Sunday, July 24, 2011

An Interview with Author Winslow Eliot

WebbWeaver recently got the chance to speak to Winslow Eliot about her life and travels and about her writing. We wanted to share the interview with you.

1. Where did you get the idea for your latest novel, A Perfect Gem?

Two things came together one hot summer afternoon: First, I was driving along a quiet country road after a fabulous encounter with a wonderful man - Bernie Fallon (author of Goodology) At the time he owned the Public Market in my village and he's very much like Gareth in A Perfect Gem.
Then, on my way home, I noticed a small, handmade sign by the side of the road that said 'Crystals and Gems' and a funny arrow pointing up a driveway I'd never seen it before, even though I know this road by heart! Of course I pulled in. There was no one around, so I went around the side of the house to a small barn in the back and there were these two odd-looking gentlemen with a barn full of the most amazing crystals and gems you've ever seen. (This is all true, I swear.) I spent hours and hours with them, touching the stones, learning all about them, sitting in the sun as I held one, talking about their travels...That whole experience seems other-worldly. Afterward, I tried to get in touch with them, but never saw either them or that barn again.

2. You based A Perfect Gem in the area you, yourself, live in. Do you do any locale research or are you fairly familiar with the area?

I moved here from New York in the 1990s so I know it pretty well by now, but I'll always be a newcomer. The town I live in was incorporated in 1750 and there are still only 400 year-round residents. The Berkshires have gorgeous mountain ranges, intense weather, cultural and historic draws, beautiful houses and an interesting mix of people: farmers and others who have lived here for generations, wealthy second-home owners, artists and professionals of all kinds and people seeking an alternative, holistic, sustainable way of life. I try to have at least part of every novel focus around the mythical Berkshire town of Tahton - 'tah' is the Mahican word for heart. The Mahicans were native to this area. There’s rich history, too, that I'd love to explore more: the first legally freed slave, Elizabeth Freeman, sued for her freedom here and won – in 1781! She was a fascinating woman.

3. We know you write romance novels with a mystery theme. Do you think you will ever write in another genre?

Actually, I think by now I've written in just about every genre imaginable - I just wasn't published in any of them. Back in the eighties I plastered my bathroom wall with rejection letters - I had hundreds of them! The reason I became a romance writer was that NAL/Signet was the first publisher to finally agree to publish one of my books. And that’s when I realized how much I had always loved romantic fiction. Jane Austen, Fanny Burney, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth (she was a baroness and wrote under her first name, back in the 20s.), Georgette Heyer, Daphne du Maurier, Madeleine Brent, Sydney Sheldon, Susan Wiggs - I love them all! So I stuck with what I love. I'll probably always include a romantic theme to whatever I write.

4. Can you tell us which of your books was the most fun to write and do you have a favorite?

Heaven Falls changed my life around. I'd been unpublished since Bright Face of Danger and even my agent was getting discouraged. Then I met John Locke, Claude Bouchard, and Claudia Jackson on Twitter - as well as many other amazing friends - and they took me by the hand and basically said, "Go for it!” I'll never forget the rush of relief and thrill when I realized I COULD be published - I WOULD be published! All it took was a decision! (And Claudia's expertise.) All winter I wrote and wrote - and the response to Heaven Falls when I did publish it made the thrill even more intense. In the fall of 2010 I re-issued Bright Face of Danger which was my most 'successful' traditionally published novel - in fact, it's still selling pretty well in its French edition (Mira Books). A Perfect Gem was great fun because I feel it is filled with lightness-of-being .... This fall I'll be publishing Glass Tower which is darker - more thrillerish, like Bright Face of Danger. Lots of twists and turns - As long as people tell me they can't put my book down, I'm happy.

5. We know that you are well-traveled and have visited many exotic, mysterious places. What one place inspired you most and do you think you will ever go back there?

