My last post was my 300th post on this blog — and what better way to celebrate this milestone than with my first-ever guest blog? I’m absolutely thrilled to host a Q&A session with the lovely, talented, funny, and generally amazing Chantel Acevedo. Chantel was kind enough to answer my questions about Song of the Red Cloak, her new book, even after I texted her repeatedly in all-caps telling her that she needed to publish the second book in the trilogy IMMEDIATELY IF NOT SOONER because I couldn’t handle waiting to find out what else happened to the characters.
Seriously, if you haven’t already, please do read the book. I desperately need to geek out about it with someone. And now is as good an opportunity as any, as Chantel is holding an incredible giveaway — Tweet and/or in response to her post about the brave not-actually-so-new-after-all world of self-pubishing, and not only could you win a copy of Song of the Red Cloak, you could win her clay figurines! Actually, I kind of want those. And by “kind of ” I mean “REALLY.” So maybe you should enter the giveaway contest, but in my name. Or just send them to me if you win them. I mean, you can keep one, but I really want the rest. I’ll send you pictures.
Shoot. I promised myself I wouldn’t geek out too much, so let’s get to the main feature here:
EMMA: What inspired you to start this project?
CHANTEL: First of all, I generally don’t believe in inspiration. Good ideas normally don’t come bursting from my head, all Athena-like. They usually emerge only AFTER I’ve spent some time with the page, generating material. But, I may have to give one up to inspiration this time. The idea for SONG OF THE RED CLOAK came nearly fully formed one afternoon while talking with my husband. I normally don’t know how a piece goes from beginning to end when I start, but with this one, I did. Maybe it WAS a muse. It’s a book about Ancient Greeks, after all.
EMMA: In your notes at the end of the book, you thank your daughter for asking you to tell her the story again and again. Was storytelling part of your writing process? How did it help you? (PS — here is where I was going to geek the eff out about oral tradition and storytelling in ancient Greece)
CHANTEL: So much so! The first draft of the novel featured a frame narrative, where a singer tells Galen’s story. Sort of like the way an epic poem would be shared, lyre and all. But the frame, ultimately, was a bit too limiting, and hurt the urgency of the telling. But I’ve always said I was a Classicist in a past life, and the patterns and permutations of those old stories–The Odyssey, Euripedes’ plays, etc–were an early kind of model for the novel. Additionally, I’m a big fan of retellings of classical stories. Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad is perfect. Ursula K LeGuin’s Lavinia, which retells The Aeneid from Lavinia’s perspective is amazing. I could go on. Those current works were an inspiration, too. I love the way the characters in those books are given new life, and the way that they answer the difficult questions that their ancient counterparts could not. In that way, Galen, a helot, is given a voice that does not exist in any classical texts. Slaves weren’t writing epic poems, as far as we know.
EMMA: How is writing a young adult book different from a “for-grown-ups” book, like Love and Ghost Letters? How did you decided that the story was best for YA?
CHANTEL: I don’t like the idea that books for children are “dumbed down” in any way. I told myself that I wouldn’t do that. That I’d respect the intelligence of the teens reading the book, an age group that I worked with for a long time, and which I found could be sometimes more perceptive than adults. Besides, I wanted adults to enjoy the book, too. The characters were teenagers from the start. And the narrative voice wouldn’t be “looking back” in any way. It was immediate. Concerned with both epic things–the fate of Sparta, war, rebellion–and teenage angst-fuel–crushes, first kisses, etc. It seemed the story was always YA because of that balance.
EMMA: The research process for this book must have been exhausting, in both the “reading everything about ancient Greece) sense and the “boy, I have read so much about ancient Greece that I am exhausted” sense. Can you tell us a little about the research process?
CHANTEL: I started out by trying to “read everything.” I discovered Paul Cartledge, who is THE scholar on Sparta, and read a few of his books. I watched a few History Channel documentaries. All the while, I was writing the novel. I’d find, upon discovering a certain fact, that I’d have to go back and change a bunch of stuff. But I plowed forward anyway. Research and composing happened, roughly, at the same time. It did feel exhausting at times. Particularly, in that moment towards the end, when you think you’re done, and a historian you know tells you the accurate weight of a spear, or that hammocks weren’t a Greek thing. And so, you have to come back to the draft (again) and change every scene with a spear in it, and switch the word “hammock” to “cot” about a billion times.
