AUTHOR INTERVIEW – Maggie Secara
Today’s #WriterWednesday interview is with author Maggie Secara. Welcome, Maggie.
This Blog Blank: So, we may as well get the good stuff out first. Can you tell us about your latest work?
Maggie Secara: Oh gosh, well, Molly September (Popinjay Press, June 2011) is the first novel I ever finished. And finished again. And started over from the top and did it again. At least one — possibly two — more times. Yes, it’s actually the book I started in college. So while it’s technically my latest work, it’s also my first. It’s set in 1674, and it’s tons of fun. A nice fat paperback (or e-book) you can’t just skim through in a day, Molly is romantic, intense, and even funny; an adventure, a pirate movie, a love story and a buddy film, all wrapped up in a mystery. What really happened to Molly’s father? Dick Prentiss knows, and he’ll do almost anything to keep her from finding out.
TBB: When I fall in love with a book, invariably it’s when I can get lost in the descriptions – when it becomes real – sound, image, etc. Other people I know skip the descriptions and go straight to the dialogue. As writers, we are fortunate in being able to get lost in worlds we create. What causes you to get lost when you are writing a book?
I started out as a poet, and have spent a lot of time with musicians and actors. In other words, it’s the words themselves. There’s music in a balanced sentence, in the way the words bounce off each other, when I know I’ve chosen the right ones, whether it’s the sensory details of description, or the back-and-forth zip of a conversation; the hero’s awareness of the weight of the sword in his hand or the giddy realization that he’s in love. When I’m reading, those are the things that turn me on. Those are the lines I stop and read out to my deeply patient husband, or even to myself just for the feel of the words in my mouth.
Of course, then I have to get over it and remember there’s a story going on here. The words may sing and dance, but are they doing what they’re supposed to? If I have to cut them away and put them in a box, I will. The reader may never know, but I will.
TBB: As a reader, I am very much character-driven. What do you do in order to make your characters interesting to readers?
Plot is why we pick up a book, but characters are why we read it. They need to be 3-dimensional, of course. They absolutely must have a back story, even if it’s never completely revealed. But I think what makes a character interesting is the little, often secret things that even their friends would be surprised to know: a man with a desperately disordered life keeps a book of John Donne’s most complex poetry by his bedside; a perfectly sensible woman struggling to manage on her own keeps a sketch book in her purse and a hidden talent for details in her head. Those are the things I often don’t see myself until the character comes up and says hey! Look at this! In some cases, those details may be critical to the story, in others, they’re more or less incidental. Either way, those are things that set one blue-eyed hero apart from another, and helps to make him real. If I don’t believe in the people, I probably won’t buy any of the rest.
TBB: What led you toward writing historical fiction?
I suspect it was movies! I grew up watching old movies on TV with my mom, and her bright-eyed heroes and heroines became mine: Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., William Powell, Maureen O’Hara, Janet Leigh. With my dad, I learned more than I ever meant to about both world wars watching The Twentieth Century with Walter Cronkite
In college, I majored in English because there was no way to specialize in British history, and literature always comes with a context, so my passion for English history was fed continuously. Shortly after that, I got deeply involved with the Living History Center, the founding organization of the original Renaissance Pleasure Faire. The organizers pushed for a kind of authenticity you don’t often see in the Ren Fest world, which pushed me into a life-long study of Elizabethan times. Writing historical fiction gives me a place to put all that knowledge, and make it about people who are like us, but not entirely like us at all.
But mostly there’s the simple fact that I never feel like I actually know my own world as well as I do big chunks of the past. A simple contemporary novel? Wouldn’t know where to start.
TBB: A lot of writers speak of their muse. What inspires your writing?
I usually speak of my so-called muse as a bleached blond tramp who’s clearly sucking up drinks with little umbrellas in them on the beach in Aruba. I even wrote a poem about her, once, that says as much. Really, though, I don’t entirely know what inspires the writing. Sometimes it’s a question, like: What if my friend Jack, who’s a college professor, had to solve a mystery? Or a line from a poem: There are fairies at the bottom of my garden. Once the writing starts, it comes very fast, and I don’t think about where it comes from.
What inspires me while I’m writing is quite different. During the last the very last I swear to god I’m not doing this again last draft of Molly September, it was music. If it weren’t for James Newton Howard, Howard Shore, and The Musicians of Swann Alley, I don’t know where I’d be.
