I realize that I am one of those rare people in the world who gets to live a life full of passion, suspense, angst, fulfillment, humor, and mystery. I am a writer. Everyday when I sit down to my computer, I enter into world of my own making. I am in the head of a panoply of characters ranging from a nineteen year-old Austrian debutante (The Last Waltz) to a raging psychopath (The Arthurian Omen).
How did this come about? I think I was wired to be a writer when I was born. Even though my formal career was in finance, writing was all I really wanted to do. I started at the age of nine by winning a contest for "The Ballerina Who Couldn't Dance," my first short story. There were a lot of things about my surroundings that I couldn't control during my growing up years, so I retreated to whatever alternate existence I was creating.
I studied writing in an advanced workshop when I was at Stanford, but was discouraged because everyone but me wanted to be J.D. Salinger. I hadn't yet found my writing voice. But with my study abroad in Austria, I finally found the story I wanted to tell—the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its collapse into fascism. (I never for a moment thought that this might be a bit ambitious.) I eventually began this project while commuting to and from my job in Los Angeles as an International Banker. I had an outline. My studies abroad had given me the historical background. Using that, I created characters as prototypes of the ideas that existed in Austria in 1913. Then, while teaching economics and waiting for my first child to be born, I read all of Churchill's books on World War One, and everything I could get my hands on that would give me the zeitgeist (literally "time spirit") of the age.
By the time my three children were born, I had a draft, but I knew it wasn't going anywhere. It was too superficial. I didn't understand the European mind. I couldn't convey the degree of suffering they had endured, nor the trauma the Austrians experienced at the collapse of their empire.
I turned to writing a more modern story that was semi-autobiographical at that point. I was living in the Ozarks, full of conflicted feelings that I worked out over the course of five years in the novel that has now becomePieces of Paris. However, I knew also that that project had not yet lived up to its potential. Discouraged, I turned to writing what I read—light mysteries. For color I imparted to my heroines another passion of mine—genealogy. Finally, I felt significantly secure to submit something and I was published.
However, for fifteen years, I had been the victim of bi-polar disorder (a common ailment among writers), and after publishing three books, I became too ill to write. During that ten year struggle to survive, I learned enough about overcoming pain, and about life and love to be able to complete my Austrian project. That became The Last Waltz. After two more mysteries, I was able to completePieces of Paris. I am, at this writing, 62 years old. Though I was "born to write," my apprenticeship has been long. However, any endeavor that enables us to further understand ourselves, our world, and our loved ones is never wasted. I have found my Savior during this journey, and that alone makes it worthwhile.
Deirdra: When did you first know you wanted to be an author?
G.G.: When I was a little girl. I wrote before I could read. I did crayon drawings in nickel scrapbooks that told a story. My home was dysfunctional and I escaped through my "writing"
Deirdra: What is your writing and educational background?
G.G.:I went to Stanford Undergrad and George Washington U. for my master's. I have written eleven books, two of them non-fiction. Seven are mysteries or suspense which is easy for me to write. My two serious books, The Last Waltz (Whitney Winner) and Pieces of Paris took 40 and 25 years respectively to write.
Deirdra: What makes you passionate about writing?
G.G. I think I was wired to write. I have had stories in my mind and led alternate existences in my head ever since I can remember. Writing makes me really happy and relaxed. I worked out my PTSD in my writing (even though I didn't know that's what it was). I love developing characters and seeing who they become. I guess one life just isn't enough for me. I have to get into the skin of lots of other people and see what life is like for them.
Deirdra: What was the pathway like for you to get your first book published?
G.G. I had a great piece of luck there. I took a class in Kansas City from an editor. She loved the proposal I had to write for the class, and asked me to send it to her. They accepted it. Then I got an agent in New York for my mystery, but she didn't put enough time into trying to sell it, so I sold it myself to DB and have been writing for them ever since.
Deirdra: Were you ever discouraged along the way? If so, how did you deal with it?
GG: I get very discouraged about how little publicity my Shadow Mountain books get. I rage and storm around the house, and then try to calm down and write a rational e-mail. They try their best and have funded some expensive marketing programs, but nothing seems to work. I am currently exploring other publishing avenues for my non-LDS books.
Deirdra: What is your writing schedule like?
G.G.: I get up at 6:30, have a devotional with my husband and then get right to work. The morning hours are the very best and creative for me. I force myself to get up and exercise for half an hour halfway through the morning, and then go back to work until about half-way through the afternoon when I do more exercise. Sometimes I write until 5, but I mostly do marketing projects in the afternoon.
Deirdra: Where do your ideas come from? How do you know the idea is good enough to write a book about it?
G.G.: Book ideas abound in my head. I will never get them all written. Life is so rich and offers so many opportunities for stories. Place is really important to me. I get very stimulated intellectually by travel. I have never written a book about a place I was living in at the time. My imagination would seem to be exceptionally fertile.
Deirdra: What do you hope readers will get from your books?
