Saturday, October 23, 2010

Interview with Author Siri Mitchell

Oh Siri,

I can’t tell you how happy I am to have you on The Writers Alley. Casey’s the one over there waving with excessive vigor. She’s your second biggest fan. I, of course, am your first ;-)

Hugs to all. (Okay, an extra one for Pepper!) And thanks so much for inviting me to Writers Alley.

As you and I were sitting in the lobby of the hotel at ACFW and sipping our Starbucks Salted-Caramel Hot Chocolates, the word that popped in my head to describe you was – kind. You are very kind. I have evidence of your kindness sitting on my bookshelf in the form of a signed copy of Kissing Adrien. Sigh. Which is only second to She Walks in Beauty, in my opinion.

Pepper, you’re the one who’s kind! (She introduced me to Salted-Caramel Hot Chocolates and now they’re my new favorite.) We’ve exchanged e-mails so often and you’ve said such encouraging things about my books that I couldn’t wait to have the chance to sit down and spend some time with you.

You are as sweet as that Salted-Caramel Hot Chocolate!! And it was good, wasn't it? Yum. You were sharing a little bit about your writing process at ACFW. I’d love for you to give the folks here a glimpse into it.

How do you come up with your novel ideas?

I honestly feel as if I don’t find them; they come looking for me. Often I’ll get the grain of the idea in the process of researching an entirely different book. For spring’s book, I stumbled on a website about the Tirrochi Dressmakers Project while I was looking for information about Victorian dressmaking. What caught my attention was the fact that in this dressmaking shop, the seamstresses sewed each others’ wedding gowns. That didn’t turn out to be part of the book at all, but that’s where the idea first started.

With the grain of an idea usually comes a woman. And generally she’s caught between her desires and her culture. There’s usually a feeling that comes as well. The desperate struggle she’s in to free herself from some impossible situation. It’s that feeling that I want to understand and explain. That desperation that I want to capture in my novels. How she got into the situation she’s in. And why her culture seems to want to keep her there.

You write both contemporary and historical novels. Do you have a preference of the two genre?

Not really. My novels all seem to deal with the same issues: a girl coming to terms with the person God has made her to be. At the moment, the stories which grab me most are historicals. I feel like women have asked themselves the same questions and struggled with the same issues since the beginning of time. It’s less confrontational to work through them in a historical context. We can judge people in the past easier than we can ourselves in the present.

You talked a little about The Moral Premise as a foundation of many of your books. Could you explain that a little bit?

The Moral Premise idea comes from a book written by Stanley D. Williams, PhD (appropriately titled The Moral Premise). It’s simply a way to define what a book is about. A way to harness what it really is that you’re trying to say as an author. The idea is that your book is composed of a pair of competing motivations. One virtue and one vice: The Moral Premise Statement. The characters are rewarded for choosing the virtue and punished for choosing the vice. The key is that all the characters in your book should be dealing with this same premise. In other words, everyone in your book is working through the same thing in ways both large and small, internal and external, consciously and subconsciously. If your novel is about corruption, for instance, then one of the characters could be dealing with it on a physical level, another on a political level, a third in business, and a fourth in terms of spirituality. Add to these levels, the corruptibility of their most important relationships, perhaps a house that is falling down around them, a favorite purse that’s wearing out…you can see how everything in your book, every scene, every character, is leading to one undeniable conclusion. What is this book about? It’s about corruption.

I know you are working on a new novel about immigrants, Italian immigrants, if I recall correctly. Could you give us a sneak peek into that story? When will it be out for reader consumption?

The story is A Heart Most Worthy and it is, indeed, about Italian Immigrants in the North End of Boston in 1918. I love this story! For each book I write, I give myself a challenge. For A Constant Heart, it was to have the main characters communicate their love for each other without using words (for those in the know, this was the Salad Scene). For Love’s Pursuit, it was to have the characters deepen their intimacy in a communal setting (the Nitpicking Scene). For She Walks in Beauty, I wanted to try and write a scene in which the main character was naked (This was the Corset Interview with Aunt. For those who haven’t read this book, the scene had nothing to do with sex. It was written to communicate the character’s complete and total vulnerability.). For this book, A Heart Most Worthy, it was (drumroll please), to write it in omniscient. And to have three main characters. I write an A story very well, but I’m not that great at subplotting. I suppose that, technically, I’m still not great at subplotting. Even though there are more characters in this new book than is normal for me, they share the spotlight equally. (Maybe I’ll have to re-visit that last part of my challenge.) In any case, it’s a book filled with love stories and characters that struggle with being who they are. The book is due to be released in March, but I would keep an eye out for it as early as February.

Oh boy, oh boy - can't wait to get my hands on that one! I'm rooting for February :-)
I know that as a Christian, our faith plays a role in every aspect of our lives (or should). How does your faith play a role in your writing?

