YA Author, Sarah Jamila Stevenson

YA Author, Sarah Jamila Stevenson

My guest for this Author Interview is writer and Welsh enthusiast, Sarah Jamila Stevenson. Her most recent book, The Truth Against the World is set in San Francisco and the southwest of Wales, one of the most beautiful, romantic and mysterious places I’ve ever visited. I’ve asked Sarah questions about her inspiration and her plans for her writing future. She has kindly and generously responded. So, meet my young colleague:

1) The Truth Against the World is your third novel. What was the one aspect of your experience that inspired this book?
I would say there are two main sources of inspiration for this book: one, of course, is having traveled in Wales and having a longstanding love of the culture, the country, and the language. The rest of the inspiration comes from my own grandparents. My grandfather died in 1997 after battling colon cancer for a few years, and I found myself wanting to write in some way about that experience–not only of death and grieving, but everything that comes before: how families cope with the diagnosis and the treatment, whether they talk about it or don’t talk about it. My grandmother also inspired the aspect of the story dealing with family secrets. She passed away about 12 years ago, but before she died, she began to open up about a lot of details we hadn’t known about her life–even things she’d once lied about! I found the idea of longstanding family secrets a very intriguing basis for a story.
2) In what way is The Truth Against the World a different direction for you from your first book, The Latte Rebellion?
It’s much more serious in terms of its theme and overall feel. In certain respects, The Truth Against the World shares more similarities with my second book, Underneath; they both have themes of grief and loss. Of course, as young adult novels, all three books share that “coming of age” element that I find so compelling about YA–the ability to explore what really makes a character, what creates and shapes someone’s personality as well as their actions. The Latte Rebellion explores that idea of identity in a very different way, through humor and misadventure. All three books, though, do focus on the idea of identity–who we are at heart, how we become that person, how we learn who we are.
TATW3) In The Truth Against the World, you characters, Gareth and Wyn, share a Welsh heritage, but both at a distance. Is this a reflection of your own hiraeth (longing) for a part of your cultural past?
I wish I could say it was! It certainly qualifies as hiraeth for a long-overdue trip back to Wales and the rest of the UK. I have family and friends in various places in England, Wales, and Ireland, and frequently daydream about returning!
5) Was your interest in Welsh language and culture inspired by your personal heritage or did the idea for this novel come first?
I’ve been interested in Welsh language and culture since my first visit to Wales at age 4! We took a family vacation to England and Wales and I remember being quite impressed with the castles in Wales, and the green countryside. I returned with my mother when I was 13, and that’s when I first remember encountering the Welsh language and being captivated by it. It almost felt as though I should already understand it–when I heard it spoken, it felt familiar somehow in its rhythms. That was when I bought my first book on basic Welsh, but I didn’t do much with it until I went to college and, my final year, I had the opportunity to take a couple of Welsh language classes, something I’d long dreamed of doing. It was a few years after that that the idea for this novel began to take shape, in about 2001. So it’s been a gradual process of the story idea coalescing over time, I think.
6) As with most Americans, your heritage is multi-cultural. What about your Welsh heritage has inspired you to learn the language and write this paranormal mystery novel?
Unfortunately, I have no idea whether I have Welsh heritage or not, and I may never find out! It was something my grandmother (see above) always used to say (she’d say that side of the family was English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, German, and French) but we have no idea how much of that was accurate, and no real way to prove it. We only know for sure about the English, Irish, and French Canadian. Having her say that at all, though, did plant a seed in my mind, clearly! And repeated visits to England and Wales nurtured that seed. My parents met in London in the 1970s–my father was living there as a young man after emigrating from India/Pakistan, and my mother was on a trip when she met him. They lived there for a couple of years before I was born before moving to California. Then, when I was in college, I had the opportunity to work in London for a summer, and had a chance to take another visit to Wales at that point. My last visit was in 2000, not long before I started to get the idea for this book. So, I suppose it is accurate that my hiraeth inspired me to write it!
As for its being a paranormal mystery, I always envisioned the story that way–even after multiple revisions, the first scene has always begun with Gareth meeting the ghost. And Wales is a place that seems to inspire magic and mystery.
7) Gareth and Wyn’s adventure is located in the Tywi Valley. What attracted you to this area as the setting for The Truth Against the World?
On my last trip to Wales in 2000, we stayed in the Tywi Valley and had an opportunity to explore the area, which was one I hadn’t visited before. So it was the freshest in my mind, I suppose, and I felt more confident about inventing a small village and having it be (hopefully) convincing. It is also an area with a lot of interesting contrasts of scenery–industry and nature, cities and seashore–and enough of a Welsh-speaking population that the language could realistically be a plot element.
8) What have you planned for the next project in your writing career?
I’m working on a new YA project, which I recently decided was not one but two books. It’s speculative fiction, set in a world that relies on steam and water power–a catastrophe in the distant past meant that combustion power came under strict governmental control. In this rigidly controlled world with drastic differences in social class, we meet Chiara, a young woman from a noble family who wants to work with technology and change the system from within–but work is prohibited for noblewomen. Aden, a young man from the less prosperous town outside the palisades, is struggling to overcome various hardships, but his talent for alchemy might just be a lifeline–provided he can avoid getting mixed up with the wrong people. The first book about Chiara and Aden is calledTinder.
9) What’s next in your study of Welsh culture and language?
Whenever I can, I try to attend Cymdeithas Madog’s Cwrs Cymraeg (Welsh course), which takes place for one week each summer here in North America. I plan to go to next summer’s course in Portland, Oregon, to refresh my skills. I’ve also been doing a bit of translation and editing work for a company that does software localization (translating software into other languages for marketing in other countries)–I’ve been a QA tester, which means I look through and make sure buttons are working and everything is translated correctly and that sort of thing. It’s really been challenging my Welsh skills! But then again, I suppose I wouldn’t be in the arts if I didn’t enjoy a challenge.
Many thanks for taking the time to respond to these questions, Sarah, and all the very best for your writing future. I share your enthusiasm for all that is Welsh.
Llongyfarchiadau am dy lwyddiant hyd hyn.

