Welcome to the seventy-second of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. Today’s is with historical and contemporary fiction author (and sci-fi as Shannah Jay) author Anna Jacobs. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate the author further. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here.
Morgen: Welcome Anna. I’m delighted that you could take part today. Please can you start by telling us the background history to you becoming a writer.
Anna: I’ve been telling myself stories inside my head ever since I was a tiny child. Since I didn’t come from a family that pointed its kids anywhere but at ordinary jobs, it took me a while to get up to scratch on something as exotic as writing novels. My first publications were French textbooks – I was a French teacher – which gave me the confidence to write novels.
Morgen: My French is so rusty… although the last time I went to France I managed a ‘discussion’ (argument) with the Hotel Manager who was trying to get me to pay for my unused mini-bar and breakfasts we didn’t have because on day 2 we found a delightful café nearby, so I guess it’s all still in there. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Anna: I write in two genres at the moment, historical and modern stories alternately. In the past I’ve written historical romances, and recently reissued them as ebooks on Amazon. I also wrote SF/F as Shannah Jay. Those books are out as ebooks now.
Anna: I’ve had 54 novels published and a couple of how-to books about writing.
Morgen: Wow. Can you remember where you saw your first books on the shelves?
Anna: When I saw my first book (Persons of Rank) in the shops it was on a stand and I stood there for ages, so happy I could have burst. I’d been trying to get my novels published for ten years, you see.
Morgen: Aspiring novelists please take note. I have four years to catch up then.
Anna: I’m now writing Australian / English historicals. I’ve just finished The Swan River Saga (Farewell to Lancashire, Beyond the Sunset, Destiny’s Path). They’re set in Western Australia in the 1860s. At that time there was a cotton famine in Lancashire, with supplies blocked by the American Civil War, and people starving. They really did send 60 cotton lasses to Western Australia to become maids. I added four more young women and told their stories. My next series takes us to Singapore in the 1860s as well as Australia. The Trader’s Wife comes out in October. It’s been fascinating doing the research. My historical stories are mostly set in Lancashire, where I grew up, or Western Australia, where my main home is nowadays. Western Australia has a very different history from the Sydney / convicts background that’s been used for so many other novels, so my novels are showing a less known side of Australia. My modern novels are sometimes set in England, and sometimes in Western Australia, or both. My latest are ‘In Focus’ where a woman sees a computer image regressed on TV from an adult to a child – and it’s her brother who disappeared aged three. ‘Moving On’ is about a woman learning to stand on her own feet and is set in a leisure village of the sort we live in when in England, where we now have a second home.
Morgen: I knew that one of my Red Cross colleagues (Mary) enjoys your genre so I asked her when I saw her this week whether she’s read any of your books and at the mention of your name her eyes lit up. She said she LOVES (it sounded like capitals anyway) your books, especially the historical and “can’t wait for the next one”. I did ask if she was on email so I could pass her details to you but unfortunately she’s not. Sorry, where were we? Oh yes, although you’re connected with leading publishers, how much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Anna: I think by now my ‘voice’ and brand as a novelist are fairly well set. I write about family / relationships / love, whether set in the past or the present. I write complex stories with several sub-plots. I’ve never written an unhappy ending and never will, because I get the choice there. Oh, and there’s no gross violence or explicit sex in my books. My choice again.
Morgen: Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Anna: My first novel came second in a huge competition (over 800 entries) and won me $10,000 and publication in 1991 – but the publication mattered most to me.
Morgen: I’d like to say it would too… yes, actually it would. The money of course would be nice but I’m in a very fortunate position that I tick over working part-time so it’s not about the money for me either.
Anna: My music hall story ‘Pride of Lancashire’ won an award for Australian Romantic Book of the Year in 2006. It’s set in the early days of music hall, the 1840s, when the entertainment took place in rooms attached to pubs. It’s still in print and out as an ebook, too. It’s a bit different from most music hall stories. Indeed, I try to find ‘titbits’ of history that haven’t been done to death as the background to my stories.
Morgen: Ah, I’ll definitely have to read that book first. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Anna: I do have an agent and she’s great. I’m published in the UK and my main home is in Australia. I couldn’t possibly manage without an agent situated in the UK. The most vital thing to an author’s success is how they write. An agent can’t sell rubbish.
Morgen: That’s absolutely true and I think with more people writing than ever they must be getting fussier, eBooks or no eBooks. Speaking of which, you mentioned that some of your books are available as eBooks, are your others? What was your experience of that process?
