Interview with Author Lu Ann Brobst Staheli

Lu Ann it is good to have you back. Tell us when did you first know you wanted to be an author?

Sometime in grade school I started telling people I wanted to be a writer. I loved to read and I wanted to write stories that other people would want to read, sort of a self perpetuating future, as far as I could see. Unfortunately, my mother thought I should “get a real job” so I could support myself someday if needs be. I ended up earning a B.S. degree in Secondary Education, with a major in English. I figured I could read all I wanted, and in the summer I could write.

Parent tend to be so real, don’t they? What makes you passionate about writing?

The ideas for books come easily to me, so I have a list of books I want to write that is so long I would have to write twenty plus hours a day for the rest of my life to get to them all, yet the ideas just keep coming. I think the passion started with being a voracious reader. I won the local library summer reading contest two years in a row, reading every book in our junior library in those two summers and moving on to the junior high school library the next, even though I was only in sixth grade. The passion for reading allowed me to begin to write, and my writing earned praise from my teachers. They encouraged me to write creatively and allowed me the freedom to make every writing assignment work for me. If that meant a research paper had the voice of a novel, it was okay, well, at least until I was a senior in high school. I love story, and being able to see one of my own ideas all the way through from beginning to end is a satisfying feeling.

That is a awesome way to feel. What was the pathway like for you to get your first book published?

My first book publication sort of fell in my lap, but it was far from my first book written. I had already written all four of the novels I mentioned previously (Leona & Me, Helen Marie; A Note Worth Taking: Tides Across the Sea; and Just Like Elizabeth Taylor), when I was approached by a friend to see if I’d be interested in ghostwriting a memoir. From the first time I heard the pitch for When Hearts Conjoin, I wanted to write it, but a ghostwriter was already attached to the project. Then he fell through, and the next and the next. My name was brought up in a meeting with Richard Paul Evans, who was going to be the publisher. I’d been teaching writing classes for a company partially owned by Rick. He’d heard me speak and had faith in me. I was asked to write a sample chapter for Erin Herrin to read. She loved it, I was offered a contract, and nine months later, we gave birth to the finished product, a book about her life and her famous conjoined babies.

Were you ever discouraged along the way? If so, how did you deal with it?

I was discouraged, although not with the writing itself. I’d attended a lot of workshops and met all the right people. I had manuscripts I was proud of, but I had both agents and editors telling me what was “wrong” with my books. None of them wanted to work with me, and I started to believe they knew what they were talking about. They were the professionals; I was the amateur. Because they acted as gatekeepers, I began to believe I’d never get published traditionally and I should just give the whole thing up.

Now I know that one person’s opinion is just that—HIS or HER opinion. A rejection has nothing to do with me; it may only have a little to do with my book, sort of a wrong place, wrong time, wrong person to submit to sort of thing. I know if I don’t find a traditional house for a manuscript, there is always Kindle and that’s turned out to be very freeing for me.

Once again I love writing, but I love even more having readers come back to me and tell me how much they loved my book, the one that no traditional publisher was willing to take a chance on. I haven’t given up on traditional publishing either. I’ve just realized that I’m a stronger writer today than I was at the time those other books were written, so it’s time to release them into the universe and move on.

You are so right about agent’s opinions. How many books did you write last year?

I’ve written three new books in the past year, all of which I am proud of. They are in various stages of critique, beta readers, and revision, getting all dolled up and ready to dance at the New York agent and editor search party. Two more books are over halfway through the first draft stage. I plan to be around for a long time, so an occasional few days of discouragement won’t keep me down. I just write my way out of it, perhaps using those thoughts as one of my blog messages then I get back to work on the project at hand, ready to face the gatekeepers once again.

How exciting…What books have most influenced your life?

My favorite book from childhood was A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter. It’s the story of a girl who wanted to be accepted by her mother and her peers, a girl who wanted an education, a girl who wanted to fit in. Not only did I have those same desires as a kid, I think my own characters have grown to display similar needs.

Romeo and Juliet has always been an important book in my life as well. I first read it in high school, the year the Zefferelli film version was released, and fell head over heels in love with not only the writing of William Shakespeare, but also actor Leonard Whiting. I can still remember the feelings I had the first moment I saw him on screen. Sigh! I grew up to read this play multiple times for the next 35 years as I taught 9th grade English. A fun side note, I discovered a few years ago that Shakespeare and I are 1st cousins, 12 times removed, sharing Robert Arden and Mary Webb as common grandparents.

But I credit Gary Paulsen’s novel Harris and Me for actually getting me started on my first novel. Paulsen took the stories of his own summers spent in childhood with his cousin and wove them into his novel. I realized that my mother’s stories were just as interesting, which brought about the birth of the idea to write Leona & Me, Helen Marie.

A Girl of the Limberlost, that is the first book my hubby & I read together after we married. How do you know the idea is good enough to write a book about it?

