Saturday, March 10, 2012

Author Interview: Joan Szechtman

"I can't turn off my inner editor."

Our author interview this weekend is with Joan Szechtman. Regular readers will recognize Joan as someone who frequently comments on posts at Books and Pals, consistently adding excellent insights to our posts. 

Authors interested in participating in the author interview series can get details here.

Before I respond to these questions, I want to thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak about my books and writing. Also, thank you so much for your thoughtful reviews. Each review I read gives me new insights into writing.

Thanks, Joan. The short biographies on your blog and website paint an interesting picture, much different from many authors. In all the author interviews so far I’ve asked something along the lines of “did you always want to be a writer?” I suspect your answer to this question is going to be different. What gave you the drive to start writing?

Although an avid reader, I never thought about writing fiction of any kind until I stumbled on fan fiction through Farscape, a sci-fi show I watched. When I found that other fans were writing spin-off stories involving the show’s characters, I started to play with the what-ifs and wrote some of my own fan fictions. Still, I didn’t feel compelled to take the writing to the next step until I discovered the real Richard III, first from Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman, and then from Paul Murray Kendall’s biography, Richard the Third. At that point, I thought I would write an article about Richard, but the deeper I delved into the research, the more it expanded into a series of novels.

Your education is in electrical engineering and you had a long career in computer sciences. Hardware, software, or both? How do you think your education and work experience has helped you as an author? How do you think it has made it harder to be an author.

My early jobs were working with hardware, but in a similar vein to my accidental writing career, I was given a programming task on the first day of a new job. Despite having no programming experience, I was assigned to write an operating system that would fit within a 4000 byte memory. Oh, and I could only use half that memory for the operating system. My code had to be super-efficient. I still write short.

I think my technical background has served me well as a writer. I see the story as the basic program and the editing as the debugging portion. Writing, like programming, requires logic and structure. In addition to programming, I also planned and implemented wide area networks and local area networks. The networking aspect stands me well in seeing how my characters connect to each other.

Perhaps the biggest negative is that I can’t turn off my inner editor. This probably comes from my trying to get it right the first time through without having to do any serious rewriting. This means I spend more time with each paragraph instead of first getting my thoughts down and then going back and “fixing” it. And I still have to do the serious rewriting. *sigh*

What is it about Richard III as a historical figure that attracted you to him?

On an emotional level, I think the thing that got me the most about Richard III, was that he was only 32 years old when he was killed in battle. Plus, there was so much mystery surrounding this 15th-century monarch, not the least of which was what happened to his nephews, the two princes in the tower, who Shakespeare would have had everyone think Richard killed to become England’s king. As I researched the events during Richard’s reign, I discovered that there were no primary sources that documented what had happened to the princes. Just before Edward IV died, he named his brother Richard to be Edward’s (the older son’s) protector since the prince was still a minor. While protector, Richard learned from the Bishop of Bath that Edward IV had a precontract marriage with Eleanor Talbot that was still valid when he married the princes’ mother, Elizabeth. Edward IV’s marriage was declared bigamous and his children were all legally bastards, unable to inherit title. There is no mention of what happened to the princes in any of the documentation.

I do have more on this issue in my author’s notes in both This Time and Loyalty Binds Me.

We had a discussion in the comments of a post about the regional variants of the English language and how that affects authors and readers. One of the difficulties many authors have is getting the dialogue correct for a character who doesn’t speak their flavor of English. You’ve had to deal with this in both your books, with characters who spoke English as if they came from the 15th century England, English as it is spoken in England today, and American English. How did you manage to get this right and why did you think it mattered?

I paid a freelance editor to copy edit the entire manuscript, including the author’s notes on my next to final draft. After I made all those corrections, I printed a copy and asked my mate to go through it. He found a few more issues, which I fixed before I felt it was ready for print.

In addition to the freelance editor, I have Critique Circle (CC) to thank for my getting the language right. CC has members from around the globe, with quite a few that live in the UK. Even though I had visited England several times as part of my research for these books, I still needed to verify certain phrases and names. I was able to ask my English critters things like “what would a cabbie call his male passenger?” The answer is “boss.”

I also relied on special dictionaries, such as The Oxford Essential Dictionary of Word Histories and the Medieval Wordbook. My biggest problem with Medieval Wordbook is that I couldn’t look up a modern word to find the medieval word—I had to know the medieval word. I felt it was critically important to get right because I wanted my readers to “hear” the differences in language, as this is as much a part of the story and setting as is a description of a room or a person’s appearance.

The Richard III Society was also invaluable in terms of validating my speculation. Since we don’t actually know what happened to the princes, I had to come up with a plausible scenario of what could have happened. It would have been much more difficult for me to do without support from the members.

