Monday, February 6, 2017

Meet Tudor Novelist Sarah Kennedy--A Kindred Soul!

I've been a Tudorphile since I'm a kid, and wrote my first historical novel, THE JEWELS OF WARWICK, about Henry VIII and his uproarious court--with two fictional heroines. Sarah also writes Tudor novels, and we exchanged several of our books. I've read THE ALTARPIECE and thoroughly enjoyed it, giving it a glowing Amazon review.

Meet Sarah and read about her Tudor passions.

Sarah is the author of the novels Self-Portrait, with Ghost and The Altarpiece, City of Ladies, and The King’s Sisters, Books One, Two, and Three of The Cross and the Crown series, set in Tudor England.  She has also published seven books of poems.  A professor of English, Sarah Kennedy holds a PhD in Renaissance Literature and an MFA in Creative Writing.  She has received grants from both the National Endowment for the Arts and the Virginia Commission for the Arts.  

Visit Sarah at her website.

Self-Portrait, with Ghost is a wonderfully told ghost story but, equally, a fascinating study of artistic, familial, and generational rivalry, bringing to mind Henry James’s seamless blend of the supernatural and psychological. Sarah Kennedy is a gifted poet, and her attentiveness to language is another of this novel’s delights. 
Ron Rash, author of Serena and The Cove 
In Sarah Kennedy’s Self-Portrait, with Ghost, Zadie Williams struggles to deal with the profound loss of her mother through the creation of art. As the novel unfolds, Kennedy explores deeply and so intelligently the very purpose of art as her character’s acts of creation become more about anger, revenge, and self-promotion. We wonder if Zadie will rediscover the truth and purity of art again, just as we see it exemplified so beautifully in Kennedy’s fine novel.
Marlin Barton, author of Pasture Art and The Cross Garden
When she heard her stepmother saying that she’d seen a ghost, Zadie Williams wanted to kill her.  Everyone claimed that specters walked all over Chadwick, Virginia.  They always had.  But if the spirit of Zadie’s mother had appeared in the Williams house, it was here for Zadie.  It had to be.  After all, this was Zadie’s house, where her mother had lived and had taken her last breath, and if anyone had a claim on the world of the dead these days, it was Zadie herself.
            But, so far, Zadie had seen nothing, and her stepmother was getting all of the attention.  Again.  She lay on her mother’s quilt, under her mother’s neat stitches, listening to the darkness finger the wooden beams of the old structure.  First the click of the east wall, the one that faced Payne Street.  Then the long, knotted board under the big living room window.  Then the threshold of the front door, its slight umph of a groan.  Then a sigh from the gabled attic, just above her head.  The joists and lath and old plaster, settling in for the night.  The cellar would be growing cooler, and Zadie imagined she could hear, two floors below, the soft clink of wine bottle against wine bottle down there in the old bookcase, where the overflow from the dusty rack went.  The stack of pots her mother had left, unfinished and unglazed, bumping against one another.
            Her father and stepmother had started up the stairs—the third step quaked audibly—and Zadie closed her textbook.  She tiptoed to her bedroom door, placing her ear against the painted wood, just as she’d done for years, while her mother was dying.  Her stepmother was saying that they’d need to get pictures, and her father was murmuring “I don’t know.  I just don’t know.”  Zadie’s legs cramped and numbed as they came up, a step at a time, but she had to hear it.  They were on the landing, the two of them, together.  Zadie’s new phone whined from the bedside table, but she didn’t move.  She wore the cotton pajama bottoms that her mother had been wearing at the last, and her thumbs worried the thinning nap.  “I hate you,” she whispered in her stepmother’s direction.  “I wish you would die.”
