Morgen: Hello James. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
James: I am a long-time teacher (high school senior English and Creative Writing) and St. Martin’s Press author. I always had visions of writing novels, but years ago I moved to Hollywood and started taking screenwriting classes. It was there that I met a new friend who showed me the diary of his great-great-great-grandmother, a countess who lived and wrote of the 1790s in Poland. This was a turning point in my life. I began creating a novel from that diary.
Morgen: Sorry any screenwriters out there, I’ve only tried one once but I’d go with a novel every time. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
James: Historical Fiction (although the first book is based on the countess’ life). I’ve toyed with a paranormal ghost story.
Morgen: What have you had published to-date? Can you remember where you saw your first books on the shelves?
James: Push Not the River and its sequel Against a Crimson Sky. The first time I saw Push Not the River on a shelf was at a local Barnes and Noble and it faced front in the window! Quite a thrill.
Morgen: We don’t have B&N here in the UK but I can imagine seeing it in Waterstone’s would be just so. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
James: Even a big press like St. Martin’s expects you to do the “sell,” so I do as much as possible in any way possible.
Morgen: I think it’s the way the industry is going. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
James: Out of the blue, The American Institute of Polish Culture flew me to Florida to receive their Gold Medal for Literature. This was some 30 years after James Michener won one of their first medals. Not bad for this Irish/Norwegian writer. Such honors do help.
Morgen: Absolutely. A foot in a door. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
James: Yes, I have an excellent agent although I did incite some interest on the part of a big publishing house before enlisting the help of an agent.
Morgen: Are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
James: Yes, they are both available as eBooks. I don’t have a device myself as yet, but I know the day is coming. I have definitely noticed that there is a BIG swing to eBooks on the part of my readers.
Morgen: It’s what I’m hearing too. I have a generic eReader but may get a Kindle for testing purposes, although my editor Rachel has one so undecided as yet (probably will, I’m a gadget girl :)). Do you remember your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
James: Yes and yes. There were many bumps along the road, so the “buy” by a publisher was terrible exciting.
Morgen: On the flip-side, have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
James: Decades of rejections. Persistence is key. One cannot take rejections personally. If they come with critiques and suggestions, consider them. After all, writing is a craft that has to be honed.
Morgen: It does; like playing the piano or painting. What are you working on at the moment / next?
James: I’m working on the final part of my trilogy based on the Polish countess. The trilogy will have covered 1791 to 1831, including the Napoleonic years.
Morgen: I think that part of history will always be popular (and the three agents I saw recently ). Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
James: When I’m on break from teaching I try to read and write every day. If I can get a new scene written, I am quite content. Revising a full chapter has the same effect. I do love tweaking and revising.
Morgen: Tweaking / revising are like Marmite with me; I have to be in the mood. 🙂 What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
James: For me it’s more procrastination that writer’s block. I write late in the day, so if I put it off too long, it doesn’t get done. Guilt is a good cure.
Morgen: Deadlines work for me. 🙂 Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
James: With the first book, Countess Anna’s diary provided a wonderful outline. For the second, I had no diary so I tried to outline a great plot and then fill in the characterization. That idea fizzled as I looked at a sheaf of empty pages.
Morgen: Oh dear. The old ‘can’t edit a blank page’ scenario.
James: I had four point-of-view characters which I finally let loose, one at a time, upon the historical background. They wrote their own stories.
Morgen: Phew. 🙂 Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
James: A very good friend, a teacher and inveterate reader, get first crack at the first drafts. I trust her implicitly. It helps to get the feminine point of view, too.
Morgen: Oh, that helps. But it’s made me think… I only have one male writer friend (I have more women writer friends I’m pleased to say :)) so I guess I think I can either write men or I write women too often! Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
James: I do editing every time I reread the manuscript-in-progress. So I do a lot of it and I enjoy doing it.
Morgen: Mmm… I sort of do but I don’t go overboard. When I feel something is ready it goes off to Rachel. I don’t What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
James: I like to read a chapter from a historical novel. Then I peruse the history I have on the historical people and events in the country (Poland). Hopefully, I’ve thought ahead and have an index card as to who is in the next scene, and that’s when I write the scene.
Morgen: Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
James: I’ve moved away from paper to the time-saving word processor. I might briefly outline a scene on the index card or a yellow tablet.
Morgen: What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
James: I stubbornly tried keeping the first book in third person to maintain the flavour of a diary, but agents and editors kept encouraging me to go to the third and multiple point of view. Enough years of hearing that prompted me to change. Now I thoroughly enjoy third person. Second person is truly daunting.
Morgen: Everything not tried tends to be daunting but do try it. (You could continue the sentence ‘He’s told you not to do it but you can’t help feeling…’) 🙂 Do you use prologues / epilogues? What do you think of the use of them?
James: I like prologues and epilogues, too, as long as they are there for a reason. I was concerned about my prologue to the third book (I’ve heard “experts” say to avoid them altogether.), so recently I asked a senior editor at St. Martin’s about prologues and he said he LOVES them. So there you are.
