Tuesday, February 1, 2011

L - Interview with Author Annette Lyon

Annette Lyon has been writing ever since second grade, when she piled pillows on a chair to reach her mother's typewriter. A cum laude graduate from BYU with a degree in English, she has had success as a professional editor and doing newspaper, magazine, and business writing, but her first love is creating fiction. She's perhaps best known for her historical novels centered around the four old Utah temples.Band of Sisters, her seventh novel, is about five women who come together during their husbands' deployment to Afghanistan.

Her newest release, a cookbook called Chocolate Never Faileth, is a delicious departure from fiction and the culmination of over 5 months of test kitchen craziness and fun.

In 2007 Annette was awarded Utah's Best of State medal for fiction. Spires of Stone, her fifth novel, was a 2007 Whitney Award finalist for Best Historical Novel. She has received three publication awards from the League of Utah Writers and took first place in the 2009 Funds for Writers essay contest.

Be sure to also drop by her blog.

Deirdra: When did you first know you wanted to be an author?

Annette: Somewhere around second grade. I think it started by watching my older, cooler sister writing stories in a notebook. I just had to copy her. I was inspired first by Beverly Clearly, so my early stories were all about rodents. I don't recall whether my sister was still writing by the time I hit third grade, but by then I was hooked and knew I wanted to write and publish when I grew up.

Deirdra: What is your writing and educational background?

Annette: I graduated cum laude from BYU with an English degree, which I found out after the fact is unusual for a writer. (My editors have been glad, though: less work for them!) Labor Day weekend of 1994 is when I mailed off my first submission (which led to my first rejection), so that's the time I consider that I really began my publishing journey. My first publishing credits were in a local newspaper and then in a national magazine, but my ultimate goal was always to publish novels. Almost exactly 8 years after my first submission (July 2002), my first novel hit shelves. I still do freelance writing and editing. And without my critique group, I wouldn't be anywhere.

Deirdra: What makes you passionate about writing?

Annette: Writing is my life blood. Once, in my pre-published days, I decided I was just too busy to write, so I took two months off. My life fell apart--I was busier than ever, but working harder. I felt like I was on a hamster wheel. I had LESS time for my husband, my children, my church calling, the house, everything. Then, three days in a row, I took twenty minutes to write. That's a total of an hour over three days. (A Sesame Street episode!) The vortex calmed right down. I realized then that I haveto make time to write, for the sake of my family and me. I'm more ME when I'm writing. If I've gone too long without writing or attending critique group, everyone can tell.

Deirdra: What was the pathway like for you to get your first book published?

Annette: Long, winding, and frustrating. I came very close to acceptance many times and even got several rejections that actually put me in a good mood, they were so glowing. Eventually, an editor who'd seen my work several times invited me to lunch to discuss why I'd come so close but never quite crossed the line. She felt I'd be an asset to the company if we could get me accepted. We went over several synopses of past manuscripts, and she gave me feedback on them, specifically on target readership and what was and wasn't working in each story. When I was ready to submit my next book, I contacted her, asking what format to send it in because she'd given me the (then) rare chance to submit electronically. Turns out she was leaving the company and that was her last day. I felt like I'd just crashed against a brick wall. Once again, I had to submit the regular way. This time, however, I got the long-awaited acceptance!

Deirdra: Were you ever discouraged along the way? If so, how did you deal with it?

Annette: Discouragement hit many times. (It still does.) Once it got so bad I considered quitting altogether; I was a total basket case for a couple of months. The only way I know to deal with discouragement (and rejection!) is to keep plugging along. Work on something else. Sure, maybe indulge in some chocolate, whine a bit, and vent to other writer friends who get it, but always, always, get back to work.

Deirdra: What is your writing schedule like?

Annette: A bit scattered! When the kids were little, it was nap times, after bed time, and the occasional 30- or 45-minute snatch during a TV show or in the hall during a gymnastics class or in the doctor's office lobby. Anything I could squeeze in. (My AlphaSmart was my secret weapon for on-the-go writing.) Now that they're all in school, I have a bit more flexibility. I try to get most of my writing done during the school day. Laundry and dishes tend to be morning activities for me, while my most creative time is after noon.

Deirdra: Where do your ideas come from? How do you know the idea is good enough to write a book about it?

Annette: They come from all over: a dream (nothing as lucrative as a Stephanie Meyer one, alas), a newspaper a column, a conversation with my brother, a line from a TV show. For my historicals, the plot lines came after researching the locations. Once I got a feel for the history and personality of the place I planned to write about, the characters and their stories would just show up. I rarely get small ideas; I couldn't write short stories if my life depended on it. When I do get an idea, I let it simmer for some time to see if it grows into a potential book. I have a nugget of a idea right now that I'm excited about, but a full story hasn't shown up yet. We'll see.

