Author Interview: Kelli Estes Talks About Her Debut Novel: The Girl Who Wrote In Silk

TGWWISFinalCoverAfter emailing and interviewing debut author Kelli Estes, I’m confident in saying, YOU’RE GOING TO LOVE HER. The description of her book will give you the chills, her publishing journey will inspire you, and her advice will ring true. 

At least that’s what happened to me!

Please welcome Kelli Estes to WFW!

Amy xo

Debut Author Kelli Estes Talks About Her Debut Novel: The Girls Who Wrote In Silk

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Amy: THE GIRL WHO WROTE IN SILK was inspired by a true story. Would you share a bit of that story with us and how it influenced your novel and characters?

Kelli: From around 1850 to 1906 Chinese people in the U.S., primarily in western states, were the object of intense hatred and torment. Communities would drive the Chinese out by force, or they’d threaten them and intimidate them with violent night raids and arson until they left on their own. Many were murdered. In Rock Springs, Wyoming, gangs of British and Swedish miners attacked Chinese miners, instantly killing 28 and wounding 15, some of whom later died. Hundreds more were driven into the desert. As the Chinese homes and bunkhouses were burned, the bodies of the dead and wounded were thrown into the flames. In Squak Valley (Issaquah), Washington, a band of white and Native American farmworkers who were angry at the Chinese hop pickers because they earned higher wages fired into their tents and murdered three Chinese men. In 1887 thirty-one Chinese miners were slaughtered in the Snake River massacre at Hell’s Canyon along Oregon’s Columbia River by a gang of white farmers and schoolboys.

The Girl Who Wrote in Silk takes place in Seattle where the Chinese people, who numbered around four hundred, really were driven from their homes on February 7, 1886 by an angry mob of fifteen hundred who herded them down to the docks and tried to force them to buy passage on the Queen of the Pacific steamer bound for San Francisco. Thankfully, some level-headed officials got involved and the Chinese were given the choice to leave or not. If they chose to stay, they were protected. I veered from true history in my story because I thought it important to show the horror that people were experiencing in other communities. Every mention that I make in my book of violence in other cities such as Tacoma, WA (where all 500 Chinese were successfully driven from the city, their homes and businesses torched) is true and accurate.

The Girl Who Wrote in Silk is told in two time periods, present-day and historical starting in 1886. My historical heroine is a Chinese girl driven from her Seattle home and forced aboard a steamship where tragedy strikes. She later tells the truth of what happened that night through the stories she embroiders on silk. Over a hundred years later my present-day heroine, a Caucasian, finds the embroidery and learns the truth, as well as how that truth impacts her own family.

Amy: Can you share your publishing journey, from first draft to book shelf? 

Kelli: Although The Girl Who Wrote in Silk is my first published novel, it was my sixth complete manuscript (400 pages). It took 15 years of writing, rewriting, submitting to agents and editors, pitching at conferences, and learning everything I could from other authors before I sold, and I don’t think any of that time was wasted. Those 15 years was my apprenticeship in writing and, in a way, the fact that it didn’t happen for me until now is perfect. I wasn’t ready before, but now I am, both in the area of writing and because my kids are older (I have two boys, ages 10 and 13).

This story was a finalist in the mainstream category of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association literary contest in 2012. Wearing that “Finalist” ribbon on my badge proved to be an excellent vetting process for agents and editors during my 3-minute pitch sessions. They took me more seriously than they might have otherwise. My agent today is one to whom I pitched at that conference. I also pitched to a Sourcebooks editor who requested my manuscript, though I didn’t hear back from him. Months later, as my agent was getting ready to go out on submission with my book, I got an email from a different editor at Sourcebooks asking if the manuscript was still available. She’d inherited the desk from the editor I’d pitched to, found my manuscript, and was interested. She ended up being the editor who bought the story. My agent was later able to sell audio rights as well as some foreign language rights. Next week, three years almost to the day, I’ll again be at the PNWA conference, but this time I’ll be signing my published book!

Amy: I read on your website that you didn’t realize writing was an option as a career (we’re so lucky that changed). What was your initial writing process like as a “newbie” and how has that evolved?

Kelli: You’re right, I believed writers were magical beings very unlike my boring self. Thankfully I met a “regular” person who was writing a book and that gave me the idea that maybe I could try writing, too. At first it was difficult and, though I completed a full manuscript that first year, I later realized that manuscript didn’t have a plot. It was a story that bounced from one event to the next with no real purpose or conflict. That experience showed me all the many things that I needed to learn. Luckily, I was a member of Romance Writers of America at the time and started attending every meeting and conference I could in order to learn from top-notch writers. I encourage writers who write romance to join RWA because I don’t know of any other writing association more supportive or educational than RWA. I wrote my first few books after my kids went to bed at night or on weekends when my husband was home.

Today I plot in great detail before writing my books, though I give myself permission to veer from the plot as I get to know the characters deeper or some new conflict arises during the writing. I also have more time to write now with my kids in school all day. The experience of being published and working with professional editors grew in me an appreciation for the revision process. Like my son’s teacher says, “When you think you’re done, you’ve only just begun.” So true. It’s during the revision process that a book comes alive.

Amy: As a debut author, what was the best piece of writing or just general advice you received from another author or read online, etc? What made that stick and how did it effect you? 

Kelli: Early in my writing I met author Jane Porter (IT’S YOU, FLIRTING WITH FORTY) who gave me the advice to write what speaks to you rather than what you think will sell. I thought I took the advice to heart right away, but I didn’t really get it until after my fifth manuscript was receiving a lot of close-but-not-quite rejections and I was depressed. I stopped writing for several long months and I questioned if I should give up writing all together. During those months I journaled a lot, read career-guidance books, and searched my soul about what I wanted in my life. In the end I realized that I wasn’t suited for anything other than writing and no matter what, I was going to keep writing and create a career out of it because writing nurtures my soul. It’s part of the reason I’m on this planet (the other part is to be a mom to my boys).