This article was posted a few months before I moved from Wales, where I’d continued my writing and became a founding member and director of a women’s co-operative publishing company, Honno.

September 23, 2011

I’m in the process of clearing 30 years of accumulated essentials. Besides all the accumulation related to family and friends, I have acquired books, paper, pens, inkjet cartridges, pencils, notebooks, files and their cabinets, envelopes to send manuscripts, envelopes fmynotebooksbor the return of manuscripts, floppy disks, external hard drives, thumb drives, cameras and their batteries, photographs on paper and on disks, computer and laptop, printers and scanners, desks, office chairs, briefcases and laptop bags as well as boxes and boxes of manuscripts. All of the above is related to my writing.

With just seven days remaining before I have to condense my life and work into two suitcases and a carry-on bag, what do I really need to keep working for the next three months while I wait for all of the above to arrive at my next hometown?

I already know that I have a writing desk waiting for me, as well as a bookcase that will hold approximately 1/4th of the books I am shipping. So, in order of priority, these are my essentials:

  1. Current work with any associated notebooks all scanned to the laptop (see below).
  2. Laptop with all typescripts and scanned material (see above) saved in at least three different places (including cloud storage) in case of loss.
  3. My three favorite writing implements with all the ink cartridges I have in stock.

There is one other most critical something else, but I’m a bit short of that right now.

What are your essential ingredients for your work? Do you have any suggestions that will help me keep working while all around me goes astray? What should I leave behind?

All ideas grateful received.

By now, we are pretty well settled in three rooms, with more than 3/4th of our books stacked in boxes in a storage cupboard. All manuscripts accounted for and six have become published novels. The fourth necessity is still scarce, but who can ever have enough Time?

From my article for Avalon Authors, on August 23, 2011

I picked up a few books this summer to read on flights, hotel rooms and just to take my mind off hassles at the end of a work day. Four of the five had prologues. I learned my lesson with this particular writing convenience a few years ago when the prologue of a potentially interesting Regency novel by a well known New York Times best-selling author ruined my enjoyment by giving away the only intriguing element of the plot.

Since then, I have stirred clear of reading prologues and I have ceased to write them.

What is the attraction for writers? It is a handy way to present information that the reader needs to discover without having to weave backstory into the plot.

