Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Interview with Anna Belfrage, author of Serpents in the Garden

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Anna Belfrage to Flashlight Commentary to discuss her newest release, Serpents in the Garden.

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Welcome back to Flashlight Commentary Anna! Great to have you with us again.
Hi Erin – it is very nice to be back visiting you, it’s sort of becoming a recurring little treat in my life. (And isn’t it lucky we both like tea?)

To start things off, please tell a bit about Serpents in the Garden.
Serpents in the Garden is the fifth book in The Graham Saga, detailing the lives of Matthew Graham, his time traveller wife Alex and their numerous family. Yet again, I have indulged myself by putting Matthew and Alex through their paces, yet again Alex is threatening to go on strike if I don’t cut back on the adventures. Ha! This is when being the writer has definite advantages; poor Alex can’t go on strike, as it is my brain and my typing fingers that control her fate. (Ouch! Alex just sank her nails into one of the more sensitive spots in my brain…)

You probably have many, but is there a scene in this novel that really stands out to you in some way?
You’re right; I have several scenes that stand out, but if I’m forced to pick one (without giving away too much of the story) my heart beat always picks up in the scene where Matthew is being chased through the woods by the Burleys. I like it that he is scared – and admits to being scared, running for his life with the Burley brothers snapping at his heels.

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author and why?
I’m not going to answer that explicitly, as it would qualify as a spoiler, but let’s just say that there’s a scene where one of the Grahams is badly hurt that has been through like a hundred re-writes as I attempted to balance what is actually happening with the description of Alex’s reactions to these events. I also found it quite gruelling to describe Ian’s reaction to finding out his wife was betraying him.

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time with or expanded on?
Well, seeing as I’ve pruned like 60 000 words… I always do that; I write far more than will ever make it through the final cut, as this allows me to further develop my relationship with my characters. I know as I write that I will have to slash substantial parts, but initially I don’t know which scenes will fall for the editing shears. I did write a chapter or two from Angus’ perspective, tormented young man that he is, but I felt adding yet another POV character didn’t quite make sense, given how briefly Angus figures in the book. However, the anguish of being a homosexual man in a society as morally rigid and unforgiving as that of a Puritan community in the 17th century creates room for plenty of tension.

Historical novelists frequently have to adjustment facts to make their stories work. Did you have to invent or change anything while writing Serpents in the Garden and if so, what did you alter and why?
I try not to do that. Of course, being as fallible as everyone else, chances are there will be an historical error or two in the text, but if so, most unintentionally. I did make one very conscious “error” and that relates to Jacob Graham and his fast-track lane to becoming an apothecary. I sort of circumvented the years and years of apprenticeships he’d have to go through, and even if I do include an explanation as to why, any person familiar with the guild system will grin somewhat crookedly. Thing is, I couldn’t have Jacob stuck in London for like five years more…I need him back in Maryland for the next book, where he plays a very crucial role.

What would you say is the primary theme of this particular chapter in Matthew and Alex's life?
Love. Unrequited love – and its painful consequences. Betrayed love – and its heart rendering aftermath. Everlasting love – and how it helps us face whatever life puts in our way (yes, yes; corny, I know. But I happen to believe in it).

This is the fifth book in the Graham Saga. How has your relationship with your characters changed since writing A Rip in the Veil?
I love them more – after all, I’ve invested very much of myself in them. I know them much, much better. I relate to them, I worry for them, I cry with them, I dream with them. I know exactly what Alex’s voice sounds like, in unguarded moments I will catch a glimpse of a man out of the corner of my eye and know it is Matthew, his tall body reclining against a nearby wall, arms crossed over his chest. Except when I turn, he’s never there…

You live in Sweden but the Grahams are living in colonial America. How do you work around the gaps in both time and geography?
Well, first of all, I’ve actually been to Maryland to get a feel for the place, just as I’ve been to Cumnock and Edinburgh. Secondly, I’m a big Google Earth user – especially of all those little pictures people so generously upload from one place or the other. Thirdly, I read – a lot. About birds and flowers, about weather conditions and snakes – and about history. Ultimately, though, I think it comes down to a very vivid imagination that somehow takes all those facts that are cluttering up my brain, places them in a cocktail shaker and shakes vigorously, before producing a blended version of it all. I hope it works, that my readers feel as transported as I do.

