With a publishing industry that is ever in flux, it can be hard for an aspiring author to figure out what information is relevant and what she needs to do to be successful. Recognizing this, literary agent Andrea Hurst and writer/blogger Cherise Hensley present a series of weekly interviews with publishing industry specialists. The AUTHORNOMICS Series features literary agents, editors, authors, marketing experts and more talking about their opinions on the publishing industry, writing, and what a writer needs to know.
AUTHORNOMICS Interview with author Bharti Kirchner
Bharti Kirchner is a multi-genre author of nine books—five critically acclaimed novels (including a mystery), four cookbooks, and hundreds of short pieces for magazines and newspapers. Her essays have appeared in ten anthologies. Her short story has recently been included in a “Best of Noir” anthology titled USA NOIR: The Best of Akashic Noir. She has won numerous awards for her writing, including a Fellowship from Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and has been honored as a Living Pioneer Asian American Author. She teaches at writer’s conferences nationwide and as a guest lecturer for creative writing programs. To learn more, visit her website at www.bhartikirchner.com.
You’ve written hundreds of short pieces for magazines and newspapers. How is your writing process for a short story different from writing a novel?
The processes are entirely different, whether they’re short fiction or magazine pieces (which I do more often, but will not bring up here for lack of space). First, consider the usual length of a novel, 350 or so pages and contrast that with 20 or so pages for a short story. Because of its size, every word in a short story has to count, whereas in a novel, you can develop the situations a bit more leisurely. Also, I make sure my novel stands on a bigger idea, has a more complex plot, and that there is far more at stake. In a short story, in general, I deal with fewer events taking place over a brief period of time, usually in the context of a single setting.
What would you suggest a writer who is interested in writing short stories concentrate on to get their work published?
Write the story, have it read by your critique group, rewrite and revise as many times as necessary. Don’t be in too much of a hurry. To get published in one of the more prestigious outlets, you have to have that extra spark in your work, which will emerge when you fully grasp the meaning of the story and are able to express it.
Your latest book, Tulip Season, is your first mystery novel. What were some of your techniques for writing a mystery? Do you find it more challenging than other genres? Do you plan on writing more Mitra Basu mysteries?
It’s not easy to switch from one fiction genre to another. Each has its requirements and one must study extensively and understand the conventions before proceeding, which is what I did.
With Tulip Season, as is the case with my other novels, I didn’t outline or consciously follow certain techniques, I began with a single sentence and kept writing until I reached The End. However, certain questions were always in the back of my mind: Have I created the right atmosphere? Introduced the villain early enough? Do I have red herrings? Did I play fair? And so on.
I also tried to humanize the villains, whenever I could do so. “A weed is nothing but a flower in disguise,” so said the protagonist of Tulip Season in a gardening context. It can also apply to a villain.
Mystery fans are voracious readers and they’ve read just about everything. You must, therefore, constantly come up with fresh new twists to keep them glued to the page. This is one reason why writing a mystery can be challenging. Also, in a mystery novel, certain elements such as action, pacing, and character motivations are more crucial than, say, in a literary novel. You can’t, for example, have your protagonist lounge at the dressing table for an hour and ponder which color of lipstick to choose, as you could in literary fiction. Unless, of course, she’s contemplating murder and the lipstick is a murder weapon!
Readers have given an enthusiastic reception to Tulip Season. They frequently ask me about the sequel, and I am now busily working on it.
As an author of cookbooks and various articles on the topic, why do you think food is such a compelling and marketable subject? Does your background in food spill over into your novels?
Food is our common language, so to speak. You can hook the reader in simply by describing the color, smell, and texture of food: a plate of ravioli, a piece of almond cake, a glass of watermelon smoothie. In today’s globalized world, we can savor dishes from other cultures on a regular basis. Eating out has become a ritual for many. At the same time, people are more aware of what real food is and what the benefits are of home cooking. All of this can help make your manuscript more compelling. In fiction, food is a symbol of caring, of deepening relationships, desire, warmth, and appreciation. You can also make the setting of your fiction seem more realistic by mentioning dishes that are famous in that area.
Although I no longer write cookbooks, I am still a foodie. When I start a novel, instead of doing a character chart, I sometimes do a food chart. What does the protagonist have for breakfast? For dinner? What childhood dish is she nostalgic about? Her eating habits can provide valuable clues to her character.