Deirdra: Can you tell us a little about Chocolate Never Faileth?

Annette: A cookbook was quite a departure from my fiction, for sure! I was one of the founding sisters of the Utah Chocolate Show, and for the years I worked with the show, I gave the staff at Covenant tickets to it, so they knew about my chocolate background. Then, about a year and a half ago, the managing editor called and suggested I write a chocolate cookbook. It was a great idea, one I knew I could do--although I had no idea going in how much work it would end up being. That said, I'm thrilled with the final result! All the work was worth it.

Deirdra: I was really touched by the premise of your book Band of Sisters can you tell us a little about this book.

Annette: When a good friend went through her husband's deployment, I had a bit of a backseat view. She unloaded a lot of her worries and feelings, including how different deployment was from what even she, as a military wife, expected. It was eye-opening to me, and I knew that the average person has no clue what deployment is like for the families at home. (I sure didn't.) I wanted to write a magazine article about the topic, so I interviewed her and four of her Army wife friends who were also in the middle of a deployment. I published the article, but 1200 words didn't do it justice. These women had poured their hearts out to me; I'd literally wept reading their e-mails. The subject wouldn't let me go, and I finally decided that it had the potential for a full novel. The women in the book are entirely fictional, but the types of feelings, worries, etc. they experience are the kinds the Army wives shared with me. Since the novel came out, I've had military wives e-mail me, certain I'd been through a deployment myself because there's no way I could have portrayed it so accurately. That kind of feedback is priceless.

At the same time, my critique group told me to stop calling it my "military wives" book because it's just as much about female friendship as it is about deployment. It was a powerful experience writing about five very different women, their trials, their triumphs, and the way they come together to support one another. Readers who have no military connection at all still find the book resonating with them, because we all go through trials, we tend to judge ourselves against other people, and we can support one another as women.

Deirdra: What do you hope readers will get from your books?

Annette: My biggest goal is always to give the reader a great reading experience. I love hearing that a book kept a reader up until four a.m. to finish it or that days later they're still thinking about certain characters or that they laughed or cried. If someone comes away uplifted or having learned something (maybe about themselves), even better. I think my books often end up with messages on some level, but I don't write them with a message in mind; if I try to put in a message, I'm afraid it'll end up didactic and preachy. But if one develops organically and a reader comes away with it, that's a cherry on top. With Band of Sisters, for example, I wasn't trying to make any kind of statement about wars or deployment per se; I just wanted to portray it as realistically as I could and move readers on an emotional level.

Deirdra: What is your process of brainstorming a story? Do you just sit down and write, waiting to see what happens next? Or do you outline first?

Annette: I'm between the two poles. I can't write a very detailed outline and follow it (tried that once, and the resulting story was totally flat; I'd already "lived" it). But I also can't go in blind. I need a beginning, an end, major players, the major conflict, and several major landmarks. So I know the story will go from A to B to C to D and E, but as I go for the ride, I'm often surprised at how my characters got from B to C and D to E. My manuscripts tend to have lots of random lines in all caps describing a scene to include here or there. That's my "outline," such as it is.

Deirdra: Do you ever experience a snag in a story, a form of writer's block? If so, how do you deal with it?

Annette: Oh, yes. Snags abound in fiction. How I handle them depends on the type of snag. Sometimes I have to do research. With my historicals especially, sometimes just immersing myself in the other time and place unlocked my creative side and got the story moving again. Other times, I have to step back for a day or two to mull over the problem. Sometimes I'll talk it out with friends or family members, and just hearing myself voice the story or problem can nudge solutions into showing up.

Deirdra: Do you need absolute quiet to write? Do you listen to music when you are writing?

Annette: I'm a mom. (I could stop right there for an answer, since moms don't have the luxury of silence!) There was a time, before kids, when I did need a large block of quiet, uninterrupted time. But then motherhood hit, and I had to learn how to write with distractions (otherwise, I'd never have gotten anything written). Now that they're older, I'm a little more spoiled in that regard--I do get longer stretches while they're at school, and when (not if) I get interrupted, it's a bit harder to get back into the groove than it used to be.

I rarely listen to music while writing. The one exception is when I get really blocked. I have a specific CD reserved for those times. It always relaxes me; it's like my brain is trained to loosen up when it hears that music. (Patrick Doyle's soundtrack toMuch Ado About Nothing)

Deirdra: What kinds of inspiration do you use during your story creation periods?

