Lissa Bryan’s debut novel is released today, and she will be sticking around for the day. Check back later for her very own guest column, and we’re also hosting a giveaway. To be in with a chance of winning a copy of Ghostwriter, all you have to do is leave a comment to this interview or the column this afternoon. Closing date is October 19.
Read our review of Ghostwriter here
What inspired you to be a writer?
I’d always been a writer, I just didn’t know it. I always wrote books and stories in my head, and I’d always re-written books and movies to have a plot I liked better. I had no idea others did this as well until I discovered fanfiction.
When did you know that this was the career path for you? Until my publisher, The Writer’s Coffee Shop, approached me and asked if I’d be interested in writing a book, I’d never considered it. I thought being published happened only by submitting manuscripts and being rejected dozens of times. I’m not that bold, so it wasn’t a possibility for me.
Once I found fanfiction, I finally had an outlet for some of those stories that had been tumbling around in my head. My first story had a dozen or so readers, and I was happy. Then, I started a sci-fi Twilight fanfiction and everything changed for me. It was one of those scary-crazy overnight success stories, and I was left staring at the computer screen thinking, “This can’t really be happening.”
I still feel that way sometimes.
That story was what brought me to the attention of my publisher. They asked me if I’d be interested in writing a novel. I thought, “Sure. Why not? It won’t be much different from writing a fanfiction story, and I’ll get paid for it.” Little did I know…
Did you find writing this novel very different from writing fanfiction?
Very much so. I found that it went much slower for me. I was used to producing a five thousand word chapter every night, and I found myself reduced to, perhaps, a few hundred words per day. I saw a quote from a writer who said, “Write like it doesn’t matter.” I wished I could have done that. I was over-thinking it, questioning each word.
When I finished it, I turned it over to my editors, fairly confident the manuscript was “clean” and would need little editing. I’d never had a beta writing fanfiction; I always did my own editing and flattered myself I was relatively good at it. Getting back the first draft from the editor was somewhat of a shock. There were red marks everywhere.
I had kind of dreaded the process, because I’d heard so many horror stories from authors, but it went much easier than I had imagined. The editors were quite diplomatic and kind, and their suggestions greatly improved my work.
Do you have a writing routine or do you simply write when you are inspired?
So far, I’ve been inspired every day, to the point where I can’t really enjoy other leisure activities because my mind drifts to my work and little tidbits I need to remember to insert, until I can’t stand it and have to go back to my computer. Since I’ve written a book, I find I have less writing time than I used to. Social media takes up a good bit of my time, building relationships with my readers, something that’s important for an author today. There’s editing, and interviews, and covers to be designed. But I make sure I write at least a little bit every day.
Do you think fellow writers would benefit more from self-publishing or finding a literary agent?
It depends on what their goals are as a writer. If the writer is hoping to become well known, they should probably aim for one of the Big Six, companies which have larger marketing budgets and influence with booksellers. This option requires getting an agent, since most of them will not accept direct submissions. And it comes with a price. It means having little artistic freedom and likely having to re-write the work to conform to what they feel is marketable. Remember, too, that an agent will absorb a portion of your earnings and most new writers don’t make much.
A small, or mid-level publishers like The Writer’s Coffee Shop, may be approached directly. They allow a remarkable level of artistic freedom. I was not pressured to conform to any genre standards, and their suggestions for improvement were just that: suggestions. They help the author promote the book, and some of their authors have become quite successful.
Self-publishing is the most difficult option. The writer has complete freedom over the product, but has to do everything themselves, from designing the cover to finding their own editor. They also face a stigma from readers which can be difficult to overcome.
How long were you thinking about this story before you committed it to paper?
