It was an honour and a privilege to get to interview fellow author Alexandria Constantinova Szeman this week. Alexandria is the critically acclaimed author of 11 books, and possesses Ph.D.’s in both Creative Writing and World Literature. Her first novel, ‘The Kommandant’s Mistress’, was chosen as one of The New York Times Book Review’s ‘Top 100 Books of the Year’, and her second novel, ‘Only With the Heart’ is on the recommended reading lists of Alzheimer’s Associations nationwide.
Aside from her immense talents as an author, poet, and professor, Dr. Szeman has also published a number of creative writing theory books to aid would-be writers. She is one of the few people who have seen both the independent and mainstream sides of the publishing world, and I count myself very lucky to get the chance to interview her. No indie author should miss this candid interview with the charming, knowledgeable Alexandria Szeman.
What first made you want to become a poet/author?
“When T.S. Eliot died, there was a photo of him in the newspaper, along with the opening lines of ‘The Wasteland’. When I asked who he was, my mother looked at the paper and said, “some poet”. I was too young to read the opening lines myself, but asked my mother to read it aloud. Surprisingly, she obliged. As I stood there in the living room, gazing up at the tiny window near the ceiling, through which sunlight was pouring, Eliot’s words sounded like music to me, and I thought to myself, “Some day, I’m going to write words that sound like music, like he did”.”
You began as poet and then moved on to fiction, did you find this transition difficult?
“I found it incredibly difficult to move from poetry to fiction because it seemed overwhelming, yet I also found it the most artistically satisfying and challenging thing I’ve ever done. My years of perfecting poetry transferred over to my novels because I made sure that every single word in the novels was important, just as I did in my poems. I also worked hard on maintaining ‘urgency’, (which is anything that keeps the reader reading, i.e., plot, character development, voice), developing well-developed characters, and natural sounding dialogue. I had already mastered voice and imagery from my poetry days, and some of my poems had dialogue, characters, and plot, but no poem was as complex or sophisticated as a novel, so it was one of the most challenging things I’ve done in my writing career.
“When I (have) hit a place where the writing does not seem to be working, I take a break from that piece and work on something else. The artist in me tells me when it’s time to return to the first piece, and I almost always know how to fix the things that were not previously working. That leads me to believe that there is no such thing as ‘writer’s block’; that ‘writer’s block’ is simply… when the artist inside you is maturing to another level, or when the artist inside is simply exhausted and needs to recharge itself. I’ve found that by taking planned vacations, listening to my artistic intuition, and working on other things when something in any particular novel is not going well has eliminated ‘writer’s block’.
“When I wrote my first novel, ‘The Kommandant’s Mistress’, I was so hesitant about the style, having never read anything else written like that, and (was) so nervous about the characters’ voices that I read no other literature the entire time I was writing it: I only read the necessary non-fiction research materials again. I was afraid I would be influenced by other novels and lose my vision of the novel. After that, I learned that I could work on more than one novel at the same time: it seems that my brain assigns a different area to each novel, so that the characters, voices, and writing styles do not interfere with each other.”
What are some common mistakes for new writers to avoid?
“1) Thinking they already know everything about writing.
2) Not reading enough of the classics.
3) Not being a discerning, critical reader, i.e., not seeing what the writer of the book is doing as an artist and learning from it – learning what to avoid as well as what to try in his own work.
4) Trying to catch a ‘bestselling trend’, like vampires, or BDSM, or anything else that seems to be ‘hot’ at the moment. By the time their own book is finished, the trend will be gone: that is the nature of trends.
5) Not knowing about ‘urgency’, and so, writing a book that puts the readers to sleep.
6) Thinking they’re going to get rich and famous from the very first book, or even from the first few: even Stephen King and Anne Rice wrote under different names, in different genres, etc. for years before they became bestsellers. ‘The Hunger Games’ was out for at least 3 years before it became more than a cult favorite and hit the bestseller lists.
7) Writing the same book over and over instead of trying to stretch themselves artistically. Look at Sue Grafton and her ‘Alphabet Murder’ Series; she’s been writing it over 20 years and she still hasn’t finished the alphabet; that’s because the mysteries which she writes have gone out of fashion as readers have become more discerning and literate, and thrillers/suspense have become better sellers than mysteries.
8) Underestimating the intelligence of their readers: writers should always assume that their audience is intelligent but uninformed about their particular book’s topic.
9) Taking rejection personally.
10) Not paying their artistic dues.
11) Giving up.”
How important is research in the field of fiction? What sort of background study would you commit to when writing historical fiction, or otherwise?
“Some writers never do research, preferring instead to make everything up. Some do intensive research. I love research, especially when it’s for one of my novels, so I don’t mind it at all. I spend 7 years researching the Holocaust for my first novel, including reading every book I could get hold of, watching films & documentaries, interviewing survivors of concentration camps, and going to the collections of Military Museums to see/feel/examine the captured SS-Officer uniforms and weapons.
“I also have experts in the field read the draft of my novel when I think it’s finished: I pay them to do it; they’re professionals, after all. For my second novel, ‘Only with the Heart’, about a woman accused of helping her Alzheimer’s-stricken terminally ill mother-in-law commit suicide and (being) put on trial for murder, I had the following types of beta-readers (though they weren’t called that in those days – they were just called ‘readers’); attorneys, detectives, police officers, crime scene investigators, Alzheimer’s caregivers, psychologists, psychiatrists, etc. I wanted to ensure that all the factual material was correct so that I could explore the moral issues around the facts.
