I have the pleasure of introducing to you Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt. Her Amazon page tells us: “A voracious reader, she had always intended to write fiction, and, now retired, dedicates her whole life -when not spending time with her husband, family, and community – to exploring the concepts of integrity in relationships, and the psychological questions of why people do what they do and make the choices they make, including their life partners.”
Alicia writes transcendent prose, defining for me what a contemporary literary novel should be. I simply cannot recommend her books highly enough. In her in-depth interview, she talks candidly about herself and her art.
Will: Alicia, can you tell us something about your writer’s journey? When did you discover you were a writer and had a story to tell?
Alicia: My parents moved us to Mexico City—my next younger sister and me—when I was seven, and I read everything I could get my hands on in English, including about half of The Great Books (Plato was beyond me). And my grandmother, who had graduated from the U. of Illinois and was an English teacher, had these big fat anthologies of English and American Literature full of good stuff—short stories, poetry, novel excerpts. I thought Great Expectations and Huckleberry Finn were children’s stories, and read Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery as a child. Adding my grandparent’s huge collection of National Geographics, my head was filled with well-written material. I didn’t do what many writers have done—write stories.
My English classes at school were basic language classes for my Mexican classmates and I was allowed to read quietly. By twelve, when grownups asked, I had decided I was going to be a Nuclear Physicist, so was considered a bit odd. I followed the science side to a PhD in Nuclear Engineering (plasma physics) from U. Wisconsin-Madison, and ended up working at the Princeton U. Plasma Physics Lab for ten years, until, at a physics conference, I caught a bug, ended up with ME/CFS, and had to stop doing what I loved, computational plasma physics. It turned out to be forever. But I had always planned to write fiction when I retired, so, when our three kids were old enough, I began writing a detective series started in the world of a graduate physics department—with a young Mexican-American engineer as my heroine—when I had a bit of spare energy.
Will: Can you share with us a bit of your creative process? Do you write every day? Do you have a favorite place and time to write?
Alicia: I try to write every day. I sit at the computer most of the day, and, if I have done everything right—sleep, food, no other activities—my brain will focus for a while, and let me get to the next thing on my writing To Do list. I have my own way of measuring brain speed: hard Sudokus. Less than about 6 min. per, the brain is on, I stop futzing about, and get to work. Much more than that, and it’s pointless to try yet. A bad night = no writing the next day. Too much energy expended one day = ditto. Leaving the house = same result, but it usually costs me several days.
Because of this, I’ve developed a very fractal writing process which allows me to focus on single tasks during a writing session, trusting that the results will fit into the next slot in the extremely plotted whole. I trust nothing to memory—it won’t be there when I need it. I create, for each scene, a set of surrounding support files: Production—a journal of my thoughts and decisions as I create a scene; Contents—anything that has been assigned to this scene, from actual snippets of dialogue to fragments of the ancient rough draft that I still like, to the various steps in the Save the Cat (Blake Snyder) or The Key: How to Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth (James Frey) or my plotting program DRAMATICA (a screenwriting tool); FIF—a long series of prompts I’ve extracted from The Fire in Fiction (Donald Maass) and other books on writing; and Beats—the skeleton of how I’m going to turn all this material into a scene, the actual events that will occur from some kind of beginning (which includes a section I call Introduction and a deliberately chosen First Line to drag the reader in), through a series of smaller story units I call beats, to a Resolution section with its Last Line chosen to encourage the reader to go on to the next scene or chapter. Scenes typically get 3-4 beats, occasionally as few as a single beat, or a few more.
When all this material has been aggregated, and every prompt answered in writing for this scene, I’m ready to start writing—with the aim of ending up with a scene that is a linked short story along the continuing backbone of the novel. It doesn’t take me that long to gather, but allows me to consider, for example, whether the point of view (pov) character (one of three main characters for the WIP) needs to feel/express anger in this scene, why and how, without worrying at that point exactly how it will appear in the finished scene or how it will be affected by anything else.
Then I assign every piece I’ve gathered to the Introduction, one of the beats, or the Resolution. I call this process atomizing—because I’m working with the smallest pieces of content, and refer to the steps as ‘being in the left brain,’ since that’s what used to be called the logical/mathematical/orderly use. When everything is assigned, I start the actual writing process, living through each of the sections with the pov character, seeing, hearing, thinking, and doing everything strictly from their pov, choosing what they would remember, from right behind the eyeballs—if I were them. That’s the intuitive part, what we used to call the ‘right brain’ part. The material is right there—for a relatively tiny part of the story—and it coalesces into words and images and language, with a sense of pace and sensory detail—because I can hold that much information in my mind at a time. I rarely use dialogue tags, preferring instead to insert a sensory or setting detail, or a direct or indirect thought, into the action and dialogue, aiming for a sense of reality and inevitability.