TBB: Name something you wish you’d written. Why?
Almost anything by Lindsey Davis. Not only is Marcus Didius Falco a terrific, believable character, but when he takes you through the streets of 1st Century Rome—when you tear around the corner into the Forum and up the steps into the temple of Saturn, you feel like she’s been there. Like she really knows. That’s a skill I admire and strive for. I get the same kind of feeling from her characters. Even when the story isn’t one of my favorites, Falco and Helena make me glad I spent the time with them.
TBB: What do you like most about your writing? What do you want people to take from it?
I think I give great dialog. I think my male characters sound like actual men, not like a TV punch line, and have their own individual voices as well as the women do. I’m very pleased that the historical detail including clothes, attitudes, and what they had for dinner, are well researched but not a distraction. Over all, I hope people will get the same feeling from a novel of mine as I do from Lindsey Davis: that these people and places are real, and the story is over too soon.
TBB: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
Early on. I loved to read. I think I used the school library more than anyone else in my whole school. And I wrote well. I’m the one people automatically expected to write up an event or the script for a 5th grade film project. And then in junior high, I tried to write a “novel” for the first time. Oh lord, it was so horrid, and I was so pleased with it! (I’ll spare you any further description.) But I knew for sure, that this was what I was meant to do. When they asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, “I’m a writer, you know,” I’d say. Now I just say, “Well you know, I’ve always been a writer.”
TBB: I imagine, that like a lot of writers, you’ve been reading most of your life. What changes have you seen in fiction that move you, or anger you?
It seems like when I was a kid, most of the historicals I read just sounded different. I hope I’m not just inventing Great Age of Historical Novels or something, but the overall quality of the prose was just more— consistent. Writers like Taylor Caldwell, Anya Seton, Thomas B. Costain, Rosemary Sutcliff , and Dorothy Dunnett did something I just don’t see so much any more, and have a hard time explaining. They set a tone at the very beginning, consistent with the time and place of the story, then they stuck to it. They adopted a narrative diction appropriate to their vision of ancient Greece, medieval England, or Roman Britain that made me feel like it was all real. And they didn’t compromise that tone, or make it cute, or forget.
The heroic captain doesn’t say “Verily my brothers, yonder lies the castle of the king my father” only to have his second in command ask, “Okay, so that’s the plan?” That’s a total disconnect for me. (The use of “okay” in anything before the 19th century is the kiss of death, unless the whole book takes that light-hearted, jokey, sort of Xena Warrior Princess tone.) Most don’t.
Sometimes it isn’t the slang that bothers me so much as the use of modern jargon, relying on pop psychology vocabulary to stand as shortcuts for concepts no one in the period would even think of, or at least not in the same breezy way.
TBB: Is there anything that you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Plotting. I start out with a concept, a setting, maybe a small handful of characters and, eventually, a spiral notebook full of ideas and what-if questions. Then I say “Fine, so what actually happens?” And then it’s time to sit down and find the straight path through all the ideas that is the central story. If I don’t create a story plan (hard to call it an outline at that stage), I know for sure the whole thing will peter out somewhere in the middle of chapter 5. That‘s not negative thinking, it’s a simple fact based on experience. It’s always chapter 5. I don’t need to know the ending exactly, but I do need to know where I’m going. This year, I’m trying a mystery for the first time—Victorian paranormal mystery. To me that means knowing who dunnit if not if not exactly how, right up front. It’s going to be interesting!
TBB: What do you want potential readers to know about your writing?
There will be music, there may be magic, there will certainly be some smart-ass dialog. Someone will get chased by wolves of one sort or another, whether sea wolves, demons, or Walsingham’s minions. The historical setting will be reliable. And it will all come out all right in the end.
TBB: How can they find your work?
You could do worse than start here. http://litunderground.com/MaggieSecara.html
Molly September is published in association with Literary Underground, a hotbed of independent authorship with high standards for copy editing and cover art, as well as excellent prose.
And while we’re at it, on the non-fiction shelf. A Compendium of Common Knowledge 1558-1603 (Popinjay Press 2008) is the paperback version of my website, the flagship site of Renaissance: the Elizabethan World at http://elizabethan.org Not a dry text book, but an easy-access notebook meant to open a door to the little details that make up the world of Shakespeare and Good Queen Bess.