Thursday, February 3, 2011

Interview with Author Tanya Parker Mills






Tanya Parker Mills grew up overseas, in a part of the world that has seen a lot of conflict--the Middle East--so the pacifist in her tends to view the world in terms of what people have in common, not what drives them apart. The stories she writes will always reflect that in some fashion. As she puts it, she tries to write "fiction that bridges cultures." The cultures may be national, geographical, religious, political, or even social. It doesn't matter to her. They all need bridging.

Her first novel, THE RECKONING, was a 2008 Whitney Finalist in two categories, the 2009 Indie Book Award Winner for Multicultural Fiction, and was recently named the 2010 Writer's Digest International Self-Published Book Award Winner for Mainstream/Literary Fiction. More details on her background and writing are available on her website at www.tanyaparkermills.com.

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

Tanya: If, by author, you mean a writer of published books, then I really didn't know until I was about 30. I came late to it. In high school, however, I had begun writing poetry and songs and, once I started appearing in plays, I thought I might like to someday be a playwright. It kind of shocked me that my first completed manuscript was for a novel rather than a play or screenplay.

Deirdra: What is your writing and educational background?

Tanya: I took my first Creative Writing class in high school (at the American Community School in Beirut, Lebanon), then I tried another at BYU but couldn't quite get the hang of short stories in Dr. Cracroft's class. So I figured I'd be a little more practical with my facility for the written word and majored in Journalism at BYU, taking the Broadcast track because it was the quickest (I had wasted so much time already trying to decide whether to major in Theatre, Archaeology, History, or English). I almost pursued a Master's Degree in International Relations (having been accepted at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies...and even into their Study Abroad program in Bologna, Italy), but I couldn't make myself take out all the necessary student loans. Instead, I ended up writing for Sunset Magazine's Trade Publications as an Assistant Editor until shortly after I got married.

Deirdra: What makes you passionate about writing?

Tanya: The opportunity of creating a whole world in my head, and then peopling it with the sorts of interesting personalities that make for good drama. I never cease to be amazed at how a string of words or phrases, chosen selectively and put in just the right order, can transport the reader out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary. I suppose that's why I named my blog "Seized by Words." Words can have exactly that kind of power.

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

Tanya: Ah, well, I would say it wasn't long enough. By that I mean I didn't give it enough of an opportunity and I was too impatient. I wrote the first draft of THE RECKONING in the few months before the U.S. invaded Iraq and so I was in a hurry to get it out there and available to the public, not knowing how long the war would drag on. One of the best things I did was to go to the Maui Writer's Conference in September of 2003 (and again in 2004) and pitch it to agents and editors. An editor at Tor was interested, as well as an editor at St. Martin's, along with several agents, but the editors ultimately said no. I got close with one particular agent, but when nothing came through by spring of the following year, I did a major re-write and tried again. I gave up after having queried only 20-30 agents (I've learned since then that agents often work very slowly because they're inundated with so many queries). By 2005, I'd begun another novel at the urging of my writer's group, and kind of left THE RECKONING where it was--on my hard drive. But as I got a third of the way into my new story, LAPS, I got stuck. I felt like I couldn't go on until I'd gotten THE RECKONING out from under my feet. Too many friends and family members wanted to read it, so I decided to go ahead and finally self-publish the story in 2008.

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

Tanya: Of course I was discouraged. What writer isn't? That's what friends, family, and particularly writer's groups are for. Back then I had a terrific group in Southern California. But I have to say I floundered for a while once we moved up to Richland, WA in 2006. There were no writing friends close at hand, except for my neighbor, who is a poet. It wasn't until I lucked into LDS Publisher online and learned about the Whitney Awards and the annual LDStorymakers Conference and then, eventually, the Northwest Writers Retreat (which also introduced me to ANWA), that I finally found a writer's group of my own. Writers have to seek out other writers, because no one else quite "gets" us.

Deirdra: What is your writing schedule like?

