -- she's also entrenched in the politics of food and wine, as well as culinary history.
New England foods are her bailiwick, but Annie is a restless soul who has traveled to the souks of the Middle East in search of za'atar, observed the tuna auction at the Tsukiji market in Tokyo, pressed olive oil in Sicily, and roasted a goat in Kwa-Zulu Natal South Africa. No matter where she is, she always manages to make a friend and eat (and drink) well.”
I’m beyond pleased to welcome my friend Annie B. Copps to The Novel Road…
Me: I HATE YOU! Not really, but living in New Mexico and reading about your travels and gourmet experiences causes, shall we say… just a touch of envy. Now you have a cookbook, in conjunction with Yankee Magazine, to go with your regular appearances on the Today Show. How did you go from your humble beginning as a simple country girl in the rustic wilds of a Southern California beach community to where you are now?
Annie B. Copps
Annie: Sometimes I hate me, too.I just returned from a really great visit to Southern California, coming off a busy and beautiful holiday season and I am filled with boatloads of positive energy.I have a really good life.I don't make very much money, but I do get paid to eat and drink and that seems like a good deal right now.
And say, New Mexico has some great food...But to answer your question (be careful, I tend to be tangential--hereditary, I think... My Mom is nicknamed "non-sequester Nance." We don't use it very often because it is awkward. Mom is much quicker.), I have always loved food--cooking and eating.My family has always had great adventures, noodling around the country and around the world and for us, the food culture goes hand and hand with those experiences. My father spent time in Japan in the late 60's and he was fascinated by the food. We were living in Boston at the time and my parents had access to great ingredients, so we ate tempura and sushi at home sometimes. When the sushi wave hit, we were on it--like white on rice. (sorry!)
I worked in restaurants in college, the seminal experience was at Michela's, a restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts.Michela the owner is a real mentor and a visionary.Boston in the mid-80's, like a lot of places in America, had a good grip on red sauce based Italian (a lot of bastardized Sicilian cuisine), but she had gnocchi on the menu and Italian white wine and no meatballs. It was revolutionary. And Todd English was the chef.If you don't know who he is, Google him and smoke will come put of your computer he's such a celebrity now.Anyway, I stuck with Michela and Todd and they were both really open to letting me try on a lot of hats. Todd and his wife Olivia went on to open Olives. I hung around, then decided to go to culinary school--my original plan was to go to graduate school for a master's then PhD (in languages or comparative literature). I worked with Jasper White and a few others, then back to Todd. The story goes on and on, but I worked with Julia Child and almost finished my masters (in public health).
I found myself at Oldways Preservation and Chefs Collaborative, a food and nutrition think tank. We spent the bulk of our time in the Mediterranean, working with public health officials trying to preserve traditional food and agricultural ways.Our work is a major reason why you have more olive oil, nuts and avocados on the American table--but again I digress.I loved that, but found myself traveling more than even I cared to. Dumb luck got me a job at Boston magazine where I eventually became the food editor and then to Yankee where I have been for the last 5 years. The Today show is more dumb luck, but so far it has been SO fun and they are such an amazing team to work with--so professional and so kind.
Me: If I started a rumor that your New Year’s resolution was to become a Fruitarian and never touch a glass of wine again, just how angry would you be?
Annie: I have been touched by rumor and innuendo before--I ain't scared of that!But if it were true, I'd be in sad shape.I really like wine, a lot. There would be measurable anger. If I were told I could never drink again, I think I am capable, but I would be really bummed out about it. Although, because alcohol IS such a part of my life and I am exposed to a lot of it, I take the month of August off from drinking--just to make sure I can do it and that the lines haven't become blurred as to where it fits into my life.So far it has been okay, I have survived wine festivals, birthdays, weddings and even family events.Though, I was in South Africa a few years ago, the last week of August and first week of September, I was pretty psyched that we were in wine country the second part of the trip.
Me: The best wine to use in cooking and why?