G.G. My books are all about the same thing: The redemptive power of love. Sometimes you have to look closely, but it's always there. Love makes us better people. Love solves life's hardest problems. Love makes pain endurable.
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?
G.G. Sometimes I have a vague idea. I do a lot of brainstorming with my husband. I did outline The Last Waltz, but that is the only book I ever outlined. I prefer to get to know my characters really well before I write. I do extensive character sketches—down to things like what they wanted for Christmas when they were little. These facts don't show up in the book, but they show in the character, because the people are as real as I can get them. When they are that real, they are ready to tell their own story. On the one book I outlined, I had to go back years and years later and write character sketches which changed the book a lot and very much for the better. Of course, now I would have done that first thing.
Deirdra: Do you ever experience a snag in a story, a form of writer's block? If so, how do you deal with it?
G.G.: I have never experienced writer's block. If I get to the point where something needs to happen and I don't know what, I just go deeper into my characters and they always come up with something entirely unexpected, which sometimes results in massive rewriting. I am not a fast writer. I layer my books.
Deirdra: Do you need absolute quiet to write? Do you listen to music when you are writing?
G.G. I love to listen to music while I write. The music of the Romantic period, or Tenor Opera Arias are my favorite. Their passion spills into my writing.
Deirdra: What kinds of inspiration do you use during your story creation periods?
G.G.: Travel. I always visit the places I write about and use the locale almost as another character. My stories almost always arise out of place.
Deirdra: Who has made the greatest difference for you as a writer?
G.G.: John Gardner and his book: On Moral Fiction. His quotations about Tolstoy's values have really planted the idea in my heart that characters should be so real that the reader identifies with them to the extent that they would follow the path that character would take when posed with a moral problem. I also was greatly inspired, technique-wise, by Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones.
Deirdra: What’s your secret to making the character’s in your books come to life?
G.G. Characters are always flawed, just as we are. The trick is to make that flaw something we can understand, sympathize with, and hopefully work mentally with the character to overcome. Characters need to engage our minds, not just our imaginations. The deeper we go into our characters, the more real they are. We should write pages and pages of backstory about them (not in the book) until we have reached the point where we meet that character in our own heart and head. Then they are "real" to us.
Deirdra: What authors do you admire, and why?
G.G. My absolute favorite all-time writer is Tolstoy. His characters breathe. He demonstrates their emotions and choices in such human ways. I also love A.S. Byatt for the same reason. Chaim Potok's writing is genius, because he is so minimalist, he leaves almost everything up to the reader to fill in. And when you uncover his theme it is like discovering a gold mine. It has layers and layers and layers. I guess all these writers do, now that I think of it. To me, that is what makes a good read.
Deirdra: What is your favorite snack to have while you are writing?
G.G. Ummmm. Yumm. I love Greek yogurt mixed with granola. (And pray that nothing lands on the keyboard!
Deirdra: What words of advice do you have for other writers who desire to have their manuscripts become books in print?
G.G.: Don’t forget that writing is an apprenticeship. You wouldn't expect a beginning pianist to give a Chopin concert. Why do you expect to write a brilliant novel right away? Give yourself a break. Don't think about publishing. Think about your writing. Enjoy the journey. One of the best things I ever did to improve my writing was to work with a free-lance editor who really knew what she was doing. She was like a gem-cutter. The next best thing, was to meet with a brilliant friend once a week and do writing exercises with her. She was so strong where I was weak. Eventually I was able to learn to have that strength. One of my writing exercises developed into my first published fiction.
Deirdra: What are you working on now?
G.G.: For the last year and a half I have been writing about the Crazy Ladies of Oakwood—and ensemble novel about four women in a therapy group who decide to go to Florence with the aim of solving their problems. It is the most fun I've ever had, but ensemble writing is extremely challenging!
Deirdra: Where can our readers go to find your books and order them?
G.G: Voices in Your Blood (my first non-fiction) can usually be found on Amazon, Alibris, or E-bay as a used book. We are working on an e-book right now. All the others can be found on Amazon, some on Barnes & Noble. Seagull and Deseret Book carry them. If they're out of stock, you can order (and save yourself shipping). Barnes& Nobles in the Wasatch Front and Wal-Mart also carry them. They can all be ordered through my website: http://ggvandagriff.com.
Deirdra: Any final words you would like to share?
GG: Writing is not a profession, but a way of life. Everything is grist for your mill. You should respect your talent. Don't be hard on yourself. Take the time to develop your writing until you absolutely KNOW it is the very best you can do. Do daily writing exercises just as a violinist practices his scales. Being a writer is a difficult life in some ways, because once you are published, that is just the beginning. Marketing actually takes more time than writing. It is good to realize this at the outset. .:
Deirdra: Thank you so much, G.G. It is a real honor to get your insights.
GG: Thank you. It is always fun to talk/write about writing. I do a lot of it on my blogs and websites: http://ggvandagriff.com; http://ggvandagriffblog.com (I'm running a contest right now for those who subscribe!)