Thursday, September 18, 2014

Author Interview: Elizabeth Camden

Thrilled to have Christy award winner Elizabeth Camden on the blog today. I recently devoured With Every Breath which I think is her strongest to date and features the dishiest hero. (Kudos to my friend Melissa Tagg who was all: Get Thee to a Trevor Posthaste!)

I find that you speak to a generation of strong women whose paths don't necessarily lead down the road to a domestic end.  This is made more potent by the circumstances and social structures of the time period you write about.  Is this a conscious decision? Did you set out with this intention as an underlying thesis when you first started writing?

It wasn’t a conscious decision….I think it is more a reflection of my own life experiences. I was single until I was thirty-five, and I don’t have any children of my own, so I naturally tend to veer toward stories with women on their own.  My career was my whole world until I got married, so this is what I know and feel comfortable writing about. I chose the late 19th century because there were many opportunities for women in various professions. I like giving my heroines some life experience or expertise in a field.  Not only does this take the reader so some new and interesting settings, but it gives the heroines a little more “umph” when they finally meet their man.  

I was once asked to consider shifting my genre to the Regency era. These books tend to sell better, and it was a tempting offer, but I instinctively shied away from it. There were almost no realistic work opportunities for women during this time, so I’d have that avenue closed off to me. I’m not sure I have what it takes to make the regency era seem fresh and original, so I’m sticking to the late 19th and early 20th century.  I love reading the regency era, but I’d be hopeless at writing it.

How has your work as a librarian informed your approach to historical fiction?

Being a research librarian has given me the freedom to feel comfortable exploring a huge diversity of subjects. Research is the one and only thing I am confident that I do quite well, so if something sparks my interest, I know I can learn what is involved and translate it for a general audience.   

I am certain that there were barrels of interesting tidbits on the studies regarding TB in the 19th Century that never made it into your book. For that matter, for each book you write: whether you are presenting the immigrant experience or opium addiction, you have far more than funnels onto the page. How do you choose what stays?

No one wants to read pages of research an author dumps into a story merely to demonstrate they’ve done their homework.  Boring! It is important to seamlessly integrate the research so it injects a fresh angle into the story and raises the stakes for the leading characters.  For example, when researching the Chicago Fire, I learned that thousands of children were separated from their parents during the massive evacuation of the city. I thought this would be a cool detail to include, but I didn’t want merely a “plot moppet” of a precious child for Mollie and Zach to rescue. If I was going to include this angle, I needed to make the child (Sophie) an interesting and vibrant personality that raises the stakes and advances the story. I made Sophie a holy terror they couldn’t wait to unload back to her parents. Trying to figure out how to get Sophie back to her family forced the heroine to explore the wreckage of the city and find a solution. For every “Sophie” I included in the story, there were fascinating and heartbreaking details I omitted.  Here’s one:

In the immediate hours and days after the fire, thousands of telegrams flew in and out of the city. The owner of a mercantile store sent a telegram to his wife, (who was visiting relatives in New York) that they had lost everything. He wrote: “Store and contents, dwelling and everything lost. Insurance worthless. Buy all the coffee you can and ship this afternoon by express. Don’t cry.”

That “don’t cry” get me every time!  Also, the fact that the only thing he asks her to send was coffee is rather whimsical.  I wracked my brains trying to think how I could incorporate that telegram into the story, but I finally gave up. It doesn’t meet the necessary criteria, so it joins the hundreds of other snippets of details on the cutting room floor. But you know what? Uncovering these fascinating details is what makes me love this work.

One of the many reasons With Every Breath stands out for me as one of your strongest novels and one of the strongest historicals I have read this year is the pitch-perfect competitive banter between Trevor and Kate. Indeed, I felt if we stripped away everything but the dialogue and set it on stage, we'd have an engrossing, witty play!  How does dialogue fit into your writing process?

Thanks for the compliment!  Dialog is a great way to reveal personality, humor, and intelligence. Because Kate and Trevor have a long history before the novel even opens, they know each other very well and can go after each other with both barrels blazing. Despite their rivalry, it was important to me that the reader know they have enormous respect for each other. That means instead of boring bickering, I get to inject humor and intelligence, and it was fun to eventually have it evolve into a deeply loving sort of dialog, while still maintaining an irreverent tone.   

I learned a lot about how to write while watching movies or TV that feature crisp, sparkling dialog. Downton Abbey is a classic example. You can grab any few minutes of Downton Abbey at random and the dialog does a great job of revealing character while still advancing the story. Other examples are The Gilmore Girls, Big Bang Theory, and one of my favorite movies, Jerry McGuire.  

Trevor is my favourite hero of yours ( and you've written some dishy, dishy heroes).  Can you tell me about your experience writing him and spending time with him? How did he surprise you most?

Trevor was the easiest character I’ve ever written. I was worried readers would find him too chilly and hard, which was why I tried to include plenty of scenes from his point-of-view where the reader should be able to sense that he is simply shy. Many readers are themselves somewhat shy or introverted, so they can recognize his struggle.  Shy people aren’t cold, they just don’t spontaneously open up and want to chat with everyone standing in the grocery store line like Kate does! So the Kate-Trevor chemistry is really just two people who share common interests and values, but one is an introvert and the other is an extrovert. As soon as Kate cracks the veneer of ice that naturally forms on Trevor, she is able to recognize the deeply caring and compassionate man inside.

Thanks for offering to host me on your site, Rachel….you ask great questions!


Unknown said...

This is by far one of my favorite books of the year. Oh my goodness...loved it so much. Trevor...swoon. And I loved the tuberculosis angle. Too, I love the point you both made in this interview about heroines with careers...and you know, I've honestly never thought about how hard it would be to write books pre, hmm, industrial revolution, I guess...before women had opportunities to have careers.

Fun interview and now I want to go reread With Every Breath. :) Oh and thanks for the shoutout, Rach!

Unknown said...

Great interview! I agree with you 100% about this being her best yet! I'm with Melissa, I want to reread it again too :)

Rissi said...

Great interview, ladies. There is some wonderful insight into Elizabeth's writing as well as Trevor's character (who I loved, by the way). Thanks for posting this, Rachel. :)

Kristy Cambron said...

The telegram detail is just *amazing*! Thanks so much for sharing it, and your heart for writing. I haven't read this one (yet), but it's in my TBR pile. Waverly Hills Sanitorium (TB hospital from the late 1800s on) is located right where I live. The tuberculosis inclusion is very interesting! Can't wait to read. ; )