I first met Mary Elizabeth Hall at the American Christian Fiction Writers conference in 2011. At that time she was pitching a book with a hard-to-pin-down genre. As we discussed it, I thought perhaps she had an alternate history, but once I got a look at some pages, I realized that she had written a book in the lovely microniche Caprice Hokstad dubbed “sword opera.” This is fantasy, but not high fantasy. No sorcerers, no dragons, just people working out their troubles in a realm that’s sort of — but not entirely — like our own. Mary’s first book, Amberly, is set in a storyworld akin to Northern Europe in the eighteenth century. Since Amberly just came out, I thought this was a good chance to sit down with a pot of tea and have a chat.
Kristen: Thanks for joining us, Mary. How long did it take you to write Amberly?
Mary: (Chuckling) The story behind The Crestmere Series has been rattling around inside my head since I was about twelve years old. That’s more than thirty (ahem) something years. It was my own private little story I played around with in my mind, mainly during bouts of insomnia. I never had any intention of writing it until two years ago — when I realized with horror that I was forgetting little pieces of dialogue. I decided late one sleepless night to write out bits of it. Then I fleshed out some scenes. My husband heard me typing when he came down for breakfast and asked what on earth I was doing. I told him, “I think I’m writing a novel.” He asked, “How many pages have you got?” I replied, “Forty-five.” He laughed and said, “Well, keep going!” And so I did. Between July and October of 2010, I typed out what turned out to be the first two books of the series. Then I spent the next two years learning the rules of fiction writing (what do you mean I can’t write what he’s thinking and then what she’s thinking?? Or use more than one question mark at a time???), working with fabulous critique groups like Scribes on ACFW.com (what a joy to find others who have stories rattling around in their heads too!), and revising the tar out of Amberly. So I suppose the real answer to your question would be thirty-seven years.
K: Wow. That’s even longer than I’ve had the story that became Alara’s Call (twenty-eight years). But never mind me. Are you a plot-first or character-first writer?
M: Hmm, that’s a tough one. For me, writing Amberly has been like watching a movie play out in my mind. I see and feel what the characters experience, and I’m so familiar with this bunch after all these years that I know how they’ll respond. I suppose I’d have to say that in Amberly it’s the characters who drive the action of the story.
K: What character or element of Amberly came to you first?
M: Marsten and Reishel. They were fifteen years old (and blond — hah!) when the story began in my mind as a kid. They had adventures together that I can’t even remember now. Then one terrible day, their father died. Suddenly their story became more compelling and began to grow up along with me.
K: Do you outline, or not?
M: Funny you should ask that. I didn’t plan or outline a thing while writing Amberly. And I ended up re-writing (and re-re-writing) the entire story.
K: Oh, yeah, I’ve been there.
M: I decided to do things differently with the second book, so this time I have the whole story plotted out beforehand. I’m curious to see whether my lively characters change it on me.
K: If Amberly were made into a movie, whom would you cast in the main roles?
M: Oh, that’s such a great question! I know exactly who each character looks like, but don’t know whether the people I picture would be the best ones to play these roles. Marsten’s face (but not his hair) looks exactly like a Perry Ellis model named Tommy Dunn. I spotted Tommy on a department store wall two years ago, and I gasped. His was the face I’ve been seeing in my mind for thirty-five years (which is rather funny because I doubt that Mr. Dunn’s even thirty five years old). Reishel, of course, looks just like Marsten. Eleanor looks like a particular photo I saw once of Catherine Zeta Jones, but she acts more like my feisty Irish ancestors. Mayor Williamston in my mind looks like Theoden actor Bernard Hill. Margaret Williamston’s a bit trickier. I have an image in my mind of what she looks like, but don’t know who could portray her best. And as for Hrunfaldr the Beast, I picture Thor actor Chris Hemsworth — but he’d have to be about thirty years older!
K: What kinds of books do you usually read?
M: Romance! Especially historical romance. From the Brontës and Jane Austen to Jeanette Oke, Francine Rivers, Liz Curtis Higgs, and MaryLu Tyndall. But I love writings from other genres, too, from Arthurian tales to Ted Dekker. I thrive on well-written biographies, like A Chance to Die by Elisabeth Elliott and those by Eric Metaxas. I also enjoy suspense stories by Lynette Eason and Kathryn J. Bain. Right now I’m devouring new releases by Brandilyn Collins, Dan Walsh, and Jill Williamson. I part-homeschool my daughters, so I actually read more classics of literature than anything else — some of them in other languages. My daughters and I love Greek tragedies, Beowulf, Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Browning, and Tennyson as well as A. A. Milne, Beatrix Potter, and Robert Louis Stevenson. I’m also a classic fantasy buff — swooning over Legolas during my first reading through The Lord of the Rings in high school and savoring The Merlin Trilogy by Mary Stewart. My girls and I talk about what makes a story compelling, and we’re fascinated by the ways in which the art of storytelling has changed through history.