Annette: I don't wait for inspiration; I don't have time for that. I chase down and hog-tie my muse. But seriously, the best way to get things flowing is to rely on what I call "brainless" moments--when I'm doing something else that doesn't take a lot of brainpower (sorting laundry, vacuuming, showering, emptying the dishwasher, driving) and then letting my mind wander. That's when I get the biggest flashes of inspiration. If I ever listen to something in the car, it's an audio book, but 90% of the time, I drive in silence and let my creative mind just go. The other thing is reading a lot, which feeds the creative mind in ways nothing else can.

Deirdra: Who has made the greatest difference for you as a writer?
Annette: Hands down, my critique group. My skill level jumped by light years my first year, and I continue to learn. I wouldn't be anywhere without them. And then there's the support and friendship they give me. They "get" me like no one else can, and they're there to cheer me on, hear me whine, and be there when I need them.

Deirdra: What’s your secret to making the characters in your books come to life?

Annette: Probably knowing them well, better than any reader ever will. To me, that doesn't necessarily mean knowing what ice cream flavor they'd choose. It means knowing what makes them tick: what transformative events happened in their childhoods, what they want most in life, their greatest fears and joys, and so on. Then the trick is finding ways to make their "reality" come through in specific ways--the classic "show, don't tell."

Deirdra: What authors do you admire, and why?

Annette: One writer I've always admired is LM Montgomery. She hitched her dream to a star very young and refused to give up until she made it. At one point in her life, that meant writing in a chaotic newsroom between the moments articles shot down at her through a chute for her to proof. During another period, she was a school marm, and the only time she had was waking up at an insane hour--to frozen ink in the winter--and writing before she headed to the school house. She sacrificed whatever it took to be successful. But at the same time, she had her priorities straight. She cared for her grandmother until she died, even though she put off marriage to do so (she was engaged for several years until her grandmother passed). Another time, a publisher tried infringing on her character Anne, and she sued them. They didn't expect an author from as far away as Canada (and a woman, no less) to carry out a law suit, but she did--staying in Boston for a 3-week trial. She won. While LMM definitely had her issues and wasn't perfect by any stretch, I definitely admire her tenacity.

Deirdra: What is your favorite snack to have while you are writing?

Annette: When I'm being bad, it's Guittard's jumbo milk chocolate chips. When I'm trying to be healthier, I'll opt for a few nuts mixed with raisins, a cut-up apple, or something else I can easily grab w/out getting my hands too messy for the keyboard.

Deirdra: Besides writing what other talents do you have?

Annette: I love to knit. I'm an adequate seamstress--I've made curtains and Easter dresses and the like. I used to scrapbook all the time and was really good at making cute layouts that didn't take hours (something I've let slide w/ my writing, alas). My homemade rolls--my mother-in-law's recipe--are, according to her sons, better than hers. I make a mean brownie. And thanks to the family and neighborhood I grew up in, I can pack a frame pack for a mountain hike as well as any Eagle scout. Oh, and I can bend my tongue so it looks like a 3-leaf clover. How's that for a random list? :)

Deirdra: What words of advice do you have for other writers who desire to have their manuscripts become books in print?

Annette: Know going in that you'll have an apprenticeship. There's no telling how long it'll be, but learning the craft, breaking in, and all those steps take time. Be ready for rejection. No matter how brilliant you are, rejection WILL come at some point. (And probably lots of times!) Above all, enjoy the journey and celebrate every milestone. It's so easy to get caught up in the "if only" trap. (If only I had a contract. If only I were a bestseller. If only I had two books out instead of one . . .) You'll never be happy as a writer unless you enjoy where you are. Always.

Deirdra: What are you working on now?

Annette: I've had a flurry of freelance work, so my personal writing has taken a bit of a backseat, but I'm doing revisions on a suspense novel that I hope will accepted for publication in the near future. I'm debating a Band of Sisters sequel (readers want one, and there's plenty more story to tell, but there'd be such a huge time gap between books that I don't know if my publisher would want it). I'm also toying with two national YA novels, and then I'm working on getting my second book, At the Water's Edge, and my grammar book onto the Kindle. (You could say I'm a tad busy . . .)

Deirdra: Where can our readers go to find your books and order them?

Annette: Deseret Book's site is the easiest place to find my books online with the exception of Lost Without You (Kindle edition) and my grammar guide--and both of those are on Amazon. My website (annettelyon.com) has "Buy Now" buttons for each book.

Deirdra: Any final words you would like to share?

I blog regularly at The Lyon's Tale (blog.annettelyon.com), and readers can follow me on Twitter (my handle is @lyonstale). I enjoy interacting with readers. Thanks for having me!


  1. It's always fun to read about another writer's experiences. Your book sound powerful.
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

  2. Annette Lyon is a favorite of mine. I love her personality, wit, and wisdom. Thanks, Deirdra!

  3. Great interview. I think Annette's one of the awesomest people I know.

    Shanda :)


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