Today I talk about outlining, writing literary fiction fast and ambition with Libbie Hawker.
In the intro I mention my own writing update and how CrimeFest literary festival has changed so much for indies over the last few years, plus, Goodreads expansion into ebook giveaways and email marketing for books on sale, which will see them up against promotional platforms like BookBub.
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
Libbie Hawker writes historical and literary fiction featuring complex characters and rich details of time and place, including an awesome series about ancient Egypt, one of my own obsessions. Libbie is well known in the author community for her books for authors, Gotta Read It, about book descriptions, Take Off Your Pants, about outlining, and Making it in Historical Fiction.
- How long it took Libbie to become a full-time author.
- The difference between plotting and pantsing and what the three-legged outline is.
- On whether outlining makes stories formulaic.
- How outlining plays a role in prolific output and where research falls in Libbie’s writing schedule.
- Are speed and quality mutually exclusive?
- How Libbie plans her writing schedule for the year and decides which projects are indie and which are traditionally published.
- Balancing earning a living versus literary work.
- On the change in attitude toward an author’s work once decades have passed.
Transcript of Interview with Libbie Hawker:
Joanna: Hi everyone I’m Joanna Penn from www.TheCreativePenn.com and today I’m here with Libbie Hawker. Hi, Libbie.
Libbie: Hi, how are you?
Joanna: I am good and very excited to have you here today. Just a little introduction, Libbie writes historical and literary fiction featuring complex characters and rich details of time and place, including an awesome series about ancient Egypt which is one of my own obsessions, so very exciting. And Libbie is well-known in the author community for her books for authors including Gotta Read It! about book descriptions, Take Off Your Pants! about outlining, as well as Making it in Historical Fiction.
Libbie, start by telling us a bit more about you and how you got into writing.
Libbie: First of all I have to apologize for my echo-y sound, which anybody who’s heard me on a podcast recently is familiar with by now unfortunately. My office is in a very, very old building and it does not have good soundproofing, so we just have to deal with me echoing.
I have been writing full time for about two and a half years now. Before that I wrote my first novel beginning in late 2008. I finished it up in 2009, and then I went from there and actually found a literary agent. I worked with agents for two years but never saw any gains from that, unfortunately.
I transitioned over to self-publishing in 2011 and I’ve been very happy with it ever since. And in more recent years, in 2014, I was approached by a few publishers to talk about potentially contracting some of my historical fiction, and I ended up working with one of those publishers on three novels so far. May sell them some more in the future, we’ll see. And then I’m also in talks with a separate publisher at the moment now for a totally different literary novel that I’m working on. So that’s my career in a nutshell.
Joanna: What did you do before you were a writer?
Libbie: It’s almost easier to say what I didn’t do. I only ever wanted to be a writer, so I have had a wide variety of jobs. I took whatever job I could find that would allow me to pay the bills and would also give me some reasonable time to write in the evenings.
I have worked at everything from I used to train show dogs and handle show dogs in the ring, did that for a while. I was a zookeeper for a couple of years which was interesting. I worked for my sister’s yarn business for a while, so I dyed yarn which was also kind of fascinating.
My most recent job before I started writing full time was I had a lot of interesting and varied involvement in the veterinary industry. I’m actually working on a memoir about part of that work where I spent a year working the overnight shift in an emergency vet clinic. I’ve had a lot of weird experiences.
Joanna: Wow, that’s really good. I think this is a really good point because so many people expect to start writing their first book and then go full time as a writer.
You’ve been writing all that time, so it wasn’t like your first novel in 2011 you self-published and you gave up your job.
Libbie: No, although my first novel which I did end up self-publishing has ended up kind of being like the mainstay for my career, but that was the first novel I finished. I’d started a lot of really crappy novels in years before that and never did anything with them. I didn’t really know what I was doing and I didn’t have the drive and the motivation at that time to really see a project all the way through and finish it. I was very much into that floaty, like “follow your muse” thing which doesn’t work for a career, sadly. It’d be great if it did.
I wasn’t really writing with much focus and discipline and when I finally put in the hours and really got serious about finishing a novel, to my pleasant surprise it was a pretty well-liked novel that readers still like. I still have tons of readers who find my books through that first book, so that’s pretty exciting to see it still succeeding and doing well for me.
