Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Mocha with Tamera Alexander

I am embarrassed it took so long but good things come to those who wait, right?! One of the highlights of my time in Atlanta in July was finally meeting Tamera Alexander in person. I have loved every single one of her novels and have followed her blog for several years. We had also connected via email in 2009 as she was journeying through her mom's final days of fighting cancer and blogging about that; I had recently lost my mom, although the circumstances were different. So it was a treat to sit down and chat with her. I also had the opportunity to meet her sweet daughter, Kelsey, who was traveling with her.

Let me tell you - she is as genuine as they come! I felt like we were BFFs from the moment we met! Much of what was on the tape wasn't even an interview, just the two of us talking and laughing! (Ever wondered how those Southern belles with all of their hoops and petticoats managed the call of nature? Well, pantaloons back in the day had slits!) We also discovered that we were born four days apart. Which, of course, puts us equally young at heart but gives me, born first, the edge on maturity! LOL

Grab a cup of your favorite brew and enjoy this chat with Tamera Alexander. And then be sure to make a note of the Facebook party she's having tonight to celebrate the release of her first Belmont Mansion book, A Lasting Impression! (You can read my review here.

It is so great to finally meet you in person! And congratulations on your nomination for a Christy Award tonight!

Thank you! I look at finaling in the Christy Awards as a win. I’ve finaled five times, I think. It’s all very subjective – the difference between first place and second, third, fourth, whatever, is sometimes just a point or less. You have to remember that. You’re there by the grace of God to be given that affirmation at that time. But awards don’t sell more books, necessarily. It doesn’t mean that book is any better than another book. The awards are wonderful. But I think the affirmation from and the connection with readers is what’s wonderful. On that day when I think “I can’t write! What on earth am I doing trying to write another book?!” I don’t turn around and look at the awards. I get out reader mail and say, “I remember that--- when [this reader] wrote that she had just lost her mom after reading Within My Heart and it helped her on her journey, and her sharing that helped me on mine.” I remember you and I wrote some while Mom was sick and afterwards, and that just helps so much because you don’t feel alone. You realize we’re all in this together!

You have such a way with words! The way you describe the scenes is incredible. It’s as if you have a paintbrush and paint the words on the page.

Honestly, if I can’t see it, I can’t write it. It’s like a movie happening. And sometimes – this happened at a couple of the scenes in Within My Heart – there are those moments where the creativity, sleep level, whatever it is, everything aligns and you just can’t type fast enough, the movie that’s playing out. You see the characters, you hear them saying things, and it’s like you're trying to keep up. Obviously, I know, it’s coming from the creative bent or that muse or whatever. It happened with The Inheritance, too, at the end of that book. I was writing and I thought, “I honestly don’t know what to do with this scene at the very last. I know what needs to be done but I don’t know how to get there as far as what things to place and everything. All of a sudden this character walked around the corner. I had not expected him to walk around the corner. I thought, “That’s it!” In those moments—I always used to pull an empty chair up beside me—I would just lean over and say “Thank you, Lord!” Because I had no clue what was going to happen here but apparently He did! And God just gives you those.

I always say writing is a journey, and it really is for me. I’ll be frank: it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. There are a lot of things I can do that are easier than writing! I am currently contracted for a few more books but after that, I have no idea if God will continue to open a door for writing or not. If not, I’ll do whatever He wills because—and this was a theme in one of my books, too—I want to be centered in the middle of God’s will, whatever that is, no matter what it is, because that’s where the greatest happiness and contentment is found. Oftentimes I’ve kinda kicked against the goad or tried to go my own way. We try to chase after things we think will bring us happiness. That’s one of the themes of A Lasting Impression: chasing after what you think will make you happy and not really being authentic in your faith or as a person. You’re putting a front out there when really, the happiest and most contented—and honestly, the most effective for the kingdom—you’ll be, is just to be who you are, to be authentic. That’s been my journey over the last year and a half, specifically, of writing A Lasting Impression. That book is also my first antebellum book, a Southern historical.

Tell me what you have in the works.

I’m working on the next Belmont Mansion book. There will be three Belmont books and three Hermitage books. So I’ll be in the South for awhile, writing about mansions. I’ll probably stay in the post-Civil War era, looking at the histories of those homes and those families, but it will be the fictional story woven behind the backdrop of the history. That will keep me busy, the way that I write, for probably four to five years, and then after that, who knows?

