Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions, Rowan. We are very excited and can’t wait to learn more about you. Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
This is the first book I’ve had published, but I’ve been writing since I could hold a pencil. My mother used to tell me to “go draw me a story” before I was literate. I’m passionate about books; I read constantly. But although I’ve done some freelance stuff for trade journals, I’ve never had the gumption to finish anything substantial—until now. I think it was a matter of finding my niche.
I have a masters in humanities/history from the University of Chicago (my concentration was 15th Century Spanish Exploration), but I ended up out of academics for due to the necessity of actually wanting to eat and have a roof over my head. Plus I’m very nervous and agoraphobic and hate being the center of attention, so teaching wasn’t an option for me. Practically anything else is: I’ve done customer service, database management, medical billing, driven a forklift, designed electrification systems for steel mills, and even (thankfully briefly) done the “you want fries with that?” stint. I started doing freelance work for a couple of trade journals (on the other end of the food service spectrum) and got a pretty good grounding in writing tight and writing fast. Right now I wrangle a contacts database and a law library for the Chicago office of a large Midwest law firm.
What was your first book and how long did it take to get it published?
Finding Zach is the first book, although I’ve written (and not published) short stories before. I’m amazed at how fast the process went; I started writing May 20th of last year and the book came out May 7th of this year. I submitted it at the end of January and had a contract three weeks later; then we absolutely zipped through the editing process.
How many books have you written thus far?
Just the one, although I’m closed to being finished with the first draft of another.
When did you start writing m/m romance? What about this genre interested you the most?
Finding Zach is my first m/m romance, although I have written snippets of both gay and straight… let’s call it erotica. Just scenes for practice. (I also have one or two straight romances close to being finished, but not there yet for one reason or another.)
I read a number of books in this genre and was fascinated by the better ones; how the authors could craft believable male characters and still have them fulfill the common themes of the “romance” novel. Like a lot of the authors in this genre, I was always more interested in the hero than in the heroine, and it sort of appealed to me to write a romance with just the hero(es) involved. The more I read, the more I realized the level of potential. And for some reason it clicked; I’d always had problems finishing stories before, but not anymore!
Do you write full time?
I WISH! No, I have that full-time job (see: eating and roof, above) and am very involved in a medieval reenactment group to boot, so my weekdays AND weekends are pretty busy. I squeeze in the writing when I can, and of course THINK about the stories all the time.
Looking back was there something in particular that helped you to decide to become a writer? Did you choose it or did the profession choose you?
I always wanted to be a writer but my parents said “Writing is a good avocation, but find something that will pay the bills.” So I wrote on the side for enjoyment. I would occasionally start something and think I could get it published, but never really pursued it. I’m sort of easily distractible…. Oh, look! A chicken!!
I think, though, that writing really does choose you. It’s like any other obsession; you don’t really so much LIKE to write as you NEED to write. I have to spend at least a part of every day doing something creative, and writing is the drug of choice for me. It’s the thing I do best, I think, although in many ways it’s also the most difficult.
On a typical writing day, how would you spend your time?
Being extraordinarily lazy and chalking it up to “thinking.” And really actually thinking. Plotting out what I’m going to write next and probably rereading stuff I’ve already written. Then sitting down and writing something, even if it’s garbage and I end up throwing it all away a day later. Though truth be told, I don’t usually throw stuff away. I pick at it until I get it right.
I write mostly at work, on my lunch hour, so it’s work until I clock out for lunch, then fire up the flash drive and plug away until it’s time to clock back in. Being already at the computer focuses me, and knowing that I only have an hour to work makes me hunker down and do it.
When it comes to plotting, do you write freely or plan everything in advance?
I sort of have a vague idea of what I want to do, but I don’t outline or anything like that. I usually won’t have an ending worked out until about a quarter of the way into the book, long before I’ve figured out what the actual plot is, and then I’ll do a rough draft of that and spend the rest of the time working towards that end. I’m flexible, though. Through most of Finding Zach, I had a subplot about a tattoo that was going to work into the ending—and it got thrown out well before I finished the book. The ending was completely different from what I had originally planned.