Joanna: You should really tell us the title of that book.
Libbie: It’s called The Sekhmet Bed. I don’t know when this podcast is going to air, but it’s going to be $0.99 through the end of May, so if you wanna check it out, now is a good time.
Joanna: That’s fantastic and that’s one of the Egyptian ones, right?
Libbie: It’s the start of a four-book Egyptian series, and then since then I’ve actually written a totally separate Egyptian series as well, so I’ve got two of them now. The second series is considerably more dark. A few different people have likened it to Game of Thrones in ancient Egypt, and I definitely would have to agree with that, because pretty much everyone gets killed. Spoiler alert.
Joanna: That sounds awesome.
Libbie: It’s pretty fun, but as I like to say in my defense, “Don’t blame me, blame history.” I’m just following the historical record here.
Joanna: Well, yeah, let’s face it, everybody dies.
Libbie: Sooner or later. Not everybody’s lucky enough to die as spectacularly and as frequently as people died in Amarna era Egypt so this is a pretty hardcore series. It’s fun.
Joanna: On that, you talked a bit about finishing energy and I think it’s something that is not appreciated so much. But I actually had an email from someone this week and she said, “I’ve just started like seven different things and I just can’t finish them.” What was the thing that pushed you over the line and what is that?
How can other people take that finishing energy and how can people find that?
Libbie: Great question. First of all I think once you finish one book, it gets considerably easier to get to that point with subsequent books and then the more books you finish, the easier it gets to get there. Now I’m at the point where I can finish like a good size novel, 130,000 words or whatever, in a month. It just becomes less of an issue once you push yourself through that first one or two books and really make yourself focus.
But what did it for me is that growing up as a kid when I was like eight years old I knew I wanted to be a writer for my job. And I was 28 and I was like, “I’ve spent the last 20 years thinking about how I want to be a writer but I’m not really doing much to actually get myself there.” So my goal was maybe a little naive at the time, but my goal was that I wanted to be working as a full time writer by the time I turned 30 which was only 2 years away, so I had to really get my butt in gear to make that happen. It turned out it took me until I was 34 to actually get to the point where I can work as a full time writer, but that’s pretty close. So I’m not gonna be too hard on myself for that.
Joanna: I think then, same with me, it was setting a deadline. My deadline when I was writing was “I want to have this by my birthday the following year” and it was about 14 months or something when I decided. And, like you, I missed it, but I only missed by about a month and a half.
Is the deadline the number one thing people need, really?
Libbie: I feel like definitely that plays a big part for a lot of people. I mean some people just really don’t care about deadlines and even if they set deadlines for themselves, they aren’t going to stick to them. But if you’re at all motivated by something having an expiration date on it, I think it can help a lot, even if it’s just kind of an arbitrary deadline like, “I want to have a book finished in a year or in six months or whatever.”
Setting that goal for yourself and then giving yourself that accountability of looking at the calendar everyday and being like, “How much closer am I to reaching this goal? Not at all, well I guess I need to work extra hard today.” I think that helps a lot.
One thing that has really helped me a lot in more recent month is there’s this really cool day planner called a Spark Notebook. This woman invented them and she put up like a GoFundMe to get them started. A friend of mine has been using it. It’s really neat. It’s kind of a different kind of planner where you actually write goals for yourself for the week and then it has pages in it where you’re supposed to go back over your goals and review them in really specific terms and like sort of talk to yourself about how you did in terms of keeping to those goals. So it’s pretty cool. It’s a nice little thing to use.
Joanna: That’s great and I think the point there is it doesn’t really matter what you use but you have to use something in order to keep yourself going to that goal. And I guess one of the other things, as a segue, is outlining, which you’ve written a book about.
First of all, what is that title about, Take Off Your Pants!
Libbie: Take Off Your Pants! the book that sells purely because of its title.
Joanna: People think it’s a romance.
Libbie: I have actually had people asked me to write one specifically about romances, so I’m working on that for the future. But Take Off Your Pants! that title and the book came about because, of course, anybody who spends any time on writing forums that’s familiar with the age-old question that always comes up like once a week on every writing forum, “Are you a plotter or pantser?”
Of course pantsing means do you fly by the seat of your pants? Do you just make something up as a you go along without any kind of prearranged plan?
