Today I am pleased to post an interview with Christy English. At the moment, I am half way through Christy’s first novel, The Queen’s Pawn, enjoying her interpretation of Eleanor of Acquitaine and Princess Alais of France, daughter of Eleanor’s first husband, Louis. Intrigue, scheming and high stakes keep the pages turning.
How did you journey from being an actor to writing? I think I am still on that journey. Every mode of creative work feeds another, and I find that the source of my characters when I’m on stage is the same source of my characters when I’m writing. They come from somewhere unknown, a magical place, to tell me their stories. Instead of putting them on stage using another woman’s words, I now put them on the page using their own. I will always take any opportunity I can to act, and I will always be a writer. All of our creativity flows from the same mysterious Source.
Why do you write historical fiction in particular? I have always been in love with the past. I realized this when I first read THE MASK OF APOLLO by Mary Renault. She transported me to ancient Athens using nothing but words, words that created an entire world for me, a world I found I did not want to leave. The element of entering a new world, one I want to stay in, is the mark of a good book, whatever the genre.
What do you think attracts readers to historical fiction? I think readers want a window into the past. Some want to learn the details of history, while others simply want to listen to an author ask the question: What might have happened if? And then enjoy the journey that the author takes them on.
Do you have a particular approach to research and writing? I do whatever my characters say. LOL This sounds simple, but it isn’t. It has taken me many years, and will no doubt take many more, for me to put my own ideas to the side, especially during a first draft, and let my characters talk. There is a lot of trust involved, but then, the characters trust me to tell their stories well. It is a two way street.
Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you? As I mentioned, reading Mary Renault taught me not only what it is to be an historical fiction writer, but how to begin to explore my own voice. I am the fan of many writers currently working in the field today, Sharon Kay Penman, C.W. Gortner, Stephanie Cowell, Erika Robuck. My tastes in historical fiction range far…I find that I love seeing the different ways other people look into the past.
What ingredients do you think make for a top historical fiction author? The ability to have compassion for the people we are writing about. A good historical fiction author acknowledges that we will never truly know anything about the past, that we are archeologists piecing together the broken shards of a long lost pot. Maybe we get it right, maybe we don’t, but no matter how we work, we all want to honor the dead with our storytelling.
You have published three books. Can you tell us a bit about your publishing journey? Two novels are set in Plantagenet era, your most recent novel, How to Tame a Willful Wife, seems to be set in another era. Why change? For many years I have been obsessed with Eleanor of Aquitaine. I found that every story I started about Richard the Lionhearted, about Princess Alais of France, or about Henry II, always came back to her. She is my Muse and my joy. My relationship to my characters, Eleanor included, is always very personal. I feel as if I live with them throughout the writing and editing process, and I want to live with people I like.
My current novel, a Regency romance, HOW TO TAME A WILLFUL WIFE, was born from a dream. I find that all my novels, whether set in the 12th century or in the 19th, all spring from the same mysterious Source. I don’t question it. I just keep writing.
What techniques do you employ to write productively? There are as many techniques as there are writers. My mantra, and the one I always pass on to people who ask, is: Stay in the chair. There are many days when you are literally going to want to run away, to forget you ever started the thing, days when you don’t know where it is going or how it is all going to end. But a professional comes to the chair even on those days, whether anything actually gets written or not. Show up. Eventually, your characters will, too.
A professional writer is not someone who has sold a book, but someone who stays in the chair.
Are you trying to develop a brand? If so, how would you describe it and how will you reinforce it? I am a bit of an idealist, but I do not believe that branding applies to art. Branding is a commercial term, and while there is no doubt that we work and sell our novels in a commercial world, the work itself in many ways has to be separate from that. I have to love my characters and my stories, and I do, whether they are considered by others to be commercial or not. I find that the truer I stay to the story that has come to me, the happier my readers are.
What do you do to connect with readers? I have the joy of blogging, talking to readers on Facebook and on Twitter.
What do you know about your readers? Only what they tell me. I interact with folks on Facebook and Twitter, many of whom are writers, too. I get the chance to know a little about them as people, and that is a blessed thing.
What data do you collect about your readers? None. I take privacy issues very seriously. If someone likes my work, they will find me.
What strategies guide your writing career? I try to write well. I want to become better and better as an artist, as a storyteller, because I think quality ultimately is the only thing that matters. Of course, in this day and age, writers have to market their own books, and I do that online by talking to readers and by making myself available to them. But ultimately, it is the joy in the books, both for me and for them, that keeps us all coming back.
What would you do differently if you were starting again? Remember that marketing is important, but loving the work is more important. If this work becomes a job, the party is over, for the reader too. Remember why you do this work. Keep that thought as fresh and as close to your heart as you can. In the end, it is only the love that matters.
Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction? Stay in the chair. Give yourself the time to find your voice, no matter how long it takes. Tell the story you love, the way you need to tell it. Cherish your work. You are unique in the world. No one can tell your story but you.
Is there a question you would like to answer that I haven’t asked? No question really, I just want to thank you for taking the time to interview me, to talk to me about my work. I love being a writer, and I love being a reader. Both roles make the world a lovely place for me, and I am always excited to share my thoughts with fellow tribe members.
Many thanks for telling us about your writing, Christy. I like your advice about ‘stay in the chair’ and love your analogy to archeology “piecing together the broken shards of a long lost pot”.
May you have many pots to piece together!