When I started the manuscript that would become The Girl Who Wrote in Silk I gave myself permission to take as long as it needed to complete the book (no more worrying that I wasn’t writing fast enough), I allowed the story to go in whatever direction it needed to go (no worrying about genre conventions – I consciously decided not to even think about where it would be shelved at a bookstore), and I promised myself that this book would get in the hands of readers whether that was through traditional publishing or electronic publishing. I wrote the story and I finally understood, down to my bones, what Jane Porter meant about writing what speaks to me. I care for this story and these characters more than I have ever cared before and I think it shows in the writing.

Amy: What’s your best advice for another aspiring author?

Kelli: Truly, I believe in the old saying about success being about preparation meeting opportunity. Do your “apprenticeship” time. Learn all you can about the craft of writing and, most importantly, write a lot and pay attention to where your personal writing weaknesses are, and then find someone to teach you how to improve in those areas. Become the writing professional you want to be, act it, live it. When the opportunity you are looking for arises – agent? publishing contract? – you will be ready to launch. Oh, and, write from that place deep inside of you that has something to say.

KelliEstes_author_photo_smKelli Estes grew up in the apple country of eastern Washington before going to college at Arizona State University. There she learned she needs to live near water and where all four seasons can be experienced, so she moved to Seattle after graduation. There, she bought airplane parts for four years before finally getting the courage to try her hand at writing. Six manuscripts, two babies, and fourteen years later, her dream of a writing career came true with the publication of The Girl Who Wrote in Silk which was an Indie Next pick for July 2015.

Kelli now lives thirty minutes from Seattle with her husband and two sons. When not writing, she loves volunteering at her kids’ schools, reading, traveling, going out to eat, exercising (because of all the eating), and learning about health and nutrition. Connect with Kelli at http://www.kelliestes.com/.

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16 thoughts on “Author Interview: Kelli Estes Talks About Her Debut Novel: The Girl Who Wrote In Silk

  1. Kelli, I loved learning about your novel here, and Amy is right: your journey to publication is an inspirational one! Believe it or not, my journey was even longer 🙂 I think you’re absolutely correct in saying that the most important thing writers can do is NOT worry about what will happen to their books after publication. Instead, worry about writing what feels true to you. Thank you for sharing your story–and for writing this very important book.

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    • Thank you, Holly! I was just thinking last night as I was sitting on the ferry coming home from a book signing event that I’m thrilled it actually took this long to get published. I think if I’d been published sooner, when my kids were younger, I would have grown to resent the time it takes me away from my family. Now that my kids are older, it feels like perfect timing.

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  2. What an inspiring post; I, too, believe that the ‘apprenticeship’ time is necessary for a writer’s growth. The historical aspects of your novel are equal parts horrifically disturbing and heartbreakingly fascinating from a social consciousness standpoint. It is wonderful that you are bringing these truths to life through your fiction. I look forward to reading and commend your tenacity. (Go ASU! I do a lot of freelancing for your alma mater!)

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    • Thank you, Melissa! A lot of people, even those who’ve lived in Seattle their whole lives, know nothing about the anti-Chinese sentiment or attempt to drive them away. I’m so honored that people are responding to this story as I’d hoped they would. Yay, ASU!

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  3. I’m going to chime in, too! When people referred to my writing as a “hobby” (which made me cringe) I often explained that I felt like it was more of an apprenticeship that would lead to “real work.” I think it’s ok to be a writer without the goal of publication, but if it is your goal, the focus is different and learning as much as possible is key.

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    • You’re absolutely right, Amy. Publication was always my goal and it was easy to fall into feeling discouraged when it was taking me so long to get it right. But then again, publishing isn’t always about how good the writing is, but how well that particular story fits into a need right when the need opens up. Preparation and luck! (I always hated it being referred to as a “hobby”, too!)

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  4. Kudos to you Kelli for bringing to light horrible events that really happened. I didn’t know and had never heard about this horrific treatment of Chinese workers here in the U.S. (Guess I fell into the movie/Bonzana trap!) I’m glad you preservered for 15 years! Thank you to you and Amy for this inspiring post!

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    • Thank you, Regina! When I first heard about the treatment of Chinese people I was horrified and astounded that I wasn’t taught this history in school. It needs to be known and I’m honored to have the chance to spread the word.

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    • Thank you, Leza! I like your use of the words “staying the course” because that’s what made the difference with this book. I stuck with it. With all my previous manuscripts I gave up on them too early. With this one, I persevered and now it’s out where others can read it and I’m so happy about that! Thank you for your kind words!

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  5. A truly enjoyable interview. Kelli’s book sounds like my kind of book. I love historical fiction, have read many histories of Chinese through the ages, and have often been abhorred by the plight of the people in their own land. I did not realize that the treatment they received here was as horrific as portrayed here. This is a book I definitely want to read.
    Michelle James
    http://michelleclementsjames.com/

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  6. Kelli, I too starting writing novels for the purpose of publication. Everything I read said you need to write just for you without any hope of anyone else seeing it… but I did want people to see it. Not for accolades or attention, but so I could connect with other people (and maybe even connect other people to each other) through my writing. But when you have that desire, it’s hard to shut out all those voices telling you which genres work, what the rules are, etc. I love what you said about writing what speaks to you above all else. Great interview, and I’ll be sure to check out your book!

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