Living in Hawai'i changed my life, even though I was only there for two years. Arriving there for the first time, I felt I had come to the ends of the earth. The beauty, the magic, the friendliness, the sacredness, and the possibilities imbued me with hope and happiness - after many years of despair. I'll go back - no question.
That being said, in some way I know New York City will always be my strongest inspiration. I don't think there's a single novel I wrote that doesn't include a New York City scene. I was born there and we left when I was two, but because my parents were such travelers, it was the only place in the world I knew would always be there for me. And it has been. When I grew up I moved back and I lived there for twenty years - fell in love, got married and both my children were born in our tiny apartment in the west village. That city has everything: glamour, grit, mystery, passion, history, the best and the worst and everything in between. It is itself a novel. I visit on occasion, but I would like to live there again someday.

6. We know you have said New York Times author John Locke is your mentor and you do some editing for him. Can you tell us how that came about?

He really liked Bright Face of Danger and asked if I'd edit his books. When I first read Lethal People I was amazed at the quality of the writing as well as his story-telling gift and I thought he should try to be traditionally published. He is always so polite, but he was definitely uninterested! I couldn't understand it. But after a while, he totally turned around my previous concept of publishing. All those years I'd taken for granted that I was at the mercy of 1.) a busy agent 2.) a nervous acquisitions editor who had to 'sell' me to a group of other editors who pretty much were only concerned with appeasing their company’s stockholders. John asked, where was the fun in that? I had to agree: it wasn't fun. It hadn't been fun for years. He mentored me not just in the details of marketing and promoting, (tips he's generously shared in his latest How I Sold 1 Million E-Books in 5 Months) but in the pleasure and thrill of being in control of your own destiny. I'll always be grateful.

7. You have won several awards for your writing. Is there one in particular that is most dear to you? Is there one you would still like to win?

There's only one award that truly matters to me - and that's the award of reader appreciation. If my books are beloved by my readers, that is all that really counts. The only reason an award is extra-nice is that more readers will trust the purchase – but I’d like them to love the book for itself, not because it won an award.

8. Can you tell us what one experience with a fan, sticks out in your mind as most humbling and/or rewarding?

One cold February evening I was on the subway in New York and I looked up and someone across the seat from me was reading Bright Face of Danger. I couldn't believe it! I felt this funny tingle go up and down my spine, and I couldn't help smiling. I wondered what to do - should I introduce myself? Should I shake her hand? I was much too shy and I didn't do anything - just went on watching her turn those pages as fast as she could. She didn't look up for a long time, just kept turning those pages, kept turning them and turning them ... and then suddenly she looked up and leapt to her feet in horror - it was obvious she had missed her stop because she'd been so engrossed in the novel. That was a highlight of my life, crazy as it sounds.

9. Where do you see yourself in ten years with regard to your writing career?

I'd like to have at least a dozen beloved romantic and suspenseful novels published. I'd like to have an enormous fan base of happy readers.

10. Will you tell us, what has been the funniest thing that has happened to you at a book event?

You mean like a book signing at a bookstore? I can’t think of anything funny! They’re horrible! My stomach is in knots, I worry about misspelling someones name, I’m anxious that I don’t appear either arrogant or shy, I worry about whether I am meeting the bookstore's expectations in terms of sales; I worry that people will feel sorry for me if no one buys my book; I feel sorry for people who skirt away from me so that they won't feel sorry for me…I can't wait till they are over!

11. Who is your all-time favorite author and what is your all-time favorite book?

Probably the author who had the most influence is my grandmother, Ethel Cook Eliot. She wrote some beloved children’s books (The House Above the Trees, The Wind Boy). She also wrote teenage mysteries, way before the term Young Adult was coined. My favorites are her adult novels (Ariel Dances, Green Doors). She’s mystical, romantic, wise, and, best of all, a good story-teller. That’s my ideal writer.
My all-time favorite book: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I could re-read it over and over: it's beautifully written, tightly-plotted, has fabulous characters, is intensely romantic and exciting.

Thanks so much to Winslow for taking the time to answer our question about herself and her writing. You can read more about Ms. Eliot on her website at