I really enjoyed reading Aachen and so happy that you will share some of your thoughts on writing this book. This was a decade in the making. Tell me, how did you make time to write while holding a full-time job and raising four children?
First, let me thank you so much for your kind words about Aachen and for asking me to do this interview. I always enjoy your blog - you have an excellent instinct for zooming into the heart of any question.
Well, making time is why this book took over a decade to become reality. (Actually pretty close to 15 years from first words on page, and 25 years from initial concept...) My habits have changed over the years. When I first started, we had no kids (or Elizabeth was on the way, I'm not sure now) and my enormously supportive wife told me to sit down and write that book I kept talking about wanting to write. I wrote mostly on weekends then, and I was fairly undisciplined. In later years, I tended to write while sitting outside ballet studios or rehearsal halls. For the past few years, I have established a better rhythm, staying up for an hour after the rest of the family goes to bed. I also snatch the few odd minutes here or there, as I keep most of my documents in the cloud and accessible by cell phone. Just yesterday I was writing in my doctor's waiting room.
Having a schedule and keeping to it is so important, but faith has to come first, and family second, and writing sometimes gets sacrificed as a result. I must confess, however, that I've used that "family first" principle as a crutch during times where the problem has really been my self-discipline.
Ooofff, I am also guilty of that, more than I’d like to admit.
I'm not surprised. I think it is a very common human trait. Even self-sacrifice can end up being done for selfish reasons!
How many revision passes did you make on Aachen? What was the process like? How did you know it was time to hand it over to a professional editor?
At least eight! (That's the versioning number on my final version, but that doesn't count the formatting and final typographical edit round. It also may not count the first round, but I'm not sure.I initially wrote 120 pages that I threw away. The plot was different then and ill-conceived, and I wrote myself into a corner. After that (and I was writing solely in journals at that point), I did a rough outline with an eye toward developing a plot that met what I understood was good story-telling structure.
The next few drafts were structural. I ripped out sections that didn't work, added subplots to flesh out the story, and so forth. Then I worked on voice and writing style and especially fixing all those stylistic problems that are so easy to fall into - telling instead of showing, use of adjectives, and so forth. Then into more of a line-by-line edit phase, making sentences sound better, fixing little problems like consistent naming of characters, consistent spelling, minor timeline issues.
I knew I needed an editor when I made the commitment to publish Aachen myself. I had gone through various phases of submittals to agents and publishers and found the process frustrating. At one point I had a publisher interested, and we spent time emailing back and forth, trying to convince her that the book fit her vision for her publishing company. She was very gracious and encouraging, but finally declined to publish it. After that it sat on a shelf for awhile, until I started hearing about how self-publishing had transitioned from vanity presses to a viable model for authors. I made the commitment to do it, did a copyedit pass on the book, and sent it to an editor.Alrighty, I don’t feel so terrible being on my seventh draft of my historical now – it is a lot to process.
Historicals pose a bit of an additional challenge as well, because you need to do the history right. There's all that research, then while you're writing a draft you think of additional research you need. And you have to comb through it searching for anachronisms. Novels are huge complex machines that can be easily broken.
You are a physicist, and I presume very good with numbers. But you also have a great talent with words. Have you always been good at both? Please share a little bit about the writing journey. What were the essential tools to developing the craft?
Yes, I'm pretty good at numbers! I have always had talent in both writing and science. In high school I wrote stories. We had a weekly essay assignment in English class, and I just started writing a novella-length story in installments instead of the essays. My teacher loved it. I took opportunities to write little stories whenever I could. I remember vocabulary assignments in which we had to write a sentence for each word. No reason those sentences couldn't all make up a story, right? (Didn't know I was writing flash fiction back then...)
I took a creative writing class in college and subscribed to Writer's Digest for years. I devoured books on writing in an effort to develop my craft. I have a stack of stories that I never submitted anywhere. I did make some submissions, but the closest I got to success was to be a quarter-finalist in the Writer's of the Future contest back when I was in college. I was very self-critical, and I had quite a low-tolerance for failure, and so stories just stayed in notebooks. I still find them from time to time. Some of them I have no memory writing.
Essential tools? Reading voraciously, writing doggedly, and studying the craft diligently.
Did the character of Stephen come fully fledged to you or did he develop slowly over time? He is not a typical slave-soldier-student, but he faces many of the challenges that young men face today regarding doubts, damsels, and dreams. I really admired how organically he grew to do the next right thing. How did you achieve the pacing in the book?
He developed slowly. Main characters should always be special people, otherwise why would we want to read about them? One of my goals was to put a mirror up to the problems a young man faces today, but to do it without just transporting a 21st century man back to the 8th century. In many ways he is me, of course. Even though my challenges and mistakes were quite different from Stephen's, I could use my reactions to them to model his reactions to his.
I wanted Stephen to grow in a certain way. I knew he had to make mistakes, pursue the wrong path, and confront his demons in order to be the person he needed to be. I constructed the plot to facilitate that growth. I gave him successes quickly followed by conflict and disappointment, each time increasing the success and increasing the disappointment, until finally I took everything away from him.
The hardest part was making him unusual for a peasant of that age without making him anachronistic.
Notker was one of my favorite characters and not just because he was a wonderful mentor and said wise words, but because he stuttered. I stuttered horribly as a child, and still have moments when I cannot get the words out, so it was a pleasant shock to realize Notker was going to be one of the good guys and not a stammering fool. Is he based on a real monk? And if not, I’m curious why you chose this affliction for him.
Notker is an homage to Notker the Stammerer, a biographer of Charlemagne. His biography of Charlemagne was one of the sources I used in researching this book. I don't have any soures describing his stammer, but only sources saying that he did stammer. Beyond that, his personality is my invention. He is a big favorite of mine as well, and I even have given him a cameo in the book I'm writing now! The hard part with him was writing the stutter in a way that was convincing without making it too hard to read.