Annie: Hmmmm... it really depends on what you are cooking and what you really dig.A good rule of thumb though is cook with a wine you like to drink. Never ever use "cooking" wine, that stuff is doo-doo. Whatever wine you start with gets reduced and concentrated when you cook it, so whatever good or bad things about the wine will be more pronounced.It is cold here in Boston right now and I love braising this time of year (check out braising recipes at yankeemagazine.com -- was that a good segue or what?) and wine is great braising liquid.I tend to use Carlo Rossi "burgundy" for short ribs, beouf bourgogne, and lamb stew. It's drinkable and makes a great sauce.
Me: I make pasta that explodes. Pasta everywhere! What am I doing wrong?
Annie: Big Daddy, I think the issue is in your seal. I assume you are talking about stuffed pasta. If not, too much dy-no-mite, could be the issue. But seriously, if it is stuffed pasta, make sure you seal it with an egg wash (water and a beaten egg) and let it dry. If it is regular, then I suspect you are not kneading it enough (gluten, the protein in flour which gets activated by liquid, gives pasta structure and needs to be built up via kneading--longer answer is available).But keep making it!
Me: Al Roker… If he became a fruitarian, could he wait for the fruit to fall from the tree?
Annie: LOL.Al Roker is, speaking of Big Daddy, so awesome.He'd have a little kid on his shoulders pulling the apples right off the branches.
Me: When you walk into a restaurant, just how freaked out do the owner’s of the restaurants become?
Annie: I think they used to. I heard that when I was at Boston magazine, a few kitchens had photos of me (and other writers) in the kitchen so the servers knew who we were.I get treated well, with a lot of respect and I appreciate it. Fawning makes me nervous.I don't do too much critiquing anymore, but I do like to write about places where I have had a great experience. Additionall,y most people know what a big mouth I have and that I use social media.
Want to see Annie and Lobster? Gohere - In this one Al Roker totally unraveled and lost his coconuts.
Me: Talk about your time with the great Julia Child.
Annie: So much to say. I miss her a lot.She was such an amazing and lovely person. I learned so much from her. She was a professional and diligent researcher. Very curious and funny. I worked for her in the production kitchen during the shooting of the PBS shows that were filmed at her home and then in her home office. She had a terrific full-time assistant, Stephanie Hersh, but I helped keep the machine running. Stephanie was a good friend to me, too. I loved that Julia was fully aware of how old she was, but she had no intention of not doing things because of her age.I could talk for days about her. What a big headed gift from God.
Me: I see an Annie B. Copps food show coming your way. If so, can I be a guest? We can make pasta…
Annie: Your mouth to God's ears.Yes... I think a p-asta show is a good idea--I'd love to be able to help people get over their kitchen hurdles with solid information.I kills me that kids aren't learning to cook anymore, because their parents only open cans or defrost. It really kills me.But I would love to do more TV, I get a real kick out of it and I think people like it--my own thing or a regular slot on the Today show would make me very happy and satisfed.
Me: This question courtesy of a fan with the screen name: Shelbottomus. “You never make Minnesota fine cuisine when you appear on the Today Show. Would you like my recipe for sautéed Lefse and Rakfisk?”
Annie: Shelbottomus Maximus? What an honor.I know, I know.I tend to do more New England-y food on the show as I come on as the Yankee magazine food editor, but if your fan would like to share with me some if her/his recipes, I'd be honored.
Me: Since this is a blog about writing and books, I guess I should ask you a question about the written word. When can we expect another great cookbook from you?
Annie: We'll do another Yankee "bookazine" soon--likely for this fall.I would love to write my own, though, perhaps a companion book for the TV show??
The paperback release of a superb financial thriller, "Top Producer" is today. Not only is this an incredible novel, it will have you calling your broker just to "check"...Please welcome Bestselling author Norb Vonnegut to The Novel Road...
Today's visitor to The Novel Road, I count as a friend, which makes interviewing this vastly intelligent, funny and kind man something I've looked forward to for some time. I made him promise not to look at the interview questions till he finished the final edits on his next Bestseller "The God's of Greenwich" due out in April of 2011. (He peeked, which led to me showing him how NOT to answer the "two sentence Hook" question. Like I could answer it better than a bestselling author? I re-looked up hubris after I failed miserable to answer my own question)
Norb Vonnegut writes financial thrillers and blogs about money for The Huffington Post, Switzer in Australia and Acrimoney. Before turning to a career as an author, Norb worked in private wealth management as a stockbroker with Morgan Stanley, Paine Webber and other investment banks. It was there, knee deep in the business of finance, where he learned one absolute and irrefutable truth.
