Welcome to the three hundred and ninety-sixth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with historical novelist Sherry Jones. 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, Sherry. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Sherry: I live in Spokane, Washington, in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, but I’m originally from North Carolina – a Southern gal who’s really been influenced by Southern authors. My love for writing springs directly from my love for reading. I can remember a time when I wasn’t reading, but just barely. My mother says I learned when I was 4. I recall sitting on her lap with a Dr. Seuss book – “Hop on Pop,” probably – and suddenly grasping what it was I was supposed to do. It was as if she’d flipped a switch. I’ve read voraciously ever since, mostly novels. I love fiction’s power to transport me to another time and place.
Morgen: I read a lot (mostly Stephen King novels, under the duvet with a torch, so I blame him for me wearing glasses) but it took me 30+ years to realise that writing could actually be a profession (and one I love enough to have given up the day job). What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Sherry: So far, I’m writing historical fiction. I may write something contemporary at some point, but it will probably center on women. I have never “gotten” the oppression of women, considering myself more capable than most men I have known, and I will probably explore women’s power and powerlessness in my books for as long as I write.
Morgen: What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Sherry: My first two novels were “The Jewel of Medina,” a very controversial book because it’s about the Prophet Muhammad and his child bride A’isha, and “The Sword of Medina,” about A’isha’s life as an empowered adult woman and her role in the first Islamic civil war. Both books were international best-sellers. They were originally set for publication in 2008 from Ballantine, a division of Random House, but a professor of Middle Eastern studies read “Jewel” and warned the higher-ups that my book might cause terrorist attacks. Ballantine backed out of publishing and then, suddenly, everyone was frightened. I was frightened. But I believed in my books. Finally we found a small publisher, Beaufort Books, willing to take the risk and bring them out.
Simon and Schuster is my publisher now. They published “White Heart,” my e-novella about Blanche de Castille, the White Queen of France. She was a snarky, sensational queen, very strong and determined to hold the throne for her son against misogynistic barons who went around complaining about being ruled by a woman and who tried sexual slander to bring her down. It didn’t work. She turned the tables on them and shamed them into submission. My kind of gal!
Blanche is in my novel, “Four Sisters, All Queens,” too. It’s about four sisters in 13th century Provence who became queens of France, England, Germany, and Sicily. They enjoyed happy relationships with one another until their father, the Count of Provence, died leaving his title and lands to the youngest daughter, hoping to secure as good a marriage for her as for her sisters. Hostilities ensued, and struggles that tore the family apart. Really, though, what they were fighting over is power. Marguerite, who had no power even as queen thanks to her mother-in-law Blanche, had always had the promise of ruling Provence as a palliative. After losing that, she spent the rest of her life demanding it back. It’s sad, but also admirable. She never gave up working the system to gain what she thought was rightfully hers.
Morgen: You pick such powerful subjects, no wonder your books have been bestsellers. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Sherry: Sure, I’ve had rejections. They can be very discouraging. Having worked as a newspaper reporter for 30 years, however, I’ve always been able to consider criticism in the spirit in which it is meant. Mean-spiritedness I shrug off – it tells me more about the writer than about the writing. The rest I try to learn from. My goal is to be the best writer I can be, and I’ll never get there except with skin as thick and durable as a rubber tire.
Morgen: And for me, every rejection makes it thicker. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions?
Sherry: “The Jewel of Medina” was shortlisted for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers’ Award. It was also a finalist for an historical fiction award from FOREWORD magazine. “The Sword of Medina” won a silver medal in the Independent Publishers’ Association awards – the “Ippys.”
Morgen: What a coincidence – my interviewee yesterday (Marni Graff) was shortlisted for an Ippy. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Sherry: My agent is Natasha Kern, one of the top agents in the biz. I dedicated “Four Sisters, All Queens” to her. I cannot begin to count all the ways she has helped me. IMHO an agent is not only vital to an author’s success, an agent is a must for an author’s sanity.
