Welcome to the three hundred and tenth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with historical novelist and multi-genre author Bryna Kranzler. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Bryna. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Bryna: Hi, my name is Bryna Kranzler, and I am a late bloomer. I published my first book at the age of 52 (or 53—who remembers?) although I have been writing for many years. I started off thinking that I wanted to be a playwright, and in fact I won the Helen Price Memorial Prize for Dramatic Writing while I was in college (Barnard College). My first one-act play (“Do Hermaphrodites Reproduce Only in the Spring?”) was a finalist in the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theatre Center Competition. It scheduled for production twice: The first time the theatre owner died and the season was shut down, and the second time the director committed suicide. For the benefit of the arts community, I got out of playwriting.
Morgen: My goodness… pardon the pun but how dramatic! I wrote 102 pages of a TV script for ScriptFrenzy in April 2010 and liked the story but didn’t enjoy the bittiness of the format so have since converted it into the beginning of a novel… so I stick to NaNoWriMo. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Bryna: I write fiction and non-fiction. I like to write essays, newspaper and magazine articles in addition to novels and my recent historical biography. I have a novelty book in the works and a YA novel planned. It seems to me that the story, or the objective, should determine the genre rather than sticking with a certain genre and trying to make what you write fit within it.
Morgen: Absolutely. I write allsorts (usually dark) but I always have so haven’t been pigeon-holed to one genre that I feel I have to stick to. It’s a great freedom. What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Bryna: I recently published The Accidental Anarchist, the true story of an Orthodox Jew who was sentenced to death three times in the early 1900s in Russia – and lived to tell about it. He also happened to have been my grandfather, and the book is based on the diaries that he began keeping in 1905, during the Russo-Japanese War. (Seeing so many young lives squandered in that war led to his determination to help overthrow Czar Nicholas II – reason for death sentence number three). Since I’m writing this, you must have already realized that he escaped from that date with the firing squad, too.
Morgen: Wow, that’s a story. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Bryna: I would love to receive some rejections, but lately, publications that you query don’t seem to even acknowledge submissions, let alone go to the trouble of rejecting them.
When my son was about to graduate from college, and he and his friends were looking for jobs, they created a blog on which they posted their rejection letters: http://rejectionblog.blogspot.com. I thought that was a great way of dealing with the unpleasant but inevitable.
Morgen: I’ve taken a look… it’s great. They really don’t pull their punches. You mentioned the Helen Price Memorial Prize, have you had any other success?
Bryna: Yes, I won The USA Best Books of 2011 Award for a Historical Biography, and was a Finalist in ForeWord Reviews’ Book of the Year competition for a Biography. It also received an Honorable Mention in the London Book Festival for a Biography / Autobiography.
Morgen: Well done. I’d say it certainly sounds deserving. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Bryna: I don’t have an agent, and didn’t even contemplate sending The Accidental Anarchist to one. There simply may not have been time given that this is a family story and my mother was already in her 80s when she made it clear that she wanted to see her father’s story told “in [her] lifetime”. Knowing how long the publication cycle can take if you look for an agent, and then that agent looks for a publisher, I didn’t think it was a risk worth taking.
Morgen: Many people, myself included, are going their own way and it’s become very respectable, as long as it’s done with care. Are your books available as eBooks? Were you involved in that process at all? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Bryna: The Accidental Anarchist is available in all ebook formats through Smashwords.com, as well as from Amazon.com. I did the ebook conversion according to Smashwords’ guidelines. It was a little frustrating because if your book didn’t meet certain technical specifications (such as how many paragraph breaks there were between sections) the book would get rejected though without any explanation of what problem needed to be corrected. And I read book both on the Kindle and in hard / softcover. In fact, some books I read both on my iPad, which I keep at my bedside, and on my Kindle, which I keep in my gym bag (though the syncing function doesn’t always work properly). I don’t really have a system for deciding which books I read in which format.