Anna: All my books are available as ebooks. My publishers put the ones up to which they had the rights. I had the rights back for my historical novels and some of my modern stories, so my husband put those up on Amazon and he also designed the covers. He’s a very talented man. The historical romances have been selling really well and between one and three are usually in the Top 100 bestsellers in historical fiction on Amazon UK. My historical sagas hit the bestseller charts there too, as do my modern novels. I’m not well known in the US yet, so my sales are fewer there – but they’re increasing.
Morgen: I’ll keep everything crossed for you over there but I guess once word gets round… Do you read eBooks?
Anna: I don’t read ebooks because after working all day on a computer the last thing I want to do is look at another screen. Besides, I don’t trust the formats to stay viable long enough for my purpose. I remember the video wars about formats, and now hardly anyone makes / buys videos. I want to keep my favourite books. I’m still reading ones I bought in my teens (Georgette Heyer). People forget what a wonderful technology paper books are – no power needed, last hundreds of years.
Morgen: That’s true. I still favour paperbacks because I do most of my reading at home (or walking the dog or to / from work) but when I travel (which is rarely) I take my eReader purely for convenience. Do you use a pseudonym for any of your writing? If so, why and do you think it makes a difference?
Anna: I used a different name for my SF/F stories so that readers wouldn’t be confused or expect something and not get it. Shannah Jay only wrote a few books. Anna Jacobs is my main writing name.
Morgen: Absolutely. A number of authors write under different names (Joanna Trollope = Caroline Harvey, Ruth Rendell = Barbara Vine etc. It is true that readers have expectations, for instance some dedicated Martina Cole readers take the day off whenever one of her new novels comes out – see earlier reference to Red Cross Mary and yourself and I was like that with Stephen King although I was at school so would have to wait and gone to the bookshop on the way home – and meet up once they’ve read them to discuss them and if she wrote a completely different genre, say romance, under her name I’m not sure how well that would go down. Martina Cole writing romance, now that does sound like fun!). What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Anna: As I said, I won second place in a competition. I was flown to Melbourne (three and a half hours by plane from my part of Australia), put up in a suite at a hotel – I’d never even been in a hotel suite before – and the awards were presented at a wonderful dinner and ceremony. Nowadays I work by contracts from the publisher but it’s still a thrill to have books accepted and to write them, and later see readers enjoy them. The latter has always been the best part of it for me. I get more than two reader emails a day on average.
Morgen: Wow. I think that’s really what it’s all about. I adore writing but it would feel a tad hollow without someone else seeing it. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Anna: In the early days I had a lot of rejections. It was before the Internet / emails and information was much scarcer. Rejections are part of being a writer and if you can’t cope with them, you should find another job. Not that they don’t hurt – they do. But my early rejected books were re-written and published later. No word is ever wasted.
Morgen: Absolutely. Some people remove whole sections of writing and delete them which I wonder if they ever regret it. I think however bad something seems at the time it may not be. This is where a writing group comes in.
Anna: Writing anything makes you a better writer and it may be sellable later if your skills improve and you revise it, so don’t lose it.
Morgen: Exactly. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Anna: I’m trying to write a different sort of book, for a challenge and to extend my skills. It’s in another genre. But I shan’t discuss it in detail. I may fail but I’m having fun and learning a lot. It’s important to keep developing your skills, don’t you think?
Morgen: Absolutely. That said it has to be a genre you have an interest in. Sci-fi does nothing for me (sorry sci-fi writers / readers… Shannah included ) so it’s unlikely I’d write it but never say never. And history was my worst subject at school (I don’t have a head for dates) so you definitely don’t have any competition there (as if you did anyway – you being 50 novels ahead of me, or 54 if you count published ) With three novels a year, presumably you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Anna: I write just about every day because it’s my favourite thing to do. I don’t dust or iron. They’re a waste of time.
Morgen: A lady after my own heart. The advantage of being single is no work shirts to iron (although my last boyfriend was well enough trained to do his own) but the disadvantage of a 1930s house is the dust (although not as bad as it could be). See, I’m so good at procrastinating about procrastinating!
Anna: I mostly write 2-3,000 words a day once I’ve got a book started. Starting off, I write fewer words as I re-write a lot till the first three chapters are ‘right’ and then I speed up. I never write after teatime. I have a lovely husband and I like to spend time with him, or with friends.
Morgen: Priorities. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Anna: I research the setting and background very carefully before I start. I can write a lovely plot beforehand if I have to, but I can’t stick to it when I write the book, as better ideas come to mind once I know the characters properly. I often ‘see’ scenes from a story well before I write it.
Morgen: A formula that clearly works. Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Anna: My husband, who is perceptive and intelligent, and my elder daughter, who is similar. That gives me the views of two age groups and both genders. No book leaves home till they’ve okayed it.