In the case of the above Regency novel, the heroine’s husband’s disappearance has thrown her into a scandalous position putting her outside polite society. She doesn’t know how her husband has died but, thanks to the prologue, the reader does. Although the writer made an effort to create mysterious circumstances the plot goes dead.

The heroine is in danger. From whom? The reader already knows: the woman who killed her husband. What has happened to the intrigue, the actual reason for reading the book? Gone. Did I finish reading the book? No. Other than the possible mystery, there was no other element to engage me. The prologue had answered the only question with any potential of an interesting read.

 The book I’m currently reading also has a prologue. I skipped it. Aside from the full name of a south seas island, everything the reader needs to know is covered in the story. So why is the prologue there? One of the first style elements I was taught in English writing was to avoid redundancy but it seems that basic element is ignored when Word Count is the Supreme Ruler.

Book cover image The Lat OutlawI can be persuaded to accept a prologue in some cases. In his latest western for Avalon Books, The Last Outlaw, Stone Wallace offers a prologue that creates questions in the reader’s mind requiring answers and sets up a situation the hero, Cash McCall, must face. This particular example leads the reader into the story and in some ways is not a prologue at all but a “medilogue”. Our introduction to Cash and his dilemma is a scene within this novel, answering no questions but inviting us to seek answers by reading further. Wallace’s skillful handling of this crucial moment, what proceeds it and the final outcome kept me engaged with the characters and the story.

I’m not one to read the end of a book to determine whether I want to read the whole.

An epilogue, much the same as the end titles of docudramas – where the final resting place of the people is presented in white lettering on a black screen – is another convenience. If the ending itself is not satisfactory, the writer seems to be giving the reader an alternative reality, a way of making up for not tying all the loose ends without having to write anymore. I know how tempting this is. As Eugene O’Neill once said, “Sometimes, life ends on a comma.” So be it.

My final word on this subject:

“These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.” – Groucho Marks

Book cover image The Lat OutlawWhen I was writing for Avalon Books, I met Stone Wallace and interviewed him when his Western novel, The Last Outlaw, was released in July of 2011. That interview was reposted here last month. I had ordered a copy of the book to be delivered to a relative’s address in Conneticutt. On the last day I was there and at the last possible moment, as we were walking down the street to a local restaurant, the UPS truck stopped opposite the house and I ran back, certain that UPS had accomplished what the online bookseller had promised.

BlackRansomIn the case of Black Ransom, Stone had by now signed with an agent and was working on another noir Western. He asked if I would read and comment on the manuscript.  On the promise that the superb The Last Outlaw offered, I happily agreed.

After several months, the paperback arrived in my mailbox and I jumped in.

Black Ransom is not the standard Western adventure. Like Cash McCall in The Last Outlaw, the hero, Ehron Lee Burrows, is a complex and eminently sympathetic character, caught up in a desperate situation.  He has no control over a recalcitrant judge or the outlaws whose actions involved him in a murder. He loses all that is most precious to him.

Vengeful and cruel in-laws, as well as corrupt and callous representatives of the law, conspire to destroy an innocent man. His treatment and seemingly hopeless circumstances contribute to a relentless emotional and physical spiral to an inevitable end.

Wallace has created a vivid and compelling portrait of the disintegration of a good man, dismissed by society as a criminal and corrupted by the hatred and malice of his fellow prisoners.

The author’s descriptions of prison life in the post-Civil War western territory, his understanding of human strength and frailty and the premise of this tale, make an intense and surprising novel, hard and realistic.

Three weeks after the Romance Writers of America National Conference in New York, I wrote this article for Avalon Authors, July 23, 2011

suchstuffasdreams1The romance genre in commercial, popular fiction has been attracting considerable criticism in recent months. Most of that has been directed at the more risqué end of the romance spectrum but the bad press filters through to all the many and varied categories. The book, Such Stuff as Dreams, sheds some light on how we benefit from fiction of all descriptions – well worth a look for the pundits who rage at romance.

Last month, at a writers association’s national conference, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop on Media Handling. This month, I had an opportunity to use what I had learned. The principle issue discussed in the workshop was how to handle adverse interviews.

This did make me wonder if crime writers, fantasy and science fiction authors, mystery and western storytellers ever have to fend off the attacks that romance authors are currently having to defend themselves against. Maybe some of you can answer that for me.

