Thursday, November 17, 2011

Author Interview with Elizabeth Cunningham

Red-Robed Priestess: A Novel (The Maeve Chronicles)
Elizabeth Cunningham
Monkfish Book Publishing (2011)
Hardcover: 350 pages,

You better believe I jumped (up and down) on the option of interviewing author Elizabeth Cunningham. I love her work so much that I set aside the review copy of Red-Robed Priestess as a special treat and also because I knew it would be the last of the Maeve Chronicles. Whaaaaaaa! 

As ever, Elizabeth does a brilliant job of re-imagining history and capturing my attention at the expense of sleep. Tempted as I was to interview Maeve, I decided to ask Elizabeth about her writing process.

Is there such a thing as a “typical writing schedule”? How has this changed over time?
Maeve has a very exciting, harrowing life, but when it comes to writing I am a creature of dull routine, so the answer is yes.

For all of my writing life (35 years now!), I've worked in the morning, which is the only time I have enough mental alertness, doubtless because of coffee. I've always held jobs (from waitressing to counseling) that I could do in the afternoons, evenings, and weekends.

The biggest change is that I now work on the computer, even when writing my journal. I used to write two hand drafts of a book before typing (on a typewriter!), because typing was so excruciating. I really don’t know how I ever typed a whole manuscript.

For The Passion of Mary Magdalen I went from the first handwritten draft to revising on computer. Then, with much trepidation, I began composing on the computer with Bright Dark Madonna. I still type with two fingers and typos abound, but now I’ve written two books that way.

Do you have any special rituals that help you get started or keep you going?
Despite or maybe because of my dedication to routine, I procrastinate, which is perhaps necessary and even functional, like an animal circling before it lies down. There are many more ways to procrastinate now. I know I am speaking to the Social Media Queen not to mention the SWGOTU, but I do count checking the Twitter feed as one form of procrastination, email another. But the worst is giving in and reading ersatz “news” articles.

The only thing that really helps is the sure knowledge that I will enjoy the rest of the day if I do write; if I don’t, I won’t. What I like even better than writing is living in the story the rest of the time (aka daydreaming). For that to happen, I have to do some work. So eventually I take the plunge—or at least stick a toe in. The deal I have with the Muse is to show up every day; it doesn’t matter how much I get done. But I do have show up, tired, inspired or not.

Various tricks help when I am stuck. Getting up and going to the bathroom is always good. Also lying down for a few minutes helps immensely. Sometimes I create a new file, just as I used to switch to a different notebook. Somehow writing on/in a page or file that is not “the manuscript” is freeing. All the things I’ve mentioned, movement, change of position, are tricks to loosen or dislodge whatever is stuck.

How do you balance book writing with other writing?
When I am writing a novel, I don’t do much other writing, except answering emails to which task there is no end. I started writing blog posts a little over a year ago as a way to keep in touch with readers between books. I find it a challenging form but also rewarding for its immediacy. While I was still working on Red-Robed Priestess, I designated a day a week as blog post day. I am not posting that frequently now. But I reckon designating a day every other week or so is what I will do when I am working on a book again.

At what point, if ever, do you show drafts to family or friends?
Very early I read aloud to my husband. I am not at this point asking for an opinion. Just trying to see if there's any life to what I've written, if it holds his interest and mine. At a somewhat later stage I have friends I read to. I have never been in a writers’ group, and I think too much critiquing at an early stage is not a good idea.

For me the most important thing is to get a draft out. Then you've got something to work with, to revise, to edit, to fine tune. While  writing the first draft, I may ask my husband and friends for their opinions on something specific. I think it's helpful to writer and  reader if the writer specifies what kinds of responses would be useful.

When I am in the final editorial process before publication, I'm always open to changes that will strengthen the work, but won’t change something because someone else thinks it might be shocking. I also won’t change something if it's integral to the work—like Maeve’s twenty-first century voice as she tells you about her life in the first century.

How has writing the Maeve Chronicles affected your libido?
My libido has always been in pretty good shape or I wouldn't have written The Maeve Chronicles. It's getting better and better as I get older, which may be why Maeve has sex in chapter one of Red-Robed Priestess whereas in Magdalen Rising she had to wait (impatiently!) until chapter thirty-six!

How often did you wear that red bustier while writing The Maeve Chronicles?
Precisely? Never! The red bustier (a 50th birthday present from me to me—or maybe from Maeve) is for performance only. Flashing cleavage helps me feel a little more Maevesque.

Alas, although it still fits lo these many years hence from said birthday, it now gives me acid reflux, so its appearances will be increasingly rare. It is my costume for a friend’s upcoming play Love and Madness in which I get to sing the heroine’s ditzy thoughts. A singing thought balloon in a red bustier. That will be me. Perhaps there is life after The Maeve Chronicles!

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