We practice what we preach here at Novel Matters. Two days of Interview 101, and now we are happy to host one of our own, Sharon K. Souza, as she has just released her third novel, Unraveled.
Today, Sharon talks about her fears about going indie, the publishing industry, and what it's like to write from the gut.
Novel Matters: Sharon, you read mountains every year, you’ve been writing for 25 years. Tell me, what scares you? When was the last time you were scared?
Sharon K. Souza: What scares me? In this context, what scares me is that 25 years of investing myself in a writer’s life will have been in vain; that I’ve let down my family—who are my greatest encouragers—by not being productive as a writer, and not abandoning my goals a long time ago to do something professionally to add to our household income. My husband, Rick, has done everything in his power to let me pursue my dreams, and just thinking of his incredible support moves me to tears.
NM: Now I’m scared, too. There’s no guarantee anything we write will be published, or that we will be able to continue being published. Why not throw in the towel?
SKS: Writing is not something I choose to do; a writer is what I am. Big difference. It’s in my DNA. Story comes out my pores along with my sweat. Crude, yes, but that’s the truth.
NM: You were always a writer?
SKS: For the early years of my life, my artistic expression was in drawing and then painting. Then when I began to write, I stopped drawing and painting. It wasn’t an intentional decision. I just spent all my creativity on writing, both fiction and non-fiction in the early years. I’m at a place in my life now where I want to get back to drawing. And THAT scares me. Because what if I can’t after all this time? I bought a sketchpad and pencils a while back, and knowing they’re in that drawer in my office niggles at me all the time.
NM: But you’re not drawing, are you? You’re writing—and going in your own direction. You’re going indie. Riding the wave on your gut. Tell me about the freedom of going indie.
SKS: The decision to go indie, at least for now, has made it possible for me to write what I choose to write. I’m not pressed or made to conform to a writing style, genre or subject that doesn’t appeal to me. Some might call it a gamble, even foolish, but I was at a place where I felt I had nothing to lose by trying.
NM: Nothing to lose? What do you mean?
SKS: My publisher cancelled the optional third book in my contract and stopped publishing fiction altogether. I hoped my agent would be able to find a new publishing home where my career could blossom and grow. I believe she tried, but it wasn’t to be. What I’ve learned in the interim is that there’s a huge no-man’s land between CBA and ABA, and that’s where my writing falls. I’ve said it before that I believe CBA has purposely narrowed its scope in the past few years to a few specialized niches, because they’ve found great success in a few genres. I also believe it’s left a lot of readers disenfranchised who desire a Christian element to the novels they read. Those are the readers I hope to reach. I don’t fit in CBA any more, nor do I fit in ABA. I thought long and hard about writing the type of novel that does well in CBA for the sake of being published, but for me that would be like marrying for convenience instead of love. I just couldn’t do it.
Does it terrify me to be that transparent for everyone to see? You bet it does. But anyone who knows me knows that what you see is what you get.
NM: How long have you been without a publisher? Why go indie now?
SKS: With all the changes taking place in the publishing world, I’ve been without a publisher for almost 4 years, and I lost my agent last fall. So I made the decision—with the help and support of my family and my Novel Matters co-bloggers—to go solo; and it feels exactly like I’m walking the high wire without a safety net. Which I suppose I am, and it scares me tremendously. I’ve just self-published Unraveled, and I want to do the best I can by it. But I learned from my publishing experience with Every Good and Perfect Gift and Lying on Sunday, that the marketing was ultimately my responsibility.
NM: You mean the publisher didn’t market your traditionally published novels?
SKS: I don’t think any dollars were spent on marketing my books other than my publisher adding them to their catalogue.
NM: That must have been a monumental undertaking to first write a great novel, then be expected to market her own novel.
SKS: My reader base was in its infancy, Novel Matters was yet to be born, so I started with a very small reader base and little knowledge of how to expand it. I had several author colleagues “out there,” many whom I didn’t personally know, who featured my first two novels on their blogs.
NM: What are the plans for this new novel? Anything you can share with us?
SKS: I hope to again set up a blog tour with Unraveled. I had post cards printed and mailed over 800 of them this weekend. I “launched” my novel through my website and Facebook page over the weekend as well, and will soon begin an extensive marketing campaign to libraries throughout the country. I learned the value of marketing to libraries through Judy Gann, who has done a lot of teaching on the subject.
So what scares me in a nutshell—pun intended—is the thought that I’ve birthed something that won’t reach its potential. I plan to do everything I can to keep that from happening.
NM: That’s a truly terrifying glimpse into the reality of being a novelist these days. Did you use that experience in your writing? How do your own life, feelings, experiences, ideas and hopes work their way into your writing?