K: How did you originally contact your publisher, WestBow Press?
M: I came to WestBow after meeting with senior editors from major Christian publishing houses during last year’s ACFW convention in St. Louis. Every editor I met with really liked my story idea and my writing samples (one even said Amberly sounded like a story she’d enjoy reading in her bathtub!), but they simply don’t have an established market within the CBA publishing world (as of yet) for fictional history. The kings in my story are made up and don’t fit into actual history, so that places Amberly in an odd category somewhere between historical fiction and fantasy. My oldest daughter says, “Why don’t you just write sci-fi, Mom? Then you’re not limited by reality!” But Amberly’s filled with Biblical references, and I believe that kind of limits me to Earth.
The editors all advised me to write something more mainstream first and perhaps come back to Amberly later. I was heartbroken and ready to follow their advice, but my husband said he believes the Lord has a plan for this story. Soooo, after much prayer and several long walks together to discuss the finances required, we decided to purchase a package from WestBow to receive professional assistance and greater publicity options than I would have on my own. Amberly’s in the Lord’s hands (as she’s been from the start), and we’re praying He’ll guide her to her market.
M: I couldn’t ask for a more pleasant team to work with, from my check-in coordinator who helped me through the submission process to the editing, design, and marketing departments. As an illustrator myself, I had very particular ideas about the cover design and often wished I could stand over the designers’ shoulders while they worked, but I’m pleased with the way the cover turned out and with the internal layout and swanky little chapter-number graphics they devised. My difficulties were with the costs involved, with never-ending decisions about more options.
K: Can you pull back the curtain a bit and give us a behind-the-scenes description of the editorial process at WestBow?
M: I was guided through the entire process in the following order — manuscript submission for review (a manuscript has to pass editorial and content review, and then various levels of editorial services are offered at various prices), cover design (which involves selecting photos from their extensive licensed collection and/or describing a design idea), cover content (front, spine, back, and flap matter), the manuscript revision process (which is where the author makes revisions, and which took five rounds before this nitpicky author was satisfied), and then publicity — filling out a questionnaire to produce the web-based press release I opted for, developing a marketing plan, and deciding how many books to purchase and sell on my own. Since I can’t buy enough to do an offset print run at this point, the retail price is determined by print-on-demand rates, which are higher than I’d like. Everyone I’ve worked with has been very helpful, though; timely in responding to my calls and e-mails, and courteous. And since there are no deadlines involved with WestBow, I’ve been able to weave my writing work around my family’s schedule through the entire process.
K: What do you do when you’re not writing?
M: All the other things a busy mom has to do. Teaching my daughters (ages 19, 16, and 5 — which involves both late-night talks and early-morning wake-ups), shuttling them hither and thither, running and scrubbing my home, et cetera. But I also love to play (and teach) guitar, help my husband lead a small group in our church, help lead worship in various settings, critique and edit other people’s fabulous stories, and . . . read!
K: What lifestyle changes did you make to give yourself time for writing?
M: One of my dear friends suggested I title the first book Fruits of Insomnia, since the bulk of it was written between the hours of 3 and 6 a.m. But now my youngest goes to part-time kindergarten, so I do as much of my writing-related activities as I can during those hours.
K: What kind of music do you listen to when writing?
M: Absolutely none. I’m so attuned to music that it drives my emotions. My daughter Karen once practiced a melancholy sounding piano piece for weeks, and my story became so depressing that I had to stop writing until she was finished!
K: Any thoughts you would like to share with our readers?
M: I love the way writing gives little windows into the author’s soul, and I’ve been blessed to see writers, readers, and critiquers minister to one another in ways that wouldn’t be possible if we didn’t share a passion for well-written, God-honoring stories. I was pleased and thankful to find the Christian writing world supportive and helpful rather than competitive. I believe God gives His image-bearers the precious gift of storytelling so we can inspire and exhort one another, as He instructs in 2 Timothy 4:2, 1 Thessalonians 5:14, and Colossians 3:16. Keep up the good work, fellow readers and writers!
K: What message do you hope readers get from Amberly?
M: Amberly, for me, is a delightful, tender romance that sweeps me away into another world. But more than anything else, it’s a story we can all relate to — a story of believers who struggle to honor God in the midst of adversity and even through conflict with other believers. My prayer is that readers will be drawn into closer relationship with our Lord, love Him more deeply, and strive to serve Him better — and that you’ll all come back for Book Two!
K: I know I will. Thanks, Mary.
You can visit Mary online at maryelizabethhall.com. Purchase her book direct from WestBow. Yes, it’s also available in the usual places.