Birthing seems to be a bit of a theme for historical author Anna Elliott. In part one of our two-part interview with Elliott, she revealed that she was four months pregnant with her daughter when she dreamed she would write what became the first installment in her Avalon trilogy. Now finishing the second title, which will continue the story of Queen Isolde and her struggles in a post-Arthurian Britain, and hard at work on the third book, Elliott is expecting a second child in a few short weeks! She’s had to juggle motherhood, the demands of pregnancy, and the hard work of writing a novel all at once. So of course I had to ask her how she did it since most women can only handle two out of three (raises hand). The answers are delightful and revealing.
Please enjoy part two of our two-part interview with Anna Elliott.
Q: Since you were taking characters from Arthurian legend (Morgan, Modred, even King Arthur), how did you approach characterizing these icons of literature? Do you have advice for authors who hope to do the same?
AE: I love reading the original Arthur legends and spending time with all the familiar characters: Arthur, Morgan, Modred, Merlin, and all the rest. But when I write, I don’t consciously create characters–they usually simply appear in my mind, fully formed, and its my job to get to know them well enough that they come across as vividly on paper as they do in my imagination. I did use the Arthurian primary sources as a starting point. For example, the following passage from Geoffrey of Monmouth was the basis for my conception of Morgan:
[Avalon] is the place where nine sisters administer genial rule over those who come to them from our homelands, and the first of them is the more learned in the art of healing, and her beauty exceeds that of her sisters. Her name is Morgan and she had learned what the use is of every kind of plant in curing the weaknesses of the body. She also knows the art of changing her appearance and of flying, like Daedalus, through the air on curious wings. As she wills it, she can be at Brest or at Chartres or at Pavia; and as she wills, she comes from the skies to your shores.
But the characters who wound up walking onto the stage of my book simply and from the first felt very connected to me and unique to my story, even if their names were familiar from the tales. I think that’s part of what makes the Arthur stories so magical–their characters can always be seen from a different angle. A reader or writer can always find something new in them to discover. I suppose that would be my advice to any authors hoping to write their own Arthurian-inspired book: look to what in the original legend most captures your imagination, think about what you, personally, see behind the often rather stock-figure characters of the stories. Every reader of the tales will discover something new.
Q: Do you plot extensively in advance, or let it unfold organically? Have you ever been so unhappy with a scene or a plot thread that you’ve chucked it and started over?
AE: I so much admire those completely organic writers, but I’m afraid I am definitely of the “control freak” school of writing–I need a fairly detailed outline or I’m paralyzed by not knowing what lies ahead. So before I start writing, I have the plot outlined in broad strokes, and then before I write each chapter I outline it scene by scene. Not that I don’t allow the outline to change; each chapter, each scene I write teaches me something new about my characters and the journey that they’re on, so as I write I will revise and change the plan as needed to better fit in with what I’ve learned. I’ve absolutely had to chuck out ideas, scenes or plot threads–usually it’s something that seemed a good idea in the outlining stage but just didn’t work when I got to the actual writing. That can be a tough decision, sometimes. I have to be fairly strict in reminding myself that my first loyalty is always to the story itself. If something–a chapter, a scene, even just a single word or phrase–isn’t fitting in with the story I’m telling, out it has to go.
I do let myself leave holes in the outline, too–parts of the story that I can’t see when I’m just starting out to write. For example, in Book 2 of the trilogy (Dark Moon of Avalon) I knew at the start of plotting that Isolde was going to escape from a threatening situation but didn’t know how that escape would happen. Then as I was approaching that part of book in the actual writing, a character that I’d pegged as more or less a villain suddenly raised his hand and informed me that he was a) gay, which I’d not even considered before, and b) was going to be the one to save Isolde. Who am I to argue? I absolutely loved writing him after he’d taken charge like that!
Q: How do you balance motherhood with writing?
