Join me this morning in getting to know author Tess Gingrich!
Challenging may be an understatement; I refer to the writing process as “delicious torture!” But I got started as a kid. I won’t go so far as to say it was intended as therapy, there wasn’t that much thought given to such things in those days. But I was very timid when I was young – still am though I’ve learned to behave more extrovertedly – and writing for me was a way to express thoughts and feelings that I was too shy to speak aloud to anyone. My mom bought me a journal when I was about nine, and I filled it with everything from my latest crush to made-up stories to complaints about my brother and sister to my hopes for the future; anything that occurred to me. As I got older I segregated and channeled writing into different areas, but it all started as a big jumble of stuff. Along the way, then, I dabbled in fiction, school paper reporting, and lots of lengthy letter writing. I keep writing now because it’s an integral part of who I am; it still allows for an avenue of expression that is soul-satisfying to me, whether it’s a letter to a friend, an Austen-based novel, or a private journal.
What got you started along the path to writing? What did you do with your earliest efforts? Did anyone read them? Did you still have them?
My mom got me started with both reading and writing but I took to it like a duck to water. Being shy, I shared little of it and it was mostly just journaling or silly imaginings. But then in school we had various writing assignments, and I always got good grades and comments that I wrote well. So I began to harbor a dream of being a writer. But though I believed I could write, I had little faith that I had anything to say that others would find interesting. ‘Content’ was the monster under the bed, and held me back for years. I only wrote little things and only for my own entertainment. I kept my earliest efforts for ages but I think only my mom ever read any of them. Several years ago we had a major flood in our basement, and it all got water damaged beyond saving. So they’re gone now except as a happy memory.
If you were to write the ‘origin’s episode’ of your writing career, what would be the most important scenes?
It would have to start with my mom handing me a blank journal – it was plain, with a dark green pebbly-textured cover and narrow lines inside and, being stitched at the spine, it wouldn’t lay flat to write. I think it was something she just had lying around and she probably gave it to me as much to keep me from complaining about nothing to do on a rainy day as to encourage me to write. Skip to junior high school at thirteen, when I wrote an assigned short story for English class and my teacher (the same teacher, bless her, who introduced me to Jane Austen that year) selected it as one of three to read aloud to the class. It was my first attempt at a detective story (even then I was into mysteries) about a pre-teen stumbling onto a theft ring and witnessing a murder. An homage to Nancy Drew! It was called “Seaside Secrecy” (I was into alliteration) and I’m sure if I were to read it today I would cringe!
High school brought me a few creative writing A’s – one story in particular won a prize, about a young boy living in a New York brownstone and his formative experiences in going out simply to buy a quart of milk at the corner store. Then in college I wrote periodic articles for the school paper. It was actually my roommate’s ‘job’ to do one-on-one interviews with star athletes, but she was going to be gone one weekend and asked me if I’d step in for her. We had a basketball player that everyone lovingly dubbed “the Polack” and at games, they would shout out the name to cheer him on. So my first question to him was, “Are you Polish?” and when he answered no quite emphatically, it became the opening of my published interview. (He was of Slovak extract.) The article was a hit, and I had a regular gig on the paper. Life intervened then, and I wrote little or nothing for years, until grandchildren came along. I started but never finished a children’s novella called “The Shimmering Time” featuring a southern belle rabbit named Arabella. And I started writing family stories in fictional form so that the kids would have a record of sorts one day. Haven’t finished that yet either, but then, the family stories continue, too.
Then in 2005, when the Pride and Prejudice film came out, I happened upon a website of other Jane Austen fans, and our discussions and their interest sparked my writing desire again for good. And I haven’t looked back since then.
Who are your partners in crime? What are their superpowers?
What an awesome question – and much more difficult to answer than I anticipated! Hmmm. My partners in crime: a black cat named Smudge with a purr on autopilot, who can leap tall sofas in a single bound and make me laugh at will to raise me out of any mood, but offers no protection as he runs at the slightest sound; and five grandkids – their superpowers being the ability to steal anyone’s heart on a moment’s notice even from two thousand miles away. Oh, and I can’t forget the Pinkers – a group of Austen-loving, haddock-wielding, helmet-wearing, bunny-hugging, awesome ladies with Ninja powers and without whose powers of wit, generosity and support I would never be a published author.
Where is your secret lair and what does it look like?
Well, if I tell you all where it is, it won’t be a secret anymore! But as to what it looks like – it’s a cozy stone cottage in a little forest glade where, apart from a small kitchen at the back, the entire ground floor is a library where I can sit and look out a picture window at flowers and woodsy animals as they come and go. And out the back door (where of course there are no windows to spoil the ambience within) there is a road which will take me back to the real world when all that peacefulness and nature starts to drive me mad. Truth to tell, I don’t exactly know where it is – right now it exists in my head waiting for me to win the lottery so I can go find it!
What made you choose to write in the genres/time periods you write in?
I think it chose me! I read all sorts of things as a kid, from detective stories to medieval ones to English classics. I was most drawn to those that offered glimpses either of another time or another culture. And I wanted to write about the same kinds of things that I enjoyed reading. I often thought of writing a medieval mystery series and may still do some day. And in recent years I’ve developed a strong interest in World War I – so much room for stories of heart there. But my love of Jane Austen engendered my interest in the extended Regency. It just felt like a good fit! Not so far back in time as to be totally alien, and yet far enough to offer very different sensibilities on which to base characters and plots. And the society of this period offers such possibilities for misunderstandings and miscommunication (although, I suppose, all periods do in their own ways.)
What do you enjoy most in the writing process? What parts of it do you really dislike?