Authors are famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, for writing their own experiences, friends, and acquaintances into their narratives. Is there anything in Serpents in the Garden that sprung directly from your personal history?
Of course there is. At one point, Matthew and Alex are having a rather poignant discussion about death. Matthew says something along the lines that it is worse to contemplate the death of your partner than to face up to the reality of your own death. Those words are my husband’s. Some of the children now and then display behaviour that I have stolen from my own children, and as to the scene with the red bodice, it has as its inspiration a rather heated debate over a rather revealing garment that I overheard between my parents when I was a child. In general, though, I try very hard not to write complete real-life people into my narrative – I just steal the odd quirk here or there.

Okay, we’ve talked a lot about your book. Let’s switch gears and talk a little bit about you. How would describe your writing process?
My writing process is a combination of historical facts that make me curious to learn more (like when I stumbled upon a vivid depiction of how Covenanters were persecuted in late 17th century Scotland) and the characters that suddenly pop up in my head. Generally, the character’s preferences and background will combine with the historical facts into some sort of base plot line. (I have a Catholic friar in my head and I’m not going to place him in Scotland with the pursued Covenanters. But I do have a slot open for him over at Queen Christina’s 17th century court. I hope Father Díaz doesn’t mind being transplanted from Valencia to frigid Stockholm. On the other hand, he will be instrumental in convincing Queen Christina to convert to Catholicism, and just by saying that I have lit a fire in Father Díaz’s eyes…)

I don’t have a full plot outline done prior to starting writing. But as my story evolves, I will write a rough draft of what I want to happen along the way, with some sort of defined end in sight.

I write, I write some more, I set the MS aside, and then I rewrite. I’d say I write a 120 000 word book in two months, but then I spend around 6 – 8 months re-writing. That’s when I really start to write, the initial burst is more about locking down the plotline and the characters involved. At some point, I’ll double-check the historical facts, but generally I am so submerged in the period prior to writing that I have most of my facts more or less in order.

While in this rather creative process, I become something of a hermit. I burst out of my bubble to eat, to kiss my family, and then I’m back in it again, oblivious to most things going on around me. Well; within limits. One can’t be oblivious to certain things, such as the present Ukraine situation.

Two words: writer’s block. How do you deal with it?
Umm. Am I calling down the wrath of heaven if I admit to not having suffered this particular agony? Generally, I get stuck on one story, and I can switch to another, or write a non-fiction post. But I guess I’d approach writer’s block the same way I approach most challenges in life; by taking a very long walk on my own.

Who are your favourite authors?
How much time do you have? I am very eclectic, as big a fan of Isaac Asimov as I am of Gogol and Vargas Llosa. My mother raised me to be voracious and broad in my literary interests, for which I am eternally grateful. Within historical fiction, I have three favourites: Sharon K Penman, Edith Pargeter and Sigrid Undset. I think Kate Quinn is moving towards a favourite position, and I greatly enjoy Deborah Swift as well – especially as she has the excellent taste of writing about the 17th century (with panache, I might add).

What are you currently reading?
A lot… I just finished The Absent Woman by M Lee which I found very thought-provoking, and I have a couple of crime novels I intend to enjoy on my Kindle – plus a HUGE Hist Fic TBR list.

Let’s say your readers finish Serpents in the Garden. What book might you recommend me... I mean them, while waiting for Revenge and Retribution?
The first four in the series? (Wink wink) On a more serious note, why not try something from Lori Crane Hess or the two ladies mentioned above, Deborah Swift and Kate Quinn? Or the impressive The Empress Emerald by Jean Harlond?