In researching my historicals, I’ve found it fascinating to discover how the faith practices that we have today were created over time. I try to be faithful in my writing to the faith of our fore-mothers. Sometimes that faith was expressed differently and sometimes it didn’t look like our faith looks today. But no matter how people have expressed their faith through the centuries, they’ve always yearned to be known, yearned to be found worthy, and yearned to know that someone loves them just the way they are.

I also find that I’m not as often interested in ideals as I am in realities. People—Christians even—often don’t respond to life the way they ought to or do the things they should. That’s what makes them interesting: the dichotomy between who they are and who they ought to be. In my writing, I think my faith most often finds voice in the becoming.

What’s the story behind your first ‘Call’? The news that you were going to be a published author?

The story leading up to the first call is that I had written 4 books and received 153 rejections. I was demoralized about writing and becoming embittered. I had a talk with God and told him writing wasn’t worth it. I said I’d follow up with every lead that was still outstanding and then I’d call it good. One of the people who had liked my writing early on was Chip MacGregor. At that time, however, the market wasn’t buying the kind of thing that I’d written. I e-mailed him, telling him I’d kept on writing in the meantime and wondered if he could refer me to anyone who liked the sort of thing I did. In fact, he responded that he still liked it and could he have another look?

Concurrently, Harvest House was looking at a non-fiction manuscript I’d written. They asked me if I would consider turning it into a novel. (They wanted me to write another book? With no guaranteed sale?!? I typed out a nice, ‘Let me think about what that would look like and I’ll get back to you’ e-mail, though I had already determined that it was something I didn’t want to do.) Several months later, after I’d gotten over myself, I realized that Harvest House was one of those leads I needed to follow up, so I wrote some sample chapters and put together an outline. Chip offered to represent me. Harvest House offered a 2-book contract based on my proposal and things went on from there!

What a great story to where you are today! So, that leads me to another question - you have quite a few books out and...I know you’re probably going to hate this question, but of which historical books are you most proud? Contemporary?

You’re asking me to call one of my babies ugly? I love them all. For different reasons. Now if you ask me to tell you which one I’m most excited about, it’s the one I’m currently writing (spring 2012’s release). If you ask me next month, as I start my second draft, it will be the one I’ll start writing next fall (spring 2013’s release). The infatuation stage is always filled with giddy excitement, but I find it’s in the commitment stage of drafts 2 – 6 where the real book comes into being.

You write about a book a year, is that right? How does that fit into your ‘real’ life outside of writing?

I start my writing cycle in the fall (after having spent the summer reading up for it). I plan my first draft to be done before Thanksgiving, the second draft before Christmas. I hope to send my manuscript to my critique partner (the extraordinarily talented Maureen Lang) in January. While she reads it, I try my best to forget that I ever wrote it. When I get it back from her, I take it through a few more drafts before I submit it in March. My editors read it in April. I usually get some feedback in May. I try my best to get the edits done before school gets out in June. That way I can spend the summer reading up for the next book.

This question is from Sherrinda, because she’s always curious about it – Are you a plotter or a pantster?

 I’m a pantser who’s looking more like a plotter with every book. There’s nothing wrong with being a pantser. I’m proud to own it. I just got tired of getting the same feedback from my editor (first half moves too slowly, give the heroine a goal, and bring out that spiritual thread.) By using The Moral Premise Statement, I make sure I’m not including extraneous scenes, I give the reader a person to root for from the start, and the spiritual thread starts getting woven into the story from the beginning.

Go Plansters Unite!! :-)  I have a strange feeling I'm becoming a least a little - the more I write :-)There are a lot of unpubbed authors reading this today. What advice would you give to them to encourage them along this journey?

Stop talking about it and start writing it! I can’t count the number of times I’m introduced in a social situation as an author and someone says, ‘I have this idea for a book that I’ve always wanted to write.’ I always let them know about the writing organizations I’m a part of and I give them the names of my favorite writing books. I also tell them to get in touch with me when they’re done writing. I can count the number of times I’ve heard back from any of them: None. You can’t get published in this market as a debut author if you don’t finish the book.

Work on your weaknesses. Most of us are plot or character-oriented. Rare is the writer who is equally adept with plot and character development. If you can become a plot writer who does a pretty good job at character development or a character writer who is pretty good at plot development, you’ll be able to write a page-turning novel.

Don’t despise your gifts. It’s easy to look at the books other authors have written and feel like you’ll never be a success because you just can’t write second-person urban historicals. And you know this because you’ve tried. Please! The world doesn’t need another (any!) second-person urban historical. The world needs you and the unique voice that God has given you. You aren’t like everyone else, so why should you write like everyone else? Stop focusing on who you’re not and start writing like who you are. Use your voice. You have it for a reason.