I tend to write scenes and then work them together, so I’ll plot out a scene in detail before writing it, then write it straight through. And I don’t necessarily write in order. I’ll write widely-separated scenes and then go back and write stuff in the crevices.
What kind of research do you do before and during a new book?
It depends on the book, but there’s always a certain amount of research that has to take place even before I start. I may have the characters and a vague idea of the story, but I need to have a sense of place and time to start with. I did tons of research into Costa Rica and Venezuela before I started Zach, even though very little of the action takes place there. Then the Colorado Springs area when the action moved there. Most of the research for Zach was place.
In my current work, it’s people; who was and wasn’t in London, Vienna and Brussels during Napoleon’s Hundred Days; what regiments and officers were on the ground during the battles of Quatre Bras, Ligny, and Waterloo, and so on. I picked the 14th Light Dragoons for one of the two main characters, mainly because they were a.) a cavalry regiment which fought in most of the major battles in the Peninsula; b.) they were in America at the time of Waterloo, so my main character could neither have rejoined his regiment nor obtained his colonel’s approval to sell his commission; and c.) they wore blue uniforms instead of the usual red. I don’t know why that was an issue; I just wanted Charlie to wear blue. “B.” was important to me because Charlie is an ADC to Wellington and so needed to be at his side during Waterloo, not fighting with his own regiment, and if he had managed to sell out prior to Waterloo, he wouldn’t have been there at all. I was delighted to find that there actually was an officer of the 14th who was a staff officer during Waterloo: a lieutenant-colonel, not a major, as Charles is.
I think I have an advantage as far as research goes; that graduate degree in humanities/history, which was very research-intensive. I don’t LIKE research, but I know how to do it!
How much of yourself and the people you know manifest into your characters?
I think a writer automatically puts something of themselves into their characters. Giving them something of yourself creates a connection between you and them and makes it easier to relate to them as you write. And sometimes you can use them to exorcise your own demons, like Zach’s PTSD, or Tristan’s depression (in my new work). There’s a lot of me in Zach, and a lot in David, although ultimately their personalities are their own. As for other people: well, I do borrow names, sometimes, as sort of a shout-out to my friends, but I can’t think of any instances where I consciously borrowed any personality quirks or anything. In the end, however, your relationships with others informs your work; if I didn’t have a wonderful family, I don’t know that I would have been able to believably show the strong bonds between Zach and David and theirs.
How do you approach development of your characters? Where do you draw the line?
They spring fully formed, like Athena from the brow of Zeus. Seriously. A name, a physical attribute, a face seen in a passing glance: any of these could trigger a character in my head. I have so many characters floating around I could write nonstop until the Trump of Doom and still not get them all out. As for drawing the line, I’m assuming you mean what would I not let any of my characters do? Well, I don’t think I can ever write anyone purposely harming an animal, even if they are a bad guy. I get physically ill when I read anything where an animal gets hurt. I don’t care if it’s imaginary, it’s real enough to me. That’s part of why I won’t read or watch movies about animals; they usually die at the end and I just can’t deal with it. (I’m very squishy inside.) Animals do get hurt in my upcoming book, and it’s hard to write, but it’s not deliberate (unless you think of war as deliberate, which it is, but not in this sense). As for anything else, well, bad guys do bad things, and there’s pretty much not anything I can think of that hasn’t been done by someone, somewhere. Frightening though that thought is.
How long does it take for you to complete a book you would allow someone to read?
Well, Finding Zach took five months to get to that point. My current project is seven months old and still not there yet. I guess I’d say as long as it takes.
If you weren’t sitting there right this very moment answering our book of questions, what else would you be doing?
Trying to write two guys having hot sex. Seriously. I’m right in the middle of the scene and had to take a break.
Do you write straight through, or do you revise as you go along?
Oh, I’m a terrible self-editor. I write a scene, go back and rewrite it, write another scene, go back and rewrite the first scene so that it works better with the second scene, then rewrite the second scene, then… It’s a miracle I ever get anywhere.