Morgen: I’ve only had a Kindle for just over a month but I love it. I’m not a fan of damaging a book’s spines but I do love to have them around and would still buy them, but perhaps (if the book is good enough) have them in both formats. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Bryna: I do all of my own marketing, and am constantly learning what it takes to gain attention for my book. At certain points, I think the most important pursuit is getting interviews, and later I realize I get better book sales when I speak so I pursue more of those opportunities. But when it comes to handling the social media aspect of book marketing, the amount there is to learn makes my head feel ready to explode.
Morgen: I think you just have to have a go at everything. Obviously different outlets are going to work at different times, it’s just catching people’s eye. Do you have a favourite of your books or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Bryna: It’s difficult to admit that my grandfather isn’t my favourite character in my book. Rather, it is his friend Pyavka, Warsaw’s self-proclaimed “King of Thieves”, who is my favourite character. He is proud of how he makes his living, and has an aristocratic air about him that brings honor to his profession.
Morgen: Did you have any say in the title / covers of your book(s)? How important do you think they are?
Bryna: Since I decided to self-publish, I had complete control over the title and cover of my book, which is kind of scary; there was no one with more experience than I had to advise me. I had come up with a few titles that I tested in an online poll, as well as four alternate book covers I tested the same way. Unfortunately, the poll numbers were tied. I took the cover mock-ups to a local bookstores, and the booksellers there were split, too. Then they suggested that I bring the covers to another bookseller across the street. He looked at all the covers and pointed to one of them: “That one;” he was so certain about his choice that I felt very confident going with it, and I’m glad I did.
Morgen: It’s a great cover. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Bryna: Ah, at the moment I’m taking a few online classes, which have much more homework than I had anticipated, but they are driving me to improve my social media presence. It’s also, unfortunately, tax season. Most of my time is spent lining up speaking engagements, sending out book excerpts and seeking reviews, and participating in other interview opportunities (such as this one). ‘As soon as I have time,’ I will resume working on my ebook about self-publishing and all the mistakes I made that could be avoided. I’m also working on the novelty book in between things, and still have loads of essays to edit and send out.
Morgen: That’s a great variety so I guess you don’t suffer from writer’s block and do you manage to write every day?
Bryna: I work every day, though I’d like to be able to take a break from the marketing and get back to writing. Right now I’m just too busy. My form of writer’s block, though, may be different from other writers in that I will endlessly rewrite one section before moving ahead, and that doesn’t allow me to accomplish as much as I would like.
Morgen: One of my Monday night writing group is like that; she’ll spend a week on one short story. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Bryna: It depends on the project. I do tend to plot things out, though I also spend a lot of time writing a backstory for the character – what has happened to him or her in the past, what motivates him or her. And when I feel the tug of the character wanting to take over, that’s when I’m ready to start writing.
Morgen: I love that. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Bryna: I think personality quirks are a great way to get into character, probably much the way that actors approach a role. Sometimes it’s a pattern of speech, or a tick, that gives you insight into who they are and what has happened to them in the past. I often base the skeleton of a character on a certain person and flesh him out from there. The names I choose tend to be meaningful to me, even if no one else has the same reference points. And as I mentioned above, prewriting helps.
Morgen: Do you write any non-fiction, poetry or short stories?
Bryna: Actually, I have a poem that I’ve been thinking about for 10 years. I know what it means and I know how I want to develop it, but I don’t know anything about the structure of poetry so I haven’t been able to start on it. I write creative non-fiction, too, as well as am working on lyrics for a song. I’d love to go back to writing short stories, but over the past 20 years I seem to have lost my feeling for how a short story ends, since so many of them seem to just stop. It’s not the right medium for me these days.
Morgen: That’s a shame, but then I write nothing but short stories, certainly at the moment. You said you do a lot of editing…
Bryna: I do way too much editing. I was on the 24th draft of a novel that I put down to publish The Accidental Anarchist, and I haven’t gone back to it yet. For that project I didn’t do the prewriting since I felt I knew the characters and the story, but I have since decided to change the main character in a major way, and that will require starting over – some day; not soon.
