Welcome to the Tuesday Author Interview series at The Writing Life. We have a wonderful line up of talented authors into May 2017, so please check back in next week.
Today I’m very pleased to welcome C. P. Lesley, a historian who has published six novels. Her Legends of the Five Directions series, set in Russia during the childhood of Ivan the Terrible, so far includes The Golden Lynx, The Winged Horse, and The Swan Princess.
C. P. also hosts New Books in Historical Fiction, a channel in the New Books Network. http://newbooksnetwork.com
Welcome to The Writing Life.
What is your book’s genre/category?
Historical fiction, with elements of romance and adventure.
Please describe for our readers what The Swan Princess is about.
The Swan Princess is no. 3 (North) in Legends of the Five Directions, a series set in the 1530s featuring a Tatar princess, Nasan, who marries a Russian nobleman. In this book Nasan, whose ambition in life is to imitate the warrior heroines of old, feels abandoned by her husband, who has gone off to war and never writes, as well as suffocated in the rigid household run by her mother-in-law, Natalya. When Natalya decides to undertake a long pilgrimage for her health, Nasan sees a path to regaining the life she loves, but she soon runs afoul of an old enemy determined to avenge what he perceives as unjust treatment from her and her husband. Fortunately for all concerned, she has more skills to draw on than the domestic knowledge her mother-in-law considers the only acceptable pursuit for women.
I’m currently reading and very much enjoying The Swan Princess. How did you come up with the title?
Well, as has happened throughout this series, the title came to me before I knew what the image meant for my story. I had to hunt down legends about swan maidens and swan wives before I could figure out what my subconscious was trying to tell me. I discovered that such legends are widespread throughout the world, including in the Tatar lands. One version, familiar in the West, appears in the ballet Swan Lake, but most often the story involves a young woman who has been captured and forced into domesticity until she can reclaim her wings, which her captor has hidden from her, and fly away. That urge for freedom drives Nasan’s character development here. But swans also symbolize marital fidelity, and the loss and recovery of her relationship with her husband are also an important theme in the novel.
What inspired you to write the Legends of the Five Directions series?
The series came about because I have spent four decades studying this fascinating place and time: Russia between the Mongol invasion (1237-40) and the reign of Peter the Great (1689-1725). I wanted to share it with people in an accessible way, and fiction seemed like the ideal means to do that. In particular, I love to explore the many different ways that women adapt and grow in societies that restrict their choices and have low expectations of their abilities—historically, most societies. Every one of the women featured in this series, from Nasan, the descendant of Genghis Khan, to Grusha the slave girl, has to address and solve the question of where she fits in the larger world; each one responds in her own unique way.
What is your favorite part of writing?
I love every part of writing except the final proofreading. Because I tend to start with sketches and fill them in as I go, I’d say that my absolute favorite part is the second stage, when I can see the broad lines of the story but still have lots of room for creativity and invention. But I find even the revision and pruning stages satisfying in their own way.
C. P., does your main character resemble you? If so, in what ways?
Well, psychologically, all my characters—even the antagonists—must represent some part of me, right? I just don’t always want to admit it! Nasan is braver than I am and does things I’d never think of, like impulsively going after men-at-arms with her sword. Her emotions lie on the surface, whereas mine tend, in good Scots style, to remain hidden. She is like me in terms of having a practical approach to life, and she loves to read, which I do, too. But I have worked to make her different from me, unlike some of my earlier heroines (Nina in The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel; Sasha in Desert Flower and Kingdom of the Shades). By the way, it’s easier, in my view, to write a character less like the author; it gives me some much-needed distance to appreciate both her virtues and her flaws.
What do you find is the most challenging aspect of writing?
Character development always gives me fits. My brain goes to plot first, and so left to my own devices I would shove my poor characters into situations without considering how they feel or even why they would act that way. Fortunately, my critique group (Ariadne Apostolou and Courtney J. Hall) exerts steady pressure until I stop contorting the characters and focus on who they are and what they need to learn.
What was the last book you read? What did you think of it?
Martha Conway’s Sugarland, a mystery set in semi-segregated Jazz Age Chicago. I read it for New Books in Historical Fiction, http://newbooksnetwork.com/category/historical-fiction/ a podcast channel that I host for the New Books Network, and I really enjoyed it. It has a nice twisty plot and believable, not always admirable characters, as well as a fast pace, good writing, and great historical detail.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
That would be a long list, but the ones I always come back to include Agatha Christie, Laurie R. King, Elizabeth Peters, Dorothy L. Sayers, and for real literary comfort food, Georgette Heyer. No one since Jane Austen has managed to nail a character in a line and a half the way Heyer could.
What authors or person(s) have influenced you as a writer and why?
I enjoy reading books on the craft of writing. Particular favorites include John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story, Debra Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, and Jordan Rosenfeld’s Make a Scene. So those authors have all influenced me. But my critique group, which has now expanded to include the writers of Five Directions Press, http://www.fivedirectionspress.com are the ones who help me figure out how to apply the advice to my own work.
That’s a great list, thanks. Do you have a favorite place to write? To read?
