Thursday, October 08, 2009

Spending time with author Siri Mitchell

I've always been a Siri Mitchell fan. Of her writing. Of her person.
This summer I read her newest release "Love's Pursuit" on a plan ride to Washington D.C. I was captivated. Loved, loved, loved the book. I saw Siri in D.C. as well as her editor, Dave Long. I had to gush to both of them about the story and Siri's work.

If you haven't read a Siri Mitchell book, please do.
I asked Siri to answer some interview questions, which she graciously agreed to do.

Siri has written seven novels, two of which (Chateau of Echoes and The Cubicle Next Door) were named Christy Award Finalists.

A graduate from the University of Washington with a business degree, she has worked in many levels of government and lived on three continents. She currently resides with her family in the Washington DC metro area.

Listen in to a bit of our conversation!

RH: Siri, I loved Chateau of Echoes and Moon Over Tokyo, very different books but both set in foreign cities. Can you talk about writing with international settings?

SM: I’d love to – they’re my favorites! I think the key in writing international settings is remembering whose eyes you’re supposed to be viewing them from. Cultures are foreign to us because, given the same set of information, they would probably draw different conclusions and find different solutions than we would. It’s always been easier for me to write an international setting from the view of an outsider. That way, I can use my own observations about the place and the culture. Besides highlighting international differences, I also like to touch on the similarities. It’s important to realize that people across the globe (and across time) deal with the same issues and same questions that we do.

RH: So true. When I traveled for my job, I was so struck by the commonalities of people across the world. We all want to be happy, to be loved and to raise our kids in a warm, safe environment.

You’ve gone from contemporary and chick lit books to writing historicals. Can you tell us about this migration in your work?

SM: I actually came into the publishing industry wanting to write historicals, but at the time, no one was buying them. (That changed, of course, about two weeks after I signed my first contract!) I enjoyed writing contemporaries, and hope that I’ll have the chance to get back to them, but for now, I have a backlog of historicals that I feel the need to put on paper.

RH: My first book was a WW2 historical, but the research is too tedious for me. I think I have a more contemporary voice. Your historical voice is so perfect. I really felt enveloped into Puritan Massachusetts when reading Love's Pursuit.

What’s next for you?

SM: What’s next is another historical, She Walks in Beauty. It officially release in April 2010.

The book is set in 1890s New York City in the upper levels of society during the late-Victorian era. When Clara Carter is told she’s to debut a year early, her social education shifts to high gear.

There’s more than dance skills and manners to learn. There are corsets to be fitted and bosoms to be enhanced, for a girl so tall and gangly as Clara could never hope to attract a man by simply being herself.

But the more enmeshed she becomes in New York City’s social scene the more she begins to wonder if this is the life she really wants. Especially when she’s pitted against her best friend for the hand of the most eligible bachelor in town. When she does manage to find a kindred soul, a man who seems to love her simply for who she is, her heart begins to assert its case. But there’s more at stake this social season than just Clara’s marriage and the future of her family depends on how she plays the game.

The more research I did into corsets and late-Victorian culture, the more their problems seemed to mirror ours. Women still go to dangerous lengths to ‘fix’ the way they look. Media still creates a celebrity-focused culture. Advertising still perpetuates unreasonable standards of beauty for women that lead to anorexia-inducing behaviors, and we still grapple with our attitudes toward and treatment of the poor. Most books about debutantes focus on the glamour of the lifestyle or the cattiness of the girls themselves.

This books looks at the huge spiritual, physical, and emotional costs these girls were made to pay. But really, in true Victorian fashion, this book has a happy, heartwarming ending and I think there are scenes that will make readers laugh and others that will touch their hearts and make them cry (happy tears only, please!).

RH: All right, I'm hooked. I love the title. And I love the Victorian Era. You create heroines that are so profoundly impacted by their culture and traditions. It's fascinating. Cannot wait to read it!

Tell us a bit about your writing day. I know you have a daughter, so how does parenting work with writing for you?

SM: It really only works when I compartmentalize. I’m a bad juggler (even with scarves), so I do my best work when I’m concentrating on only one thing at a time.

After school starts, I work out. After I work out, I write from 2-4 hours 4 days a week (I figure that in any given week, I’ll have an appointment I have to go to or a series of errands I’ll have to run).