A few years, I believe. I can’t remember, exactly, when I first encountered the article which was the inspiration for the book. It was an article on the Iron Harvest, which is the annual “crop” of unexploded munitions and weapons found in farmers’ fields, debris from the battles fought there. I couldn’t believe the numbers I read in the article, so I started reading more about the battles themselves, which led me to the American volunteers who had gone to serve as ambulance crews. A remarkable number of them became writers after the war, including Somerset Maugham, e.e. cummings, and Ernest Hemingway. That’s how Seth began to form in my mind.
He became more distinct as I read about the AFS, the organization that recruited the ambulance drivers. France was concerned about the kind of people who would volunteer, so the AFS recruited from the top universities, seeking young men from upper-class families.
I began to picture an idealistic young writer, a gentleman from an era when that word had a more significant meaning than today, thrust into the hell of Verdun, where every value he’d espoused would be challenged. And I wondered what he would be like after such an experience.
The literary character, Seth Fortner, plays such a large part in shaping Sara’s life. Was there someone you had in mind when you created him, who had a similar influence over you?
None of my characters are based directly on people I know, but they say an author can’t help but stir in bits of people they’ve met, and characters they’ve encountered in other books.
Did you already have a firm knowledge of the history of WWI and ambulance drivers, or did it require a lot of research?
I had a basic knowledge. I knew of the Battle of Verdun and that it had been horrible, but I had never studied it in depth. For this book, I wasn’t as interested in the battle itself as I was in the experiences of the soldiers, so I searched for old letters, diaries, first-hand sources. There aren’t many, not compared with what we have from WWII, but what I found was heart-breaking and horrifying. Some of those letters haunt me still. Some of it was just too horrible to write about.
Seth is deeply traumatised by his experiences in the war. How did you get into his psyche to portray this trauma so effectively?
Post-traumatic stress disorder wasn’t understood at the time. Militaries around the world were reluctant to accept its existence because they thought that “cowards” would use it as an excuse to get out of fighting or to get a pension after the war. Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway called them the Lost Generation. Hemingway wrote about these young men returning to a country that didn’t understand how their experiences had changed them in Soldier’s Home. In his terse, cool prose, Hemingway writes about the feeling of disassociation and emotional numbness they experienced. Seth did the same thing many of the Lost Generation did: tried to conceal it, not to talk about it, lest he seem “weak.” He turned to writing to find an outlet. Others turned to drinking or drugs. Or suicide. There are some who believe Hemingway’s decision to end his life was directly related to PTSD.
While writing this story, I had in mind the military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The wars may be different, but PTSD still afflicts our troops today. One of my readers told me my book helped her to understand her husband, who didn’t want to talk about his experiences in the war. That meant a lot to me.
Did you sympathise with and relate to any of the characters more than others?
They say that unless a writer loves their characters, the reader won’t either. Seth and Sara left echoes in my heart Even as I was writing, I was rooting for both of them to shake off the chains that bound them so they could find the love and happiness they deserved. Sometimes, I wanted to shake Seth for his avoidance, and at one point, I wanted to shake Sara for her clumsy attempts at asserting herself that pushed too hard at Seth’s boundaries. But they were both learning, both struggling to grow.
Sara has a very unsupportive family and there is no resolution to the difficult relationship that she has with her mother and that shaped her personality. Was the lack of resolution a difficult decision to make?
It was. I wanted so badly to give her a happy ending. I wanted there to be a simple reason for her mother’s cruelty that could be easily resolved and they could finally have the relationship Sara had always wanted. But that wouldn’t have been realistic. Life doesn’t always give us the answers or a Hollywood-style last-minute reconciliation.
Has the question of life after death always been a difficult one for you and did writing the book help to change the way you think about it?
Harry Potter’s Dumbledore had a wonderful perspective: Death is but the next adventure. I like that.
Ghostwriter is intended as fantasy and isn’t supposed to reflect any particular belief system. I enjoy imagining possibilities.
What’s next? Is there another novel in the works?
Yes, there is. I have another novel coming out early next year, which is a romance in a post-apocalyptic setting, and I’m working on a third, which is a historical set in the time of Henry VIII.