Critique Circle is something I’ve seen you mention before in comments on Books and Pals and on your website. Tell us more about them and how they’ve helped your writing.

Probably the best way to understand how CC has helped me is to outline the critiquing process, which is at their core. Before I could submit a story that others could critique, I had to critique two stories by other members. CC provides guidelines for critiquing, which I honed to my own style as I critiqued the stories. Once I earned credits from doing critiques, I submitted my story to be critiqued. Critiques are only valuable when they point out the good, the bad, and the ugly in an honest and helpful way. Ad hominem attacks are not tolerated. I have to say that I learned as much about writing from giving critiques as I did from receiving them. In addition to the critique, CC also has several forums such as research, writing, and indie publishing. Here members chat about their experiences, ask questions, provide answers. Basic membership is free, although I became a premium member shortly after I joined in 2004.

Your first novel takes place in contemporary times, but combines science fiction with history. When I reviewed it I described the sequel, Loyalty Binds Me, as both historical and a thriller. It takes place in contemporary times, with a thriller plot, that is also dependent on the history of Richard III, and some mysteries surrounding him. Do you see this as blending genres and, if so, how do you think choosing to Indie publish is a positive and/or a negative with a book that isn’t clearly one genre or another?

Based on my limited experience with traditional publishing, I’m not at all sure that I would have found a home with a medium to large publisher because of the challenge multiple genres in a single book presents for marketing. Something so simple as placing the book on the shelf can be daunting. I’ve called both books historical fiction for this purpose, but that didn’t stop a reviewer from putting them in the “paranormal romance” category. Sheesh! Bottom line, I see indie publishing as a huge positive for mixed genre books.

What are your favorite books?

I think I need to answer this by listing some of my favorite authors (in no particular order): Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, James Thurber, Anne Rice, Sharon Kay Penman, Diana Gabaldon, Brian Wainwright (an indie author and one of the Ricardians who helped me vet my speculations), Isaac Asimov, Lois McMasters Bujold, Joan Druett, Anne Perry, Janet Evanovich, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Thor Heyerdahl, Joseph Heller, Erich Maria Remarque, Sue Grafton, etc

Do you read other Indie authors? If so, what have been your favorites?

Again, I have to list authors, not titles: Brian Wainwright, Marva Dasef, Christine Lucas, to name but a few who immediately come to mind. (Even though this top-of-my-head list is much shorter, I can see it rapidly grow. Compared to decades reading traditionally published authors, I’ve only just started reading indie authors.)

Your interest in Richard III has also led to your involvement in the Richard III Society. Tell us what they do and about your involvement.

I started by joining the American Branch of the Richard III Society and participating on the online discussion groups. I have attended most of the annual general meetings since joining in 2005, joined the New England Chapter, created the chapter’s website, and was the chapter’s chair for two years. I’m currently the editor for the Ricardian Register, the American Branch’s quarterly publication.

The Richard III Society is dedicated to the study of the life and a reassessment of the reputation of Richard III and the study of fifteenth-century English history and culture.

Your next book, to be called Strange Times, is in progress. Will this be the continued story of Richard III in modern times, or take another direction? What are your writing plans and goals beyond that book?

Strange Times is a sequel to the first two books and starts a few days after the second novel ends. Like the first two, this book will be able to be read by itself. I’m not a fan of ending books with cliffhangers—I think each should be complete with its own denouement. This book will take place half in the 15th-century and half in the 21st-century. I’m really excited about this book because here I will attempt to develop plausible solutions to mysteries connected to Richard III that emerged after he was killed. To wit: what happened to his close friend and confidant, Francis Lovel (the dog in William Colyngbourne’s political ditty: The Cat, The Rat and Lovel our Dog/Do rule all England under a Hog); and who was the first imposter threatening Henry Tudor’s reign.

I have several books in various stages of outline sitting in folders on my computers (I use Dropbox to keep them synchronized between computers) that includes a paranormal about Agecroft Hall (originally located in Manchester, UK, but moved to Richmond, VA in the early 20th-century) and a straight historical fiction about Edward Bramption. He is the converted Portuguese Jew who served Edward IV and Richard III, and who Richard III knighted in 1484—the first British monarch to knight a converso (the term used at the time for a convert to Christianity). I also love science fiction and have a few sketchy ideas for books and short stories in that genre.

Oy, now that I look at what I wrote, I see I failed to write short. Mea culpa.

For More Joan:

For more, visit Joan's blog. You can also follow her on Facebook and twitter.