            “Let’s talk about it in the morning,” her father was saying.  “I’m not sure about this.”  Whatever it was, he’d do it.  He always did.  The phone complained again, and the footsteps halted.
            “Is that Sherry’s phone?  Isn’t she home?” asked the woman.
            “She’s probably asleep,” said Zadie’s father.  “Don’t call her that to her face.  Please.”
            “But nobody’s called ‘Zadie.’  It sounds made-up.”
            The device went off again, and Zadie leaped for it, glad for the woven rug that slid her across the room.  She fumbled with the keys, not knowing yet how to work the thing.  It was a graduation gift from her father, for a celebration that hadn’t occurred.  She’d never had one before, never so much as used a computer outside of the labs at college.  She despised the people who walked across campus talking to the air.
            The screen lit up, eventually, and she could see the message from her friend Michelle:  “A WHAT??!!  WTF now?  Meet me in the a.m.  Coffee shop.”
            Zadie slid the slim gadget under her pillow and hurried to her bathroom.  She left the light switch off, but turned the tap high and stared at her face in the mirror.  The backing had grown old, and the glass bloomed with dim, rusty patches.  Pulling her eyebrows toward her temples, she squinted until the room behind her flattened.  She looked exotic, unreal.  Her brown hair was almost red.  Fiery.  Dark brown eyes, but pale skin.  She looked like her mother.  But when she dropped her hands, she was still Zadie Williams.  No, she was the soon-to-be known painter Scherezade Williams, and her stepmother’s small-town art would be left in the shade.  The moon cast a Vermeer light across one side of her features, and she turned toward it, gazing at her gibbous reflection.  Not Sherry.  Not ever.  Her stepmother might try to call her by an ordinary name to kill off her genius.  Well.  She’d see about that.
              The hot water had clouded the humid room, and Zadie turned it off and listened.  They must be in bed, and if she stayed in here by the open window she’d have to listen to their sighs and groans, like a couple of teenagers sneaking into their parents’ bed.  Her mother’s bed.  “Mother?” Zadie said to her own face.  “Mother?”  She tilted her head to the right, then to the left.  She was alone.  “Take her with you.”  But her mother had been dead for two years now.  Why would she come back now?
            She scrubbed her face with her wet hands and went back to bed, clicking shut the door behind her.  The copy of Dr. Faustus was right where she’d left it, marked to the page where the devil appears, ready to do the doctor’s bidding.  “’Marlowe’s mighty line,’” she whispered.  “’Sunt mihi dei acherontis propitii.’”  Her hands tingled with pleasure.  She laid the book, open to the page with the illustration of a man in robes standing in a pentagram, and drew from her nightstand drawer two of her stepmother’s best brushes, lifted from the studio at the other end of the upstairs hall.  Stolen goods, all the better.  She had two cans of latex paint to go with them, black and red.  They wouldn’t smell a thing.
            Zadie rolled up the rug to reveal the pine floor.  She sketched the pentagram in fast sweeps, trusting her experience to reproduce the angles.  Black for the star.  Red for the round center.  The bulls-eye.  The landing zone.  The sacred circle, marked in blood.  She sat back on her heels.  The lamplight licked at the wet spots, and Zadie blew over it the unholy words.  Hail, spirits of fire, air, water, and earth!  Prince of the East, Beelzebub, monarch of burning hell!  She halted, listening.  Tree frogs sang in the old maple that hung over the eaves, and a couple of screech owls were whinnying back and forth.  Her father, with his ear trained to sorrow, would hear if she ran through the whole speech.  She flicked off the bedside lamp and stood in the darkness, listening.  Was her stepmother still talking about a ghost?  Was she afraid?
            Zadie wasn’t.  If a ghost had come to live with them, she’d call to it.  She’d pray to it.  She’d conjure it into visibility herself.