Morgen: 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?
Sherry: All my books are available as ebooks. I love ebooks. I have an iPad and my daughter has a Kindle. I adore the instant gratification, the ability to highlight text and make notes, then search for them later. I think ebooks have a very exciting future and will be able to do some things that conventional books cannot. Music, for instance: The man I love is a composer and we are discussing collaborating on my next novel, about the 12th century lovers Heloise and Abelard. He wants to set their love letters to music. It would be so cool if we could include his amazing music in the ebook version of this novel.
Morgen: Wow, that sounds amazing. I love technology. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Sherry: I am a shameless self-promoter. But what’s to be ashamed of? I want my books to be read. I spend hours every day online, telling people about my books. I spend hours more every day thinking up new ways to publicize them.
Morgen: Absolutely, that’s why were here (well, to entertain and educate but in the hope that our books will be read). Authors have to do more marketing that ever – because agents and publishers are busier than ever and because there are more writers now trying to compete with the readers’ attention, although I do believe that there are more readers now too. 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?
Sherry: I love all the women in my books as if they were a part of me, which they are. A’isha was a witty and scary-smart young woman who became the most famous and influential woman in Islam – even after Muhammad’s death, when women lost all the rights he’d handed to them. Blanche defied patriarchy by becoming, in essence, a man – following the tradition of the Egyptian pharaoh Hatshepsut and setting the stage for Queen Elizabeth I of England. And the women in “Four Sisters, All Queens” are all fascinating, each with a completely different personality. My favorite scenes in these books are the ones where all the women are conversing. I love the banter, the give-and-take, the unique voices of the different women.
Morgen: I’ve written a few dialogue-only pieces recently for my Story A Day May and 5PM Fiction pages and as you say fun to write banter. Did you have any say in the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Sherry: Oh, extremely important. People judge books by their covers all the time! I’ve been fortunate to have exquisite covers for all my books. I don’t quibble much about it, since I’m not particularly visually oriented.
I’m terrible at titles. I always think so literally. “The Jewel of Medina” was “Child Bride” at first, but my agent found that title creepy. Editor Judy Sternlight and the entire editorial team at Ballantine spent weeks going back and forth with ideas before coming up with that perfect title.
“Four Sisters, All Queens” is very literal, a working title, but my editor loved it. At least you know what it’s about right off the bat.
Morgen: That’s true, and as the saying goes, it should do what it says on the tin. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Sherry: I’m writing a novel about Heloise and Abelard, the famous 12th century lovers – he, the most famous philosopher and poet in the world, and she the most brilliant scholar, and his student. We’ve known about them for hundreds of years because of letters written to each other 12 years after their love relationship ended so tragically. In recent years, however, researchers have discovered 113 letters they wrote to each other during their courtship. They’re beautiful and shed much light on their love – and my novel will be the first to explore it in light of these new discoveries. It’s great fun for me to write about them – my first foray into (tasteful) erotic fiction!
Of course, it will also be a feminist book, as all my novels are. Heloise dared to live life on her own terms, not those set for her by patriarchy – i.e., the Church. As a result, she lost everything, or so it seemed to her.
Morgen: Historical and erotica are incredibly popular so I’m sure a combination of the two will be equally so. Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Sherry: No I don’t write every day except when I’m in “writing mode” with my next novel – then I am obsessed, and cannot stop! I take lots of time to research and also to read the very best contemporary writing (I’ve just finished Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up the Bodies”) in hopes that my own writing will be influenced.
Morgen: Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Sherry: I plot, but I don’t always stick to it when I actually write.
Morgen: I’d be surprised if anyone does. I love the unknown about writing fiction, even basing it on real life. Do you have a method for creating your characters, and what do you think makes them believable?
Sherry: I try to see each character as multi-faceted, since we are all mixtures of good and bad, of light and dark. I take long walks and think about my characters; I talk to them and they respond. I’m sure I’ll be the eccentric old lady in my neighborhood walking around muttering to herself.