AE: This is probably my most frequently asked question–and it’s a big one; I actually have an entire “Writing and Mothering” section on my website because it’s such a huge topic and one I feel so passionately about. At the time of writing, I have a 2-year-old daughter home with me full-time and another baby due in August. So I’d be lying if I said that balancing mothering and writing wasn’t a daily juggling act! I’m very lucky in that my husband is a grad student with a fairly flexible schedule that allows him to spend a good bit of time working from home–and very, very lucky in that he’s a completely hands-on daddy who plain loves being with his little girl! So we do a lot of tag-team parenting, a lot of trading on and off throughout the day.
And then there are many other methods I use to make sure I get my writing done: getting up early, a set schedule, a strict daily word count–a willingness to live with a kitchen floor that is thoroughly waxed and polished like 3 times a year! But you know the real, overarching answer to the question of “How do you find the time to write?” is actually “How can I NOT find the time?” I truly believe that all mothers need an outlet–something to be passionate about that is just for them, be it a hobby or a job or volunteer work or what have you. For me, to be writing, engaged in a story makes me happy, which means that I’m more fulfilled, more relaxed. I suppose it pretty much goes without saying that that means I’m a more fun and engaged mother.
My girl blows me away every day–this amazing little being, becoming her own independent person, figuring out the world. And I’m sure I’ll feel just the same about the new baby, whoever he or she turns out to be. So how could I not write my books, when writing them helps me so much to be the kind of mama they deserve to have?
Q: What do writers have to keep in mind if they plan on writing a series?
AE: For me, at least, it’s definitely helped that I had all three books planned out in advance before I started writing. That’s made it much easier to avoid making storytelling decisions in the early books that create problems in the later ones. I’ve certainly gotten to know my characters–Trystan and Isolde in particular–on a deeper level as I spend more time with them and watch them grow through each book. But my conception of the trilogy and the fundamental plan I’ve had for the progression of the three books has remained essentially the same. I actually wrote the final scene of the third and final book (Sunrise of Avalon) before I typed a single line of Twilight of Avalon, so I’ve always been writing with that ultimate goal in mind.
Q: What was the best advice you’d gotten in this business? The worst?
AE: I’m not sure this quite counts as “advice” but my favorite quote on writing–the one that’s always in my head when I’m telling a story–is from Donna Tartt, who wrote, “The first duty of the novelist is to entertain. It is a moral duty. People who read your books are sick, sad, traveling, in the hospital waiting room while someone is dying. Books are written by the alone for the alone.”
Every time I read those words, I think of my grandfather, who spent his last few years in a nursing home, dying of Parkinson’s disease. He couldn’t walk or stand or even feed himself; for the last two or three years he could barely talk. What he could still do, though, was read–and read he did, voraciously, day and night, through every one of the stacks and stacks of books my parents and I would bring. And though he would read nearly anything, he loved the romances–the books with a guaranteed happy ending–most of all. And if I have an external reader looking over my shoulder while I work, it’s him–my grandpa, who as he lay in his bed at the nursing home needed stories of hope, stories to remind him of the human spirit’s infinite capacity to triumph over even the most extreme hardship, the most bitter sorrow.
In terms of bad advice . . . hmm. . . . I guess I’ve been very lucky in that I really can’t think of any truly bad advice I’ve been given. When I was first starting out writing, another writer did tell me to just write the first draft straight through without ever stopping or looking back. Which may be–probably is–great advice for some writers, but I quickly discovered that it just didn’t work for my own process at all; I need to revise and edit constantly as I go.
Q: What fiction writing craft books are essential to you?
AE: My three favorites are: Bird by Bird by Anne Lammott, Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass, and The Plot Thickens, by Noah Lukeman. All were incredibly helpful as I was figuring out my own writing process.
Q: What’s next for you?
AE: Twilight of Avalon is the first of a trilogy, so at the time of writing I’ve completed the second book of the trilogy, Dark Moon of Avalon, and am finishing up work on the third, Sunrise of Avalon. I’m about 7/8 of the way done. And with the new baby due in August, I have a good self-imposed deadline to get it finished!
Wasn’t that great? Thanks so much, Anna!
Twilight of Avalon is currently available at all booksellers and online retailers.