“A true page-turner.”—Historical Novels Review
 “Much of a historical novel’s success lies in the author’s ability to accurately cement the story in its time and place, and Kennedy excels in this aspect with detailed descriptions of the daily life of her characters, from clothing to architecture to medicine. . . . It is not necessary to read the first novel in the series to enjoy this book, but those finding this their first introduction to Catherine will surely search out the first novel to spend more time with this feisty woman in her richly detailed world.”—Foreword Reviews 
“Having chosen William Overton, Catherine Havens Overton, in Book Two of the Cross and the Crown series, now struggles to manage her wifely duties in his house, where her extraordinary gifts in physic and healing are feared as witchcraft as well as sought after by all, creating a difficult and dangerous situation. Filled with drama, suspense, vivid scenes and larger-than-life characters, City of Ladies fast becomes impossible to put down. . . . Kennedy is clearly as gifted as her main character, almost supernaturally at home in the 16th century as she combines the striking vocabulary of the time with her own poetic talents  to create a rich and original tapestry of language. Such writing! Sarah Kennedy brings a lost world blazingly to life.”—Lee Smith 
. . . . In City of Ladies Kennedy takes her place with Daphne du Maurier, Anya Seton, Rosemary Sutcliff, and Hilary Mantel as a writer of superb historical fiction.”
Suzanne Keen, author of Empathy and the Novel