Being a journalist for 30 years really gave me many insights into human nature, into the complexity of people, as well as empathy for others. I think these are necessary for successful character development. I also learn so much from reading. Nicole Krauss, for example, is superb at giving her characters distinct voices.
Morgen: I’m the neighbour who walks her dog, nose in a (writing) magazine or scribbling away. It’s the only way I get everything done. Besides, if there weren’t people like us around what would other writers write about? Do you write any poetry? If so, are there any tips you could give to someone wishing to write poetry?
Sherry: I love to read, and write poetry, but I’ve never tried to publish any of it. The best advice I can give to anyone wanting to write anything is to read, read, read, and write, write, write!
Morgen: I write very little poetry but I read even less. I love writing short stories so that’s my comfort zone when writing. Do you write any non-fiction or short stories?
Sherry: I wrote non-fiction as a journalist for 30 years. It was great because, not only did it give me empathy and insights into the human condition, but it also required me to write every day. Reporters don’t have the luxury of writer’s block!
I’ve written a long short story, WHITE HEART, that’s a prequel to FOUR SISTERS, ALL QUEENS and getting great reviews. Simon & Schuster published it as an e-read, available for $1.99. I’ve also written, and self-published, a literary fiction story called “Rapture,” a tongue-in-cheek tale about religious hypocrisy. It’s available on Amazon.
Morgen: You mentioned editing earlier, do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Sherry: The more I write, the better I get. THE JEWEL OF MEDINA, my first novel, took seven drafts before it was finished. FOUR SISTERS, ALL QUEENS took three – and none of them was an extensive rewrite, as happened with JEWEL.
Morgen: Writing historical as you do, do you have to do much research?
Sherry: Yes. I’d say I spend as much time researching as I do writing. For THE JEWEL OF MEDINA, I read 29 books and countless articles. Often I read a book more than once, also. It takes a while for characters and situations to really sink in. While I’m writing, I’m also stopping frequently to look up this or that. It’s maddening in that it interrupts my flow. With this new book, I’m trying something different: making research notes as I go, then giving myself an hour or two at the end of the day to look things up.
Morgen: I’m terrible at flicking between Word and the internet when I’m writing. If it’s a too technical query I tend to type ‘MORE HERE’ and come back to it later… otherwise it’s so easy to spend hours online and all of a sudden it’s getting dark. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Sherry: Each point of view has its place; the trick is figuring out which best serves the story one is telling. THE JEWEL OF MEDINA was in first person because I wanted an intimate portrayal of A’isha, the protagonist. THE SWORD OF MEDINA alternated first-person accounts between A’isha and Ali, because I wanted the reader to see that each was multi-faceted: We got to see A’isha through Ali’s eyes and vice-versa. FOUR SISTERS, ALL QUEENS is told in third person because it’s the tale of all four sisters, and needed a bit of distance to achieve that. WHITE HEART begins in third person, because Blanche de Castille is stripping before the barons’ council to prove she isn’t pregnant, and I wanted a bit of detachment for that scene. Then it shifts into first person so we can know Blanche intimately.
I wrote a newspaper article in second person and it turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever written. It was about the Rose Lady, a woman who peddles roses in the nightclubs of Missoula, Montana. I wrote it like this: “When you’re the Rose Lady, women smile as you approach with your basket of flowers. Men, however, pretend not to see you, or try to stare you down, hoping you’ll turn around and walk away.”
Morgen: Second is an acquired taste that some don’t acquire (or want to acquire) but regular readers of these interviews and this blog’s Tuesday Tales page will know it’s my favourite. It’s best suited to short pieces and it’s always lovely to read someone else’s. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Sherry: I wrote a novel about sex addiction called “Baby Doll” that is just terrible, beyond revising. I tried to use pornography as a literary device. It’s supposed to be serious but it’s so ridiculous and relentless that all it does is make you laugh.