I wanted to write this book because I was receiving a lot of questions also like you have, from that person who reached out to you. Receiving a lot of questions from people asking how they could basically get to the point where I was, where they started writing full time. What it took to sustain a full time writing career in today’s writing market, and how they can make that happen, basically.
The advice I kept giving over and over again was, “You need to outline your books before you write them.” You have to have kind of a blueprint for your book, like something that it shows all of its structure and that you can use to sort of visually check that all the components are going to work together well before you start writing.
Because I know with me, with my first book I wrote, it turned out well that it took a year to get there and I ended up adding a lot of extraneous stuff that really didn’t need to be there, wasn’t supporting the story. And I wrote off into corners sometimes and I would have to go back and delete like a week’s worth of work, which was disheartening because those weeks, it was tough.
I was still working at full time jobs. I only had a couple of hours a day to write, so those couple of hours per day were really precious to me, and to delete the work I’d done in that time felt like it was a big setback. It didn’t just feel like a setback, it was a setback and it made it a lot harder and took a lot longer for me to finish that book and the next book I wrote, which was also not outlined.
So in order to get the kind of speed of production that you need in order to sustain a writing career, whether you’re working with traditional publishers or whether you’re self-publishing or splitting the difference, you need to have a lot of books coming out whether they’re under all one pen name or different ones it doesn’t matter but you need a lot of books.
And you have to be able to know that you can produce books on a fairly tight timeline and get them out really reliably so that you can stick to a production schedule. So that’s what Take Off Your Pants! is about. It’s an outlining method that works really well for me and that helped me ensure that I am putting together a book that’s going to be compelling and tightly-paced and satisfying to readers before I even waste any time writing it.
Joanna: You mentioned an outline of the book on outlining.
Can you give us what is briefly the three-legged outline that you talk about?
Libbie: The three-legged outline is three separate components that you bring together. Visualize it like a tripod that supports the rest of your story. Those three legs of that outline are the character arc, the theme of the story, and the pacing. How quickly the story moves and how tightly it all funnels together.
In my opinion those were the things that make for really compelling storytelling and, of course, the plot’s not involved in that, because plot is, by itself, not as compelling as what the character goes through, what they face, and how quickly you end up turning those pages.
Joanna: I want to specifically ask about character. Obviously we can’t talk about everything in detail. I’m kind of a cross between, I guess, pantser and plotter. I think about things a lot, and then I come up with about three or four big scenes, like I always know the ending and the beginning scene and a couple in the middle and then then I just start writing so it kind of emerges.
What annoys me about a lot of outlining stuff on character is “You must write 20 pages of character Q&A and get to know your character and none of that will go into the book,” and I’m like, “No, that’s a waste of time.”
What do you mean by the outlining of the character in particular?
Libbie: I agree with you that I think writing up a big, long bio for your character it is pretty much a waste of time. I don’t think you need to know a character in that kind of depth and that kind of detail in order to write them in a compelling way.
I think the main thing that makes a character interesting is for the reader to perceive from early on in the story that they have a serious problem that they need to solve. The character, not the reader. Hopefully their problem is not reading your book, if the reader has a problem at all. They need to be able to tell early on and to understand very clearly that there’s something going on with this character, not just sort of the external thing that they want to go out and get for themselves, but there’s something inside them personally that needs to be fixed. That’s what makes them so interesting and so compelling, and it’s really the basis of mythology.
It’s a common theme that is shared among stories from all different cultures that anthropologists and folklorists have collected. That idea of a character who is screwed up somehow and has to sort of go on a quest, either external or internal, in order to be not screwed up by the end. That’s what story is, really in a nutshell.
Rather than focusing on where your character went to college and what their job is and what they think about their mom and dad, those things don’t typically have any bearing on the story at all. If they do have bearing on the story, great, you should iron those things out. But they usually don’t, and they’re not gonna get you any closer to finishing a book. I personally view them as maybe not the wisest use of one’s time, but that’s my opinion.
Joanna: No, I agree.
One of my questions on that is, do the things that go in the outline all go in the story? Is it all so formulaic? What about my creative process? Does the outlining process make things formulaic?
Libbie: Only in the sense that virtually all stories follow the same kind of formula. It’s a real basic formula that I also talked about in my other book about writing product descriptions. This is at the heart of almost every compelling story we have ever kept in the human records since time began which is basically these five little, simple chunks.