An Excerpt from CITY OF LADIES
Yorkshire, January 1539
“Lady, there’s been a corpse found,” the soldier announced.  He lifted one arm and in the raised hand dangled a veiled head.
            Catherine Havens Overton started awake and found herself alone, but for the infant sleeping beside her.  She pushed off the covers and wiped the sweat from her face.  She’d had the dream three times since her woman went missing, and it was always the same—she a nun again, walking through the convent, her old herb garden, bending to a sprig of sage, the man in armor seizing her habit.  He was always somehow familiar and always holding out the head in one hand.
            Catherine shook out the sleeves of her nightdress and lifted the heavy cloak of her damp hair from her cheek.  She rubbed her arms.  It was only a ghost of the mind.  She was safe.  She was here, at Overton House, a married woman with a new daughter.  The lady of the house.  Destined for the court, or so her husband insisted.  And now that the baby had come, he would press for it.  Her missing woman would surely be found before they went.  The watchmen would see to it.
            The fire had burned down to embers, and Catherine called for her new maid.  No answer.  Shifting the baby into the crook of her left elbow, she eased her legs from under the thick quilt.  The night had been bitter, even for midwinter, and the window showed a low grey sky.  More snow coming, no doubt.  She struggled from the feather mattress and, thrusting her feet into the waiting slippers, felt the wad between her thighs loosen.  She had left a bowl full of lady’s mantle nearby before she began her labors, and she packed the herbs against herself before she tightened the bands around her waist to stop the blood.
            The infant mewed, and Catherine uncovered the small head.  “Hush now,” she said, studying her child.  A shock of ginger fluff at the crown, fingernails like chips of shell.  Her husband would have been happier with a boy.  There were already enough females in the household, he would think.  He might even say it, after a jug of wine, if his sister had gone yet again through her litany of traditions and the need for a male heir.  She would of course let the word “legitimate” fall in Catherine’s hearing.  Then she would smile.  The tiny mouth gapped, and Catherine laid her daughter on the warm feather mattress.  “Let me warm us up, child.”
            Catherine waddled across her wide chamber to the hearth, kneeling to stir the ashes with the iron poker.  She had tended fires often enough without the assistance of a maid.  A pile of yew sticks lay to hand, and she built a small hutch of them, then bent to blow gently across the spaces underneath.  Soon the smoke licked upward, crackling into flame.  Opening her shift, Catherine took the infant to the window, rubbing away the frost with the heel of her hand.  The great grey stone Overton House sat on a North Yorkshire hill, overlooking the gardens, sweeps of gorse-spiked moor, and the fields their tenants used for sheep.  Catherine’s was the only bedchamber in use by the family that looked directly down onto the back buildings, and she spotted her maid below, flattened against the back of the stable, her skirts hoisted to her waist.  The girl was short-statured, and bosomy, and she was almost lost under the figure of one of the younger groomsmen, his breeches dropped, who was thrusting against her.  She looked cold, even in her pleasure, if she could be said to be enjoying herself.  Catherine’s fingers went to the latch, but a trio of men came riding into the courtyard, calling, and the boy pulled himself free, buttoning up and running off with his cap in his hand.  The maid was left panting and pushing her hair into place under her coif.  Catherine could see the girl’s breath, a white wraith in the cold air.  The mistress of Overton House should not be shouting from the upper windows anyway.
            Catherine’s husband William rode in behind the others, and he waved when his sister came walking from the stables toward the house, holding her velvet cloak around her shoulders.  She did not linger to greet the hunters.  The men dismounted and hung a large doe in the largest of the oaks by its hind legs, leaving two others slung across the backs of a couple of sullen ponies.  Catherine fancied she could hear the squeaking of the leather thongs as the kill twirled slowly in the wind.  The soft, pale belly was slit, and the crimson entrails spilled into a wooden bucket.  The hounds circled, snouts in the air, and the groomsman peeled his gloves off to toss them a wad of intestine.  He blew on his fingers, then thrust his bare hands into the gut of the steaming carcass.  The others laughed, setting up a braying among the bloody-mouthed dogs.  “Poor girl,” said Catherine, fogging the icy glass.
            The heavy door of the bedchamber creaked, and Ann Smith came in, wiping her hands on a coarse cloth.  They had been sisters together in the convent, and now they looked after the children together.  “What are you doing out of the bed?” Ann said.
            “The room was cold,” Catherine said.
            “Where’s that new maid?  That Eleanor.  I told her to stay with you.”
            Catherine pointed with her head at the window.  “She had business outdoors.”
            “Christ on a stick,” muttered Ann, glancing out.  “Do you mean she’s got her head turned by one of the young men?  You should have left that girl in the country.”