I don’t, however, like to overdo food references. I only sprinkle names of dishes here and there on the pages, unless of course the novel is food-themed, as was the case with Pastries.
Have you found that your varied life experiences have influenced your writing? Should all writers follow the saying “write what you know”?
Although I generally write what I am most familiar with, I also believe in “Write what you don’t know, but are passionate about.” This can sometimes work out even better. My novel Pastries: A Novel of Desserts and Discoveries is set partly in Japan. Although, prior to beginning the novel, I made a few trips to that country, it is my interest in the culture, extensive readings on the subject, talking with my Japanese friends, and constantly trying to make sure I got the details right that made Kyoto come alive on my pages.
You recently spoke on a panel at AWP in Seattle. What do you find most rewarding about attending conferences like AWP?
At AWP, the panelists didn’t just talk about themselves and their work, which can be fascinating, but took the extra step of exploring the subject matter on hand. In mine, Pacific Northwest Authors Speak about their Landscapes, for example, we discussed what a place really means. It is the physical landscape, of course, but for a fuller understanding it can also include the history, social and political climate, flowers and birds, architecture, and the character’s emotional reactions to her surroundings.
At conferences, what is the best advice you would give writers to get the most out of them?
Depends on what a writer is after. Most writers gravitate to a conference to get an agent and that is an achievable goal, provided you have a publishable, agent-ready manuscript. However, I think, while you’re at it, you can make the most of your time and money investment by attending some workshop sessions. Make your selection based on the bios and reputations of the panelists or the topic itself. The other important aspect is networking. You can make important business contacts or personal friendships by simply being open to everyone you meet.
Some writers say they’ve heard it all, that there’s nothing new to learn at a conference. My feeling is this: Regardless, it helps to listen to the personal stories of the presenters, which might shed a new light on an aspect of writing or the current state of the industry. Mingling at a conference can also boost your spirit. Just listening to the stories of attendees, who have tried, failed, tried again, and succeeded, you can find yourself newly inspired. The process of writing and publishing is never easy and therefore you must never stop networking.
As an award-winning author, what steps do you take to maintain your platform? What tips do you have for other writers looking to do the same?
If writing is a 24/7 endeavor, then so is platform-maintenance. It is a continual process, not just when a new book comes out. That said, it’s time-consuming and you must allocate time for writing. I try to keep up with the social media as best I can. And I try to go beyond that. I write magazine and newspaper pieces, which means my byline is seen by a large audience. Since I like face-to-face contact, I take part in readings and other book-related public events. Also, I teach writing whenever the opportunity arises.
If you concentrate on those public/media activities that you enjoy doing, then platform-building won’t seem like a chore. However, you must keep in mind that it’s the quality of the book you write, the nature of the story you tell, that draws the readers to your work. No amount of publicity can add merit to a book.
Do you have any upcoming events or projects we can look out for in the future?
I’ll teach a short story class at the Hugo House (3/29, 1 to 3 p.m.), appearing in a mystery writers’ panel at the Bellevue Library (4/5, 2 to 3:30 p.m.), and celebrating a Seattle Public Library event with the Seattle7Writers (in May).
I am working on two book projects: A historical novel titled, Goddess of Fire. Set in India in the 17th Century, it is the story of a young village girl who finds herself in the alien world of the British East India Company.
My other book is titled Season of Sacrifice, which is set in Seattle in contemporary times. A young garden designer witnesses two self-immolations (to protest against the Chinese occupation of Tibet) by a pair of women on a street corner and is soon involved in finding out who they are and why they took such a drastic means to end their lives.
Any advice to new writers?
Read widely, observe closely, and use your imagination. Anything you imagine vividly can be yours. You just have to give a voice to it.
Andrea Hurst has over 25 years experience as a published author, developmental editor for publishers, and skilled literary agent. She works with both major and regional publishing houses, and her client list includes emerging new voices and New York Times best-selling authors. Andrea represents high profile Adult Nonfiction and well crafted fiction. Her clients and their books have appeared on the Oprah Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, Good Morning America, National Geographic network and in the New York Times.
Cherise Hensley is currently pursuing her M.A. in English at the University of Idaho. She graduated from Whitworth University with a B.A. in English and marketing and also has a copy editing certification from UC San Diego. She has interned with Andrea Hurst Literary Management as well as the Rock & Sling literary journal and has been involved in the production of other print media such as newspapers, magazines, and yearbooks. Cherise is an editor and a writer, and loves discovering new books to distract her from everyday life.