Connie: It’s a pleasure to have this opportunity to interview you, Sandra. Thanks for being here. I’m anxious to learn more about you and your writing, but first, please tell me a bit about you and what story you’re working on now.
Sandra: Thanks for having me here, Connie! :-) I live in a small town near Frankfurt on the Main, Germany, together with three cats and lots and lots of books (lots!!!). I teach English lit at the University of Mainz and am working on my PhD thesis on dragonslaying and genderroles. But my great passion is telling stories, and I've been writing since, well, forever. I can't begin to tell you how thrilled I am that my big dream is finally coming true with the release of my debut novel this July! As one of my friends remarked: "These days you seem to be glowing from within." Yup, that I am! Apart from glowing, though, I'm also working on a new historical romance, a beauty-and-the-beast tale set in the Black Forest in 1827.
Connie: In your words, not the publisher’s cover blurb, how would you describe The Lily Brand (out July ’05) to us, to make avid readers intrigued enough to want to buy it, read it. Is it light reading? Intense? Dark?
Sandra: The Lily Brand is the darkest novel I've written so far. It's about Lillian, who desperately wants to flee her wicked stepmother, but like a big spider, Camille makes sure that people stay entangled in her web forevermore. She wants to make Lillian her heiress and gives her a man as a plaything: a man taken from prison, a man whom Lillian is forced to brand, to mark him as hers. When she finally manages to flee, she takes this man with her and sets him free, not knowing that months later their paths will cross once again in the crush of Regency England – and there the erstwhile prisoner will turn out to be a powerful adversary, bent on revenge for the humiliations done to him.
Connie: Wow, very dark, very intriguing!
Sandra, I’ve found authors to have different research habits. Do you research before you start a book, during, or both?
Sandra: The Lily Brand was the first historical novel I ever wrote, so I basically jumped in with both feet – and got a bit of a shock when I realized how much research I had to do! But I've found that doing the research when already writing the book suits me just fine: this way I don't need to do extensive notes and still won't forget small details.
Connie: I can understand that. Sometimes when you think you’re very thorough when taking notes, for anything, when you go back to it, those small details you thought were clearly written seem to be elusive.
Your research seems to be very thorough. Is it something you look forward to doing?
Sandra: Yes, absolutely! I love finding out about everyday life in former times as well as digging up old scandal and gossip. I enjoyed putting itty-bitty details into my novel, like the Green Man, whom Lillian sees in Hyde Park and who was a real person: he wore only green clothes, had his hair dyed green, and even his poor poodle had a green tinge. You gotta love these absurdities of the time!
Connie: You’re kidding?? Oh, my. Where and how do you find information like that?
Sandra: Memoirs (e.g. Captain Gronow's Reminiscences) and letters (e.g. The Creevey Papers) are great for finding these wonderful anecdotes. Harriet Wilson, one of the most famous courtesans at the beginning of the 19th century and friends with all the important men of her time, wrote her memoirs in the 1820s -- and named names! Not surprisingly, the memoirs became a smashing hit. *g* She gave the most hilarious descriptions of famous statesmen, e.g. she compared Wellington, the great hero of Waterloo, to a rat-catcher.
Sometimes it also pays off to research a specific family or a specific house. I did that with Holland House and Lord and Lady Holland. I had admired Lady Holland for a long time, because she was such a strong woman and basically did whatever she wanted, no matter what society thought of her. There's a lot of material available on Holland House and its inhabitants, so much of the Holland House dinner party in The Lily Brand is based on real facts: Lady Holland's dinner table was indeed always overcrowded; she was famous for being a bossy woman and ordering everybody around; John Allen was referred to as her "Nubian slave"; Mr Foscolo was known for jumping up in the middle of a discussion over dinner and walking around the room, his fork still in hand, etc.
Connie: One last research question; do you feel teaching English Lit has given you and edge so-to-speak in your research?
