Today my guest is Anna Brentwood, whose first novel, The Songbird with Sapphire Eyes (CreateSpace), recently debuted. I was especially interested in interviewing Anna because her historical novel was inspired by a long series of detailed dreams about the characters and their lives.
Welcome, Anna, and congratulations on publishing your first novel!
Thanks for introducing and having me as your guest, Shauna.
The Songbird with Sapphire Eyes takes place in the 1920s. Did your research upset your preconceptions of the era in any way? What part of your research most surprised you?
When I thought of the Roaring ’20s, I imagined it like an old movie: flappers, gangsters, people dancing to the Charleston, a light-hearted but very old-fashioned time. What I learned was that life in general back then was actually brutally hard and short and contained very few pleasures, especially compared with what we all take for granted today.
I never thought about the fact that there was no such thing as civil rights, employment rights, or women’s rights and that people lived hard, worked harder, smoked incessantly, and drank continuously. Even if they were “abstinence” people, they got steady doses of alcohol, heroin, morphine, cocaine, and opium in their soft drinks, candy, or medicines. My presumption was that people were simpler then and that the world was less complex; that people were innocent and trusting and so much less jaded than we are today, but I discovered that the truth lies somewhere in between and the “good old days” were not all so good.
The people, places, and events of your novel came to you in a series of dreams. Were you able to verify the existence of any of them or of the jeweled songbird?
My novel is populated with real people, places, and true events, and more of them matched or corresponded to the things I dreamt than I ever thought possible.
I had no prior knowledge about Kansas where Hannah came from, but when I actually started doing the research to try and “match” what I remembered from the dream, more times than not, I was so accurate it gave me the chills. How did I know that the farms were generally small, 20- to 40-acre parcels and most produced wheat or cattle? That it wasn’t farfetched to be of German, Scandinavian, or Swedish extract?
Very early in my process before the Internet was available, I sent letters to several local Kansas newspapers. I included a hand-drawn map and a description of the town I was looking for. I said I was researching for a book. I knew it had a livery, a post office, and a one-room schoolhouse. I wasn’t sure of the exact years, but gave a range. Several of the newspapers published my letter and I received 20 letters from people (mostly elderly) telling me I was describing the town where they’d grown up—all within the same area I’d felt drawn to on a map.
How did I guess that Kansas City was the Sin City of its time? And how preposterous it sounded even to me that Hannah would meet an Italian gangster from Brooklyn, New York, in Kansas City, yet the research proved it possible. This actually helped me further pinpoint the time period because even pre-Prohibition, organized crime bosses were already organizing truck routes by meeting with other city bosses and politicians. Personally, I am a stickler for details and adore the research. Even writing fiction, I aim to stick as close to fact as possible.
As far as my main characters—Hannah, Ray, Meg, Rosie, and Johnny—I was not really sure about their last names or the spelling of them, but when I first had the dream I spent a considerable amount of time in the library going through old newspapers on microfiche to see whether I could find out if any of them were real people. Amazingly, I did verify the existence of a young Johnny Gallo arrested for theft, but without exact dates and last names, locating the others proved too time consuming. To date, I have never located an image that matches the jeweled songbird Johnny gave Hannah as I saw it in the dream.
Do you have a theory about why you dreamed about these people over and over again?
As a former artist, I know what it feels like to feel as if you are tapping into other creative energies, but this particular experience was so different. At first, I was convinced it had to be a past life memory because of all the things I knew that were true. I still cannot explain why or how I knew all of the things I did; however, there is also the theory that Hannah was a ghost and she wanted and needed her story told and “haunted” me. All I do know for certain is that she was very real to me.
Around Halloween time, I was researching how to write ghost stories. I came across one piece of advice I disagreed with: Ghosts in stories aren’t interesting unless they are evil and have bad intentions. Personally, I prefer ghost stories in which the ghost retains some or all of its original personality. What do you think?
I believe ghosts are just beings that are not living in this dimension or density in a physical body anymore. The “ghosts” we come in contact with are what I call Earthbound. That means they are tied to the Earth, to an object, person, or event because they have unresolved emotions or attachments and they either refuse to leave or can’t let go yet to move on, so I agree with you. I think it would be limiting to decide that a ghost has to be evil to be interesting. That is like saying a living person has to be evil to be interesting. Whether living or dead, we all have the potential for good or evil and I doubt that ever changes.
What was your favorite part of writing The Songbird with Sapphire Eyes?
Writing is so personally challenging that wherever you are in the process, there are always new hurdles to surmount and you are always learning. That can be both frustrating and rewarding but with The Songbird With Sapphire Eyes, I enjoyed unwinding the puzzle of Hannah’s story using the clues I was given through the dreams. I loved being able to give myself over to the characters and immerse myself into that world.
Why did you choose to self-publish your book, and what do you think the advantages and disadvantages are?
I spent years pursuing the conventional publishing route before self-publishing. I was agented for several years, worked with a top-notch editor, went to work full-time and put writing aside, but eventually decided to keep at it. In the meantime, the publishing industry was exploding, and I was paying attention. Picking brains and learning all I could. When a book is too different, be it cross genres or unusual time periods or anything not fitting into an exact slot, it is harder to be conventionally published. That was the reason despite great interest that I didn’t get picked up.
Because the industry is changing so drastically conventional publishers would rather bet on a sure thing than take a risk on something that may or may not hit. With hundreds of agents and editors and publishers scrambling to find a way to fit themselves into the new publishing world order, it is even harder (and it has always been hard) for new authors and people drawing a bit outside the box to be picked up.
