For my final installment of my Author Up Close series in 2019, I’m sharing a Q&A with Elizabeth Bell. Elizabeth and I e-met after both finaling in a writing award competition. Elizabeth is a craft genius—no surprise there; she has an MFA from George Mason University and works in the school’s library. When I caught up with her she was launching her novel, Necessary Sins, a James Jones First Novel Fellowship finalist. Her 26-year journey to publishing is fascinating, and our Q&A provides an honest look at the sometimes tumultuous road to publishing and how that road makes it even more important to define success on your own terms.
GW: You’ve got an interesting backstory when it comes to writing Necessary Sins, including how long you spent working on it. Will you share what inspired you to write about this particular subject?
DB: When I was eight years old, I visited Charleston, South Carolina. I fell in love with its gardens and architecture and wanted to set a story there. As an adolescent, I devoured Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, John Jakes’s North and South, and Alex Haley’s Roots. I wanted to write a saga on that scale, something with multiple settings that would follow characters across decades. Those stories are great escapism and drama, but they also taught me about history and place.
The central family in my saga, the Lazares, is multiracial and “passing.” This was partially about secrets—family sagas always revolve around those—and partially about history, getting at the heart of the contradictions that are the American Dream. But the very first seed of the Lazares’ racial makeup came from my mother. She read an early draft and told me Caucasian people don’t have black hair; it would have to be dark brown. But my Lazares had black hair; I just knew it! Caucasian people do have black hair—the Welsh, for instance—but somehow the “problem” of black hair simmered in the back of my mind. I was puzzling out David’s (one of the main characters) personality, what made him reluctant to trust and reveal his true self, as well as why his uncle Joseph might choose to become a celibate priest. Joseph is very pious, but as a priest, he’s also hiding in plain sight. My characters are products of their time, but I wanted them to resist racism. What might make them view the world differently than the slaveholders around them and work for justice? My answers to these questions coalesced into the Lazare family having African ancestry.
It’s taken me a quarter-century of research and revision to become a wise enough person and good enough writer to tell this story.
GW: You went to great lengths to authentically portray characters with African ancestry. Will you share some of the things you did to help with that?
EB: I became a sponge. I absorbed anything that might help me understand the black experience. I researched across time and place, from African peoples’ first contact with white Europeans to the Haitian Revolution to the present-day United States. You can’t understand why the past matters without understanding how it lingers in contemporary society. I researched across the color spectrum, from specific African tribes to someone like Bliss Broyard who’s been severed from her African ancestry because her father crossed the color line. No culture is a monolith; every person in a group is an individual. I found the threads that fit my characters and themes while still representing the larger whole.
I started with nonfiction and then devoured fiction. Books, articles, blog posts, films, TV series, plays, museum exhibits. I paid special attention to authors of color and how they dealt with racism, slavery, passing, and what it’s like to be multiracial, from William Wells Brown to James Baldwin to contemporary authors. I’ve been able to hear some of them speak and ask them questions: James McBride, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, and Colson Whitehead. I learned from black interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg and other historic sites. The Slave Dwelling Project helped me shift my point-of-view as well. I work on a college campus, and I’ve attended events held by the Black Student Alliance where I was the only white person in the room.
The Writing the Other project, both the book and the classes, has been tremendously helpful, as has the Writers for Diversity Facebook group. There’s considerable psychological cost for a marginalized person who explains their experience to a white person, so when someone makes that effort and takes that time to address writers like me, it’s particularly important to listen.
GW: What are some of the things that led to your decision to self-publish?
EB: I think my Lazare Family Saga would have done well traditionally shortly after my inspirational novels were published. In the 1980s, doorstopper sagas became bestsellers and miniseries. But this is the Age of Twitter. The publishing powers that be have decided the public has a short attention span. Agents said time and again “I don’t care how good it is; I can’t sell a 500-page debut novel.” Now, there will be the occasional exception to the rule about large debut novels, but they’re almost always male authors and/or they know someone in publishing. I have three other “big risk” factors in agents’ and editors’ eyes. My protagonist in Necessary Sins, Book 1 of my series, is (gasp) a man. Women writing historical fiction are restricted to “women’s fiction in a historical setting”—in other words, female protagonists. The third nonstarter about my debut is that I’m a white woman writing about race. Fourthly, I have no marquee names; my work centers on fictional characters, not famous historical figures who are an “easy sell.”
Over the course of three years, I queried over 100 agents and about 15 editors. I got a combination of form rejections and crickets. I learned more about the publishing world and followed the experiences of my querying friends. I was finally forced to see the writing on the wall: I wasn’t going to be traditionally published any time in the next decade. But most of the people who read my saga loved it. I couldn’t bear to let 26 years of work and characters I love deeply die on my computer. “A book is only a book when it’s in the hands of a reader.” Self-publishing was the solution; and unlike The Establishment, readers have been giving Necessary Sins a warm reception.
GW: I think it’s important for aspiring authors to understand that self-publishing, when done well, is about much more than just uploading your book to your retailer of choice. What are some of the things you did to prepare for your book launch, beyond writing a great story? What are some of the things that have been most successful for you thus far?
EB: The two best things I did were to take Mark Dawson’s online course SPF 101 and to join ALLi, the Alliance of Independent Authors. An author needs so much preparation to excel in self-publishing, and it’s vital to have a community of other writers who’ve done it all before. I found a great cover designer and a great editor who were good fits for my work. I was able to get endorsement quotes from several fellow authors, even traditionally published ones who’ve given me a signal boost. It’s all about networking. Keep your finger on the pulse of what’s happening in your genre and in self-publishing. Learn what’s working for others but also learn to think outside the box. One of the neat things I did for my launch was to design a custom fragrance inspired by my fiction with Book Scents Candles. I gave away those candles at my Facebook launch party, which was a lot of work but also great fun. Now that I’m gaining experience myself, I enjoy brainstorming with other indie authors and giving back to the indie writer community.
GW: What’s been your biggest lesson since your launch?
EB: Everything will take twice as long and cost three times as much as you thought it would. I knew cover design and editing would be my biggest costs, but there are so many others for an indie author. When I started, I didn’t even have a website. Then there’s the criminal cost of ISBNs in the United States; a newsletter service; Bookfunnel; Book Brush; specialized software like Vellum and Publisher Rocket; membership fees to organizations; business cards… You don’t have to do all of these, but you’ll have to do most of them and a whole lot of marketing if you want readers to know your book exists and if you’re putting out a professional product people might actually want to buy. My biggest lesson would be: plan ahead, not only in saving and budgeting money but also in time. I messed up with IngramSpark, who distributes my paperback outside Amazon. I didn’t set up Necessary Sins with Ingram early enough, and then an error on their end delayed me further. So my debut wasn’t available outside Amazon on my launch date as I’d hoped. I’ll get that right for Book 2!
GW: What advice would you give a newbie writer who someday wants to be doing what you’re doing?
EB: To quote Hamlet, “I must be cruel, only to be kind.” Don’t become a writer believing you’ll make a living at it. Very few of us manage that. Now if you have someone who supports your dream, go for it full throttle. Thank that person and your lucky stars daily. But if you don’t have support, find a Plan B that will actually pay the bills. Write on the side or after you retire. I’m sorry that’s not inspirational, but it is reality. The world wants to consume art, but very few people want to pay artists.
Many thanks to Elizabeth for agreeing to this Q&A. To learn more about Elizabeth and Necessary Sins, you can visit her website Elizabeth Bell Author.
Over to you: how long have you been on your publishing journey, and what sacrifices are you prepared to make to get your book into the hands of readers?