After I write, I take care of housework until my family comes home. Once they’re home, I’m theirs…and they get the weekends too. That’s my life. Pretty boring! In summer, I don’t keep a regular writing schedule. I operate on the assumption that I’ll be doing all the research reading for my next book, but frankly, I have a hard time making that happen.

RH: I can't juggle scarves either. :) Maintaining "life" is key to authors because we can become consumed by the deadline, by the craft. Sounds like you've found a good balance.

Historicals require a lot of research. Do you enjoy that aspect? How do you go about researching?

SM: I love research! What a great excuse to explore history. And buy books. I love books! I usually start my research in a very broad way. I like to read generally about my time period to get a feel for what was going on in my characters’ world politically, culturally, and spiritually.

After I get a good grasp of the period in general, then I start to narrow my research. I try and read biographies of women in the same class as my protagonist to see how the more widespread events of the day impacted women in particular. I’ll research specifics on architecture, food, and clothing.

Sometimes, if needed, I’ll delve into health and medicine. I’ve researched childbearing and marriage ceremonies. Period music, folk songs, and dance steps.

When it comes to actually writing my books, I try to forget everything I’ve learned. I try to interpret the world through my characters’ eyes rather than my own. I think I’m growing in this area. When I do it right, I treat the historical details matter-of-factly and my readers are able to buy into the illusion I’ve created, even when the characters do things that would seem odd or wrong to our modern day sensibilities. Write historicals with confidence and without apology. That’s my motto!

RH: Great advice about research. Even for me, researching contemporary issues and settings is key to a great story. Like you, I have to forget it all when I start to write and let it surface in a natural way.

Are you a plotter, Siri? Or Panster, as we say? How do you come up with your stories? Then, how do you approach writing?

SM: I’m a pantser, but my pants don’t seem to be wearing out quite as quickly these days. (RH: LOL)

I always try to craft a better book and I know that plotting is my weakness. For the past three books, I’ve been testing out different methods of quasi-plotting in order to find something that works for both my right and my left brain.

My stories always start with a character who comes to me and begins to tell me their story. In the early stages of writing, I’ll often hear my characters speaking and I’ll hurry to jot down what their saying. It used to be that my first draft manuscripts were lots of dialogue…with lots of gaps in between. I’ll usually know the beginning of my stories and their end and a few key scenes in the middle before I start to write.

With the book I just finished (She Walks in Beauty), I used scene cards to organize my thoughts. With the book I’m just beginning, I spent a lot of time thinking about theme and premise (influenced by Dr. Stanley D. Williams book, The Moral Premise).

I found it gave purpose to my scenes and helped me understand the actual structure of a novel. James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure and Jeff Gerke’s How To Find Your Story have also been very helpful. I guess I’d say I’m a pantser who wishes she could be a plotter. How’s that?

RH: While we can always improve our craft approach, there's some part of us that just "is." I'm a bit of a both-and writer myself. I plot and plan, then start writing and see what bubbles up!

What do you want readers to take away after reading one of your stories? What do you want them to feel?

SM: I want them to feel God’s great love. I want them to know that they don’t have to be anyone else, they don’t have to look like anyone else, they don’t have to act like anyone else. God created them for a purpose. And they deny that eternal purpose if they don’t value the person God created them to be.

RH: Your words so echo my own heart about my stories. I want readers to know God's amazing love for them and His destiny for them is uniquely designed for them!

Of all the places that you have traveled, which one is your favorite? Is there a place you haven’t been that you would love to visit?

SM: I have to say Paris. I’ll probably always say Paris! We were able to live there for 4 years and I completely fell in love with the city. But I would also love to visit all seven continents. I only have two left: South America and Antarctica. An Argentina/Antarctica itinerary would be a dream vacation for me.

RH: I've been to South America but Antarctica... wow, that would be some trip! Send me a post card!

Do you have any hobbies that you do in your spare time? Is there something you would love to learn but haven’t had the chance yet?

SM: I like to golf. My long-term goal is to get my handicap low enough so that I can play St. Andrews.

My husband has already played The Old Course twice. The next time we go to Scotland, I’m playing too! I also actually enjoy working out (lifting weights). And, I kind of hate to admit this, but I think I’m learning to enjoy gardening. As far as aspirations, I would love to be able to knit a lopi sweater like this one, but so far, I’ve only been able to conquer several really long scarves. (I have a lopi from 1984 that I still wear…mostly because I’ve never found another to buy.)

