Happy New Year, and welcome to the first interview of the year, with awesome mystery writer Tilia Klebenov Jacobs, a fellow member of Sisters in Crime.
To see an event Tilia had with superstar writer Hank Phillipi Ryan, click here.
Her latest novel is Second Helpings at the Serve You Right Café, and it's doing rather well, so pick up a copy.
Q. So how did this novel come to be? Was it envisioned from the start as a bigger canvas, or did it expand organically out of an idea? Please tell us a bit about the origin.
A. One night my husband and I were out swing dancing, and a gentleman asked me to dance. We both knew we'd seen each other somewhere, and then I realized that he was a former student of mine from a writing class I taught at a medium-security prison. He was out on parole.
Well, we danced, we chatted, and I wished him all the best. Afterwards I found myself musing. He was alone, which means he was probably looking for someone; most of us are. And other than his past--which I really know very little about--he seemed a very ordinary sort of person. I thought, "Huh. At what point in the dating process do you tell someone you're out on parole?"
Suddenly I had a main character with a problem--always a good place to start.
Next I needed a setting, a focal point for my characters to gather. At first I thought it would be a patisserie. Then one day I was driving past a church and saw a sign for a coffee shop in their basement: Holy Grounds Coffee. I thought this was the funniest darned thing I ever saw, and made my pastry shop into a java joint. Changed the name, of course, since the church already had dibs on the first one.
Readers should know that most of the anecdotes in Second Helpings at the Serve You Right Café are true. Some are family stories; others are things my inmate students have told me. In my book, the coffee shop is where people go to tell their stories, even if they don't realize that's why they're drawn to it. It is also where people get what they deserve, for good or ill.
Q. Did you start with the germ of an idea and start writing to see where it went, or did you map a good deal out in your head (or even outline) before crafting?
A. Dale, as you know, for the purposes of this question there are two different kinds of writers: plotters and pantsers. Plotters map out their stories, sometimes in exacting detail, before they start writing. Who, what, where, when, and why all go into a chart or list of some sort. F. Scott Fitzgerald actually calculated the number of words per chapter of The Great Gatsby before he wrote it, if you can imagine. At the other end of the continuum are pantsers, who rather than plot, fly by the seat of their...well, you get the idea.
Anyone who has known me for more than about five minutes knows that I am a plotter. I love plotting; I love figuring out as much as possible ahead of time, although to be sure the story is bound to take a few unexpected turns in the writing process. Plotting holds several different appeals for me. First is the joy of immersion into the story and characters before hitting Once Upon a Time, because if you don't know and love your story and characters, you are in for a pretty miserable writing experience. Second, plotting lends itself to structure and intricacy. As a reader, I find that structure is very satisfying. Randomness isn't. Finally, a lot of writers talk about the terror of not knowing what happens next in a story as they write it. As a plotter, I find this very odd, because even when my characters hijack my story, I have the upper hand in that I know what's coming up. Complaining about not knowing the story you're writing makes about as much sense to me as driving blindfolded and complaining that you can't see the road.
Q. What do you feel is the main theme(s)?
A. Redemption. And my characters are often in need of it.
I don't think redemption is always possible in real life: I'm sure we can all think of moral Rubicons that cannot be uncrossed. But that, of course, is the beauty of fiction. We can write stories with outcomes that satisfy on every level.
Other themes often include honor and duty, especially for my female characters. I find that in fiction, these questions devolve mainly to men (though of course in real life women grapple with them all the time); so I really enjoy giving my female characters toothsome ethical questions to tackle.
Q. Why do you feel this is important, and what would you want a reader to take away from reading this book?
A. A reviewer on Goodreads said of Second Helpings, "There was so much wisdom embedded in the pages I just wanted to highlight it and save for the next time I'm up late with a friend walking through a tough time." That has to be one of the highest compliments I could dream of. It's great when someone closes your book and says, "Whoah--that was AWESOME." It's over-the-moon fabulous when they add, "I'll be back later, because this book has changed my life."
Q. What makes a good book or engaging story?
A. Plot, characters, and good descriptions of the setting. Of course, in the best stories these elements are completely interdependent. Ideally, plots spring from the characters, and setting affects everything. If you relocate Romeo and Juliet to 1950s New York, you have West Side Story. If you put The Tempest in outer space, you have Forbidden Planet.
Long descriptions are not popular right now, but I love them. There's nothing like a really lush description to ground you in the story. Think of the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The minute details she gives, down to the texture of the floorboards her father smoothed out for her and her sisters to run barefoot on, bring her experience alive as nothing else could.
Q. Are there writers with similar themes to yours? Who are your influences (can be writers, or even artists, musicians, or others) and what is it about their work that attracts you?
A. My writing has been compared to Lisa Scottoline's, which I consider an enormous compliment. Her work is smart and funny and devilishly plotted. I can't really call her an influence, though, because until Kirkus made the comparison I'd never read any of her books. (A deficit since rectified!)