The people of Wall Street are characters. They're a ready mix of quirks and edgy humor. They speak in tongues, and their escapades make them the perfect fodder for irreverent fiction. Their behavior, so ordinary on Wall Street, can border on the bizarre anywhere else. You'll see what he means inside the pages of Top Producer, The Gods of Greenwich and his novels to come.
So after two decades in the trenches, he traded money management for writing thrillers about fictional stockbrokers, traders and hedgies. His villains are a blend of pure fiction and people he heard about or read about through the years. You'll find themes like friendship and betrayal in his novels, lots of backstabbing as he describes financial scandals and gravitate toward stories about underdogs who prevail against overwhelming odds.
You don't need a background in finance to understand what makes his characters tick or the mistakes they make. They're are no stock tips in his novels. But you might gain a few insights from a Wall Street color commentator (Norb) as you board a roller coaster ride of fiction that could be fact.
Norb graduated from Phillips Exeter in 1976, Harvard College in 1980 and earned an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1986. These days, he and his family split their time between New York and Narragansett, Rhode Island. Norb is an avid cyclist and volunteer with the American Foundation for the Blind as a member of the Board of Trustees.
Me: Your novel, “Top Producer”, has gained you the reputation of being the “Grisham of financial thrillers”. I believe this reputation is not only well earned, but also well founded by your experience as a stockbroker and financial analyst for the Huffington Post. How hard is it to live up to your fans expectations? How does the pressure to deliver measure up to your days as a broker?
Norb: First and foremost, thank you for your kind words and for inviting me to be your guest on The Novel Road. It’s an honor to post here with so many talented authors.
Author versus stockbroker—these are two different worlds that converge, oddly, in ways readers might not expect. As an author, I work hard to deliver something special on every page. It might be that whoa plot twist from left field. Or an irreverent observation about day-to-day life. There’s always pressure to captivate readers en route to the last page.
Is it “hard”? You bet. Turning pages is a choice for readers, not an obligation.
When I was a stockbroker, clients charged me with protecting their wealth. The pressures of watching over billions of dollars had nothing to do with entertaining readers. The job was all about people—keeping their money safe from predators and bad markets and sometimes even from themselves. So where’s the convergence? I’ve been asking one question through both careers: What can go wrong? As an author, I control the answers and the outcome inside a fictional world of my own creation. I never had this power as a stockbroker, and sometimes events developed a life of their own. My real-life experiences are a fertile place to start fiction, which is good news for a novelist. Most of the time . . .
It’s scary when fiction turns into fact, as it did in Top Producer. Who would have guessed what happened on December 11, 2008—twelve months after I completed my novel and signed a two-book deal with St. Martin’s press? Here’s what SmartMoney magazine wrote last fall when they named Top Producer to their “best reads” list:
The story mirrors reality — in ways that may now surprise even its author, who finished the book before the economic meltdown.”
See what I mean?
Me: Social Media. Talk about its importance to the modern author’s success.
Norb: Social media is the new word of mouth. On steroids. The fastest way for authors to gain recognition is for their readers to “tweet” or “like” posts on Facebook. I often wonder whether Ernest Hemingway would tweet if he were alive today. I hope Mark Twain would have more followers than Lady Gaga or Paris Hilton, but that’s a tough call.
The power of social media, I think, is its simplicity. An author’s comment can zing around the world in seconds. See those Twitter and Facebook buttons off to the right. You’re doing writers a big favor whenever you click them. Two seconds and you make an impression that could take hours of talking with friends about a good book or an interesting interview.
This is an aside. But I believe the value of big voices—the richness of James Earl Jones, the raspy charisma of Bill Clinton, the world-hangs-in-the-balance gravity of Fred Thompson—will be lost as we move from sound bites to digital bites. It’s easier to comment on a blog than lock into an extended conversation.