This Time             Review  Amazon US  UK  B&N  Smashwords  Paper
Loyalty Binds Me   Review  Amazon US  UK  B&N  Smashwords  Paper

Also Mentioned:

Brian Wainwright  Web Amazon US  UK  B&N
Marva Dasef         Web Amazon US  UK  B&N  Smashwords
Christine Lucas     Web


Andrew Ives said...

“what would a cabbie call his male passenger?” I would say the answer is “chief” or "squire" if you mean in London.

Btw, what you say about the parallels between programming and writing is spot on. This bit: "This means I spend more time with each paragraph instead of first getting my thoughts down and then going back and “fixing” it. And I still have to do the serious rewriting. *sigh*" is exactly what I do too. It comes from not being able to write sloppy pseudo code on first pass. You have to write something accurate enough so that it will run without error whereas with books, you can write something rough and amend it later. It's a hard habit to break.
The planning discipline is certainly helpeful in both fields.

Interesting interview.

Andrew Ives said...

"helpeful" - that was a bit of mediaeval English I slipped in there ;-)

Joansz said...

"'helpeful' - that was a bit of mediaeval English I slipped in there ;-)" ;-) Maybe the reason I relate is because my spelling tends to be rather creative.

"boss"--I guess I got bum advice, although it was from more than one source. Maybe it depends on which cabbie one gets?

Thanks for your comments, Andrew.

BooksAndPals said...

On the negative impact of programming on writing, I also have the same problem.

Jel Cel said...

I loved the interview, and am looking forward to the next book in the series.

Marva Dasef said...

Great interview! I swear that Joan and I were separated at birth.

I, too, come from a programming background. I have written some historical, but I'm primarily in the sf/f genres.

I have to say that I've read Joan's novels and am definitely looking forward to the 3rd R. III book.

I totally agree with her sparse writing comments from computer folk. I'm a recovering tech writer/programmer, so totally understand.

Kudos to Joan for her RIII books. They opened my eyes to a person who's character was driven by Shakespeare. Not all bad guys are bad.

Joansz said...

Thanks Jel and Marva. In case you didn't recognize it, Jel, the sci-fi show Farscape that I mention was produced in Oz and most of the cast is from there. And Marva, I'm so glad that you see Richard differently. Changing people's mindset about Richard III was and is a major goal. It's thrilling to know that I've been successful.

Lorrie said...

I also read the first two books. Kudos, Joan, they were outstanding. I am eagerly awaiting the third and hope you continue the series. Richard is quite the guy.

Joansz said...

Thanks, Lorrie. "Richard is quite the guy." Agree!

Lorrie's comment reminded me that she's one of the indie authors I failed to bring to mind when I did the interview. I will use this opportunity to introduce you to Lorrie Unites-Struiff's blog. Lorrie is one of my CC buddies and I was lucky to have an early look at Gypsy Crystal, the book displayed at the top of her blog along with an excerpt.

Annette Carson said...

Great interview! I admire your rate of productivity, it certainly puts mine to shame. I am also one who likes to get things down perfectly first time. The only way I can move on is with a system of tagging odds and ends that aren't right, so I can go back to them. I wish you every success with all your multivarious projects XX Annette

Joansz said...

Thank you, Annette. To anyone reading these comments and who is interested in Ricardian history, I highly recommend Carson's book, Richard III: The Maligned King. I rank her book among the top of my must read and have list for Ricardian History. While I think it's important for novel authors to get the history as close to right as is possible, we still have to speculate and fill in the blanks for a good story, I think it's doubly important for history texts to not only get it as right as possible, but to avoid bias by conveniently eliding those facts that contradict the author's theory. Annette Carson meets this standard, in my opinion.

You are entitled to your opinion, but not your own facts.--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

BooksAndPals said...

I love that quote, Joan. I predict I'll be overusing it in the near future. :)

Joansz said...

I see my inner editor struck again and turned what I meant to say upside down. I wrote, "...but to avoid bias by conveniently eliding those facts that contradict..." where it should have been--"but to avoid bias by not eliding those facts that contradict...."

"I predict I'll be overusing it in the near future." Me too. :) It's so tempting in today's political climate.

Karla Gomez said...

Great interview. It's really interesting how you didn't start off wanting to be an author.

Annette Carson said...

Thanks very much for recommending my book! I don't claim to be an expert, but I do think that what little we know of Richard is mostly capable of being construed in more than one way - only there are very few orthodox historians prepared to admit it, which is why I've done my best to set out alternatives based on what I hope are intelligent arguments. For some of which I'm happy to acknowledge my debt to other more specialist writers. I don't claim to be right, but I do like to offer food for thought ...