Until then, I’m assuming you don’t – or at least not in the way that romance is being kicked around the media. Because romance is predominately written by and read by women, there is an assumption that we don’t understand the difference between fiction and the ‘real’ world. Romance is considered a danger to women’s psychological and emotional health. Do these pundits seriously think that a love story is more insidious than a gruesome, brutal description of a serial killer’s activity?

Most of the people making this claim obviously have not read a romance novel or they would see the error of their thinking. Romance is no more outside the realm of reality than some of the novels written by Anne Rice, Ken Follett, James Patterson or Annie Proulx.

One of the pointers given at the workshop was to ask that the interviewer present the questions to be asked so that the interviewee could prepare. I asked for this when I was invited by a local radio station to participate in a weekly broadcast. For about three minutes, we stuck to the questions. From then on, it was a freewheeling conversation. But, from the workshop, I learned to self-edit my answers so they could not be twisted.

Do [those of you who are] non-romance writers have to shield yourselves in this way? Do you have sage advice for those of us who are in the media’s claws right now?

Fortunately for me, the interviewer was sympathetic to the creative effort and had no bias against my art form. Many of my colleagues have not been given this respect. One of the things, I think, that contributes to the lack of appreciation for genre fiction in general and romance in particular is the practitioners’ and readers’ tendency to keep their preference under cover. So, at the workshop, I made a pledge, from that moment, I will practice the principles of Open Carry.

How frightening is a romance novel compared to a holstered gun?

bannerNB2All who read my previous post about Alpha Beta men will have already concluded that I am particularly partial to the male of the species. How this came about from the fourth daughter in a family of five girls and one brother to a fully grown man-lover isn’t hard to understand.

Close contact. Through my three sons.

A colleague once claimed that boys brutalize their mothers. I disagree. Fully actualized men are marvels of creation. And they are the main reason I write happily-ever-after hero fiction.

Before we get into that, let’s have a look at the imitators – the half men who latch onto the more blatant qualities of manhood, thinking that’s all there is to the vastly complicated mechanism of maleness.

One of these manifestations of so-called manhood is the Macho Man – a favorite target of the radical feminist. These guys bluster and rail, fume and fight. As soon as they are crossed, they come out swinging. A recent demonstration of this are the arrests of NFL players. Those of us who like football like our teams to be aggressive, ready to lay their bodies on the line (as well as plenty of the bodies of the opposing team). However, we do not want that aggression to spell over into the off-the-field world.

My own local team leads the league in felony arrests. Those who follow this American sport will know which team that is. Football, being a contact sport and a substitute for battle, seeks the biggest, meanest, most aggressive players. Good judgment and common sense are not required skills. Only a small percentage – a ratio similar to that of the general population – commit violent crimes but because those are ‘celebrities,’ their behavior comes under intense scrutiny.

Several years ago, I worked for an organization that provided aid, support and refuge to battered women. Abused women and children arrived at the many safe houses we had across the country every week, sometimes daily, desperate to escape the cycle of violence. Often, this was not their first attempt to break the pattern. Though Nicole Simpson’s fate was in their future, like one other notable football wife, they returned to their abuser, sometimes convinced they were to blame, their abuser was truly repentant, promised never to do it again, really loved them, the prospect of single-parent poverty, never really free or safe, was worse than being beaten to death.

The evidence that our society is too often inclined to blame the woman is apparent in the number of women who chose to wear the felon’s number and made excuses for his violence. Drunk or sober, a man is what he is. These macho abusers do not regret or change, they believe they are entitled and happily blame everyone but themselves. Hard liquor brings out the real jerk lurking beneath the façade. Vino veritas.

Next in this unscientific analysis of three male identities, on the other end of the spectrum, we have Metro Man, We’ve all seen him. The guy with the sincere, puppy-dog eyes, rescuing stray kittens, picking up a frothy latte for you on the way. The guy we’re supposed to dream about because he’s so sensitive and caring. He is the direct opposite of the Macho Man. For a shining example: a couple walking along the street in downtown San Francisco. She was carrying a large pink bundle. He was carrying a designer briefcase and her bag – one that I, a self-confessed bag-aholic, coveted.