Whatever. We are where we are, and social media is here to stay, evolve, and weave its way into the fabric of our lives. I recently converted my author website into a blog, because I like the conversation with readers.
If you have a minute, check out my breaking news on Bernie Madoff. One of his guards in North Carolina forwarded a photo of him in the prison yard. You’ll never guess what Madoff was reading.
Me: Your main character, Grove O’Rourke, is one of the best modern day protagonists around. He’s balanced in both savvy and humanity. Talk about finding this balance in your character?
Norb: Everybody loves underdogs. And like many others, Grove O’Rourke starts with the basics. He’s smart. He’s edgy—prone to blistering one-liners. He’s safe and approachable. People tell Grove stuff, because he uses their information in the right way rather than trading on it for personal gain. He’s a good guy, who always seems to be rescuing the people that cycle through his life.
But Grove is no superman. He has his own shortcomings. Plenty of them. He’s working through a personal tragedy. He’s has this sense of never fitting in. It’s been that way ever since his childhood. And as you will see in Top Producer, Grove’s profound sense of loyalty makes him vulnerable. Things go wrong when he helps friends and events spiral out of control.
There’s a little Grove in all of us. I think readers care about characters with foibles. It’s nice to see heroes work through problems—especially if they’re not faster than a speeding bullet or able to leap buildings with a single bound. Everybody has weaknesses, right? And I’ll confess, mine are power tools. If I have a drill in hand, there’s a disaster in the making.
"If anybody can turn international finance and hedge funds into a riveting thriller, it's Norb Vonnegut. The Gods of Greenwich is a pure delight, racing relentlessly from the bedrooms of Manhattan to the boardrooms of Connecticut to the banks of Iceland. Bravo!"
Me: To the financial layperson, the financial world seems to be based on whim. The stock market can crash based on rumor or innuendo. What’s more, companies with no relationship to the rumor, fall simply because if brokerages sell one, they sell them all, furthering the fall and appearance of “no confidence” in the overall market. Are analysts over analyzing, putting too much faith in conjecture?
Norb: Okay, Doug, you’re touching on important issues—whim, innuendo, and no confidence. I worry less about “over analyzing” and more about dangerous investment techniques. Forget about playing the game. There’s a new breed of hedge funds that are “gaming the game” with uncertain consequences.
Some of these funds program computer “robo-readers” that scour the news and social media posts for words or emoticons indicating mood. Once they know how the world "feels," hedge funds can make lightening fast momentum trades. Buying when spirits are good and propelling the markets higher. Or dumping shares when the world is on the verge of an extended funk.
The thing about traders, though, is that they lay traps for one another. It’s been that way ever since the first market opened, and it’s behavior that I explore in my new novel The Gods of Greenwich. It’s probably easy to dupe robo-readers into buying, for example, with a computer code that spits out thousands of happy emoticons over social networks every few seconds. Tweet here and watch the market go up.
Whatever happened to value investing?
I’m old school. I like it when analysts scrutinize corporate balance sheets, cash flow, and profitability. It’s when the investors focus on how the game is played—and forget the basics—that I get scared. BTW, I’ve posted a video about “speed trading” on my blog Acrimoney. It will be especially interesting to anyone interested in the flash crash of May 6, 2010, which is a non-fiction example of how the game unraveled.
Me: Did you struggle with the amount of information you wanted to include, versus the amount that kept your novel moving at it’s blistering pace? How much information is too much?
Norb: I assume you’re referring to financial information. Less is more. I spent my career reading how financial securities work. And there’s one thing I know beyond any doubt. It’s people that make for a good story. It’s human interactions—the plotting and the scheming, the reacting to overwhelming events, the backstabbing and betrayal—that create the stuff of mystery, suspense, and a good cry. Nobody ever gets emotionally involved in a synthetic CDO, right?
I regard Wall Street and Hedgistan as background, not the story. The Gods of Greenwich, for example, is really about keeping up with the Joneses. Something we all understand. It just so happens my characters own hedge funds and are dying to join the Greenwich glitterati. Readers will disappear into a different world, and I hope, learn a little, laugh a little, and lose themselves in the story.
Me: Give me a two sentence “Hook” for your novel, “The Gods of Greenwich”.
