I’m so pleased to announce the beginning of a new series of posts! As some of you may know, last year I was interviewed as part of the fabulous Jess Byam’s Before They Were Published series. I was so flattered to be included, and doing the interview and reading about some of the other people Jess has interviewed over the years made me want to give the world the chance to meet some people I love. That begins today! So without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to the lovely Rachel Kambury!
Rachel and I met in high school where, in spite of only really crossing paths in English and French classes/activities, we bonded over a shared love of writing, literature, French, and (unsurprisingly) the book and musical Les Misérables. Rachel also gets full credit for being the first person to actively encourage me to do NaNoWriMo, and I think it’s safe to say that if it weren’t for her nudging and cheerleading, there’s no way in hell I’d be where I am now, on a number of different levels. She’s warm, genuine, and wonderful, and here she is!
Hello, dearest darling-est Rachel! It’s lovely to have you here on the blog. First of all, I’m wondering if you could tell us a bit about what you’re up to right now (i.e. being your awesome writerly self in faraway places)?
Hello indeed, loveliest! And it’s my pleasure, especially since I’ve been stalking the blog since forever ago… Right now? I’ve just returned to my chambre-de-bonne here in the 7e arrondissement of Paris after a night of babysitting – the children were cooperative tonight, which is not a common occurrence, believe me.
I’ve been living in Paris since 7 January of this year for a semester abroad away from New York City. With me I brought the first draft of my new novel The War Bound, which was finished on 10 February in the wee hours of the morning (2:35 AM, I think), which meant the end of nearly one and a half years of work. I’ve tried to give myself a “break,” seeing as I’m in the middle of mid-terms, but I just began work on the second draft two nights ago. This is why writers need other’s advice, I think – we’re dreadful at following our own!
Well as long as you take a break between SOME drafts (not necessarily the first and second), I think you’ll be okay. Edit until you’re sick of it, then put it away for a couple of months. There: my official writerly advice on the matter, for what it’s worth.
So before we jump into talking about the new novel–your fascination with World War II is well known to your friends, but for the uninitiated: how did you find yourself writing about this era, and what is it about the stories of soldiers and/or WWII that speaks to you?
The war is like a great big bloody storybook. It’s not a pretty thing to write about, by any means. But therein lies the fascination.
Writing about people involved in the war is a way to bring a humanist view to a human conflict that is typically all about the facts: the numbers and the names involved. There’s not a lot to be gleaned from casualty rates and which general said what, except a lot of figures and words. Retention, for me, lies in the storytelling of those who were “on the ground.” I want to impart some of this historical information (even something as simple as when D-Day occurred) in a way that will help people remember it; that’s one aspect of the ‘why.’
Writing about/from the perspective of soldiers is the easiest way for me to enter these events, because who, in history, has had a more direct relationship with war than the men who fought? It’s also a huge challenge, which makes me think hard and work harder, and the result is a level of satisfaction that I cannot achieve through any other means.
Everything that goes into the work is both terrifying and fascinating. War psychology, military science and strategy, human instinct…it all plays into the whole. Sometimes it can be overwhelming – I’ve written myself sick, or to tears, on more than one occasion – but one of the reasons I keep coming back is a sense of duty. There are so few veterans (from all sides) left, and even if I’m not telling one of their stories, I’m including events that happened in history, and that keeps their memories alive. Each book is 50% writing and 50% research, and even that’s off (research is higher). But WWII has this hold on me that hasn’t let go since I was 11 years old, and I figure, why ignore it? Let’s rise to the challenge, even if it hurts.
When did you start writing? Did it begin around age 11 too, or did you write stories before that?
Writing has been a part of my life since I was five years old. My father attests to this. Short stories, weird little poems, bits of drabble; kid stuff, literally. But age 11 was a big deal for me as for who I wanted to become, which was an actual writer.
I blame Kurt Vonnegut, and my sister. When I was 11 she lent me a copy of Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano. I finished it, and really had no clue what it was I had just read (sometimes I still don’t know what he goes on about in his novels, I just love them so damn much), but I knew what reading his book did to me: it made me want to *be* a writer. That hadn’t happened before that point. Before that, I wanted to be a jockey, or work with horses on a professional level to some capacity.
My first work as someone inspired to become a writer was something resembling a fan fiction (a form of writing I still love and admire, since it’s easily one of the best means of practicing your craft with an audience happy to give feedback). This was after I had read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings for the first time (age 10), and I was so inspired on all fronts that I sat down and wrote a story which borrowed heavily from Tolkien’s fantasy epic (elves, largely) and also included some of my own little obsessions (I have a huge love for dragons, pre-dating my reading of The Hobbit). I was so proud of it at the time, but thank heavens my dad was the only one who ever read it!
Heehee! I know the feeling–there are so many things on my hard drive that will never see the light of day. Anyhow, on the subject of pride, what writing accomplishment would you say you are most proud of?