EMMA: Though the research that went into your writing must have been daunting, reading the book is far from that! The research is beautifully incorporated and works to push forward the well-constructed, exciting story. In the end, I realized I’d not only been completely absorbed in reading the story but also that I’d learned so much about ancient Greece, from politics to military training to cultural customs to — and I was especially excited about this — their beliefs about MONSTERS. How did you incorporate your research so seamless into the plot?
CHANTEL: Thanks. That was tricky. And it took a while to find the right rhythms. There is so much a reader needs to know up front, that my biggest fear was making the book top-heavy. I read a few historical YA books to try and figure out the balance that was necessary. The trick is to couch the information in moments of high action. So, we learn about the Crypteia through dialogue, instead of exposition, in a moment when the boys, Galen and Nikolas, are feeling especially tense. You keep doing that. I don’t have a Dumbledore character–a know-it-all who serves to explain the unknown (though I love Dumbledore!), so when the reader needed to know something, I’d have to present it in the thick of a tense moment. In a way, it softens the blow of having to learn something new. Spoonful of sugar and all that…
EMMA: How did you decided to self-publish?
CHANTEL: This was a difficult decision, for sure. My agent and her team loved the book. We sent it out widely, confidently, to the big houses in New York. Several editors championed the book, but marketing shut them down in each case. Mainly, there seemed to be some concerns that the book was centered on a boy, since YA is so very girl-centric right now. I wish I could share the emails from these editors. An editor I admire a great deal called the book “fierce,” but she couldn’t get it past the rest of the publishing team. There were SO MANY SIGHS over that one. Ultimately, it was a no-go all around, despite the early support. Had the response not been as good, or if it had been more uneven, I wouldn’t have self-pubbed the book. But I think this was the right sort of book for this move. It’s a departure for me. It was highly edited and polished and vetted. Perhaps it won’t earn the kind of money a publisher needs to justify an acquisition, but it’s still a good book, and, I think, deserves more than just a folder on my hard drive.
Confession: there are other books I’ve written that I wouldn’t dream of self-publishing. They aren’t ready. They may never be. To self-publish, when all you’ve gotten is poor feedback, is a bad idea. To self-publish out of a sense of privilege–as in, “I DESERVE this, New York be damned!”–is vain at best. You’re delivering a product, and if it isn’t right, then you’re scamming your readers, who also happen to be customers. $4.99 isn’t a lot to ask for an e-book, but it’s still $4.99. If the book is bad, readers are going to feel ripped off.
EMMA: Can you talk a little about the process of putting together and marketing a self-published book?
CHANTEL: Putting it together can be as easy or as difficult as you want it to be. Kindle Direct Publishing lets you upload a Word document, and you’re done. But without HTML coding, the thing will look pretty awful. I’m lucky to be married to a computer genius, who did that work gladly, but otherwise, writers can expect to pay for that work. Same goes for the cover. I had mine professionally designed by a talented young artist named Shanna Lockwood. The free covers that Amazon offers aren’t very attractive. So, putting it together? Can take four months, as it did for me, or two hours. As for cost, Kindle Direct, Barnes & Noble’s Pub-it!, and Create-Space, are all free services. Self-publishing has come a long way from the “vanity presses” of just a few years ago.
As for marketing, I’m figuring that out! Social networking seems to be the best way for a self-published author to get the word out. Hell, traditionally published authors are relying on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, book bloggers and giveaways, too. I remember when I published LOVE AND GHOST LETTERS with St. Martin’s Press, my editor told me that the publicity was up to me. And it totally was. So, I guess that self-published authors, and traditionally published ones (those who are sort of midlist and can’t depend on a lot of house support) are in the same marketing boat.
EMMA: I have to confess that I was a little mad at you at the end of the book. Okay, a lot mad. Why? I wanted to read the next one IMMEDIATELY. Can you give me even a teeny tiny sneak peek at what’s to come? Ice cream with a cherry on top?
CHANTEL: All great Greek heroes have one thing in common–at some point, they end up in hell. I mean that literally. The Underworld is a destination for all them. Hercules, Odysseus, Aeneid. Later, Dante makes his famous trip through hell. Even Harry Potter gets to visit the afterlife, though in his case, it’s a train station! So, you can expect Galen and his (surviving) friends to find their way to Hades. Meanwhile, in Sparta, a different sort of rebellion is brewing…
Thank you, Chantel, for answering my questions, and especially for giving me a preview of what’s to come in the next book. NOW PLEASE FINISH IT IMMEDIATELY IF NOT SOONER. AND TELL ME WHAT HAPPENS AS YOU WRITE IT. And gentle readers of this blog, I’m serious about wanting to talk about this book. Comment when you read!