Norb: Want to know what’s worse than going broke? Get in bed with The Gods of Greenwich.
Me: You get to have lunch with any author, from throughout literary history or present. Who would it be and why?
Norb: I probably change my mind ever five minutes. Sometimes the answer is F. Scott Fitzgerald. Other times it’s Ernest Hemmingway. Or it’s a working author like Carl Hiaasen, Tom Wolfe, or the writers I’ve linked to on the home page of my website. But when push comes to shove, I’ll go with Dorothy Parker.
I can’t imagine a better way to spend lunch than drinking wine with DP and listening to her zingers. She probably has the sharpest tongue of all time. I am so taken with her venomous wit, in fact, that I created a character with a DP backstory in The Gods of Greenwich.
It wasn’t hard mixing DP into a thriller about hedge funds. She was always weighing in on the subject of money. Here’s one of my all-time favorite quotes from her: “I don’t know much about being a millionaire, but I’ll bet I’d be darling at it.”
Me: This question, courtesy of Jeff Hall: “I'm a shortstory-ist. Writing a novel is like a crazy long marathon, only harder. How do you maintain a clear sense of that first passion that inspired you, throughout a 200 thousand word journey?”
Norb: It’s pretty simple. I write novels that are 100,000 words, give or take. That cuts the problem in half, right?
I don’t mean to be flip. My goal is to laugh or go ballistic while writing. (Sometimes it gets noisy in my office.) If I don’t enjoy what I’m writing, readers won’t either. That’s why I struggle to make every sentence perfect and pithy. Ponderous doesn’t cut it.
If I can turn a phrase that makes me happy, then I’m ready to test it on my editors—my wife first and then, if she’s okay with the draft, my editors over at Thomas Dunne/Minotaur/St. Martin’s Press. If the last word of every chapter is the most important word, then I’m telling the story the right way.
Me: If Norb Vonnegut ever writes a Non-Fiction book, what would the subject be?
Norb: Bicycling. My wife Mary and I once bicycled 1,500 miles through Europe. That was twenty-five years ago. But we’d love to do it again. Now you may understand why cycling is such a big part of Grove O’Rourke’s life in Top Producer.
There’s part of me that says write a book about professional cyclists during an extended race, like the Tour de France or the Giro de Italia. I’d like to make the sport come alive for non-cyclists—in much the same way that Michael Lewis writes about finance for readers outside of Wall Street.
The truth is, however, you don’t need to be a professional to love the sport’s adventure. I cycle regularly and would prefer to write a memoir about re-tracing our route from Copenhagen to the Loire Valley twenty-five years ago. Stuff happens on the road, and I’m sure there would be plenty of anecdotes.
Now that you have me fantasizing, let me put something out there. If any readers produce reality television shows and want to do something involving extended bicycle tours and a middle-aged guy who could stand to lose ten pounds, I’m your man.
Me: The publishing world is changing. Share your thoughts on what you think these changes may hold for authors, both successful and debut.
Norb: Clearly, the delivery system for books is the biggest change. Bookstores are finding new ways to add value, because they’re locked in something of a cage fight with electronic books. We have no idea how publishing will evolve. Today’s economics allow anyone to self publish and hope for a viral hit.
Editors are the one constant I see no matter how publishing evolves. As long as there are great books, there will be great editors. I think the key for all authors is to align with the best editors they can find.
Me: A friend of mine gave me a question to posit to Ben Greenman of The New Yorker and short story fame: “How will literature change when 80 percent of all books are sold on e-readers?” How would you answer this question?
Norb: Tough question. What did Ben say?
Purists will wince at this prediction. But long term, I think novels will border on interactive experiences. Right now, we can click on words for instant definitions. We can fall in love with books and tweet passages from readers left and right. It won’t be long before we can click into videos. Brilliant, right?
As the processors grow more powerful on I-pads, Kindles, and Nooks, I think the exchanges between authors and fans will grow more complex. There will be more opportunities to entertain readers, which is what stories are all about. A click here or there, for example, might bring a personality insight into a character that’s not available in the main story.