A helpful, secure-in-his-manhood new father? Not at all. The pink bundle was a white-furred puppy, its little paws draped over its pet-mommy’s arm. Metro Man exhibited his ‘male-guilt’ induced sensitivity. But will he put his body between that bag and the potentially dangerous street thug approaching with his eye fixed on that dangling shiny object of his desire?

As a teenage girl, I read fan magazines and dreamed about meeting the object of my adoration. The phenomenon of teenage girl adoration explains the Metro Man – safe, non-threatening, unrealistic, love and sexuality at a distance. That may also explain the middle-aged woman’s penchant for personalities of this ilk. Entirely understandable in light of the alternative above.

Book Cover: Salsa Dancing with PterodactylsWe know all about the Mars/Venus theory. I have my own. Most of what we consider masculine or feminine behavior is social conditioning. Each of us has the capacities attributed to one or the other. Modern Man has been around for at least 150,000 years. All the qualities and skills that straightened the sapient human’s  back and drove the species out of caves, onto farmland and into family groups exists today in the Modern Man.

This male identity works day and night to put food on the table for his family, no matter if he has to dig potatoes or run a business. He’ll move to any town, state or country to make a better life for his offspring. He’ll stand between his wife and a street thug. He’ll go to war to defend what he believes in. He’ll stroke a baby’s head with the gentleness seemingly reserved for mothers. He will be loyal to his friends to his own disadvantage. He will take on the burden of almost anything to keep his family together. He builds castles, bridges, companies; leads the pack; defends the innocent; hunts and protects by instinct. He dreams larger than life.

Can you blame me for writing about men? The possibilities are endless. I write about the ordinary man, the common, hard-working, hero of every day life, the real super heroes.

© Leigh Verrill-Rhys 2014

On June 23, 2011, I published this article as a tribute to two people who were instrumental in my determination to become a writer.

I will soon be on my way to the publishing Big Apple, New York City, USA. Though this will not be my first visit, this will be my first opportunity to experience this city from the point of view of a novelist (soon-to-be published). Always before, I have been a ‘wannabe’ writer and my experiences of writers conferences, publishers and book launches have been small scale in comparison.

Many of you will have heard of The Hay Festival held at the end of May in the village of Hay, in Wales, close to the English border. For many writers to the east of the Atlantic Ocean, The Hay Festival is the Big Apple of literary festivals. Several years ago, I had the extraordinary opportunity to attend The Hay as a fledging writer with a grant from the Arts Council of Wales. My mentor at the time was Tony Bianchi, whose faith in me as a writer I have only now begun to fully appreciate.

The one person I can categorically name as the instigator of my ambition to be a writer was my high school English teacher, Mr. Lombardi. He gave me an ‘A’ on an essay about John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony. The essay began: “Gitano was dead.”

That is all I can remember of this momentous event. I had never achieved an ‘A’ before [in his class] and his comments – now lost in the miasma of scores of teachers’ and lecturers’ and professors’ contributions and contradictions – fueled my passion for writing.

Even so, my experience of the Hay Festival that year had ambivalent results. Although I absorbed all I could of the gentle words Leslie Norris offered in his master-class, to be in the presence of so many professional writers, publishers, booksellers, readers and agents was daunting – silencing. Even more daunting was reading the piece I had written during the master-class week in front of Tony and a handful of festival visitors.

Every experience generates its kernel of self-knowledge. Some of the younger writers were brimming with self-confidence. I wasn’t one of them. Neither was I one of the sage practitioners of wordcraft. My publishing record consisted of a few short stories. I had ambitions for longer pieces but that was not to happen for a number of years and even then, I wasn’t ready to put my hand in the mangle. If not for being stranded in Hay with just £10 to last the week and not wanting to disappoint my mentor, I considered walking the 55 miles home.

For Tony Bianchi and Mr. Lombardi, I have created several characters who, if they don’t directly reflect these two men in any real sense, they are tributes to the generosity of spirit each exhibited toward writers and students.

This is a tough journey without the open-hearted help of others who’ve gone before us and hold the doors open. Who are some of the writers, teachers, mentors who opened doors for you?

Addendum 2014: There are, of course, more people in my career who’ve stood by me, supported and encouraged me. My English professor, Dr. Stanley Tick, is one. My nearest and dearest family and friends know I couldn’t do this without them.


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