For drool-worthy imagery, I turn to Ray Bradbury and Mark Helprin. Reading Helprin in particular feels like eating a rich dessert. For dialogue, especially banter, it's hard to top Robert B. Parker. And of course I worship regularly at the temple of J.K. Rowling. Humor, erudition, characters, plots that just won't quit--she's the whole package. If I ever met her, I would babble like an idiot.
Q. Is storytelling mostly entertainment, or does it serve other functions? Do you have particular goals other than telling a good story?
A. All cultures have stories. A human society without story is like a society without music or language: it just doesn't exist. So I think it's safe to say that story serves a profound need in the human experience. Religions convey their most profound messages largely through story; a culture's deepest values are transmitted the same way. And we all know that kids who enjoy reading do better in school, but you might be surprised to find that they're also less likely to commit crimes or end up in prison later in life. Ongoing immersion in story seems to make us better human beings who are better suited to society.
Q. Any other goals you've set for yourself, professionally or personally?
A. See below, under "What's Next"!
Q. Some writers write fast and claim not to rewrite much. Do you do this, or painstakingly revise? When you send the book off to the publisher, are you happy with it, or just tired of it?
A. "To quote the mild-mannered, word-mincing Ernest Hemingway: 'The first draft of anything is shit.'" (No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty.) I revise whether I've written something fast or slowly. There's no such thing as a perfect first draft. It may be studded with diamonds in the rough, but trust me, those babies need polishing.
I don't send anything off till it's as good as I can get it. There's not much future in sending out sloppy seconds. But yes, I'm generally pretty happy with my work by then, even if I'm also tired of it. I know I'm not supposed to say this, but I love my writing. Whether the current project is a book, a story, or an essay, I really feel privileged to have been able to spend time with it.
Q. Do you have good editors, and if so, how do they help you? Do they look for particular things? Do you have different people for different editing levels?
A. A good editor is a demigod. If you're lucky, he or she is both kind and ruthless. My editor, Michael Marano, was especially helpful with Wrong Place, Wrong Time, taking it to a level I could never have attained on my own. His insights are all-encompassing, from word choice to characters' motivations to story arcs. He did less for Second Helpings at the Serve You Right Café, but that's because it needed less help. It's a more polished, confident book than its predecessor, and I'm very pleased with it.
Q. If a writer came to you for advice, how would you help?
A. Here's what I tell people.
1. Whether you are traditionally or independently published, plan to spend some money. You will need an editor--a good one, who doesn't care about your self-esteem. You will need a publicist. Please don't assume your publisher, if you have one, will provide these things.
2. Surround yourself with a community of writers. No matter how much your family and friends support you, unless they are also writers they will not fully understand the highs and lows of this process. Equally important, other writers are often eager to give you a hand up. They will very often put you in touch with a sympathetic agent or an outstanding graphic artist for that cover that will launch a thousand sales.
3. Write the book that is in your heart, not the one that you think will sell. Writing a book is an extended process, and it takes just as long to write something you don't love as something you do.
4. As far as sales go, that is only your concern once you have a finished manuscript. Bear in mind that trends come and trends go, so if you're shooting for what's currently hot in the market you're aiming at a moving target. Right now werewolves and vampires are big; a few years ago it was penguins. (Seriously. It was.) If you happen to love what's now popular, great, but it might not be once you're done with your first draft. If you don't care for the chic shriek of the week, so much the better. You now have complete freedom to write the book you actually want to. Go for it!
5. Publishing is not what you think it is, no matter how much research you've done. Please know this: no one, not even me, can prepare you for the emotional tornado of launching your first book. The highs are high, the lows are low, and very few people around you have been through the same experience. It can be great; it can be wrenching; if you're lucky it will be both.
Q. Stories can be told by using a different medium. Can you see your book as a film, audio, etc.? How would that alter the telling?
A. I found out almost by accident that Second Helpings would work beautifully as a play. For its launch party we had a staged reading of scenes from the book, performed by three wonderfully talented actors. We held it at the public library where I wrote most of it, and proceeds went to a local children's charity. Selecting the scenes was a fun challenge--I wanted them to be early enough in the book that they were spoiler-proof, yet tantalizing enough that people would get excited. Well, I can tell you that at the end of the reading the audience was clamoring for more! One of the first questions was, "Is this a play too?" When I said no, the disappointment was audible. I was thrilled.
Q. What's the next step in your writing world?
A. I'm finishing up another book, this time an exercise in middle-grade fantasy. After that I plan to return to Second Helpings and adapt it as a play!
Q. Tell us a fun fact about yourself.
A. I once went to Bulgaria with six live lobsters and no visa. Also, I was a competitive ballroom dancer for years.
Q. Any other information you'd like to impart?
A. I'm a kickass writer. You should totally read my books, especially since Second Helpings is now available for 99 cents--for a limited time only!
Web page: http://www.tiliaklebenovjacobs.com/
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