Kindles and other devices, however, are still in their Jurassic Park stage. In The Gods of Greenwich, I list an email address—which is almost a dare to get readers to send a message. They’ll get a nice surprise in return. But this form of exchange is fairly basic. Fifty years from now, the back and forth will grow more sophisticated as technology continues to advance.
Don’t believe me? Who heard of Google ten years ago?
Me: Among your many talents as a writer, you write great short stories as well. My friend Jeff Hall was wondering: “As a short story writer, my greatest struggle is not deciding what to put in, but rather what to leave out. My 5K shorts typically start out as 12K novellas that I have to pare and trim ad nauseum. Do you find the process works best if you give yourself free reign and then whittle the result down to a manageable size? Or do you keep your stories focused and directed as they are birthed so that the initial product is of a workable size?”
Norb: I don’t think about stories in terms of size. Or in terms of chopping them down—even though “whittling” is always part of the process. My goal is to hook readers at the open (you can download the first chapter of The Gods of Greenwich on my website), ratchet up the tension in the middle, and then end with a killer finale.
The middle is the most difficult part to write, whether it’s a short story or 100,000-word novel. Peter James, #1 internationally bestselling author (Dead Like You), explains it best. He draws a line graph of “the middle” with three peaks, each one higher than the last. The goal is to introduce new events, each one turning up the heat in the story.
I like Peter’s visual, which reminds me of roller coasters. It’s the kind of ride I’m trying to give readers. When they finish one of my stories, I hope they say, “Yikes.” Or something like that.
Norb, Thank you for your time and incites. All the best my friend!
"The Gods of Greenwich is a fast-paced and satisfying locomotive of a financial-based thriller, Dominick Dunne meet Barbarians at the Gate. Vonnegut has opened the vaults of Greenwich's elite, and oh what secrets and schemes pour out!"
It’s a gloomy rainy day, or maybe there is two feet of snow on the ground. A quick look out the window makes the decision to be somewhere else, to dream of somewhere else - easy. A few steps to the bookshelf and your eyes begin to race across titles of books. In the back of your mind is the kind of day it is outside and how far you want to travel to make it go away for the day… There!
If it’s fantasy adventure you’re looking for, you reach for a Diana Pharaoh Francis. The book is well worn, from read after re-read, because those times you want reality to fade away aren’t as uncommon as you’d like.
My guest today, bestselling author Diana Pharaoh Francis, actually writes dreams. Based on her Amazon numbers, we are all going long on escape. Her newest book, “Crimson Wind” is flying off the shelves like a $2 iPhone.
Diana has the talent to draw you in with every word and her loyal fans are never disappointed.
Now a bit about my guest from her website while I pray for snow:
“I was raised on a cattle ranch in Northern California (outside a town called Lincoln which is now part of an enormous sprawl). I taught myself to ride a horse at the age of six, as no one had the time to teach me—they were all busy learning how to irrigate, how to cajole an angry bull into another field, how to pull a calf… Afraid of heights, and absolutely sure I was going to die, I managed to scramble up on the back of a very patient and lazy strawberry roan destrier, and plod off into the sunset.
After high school, I attended college after college, racking up a BA and MA in creative writing and a Ph.D. in literature and theory. My very patient and supportive husband traipsed across the Midwest and back to Montana for me (though my husband insists that he’s been running and hiding and I just keep finding him), where I now teach at the University of Montana-Western. We also have a son Q-ball, who in our humbly unbiased opinions, is the most wonderful son ever produced, and a daughter, Princess Caesar, who is the most wonderful daughter ever produced.
I have a fascination for the Victorians, weather, geology, horses, plants and mythology, I like spicy food, chocolate and cheesecake, and I have an odd sense of humor. (Or so I’ve been told. Often.) Incidentally, the Pharaoh is in fact my real name, and oddly enough, is of British origin.”
I’m pleased to welcome Bestselling author Diana Pharaoh Francis to The Novel Road…
Diana Pharaoh Francis
Me: Your academic resume is beyond impressive: Masters in Creative writing, Ph.d in Literature and you now teach at The University of Montana –Western. You wrangle cattle, raise a family… Where did you find the time to write all your novels?