Tanya: To be honest, the holidays have kind of wrecked it, but usually I get up at 5:30 am and deal with getting my son fed and out the door to school. By 8 (after eating, treadmill, showering, and scripture study) I'm ready to sit down at the computer and have at least three hours of uninterrupted time. My husband works out of our home since we moved up north, so it took a couple of months to train him not to interrupt me. During that 3-hour block, I don't check email or any other stuff online and I don't take phone calls. Then, from 11 to noon, I'll do the online stuff. In the afternoon, other than those days when my son needs help with homework, I'll vary between personal reading, blogging, study of writing craft, and research. The other thing that has thrown a wrench into my schedule this year is dealing with changes we're planning in the LDStorymakers website (I'm on the Board in charge of Communications, including the website). That's taking up more time than I'd like right now, but it should be done by March or April at the latest.

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

Tanya: A lot of my ideas come from newspapers and magazines. I got a great idea for an historical novel I'd like to write some day from something I heard on NPR. Of course, the idea for my first book and my next one, LAPS, came from life experience. That will be the basis for my third one, set in Beirut, as well. As far as knowing if the idea is good enough, if it settles in my brain and I find myself always being drawn back to it, that's a pretty strong clue that it's compelling enough to work out.

Deirdra: Can you tell us a little about your book The Reckoning.

Tanya: It's the story of an American journalist who sneaks across the border into Iraq with her cameraman some 7 months before the U.S. invades. All she wants is to get a story about the Kurds and then quickly get back out, but they get caught. As time passes, and her epilepsy medication wears off, she remembers more and more of her childhood in Baghdad that she's blocked out and she grows closer and closer to one of her captors until a point comes when she begins to suspect he's somehow connected to her father's death years earlier in a Baghdad prison. It's a page turner and very few, if any, have failed to be surprised at the end.



Deirdra: I noticed that The Reckoning is available in Kindle format. As an author what has your experience been with the Kindle and promoting a book in this format.

Tanya: Yes, it is available for $2.99 on Kindle. Because I self-published through BookSurge (now CreateSpace), which is owned by Amazon, for an extra $100 they put it out as an e-book, as well. In the beginning, I got on Kindleboard.com and tried to promote it, but I'm afraid I priced it too high to begin with and, besides, I didn't stick with it enough. Since my new award (the 2010 Writer's Digest one) will be announced in this year's March/April issue of Writer's Digest, I figured I'd wait until then to really try pushing it again (maybe even offering a special deal for the month). I finally got a Kindle, myself, this past Christmas and absolutely love it. As much as I love the physical feel of a book, you can't beat the convenience, storage space, and prices.

Deirdra: How many beta readers do you have review your manuscript before you send it to your editor?

Tanya: For my first book, I had about four. For LAPS, I've decided to use more...about 8-10.

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

Tanya: Most basically, a good, fast-paced read that will help them de-stress. I also always hope they'll learn things they didn't know before. Certainly, that's a goal with any of my fiction set in the Middle East because Americans tend to be a lot less informed about the Arab world than other parts of the world. Even with all the coverage given the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there's still a lot of ignorance or even misinformation about Islam and the Arabs. Beyond that, I hope they'll come to understand themselves and other people better to the point that they're more tolerant of differences. My highest hope is that they'll come away feeling enriched, enlightened, and uplifted. It's hard to get all three, so I consider it a success if they come away feeling at least two ways out of the three.

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?

Tanya: I already have the main character and his/her problem in mind, so I try and figure out the opening scene...the thing that will lead into everything and then I just start writing. I generally don't outline on paper or computer, but as I write, I can kind of see 3-4 chapters ahead. That way, I'm open to new characters as they take shape and, sometimes (as in the case of Barham in THE RECKONING, or the agent, Judy, in LAPS), they become more important than originally envisioned. Then, about halfway through, I usually find I have to pause and set down in very basic outline form the points the story needs to pass through to take it to the end (which I can usually see by then). I'd say I work 75% organically and 25% outlining.