            “She’s not a bad one.  Just young.  Tell me, Ann.  How does my son?”
            The other woman yanked the woolen curtain at the window closed.  The brass rings clanged.  “He will not be coaxed from his room.  You cried out fierce at the last.  Now, get back under those sheets, or I will carry you there myself.  I have told him he could come now.”
            “He should be acquainted with his sister.  Has William said aught about a name?”  The women were both tall, and Catherine put her finger on the thin scar across her friend’s throat.  It blazed in the cold against Ann’s white skin.  “That has healed nicely.”
            Ann traced the raised line.  “Thanks to you, I can still speak my will.  But much good it does me.  Now, back to bed with you.  We will choose a name ourselves.”
            Catherine smiled.  “Very well.”  She handed over the infant and slid under the covers.  The linen was icy now, and she pulled the blankets to her chin.  “You may get in with me.  The room is frozen as Satan’s nose.”
            “I haven’t washed my feet,” said Ann.  She rocked the baby.  “She’s as beautiful as you are.  And her eyes will be as green as yours inside a year, mark me.”  Ann studied the infant’s red face and gently rubbed her nose against the baby’s.  “She will be tall and fair of face.  She will be springtime for your old age.”  The baby’s mouth bubbled milk, and Ann laughed.
            “The hair is all Overton,” said Catherine, leaning over to dab her daughter’s lips.  “We may thank God for it.”
            “I don’t give a fig whether there is a drop of Overton blood in her,” said Ann.  “She can be all Catherine, like her brother, and I will love her the more.”
            “Shh,” said Catherine.  Her eyes were on the open door.
            “He is nowhere within hearing,” said Ann.  “He just rode in.  Just about now he is out kissing his hounds’ snouts and cannot be bothered to see his children.”
            “It’s hard for him.  Especially in this house.”
            “Not so hard to make her, was it?”  Ann winked at Catherine.  “He was not so keen for his dogs that day, was he?”
            “Stop your mouth, Ann Smith,” said Catherine, but she was smiling for the moment.  Only for a moment.  “How do the Sisters?  Is there any word of our Joan?”
            “They say that she was down in the village to teach the day she disappeared.  The others are worried, every one.  With you down, everyone fears she will not be sought.  Everyone except Margaret, as you might expect.”
            Her sister-in-law’s room was on the other side of the hall and Catherine listened for footsteps before she spoke.  “Margaret won’t be able to speak against me now.  This girl has Overton stamped on her head.  Tell the other women to search.  Tell them to go in pairs.”
            “They fear the watchmen.”
            “Tell them to wear Overton colors.”  Catherine lay back on the pillows.  “I have had the dream again.”
            “Does the man still hold a head?”
            “Yes, every time.  It is like a visitation from Hell.  I can’t speak of it to William.”
            Ann leaned over and stroked the baby’s hair.  The child opened her mouth and clamped down on the air.  “Perhaps its message is meant only for you.”
            Catherine stroked the infant’s cheek with one finger.  “I wonder what he will want to call her.”
            “I will name her myself if her father will not,” said Ann.  “I say she will be little Veronica.  What think you of it?”
            “It pleases me.  But I favor Mary.  Mary Veronica?”  Catherine winced and turned onto her side.  “I’m sore.”
            “You labored the better part of the night.  I thought you would shatter the stones of the house with your shrieking.”
            Catherine laughed out loud.  But then her mind sobered.  “William wanted a boy.  And a girl is not safe.”
            “She’s safe if she’s an Overton.  A confirmed Overton.  And your William has a son.  One he should love better.  Ah, here’s our shining star.”
            A black-haired boy toddled into the room, and when he saw his mother, he inserted a thumb into his mouth, waiting.
            “Come here and meet your sister, Robbie,” said Catherine.  She opened her arms and the child ran on sturdy legs, scrabbling up the side of the tall bed.
            “Over on this side, you monkey,” said Ann.  “Your mother must be handled gently just now.”
            The child leapt over Catherine’s legs and scrutinized the newborn.  “Scorch,” he said, pushing a chubby thumb against the little cheek.  “Have you cooked her in the hearth, Mother?”
            “She is red because she has just seen the light and her skin is still fine,” said Catherine.  “No fire has touched her.”
            The boy solemnly separated the tiny toes and rubbed each nail.  He pulled the blanket away and sat back with a gasp at the stub of cord.  “Like a puppy.”
            Ann roared.  “She is no puppy.  She is your sister.  And that?  That is her mortal mark.  You had one too.”  She jabbed the boy in the belly.  “Look at where your mother has left her stamp upon you.  She held you as tight as she held your sister.”
            “It is an ugly thing,” pronounced the boy.  “But I will love it as Aunt Ann instructs me I must.”
            Catherine and Ann laughed and the boy blushed, ducking his head under his mother’s arm.