Morgen: They’re incredibly popular eBooks. (not that I’ve written one… yet ). What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Sherry: My favorite aspect is meeting book lovers – especially readers of my books — and discussing books with them. I also love the English language and getting to immerse myself in it every day by either writing or reading. The adrenaline rush is positively addicting! My least favorite part is never knowing how much money will come to me, or when, and not having any control over decisions that affect my financial future. Beaufort Books, publisher of THE JEWEL OF MEDINA and THE SWORD OF MEDINA, never brought out a paperback version of my books, which hurt. What’s even worse: almost no one will see either of my books on their bookstore’s shelves, which means A’isha’s amazing story reaches fewer readers. I get my rights back in 2015, though, and I do hope to find a paperback publisher then.
Morgen: I can’t see you having a problem. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Sherry: Read good work! And don’t listen to that “monkey mind” voice telling you that your writing sucks. Hemingway said the first draft is always shit, and he was right. Keep writing, keep believing in yourself, and don’t put your work out there before it’s really and truly good.
Morgen: Which is where second readers come in. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Sherry: Jesus (if he really existed), Dorothy Parker, and Oscar Wilde. I’d serve my famous, everything-made-from-scratch lasagne.
Morgen: Yum. Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Sherry: “Carpe diem,” or “seize the day,” is one of my credoes. “Love is a verb” is another.
Morgen: The former is famously quoted in the film Dead Poets Society, a great film. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Sherry: I have done editing, and I hope to teach continuing education classes in novel writing. I also do some work in schools with writing, and I give kick-ass speeches.
Morgen: That I’d like to see… on YouTube perhaps? What do you do when you’re not writing?
Sherry: Cooking, playing classical piano, taking long walks, reading, learning foreign languages, and (reluctantly) gardening – because I love having a garden but I hate doing the dull and tedious work. You’ll usually find me doing it with a mint julep in hand.
Morgen: Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful?
Sherry: John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction” is a great book, as are Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones” and “Wild Mind.” Donald Maass’s books on writing are priceless. For finding an agent – a must, even if you’re self-publishing – I’d go to http://agentquery.com. And for goodness’ sake, do not query one agent at a time! Query ten or even twenty at once. Trust me, they expect you to do this.
Morgen: I submitted to eight and saw another three at Winchester Writers’ Conference last year. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Sherry: I’m a huge Facebook user, with not only a friend page (“authorsherryjones”) but also a group page (“Sherry Jones fans”) and a fan page. I’m on Twitter, too, as @sherryjones, and on Goodreads, my favorite place to meet readers and talk about books.
Morgen: I’m on Goodreads but I’ve not explored it properly yet. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Sherry: With so much mediocre work flooding the “indie” and e-book market, new authors whose work is truly good are going to have a harder and harder time getting noticed. Established authors will benefit the most as they find they can self-publish and keep all the profits from their sales.
On the other hand, this is a very exciting time to be a writer. So much is changing so quickly. E-books, which our kids have already embraced, are the wave of the future. I don’t have a problem with this. They offer so much potential: Music! Video! Excerpts from other books! The sky is, very soon, going to be the limit, both in terms of what authors can offer to their readers and also what they can expect in return.
Morgen: Isn’t that great. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Sherry: My awesome website: www.authorsherryjones.com. Thanks for asking!
Morgen: You’re very welcome. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Sherry: I’ve just returned from Serbia, promoting my new book which has been translated into Serbian and published by Beobook. It was a great trip, and I got to meet lots of fans! “Four Sisters, All Queens” is also scheduled for translation into Italian with publisher Newton & Compton.
Morgen: Ah ha. Some of these interviews have been published into Italian (by Librini (Serena)) – I’ll let her know this one is available. Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Sherry: Where’s the bar?
Morgen: According to my teetotal mother, it’s in my dining room although I blame my brother (I don’t really) for giving me duty-free Southern Comfort or Bailey’s each birthday / Christmas (he lives in Switzerland). Thank you, Sherry.
