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Interview with YA Author Alisa M. Libby
Hi Alisa! Could you start things off by telling us a little about yourself?
I've always loved to write, always wanted to be an author. I started my first novel in the second grade. The plot changed dramatically over the years, depending on what book or movie I was obsessed with at the time. I remember that ball gowns, mysterious magical powers, and unicorns played pivotal roles. Eventually I moved on to writing poetry, and years later I made my way back to short fiction and novels. It was all a part of the writer's journey, finding my “voice” for my first book. I'm still on that journey. I see the writing of each book as a singular adventure.
You have two published young adult historical novels out with Dutton, The Blood Confession and The Kings Rose. Can you tell us about them?
My first two books are about historical bad girls. The Blood Confession is historical fantasy inspired by the legend of Countess Erzebet Bathory, who believed that bathing in the blood of virgins would keep her eternally young and beautiful. The King's Rose is about Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of the notorious King Henry VIII, who was accused of having an affair with one of the king's servants during their marriage.
Writing historical novels generally takes a lot of research. How much research went into yours? Have you done anything really interesting in the name of research?
I love reading about a character, searching for a detail that may shed new light on their personality or the world they inhabited. For my first novel I read all that I could find about the Countess, Hungary in the 16th century, and the Ottoman Empire. I did foray into fantasy in order to create “reasons” (highly illogical reasons, of course) as to why Erzebet murdered her servants and bathed in their blood. Knowing the Bathory legend, I researched how blood may have been viewed in her world: it's religious and medicinal and magical properties. These details really informed the character.
For Catherine Howard, there was a lot more information to draw from, as many fabulous historians have written extensively about the Tudor era. I read about the culture of Henry's court, what they believed, how they ate, dressed, celebrated, and lived. There were also other characters—Henry, his former wives, the dowager Duchess of Norfolk, Lady Rochford—whom I had to learn about in order to tell Catherine's story. My husband and I took a trip to England to do some research. I had never been to England and this was a great excuse! We visited Hampton Court where Catherine celebrated her new role as queen, and the Tower of London where she was eventually imprisoned for her lustful crimes. This made me feel more in touch with her, as a person. Catherine Howard is not the most famous of Henry's wives—her own cousin, Anne Boleyn, probably takes that honor—so she doesn't get many visitors. I was there for her, and I told her so when I visited her grave site. It felt good to pay her homage.
What did your journey from aspiring author to published author entail? What were the key milestones along the way?
Key milestones! Here we go:
1. Being critical of my own work. After graduating from an undergrad writing program, I did a lot of reading and reflecting on my writing. I learned what worked for me in a novel and what didn't, and realized that my own writing had strayed into the latter category. An unpleasant but necessary lesson to learn, it helped me regain focus on the type of book I wanted to write. From there, I tried to figure out which of my many projects was the most book-like (conceptually, at least) and perhaps the most marketable.
2. Finding an agent. Partly luck, yes. But if I hadn't queried and put myself “out there” it would never have happened.
3. Revising. And revising, and revising again. Taking direction and critique—first from my agent and later from my editor—and not taking it personally.
4. Getting a book deal. Partly luck again, I admit.
How did you come to work with your literary agent?
A friend of mine met an agent at a party and got his card for me. I had been intending to start querying agents once my novel was “perfect” but getting an agent's card gave me the urge I needed to send it, immediately. I had a few projects that I was working on, but I saw my Countess Bathory YA novel as the most exciting, morbid, and marketable. So I sent him that. I was lucky that he saw some promise in it, even though it needed a lot of work.
Is there anything that you’ve learned or experienced during the publishing process that’s surprised you?
Lots of things! Where to begin? I've learned how challenging it is to write on a deadline, but that it can be extremely motivating as well (first I need to procrastinate and tidy the house and generally avoid work at all costs, evidently). I've learned that there is a big difference between an idea and a book, and putting too much pressure on a new idea can effectively snuff out that little flame of inspiration before it has a chance to ignite. I've learned that writing doesn't suddenly become easy after getting published. Each novel has unique challenges that need to be addressed. It's not as if I've learned the magical formula for writing (and selling, for that matter) a book. It still takes work and perseverance. That said, I know that I'm lucky to have an agent willing to guide me through those first revisions.
I love your author website. Did you create it? Did it go up before or after your books were published? How has the marketing and promotion side of publication been for you?
The website was created (by a professional designer, whom I hired and paid) to promote my first book, then updated to include my second. The process of promoting a book has been an eye-opening experience. I'm much more comfortable at home in my hooded sweatshirt, clacking away on my computer. But when my book was published there was an expectation—a necessity, even—that I do my part in promotion. I still find speaking engagements very nerve-wracking, but I've also had some great experiences talking about my books and about writing with other people. It's just outside of my comfort level, but I'm getting better and more comfortable with practice. I find it difficult to know what I should be spending time on for the sake of publicity. All I can do is focus on what I'm most comfortable doing. That said, I'm certainly willing to try new things if I think it might help my book.
What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Write, read, critique! Read books that are similar to what you want to write, and be critical—take note of what works and what doesn't work. Now turn that same critical eye to your own work. This can be downright uncomfortable, but it's absolutely necessary and you'll become a better writer, with practice. The sooner your own weaknesses become clear, you'll be able to address those issues.
You also may want to start a blog, create a web presence. You can blog about your writing, your progress, your accomplishments, your plans. Blog about what you're reading, post reviews, blog about books that have influenced you as a writer. Blog about writing tips that have (or haven't) worked for you, connect with other writers and writing communities. It's up to you if you want to share any bits of your works-in-progress—personally I don't, so don't feel the pressure to do so if you don't feel comfortable. Be wary about how much personal information you divulge (that's a real sticking point for me, as a blog is very public). The point is to get yourself out there, get connected with other blogging writers and create a place for yourself online—something professional that shows how devoted you are to your writing career and might impress an agent or an editor, were she to visit your blog (it could happen). If you have a blog with a readership, once you're published you'll have a perfect venue for book promotion.
You must be working on something new. Can you divulge anything about your current work(s)-in-progress?
As much as I love writing historical fiction, I needed to take a break. The thought of diving into all of that research made me want to hide under a library desk. This was a red flag, since I love research. I've been writing some contemporary fiction (my characters wear jeans! Unbelievable!) with some magical real/fantasy elements. I feel indebted to my current work-in-progress, as it pulled me out of a post-Catherine Howard dry spell. That's all I can say about it, I'm afraid. I don't want to jinx anything!
Where can readers stay up-to-date on the latest and greatest on you and your books?
Please visit my website and especially my blog, which is updated more regularly: www.alisamlibby.wordpress.com. Please visit and comment!
Finally, what’s one interview question you haven’t been asked and wish you would be? And please, answer it!
How about: who is your literary hero? Wilhelmina Harker, from Dracula by Bram Stoker. From Mina I learned a valuable lesson about fiction, and about life: bravery is not the absence of fear. True bravery is experiencing great fear, but forging ahead with what must be done, regardless. Her character makes that book so powerful for me. I look forward to re-reading it some day.
What a fabulous interview, Alisa. I loved reading about you and what you've learned while building your career as an author. Very inspiring! Thank you so much for sharing.