Interview by Catharine Bramkamp
Martha Conway’s newest novel, THIEVING FOREST, recently won the North American Book Award for Best Historical Fiction. Which is, of course, pretty impressive. She is also an instructor for Stanford’s Online Writer’s Studio. As an instructor and writer she balances between three identities and is qualified to share what that means.
We’ll start with her life as an on-line instructor:
“I started teaching at OWS (Online Writer’s Studio) after speaking with one of the lead instructors about the program and I got an idea for a class I’d like to teach—something I wish I’d been taught when I was first learning how to write novels. A few weeks later I pitched the idea to the creative writing team. They liked it, so that’s how I started. My class is a novel-writing class structured around character, and how developing all your characters (not just your protagonist) before you begin writing can really help pull the story along: plot development, climax, denoument—everything.”
A novelist really has two jobs (you were wondering about that third identity weren’t you): creating the work and promoting the work. One of the tools Martha uses to promote her books is Twitter.
“I love twitter. I’m a big fan. I met Frances Caballo, a social media expert who specializes in social media for writers, at the San Francisco Writers Conference last year, and she helped me put together a social media plan that included Twitter.
“Before that, I had avoided going on social media sites because I saw this as a procrastination device (another pull pulling me away from writing). But Frances helped me understand the value and fun of Twitter. I try to tweet two or three times a day every week, but only one of those per week will be about my own book. The rest are about friends’ books, writing tidbits, interesting articles I’ve found (mostly about writing), and anything else I think my followers might be interested in. It’s mostly about finding a tribe and supporting them. I can get behind that in a way that I can’t get behind endless self-promotion.
“Have I sold books on Twitter? Yes, definitely, but maybe not very many—it’s impossible to quantify. But I enjoy it and I like the people I’ve met there. It’s like a cocktail party where you can just vanish if you want to and reappear a few hours later. That suits my idea of socializing!
“I like writing better than anything else—especially after the difficult first draft is over and you have some material to work with. But teaching keeps me thinking about writing, and it keeps me sharp.
“I started taking notes for Thieving Forest in 2006, but I think I was starting to think about it even in 2004. My daughter was then in preschool, and we used to listen to a Lisa Loeb CD—she’s an indie rocker but made a collection of children’s songs. One song was her rendition of “Oh Susanna,” and I remember thinking, ‘what if Susanna cried not for sorrow but for joy?’ It took me about six years to write. I recently came across a note I made to myself early on: Write about a large family and their dynamics. The upfront research took a long time, but I loved doing it. And I found that doing ongoing research was a gateway for me to get back into the spirit of the book when I was feeling weary or uninspired.”
One feature of living the life creative is the constant pull between wanting to write and really NOT wanting to write.
“I think that the best way to combat these disparate pulls is to make writing a habit. The habit could be daily for a certain number of hours or until you reach a certain word count. Maybe you have a full time job and can only write on Thursday evenings and over the weekend. Whatever it is, decide on it and be firm with yourself.
“If writing is a habit, you don’t give yourself the choice about whether or not to write: You just do it because it’s Tuesday morning. That takes lack of inspiration, lack of sleep, lack of ideas, confusion, indecision, and every other excuse out of the picture. And those are the excuses that pull you in the direction of not writing.
“The key to sticking with all this is to make writing a habit, and yes, to have fun. I think that this always comes through in a novel, when a writer is having fun.”
“Conway’s historical novel features prose as rich as its characters … hypnotic.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A gripping journey [and] a powerful tale of sisterhood and survival.” —San Jose Mercury News
Indie Bound: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780991618507
Martha Conway: http://www.marthaconway.com
Thieving Forest: http://www.thievingforest.com