Monday, July 25, 2011

Voices You Should Hear: Alisa Libby

I met Alisa Libby last winter at a Vermont College of Fine Arts writing retreat, and we formed an immediate connection. Among other things, I, too, love Tudor England; Alisa has been brave enough to tackle this subject in a pair of lovely books. I'm delighted she could join me on the blog.

You and I share a love of historical fiction. Please tell readers about your novels and how you began writing historicals. I also know that you are fascinated by Elizabethan times. What draws you to that period, and have you considered writing about others?

It started with the characters, themselves. I didn't set out to write a historical novel (The Blood Confession), but I had read about this legendary Countess Bathory, who believed that bathing in the blood of virgins would keep her young forever. I was fascinated (and, yes, repulsed) by this, but it made me want to read more about her, to answer the question: “what was she thinking?” History offered no satisfying answer - “she was crazy” was too obvious, too pat. This became the perfect fictional exercise: what would drive a person to do such a thing? The more I researched, the more I saw how the time period, and her status as a woman in that time, could have shaped this character.

The same is true for my second book, The King's Rose. I was drawn to Tudor England after reading about Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of King Henry VIII. Catherine was condemned for committing adultery against a king who had already beheaded a former wife (Catherine's own cousin, Anne Boleyn) for the same crime. Again: What was she thinking?!?!?!?!! And luckily, I fell completely in love with Tudor England. The history was like a treasure trove: the gowns they wore, the music, the banquets – and behind all of that, the violence of an era in which a word against your king could be punishable by death. It was a fascinating time to inhabit – safely, through fiction.

What are your research methods? And specifically how do you know when to stop researching and when to start writing?

I don't know when to stop. In fact, I continue to research even after I've started writing. I generally go through a number of revisions – trying to get the plot write, the structure, the voice. In between drafts I'm reading more about the character, the culture, the settings – all of this influences the next revision. It may not be the most efficient way of doing things, but I've found it's the way that works for me. I have to allow myself to start writing when I have that urge to get words on paper. Though the details evolve over time, I find that this time to play with the character's voice is critical.

What was your breakthrough into publishing?

My breakthrough came when I found a literary agent. It was pure luck—I sent him some sample pages, and I think he saw some promise in my work. He didn't give me a lot of feedback until I had delivered a full 200-page draft of my first novel. Then he gave me A LOT of feedback! But having an agent gave me the push to keep going, to meet deadlines and focus on one book.

Do have something new in the works?

I certainly hope so! But I'm never quite sure. I suffered writer's block after The King's Rose was finished. I found it difficult to let go of that book, that character, that world. I tried to find another historical character to write about, but nothing sparked. So I've been experimenting – but I hope that one of these experiments will turn into a book, someday.

Do you have advice for aspiring writers?

Just write. Don't listen to what your friends or family says about what you write. Just write. Don't worry if you hate what you've written – that is a part of the creative process. Just keep writing, keep putting down ideas. Don't just talk about writing that story or epic poem or novel – start doing it. It's not easy, but it is worthwhile. You'll learn a lot about writing, and about yourself, along the way.

What’s the best way for readers to learn more about you?

Please visit my blog: I write about my current work in progress, my writing process, and what I'm reading. There are occasional posts about baking cookies and spending time with my one-eyed basset hound, Roxanne. I love to hear comments from readers and fellow writers!

Thanks, Alisa! My stubborn basset hound Boomer says "hi"!

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