(Definitely! When I tell people I’ve written seven novels, I have to be quick to explain that five of them are manuscripts that are safely tucked away and will not see the light of day…)
Proudest writing accomplishment? Goodness…5 April 2009. Holding the proof copy of GRAVEL, my first WWII historical fiction novel, in my hands for the first time. Actually, that’s not even the strongest memory I have related to it – the first time my high school English teacher Mr. Cornelius saw the proof copy. THAT was my greatest moment of pride as a writer up to that point. Impressing my dad was easy; stunning someone like Mr. Cornelius into complete silence for over a minute was the greatest affirmation of my efforts, and I still think about it whenever I look back on my first day as a “published” writer (I use quotation marks as the book was self-published).
So I’m curious (you explained this to me once, but I’ve since forgotten): why did you choose to self-publish GRAVEL?
GRAVEL was my high school career, pure and simple. From February of sophomore year to April of senior year, my only legitimate “extra curricular activity” was writing that novel. When it came down to whether I would self-publish or attempt the traditional publishing route, the decision was simple: I wanted that book to be in the hands of the people who helped make it happen *before* I graduated high school and left home for the foreseeable future. There are lots of ways to leave a “legacy,” and I chose to self-publish GRAVEL so that my beloved teachers, especially, could have a physical representation of the efforts of their hard work, as well as my own. Traditional publishing would have taken too long, or would have never happened. As beautifully imperfect as it is, GRAVEL was meant to be self-published at the time; whether or not I come back to it and refurbish it for traditional publishing is another matter entirely!
Gotchagotchagotcha! Did you ever show the novel to Mr. C? (For the blog readers: Mr. C was a much-beloved high school English teacher of ours.)
Not only did I show it to him, he (as well as a number of other teachers) bought a copy! When he finished reading it we had tea and discussed his favorite bits. That was a wonderful experience, especially since Mr. C was also one of the teachers who helped edit certain chapters of the book. Both Mr. C and Mr. Cornelius were interviewed (at my request) by our local newspaper when GRAVEL came out, specifically because I respect them and their opinions so much (and because of the amount of influence they had on me as a writer in high school).
So can you tell us a little bit about The War Bound? What is it about, and where did the idea for it come from?
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perception of the term), inspiration is not a thinking process for me as a writer. I can’t sit down with a blank page and think of a plot – it has to fire itself through my synapses until every one of them is red-hot and my hands are shaking and I can’t breathe for want of a pen. That’s honestly how it feels, and how it felt with The War Bound. Sitting in class, September 2010, and there was this strange Sherlock-esque moment of seeing bits of an equation floating in front of my eyes, bits of plot that didn’t feel right, and then suddenly CLICK CLICK CLICK BAM. All the plusses and minuses rearranged and there was this idea for a novel, and I was so ecstatic and nervous, my hands were actually shaking.
So that’s where the idea came from. More or less. But the idea itself…A lieutenant of the SS is tasked with helping his little brother escape Germany the week before D-Day; with no knowledge of what lies ahead and with their father, a murderous Nazi Colonel, chasing them through the Third Reich, the two brothers have to navigate and survive not only each other, but a continent torn apart by war.
Well…I guess I just gave you a mock-query letter, didn’t I? Oh, that’s rich!
Well, even if you can’t plan inspiration, do you find you get your inspiration in any particular place or at some particular time? For instance, I get most of my ideas in the shower or right as I’m drifting off to sleep (hence why the memory card of my phone is stuffed with strange, garbled memos to myself).
The origin of the plot is always that kinetic, organic moment of total randomness; when I’m chugging along through the actual novel, moments of inspiration usually occur when I’m listening to music on the train home, walking around the city (I came up with the ending of The War Bound at midnight with my headphones on, walking through a snow storm in Brooklyn on my way home from work). I have to be moving, around people; the more information there is around me, the easier it is to put that through the filter and find what matters!
I would have loved to have written All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Having just finished it the second time around for a war history class, I couldn’t help but think that if there was ever a perfect “war novel,” that’s it. The language is succinct and ruthless, and there is absolutely no mercy for the reader. By the end of the novel we have suffered as much as Paul Baümer, but we have the luxury of sitting behind paper instead of barbed wire, and that almost makes it worse. To do so much in so few pages (I feel physically ill by the end of it) is not only evidence of good storytelling, but also proof of a mastery in wordplay. That’s all I could ever hope for.
Makes me feel like I ought to reread it–freshman year of high school was a long time ago. Anyhoo, what’s your favorite place to write?
In high school it was the Coffeehouse above Bloomsbury. With time and separation, my nostalgia for the place makes it hard to work, so top spot has to go to the ACE Hotel in mid-town Manhattan – lots of energy, Oregon coffee, and I can sit and work for up to seven hours (I have actually done it, what a great day!) without being bothered. There’s very little natural light in there, so it’s hard to notice the passing of time. And there’s lots of people to watch!
(So much love for the Bloomsbury Coffeehouse!) What the best advice you can offer to other writers?
Is it cliché if I say ‘read!!!’ ? But really, always be reading something. Read something you know you can do better than, read something that’s on par with where you are now as a writer, and read something that scares you with its brilliance just as much as it inspires you to rise to the occasion. Read all of that and then write. Write yourself sick, or to tears, or into great peals of laughter, and know that for every page you read is another page you are wholly capable of writing, yourself.
Fabulous advice! On that note, I think this is a great place to wrap things up. Any final words to the readers?
In the inimitable words of Kurt Vonnegut, “I thank you for time, and I’m outta here!”