Welcome, Liz! Tell us who you are and what you do.
I’m a very ordinary senior citizen. I’m a native of New Mexico, married 45 years, mother of 7, grandmother to 17. I still work almost full time in construction management, and I don’t plan to retire soon. I’m a Christian, an active Latter-day Saint, and I teach a class of Young Women each Sunday.
I also teach workshops to writers’ groups and family history groups in “Writing Family History as Fiction”.
How long have you been writing? What made you start?
To answer that, you have to define ‘writing’. I remember when we studied the middle ages in the fifth grade, I wrote a long narrative poem that began, “I am a serf; I live on a fief.” Heavy stuff. But as far as writing in earnest, I think I must have been about thirty-five. A friend, Mary Safsten, and I collaborated on a three-act musical entitled “The Stuff of Life.” It was presented in our stake and in a stake in Pittsburg, and I received a royalty, so I considered myself a playwright. That was, until I wrote my first novel.
My first novel is the one that’s out this year. I wrote it shortly after my mother died, and because it’s about my mother’s family history, I think it may have been part of my grieving process.
When did you sell your first book?
Here we go with definitions again. Deseret Book bought electronic rights to my first mystery, so though it wasn’t published in ink and paper, my first book sold was The Lodger. That was in 2000, I think. A year or two later, they offered to publish it and the next book in the series, After Goliath. The second book wasn’t written, so I had to scramble to get it ready in time.
What type of writer are you? Do you plan ahead/plot or do you simply fly by the seat of your pants?
I channeled Counting the Cost. It was a gift, and came, boom, in a rough version of what will be published in March. All my other books have been plotted quite carefully, which is extraordinary, considering how seat-of-the-pants I am about most things. I develop first a skeleton plot and then I go through and write a detailed synopsis of each chapter. After that, the thinking is done and I can just get in the zone and write.
What sparks a story?
I’ll answer this in the context of my other writing, not this new book, because, as I said, Counting the Cost came to me fully formed. It was an irresistible force that flowed through me. I was simply a conduit.
But with my other books, I would say that what sparks a story is faith. You have to have faith to think, “So, I’m going to write a story about a fellow who…” If you open yourself to the possibilities, they will come in battalions. But, you have to take that first step and open your mind to the possibility of a story.
What was it about your genre that interested you enough to choose to write in it and not in another genre?
I’ve written three mysteries and one romance/intrigue. I like puzzles. I enjoy a clever mystery, and I especially enjoyed writing The Mist of Quarry Harbor, because it was a romance with a twist. Counting the Cost is mainstream or general fiction. Again, I didn’t choose it. It chose me. Probably the next book I write, I’ll go back to the romance/intrigue genre.
How do you choose your characters' names?
I use family names a lot. In Counting the Cost, Heck’s surname is Benham, which is a family name back three generations. If I don’t have a family name that works, I keep watch for one that does. Ace Lazarra, in The Lodger, was named after a student of mine. I asked her mom if I could borrow the last name, and she gave the go-ahead.
Character you wish you had created?
Hmmmm. Probably Atticus Finch. He’s my kind of hero. Quiet, principled, rock solid.
What authors do you look to as a role model and inspiration?
Actually, Marsha, you’re someone I look to as a role model and inspiration because of all the service you give to the literary community. You’re a great teacher. I’ve learned so much from you. I’m long past thinking I’ll write the Great American Novel, but if I can reach out and give a hand to the next generation of writers, who knows? Maybe the Great American Novelist will be one of those.
I believe good writers read a lot. What do you use to mark your page when reading?
I’m so embarrassed. I dog-ear pages. If the book isn’t mine, I make sure I have a bookmark of some kind—usually it’s one of the advertising cards from the middle of Time Magazine. I have some really nice bookmarks with my own picture on them, but I have no idea where they are. Someplace in my office, which is a scary thought.
What is your daily schedule like?
I’m up at 6:30. I still work part time, so I may not get to my computer until the evening. If I’ve got a work in progress, or if I’ve got a blog posting due and I’m not working that day, I go right into the office and get busy. If I didn’t have to get up and go to the bathroom, I’d probably stay there, hunched in one position over the keyboard until my joints locked up. Luckily for my senior joints, my senior plumbing ensures I get up often.
Do you write best at a certain time of the day?