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

Tanya: Oh yes. I had a two-year writer's block in the middle of LAPS. I blamed it on the move from California to Washington and losing my writer's group back in CA, but really, I was making excuses. The best thing to do if you're blocked in one story is to leave it for a while and start another--maybe not another novel, but something short...a short story or some poems. Then you'll wake up one morning with the way to forge forward on your original story. The important thing is to keep writing, no matter what.

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

Tanya: Up until now, I've required absolute quiet. I have a feeling I may treat my next story differently, however. Based on my high school years in Beirut, I think I may need the songs of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young and the like to get me back in that mindset since my protagonist is a teenager. We'll see. I can always turn them off if they prove more distracting than inspirational.

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

Tanya: A lot of research. I love doing research, particularly reading personal accounts, and we're so fortunate to find so much on the web these days. I'm also very lucky that my mother kept a Family Log diligently all those years we lived abroad, so I have a lot of Primary Source material. I also do a lot of reading by excellent authors--the kind I'd like to be one day. That's always inspiring. The best kind of inspiration comes, though, by beginning each day with prayer and scripture study.

Deirdra: Who has made the greatest difference for you as a writer?

Tanya: My father, who has self published his fourth and fifth books now at age 87. He gave me the courage to try, regardless of age. They say you have to start young as a writer, but I don't believe that anymore. According to some reports, there are two kinds of writers: the ones who start young and burn out by middle age (i.e., they do their best stuff early on) and the ones who come to it late and keep learning and growing. I hope I'm in the latter category. I'd also have to say my husband has also made a huge difference because, without his support and encouragement, I would have given up after my first book.

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

Tanya: I see them in my head, I hear them speaking and moving around. Perhaps it's my love of movies and theatre, but the scenes I write are scenes that come to mind as if on a big screen. And the characters are always thinking, each with their own motives, their own habits, and their own idiosyncrasies.

Deirdra: What authors do you admire, and why?

Tanya: Barbara Kingsolver for her grasp of character and theme. Her book THE POISONWOOD BIBLE was an eye-opener for me because it was the first novel I'd read that had so many main characters so well flushed out. Charles Frazier for the beauty of his description. There were so many parts of COLD MOUNTAIN that I re-read several times simply because I so enjoyed the imagery. Hilary Mantel and Donna Woolfolk Cross for their ability to make the middle ages come alive, putting the reader right there in the court of Henry VIII or in the Vatican. There are many, many others (including Austen, Hardy, etc.), but I'm afraid my responses have been too lengthy as it is.

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

Tanya: M&Ms.

Deirdra: Besides writing what other talents or hobbies do you have?

Tanya: Composing songs (with guitar), singing, acting, and getting out of housework and crafts (not my thing!)

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

Tanya: Be patient and nice, get in a writer's group and develop a thick skin, attend conferences, make friends with other writers and people in the industry, and complete your manuscript and triple check it after running it by some beta readers BEFORE you ever think of querying or pitching.

Deirdra: What are you working on now?

Tanya: Two agents are currently considering my full manuscript of LAPS, so I've begun researching and writing my Beirut story. It's about a dysfunctional family that finally comes together as Beirut starts to fall apart into civil war in the mid-70's, told through the eyes of a teenager. (And no, my family was not dysfunctional, but we were there when the country began to collapse.)

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

Tanya: Amazon.com and the Kindle Store (Look under my full name--Tanya Parker Mills). Hopefully, my next book will be available some time in the future on actual bookshelves.

Deirdra: Any final words you would like to share?

Tanya: The difference between a writer and a traditionally-published author is patience and perseverance. Luck only determines how soon it will happen.




3 comments:

  1. What a great interview and success story. I love your background and honesty. Good luck with your agent quest!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks, Danielle. I was grateful for the opportunity to even think about these kinds of questions. Good questions, Deirdra!

    ReplyDelete

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