And I listen. The Mac’s robot voice reads it to me, sometimes hilariously, dragging me into a mini-play, and I work with each section until it does what I wanted it to, smoothly and seamlessly, with attention given to the little details I’ve chosen to include. And I edit as I go: putting sections of the scene through AutoCrit as necessary. I only use AC’s counting functions. It tells me how many times I’ve used a word, a phrase, a cliché. I use this information to edit each section. Then I listen again, and finally, when it feels right and complete, I listen to the whole. It’s not as complicated as it sounds, but not skipping the steps means I don’t find out later that I’ve only used, say, the sense of vision in a scene—because there is a step where I consider prompts for the five main senses plus ESP, proprioceptor (body position) feedback, and a sense of being with other people—or not. And I can do it all with a damaged brain, a story fragment at a time. I haven’t come across any other writer who says, “Oh, yes—I write that way, too.”
Will: In your trilogy, Pride’s Children, you write with authority about the movie-making business, both in front of and behind the cameras. Pride’s Children: Purgatory introduces us to the rarified air of cinema: movie stars, movie directing, movie production. Is that from research, or do you have some personal experience with the film industry? What was your inspiration for the book?
Alicia: I did some theater acting during prep school, and caught the acting bug. When you’re Queen Elizabeth I in Schiller’s Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (in Spanish) for months on end, it sticks, living in an alternate world. It wasn’t on my STEM timeline, though I tried a couple of times in college, but I’ve always both liked movies and watching the ‘making of’ documentaries, especially when they started being on the DVD versions. The nuts and bolts—and the eerie effect of the whole as seen by the viewer. The acting classes as an adult were short, but you don’t forget the feeling when the teacher makes the whole class walk around the auditorium yelling obscenities to get over the reluctance.
My writing partner and I took our youngest daughters to an audition in Princeton for A Beautiful Mind, and I asked Ron Howard where would be a good place to watch them filming a scene from, and sat where he indicated. It’s a slow process, but you have time to take a lot of notes. Just having films as an interest brings you random useful stuff through the years, and there is a surfeit of information in articles and interviews online and on YouTube. Books filled many of the gaps. Our Hamilton Public Library had a copy of The Making of Gone With the Wind, a beautiful coffee-table book with hundreds of rare photos.
Some of it, of course, I imagined. Actors and directors are human, and we expect them to give us open and vulnerable portrayals of characters, while we sometimes wonder where a particular piece came from. Pride’s Children was vouchsafed to me in 2000. In one piece. When I had been exposed to several powerful movies, had been sick for years, and had found the ‘billionaire loves a nobody’ kind of romances unbelievable, my mind decided to ask me how a disabled person might possibly end up with one of the world’s most eligible bachelors, a rising star leading man, and filled in the rest of the story. I poked sticks at it for a couple of months, stopped writing the second mystery in my detective series, and started a process which has so far consumed twenty-three years. I didn’t think it would take this long!
Will: The second book in the trilogy, Pride’s Children: Netherworld, continues the saga of Kary Ashe, Andrew O’Connell, and Bianca Doyle. As an author, you seem to have an uncanny ability to get inside your characters’ heads, exploring not only their emotions, but the motivations for what they do and their layers of self-deceit. How do you do that?
Alicia: I don’t allow a narrator in my stories. So whatever it is that I want to express has to come from the appropriate character in the story. I think of it as writing in third person pov but being the first person narrator of the scene. One of the steps in my Left BRAIN Right method is ‘Gather the feeling of Being this Character’ and includes ‘read previous scenes’ from the character’s pov. It is very helpful because I don’t write many scenes sequentially in the same pov. So for most scenes I have to switch my pov so I can channel a different character, a struggle each time—the three characters are very opinionated. I also insist that anything I write from the character’s pov has to be motivated organically. It must be something the reader would believe the character to think or say in that moment. It is not a place to sneak a narrator/author statement into the story. The characters don’t do things for my convenience. They each talk to themselves differently, and, when I’m them, I’ve trained myself to catch that self-talk. That’s often where the prompts regarding emotions from my FIF file come in useful. I think my mind keeps a short mental checklist for each beat, and nags until I use all the pieces assigned there somehow.
I don’t think of it as uncanny so much as deliberate: if I filled in the prompt ‘Anger,’ with the appropriate reason why the character might feel anger during the beat, the prompt and the writing pulled something out of me because it does belong in the scene, and when I’m moving all those pieces around in my mind for the beat, they snap into each other in a logical (to me) sequence. Like a chain of pop beads. These snippets are all there, there are a finite number of them, and it’s a small-enough number that I can run through the permutations in my head, and write the best order. With the right vocabulary for the character, of course.
In my earlier days as a writer, when I was figuring all this out, there were times when I printed out a scene which wasn’t working, cut it into strips with scissors, one sentence per strip, and rearranged them on my desk until it worked—and then taped them to a piece of paper so I wouldn’t lose that order. I literally compared strips two at a time to find which one was before the other. I called it ‘going back to Kindergarten.’ I couldn’t go to writing classes due to lack of energy, and I didn’t do critique groups mostly for the same reason (and they wanted me to remember several other people’s works-in-progress over weeks and months, something I couldn’t even do with my own!). I had to find my own way, which has been to read many books on craft—tackling small problems such as writing a fight scene again in a tiny piece. Atomizing the task and the skill.