Finding Zach actually started out as an experiment on the NaNoWriMo model: write a minimum number of words a day, every day, for a limited period, with the goal of having a completed manuscript when done. Don’t edit, just write. Of course, being me, I had to edit constantly, and NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) limits it to one month (November), so I was a little easier on myself. I gave myself four months with the promise of 15,000 words per month. It ended up being a little over 5 months, but I made the word quota and then some. And despite the constant editing, it still came out okay in a reasonable time. We’ll see how the new ones go…
Writers often go on about writer’s block. Do you ever suffer from it, and what measures do you take to get past it?
I suppose if I did this full time, I might be more likely to have a problem with this, but having only roughly an hour a day to write focuses me. I will switch between stories, sometimes, if I’m finding it tough going on one or the other, or I’ll get up and walk away, or let it percolate for a while. I just don’t like to let it go for more than a day or two, so I’ll go back and work on a different scene. Since I don’t write straight through, I’m not locked into finishing a chapter or a scene before moving on to the next. And sometimes working on another part of the story will illustrate what the problem is with the part I’m stuck on, and I’ll know what to do about it. In Zach, I had to go back and cut out about two thousand words of a part that just wasn’t working and was bogging down the process. Once that was cut out, the book got back on track.
When someone reads one of your books for the first time, what do you hope they gain, feel, or experience?
I would hope they would get so subsumed by the story that they forget that they’re reading. To me, that’s the sign of a good book. And I would hope that they would finish the book with a satisfied sigh. I had a reader tell me that she had almost missed their subway stop (TWICE!) because she was so absorbed in my book, and that made me feel an amazing sense of accomplishment.
Does the title of a book you’re writing come to you as you’re writing it, or does it come before you even begin the first sentence?
I usually have a working title that’s something simple, like “Zach.” But the actual title went through a couple of permutations before it ended up as it did. The working title of my current piece is “Skylark,” but I doubt if it will stay that way. The actual title will come to me towards the end of the book, after it’s really started to take final form.
How would you describe your sense of humor? Who and what makes you laugh?
Cleverness. I have a quirky sense of humor and I love puns, wordplay, sarcasm, complicated humor like The Onion and dry, silly stuff like LOLCats. I’m not big on the dumb, slapsticky stuff that passes for humor these days; I’m not a fan of Jim Carrey (except in Earth Girls are Easy) or Will Ferrell. Jon Stewart—him I love. Groucho Marx is my hero.
What is the most frequently asked Rowan question?
Where did that name come from? It’s a pen name, yes, and a take-off of my real name, but it’s complicated.
What are you working on now?
I just finished a short story set in a speakeasy at the end of Prohibition; “Skylark” is of course set just before Waterloo, and is nearly finished with the draft stage, and I’ve started a contemporary about a rock star who falls in love with a recluse.
What was the best piece of advice you’ve received with respect to the art of writing? How did you implement it into your work?
“Write every day—write something, even if you end up throwing it out later. Just write.” Paraphrasing, of course, but I think it was Mercedes Lackey who said that (not directly to me, as we’ve never met, but in some other context). I write every weekday, anyway, at least a little.
When it comes to promotion, what lengths have you gone to in order to increase reader-awareness of your work?
I am so not good at this. It’s all too new, and I’m too old and know nothing about social media and all that. But I have set up a blog (http://www.rowanspeedwell.wordpress.com) and a Facebook page and a page on Goodreads and a page on GLBT Bookshelf, and a LiveJournal account (okay, okay, I pretty much just have that so I can comment on other people’s LJ blogs). And then of course I do interviews like this one.
Writing is obviously not just how you make your living, but your life-style as well. What do you do to keep the creative “spark” alive – both in your work and out of it?
I read. A LOT. And look for stuff that will make me laugh and cry and get excited and FEEL. And I do stuff that isn’t writing but is still creative, like calligraphy and illumination, and needlework, and costuming, and going to SCA events. And the most important thing is to surround myself with people who are also creative and funny and giving. I never used to believe that people were that important to me. I was a bit of a loner for a long time, but finally discovered it’s all about the peeps. I LOVE my friends. They are the best. Surround yourself with good people and you become good people. I’ve been very lucky in that respect, and I hope it’s rubbed off on me!