What do you do when you aren’t writing? Any hobbies?
I read. I read some more. I read. Plus I have a thing about roses. I enjoy cooking – well, baking really. I’m a determined Scrabble player, I like walking in the woods and I can never get enough of spending time with my husband – but that doesn’t qualify as a hobby, does it?

Assuming you weren't an author, what careers might you have found appealing?
I already have a career – I’m a financial person who happily spends her days with excel sheets and tax issues. It takes all kinds, right? Had I been allowed to start anew, I think I’d have gone for history full time.

And finally, what's next for you? Do you have a new project in the works? Planning a vacation? Anything exciting and/or noteworthy?
Obviously, the next instalment of The Graham Saga is my short term priority – Revenge and Retribution will meet the world on July 1 this year. I am also more or less done with the first draft of a new book set in 14th century England, and spend whatever time I have left on my book set in 17th century Sweden and England. A vacation would be nice – but for now it will have to wait. Instead, I am treating myself to the HNS Conference in London later this year plus some other outings in England, all of them book related.

But before all that I am off to Stockholm to shed some tears as my daughter receives her graduation diploma. Sheesh; it feels like only yesterday when she was a small little thing telling me she was never, ever going to work in Finance. Guess what she’s done her Master in…

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I was raised abroad, on a pungent mix of Latin American culture, English history and Swedish traditions. As a result I’m multilingual and most of my reading is historical – both non-fiction and fiction.

I was always going to be a writer – or a historian, preferably both. Instead I ended up with a degree in Business and Finance, with very little time to spare for my most favourite pursuit. Still, one does as one must, and in between juggling a challenging career I raised my four children on a potent combination of invented stories, historical debates and masses of good food and homemade cakes. They seem to thrive … Nowadays I spend most of my spare time at my writing desk. The children are half grown, the house is at times eerily silent and I slip away into my imaginary world, with my imaginary characters. Every now and then the one and only man in my life pops his head in to ensure I’m still there. I like that – just as I like how he makes me laugh so often I’ll probably live to well over a hundred.

I was always going to be a writer. Now I am – I have achieved my dream.

Website ❧  Facebook ❧  Twitter

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Format: Paperback & eBook
Publication Date: March 1, 2014
Released by: SilverWood Books
Length: 396 pages
ISBN-10: 1781321736
Genre: Historical Fiction

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Check out all the stops on Anna Belfrage's Serpents in the Garden Virtual Book Tour

Monday, March 24
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Tuesday, March 25
Interview at Flashlight Commentary
Wednesday, March 26
Review at Just One More Chapter
Thursday, March 27
Excerpt & Giveaway at Just One More Chapter
Friday, March 28
Interview at Mina’s Bookshelf
Spotlight & Giveaway at Passages to the Past
Monday, March 31
Review at Oh, for the Hook of a Book
Spotlight & Excerpt at bookworm2bookworm’s Blog
Tuesday, April 1
Guest Post at Oh, for the Hook of a Book
Wednesday, April 2
Interview & Giveaway at Let Them Read Books
Thursday, April 3
Review at CelticLady’s Reviews
Review at So Many Books, So Little Time
Friday, April 4
Review at Dianne Ascroft
Guest Post at So Many Books, So Little Time
Monday, April 7
Review at Svetlana’s Reads and Views
Review & Giveaway at Broken Teepee
Tuesday, April 8
Review & Giveaway at The Most Happy Reader
Interview at Historical Fiction Connection
Wednesday, April 9
Review & Giveaway at A Chick Who Reads
Guest Post & Giveaway at MK McClintock Blog
Thursday, April 10
Review & Guest Post at Kincavel Korner
Friday, April 11
Review at Griperang’s Bookmarks

1 comment:

Helen Hollick said...

I love this series of books - thoroughly enjoyed this article as well!