Morgen: I used to avoid them but my second novel worked best with one so I did it. I must admit though that I tend to skim through books which have them which is very naughty. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
James: I have a contemporary ghost story that I would like to bring to light one day. Who knows? Writers are often seen as having one “platform” and it takes some doing to move to another.
Morgen: Sadly it appears that the industry likes to pigeon hole but that’s the good thing about eBooks, you can be anywhere you like. 🙂 What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
James: Favourite: developing a scene to my satisfaction. Least favourite: duties that take me away from writing.
Morgen: Yes, life does has this annoying habit of getting in the way. If anything, what has been your biggest surprise about writing?
James: That one’s story can truly affect lives. One young couple came up to me at an event. They had a two-year-old child they had named after one of my characters in Push Not the River. Wow! Makes one’s skin pimple.
Morgen: Wow indeed. My goodness. Wow! 🙂 What advice would you give aspiring writers?
James: PERSIST, and while you are persisting, hone your craft.
Morgen: Absolutely. If you’ve never painted, played the piano before you can’t expect to paint a masterpiece or play a concerto the first time you do it. What do you like to read?
James: Somerset Maugham, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Oscar Wilde, Philippa Gregory.
Morgen: Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful and would recommend?
James: Books: Dare to be a Great Writer by Leonard Bishop (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dare-Great-Writer-Leonard-Bishop/dp/0898794641) and Scene and Structure by Jack M. Bickham (http://www.amazon.com/Elements-Fiction-Writing-Scene-Structure/dp/0898799066).
Morgen: In which country are you based and do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
James: I’m in the US. I have found it difficult getting the word out to other English-speaking countries; however, the translations of both books are bestsellers in Poland.
James: How odd (the getting the word out bit). I guess the internet makes this easier in the long-run. My website has quite a bit of information, as well as a book trailer: http://www.JamesCMartin.com
Morgen: I’m hearing more about book trailers. I’d be interested to know whether you feel they’re worth doing. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Morgen: What do you think the future holds for a writer?
James: It’s an exciting time for writers, I think. The eBook will provide opportunities, as well as new readers.
Morgen: I think we’re all hoping so. 🙂 Thank you James. The following is an excerpt of James’ writing… from ‘Against a Crimson Sky’
Poland 1794 – 2 November: All Souls’ Day
Swollen with recent rains, the river heaved and churned, flowing rapidly away from Warsaw, its burden of bodies propelled carelessly along, like so much flotsam.
A partially clad woman clung to something as the current took her. A log? A piece of planking from the broken bridge? Delirious from the fall, she was certain she was dying—or had died. Her faith—or the hazy filaments of a childhood belief that she conjured now—suggested she might expect to ascend into heaven as if on wings. Or plummet to a hell she had thought little about.
But she was being carried in an undulating line—like a weightless twig—through the drumming rush of water. The sparkling interplay of the afternoon sunshine on the water was deceiving, for the river was brutally cold.
The woman’s mind inexplicably fastened on to the mythical river that was thought to usher one to the Greek underworld. Her cousin had told her about it—the river Acheron, was it? She dared not open her eyes.
What was she to expect in the underworld? There would be the fee for the ferry boat operator. Did she have any coins? She thought not, and without a coin he would not bring her across. Everyone knew that. Might she use her charms on him? Were charms of her kind taken as legal tender in the underworld? She had her doubts.
Her heart felt the icy fingers of the river upon it. How was she to account for her life? The things she had done?
The numbing water seemed to run faster now—like her fear—rushing her to her fate.
The ancient Poles had believed that those who died by drowning were doomed to become water spirits, forever residing in the waters where they had met death. She imagined Marzanna, Goddess Death, waiting for her at the river’s end, dressed in white and carrying her scythe.
The woman pushed the Polish deity from her mind. At the age of twenty, she had run out of time. So? What of it? She had often proclaimed that the years of her youth were ducats to be spent. Wishing she had lived a better life was useless. Just as well, she thought—she had never been one for apologies. Or regrets.
James Conroyd Martin is a long-time English teacher at Marian High School in Chicago Heights, Illinois. He worked for a number of years on Push Not the River, a novel based on the actual diary of a countess who lived through the rise and fall of Poland’s Third of May Constitution (1790s). St. Martin’s Press released it in September of 2003. India Edghill writes that it contains “all the sweep and romance of Gone with the Wind and Doctor Zhivago”. The sequel, Against a Crimson Sky, follows up on the diary, as will the final book in the trilogy, The Warsaw Conspiracy.
If you are reading this and you write, in whatever genre, and are thinking “ooh, I’d like to do this” then you can… just email me and I’ll send you the information. They do now (January 2013) carry a fee (£10 / €12.50 / $15) for the new interviews on this blog but everything else (see Opportunities on this blog) is free.
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