Will: Your protagonist Kary Ashe, former physician turned best-selling author, suffers from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a condition that has totally transformed her life. Would you be willing to share with us your own experience with CFS and how it has altered your life and your writing?
Alicia: I became determined somewhere along the way to give a READER the real experience of having to deal with the illness every day, with no breaks and almost no help from the medical profession, to see and feel how the constant calculus of ‘do I have enough energy to do this?’ and ‘how will I function after?’ affects everything they do, and still sometimes doesn’t work. Not as the main point of the story, but from the pov of a character determined not to let an exhausting illness take any more of her energy than absolutely necessary. Many of the little pacing steps Kary uses are things I’ve had to learn. She’s much younger than I am, but back when I was her age, I could do the things she does (like go for a walk or use a wheelchair to save energy in an airport). You learn.
Will: I understand you’re hard at work on the concluding novel of the trilogy. Have you settled on a title for it yet? Can you give us a peek at your work-in-progress?
Alicia: Working (and probably final) title is Pride’s Children: LIMBO. There is a lot in the vernacular about the place where unbaptized children went when they died (thank God the theology no longer believes this), to be happy, but not as happy as they might be in Heaven. It supports the main theme that it’s all, eventually, about the children—and it matters very much who rears them. The prologue to this volume again wrote itself (I have no idea where these pieces come from!), a third chunk of an article in The New Yorker written after the events described by someone who thinks she knows the real story. I can’t guarantee it will stay exactly the same, but they tend to.
Will: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors—what they should attend to, what to disregard, tips for publishing, marketing, getting reviews?
Alicia: My main advice for aspiring authors is to figure out where you are on the spectrum from complete pantser to extreme plotter, and find books and articles and blog posts that are your style. I loved Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, but he’s a pantser, and I can’t write as he does: my structure comes first, and is always undergirding the story. I figure I lost a couple of years in some skills trying to understand why I couldn’t do what he said was so simple. For a rough general rubric: pantsers lose interest in writing the story if they know where it’s going—plotters know exactly where it’s going before they can write it at all.
For publishing: if you do it yourself, there are many skills to learn, but then you know how whether you do it yourself forever or hire someone to do it for you. I did PURGATORY with no help, paid for formatting and cover to the same standards for NETHERWORLD because I had some health problems that required surgery, and I wanted it out before that. I supervised every step, every word, every image—fortunately we are still friends. Join a Facebook writing group, read all the posts. Buy a few inexpensive books—try the steps. There are some shortcuts for some of the steps, like Vellum or Atticus for interior formatting, but they usually cost money. Learn to rigorously self-edit, even if you have an editor at some point—don’t let your initial faults go uncorrected. And do NOT go with a vanity/hybrid publisher—most who do lose a LOT of money, and never write another book. Things keep changing, but publishing paperbacks and hardcovers on Amazon right now can be done with 1) a pdf of the interior of the book, and 2) a pdf using their templates of the cover. There are other methods of input, but I prefer the pdfs because what you send them is exactly what you will see in the published book. For the ebook, send an epub.
Marketing: if you write what a lot of others write, the FB group will give you the conventional wisdom. If you try to write mainstream fiction as an indie, as I do, please let me know when you figure it out (because the traditional publishers think this niche belongs to them). If you want a traditional publishing contract, you have a lot to learn and UNlearn, it is incredibly hard to break into, and doesn’t pay much anymore unless you’re a huge seller. I gave up ‘submitting’ (I hate the term) when my first detective series kept getting nice rejection letters (send us your next book) after a literary agency would sit on it for six months. Educate yourself a lot on many different blogs before making a final choice of what you will try—only self-publishing can be guaranteed to happen if you stick to doing all the steps; traditional acceptance rates are in the low single digits.
Getting reviews is easy (not): put yourself in the position of the reviewer, and talk the reviewer into giving you time, effort, and space. For popular genres, you might be able to follow the trends. For my kind of fiction, only individual, carefully considered appeals have yielded results—and only in about half of the cases I’ve attempted. But the reviews themselves for PURGATORY and NETHERWORLD have been heart-stopping and fulsome. Take a look on the books’ Amazon pages
Will: Alicia, I can’t thank you enough for sharing you insights and energy with us. To my readers, here are links to the first two books in her trilogy. Clicking on her image above will bring you to one of her websites.
Thanks so much, Will – really great questions to chew on.
Sometimes it is enough, for a little while, to have written. A fallow period is as good for writers as for fields (preferably by choice, but even the forced ones may have value).
Then we get back to work. Hope to be able to keep doing that, because it’s the best feeling ever to wrestle with words.
Wrestling with words is what it’s all about. It was a pleasure working with you, Alicia. I’m looking forward to Pride’s Children: Limbo.