I write at my computer, which is in my office. Reading, though, is an activity for the couch and evenings, unless it’s research—then that, too, takes place in my office and during the day.
Tell us something personal about you people may be surprised to know?
I took twenty-five years of classical ballet class—with teenagers, no less—starting at thirty-six, when most ballet dancers start thinking about retirement. That’s where my two nonhistorical novels, Desert Flower and Kingdom of the Shades, come from. They star a ballerina and were great fun to write.
Good for you for following your passion! Did the writing process uncover surprises or learning experiences for you? What about the publishing process?
My characters surprise me constantly. No matter how much plotting and outlining I do, they get on the page and act like they have minds of their own. I’d heard other people say that, but experiencing it amazes me, even now. And the research, which I love, produces wonderful story twists and possibilities that I might never have considered on my own. As for publishing, the climate has changed so fast in so short a time, I don’t think I—or anyone—could have predicted what it would like today or will look like five years from now.
True words about characters and the publishing business. What do you hope readers will gain from your book?
To appreciate the resilience of the human spirit. It’s easy to think of women, especially, in the past as being downtrodden victims or ignorant housewives, but that ignores the influence of social standing and wealth as well as individual creativity. Some of my characters—Natalya, Nasan’s mother, Nasan’s sister-in-law Firuza—thrive in their traditional world. Others—like Nasan and, in a different way, Grusha—fight to align society’s expectations with their need to stay true to themselves. Maria, my current heroine, conforms outwardly but suffers inside and takes out her unhappiness on those around her. She would excel in the modern world but needs a huge push to get herself moving where she is. This complexity seems more real to me than sticking everyone into a single box.
I’d also love to push people’s understanding and knowledge about Russia beyond Vladimir Putin’s latest stunt or even the Cold War. It’s a thousand-year-old country with a rich and varied history that is tailormade for fiction and film; it deserves to be seen as more than an enemy state or a foe of democracy and capitalism.
Looking back, what did you do right that helped you write and market The Swan Princess?
I wrote what I love, without worrying about whether it would sell, and took good advice everywhere I could find it. I agreed with my writers’ group to set up our own publishing cooperative. That was an even bigger learning experience than the writing, and we’re only now starting to figure out what works and what doesn’t, but it’s been an amazing journey over the last four years. I started a blog, which I update every Friday, and dipped my toe into social media. And I accepted the position as host of New Books in Historical Fiction, which has given me a platform, as well as introducing me to writers both famous and not so famous.
What didn’t work?
I don’t think anything has really failed, but marketing is still a work in progress for both me and the coop. I probably need to do a lot more with social media than I do, for example, but there are only so many hours in the day.
Any advice or tips for writers looking to get published?
Revise, revise, revise. Find people you can trust, whose writing you respect, and work with them. Don’t assume that your first draft will be your last, because first drafts are hardly ever publishable, even when experienced writers produce them (experienced writers know this, unlike beginners). And if you decide to self-publish, which is very easy nowadays, do yourself a favor and hire a copy editor who understands the requirements of fiction, a typesetter who knows what goes into producing a physical book, and a professional cover designer. Nothing will sink your book faster than an amateurish cover and a book riddled with typographical and grammatical errors. The only exception to that last is where a character uses nonstandard speech as evidence of his or her background and educational level, and even then, you need to be careful not to slip into dialect.
Great advice. Website and social media links?
https://www.pinterest.com/cplesley/ (where I have boards for each of my books)
Where can we find your books?
All my books are on Amazon.com. The Golden Lynx and The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel are also available as e-books at Barnes and Noble and to libraries via Biblioboard http://self-e.libraryjournal.com. The best way to find any of my books is to go to http://www.fivedirectionspress.com/books and click on a cover picture. A page will open with purchase links, a description, endorsements, and excerpts for that book. The page for The Swan Princess is http://www.fivedirectionspress.com/the-swan-princess
What’s next for you?
The Vermilion Bird (Legends 4: South). I have four chapters and a prologue in reasonable shape, plus goal/motivation/conflict charts and a vaguely defined plot. Now I need to figure out how to put the two halves—plot and character—together into a functioning story.
Thanks very much for your visit, C. P. It’s been a pleasure getting to know you. I wish you the best with the publishing coop, the podcast, and on your writing journey.
About Eleanor Parker Sapia
Eleanor Parker Sapia is the Puerto Rican-born author of the award-winning historical novel, A DECENT WOMAN, published by Scarlet River Press. Her debut novel, which garnered an Honorable Mention in Historical Fiction, English at the 2016 International Latino Book Awards with Latino Literacy Now, was Book of the Month with Las Comadres and Friends National Latino Book Club in 2015. Eleanor is proud to be featured in the award-winning anthology, Latina Authors and Their Muses, edited by Mayra Calvani. Well-traveled Eleanor is a writer, artist, photographer, and blogger who is never without a pen and a notebook, her passport, and a camera. Her awesome adult children are out in the world doing amazing things. Eleanor currently lives and writes in Berkeley County, West Virginia.
Eleanor’s book: http://amzn.to/1X0qFvK
Please visit Eleanor at her website: http://www.eleanorparkersapia.com