That said, there are advantages and disadvantages to both routes. With self-publishing, you have more control over your product from start to finish, you can edit or change things, and the start-up costs are minimal. You have a more direct way to reach readers, a greater opportunity to retain more of your profits, and instant access to your own sales and tracking information. But with self-publishing all the work is on you, and there is a more of it because no one is helping you with your production or your marketing.
And it is super important that you don’t put out a “home-made” or unprofessional-looking product. By that I mean, unless you are a great graphic designer or artist, hire someone who knows what they are doing. Also, your book should have been vetted by critique partners or groups, other writers, ideally some contest entries, and several readers, plus a professional editor or two before deciding your masterpiece is ready to be published. While this doesn’t guarantee perfection or success, it does make for a more professional effort, and the good news is that there are lots of reasonably priced experts in both design and editing now.
As writers, most of us hate having to hawk our wares, myself included, but more than ever, authors are helping authors and there are fewer things more enjoyable than connecting with other writers to talk shop or meeting other readers and fans who read, liked and “get” your book.
|"Cloche Hat Walker," Harry Walker, photographer|
What genres do you read most? Who are your favorite authors?
I read a little bit of everything, but mostly romantic suspense, paranormal, and mystery. I have so many favorite authors and the list is always growing, but some of my old favorites are Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb, Diana Galbaldon, Karen Marie Moning, Laurell K. Hamilton . . . and the list goes on and on.
What writers have had the greatest influence on you?
Mercer Addison, Nora Roberts, Diana Galbaldon, etc.; the list is endless.
How important have your writing friends been in your development as a writer?
They mean everything! If it weren’t for my critique partner kicking my butt and threatening to stop helping me with my first manuscript if I didn’t finish and pitch it, I might still be “working” on it. And authors’ helping other authors has never been so encouraged. I notice this with my conventionally published friends but especially amongst indie and self-publishing authors. Whether critiquing, commiserating, or exchanging information, whatever stage we are in the process, we can all relate to one another. And we all have to market, blog, and tweet, so why not share knowledge and resources? It’s a great support.
Are there certain themes or topics you’re drawn to in your writing?
In The Songbird With Sapphire Eyes, I was questioning life and death and the purpose of life. Writing Hannah’s story gave me many ways to look at those topics and through her, the infinite possibilities.
Whether we search for meaning in life or just for ourselves, we all go through life with hopes, dreams, and goals. We are always faced with choices. Choices fascinate me. Choices inevitably take us on paths we may or may not have wanted to be on, and they always lead to other experiences and choices.
I am drawn to writing stories in which people are living real lives and are struggling, as we all do in life, to figure things out. I especially like stories with strong, powerful men or women who are passionate, flawed, and complex and, in some cases, epitomize the dichotomy between good and evil. I strive to write stories to entertain but also to teach me, and subsequently my readers, something personally relevant.
What is your writing regimen? Would you recommend it to aspiring authors?
I have no set writing regimen anymore. When I first started writing, my children were young and I was able to be home, so my writing schedule began when everyone was out of the house three weekdays a week by 8:00 a.m. and ended at 4:00 p.m., when I had to go pick my kids up at the bus. I was able to make a set schedule. Now, it is always a struggle for balance between work, life, and all the constant interruptions and obligations. Between promoting my book and starting my latest project, I have been grabbing the time when and wherever I can, be it a break at work or a quiet evening or weekend hours at home. I am committing one set weekend day a week starting in March to immerse myself in my writing cave to finish my next book, but the only advice I can give any aspiring author is to remember that life is all about balance and you need to know going into it that there will always be things getting into the way. Be flexible, be determined; and even if you find only an hour or two a week to write, you will eventually have a finished product if you keep at it.
What promotion methods have been the most successful for you?
I do social media: Twitter and Facebook. I belong to several local writing groups, reader and book forums, and online loops. I do occasional give-aways and promos and send out news releases. I email friends and family and often ensure their help to spread the word. (I have great family and friends who tirelessly support me!) I take workshops, go on retreats, and do guest blogs and signings whenever I can. The small, independent bookstores are always helpful, and I’ve gotten to personally know several of the owners and adore them; they are so supportive! I give out promo materials, flyers, and postcards and have another wonderful friend who helps me with marketing by calling on small bookstores and shops and is always brainstorming new ideas. I don’t know what works best yet, but I do know you have to work because doing something always spikes sales and interest better than doing nothing.
When will your next book come out, and what will it be about?
I hope to have it out sometime next year. It is the sequel to The Songbird With Sapphire Eyes and will take readers on a journey through the 1940s with Johnny Gallo’s son, wartime hero, playboy, and New York mobster Anthony Gallo.
Thank you for visiting my blog today, and best wishes on your writing!
You can learn more about Anna Brentwood and The Songbird with Sapphire Eyes by visiting her Website at http://www.annabrentwood.com or by friending her on Twitter @annabrentwood or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/annabrentwood.
Anna’s book is available online at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com, as well as by order from your favorite local bookstore. In Hillsboro, Oregon, it’s available at Arcade Book Exchange and Jacobsen’s Books and in Lake Oswego at Graham’s.
My blog is changing focus. It will still target writers, but in addition to interviews with authors, writing news, and posts about grammar, I'll be writing about combining writing with chronic illnesses, in particular, finding the time and the energy to write. Even if you don't have a chronic illness, many of these posts may be useful for you because you work long hours at your job or have small children or otherwise have limited time, energy, and/or mental capacity to write. To learn more, see my post of 8 March 2013.