What pros and cons surround the e-publishing industry, and how do you envision the future of e-publishing?
Well, piracy is a big issue; Finding Zach was pirated the same day it came out. But I don’t think that’s going to ever go away; as fast as you come up with controls, people will find a way around them. I think as long as there are enough people who are law-abiding, writers will still be able to profit from their work, just like musicians, and filmmakers and anyone else whose creative work is subject to piracy. That being said, we still need to fight it hard, and to make sure people understand that it IS wrong, and that right-thinking people don’t pirate.
The other thing that drives me nuts (and in some ways relates to piracy) is the variety of formats out there. I know that the issue in the publishers’ minds is that you don’t want people to be able to borrow or move the text or whatever; you want to keep it proprietary. That’s baloney. It only encourages piracy. Make it easier to download ebooks in any format, and people will pay for it. Apple found that out with the iTunes store. If it’s easy and cheap to get content, people are willing to pay for it.
E-publishing is here to stay, and it’s growing. Just this week Amazon announced that it sold more ebooks than it did hardcovers in a specific period. But there’s a place at the table for all formats. Just because e-publishing is here doesn’t mean that physical books are going away.
I love books; my house is filled with thousands of them. But I also love the convenience of ebooks; not only can I carry a library with me (I have over 600 books on my Kindle) but they don’t take up any space at all. (How can a single woman have a four-bedroom house and no room? Books.) AND I love being able to hear about a book and be reading it five minutes later. Suits my impulsive side!
What kind of books do you like to read?
Everything, although since I’ve discovered m/m romance, my taste for m/f romance is fading. Those now are limited to really specific authors, my favorites. I love science fiction, fantasy, biographies, history, mysteries, memoirs, anything with WORDS in them. I’m a verbivore.
What is your favorite TV show?
Doctor Who. All-time. I’ve been a fan since the Fourth Doctor (late 70’s) but I’ve seen a lot of the earlier ones as well. The new version is so faithful to the spirit of the old it makes me weep with joy.
What is your favorite fast food restaurant? Just thought we’d throw that in for fun…
I always said that when I die, I want to be cremated and have my ashes scattered over the nearest McDonald’s. I don’t know what they put in the Big Mac, but I am totally addicted.
Without getting up, can you tell us what’s under your bed? (yep, another sneaky question.)
Dust bunnies and a cat. A real cat, not a dust cat.
If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
A bored law librarian and data steward. Oh, wait…
When it comes to the covers of your books, what do you like or dislike about them?
Well, I’ve only got one so far, and I like it a lot. So I can’t really answer that! Um… there aren’t enough of them yet?
Aside from writing, what else do you enjoy doing?
Calligraphy and illumination, which is basically reproducing and reinterpreting the artwork and text in medieval manuscripts. I mostly use it for making awards which are given out by royalty in my medieval group, the Society for Creative Anachronism. They’re a good creative outlet for my non-writing side. I also do embroidery, costuming, crochet, a little knitting, and am learning to spin my own yarn. I occasionally make jewelry (I’m an earring addict). I really only enjoy creative projects; even if I’m watching DVDs (and I do love movies), it’s usually with some project in my hands.
Any special projects coming out soon we should watch for?
Well, nothing specific yet. I have hopes, but it all boils down to what the publishers want. We’ll have to watch and see, won’t we?
New writers are always trying to glean advice from those with more experience. What suggestions do you have for new writers?
Write. Write. Write. Then have people you trust read it and tell you what they think. The “trust” part is really important. Learn to do research (and Wikipedia, while helpful, is NOT always a reliable source). Love your characters. They will make or break you.
Can you please tell us where we can find you and your books on the Internet?
http://www.dreamspinnerpress.com/. http://www.allromanceebooks.com/. Amazon.
You can also visit my blog (http://www.rowanspeedwell.wordpress.com/)