            “What is the jest?”  William Overton came in, red-faced from the wind, with his tall manservant behind him.  The men brought the scent of snow and fir trees and feathers into the room.  William still wore his hunting coat and boots, and Catherine could smell the dog on him, too.  His sister Margaret peeked in behind him.  She scanned the room, saw Ann Smith, and backed out again.
            “Will, come greet your daughter.”
            Ann placed the sleeping infant into Catherine’s arms, took up the boy, and slid around the man.  She touched Reg Goodall, the manservant, on the arm as she left the room and he smiled after her.
            William Overton settled against the bedside and peered into the blanket.  “She seems a hale girl.”  He lifted a red curl.  “An Overtop, I see, like my father.”  William’s hair was brown but it flamed a little when sunlight touched it.  He grinned, but when Catherine offered the bundle, he recoiled.  “I’m filthy as a pig farmer.”  He picked a feather from his coat and let it drift to the rushes on the floor.
            Catherine’s husband had taken up falconing at the same time he had begun to seek a place for her at court.  She asked, “Have you had the birds out?”
            William nodded.  “Ruby.  The peregrine.  She’s the beauty of them all.”  He spoke to his new daughter.  “She’s not as red-headed as you, though.”
            Catherine shifted the child so that her father could see better.  “Will we call her after your mother?”
            “Mary?  A Papist name?  The king has given us his permission but we mustn’t move him to regret it.”
            “I would have her Mary.  It seems right.  Your boy after your father, your girl after your mother.”
            “My boy.”  William bent and flicked a scrap of dirt from his boot.
            “They should be named after your parents.”
            “Let me hold this new Mary, then.  Shall she have another name?”  He turned and saw the open door.  “Margaret?  Where did she go?”
            Catherine said, “I would like Veronica.”
            “That surprises me.  Do you think it wise to recall the convent so intentionally?”
            “The woman was like a mother to me.  And no one remembers her save Ann and me. Father has not even marked her grave.”
            “She was good to you.  Better than your mother.”
            “And we could call the child Veronica rather than Mary if it seems better to you.”
            “That will do.  Mary Veronica it will be.”  William took the girl in his free arm now, and she squirmed at his hold and opened her eyes.  Her mouth puckered and she blatted a little wind.  “A female, no doubt.  She is telling me what she thinks already.”
            Catherine’s arms relaxed and she realized how tight her muscles had been.
            William handed the child back and watched as Catherine loosened her shift and put the baby to breast.  “There are nurses to do that for you.”
            “Mm.  And their charges die.  You have made me a lady, but God made me a woman and I will be one.”  She slicked back Veronica’s hair but it tufted into a curl again.
            “Your own charges are gathered below, howling like a pack of wolves.  It has been enough to make a man mad.  I believe they mean to conjure the constable to our door.”  He sat gently on the bed.  “Catherine, you must disband them now.  The time is ripe.”
            Catherine glanced up.  “Joan is still missing.  It’s been three days.  Someone must needs go look for her.”
            William rubbed his forehead.  “Which one is she?”
            “Ruth’s convent sister.  From the North.  You know her.  She’s thin and has a little sharp nose.”
            “That one.  She will be always in the village.”
            “She’s good with the girls.  You should see her help them form their letters.”
            “Letters.  People say she teaches them spells.  Listen to me, Catherine.  You have work enough for your hands with this child.  And when others come, you will need your strength to manage me and my household.  God’s foot, every hag and housewife between here and Durham is down there.  They look like disease itself.  Turn them out, I beg you, and give me some peace.”
            “They are only a few.  And they instruct the younger maids.  What harm do they?”
            “Eat my cupboards bare and look like Hell.  There is talk, I’m telling you.  I cannot be a man whose wife is on the tongue of gossips.  They say you keep a herd of starving witches and their familiars in your kitchen.  Men laugh at it.”
            Catherine bit her lower lip.  “Men will always find something in women to ridicule.”
            “And if the king hears of it?”
            “What does old Henry care who sits in our kitchen?  They are just poor women.  You would not have me put them out in dead winter, William, would you?  Where would they go?”
            “To the devil, for all I care.”
            “Come, Husband.  Show a little heart.  They do good.  It is what they are called to do.  They give me hands to help with the raising of this little Overton.”  She looked at him.  “And with your son.”
            He jumped up and walked to the hearth.  “The fire is almost dead.  I will send one of your sorceresses to tend it.  Put them to some use for once.  Before you rid us of them once and for all.”  Slapping his thigh, he walked from the room, pulling the door to a booming close behind him.