“The second novel took me five years to research and write, then two years to continue researching and revise, then another year to update medically and legally when I re-issued the 12th Anniversary issue because so many things had changed in the legal field, if not in the medical treatment of Alzheimer’s (there are more drugs, to be sure, but they are no more effective than they were when the novel was first published, despite drug companies’ claims). However, more states have had to actually implement laws indicating whether assisted suicide is murder or manslaughter, and have made distinctions among getting the medicines for someone to commit suicide, giving the medicines to the person yourself, and just leaving the medicines in a place where you know the terminally ill person could reach them: all those distinctions have then been codified into different types of crimes, ranging from misdemeanors to felonies of various degrees.
“So, research is very important for my work, but I love doing it.”
In the same vein, how heavily do you borrow from your own experiences in your writing?
“A great deal, but not in a way that I’m writing (a) memoir. For example, I was raped by my biological father when I was three-years-old, for a couple of years; then raped for almost 13 years by my step-father, who adopted me when I was 15. So the rape scenes in ‘The Kommandant’s Mistress’, though not based literally on what happened to me, did not necessitate any outside research on my part since I had been raped, by several family members/family friends, many times over the years.
“Similarly, I lived with a boyfriend who developed Alzheimer’s (without knowing what was wrong with him) and ended up being a full-time caregiver for someone with increasing dementia for almost six years. I used that experience to help myself heal (just as I had with the first book) to help others heal, and, most importantly, to deal with (the) moral questions and issues that arose from said experiences, like rape, survival, memory, identity, etc.”
What is your favorite experience as a writer?
“Going from the blank page to the first draft. It’s also the most difficult (experience as a writer), but it occupies every single atom of my artistic/psychic energy, and I love it.”
As someone who moved from mainstream publishing to independent publishing, what are your thoughts on the book market’s increasing paradigm shift? Do think it is a positive change, and what sort of consequences have you perceived as a result?
“I was in traditional publishing for almost 40 years, published by prestigious literary & University journals, big NY literary houses, awarded prizes, received critical acclaim, had my first novel optioned by Patrick Stewart, got to meet Patrick and spend time with him, had editors and agents fighting over my books, blah blah blah…
“All that equals is maybe some people know my name or some of my books. No amount of critical acclaim, prestigious prizes, or previously traditionally published books equal money. Even having a book optioned for film does not equal money since authors do not get paid till principal photography starts or unless someone buys the option to make it outright (meanwhile, whoever options the book gets 7 years to try to put together a package, no one else can even touch the book once it’s optioned, and even if the film gets completely funded, something could happen that prevents its being made – so the author gets no money).
“In a traditional NY publishing house contract, it states that the publisher has the right to change the title, the plot, the characters; the publisher alone decides on the cover, advertising budget (don’t hold your breath), and publicity (you’re turning blue). Meanwhile, you are ultimately responsible, as the author, for every ounce of work in the book itself, including reading/correcting every single version of the book as it passes through the labyrinth of NY Houses; copyediting, production editing, house-style editing, design editing, etc. It is not fun. Especially if you get a bad copy-editor, like one who doesn’t know your topic or doesn’t know current grammar rules and changes what you wrote so that it is grammatically incorrect, and sometimes they want to argue with you about how to spell words. An author published by a NY or other traditional house gives up all control over their product in order to have someone else design the book, the cover, change titles, plot, characters, etc. Traditionally published authors, unless they are already bestsellers, do all the promotion and publicity themselves anyway.
“Indie authors, on the other hand, have to do the only thing that NY does for them; design the book cover, and make sure it has a marketable title. Many indie authors are not good at this, and it shows in their covers and titles, as well as in their books.
“Because of my background, I know the business well, and I have chosen to republish all my Out-of-Print (OP) books as e-books myself. Also, unless at least $1M crosses my palm, I will indie-publish my new novel (end of 2013-2014). But then, I have 11 books, and all the experience of already marketing and promoting my books. The new social media affords indie and self-published authors with the opportunities to directly connect with their readers, something previously only afforded to authors when they were at bookstore readings, which no longer exist in most places, and certainly not for new or fledgling authors.
“I realize that many writers still want to be published by a NY House, but they have absolutely no idea what that means. They think it means getting rich, famous, and becoming a celebrity author. It does not. It means losing all control of your work and giving money to your agent and the taxman for that ‘privilege’. My advice? Learn your craft and tell a fabulous story that your readers will not want to put down. Write well – style still matters. Market yourself just as NY would. Put out a quality product, both in content and design. Behave professionally and like an entrepreneur, because that’s what you’ll be. If your book does well enough, NY will indeed court you. (However) the only thing you will get from them is an advance, out of which you’ll have to pay your agent and the taxman, and you’ll lose all control.”
What do you think is the most important thing to remember when writing?
“Write the kind of book that you would love to read over and over and over, getting something different out of it each time. If you do that, you will find an audience, somewhere, some time, though it may not be as big as you think (or) hope. In short, write the type of book you love to read. It will not guarantee you financial or critical success, but it will satisfy you artistically.”
Alexandria’s website can be found here – Alexandria Constantinova Szeman
Her blog can be found here – The Alexandria Papers
And her Amazon, page from which you can purchase ‘The Kommandant’s Mistress’, and a number of her other novels, is here – Alexandria Szeman – Amazon Author Page
I also highly recommend chatting with Alexandria on Twitter. Not only is she a relentless font of literary information, but she is always an absolute peach to talk to – @Alexandria_SZ