Morgen: I would say that’s a shame but you have so much to keep you busy until then. With such varied topics, do you have to do much research?
Bryna: I also do too much research because I often feel that I need to know more before I continue. What I am trying to discipline myself to do is two things: 1) do a lot of research before I start writing so I don’t interrupt the flow of the work, and 2) make it up and highlight that section to go back to later. It really isn’t helpful to break away during the writing to do extensive research because I often find, when I get the answer, that I’m going to go in a different direction anyway.
Morgen: I find that. When I’ve been writing my novels the temptation has usually been too great to go on the internet although sometimes I have resisted and just typed ‘more here’ so I can come back to it later. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Bryna: I’m actually experimenting with 2nd person in my song lyrics. I’m most comfortable writing in 3rd person but I really love writing in first person for the immediacy of it. I would compare it to watching a movie that’s been recorded on video rather than film (which I happen to dislike). The video is much sharper and the artifice is clearer, whereas in writing you get the same sharpness of focus but a greater feeling of connecting with the character. I have written a few pieces that were entirely in 3rd person but for a single chapter, or scene, in 1st person.
Morgen: Song lyrics are something I’ve always fancied writing… well, over the last few years anyway. I love writing second person so I must try it. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Bryna: Oh, yes, like that novel that was in its 24th draft before I put it away. Situations changed and the story is too personal. It’s not that I mind revealing personal information – it’s that I’m so emotionally connected to it that I haven’t been able to step back far enough from it to manage it objectively. Maybe the time will be right 10 years from now.
Morgen: I have one of those but I’m thinking that if I go back to it then I’d change it enough to be more fictionalised, certainly changing the main protagonist’s name! (not mine, by the way) What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Bryna: I have found that being a writer wrecks havoc on my hamstrings, which tend to get very tight from sitting for so many hours a day. My neck and shoulders also get very tight. None of that physical stuff is pleasant, nor is being sedentary for so much of the day. What surprises me, in a negative way, is how much longer things take to complete than they used to. I’m much more distractible than I used to be.
Morgen: The joy of the internet. I find having a dog a great distraction from sitting all day, maybe you could borrow one. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Bryna: Do it only if you can’t not do it. For me, writing is the only way I know what I think.
Morgen: I can’t not do it. Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Bryna: I rather like the word ‘antediluvian’. It has a rhythm to it that feels like there’s a wave right in the middle of it, and I like the way its meaning is both literal and figurative.
Morgen: It’s a new one on me (thank you Wikipedia). Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Bryna: I love to read, and love to go to the movies and theatre, so I write and post book, movie and theatre reviews on my Facebook page. I am also involved in the San Diego Jewish Book Fair and the San Diego Jewish Film Festival, and next year I hope to become more involved in selecting the books and films to be features.
Morgen: That sounds like fun. What do you do when you’re not writing?
Bryna: I enjoy cooking and baking. In fact, when I just can’t concentrate or find myself writing in circles (obsessively rewriting or otherwise not making much progress), I take a break and bake. My friends don’t mind, and sometimes I’ll pack things up to mail to my children who live all the way across the country. Often I’ll play around with new ingredients (different grains, like quinoa flour and oat flour; coconut oil instead of butter) to see if I can come up with something healthier or lower calorie. I find baking to be a wonderful creative outlet, and relaxing, too.
Morgen: Yum. Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful?
Bryna: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is a fabulous and inspiring book about writing. Story, by Robert McKee, is another great one. I’ve underlined about ¼ of the entire book. It’s been a while, so I probably ought to read them again.