Sandra: A bigger advantage, I think, is that one of my minor subjects was folklore. There I've not only learnt how to research everyday life in the past, but I've also gained some insight into cultural processes. But I was always much more fascinated by the details than by the bigger picture, which now, of course, proves to be an advantage because it's the tiny details that make a story more realistic and more vivid. Yet I've also learnt an important thing from English lit: no matter how much we as authors strive for historical accuracy, historical fiction will never present a 100% accurate picture of a specific era. Besides, who would want that in romance? Think pock marks, syphilis, a high death rate among children, men who considered it a great sport to cuckhold their friends, husbands who had a string of mistresses – all these things would most definitely take the romance out of the romance.
Connie: I agree with you there. Romance is supposed to be romantic.
You started out writing fantasy. Do you mind sharing a bit about the fantasy world you created and tell us about that time in your writing life?
Sandra: The last fantasy novel I worked on was part of a series about a race of shapeshifters, werewolves, in the kingdom of Colgan. For centuries they have lived in peaceful co-existence with humans, but suddenly someone seems interested in spreading ugly and false rumours about werewolves. When Layla, the princess of a neighbouring country, becomes engaged to the youngest prince of Colgan, Collin (whose nose she punched during a tavern brawl and who consequently hates her guts), she tries to locate the origin of these rumours – and quite suddenly finds herself in deadly peril for old evil has once again raised its ugly head.
I loved creating these fictitious countries, inventing their histories and cultures, drawing maps, and coming up with fictitious words from fictitious languages. I wrote stories which featured strong, young women who knew how to handle a sword or throw a knife. In that I was very much influenced by Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword & Sorceress anthologies. But in contrast to Bradley, romance was very important to me, too: all novels I wrote since my late teens contained strong romantic elements, and, of course, Layla and Collin eventually fell in love with each other and married and became a great team, working together to rebuilt the pack's old camp in the forest.
At that time I didn't have a crit group, I didn't know other writers, and nobody had ever told me that revisions form a necessary part of the writing process. I thought whatever I had written down was somehow carved in stone, and I hadn't yet learnt to use the computer for writing (that would come later at uni). But there was one very nice thing about this time: I spent many evenings at my friend's and read my stories to her – and Petra liked them and laughed at exactly the right places ...
Connie: Sounds like you created a wonderful world and learned somethings besides. Any plans on going back to it (fantasy) sometime in the future, or are you happy writing historical romance for the time being?
Sandra: For now, I greatly enjoy writing historical romances and I've got a lot more stories planned. Still, I hope that at some point in the future I can go back to my old novels and translate and revise them. And find a publisher for them! I would also love to combine fantasy and romance, for much as I love writing romances, I also miss writing fantasy; I miss the magic, creating new worlds, and a heroine who's not afraid to punch the hero's nose. That's not to say that there're no strong women in romance, but they normally neither handle swords or magic. (Yes, I know, there are exceptions!)
Connie: You say you’re an expert on rejection letters, Sandra. What got you through each of your rejections besides determination and the desire to write and be published? What could you tell aspiring and newly submitting authors regarding rejections, while they’re waiting for their thick skins to develop of course.
Sandra: I've always had this great passion for writing: I cannot not write. So to stop writing because of the rejection letters, was never an option for me. Of course, receiving such a letter is always hard, even if you've grown used to them, and I cried over each of them. Yet ultimately, I learnt a lot from these rejection letters: because of them I was never afraid of handing in an academic paper proposal, even if it was for a big project. It never occurred to me I might be aiming too high.
I don't think there's an ideal advice how to deal with rejection letters, especially when most of the times we'll get a form letter. But if you're so lucky to get a more detailed rejection letter, don't see it as a rejection, see it as an opportunity: if they are enthusiastic enough to tell you what's wrong with your book, they must perceive a chance that you'll eventually take that last step and become published. Always try to improve your writing, improve your style. Negative criticism hurts, yes, that's true, but it can also help you to become a better writer.