I have a group that I brainstorm with. We each have about an hour and a half to brainstorm. We gather around and the author does a five-minute pitch on that book, and then we all give ideas and talk about plots or characterization or whatever we need help with in that book. We’ll also do what Robin Lee Hatcher, who’s also in that group, calls A List of Twenty. We’ll take, maybe, twenty minutes and you’ll sit and write down as many things as you can (it may not be twenty; there may only be eight!) and you gift those to the author. (She laughs.) I remember last year, I needed a theme for my third Belmont book and they helped me with that one. Then Robin Lee Hatcher, after she suggested it, said, “Shoot! I wish I’d kept that one for me!” And I said, “No, no, no! You gifted it to me! It’s mine now!” We spend several days and eat and plot and eat and walk and plot.

I’m so overwhelmed by the graciousness and the lack of ego you authors have and the camaraderie and friendship among all of y’all.

Oh, I’d sooner give up writing than give up the relationships I’ve made!

In one sense of the word, though, you are basically competing with each other—for shelf space, for reader loyalty. But you are each other’s best friends, and I just think that’s cool!

They are my best friends. Even though I have friends in Nashville, my writer friends are my best buddies and we email every day; we’ll talk on the phone or we’ll Skype or iChat. But I honestly don’t look at them, even if they’re writing historical fiction—they are not my competition. I truly believe, Ephesians 2:10 talks about the masterpieces that God has created for each of us to do before the beginning of time. So to me, before the beginning of time, God knew, in this certain set of days, that I’d be writing, and that my books are going to make it into the hands, however many readers, where God has prepped it—where He has willed it. Some authors, like Karen Kingsbury, are going to reach massive amounts of people, and that’s His journey for her. Authors who sell fewer books, it doesn’t make their journey less important, it’s just a different journey. We’re part of a family. I learn so much from them. I read their books and I start crying or I laugh, and I stop and think, “How did they get me here?” (That’s one thing: If you ever want to learn how to write, it ruins reading novels! It ruins it because you dissect them. It’s very difficult for me to lose myself anymore in a novel.) So yes, we’re all a family. And I’m so thankful for them because I wouldn’t be writing without my buddies who have helped me along. They have honed me and marked up my work and told me, “This was really good, but this was just alright; you need to work on this.” I want to offer God my best, and how can I offer Him the best without knowing how I need to improve? And they help me do that.

So how did you start?

I always loved to write when I was younger. Then someone who was very influential in my life, when I was around twelve or thirteen, got ahold of something I had written and said, “You’ll be making an ass of yourself if you ever let anybody read anything you’ve written.” So I took that to heart. I was sexually abused at the age of five and six and had a lot of issues that I was dealing with, especially in those coming of age years. So my filter was a little skewed, so I tucked writing away and thought about it briefly when I went to college. I ended up majoring in Marketing; that came pretty easily to me and I enjoyed it and worked almost 20 years in that field. Then my mother-in-law, Claudette Alexander, gave me a book in 1995 and said, “I think you’ll love it.” Well, Linda, I looked at the cover and it was a prairie cover and I think it had a chicken on it and it was just not something I thought I would enjoy. I kinda cut my teeth on Dean Koontz and Stephen King, and I read some historical romances too but back then there weren’t hardly any Christian ones; they were all secular. A couple of months went by and she asked if I’d read it, and I said, like we do in the South, “No, but thank you so much! I will!” But I had shelved it. Then we got a call one day unexpectedly and Claudette had died of a brain aneurysm. It was such a shock. She was the one who would eat the broccoli while we’re all chowing down on brownies and she walked all the time; it was so unexpected.

A few months passed and I was cleaning the bookshelves downstairs, just dusting, and I ran across that book. I had completely forgotten about it. I sat down and read it. LOVED it. It was Janette Oke’s Love Comes Softly. I just loved it It was a simple love story. But it painted a picture of God’s unconditional love for me in a way that I had never seen. You know how God will take things and show you a different facet of Himself, a different glimpse. So I went on and tried to read everything in Christian fiction that I could find. At that time it wasn’t nearly what it is now. A couple of years passed and probably in 1997 or 1998, Joe and I were on our way back from Texas and I had just finished a book, tossed it in the back seat, and said, “I think I could write one of those,” just totally kidding. And he said, “Well, why don’t you?” We’ve always been a bit competitive so I said, “Okay, I will!” Sat down and started writing, “It was a dark and stormy night. . . “! (We laugh.) I was working at the time and doing the Mom thing so I wrote from 10:00 pm to 2:00 am, which incidentally, are still my most productive hours. So I finished the book and sent it and thought I’d get an answer in a week or so, yes or no. And a year and a half went by! I had sent it to Bethany House – that’s where my marketing degree came in handy. I looked at the target market and Bethany House by far sold most of the historicals. So I checked out a ton of their books and read them. And even though each genre is different, there is a Bethany House “feel”. I went through three rewrites with my editor and then when it went to the final review board, they said no. Usually, the third time’s the charm (with three rewrites) but they said, “It’s just not there yet, but I’m sure another publisher will snap it up.” And at that point that old voice rose up inside me: “You’re making an ass of yourself. See? Told ya!” But God had healed me and dealt with so many of those issues by then – I was in my late 30’s/early 40’s – I had come through a ton of that and thought, “God never leads you anywhere but that He doesn’t prepare you.” And I thought, to get to a final pub board just on a whim of “I think I’ll write a book” [was pretty good]. I didn’t know what I was doing! So I just tucked that book away.