            The infant wailed and Catherine pulled it close.  “Poor child.  To be born a girl to such a world of men.”  She lifted her eyes to the window.  The snow came down like a quiet reprimand.
An Interview with Sarah
You, the Author

I’m a reader, writer, teacher, and animal-lover—not necessarily in that order!  I live in a little A-frame house in Rockbridge County, Virginia, with my husband and my hound, Gypsy.  I’ve always loved to read, and when I’m not out walking with Gypsy or working in my garden, I’m usually curled up with a novel or watching a movie.  I grew up in Indianapolis, which has grown to be quite a big city—and I do love cities, but for short visits rather than a place to live.  I also birdwatch quite a bit, as we have everything come through our yard from red-tailed hawks and pileated woodpeckers to rose-breasted grosbeaks.
I’m the author of seven books of poetry and (so far) four novels.  I’m in the middle of a series about Tudor England, focusing on the religious changes of the sixteenth century and how they affected ordinary people.  I also like to write about Americans, though, and my latest book is Self-Portrait, with Ghost, a stand-alone contemporary novel about artistic competition and social media.

If you have 2 hours free time tonight, what would you rather do? Why?

I would open a novel or watch a movie.  I always have a stack of books that I want to read, and there is never enough time to get through them all!  When I’m tired, though, I love to sit back with a good film, especially films in interesting historical periods (Tudor England, medieval Europe, World War I or II, the Civil War in America) or beautiful settings like Scotland, Cornwall, Wales, or Ireland.  If there is no movie available, I will watch an episode of Foyle’s War, which never gets old to me!

What kind of books do you love to read? Why?

The books I love are probably not much different from the movies I like.  I love mysteries of all kinds!  I also love historical fiction that doesn’t just tell the “big” stories we all know, like the histories of famous monarchs or famous battles.  I like to delve into the lives of everyday people and see how they react to significant historical change.

What is your stress buster?
Working in the garden and taking long walks through the woods with my dog are the best ways for me to deal with stress.  I am rather fidgety, and when I’m stressed, I crave physical activity.  But I have to be able to let my mind wander while I’m doing it, and pulling weeds or walking fast do wonders!

What is your favorite food? What food do you seek when you’re sad, sort of a comfort food?

Anything that’s rich in carbohydrates:  good, real bread; spaghetti, macaroni and cheese.  I just have to be careful not to make myself sick on it!

Describe yourself in one word. 

What’s your biggest regret in life?

Wasting time worrying about mistakes that can’t be changed—made either by me or by someone else.

What is the most adventurous thing you’ve ever done?

Quitting a tenure-track job to go back and get an MFA in Writing.

What makes you happy/sad/disappointed/frustrated/hopeful/angry? (Pick one)

Failing to help a student who is struggling in school makes me sad, because I feel that my job as a teacher is not only to provide information about writing and literature but to reach out to students who have a difficult time, whether they’re unprepared, stressed, or facing health/family crises.  Students are whole people, not just marks on a page.

What are your wildest dreams/fantasies/kinks/quirks?

My wildest dream is to buy a cottage in Scotland, near the sea.  Cornwall or Wales would do, too.

How would readers find out more about you?

Visit my website,
When did you write your first book? How long did it take you to write it?

My first book was a collection of poems, and it took me several years to write.  It’s hard to say exactly, because I started writing poetry in my early twenties, then quit while I was finishing a PhD.  I slowly came back to it in my mid-thirties.  My first novel was finished in about a year.  That was five years or so ago.

Did you encounter any obstacles in writing? What are they? How did you overcome them?

Most of my obstacles have been self-created:  prioritizing to give myself time to write; giving myself permission to write when other people wanted me to be more social; letting the house just get dirty if I didn’t have my writing done.

How did you feel when you receive your first contract? What did you do? Any celebratory dinner, dance, event, etc to commemorate the occasion?

It’s probably strange, but my first contract was very informal, with a small poetry publisher, and we’d been discussing the manuscript for a while, so it didn’t come as a big surprise.  Now, with my second book (also poems) I won the Elixir Press Award—and that was exciting!  I was so shocked that I actually called the publisher to make sure it wasn’t a mistake.

Any writing peeves, things you wish you could improve on, things you do with exceptional talent?
I wish I could stop using progressive verbs and the word “just” so much!  I always have to go back and do an editing just looking for those quirks.  I just can’t seem to stop, lol.

What kind of books do you love/hate to write? Why?

I love to write fiction with historical settings, because I love to do research and travel (which is, for me, the best way to really get to know a place, even if I’m in the present).  I always enjoy visiting old houses and ruins.  They make me feel as though I can hear the voices of the people who lived there.  I also like snarky characters; they are fun to imagine and write.