Diana: Well, to be honest, I don’t do cattle anymore. It’s been awhile since I lived on the ranch. Now I wrangle children. And dogs. And students. Finding time is basically a matter of carving it out of every day no matter what, and having an understanding family who let me vanish into the office for the weekend or evening and fix me food and make sure the house runs and nothing floods or blows up. I don’t do that all that often, but near deadline time . . .
In the end, I have to manage my time and write whenever I have a chance. I don’t have a lot of hobbies because of that, and I definitely don’t get to read as often as I’d like. Over the years, I’ve made an effort to prioritize family time so that I don’t become ghost mom. It also keeps me sane and healthy. Relatively sane, anyhow.
Me: You have a love of history in literature. History appears low on the priority list of today’s youth. What can we do to change this?
Diana: History tends to be dry when it comes to classes. It becomes real when kids visit real sites and see where history happened. I know my son is excited about reading fiction set in important historical situations. I think fiction has the ability to get kids interested in all kinds of things, and it helps them get interested in reading non-fiction.
For me, I know that reading Dickens and Austen and Thackeray and Browning really helped make the Regency/Victorian periods more real. It shows the texture and reality of people in their cultures.
But in the end, any way you can, expose kids to history. I especially like living history museums and interactive displays of any kind.
Me: Talk about life experience. How important it is to an author?
Diana: It’s been crucial for me. Everything I write comes out of my experiences, though some of those are imaginary—experiences I’ve had reading or watching a documentary. But so much of what I’ve done has given flavor to my work, or given me plots and other details. For example, in Path of Fate, Reisil gets saddle sores when she first learns to ride and spends a lot of time on the horse. When I was a kid, I went on a long ride in shorts. I was using a saddle, which I never did—I’d grown up riding bareback and hated saddles. It wasn’t long before I developed a nasty sore inside my knee where the skin rubbed off on the leather. I was far from home and had nothing to cover it with, so it got a lot worse. That became fodder for Reisil.
On the other hand, in The Black Ship, my characters sail on a square rigged clipper ship. It’s the setting for pretty much the entire book. I’d never been sailing at all. So I went to Seattle and went sailing on The Lady Washington to see how the sails were actually raised and lowered and what it was like to be on a ship. Then I did a lot of research. But I needed that first hand experience to get it right.
There’s a scene in Crimson Wind where someone shoots a gun and the recoil sends it over their head. I had that experience shooting a .454 Cassul. It’s a cannon of a handgun. A friend let me shoot it and the recoil really does send it over your head.
Graham Greene said that every writer has to have a splinter of ice in his or her heart. What he meant was that writers, even in the middle of a horrific accident or a dreadful loss or something, keeps one analytical eye open to watch and record. Writers keep track of experiences and put them away to use in their books.
There are so many textures, smells, sounds, events and different scraps of life that make it into my books. Without them, I think the books would be plastic and boring.
Me: Publishing is going through an evolution right now. Talk about how this has or will affect you.
Diana: Well, for one, my books get electronically pirated a lot. That’s really stomach-churning to watch as people post my books for free on download sites. These people like my books, but aren’t willing to pay me for them. And it is me. Because I only earn on what’s legitimately sold. So when I see pirating, it makes me want to weep because selling books is what makes publishers want to publish an author again and so I’m always worried that my sales numbers will sink and I won’t get to publish my books.
Other than that, the economy and the changes in publishing are still causing issues and I’m still waiting to see what will happen. Unfortunately, Borders may go bankrupt or close, and it’s never good to see stores go away. Ebooks are becoming more and more popular and it isn’t yet clear how they will be priced or how authors will get paid. There are a lot of different models for that. The major issue for me as a writer is that people continue to buy books so that publishers will continue to sign me on to write them.
Me: Lunch with you and any author you choose, from throughout history or today, and why.
Diana: Just one? That’s too hard! If I get right down to it, though, I’m torn. One would be Aphra Behn, who was an English playwright in the late 1600s. She was also a spy. She was one of the first women to make her living writing. She was witty and smart and her plays are fun. One of my favorite passages is from her preface to The Dutch Lover. She wrote it after the play received criticism and she is scathing. Oh it’s a lovely piece of writing.