RH: What’s a typical family day like in the Mitchell household?

Unfortunately, it would probably begin at about 6:45. For some reason, some of us in my family are incapable of sleeping in. (That would not be me, by the way.) It would probably involve a sport (golf, tennis, biking, or swimming) or a visit to a museum. There’s so much to do and see in our area that the possibilities are endless!

RH: One of the great advantages of living metropolitan. Stuff to do. What kinds of books will we find on your bookshelf? What is the last book that left a big impression on you?

SM: All kinds of books line my bookshelves. And the desk. And the floor. And my nightstand. Non-fiction probably outnumbers fiction, but for pleasure reading, I’ll choose a novel every time. I have a long-time interest in fashion and French history (extra points for French fashion history), so I’ll add books in those categories regardless of what my research needs are at any given time.

Big impression? Probably Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. (Set in China during the foot-binding period.) As I was reading it, I kept looking at my feet thinking, ‘Really? People used to do that to their feet? Because they thought it was beautiful?!’ For anyone wondering, they used to break their feet (on purpose), bend them over into themselves, and let them basically rot into a gelatinous mass. (You have to read the book.)

RH: It's incredible what woman have endured through the centuries in the name of beauty.

I know you love to cook. What’s your favorite meal to prepare? Your favorite dessert? Do you cook every day?

SM: I’ve just discovered orange bread. And grilled coconut shrimp. But now that fall is coming on, I’ll be able to get out all my recipes with dried fruit (pork with apricots; chicken with prune sauce…). And Rachel Ray has a great recipe for penne pasta with pumpkin, sausage, and portabella mushrooms.

I’m not big on making desserts, though I love to eat them. But one of our French friends gave us a recipe for chocolate mousse. You’ll know I really like you if I take the time to chop up the chocolate, separate the eggs, and whip the egg whites up into a stiff meringue.

Usually, I cook every other day. 'Cook once, eat twice' is one of the sayings I live by. I never really liked leftovers until I became the chief cook and bottle washer. Now, I think they’re vastly underrated!

RH: Cooking is so not an interest of mine. I mean, I try. And if someone gives me an easy way to cook with variety, I'll do it, but I'm not a kitchen person. Too many other things to do.

What would you like readers to know from your heart about your books and writing?

SM: My goal has always been to make my readers think. I’m always trying to say something or work out how I feel about an issue. (My curse is to not be able to do it in less than 85,000 words!) I’d be flattered if reaaders couldn’t put my books down or felt like they connected with my characters, but I’d be honored if something I wrote gave them pause and caused them to stop, for even a moment, to consider something for the first time or from a new perspective.

RH: In my opinion you've accomplished your goal. You write storylines and characters that make me think. I've said this before but the storyline of Thomas and Small-Hope in Love's Pursuit is such an amazing Christ as Bridegroom image. Thank you for taking the time to create characters and stories to touch our hearts!

Thanks for stopping by, Siri!

Now, to blog readers, I'm giving away two autographed books by Siri Mitchell: Love's Pursuit and Constant Heart. For a chance to win, click on my Facebook badge to the right and post a comment! I'll draw names in a few weeks!


Sharon Ball said...

I'm so glad I stopped by Rachel's blog today, otherwise, I'd still be unfamiliar with Siri's novels. What a great interview, ladies. I'm thankful for the introduction to Siri's writing. And she's a fellow golfer to boot!!! :-)

Rachel Hauck said...

Thanks Sharon! Siri is an amazing writer! You golf? How cool.


Deborah said...

Rachel, I have not read anything by Siri yet,but these books sound great! I would love to be entered in the drawing with a chance to win! My book club would love them too!


Wendy said...

I really enjoy Siri's books. Thanks for the chance to win,
wsmarple /at/ gmail/dot/com

Rachel Hauck said...

Thanks for stopping by, y'all. Tell your friends! :)

I'll draw winners this week!


Teri Dawn Smith said...

Okay, after your reccommendation last Friday, I need to read this book!

Can't wait for your new one to come out too, Rachel!

Angie said...

What a fun interview. I look forward to checking out Siri's books. I'd like to enter the drawing:
angie at angiebrennan dot com


Sharon Hayes said...

I loved your interview w/Siri - I've not been too interested in the Victorian era but now I'd like to read this book. Tried to sign onto your Facebook to get a book but it wouldn't let me do anything.

Can't wait for Sweet By and By