Connie: Thank you for that!
From our exchanges and your website I’ve discovered you have a wonderful sense of humor. Do you find it important to weave humor into your writing or do you just let the characters dictate the emotions whatever direction they feel the situation/scene needs to take them?
Sandra: Oh, thank you. Yes, I think humor is very important, and even though The Lily Brand is a very dark novel, there's a lot of comic relief, too, like Aunt Louisa, who knows all the gossip past and present, or the Weimaraners, which hunt down the stuffed bear in Troy's entrance hall. I find it important to keep that balance between light and dark. I neither like books which are only dark and intense and drag the reader emotionally down, nor books which frantically try to be funny and contain characters who behave in a downright silly, stupid way. For me the best humour derives from normal, everyday situations, e.g. when things don't go according to plan. I also very much enjoy working with eccentric secondary characters, like Lord Dudlin or Mr. Foscolo, both of whom are based on real people, by the way. Characters not acting according to their roles is another wonderful way to introduce humour to a story: e.g., when Little Red Riding Hood starts hitting the wolf with her basket even though he only said hello to her (that's the premise I used for the play mentioned on my website, A Fairy Tale Burlesque).
Connie: Balanced and normal. Something to keep in mind for the aspiring authors.
Your writing seems prolific and full of a variety of emotions that seem vivid without being too wordy. Does this come natural or has it been a struggling achievement due to help from your writer’s group on the ‘net and RWA, or via edits, or a combination of all of it?
Sandra: I think this element was always present in my writing, but I needed the help of my crit group to fully develop it and to polish my style. Thanks to the fact that I've been writing for so long, I had already developed a distinct voice by the time I switched languages, but I still needed the fine tools to make a story more vivid. These days I'm much more aware of what I'm doing, of how to use language in order to create specific images for the reader. What my writing always lacked was a certain edge: whenever I described something bad, it didn't really come across as bad. It was only when I went through a very difficult time in my personal life, that I finally was able to fully describe the nasty aspects of life. My whole anger and frustration got translated into the very bleak and dark first chapters of The Lily Brand.
Connie: Your comment on the "patchwork approach" caught my attention, Sandra. In one scene you’ve left her (Cissy – heroine of your WIP - The Castle Of Wolfenbach) stuck on a steamship on the Rhine, but went on to write another scene that had her having fun in the bedroom. I know that movies aren’t filmed in sequential order, but it amazed me that writing is and can be done without being in sequential order. The question is I guess, (I’m struggling to picture it) how can it be done while maintaining the consistency of the character and their subsequent growth? Going from one scene to another, wouldn’t that have Cissy in different stages in regards to her internal conflicts and growth? I know you’ve since written Cissy off the steamship, but I’m fascinated by the concept (though I’m sure other authors have used it) of the "patchwork approach"!
Sandra: If you write patchwork style, you'll definitely need an outline. Before I sit down to start with a new novel, I've already done several mental "test runs" in order to see whether the story really works. Then I write down a rough synopsis, just three to five pages to make sure I won't forget any important elements of the plot. This synopsis functions as a sort of skeleton, which needs to be fleshed out. Many of the details and sometimes even very important elements or symbols get added only during the writing process. For example, I knew I wanted to have this gloomy, old castle as the main setting for The Castle of Wolfenbach. The first thing that comes to my mind when I think "gloomy, old castle" is King Haggard's castle in Beagle's The Last Unicorn. (I was quite young when I saw the film and it made a huge impression on me!) In this castle there's a big, mysterious grandfather clock, and the protagonists have to step through that clock in order to reach the lair of the Red Bull. So I decided my castle needed a grandfather clock, too. Besides, you can create wonderful gothic effects with such a clock: think of the strikes that reverberate through the castle – quite eerie! Yet I didn't want any old grandfather clock standing around in my castle; it needed to be something special. In comes another favourite film of mine, the Japanese anime Whispers of the Heart. It features a very special, very beautiful grandfather clock, which tells the story of the King of Dwarves being in love with a fairy princess. Unfortunately, the princess has been transformed into a sheep, and only when the clock strikes twelve is the sheep transformed into a beautiful fairy. Still, the King of Dwarves appears every hour and hopes to catch a glimpse of his love even though he can never reach her.