I love the discovery of new things. That can be the research, learning about a period and its customs and famous (or infamous) people, and deciding how I can incorporate what I learn into a story. But it can also be discovering characters, what they will do next – they often lead me more than I write them – and how they will carry a story. And I love that moment of inspiration I sometimes achieve after several aborted attempts to write a scene; that moment when the proverbial light clicks on and you just know how you will proceed and that it can work.
What do I dislike?…those very long moments and hours of struggle before the light clicks on, when I am stuck as to a direction to proceed; the torturous work to get to that inspiration that will then ease me into a writing flow. Writing during those ‘stuck’ times is a very lonely business. And I’m not too fond of the editing process, either; it takes too much discipline.
In my notes for this interview, next to this question I wrote down “Mrs G’s turban” – and now for the life of me I have no idea what comment that was supposed to trigger. So that’s another thing I dislike: when my memory fails me even though I know I had a great point to make!
If you write in multiple genres how do you make the switch from one to the other? Do you find it a welcome change, crazy-making or a little of both?
Up to now I have only written either in the Regency genre or my own time and place, so it has not been an issue. But I hope to branch out in the future, so I will see. When I write, my mind seems to move into a ‘zone’ of sorts, so I am hoping that I will be able to conjure up different ones for different periods and not get too confused or overwhelmed. I am looking forward to finding out.
Historical fiction takes a lot of research. What is the most memorable or interesting thing you’ve learned along the way?
I have learned not to be too smug about all that we can accomplish today. There is a tendency for us to look back a few hundred years and think about all the things society lacked then, all the modern conveniences that did not yet exist. And I am startled sometimes as I do research by a dichotomy at play. First I am amazed at what was accomplished without all the modern tools and inventions. The craftsmanship achieved in buildings, furnishings, fashions – all manner of things – and all for the most part made without aid of machines; complex societies that developed and traded and thrived without aid of modern communication. And yet for what they ‘lacked,’ there often seemed more of a connection among people’s lives and livelihoods, the quality and ingenuity of their goods was high, such that we still appreciate working examples. I often wonder how much of what we produce today will still be around in recognizable form in two or three hundred years.
And contrary to that, I have learned just how much people did have at their disposal that I had presumed they didn’t. For example, I learned that while many people will say that Elias Howe invented the sewing machine in the 1840’s, there were actually several iterations (though they were not widely used) going as far back as the mid-eighteenth century. And I am especially constantly amazed at the rich and varied language in use during the Georgian and Regency periods. I use an etymology dictionary a lot when I write, because I want my writing to reflect the period and to avoid too modern a turn of phrase or cadence of speech. I can’t always write “in the period” but I want to get as close as I can. And often when I am in the flow and reread my paragraphs, I will circle words that I think are too modern, to look up and possibly find substitutes. But so often, I find that it really was in use that long ago – sometimes in different context or wholly different meaning – but absolutely available. And that’s not even considering the rich language that has long fallen out of use.
What do you to keep all your research information and plot ideas organized and accessible?
I’m still working on trying to find a good system that fits for me. I’m not organized by nature. I attended a lecture by Jennifer Kloester a while back on Georgette Heyer, and I was so impressed at that writer’s system – volumes upon volumes of binders, sorted by categories, sub-indexed, cross-indexed. It was beautiful! And I probably would not have been able to find anything in it. My brain just isn’t wired that way. I write myself notes, add things to my desktop until it gets too full of icons, then go through and sort and file to folders. And I am getting better at actually setting up folders with titles that will allow me to find what I need later. But it sure would help if I had a secretary, haha. At this stage, I just rely too much on my memory, and that’s not what it used to be. In the meantime, I click through folders, flip through papers, and mutter to myself until I find what I need at a given moment.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
Just write. Whether you are inspired or not, whether you have a set direction or not, whether you are in the mood or not… just write. Every day. And the rest follows. A little hard to practice at times when life’s other obligations take up your time. But I have found that it does work. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you just start to write, you’ll find yourself writing with purpose eventually.
What have been your most memorable experiences along the way?
The personal friendships I have formed have been so rewarding. I have loved meeting new people – other authors, readers, other Austen or history fans. I’ve been exposed to a whole new world of people and events, and I find that as a result, I see things differently now, I feel broadened in outlook. I look at every little thing and wonder what it’s “story” might be. And one broadening experience in particular is that I took up English country dancing regularly with a group in my area. Besides its exercise benefits, it is just so darned fun to do. I’ve met wonderful people whose interests and expertise vary from dance to music to history… and yes, to Jane Austen… and it is very rewarding. I jumped in with both feet (literally) and now serve on the group’s Board as well, and just recently started a blog site for them.
Tell us a little about your current project.
Just released (24 September) is a two-volume novel called A Fitzwilliam Legacy. Volume I is Seasonal Disorder, and Volume II is New Year Resolutions. Together they form a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, wherein now-married Elizabeth and Darcy are hosting some family and friends for a Christmastide fortnight . One family member shows up unannounced with repercussions, another is injured and confined to a bedroom, Jane and Bingley are house hunting, and at least six people at various times are in love with all its attendant miseries; and just when they think they’ve seen it all, someone ends up on the carpet in a dead faint. The tag line is, “For Lizzy and Darcy, it seems the difference between peaceful Christmastide celebration and most unharmonious discord is all… relatives.”
What’s up next for you?
I am two-thirds finished with a project I’ve been writing for over five years on and off, a novel that both retells the events of Elizabeth Bennet’s and Mr Darcy’s romance, while it also develops the sibling relationship between Fitzwilliam and Georgiana Darcy. I will finish that this winter, and it will be out in 2014. Then I have a plan to adapt Mary Hamilton into a full-fledged novel as well. And some ideas for a modern-day adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, among other original plots and characters.