I’m an owl-shaped person who has been pounded by life into a lark’s format. I really blossom creatively at night, but, unfortunately, I have to be up early in the morning, so I don’t do much late night writing.
How do you handle life interruptions?
I embrace life’s interruptions, because they’re usually from people I care about. I have two children and eight grandchildren living nearby. I have a job that I really enjoy. If I have an interruption that is unpleasant, I just remember it and use it as fodder for a future book. I deal with it by putting it in my writing.
Do you write with music playing? If so, is the music likely to be songs with lyrics or only instrumentals?
I usually write in silence, although two of Lyle Lovett’s songs were the catalyst for Counting the Cost. The first is entitled “Walk Through the Bottomland” and is about a lady from New Jersey who falls in love with a rodeo cowboy. The other is “If I Were the Man You Wanted” and ends that sentence with, “I would not be the man that I am.” When I was writing that book, I’d sit with the headphones on and listen to Lyle Lovett sing his country songs.
Though I like to write in silence, as mother of seven, I have learned to block out anything, so I can write through just about any distraction.
What food or snack keeps the words flowing?
Diet Pepsi, probably, though when I’m really into it, I don’t think about food.
What one thing do you like most about writing? Least?
The thing I like most is the surprise when I come back to something that is completely cold and say, “Whoa! Did I write that? I didn’t know I could write that well.” The thing I like least is the umpteenth rewrite, when something doesn’t feel right, but I haven’t been able to fix it yet.
Your new novel is called Counting the Cost, published by Inglestone Publishing. Tell us what the book is about.
Counting the Cost is set in New Mexico in 1935. It’s about a cowboy who grew up so poor the Depression didn’t make any difference in his life. He meets and falls in love with an east-coast socialite who has come west, and they have to find a way to bridge the differences in the way they were raised and the way they think about themselves and each other. This story is rooted in family history, from the story of my Uncle Curtis, who died before I was born. The rest of my extended family didn’t talk about him much, but Curtis was a hero in our house, because he was the one who listened to the LDS missionaries, and through him, my mother was the sole Latter-day Saint convert in the family.
Why should anyone part with their hard earned cash and precious time to read your book? Sell it to us!
First of all, let me say that I advocate buying used books. Even mine. So, don’t part with the full price if you can help it.
That being said, why should you read Counting the Cost? I think it has value for several reasons.
First, it’s a great story. It’s as old as Samson and Delilah, Rhett and Scarlett. I think it rings true because it’s a story based on real people. In fact, the pictures on the front are of the people who sparked the story.
Secondly, it’s a snapshot of a place and a time in America’s not-too-distant past. It helps you understand the people you sprang from, makes you proud of them and what they accomplished, let’s you see that you come from good stock. It also lets you see that we’ve grown past some narrow-minded notions, too.
The last reason is the same as the first. It’s a great story. It’ll make you laugh. It’ll make you cry. It’ll make you angry. It’ll make you hope. And it will stay with you after you’ve closed the book and put it aside.
Where can readers buy your book?
You can buy it at Amazon.com or from the publisher at www.inglestonepublishing.com.
What is your next project?
I’ve got three plots vying for attention in my brain and I don’t know for sure which one I’ll land on. But I’m working on the skeleton plot of a story set around Tularosa, New Mexico. It will be a romance/intrigue for the general market.
What's the best advice you ever received?
“Less is more.” I tend to be too wordy, and I’ve learned that paring down the verbiage makes me a stronger writer.
What is your advice for other writers?
Write! Write! Write! Join a writing group. Hone your craft. But first and foremost, write. It’s like scales on a piano. To get good, you have to keep at it. To me, the act of sitting down at a keyboard and beginning each day is a profound demonstration of faith. So I would say, “Keep the faith!”
What other work of yours has been published?
If I can remember correctly, here’s the list:
Lucy Shook’s Letters from Afghanistan, 2002, GAL Publishing (go to lettersfromafghanistan.com)
The Spider Latham Mystery Series:
The Lodger, 2003, Deseret Book
After Goliath, 2003, Deseret Book
Snakewater Affair, 2004, Deseret Book
Mist of Quarry Harbor, 2005, Deseret Book
Counting the Cost, 2009, Inglestone Publishing
Thank you for the interview, Liz. It's been very illuminating.
Thanks, Marsha, for giving me this opportunity. You’re my hero for the way you promote and sustain writers. And now, with this book, we’re fellow western writers.