I then invited Sherry to include an extract of her writing and this is from WHITE HEART:
She sweeps into the hall clad in spotless white, the color of angels and mourning queens. Pierre Mauclerc’s eyes gleam at her, lurid with imagined sin, but he has seen nothing as yet. He sits on his bench with his lips to the ear of Hugh de Lusignan, whispering lies while forty other barons of the realm mill and chatter, their exclamations and barks of laughter bouncing about the stone walls as Blanche begins to remove her clothes.
She stands in their midst, her head high, her white-gloved hand lifted to the white cord tying her ermine-lined mantle across her chest. Down it falls into the waiting hand of Mincia, her maid. Pierre’s mouth ceases to move. Heads turn her way; eyes pop at the sight of her face, made up in the shape of a startling and, she hopes, poignant, heart. Her lips are white, her eyebrows. They used to call her “white in heart” and they will again, by God.
She slides her white velvet surcoat over her arms and drops it into Mincia’s care. The hall falls hush as if words were birds settling in the rafters, rustling their wings. Mincia draws a knife from the sheath on her hip and, with a flash of the blade, cuts the threads tying the sleeves of Blanche’s gown to her outstretched arms. For this occasion she has donned her tunic of white silk embroidered with white fleurde-lis, the emblem of France. Five pearl necklaces drape across her chest, hiding her flush but not her breasts, which must be fully revealed.
I then invited Sherry to include a synopsis of one of her books…
From the award-winning author of the controversial international bestseller The Jewel of Medina, a historical novel that chronicles the lives of four sisters, all daughters of Beatrice of Provence—all of whom became queens in medieval Europe…
When Beatrice of Savoy, countess of Provence, sends her four beautiful, accomplished daughters to become queens, she admonishes them: Family comes first. As a result, the daughters—Marguerite, queen of France; Eléonore, queen of England; Sanchia, queen of Germany; and Beatrice, queen of Sicily—work not only to expand their husbands’ empires and broker peace between nations, but also to bring the House of Savoy to greater power and influence than before. Their father’s death, however, tears the sisters apart, pitting them against one another for the legacy each believes rightfully hers—Provence itself. Told from alternating points of view of all four queens, and set in the tumultuous thirteenth century, this is a tale of greed, lust, ambition, and sibling rivalry on a royal scale, exploring the meaning of true power and bringing to life four of the most celebrated women of their time—each of whom had an impact on the history of Europe.
Sherry Jones is perhaps best known for her controversial novels, The Jewel of Medina and The Sword of Medina, international best sellers about the life of A’isha, who married the Muslim prophet Muhammad at age nine and went on to become the most famous and influential woman in Islam. Her new book, Four Sisters, All Queens, a tale of four sisters in 13th century Provence who became queens of France, England, Germany, and Italy, comes out in May 2012 from Simon & Schuster’s Gallery Books. She is also publishing a novella, White Heart, about the famous French “White Queen” Blanche de Castille, as an e-book in April, also from Simon & Schuster.
If you are reading this and you write, in whatever genre, and are thinking “ooh, I’d like to do this” then you can… just email me and I’ll send you the information. They do now (January 2013) carry a fee (£10 / €12.50 / $15) for the new interviews on this blog but everything else (see Opportunities on this blog) is free.
If you go for the interview, it’s very simple; I send you a questionnaire (I have them for novelists, short story authors, children’s authors, non-fiction authors, and poets). You complete the questions, and I let you know when it’s going to go live. Before it does so, I add in comments as if we’re chatting, and then they get posted. When that’s done, I email you with the link so you can share it with your corner of the literary world. And if you have a writing-related blog / podcast and would like to interview me… let me know.
Alternatively, if you’d like a free Q&A-only interview, I now have http://morgensauthorinterviews.wordpress.com on which I’ve rerun the original interviews posted here then posted new interviews which I then reblog here. These interviews are Q&A only, so I don’t add in my comments but they do get exposure on both sites.
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