I think this is one of the most fun interviews I’ve done for Women’s Fiction Writers. Why? Because not only is author Erika Robuck a friend of mine, but she bounced right back at me with questions of her own. We were discussing how authors who write historical fiction are sometimes just perplexed at how authors who write contemporary fiction come up with their stories and how the reverse is equally true. How do writers of historical fiction intertwine fact and fiction. And all the research? And that’s what we’re discussing in today’s volley. I mean, interview.
Erika’s latest novel, CALL ME ZELDA, was released on May 7th. It’s a big part of the Zelda Fitzgerald craze—so you’re going to want to jump on this bandwagon and read about Zelda after her days in the limelight.
Please welcome Erika Robuck to Women’s Fiction Writers!
Writing Words and Book Banter With Author Erika Robuck
Amy: Writing historical fiction, the way you do (with such skill) means taking a real person from the past, real places, events, and times, and fictionalizing them. Meaning, you take creative license, tweaking the truth for the sake of the story you want to tell. I find that fascinating!
Who was the first person (historical or otherwise) who sparked your imagination enough to make you decide to write a story about him or her?
Erika: My first historical inspiration came when my husband and I were thinking of planning a trip to Nevis in the Caribbean. A friend told me it was paradise, and as I read about the history of the island, I was fascinated to learn that this tiny place of which I’d never heard was known as the ‘Queen of the Caribees’ for its sugar cane production, and that Alexander Hamilton was born there. Observing the way the slaves were treated on the island led Hamilton to become an abolitionist. Then I read about a haunted plantation there called Eden Rock. This rich and intriguing history inspired my first self-published novel, RECEIVE ME FALLING.
As one who writes historical fiction, I’m in awe of writers of contemporary fiction. Where do you find your plot and inspiration?
Amy: It’s usually a question I want to answer that leads me to the idea for a novel. For THE GLASS WIVES the question is “what makes a family?” I also sometimes note interesting people or situations and think they’d make great stories. So that saying, “Be careful or you’ll end up in my novel” is totally true in my case.
To me, research seems daunting. What’s your favorite part of the research process?
Erika: I’m a research junkie. It feels like amateur detective work, and I’m always pleased when the story that wants to be known asserts itself in my searches. My favorite part of the process is visiting sites where my characters lived years ago. From the Hemingway House in Key West, to Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald’s haunts in Baltimore, there is nothing like walking the streets and paths in the present to transport me to the past.
I write about real and imagined people from the past. Do you ever use real people to inform your characters?
Amy: I do, but not in the way most people think. For example, one day when my daughter was in junior high, I was waiting in the carpool line and the woman in front of me got out of her car. She had on a long skirt, boots, and a either a leather or wool coat (I forget). But she had the kind of vibe I imagined that my character Laney would have, so I thought of that woman whenever I wrote about Laney. I do have a friend who is sprinkled into both Beth and Laney in the book. We’ve been friends for over twenty years, she was one of my early readers, and I’m sure she doesn’t realize. And that’s the way I like it, even though it was all good things sprinkled in. I’ve decided that if people I know want to see themselves in THE GLASS WIVES, I hope they’re flattered by what they see. If they’re not flattered, then they probably have some soul searching to do!
I look around me for characters. You look into the past through research for yours. How do you organize your research? Or do you not?
Erika: I do organize my research. I take copious notes from site and archive visits and my readings, and once I know the exact time period I’ll represent, I make timelines. Though I write fiction, it is important to me to stay as true to the history of my known characters as possible.
Do you use any story structure models or outlines? Do you know how your book will end once you get started?
Amy: I always know the beginning and the end. It’s that darn middle that gets tough, isn’t it? But that’s the fun of writing fiction, you can take your characters on whatever journey you want to take them on to get them to the end! Right now I’m working off an outline for book two, but I already have gone “off track” so to speak.
Do you have criteria for people you write about, or is it just however it, or whomever, strikes your fancy?
Erika: Place was my initial inspiration: the Caribbean, a visit to the Hemingway House in Key West. From Hemingway, I’ve been led to Zelda Fitzgerald. From Zelda and Scott to Edna St. Vincent Millay… All research roads seem to lead naturally to others.
Amy: Are there ever readers who don’t realize you’re writing fiction?
Erika: I’m clear on jacket copy and in Reader’s Notes/Guides that I insert a fictional character into the history. I haven’t yet come across any confused readers, though I’ve been flattered to hear people say how real characters become to them.
I sometimes think it is a prerequisite for writers to feel misunderstood. What is the biggest misconception the non-writers in your life have about your job?
Amy: I think “regular people” think it’s easy to write a book. I know people don’t understand the amount of time that goes into it, and that’s okay, I don’t understand medicine, law, or how to be a chef.
Who have you not yet written about that you’d like to (unless that’s a secret)?
Erika: I have to admit that I have a little post-traumatic stress about discovering that there were so many novelizations of Zelda Fitzgerald coming out around the same time, so in the name of superstition, I will respectfully punt the question back to you. What is the subject of your next novel?
Amy: Oh, aren’t you tricky! The novel I’m working on now is about a blogger who gets all caught up in the lies she tells online, making it hard for her to distinguish between her real life and her online life. She takes a job based on those lies, which only digs her in deeper. When I look at the bigger question posed by the novel, it’s really about those “life lies” some people tell—or even lifelong secrets people hold close . What makes that happen, and what has to occur to make someone come clean and deal with the repercussions of their actions.
Erika Robuck self-published her first novel, RECEIVE ME FALLING. Her novel, HEMINGWAY’S GIRL (NAL/Penguin), was a Target Emerging Author Pick, a Vero Beach Bestseller, and has been sold in two foreign markets to date. Her next novel, CALL ME ZELDA (NAL/Penguin), publishes on May 7, 2013, and begins in the years “after the party” for Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Erika writes about and reviews historical fiction at her blog, Muse, and is a contributor to popular fiction blog, Writer Unboxed. She is also a member of the Historical Novel Society and the Hemingway Society.