Morgen: That’s handy… free editors! What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
Anna: I play cards on my computer before writing and if I get stuck for the next scene. It relaxes me and seems to free up my creativity. Well, that’s my excuse, anyway. I have to be on my own to write, and preferably in my office.
Morgen: Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Anna: A computer every time. I met my first one in the mid 1980s and haven’t written on paper since, except in emergencies.
Morgen: Ditto. I’m much quicker on the computer. Pen / paper and I only get friendly when I’m out and then I have mini pads / pens in every dog walking jacket… kept company by the likes of Eric Satie and Ludwig van Beethhoven. What sort of music do you listen to when you write?
Anna: None! I’m involved with my characters not musicians or singers. I couldn’t write at all if there was music playing.
Morgen: I agree with lyrical music, I can’t have their words interrupting mine. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?
Anna: Third person. I don’t like first person stories. Third seems natural to me, less awkward and less intrusive. I want my readers free to enjoy the story without noticing how I’m writing it.
Morgen: Third does seem more popular, especially with agents. I presented a first person present tense chick lit to three agents at the Winchester Writers Conference recently and received thumbs down from all three aspects. They want third person past tense crime or historical. So, for me (because I read it), crime it is. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Anna: Yes. I write children’s fantasy stories for fun but I don’t have time to market them. It’s just a hobby. Maybe one day…
Morgen: You find the time? Wow. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Anna: Going through the final page proofs before publication. So boring and leaves your eyes aching, but has to be done.
Morgen: If anything, what has been your biggest surprise about writing?
Anna: How addictive it is.
Morgen: Isn’t it. I love it. I don’t write as much as I should and I don’t know why (well, I do, it’s fitting it in amongst everything else writing-related, and a job… house… dog… which isn’t the right way round really) because I absolutely adore coming up with something new. I do have my fortnightly writing workshops so at least come up with three to four new beginnings but they sit in a tray waiting to be typed up and continued. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Anna: Write. Then write some more. It’s a skill and you learn it by practising, not reading or talking about it.
Morgen: Absolutely. Like playing the piano or drawing. What do you like to read?
Anna: Nothing gruesome or violent or explicitly sexy – oh, and not a political thriller, either. Relationships, cosy mysteries, fantasy, romances, all sorts of books. Research books too. Variety is stimulating.
Morgen: So can we expect a cosy mystery next? In which country are you based and do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
Anna: I live in Australia but spend the northern summers in England. It’s a great lifestyle but takes a lot of organising.
Morgen: English summer… ours are so unpredictable. Another good thing about writing is that if the weather isn’t brilliant it’s a good excuse to put hands to keyboard. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Anna: Go to my website at http://www.annajacobs.com.
Morgen: Yes, everyone, please do. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Anna: For me, telling more stories, at the very least. And of course, having those stories published. I’m currently writing for three publishers. I have so many stories waiting inside my head for their day in the spotlight, and characters are nagging me to tell their tales.
Morgen: I love that. I think only a writer can know how they really do take over. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Anna: Just that I’d love people to give my books a try if they haven’t read them before. I’ve put the first chapters up on my website so that they can do so at no cost. I have two books coming out. Well, one is just out in paperback, ‘Beyond the Sunset’ second in the Swan River Saga. You can read about it at: http://www.annajacobs.com/book.aspx?title=Beyond-the-Sunset&bookID=45. And another is coming out in August 2011 ‘Elm Tree Road’ second in the Wiltshire Girls. You can read about it at: http://www.annajacobs.com/book.aspx?title=Elm-Tree-Road&bookID=60. After that, readers will have to wait till October for my next book.
Morgen: Thank you Anna, I’ll let Mary know (I’ll print a copy of this interview for her). And thank you for finding time in your schedule to fit me in.
Anna Jacobs was born in England but emigrated to Australia thirty years ago. Now she and her husband spend part of the year in each country. She’s totally addicted to writing, and produces three novels a year. If she slows down, new characters nag her till she tells their stories. And after all, dusting isn’t important – story-telling is. She was first published in fiction in 1992 and as of August 2011 she has 54 novels published, a few under her Shannah Jay name. At the moment Anna is writing historical novels for one UK publisher and modern novels for another, but she doesn’t guarantee not to try other genres. Writing is too much fun to be limited in any way. She’s been married to her own hero for many happy years, and they have two daughters and one grandson.
UPDATE FROM ANNA JUNE 2012: My novel The Trader’s Wife has been shortlisted for the Australian Romantic Book of the Year (romantic elements category). I’m thrill about that. I’ve been shortlisted several times with other books, and I won the award in 2006 with Pride of Lancashire. I don’t find out until August who’s won. In the meantime, my 58th novel will be published in July.
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