Your villains were especially terrible. You have a few chapters from Lewis’ point of view. I also enjoyed the few scenes devoted to Lewis’ mother. What a piece of work! Was it difficult getting into the heads of these people? I can just imagine you having a good time making them as wicked as possible.
The scenes from Lewis' perspective were added later, as I didn't feel that the earlier drafts described well enough his motivation. Writing wicked people is both fun and unpleasant at the same time. There were a couple of scenes that I did not like to describe, but I needed them there in order to foreshadow what you learn later in the book. Unfortunately, people like that are so common in pop culture and even on the news that getting into their heads wasn't as hard as some of the other characters.
Your ending made me cry. Yet, it was so very believable. The state of women for most of history has been sorry. I appreciated that you did not import 20th century sensibilities to your story. Did you know from the beginning what Bertrada’s journey would be? Did you ever consider a HEA (happily ever after) ending?
I'm glad it had an effect! I did work hard to keep historical versimilitude insofar as character behavior and how they were treated. I thought for a long time about an HEA, but this ending grew organically. I think by the time I crossed the 75% mark I kind of knew what would happen, but some specific items really surprised me when they popped out of my head. I really loved the character of Bertrada. I wish I could find a way to write about her again.
I can imagine you writing a sequel, exploring what it means to achieve holiness through simple living, like St. Isidore the farmer. Is one in the works?
I've thought about a straight up sequel, showing what happens to Stephen, but I haven't figured out a dramatic arc that could carry the story yet. I hope someday to be hit by that inspiration! However, I am writing two more books set in the same time period. These are more of the mystery/thriller genre, however. As I mentioned, I did bring in Notker for a cameo, and the first novel does take place in Orlans about seven years after the incidents in Aachen. The style of the book, however, is very different. It is fast-paced, short chapters, and a bit scary.
Aha! The all-important dramatic questions. I am sure they will come. In the meantime, I can see that you are completely fascinated by this period. What a great way for us to learn about it. I have probably learned more history through reading historical fiction. I will look forward to your next books!
Your characters came alive for me and I was able to picture them living and fighting and walking all those miles! Michael and I lived for two years at the foothills of the Ardennes (in Verviers, Belgium). I drove to Koeln every day for work, passing the sign for Aachen, so the terrain is familiar. How did you get a sense of place to write about this? Your descriptions are vivid.
I studied and studied! The inspiration originally came from a history course I took in college. I studied every book on that era that I could find and based the towns of Orlans and St. Thomas on real towns. Aachen, of course is based on the real city. The countryside is out of my imagination, but specific descriptions of plants and so forth were researched to be consistent with what would be in that location.
Are some of the people besides Charlemagne historical?
Not really. Notker is an homage as I mentioned before, and the book does mention Alcuin, who was a historical figure who did in fact start the palace school at Aachen. It was in reading about the palace school, and how peasants could even be taught there, that I came up with the idea. The attack in the beginning of the book is based on the Battle of Ronceval, as described in the Song of Roland, but I made the book more consistent with the legendary description of that battle rather than what historians think probably actually happened.
Did you have to learn any special things to self-publish? With a traditional publisher, you have a team of people helping you, not just your editor, but art directors, copyeditors, marketing and many more.
I had to study the process, how to write a 'book blurb', how to format the cover. I did hire a cover designer, which worked well, but I had to know exactly how the cover needed to be prepared (ie resolution, size, and other parameters like "bleed"). I had to learn how to format the document for both print and Kindle, which are different. Formatting the book was tedious and took a back and forth of a few weeks. Marketing, I'm still learning about! Though I do understand that even with traditional publishing you have to do a bunch of your own marketing.
Well, you’ve done a fantastic job with both the flap cover and teaser. I’ll be coming to you for help when I’m ready to submit. Speaking of, are you hoping a traditional publisher will pick this us? What are the chances? I think the biggest hurdle with self-publishing is how to make your book stand out in a sea of books. I will make every effort to promote this Gary. You have written a great story!
Thank you so much for your enthusiasm and support! I have a quite small circle on the internet, and I need to expand that, not just to "sell more books" but more to engage the world in a positive way. We aren't meant to sit in our homes and watch TV all day. We're supposed to be out there making a difference in people's lives, and the internet is one way to do that. If I do a good job of that, the book will find readers, I think. It is so true that there is a great sea of books out there. It's true of traditionally published authors as well. One thing I cling to is that this book will now be out there and available forever. It will never be out of print, so I can take a long view of things. Do I hope for a traditional deal? That would be wonderful, but that's sort of like hitting the lottery. It's nice to think about, but I don't dare expect it. However, I have heard that some publishers are using self-published books as their "slush pile", watching for books that do well and then snatching them up. There are some notable examples of that happening.
It is refreshing to see such a healthy attitude towards publishing. It’s not just about selling books, rather touching people’s lives. Is there anything else you’d like to share, Gary? Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions so generously.
Thank you, Vijaya for asking for this interview. I've never done one before, and it's quite an honor! Thank you also for reading Aachen and for your gracious comments. I will probably write many books over the coming years - I enjoy the process too much to stop, even if it remains just a hobby - but Aachen will always be my special book. It's funny. I have a Ph.D. in physics, and I have a very successful career as an engineer, but right now I am probably more gratified by the accomplishment of writing Aachen than I am about the others. Of course, it doesn't compare to how I feel about the marriage and family I have built, but it is the one "material" accomplishment that I really feel God "called me" to do. I hope anyone who reads it enjoys it and comes away with something they didn't have before.
Gary, I know exactly what you mean, both the calling and the pleasure. I do believe our blessed Lord feels our pleasure as well. God bless you and all your ventures!