Morgen: I have the latter. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Bryna: I got involved with Social Media because I was told that I had to have a presence online in order to successfully market my book. I resented that, because I didn’t have enough time to do all the other things I was doing, anyway. It also took quite a while before I found where to get involved. Only recently have I started participating in a LinkedIn group for History Enthusiasts, which has been very productive, perhaps not as much for selling my book as for making friends. I also like Goodreads, which is a site on which you can offer, and read other readers’ reviews of books. I’m still looking for the right places to be active, and need to come up with a Social Media “strategy” so I can make the best use of my time.
Morgen: I belong to Goodreads but have done little with it so far other than accept friend requests… I do plan to. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Bryna: After hearing about the death of books, what I’ve noticed instead is that people reading more (because there’s more information out there that we need), though in different formats and through different media. C.S. Lewis was quoted as saying (though I recently read that the quote isn’t appropriately attributed to him but to a student of his), “We read to know we’re not alone.” I think human beings will always need that assurance, as well as will continue to enjoy other cultures to which we would otherwise have no access.
Morgen: I think more people are reading than ever because of the e-format and whilst there are bound to be less paperbacks published, I do think they’ll run alongside each other. Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Bryna: I have a pretty full website at www.TheAccidentalAnarchist.com, which address why it took over 100 years to share my grandfather’s story with the public. My blog, at http://xsnerg-accidentalanarchist.blogspot.com, is where I post excerpts from my grandfather’s diary that I did not include in the book (for reasons of space or because they would have been distractions from the main story line); I also write about the process of self-publishing on my blog. I have two Facebook pages – a Fan page dedicated to the book, and a personal page where I have the opportunity to boast about my children’s accomplishments!
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Bryna: Interesting little fact about me: When I was 5 years old, Carl Reiner wanted me in a recurring role on the Dick Van Dyke Show as Little Richie’s next door neighbour. My parents turned down the opportunity because they didn’t think the life of a child star was the best one. While I think Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore would probably have been great surrogate parents, overall I don’t think my (real) parents were wrong.
Morgen: Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Bryna: What’s your secret for accomplishing as many things as you do, and is it available over-the-counter in the U.S.?
Morgen: It’s freely available actually – passion and not enough sleep. Thank you very much, Bryna.
I then invited Bryna to include an excerpt of her writing and this is taken from Chapter 1 of The Accidental Anarchist: In the Beginning…
I have no excuse, save for the ignorance of youth and a desire for grand adventure, which may have been one and the same thing. Consequently, the seemingly minor decision I made to end my education before the age of thirteen led me down a path from which each future choice was misdirected by the previous foolish one.
The result was that, in a little over ten years, I went from being a yeshiva student, a baker’s assistant, and labor organizer, to a corporal in the Russian army during the war in Manchuria (in which the men under my command wanted to kill me, simply for being a Jew, as much as the enemy did, simply for being in the way), to a revolutionary. For my efforts, I earned my first two death sentences, which was a little more excitement than I needed.
This limited my curiosity as to whether my end would come from freezing or starvation, from Japanese artillery or Chinese bandits, and whether it would be today or tomorrow.
Still, I was slow to put into practice the lessons from my youth and, following the war, became a revolutionary who wanted to overthrow the Czar. This got me involved in amateur spy missions that would have gotten a Hollywood screenwriter fired, but got me sentenced to death for the third time.
But even if my record wasn’t clean, my conscience was; everything I did was done with the most honorable intentions.
And ultimately provided enough excitement to last a lifetime.
yeshiva = Hebrew: Jewish educational institution at elementary or high school level, or beyond
Bryna Kranzler is a graduate of Barnard College, where she studied playwriting, but economic necessity drove her to get a real (read ‘paying’) job. She spent fifteen years in marketing and public relation positions with health care, high-tech and consumer products companies, and earned her MBA from Yale University.
When she was able to return to writing, she found that her focus had shifted to fiction, and more recently to narrative, or ‘creative,’ non-fiction, as in The Accidental Anarchist. She has also written two as-yet-unpublished novels, newspaper articles, numerous personal essays, and dabbles in other forms of writing, as well.
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