As soon as I had decided to use this clock in my story (I love working in such references as a form of homage to my favourite books and movies), a whole bunch of new scenes with the clock as a central element popped up. Eventually the clock became the symbol for the protagonists's relationship: On the one hand, Fenris thinks that he is so much beneath Cissy that he's not worth courting her, so he doesn't even dare touch her; he believes he will always be in the darkness. On the other hand, Cissy realizes that she has to become active if she wants this relationship to work, and at one point she thinks, "I don't want to stay a sheep forever." In other words, I don't want to be like the fairy princess in the grandfather clock.
So you see how this initially tiny detail sparked new scenes, which are not in the original outline, and added to the layers of the novel. Of course, eventually I'll have to go through the whole story again in order to smoothen transitions and to make sure the emotional development of the main characters becomes clear. Yet I would need to do that even if I wrote this story in a linear fashion. I mean, when you work on something for such a long time – it usually takes me about a year to write a new novel –, you have to stand back at the end and see whether you've brought everything together because the story subtly changes during the writing process.
Connie: I do see and understand how one detail can spark new scenes, new conflicts, and new layers to the story! I’m with you there.
What about the hero of your WIP, The Castle Of Wolfenbach? You said the he wasn’t yet compelling and dark enough. Why do you say that? How dark and compelling do you want your hero to be? Why do you want him that, oh, let’s say intense? Is it for the heroine to...help him evolve; go from the dark to the light?
Sandra: I have to admit I'm a sucker for dark, tortured heroes, and since The Castle of Wolfenbach is a beauty-and-the-beast story and has some gothic overtones, too, I want Fenris to be a really dark hero, perhaps even a bit intimidating. Or rather, he wants to come across as intimidating, only it doesn't work with the heroine. *g* In contrast to Lillian, the heroine of The Lily Brand, Cissy is very open and chatty. She is going to show her hero that hiding away in a gloomy, old castle is not a very good solution and that life is still worth living despite what's happened to him. So, yes, she is going to help him overcome his trauma and heal his emotional wound. And, of course, the darker you make the hero at the beginning, the sweeter and the more emotionally satisfying is the ending. At least for me.
Connie: They sound made for each other! Now that you’ve answered that, would you tell us about your WIP, tentatively titled The Castle Of Wolfenbach? Describe it as you did The Lily Brand, and whet our appetites for it.
Sandra: The story is set in 1827 ('cause I needed steamboats on the Rhine! *g*): After her father's death Cissy Fussell finds out that she's inherited a castle in the Black Forest – on one condition: that she marries a total stranger, namely the son of her father's friend. Fenris von Wolfenbach returned from the war physically and emotionally wounded, and has hidden from the world in his family's castle ever since. When one day, a young Englishwoman arrives on his doorstep and claims his home as hers, he tries to drive her away by every means fair or foul.
Connie: Can’t wait!
Sandra, Anyone who knows me knows I’d love to keep asking you questions about your writing and writing in general, but unfortunately it’s time now to get to know the non-author part of you now.
Sandra: Oh right. There's that part of me, too.
Connie: Yes there is :-) It seems whether going into author or teacher or thesis mold you’re doing writing of one sort or another. Taking time out for you, what is the biggest self-indulgence you allow yourself?
Sandra: Spending Sunday morning snuggled up in bed and reading a good book. From my bedroom window I see a bit of the old trees in the neighbouring schoolyard, but else it's mostly sky, and in the background there's the gurgling of the mini-stream in the pond in our backyard. It's very soothing and very idyllic.