SKS: I do use my fears in my writing, along with my joys, frustrations and failures. I’ve struggled with deep feelings of inadequacy all my life. I never, ever think I measure up. When my protagonist, Aria Winters, is stripped of her false securities, she comes face to face with her own failures, and that part of the story was all too easy for me to write.
NM: Tapping into that depth of honesty has to be difficult. Is this something you do in all your work?
SKS: The novel I most recently completed is a story of extreme loss, and I drew upon my unfathomable sense of loss at the death of my son. I’ve never before drawn on such deep, deep emotions in my writing—though I thought I had.
NM: This puts me in mind of that Arthur Miller quote “The writer must be in it; he can’t be to one side of it, ever. He as to be endangered by it.”
SKS: There’s no question that empathy trumps sympathy, and unless or until we experience the really hard things of life, we can’t empathize with those who have. I write characters I can relate to on a deep level, because I want to reach readers who relate to them as well. And I want them to know, “truly I feel your pain.” There are people who have suffered great loss and I hope to connect with them through it, because there is a connection between people with a shared experience, even if they’re strangers.
A reader contacted me not long ago as she was in the midst of reading Lying on Sunday, which is a story about betrayal. She shared that her story was very similar to Abbie’s, and she opened up to me with the details. It moves me deeply that a complete stranger would trust me with her pain, but it also says I wrote from a level of understanding that made her feel she could trust me. To me, connecting to a reader on that level is the most important aspect of my writing.
And because I write stories that deal with tough issues, I temper them with humor. I can’t think of anything that can’t benefit from a little comic relief.
NM: Tell us about the new novel.
SKS: Unraveled is the story of Aria Winters, an idealistic young woman who seeks a new adventure in her very privileged life. She travels to a country she knows nothing about, meets people who change her life in uncomfortable ways, and has a crisis that nearly undoes her.
NM: Writing is a partnership between creativity and serendipity. Did anything unusual or surprising happen in the writing of this novel?
SKS: The surprising thing that happened while writing Unraveled is the thing that happens with each book I’ve written, and still I’m surprised when it happens. And that’s a symbolic element that arises unbidden in the story. In this case it’s the sunflower, which represents a yielded life, so reliant on the sun that it never turns its face away from the light. I think if I forced a symbolic element in any given story it would feel exactly that—forced. But when it arises organically with the telling of the story, it accomplishes its purpose.
NM: Let’s go back to the novel. It’s the story of a young woman, a sort of second coming of age story. What themes are woven into the novel?
SKS: The main theme of Unraveled is the importance of staying connected to your life source. That can be family, faith, all things familiar. But we weren’t created to live an unconnected life and we suffer in many ways when we try to (cue chorus for Simon & Garfunkle’s I am a Rock). A sub-theme is that second chances aren’t always wasted; that one failure doesn’t have to lead to another.
NM: Who did you write this story for?
SKS: I wrote Unraveled for an audience who likes faith-based fiction that is raw and honest, that isn’t trite in its message or predictable in plot.
NM: Tell me about the novels you love most—your “keeper” shelf.
SKS: My keeper shelf has quite an eclectic array of books, from all the Dickens novels to Ted Dekker to John Grisham to Jack London. Lisa Samson is a favorite author of mine, as is Jamie Langston Turner. Elizabeth Berg is high on my list. You notice my favorites are comprised of authors rather than titles. That’s because when I find a novel I really enjoy I want to read everything that author has written. I don’t necessarily love every one of their books, but I do enjoy the type of stories they tell, and the way they tell them. With that in mind, there are elements I include in all my fiction: vital friendships, and heavy topics tempered with humor.
NM: Sharon, why does the novel matter?
SKS: The novel matters to me because a novel is a window into the soul of a society, an age, an era. When you read a novel, particularly literary fiction, which is the filet mignon of fiction to my way of thinking, you learn about the values and concerns of the author and his/her audience. You learn the things that make one age different from another, and that in more ways than not, we aren’t that different.
The novel also matters for the sheer pleasure it provides. I often read two or three books at one time, a non-fiction of one type or another, a book on the craft of writing, and a novel. The novel is always what I conclude my evening with. I’ll read an hour or two before bed, and that hour or two is the dessert I look forward to all day. When I hear someone say they aren’t a reader, it always jars me, and then I think of all the pleasures that person is missing. I can’t imagine a world without books.
Thanks, Sharon, for your honesty, insight, wisdom, and for blazing a trail for like minded authors.
Dear Readers, we hope you've enjoyed this interview and that you'll drop Sharon a comment to let her know. Please stop by her web site, and we know she'd be honoured if you ordered her latest novel, Unraveled.