Here’s a little bit of it:
"Indeed that day ’twas Acted first, there comes me into the Pit, a long, lither, phlegmatick, white, ill-favour’d, wretched Fop, an Officer in Masquerade newly transported with a Scarf & Feather out of France, a sorry Animal that has nought else to shield it from the uttermost contempt of all mankind, but that respect which we afford to Rats and Toads, which though we do not well allow to live, yet when considered as a part of God’s Creation, we make honourable mention of them. A thing, Reader—but no more of such a Smelt: This thing, I tell ye, opening that which serves it for a mouth, out issued such a noise as this to those that sate about it, that 224 they were to expect a woful Play, God damn him, for it was a woman’s. Now how this came about I am not sure, but I suppose he brought it piping hot from some who had with him the reputation of a villanous Wit: for Creatures of his size of sense talk without all imagination, such scraps as they pick up from other folks."
Isn’t she wonderful? I would love to have written this.
My other choice would be Charles Dickens, and you know? Largely for the same reasons. He was also scathing and witty and with such a good sense of human nature and the world. I adore him and would love to have a few beers with him and listen to him tell stories.
Me: Has the immense amount of information available now, caused a lack of learning from the past, in favor of taking current definition as a less thought out reality?
Diana: I have no idea. I think that there is a deluge of information available now and it’s harder to be broadly read and educated, but I think that people can still think and reason and examine situations and make good decisions. I think they can still come to a good understanding of the world. I do think that politicians and corporations would prefer that people didn’t think—it’s much easier to herd sheep than thinking, reasoning people.
Me: You wake up one day and decide to write a Historical non-Fiction book. Give me the subject and overview of this dream book.
Diana: Oh that’s easy. I’d write about Emily Eden in India. She was the sister of the Governor General of India (pretty much the king of India for all intents and purposes) in the 1830s and 40s. During that time, a lot of things happened, including Queen Victoria taking the English throne. In India, Eden was a sharp and critical observer and at one point, she and her brother and sister and a huge number of people went “up the country.” A two year journey through India. I’d want to write about her and the politics of the period. It’s fascinating. She was also a novelist, and upon returning to England, she published The Semi-attached Couple and The Semi-detached House, both in a similar vein to Jane Austen.
Me: How much author editing is too much? Where should an author stop editing before submission?
Diana: When the book is good. The trouble is, how do you know if it’s good? Part of me thinks that it’s volume that tells you. The more words you read and produce, the more skills you have and a better barometer for understanding what makes a good story. Applying that to yourself can be painful, but oh so necessary. Feedback from a quality source is also good. Someone to tell you when things are or aren’t working.
But there’s a point where you have to stop and submit and start the next process. You move on because every project teaches you more and you become a better writer.
Me: Social Media. Talk about its importance to the modern author’s success.
Diana: I think that social media is only worthwhile if you like to do it because you like to do it. I think it’s obvious when someone hates twittering or facebooking or what have you. It’s not that fun to read when that happens and so doesn’t do anything for you as an author. I like to twitter and I like to keep a blog. I don’t know how interesting they are, but I do like them. It’s nice to have the chance in the various networking situations to talk to fans and fellow writers. Being a writer, especially in Montana, can be an isolating thing. So social networking can help keep me sane.
Or it can suck up all my time. So I have to be careful. But I do enjoy the interaction so much. How much impact it’s had on my success, I don’t know. But I don’t do it for that, so any positive effect is gravy.
Me: Tell us about your agent and why you two are the perfect match.
Diana: My agent is Lucienne Diver of the Knight Agency. She’s fabulous. She knows the business and she’s got the energy of a hundred Energizer Bunnies. Or a dozen cats on crack. She gets my humor (morbid and twisted) and shares it. She is a writer as well, so she understand what her clients are going through. She likes what I write and totally knows how to talk me off the ledge when I’m flipping out over something. She gives me feedback on my writing when I want it and she can be a bulldog when she needs to be.
I’d like to thank Diana for her time, for her talent, and for a reason to throw another log on the fire, close the blinds and fade into another of her fantastic stories.