Hmm…perhaps that wasn’t the kindest sounding thing I’ve ever written. But there are some things I feel very strongly about. Being who you are is one of them.

Okay - nope, what you wrote was tough love. Some of us need a good kick in the pantster pants. Thanks so much for mixing up a bit of assertiveness with encouragement. And thanks even more for being our guest here at The Writers Alley.
If you guys haven't read a Siri Mitchell book - check out your wealth of choices at her website -


Renee Ann said...

Love's Pursuit is one of my favorite books. The scene where Susanna has to cut Daniel's hair and weeps because she made him look like everyone else really worked! I had a lump in my throat along with the character!

Great interview! I appreciate the encouraging words about each person's unique gifts. Thanks, Pepper and Siri!

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

You have given a wealth of help in this post. Fresh, new ideas. One I'd like to restate is setting a goal to have a a character say or do something:
"For each book I write, I give myself a challenge. For A Constant Heart, it was to have the main characters communicate their love for each other without using words (for those in the know, this was the Salad Scene)," etc.
I found your advise very helpful.
Thank you for stopping by today, Siri
Great post Pepper.

Casey said...

I am SO proud to claim that I have read a Siri book and I get my hands on every single one I can find. They are just so wonderful, great works of fiction that always leave me thinking and never wanting to put that book down!

Yes I am your SECOND biggest fan!!! Since Pepper took first *grousing here* I must be content with second, but I am waving vigoursly for sure!!

Thanks for being on the Alley Siri. :D

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

I'm definitely bookmarking this post! Siri, you are incredibly wise. I haven't read all your books, but She Walks In Beauty was such a gorgeous book, inside and out.

It seems I heard something about The Moral Premise recently...Pepper, are you reading it? Maybe that's where I heard about it. But I am definitely intrigued and think it would make such a huge impact in the way you write. I'll definitely be checking it out!

I'm always amazed at pansters, and while I'm not a great plotter, it scares me to just sit and let it all hang out. Maybe that's why I'm always so curious about the difference between plotters and pansters...I want to find a happy medium. ;)

Thanks so much for sharing with us today!

Dina Sleiman said...

Enjoyed sitting in on your conversation Pepper and Siri. Love you both :)

Julia M. Reffner said...

Wonderful conversation!! Love's Pursuit was one of my favorite historicals ever!! So much great stuff here. I think your writing is so amazing, I can't believe you had that many rejections!

I think I am a character driven person and I like what you said about balancing the two.

And since you talked about nonfiction, I would love to know if you plan to publish one, because I for one would love to read it.


Susan Anne Mason said...

Thanks, Pepper, for introducing me to a new author to read! Siri, your books look and sound amazing.

I just found out about "The Moral Premise" and have ordered a copy. Funny how when you hear about something for the first time, it just keeps popping up in other places! I'm sure this is what I need to focus my writing and come up with a more coherent plot.

Thanks for sharing with us.


Pepper said...

You can't go wrong with Siri's books. Her contemporaries are a lighter fare than her historicals (except for She Walks In Beauty), but they are all wonderful. And unique.
First person, if I haven't mentioned that before :-)

I'm bringing in some yummy Homemade Apple Pie for a snack. Vanilla ice cream too. I just baked another one because my family consumed the last one in two days :-)

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

Just had to tell you we stopped in the Baker bookstore in Grand Rapids, MI while visiting family and friends. I bought one of your books. So excited to start reading it on the plane back home tomorrow.

Keli Gwyn said...

Wonderful interview, Pepper. You really got Siri talking! Well done. =)

Thanks for the great advice, Siri. You speak truth and do it with love. Like you, I started as a pantser and am now a plotter for many of the same reasons.

Your books sound wonderful. I'm going to treat myself to one of your historicals very soon. =)

Julie Lessman said...

My kudos to Pepper on this interview, and to Siri, who is definitely one of my favorite authors (and people!) because it is hands-down, one of the best interviews I've read lately -- so much wisdom and insight on Siri's part -- THANK YOU!!

And, Siri ... 153 rejections??? Gosh, I read that and thought YOU should have won the booby prize in 2005 for the most rejections in a year instead of me!! But then when I averaged 153 rejections between 4 books, it comes to 38.25 rejections per book, and I nip you there with a total of 45 rejections on A Passion Most Pure, but I defer to you in total rejections, certainly!! :) Soooo glad you persisted!!


Sarah Forgrave said...

I'm late on my weekend blog visits, but boy was this a treat! I read The Cubicle Next Door and loved it!!! Oh, and I can't wait to try the salted-caramel hot chocolate...sounds delish!

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Okay, I am so curious! How does one garner so many rejections? I can't believe there are than many publishers out there who didn't want either Siri's or Julie's books! I can't believe there are that many publishers out there period! Crazy!