What do you think about editing?

It’s necessary.  I teach writing, so editing is second nature to me.  I try very hard not to pay close attention while I’m drafting or it will kill my momentum, but I am a grammar hound, so I actually rather like the editing process.

Where and when do you write? Tell us about your favorite work place and time. Any special reason?

When I wrote poetry, I wrote anywhere and everywhere—home, my office, sitting in the living room while my husband watched football or basketball.  I was fitful and couldn’t work in long stretches at all.  Writing fiction, I sit at a narrow desk in my study, facing the wall (though I have a sliding door beside me that looks out onto a little side garden).  I use a laptop, but I seldom move it.  In that room, my dog can come and go through the door (she also has a couch beside my desk for rests), and I know she’s content while I work.  If I get stuck, I can always sit back and stare out the door (or the glass if it’s winter).   

How do you write? Do your characters come to you first or the plot or the world of the story? How do you go on from there? Maybe you can give us an example with one of your books.

I always start with a character in a specific place.  I can usually see the person and the setting—and until that happens, nothing happens with the plot.  With my first novel in the Cross and the Crown series, the novel began with Catherine Havens standing in the little room above the porch of the church, peering out the window at the men coming down the road to evict her and the other nuns.  That didn’t end up being the beginning when the novel was finished, but that’s where I started.

Tell us about your hero or heroine.  Give us one of his/her strengths and one of his/her weaknesses.

The heroine of the Cross and the Crown series, Catherine Havens, is strong-willed and intelligent.  She is brave when she needs to be.  Her great weakness is making poor choices about men.  She should listen to her friend Ann Smith more often!

What books can you recommend to aspiring writers to improve on style, character development, plot, structure, dialogue, etc?

The one I’ve used successfully with students is James Thayer’s The Essential Guide to Writing a Novel.  It’s very readable and written in a common-sense way that aspiring writers can really use.  My students have liked it a lot.

What is your advice to aspiring writers?

Revise, revise, revise.  Think of words as your raw materials, a natural resource that you have to refine in order to get something useful out of them.  They won’t look the same afterward, but the process is necessary to getting the book done.  First drafts are not finished manuscripts—sometimes even fifth drafts are not finished manuscripts. 
Listen to your readers, even those who have criticisms.  Hearing someone say that something isn’t working hurts—it can really hurt if the reader isn’t sensitive!—but consider every comment you get.  Make your own decisions in the end.

Where do you get your ideas? Do you jot them down in a notebook, in case you forgot?

I don’t really know the answer to that!  I always seem to begin with a character, but I’m also working on a novel that began with a tiny, almost parenthetical, story that I read in a family history.  But there again—it was the character who was briefly mentioned who caught my attention and then began to nag at my imagination.

Have you ever wanted to write your book in one direction but your characters are moving it in another direction? What did you do in such a situation?

Yes, this happens all the time!  It can be surprising, even frustrating, but I try to listen to the character and let them go where they must.

Any new projects, work in progress?

I’m finishing the Cross and Crown series right now.  The fourth book in the series is set under the reign of Mary I, just after she is crowned queen.  It focuses on the difficulties she faced as a single woman on the throne of England as well as her desire to revert the country to Roman Catholicism.  That book is finished, and I am now drafting the fifth and final book in the series.  This one will move to the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign, because I want to compare and contrast the first months of these two queens.
I’m also working on the novel I mentioned earlier, that had its origin in that family story.  It’s no longer recognizable as a plot from that history, but it takes place in two time periods:  contemporary and Reconstruction Arkansas. It’s a big departure for me, both in structure and subject, so I’m having a satisfying struggle with it.

If you could have one skill that you don’t currently have, what would it be?

Carpentry.  I am tragic with a hammer, and it frustrates me like crazy.

Bookmark or Dog ear?

Bookmark!  I have only dog-eared textbooks a couple of times when I absolutely had to remember something and had forgotten a bookmark.

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