For the next two years, I basically just dissected my favorite novels, joined ACFW, took writing classes, and learned how to write. I essentially took apart all the aspects of writing. Then 2004 came around and I was coordinating the conference for Francine Rivers at ACFW that year because that’s what I did in my corporate life (coordinated corporate conferences). That year Joe said, “Why don’t we take this year and you give it your all? You’ve been doing it piece-meal, working full-time and writing. Just take a year off [from work] and let’s see how it goes.” That’s when I wrote Rekindled, my first book, and Bethany House offered me a three-book deal then, and then another three-book, and then a six-book, which I just signed. Then about two years ago, my agent called and said Thomas Nelson wanted me to write the first historical for their Women of Faith fiction line. The problem was that they wanted it really soon and I physically couldn’t do it. She said, “You don’t want to turn this down. Do you not have anything tucked away?” And I said, “Ah! I’ve only written one other book and it was my very first book.” It was beyond even fixing up; it was a whole new rewrite. But Linda, I
had lived with these characters. I still dreamed about them and thought about them and their journey. And as God would have it, I had just finished reading a history book on Chinese-Americans in early American history and how they built the railroad across the plains and through the mountains of Colorado, and Women of Faith wanted different ethnic lines in their books to fit the broad ethnicity of their market. So I said to my agent, “I’ve got this book, The Inheritance that I can do.” She said, “Well, they need a write-up for their meeting tomorrow at 8:00 am.” It was 1:00 pm! So I stayed up until 4:30 that next morning, and it came so easily because I knew those characters and had lived with them!

I teach a class on rejection and how to use rejection in your writing, and being willing to rewrite and remaining teachable. But part of it too is, every “no” along the way is really part of God’s final “yes” when His perfect timing is reached, period. What we term as a setback is really part of narrowing down that right way, that journey that God has for you and me. I’ve learned that. The gift is in the journey and in what you learn along the way. That’s the long story of how I got into writing. I loved it when I was younger and never thought I would do it. But God is the restorer of discarded dreams and He dusted it off at the right time. And I could have never written the stories about marriage. My first book was about disappointment in marriage, expectations in marriage, loving your husband for who he is and not for who you want him to be, the husband loving the wife unconditionally like Christ loved the church. I couldn’t have written that at 20-something! I needed 20-something years of life and marriage under my belt! It all works for good!

I know you have a book-signing to get to, so any last words to share?

To the readers, thank you! These journeys that we take together, the relationships through the reader mail, meeting people at events like this and looking into their eyes and just having that connection mean so much, and to know that for us who are believers, it’s only begun! The best is yet to come!

* * * * *

Thanks so much, Tamera! Readers, you will be missing out if you don't get to know this talented author and delightful and gracious woman better, either through her blog, where she posts at least a couple of times a week, or through her Facebook page. Her FB page is especially fun, such as last week when she personally exceeded the FB comment limit during the Bethany House Book Banter party and was banned by FB from commenting for two days, resulting in her sporting some oh-so-fashionable duct tape! I understand her daughter loved this picture so much that she put it on her phone as her mom's profile picture!

Don't miss tonight's Facebook Party with all sorts of prizes, including the grand prize, a Kindle Fire! (Be sure to click the button below BEFORE NOON TODAY to enter to win that!) Pop over now for all the info and click that you will be attending. It starts at 8:00 EST, 7:00 CST, and 5:00 PST.


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Cathy said...

Excellent interview Linda! Thanks for sharing.

Teri said...

Thanks Linda for a wonderful interview with Tamera. I enjoyed getting to know her better. I love her novels! I'm reading A Lasting Impression now. What a great story!