Another great way for me to relax is to slop down on the sofa and watch the DVD of Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake, also known as the "all-male Swan Lake" because in contrast to the classical version, the swans are danced by men in white feather trousers. It's very beautiful and powerful – and there's no text. It's very relaxing to shut down that part of my brain once in a while.
Connie: It’s time to relax, you make a cup of coffee or tea or hot chocolate or pour a glass of your favorite pop, pick up a good book and snuggle into your most comfortable chair (cat(s) on the lap I presume)...tell us what you like to read.
Sandra: I love reading romances, of course, yet funnily enough I've got only a few favourite authors – like Teresa Medeiros, Gaelen Foley, Susanna Kearsley, Penny Jordan, Kate Walker, and Nora Roberts, of course (who doesn't like Nora Roberts?) – but lots of favourite books, e.g. Margaret Moore's The Wastrel (sweetest book I've ever read), Sophie Kinsella's Can You Keep a Secret, Anita Mill's The Duke's Double, Janelle Denison's Bride Included, and many others.
In my teens loved reading straight historical fiction, and Rosemary Sutcliff is a longtime favourite author of mine. I have always admired her vivid images and how small, everyday things and actions gain importance in her writing. A few years ago I discovered the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett – and was instantly hooked (translate: fell in love with Francis Crawford *g*)! Dunnett now definitely leads the list of my favourite authors.
It won't come as a surprise that I still enjoy fantasy: I love novels by Mercedes Lackey – especially The Last Herald Mage trilogy –, by Jennifer Roberson, Tamora Pierce, and by TERRY PRATCHETT!!! He writes these fabulous stories which are part parody, part satire; very funny and witty, but still deal with serious issues. His books are never about great heroes with shiny, pointy swords, but deal with normal (uhm ... sort of), down-to-earth people who handle problems in a normal (uhm ... sort of), down-to-earth way: e.g. in The Wee Free Men young Tiffany Arching goes and wards off evil with her family's largest frying pan and her granny's magic book, i.e., Diseases of the Sheep.
Apart from that, I enjoy the occasional crime novel, especially the Mrs Murphy Mysteries by Rita Mae Brown and – a relatively new favourite! – the Nine Muses Mysteries by Ellen Pall.
Of course, given my day job, I also read classics (and not-so classics): I'm a big Jane Austen fan, know Tennyson's ballad "The Lady of Shalott" by heart, and love German Romantic fairy tales. I'm very fond of medieval literature, too: one of my favourite love poems dates from the 15th century, and I enjoy Old English literature for its beautiful imagery.
Connie: You’re very particular of what you read (if I’m reading you right), but your reading variety is very wide.
My fictional Prince Charming would think me beautiful if let’s say I had...oh, bed-head and drool dried on my cheek or if I were splotched with poison ivy, bug bites, and a sunburn after doing yard work. Your ideal fictional hero would think you gorgeous if you...what?
Sandra: ... was throwing a PMS-induced hissy fit, had the mother of all bad-hair days and an explosion of spots on my face. Or drool dried on my cheek. *g*
Connie: Use 4 words you would use to describe how you see yourself.
Sandra: Loves cats, books & chocolate.
Connie: Chocolate, always a favorite with me in almost any form! With that, Sandra, I think I’ll say thank you for a wonderful interview and bid you farewell, but before I do, is there anything I forgot to ask that you want readers and fans to know?
Sandra: I can't begin to tell you how thrilled I am this is all happening to me, and I'm deeply grateful to all the people who made all this possible: most of all to the wonderful ladies of my crit group, but also to my editor, who not only gave me great creative input, but also took a chance on a newbie writer who's not even a native speaker! Or living on the same continent. *g* I'm only sorry that I won't be able to do many booksignings or readings in the USA, even if I would love to. I hope that US readers will still come to love me and my stories, and I'm very much looking forward to hearing from my readers.
Connie: As a FYI, for Sandra’s story on how she came to speak and write English make sure you check out her website! Or, you can read about it in her writing tips article on this website.
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