There is a fine balance between having what appears to be a great idea, and having enough story to hold together an entire novel, or short story. First I consider the seven plots points—Initial Incident, Exposition, 3 Conflicts of Rising Action, Climax, and Resolution. If I can imagine what each of those points will be, then I likely have a complete story. Without them, I only have an idea—cool, perhaps—but not enough around which to build.

Not having all seven pieces in mind, or at least the Initial Incident and Climax/Resolution is why so many beginning writers get off to a great start then suffer writer’s block, or let their enthusiasm die. They’ve worked their characters into a rut they can’t get out of, or the author doesn’t know if he cares to even try and they abandon the writing.

The novel itself might change where the author thought they were going with these characters, but having even this tiny bit of an outline always helps me know where I’m at least headed in the end.

 Do you just sit down and write, waiting to see what happens next? Or do you outline first?

Once I have the idea formulated in the very rough 7-Step outline or what might happen, I just sit down and write. I find I have to keep reminding myself to do something terrible to my characters. I have the tendency, especially on a first draft, to let things happen around them, but not to put them right into the middle of the action. Because of this, I’m working at using the 7-Steps in each chapter as a chapter arc, as well as for the overall arc of the book. In my current manuscript, that method seems to be working, which means fewer major revision notes are coming home with me following critique group.

Who has made the greatest difference for you as a writer?

Definitely the people who are in my critique group! We started out either unpublished or barely published, but together we have grown as writers. Each of us has commented in interviews and presentations how we hear each other in our heads now as we draft our new books. “Annette will never let me get away with that. Jeff will see what big picture item I need to include. Sarah will know the correct word the British would use.”And so on.

Add our in-person critique meetings where we read and discuss in a hands-on venue our current works-in-progress and the manuscripts do nothing but get better. And their availability for a quick emailed question and sometimes immediate response makes the writing process so much easier than it was when it was just me, sitting alone in from of a blank computer screen.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, if you don’t have a critique group, get one. Make adjustments until you have the right people for you, and don’t be afraid to modify how your group works as a unit as you start to publish and have different needs. We don’t work our way through every book, page by page, anymore, and that’s okay.

What’s your secret to making the character’s in your books come to life?

Some of the characters in my books are based on elements of my own life, others are based on people I know, but most are completely invented from the realm of possibility. I think the key to bringing characters alive is the use of specific detail. Give them a personality, find their voice, and enrich it with the language and situations of the time. Helen Marie is a precocious little girl, but she uses words and sentence structures true to the education of a child in the 1920s who lives in a rural community of Southern Indiana. Laura loves the music of The Monkees, so her obsession with listening to the very latest from her idols fits naturally into the book conversation. Beth is secretive, and for good reason, so her external dialogue is short and guarded, although much is going on inside her head. Manuela lives in Santiago de Cuba, during the time of Cortés, so it was important to have her language be peppered with Spanish, yet understandable to the modern reader as well.

Besides writing what other talents or hobbies do you have?

Reading is my passion. If I don’t read for pleasure, I get cranky and hard to live with. Middle grade and young adults novels are among my favorite books, although I read my fair share of adult fiction and no-fiction as well. Maybe my love of MG/YA  explains why I spent 34 years as an English teacher, and why I’m now absolutely adoring my job as school librarian. As for other talents or hobbies, I play piano, organ, and saxophone, although not as often as I used to, before I broke both of my elbows at the same time. (Long story.) I also love to cross-stitch, but since I adopted five sons the time to do so hasn’t really been there. Maybe when I’m a Grandma or retired I’ll pick it back up again.

What is the most difficult thing about being an author?

Two-fold answer—waiting and rejection. No one likes to be told no, but sometimes holding out the hope eternal is just as difficult. So many agents and editors are taking months, and occasionally over a year, to respond to queries or submissions they requested. As an author you wonder, “Will they ever respond? Does their silence simply mean no? How long am I really expected to wait?” But waiting that long then still getting the rejection letter is just as hard. Maybe it is better to get the almost-immediate no, even though we all hate to hear it.

How do you come up with your character’s names?

The names in Leona & Me are all real people, those who played an important role in my mother’s life at the time, and the friends she was surrounded with. Those I used in Note and Elizabeth Taylor are mostly random names of kids I either went to school with, or those I have known where I teach, paired together with names of other people I have known. I found using familiar names helped me keep markers of who each distinct character was as I wrote. They aren’t based on these people 98% of the time—although I’ve been accused of it—and the characters have their own stories but I like easy names, ones that don’t make me think every time to know how to spell! Okay, so I broke that rule in Tides, but it was a special case since the novel was historical and set in both Cuba and within the Aztec nation. The names had to match the cultural, and several of them are based on real people—Moctezuma, Cortés, and Malinche—so they needed to be historically accurate.

What is the best complement you could receive from a reader?

I loved your books, and I want to read more.

Where can readers go to find your books and order them?

All of my books are available at Amazon.com for download to Kindle readers or Kindle apps for other devices. Here is the link:

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_sc_6_6?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=luann+staheli&sprefix=Lu+Ann%2Cstripbooks%2C405

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