You have a character who wants something but something stands in their way so they struggle against that force to get what they want and they either succeed or they fail. That’s what story is, basically, in its most elemental form. So the outlining method that I detail in this book does follow that kind of formula, but as you can see, the formula is broad enough that there’s almost endless possibilities for interpretations on it and for variations that make your book feel really unique and different.
Joanna: The other thing you mentioned earlier, you actually said, very off-hand, 130,000 words in a month.
How does the outline help you write at speed?
Libbie: The main way it helps me write at speed is by ensuring that I produce really clean drafts. I could sit there and hammer out 200,000 words, and if I can’t use any of them in that story it’s kind of wasted time and effort. So by ensuring that I’m able to focus narrowly on what matters to the story or what belongs in the story via that outlining process, I’m able to put all 130,000 words or however much I write in there to effective use within the story.
They’re almost certainly not going to be edited out later. I probably won’t have to add anything in in order to bridge any gaps that might be missing. Sometimes I do. My editors are good about catching that stuff, but typically the outlining process produces a full, complete story from the planning stage, so that I know I can just follow that road map I’ve laid out for myself. Write through it. Flush out all those scenes and I’ve got a complete, functional, compelling, satisfying book when I’m done.
Joanna: I want to say Dean Wesley Smith said this, “Writing is not just typing.” As in, yeah, sure you typed 130,000 words in a month, but what about the thinking process?
You write historical fiction, so what is your research process and the time you spend on thinking and planning before you do the outline? How do you that, especially with historical fiction, which is heavy on the research.
Libbie: Yes, very heavy on the research, and if you don’t get the facts right or least explain why you deviated from facts, reviewers and readers are not happy about that, so you have to be careful.
Typically for me I have a lot of ideas that are always percolating about future books I might like to write. So when I know that I have one coming up in the future like, “I want to do this book on Pocahontas at some point in the nearish future or whatever,” I’ll start reading the research material for that during my free time.
When I’m not writing I’m reading and absorbing that stuff and getting it all kind of inside my head. Then if I’m at the point where I can successfully write an outline that gets me all the way to the end of the book planning wise, like with this outline structure, then I know I’ve read enough research material that I can actually start writing that book.
Of course, once in a while you have to pause while you’re typing and look up stuff and verify details and put some color in. That’s to be expected, but once I’ve absorbed enough research information that allows me to plan that book all the way through to its end, then I know I’ve done enough reading. It’s time to stop reading and it’s time to start writing. That’s kind of how it works for me.
I guess I compartmentalize my thinking about a project and mentally plan what it’s going to be like and actually doing the time at the keyboard to produce it whether that time is outlining or writing the words.
Joanna: How long does the outline take to create from first gestation idea through to when you’ve got a finished outline, or I guess it will vary depending on the project?
Libbie: It really varies a lot depending on the project and how much research I had to do in order to get to that point. When I write about Egypt for example, I’m such a fan of Egyptology that I can write it pretty fast. I have a lot of Egypt facts already crammed into my brain. I know the 18th dynasty backwards and forwards. I can just sit down and outline, and you can give me any character’s name if they were reasonably well known and well documented from the 18th dynasty I can put together a pretty believable historical novel on them in, I don’t know, two or three hours.
But if I’m writing in a setting that’s less familiar to me and that’s going to take more time to learn about and to stick into my brain, it could take a couple of months of reading before I get to that point. But I’m working on other writing projects in the meantime. The reading is something that, again is when I’m in bed going to sleep. It’s when I’m taking a bath I’ve got my Kindle in a plastic and I’m reading on that. When I’m on the ferry going to the mainland, that’s kind of my reading time, too. Reading time is very separate from writing time for me.
Joanna: Where do you live?
Libbie: I live in Friday Harbor, Washington. It’s on island that’s about an hour’s boat ride from the mainland.
Joanna: That’s very cool. I’m interested in your historical research.
Do you take notes from Kindle books for example you mentioned there, or do you travel, or do you go to museums? How do you do your research into Egypt or other things?
Libbie: I would love to be able to travel to do all this research, I would absolutely love it. I haven’t had the means to do it so far, and right now I don’t have the time. You know, as soon as I’ve got enough money that I can travel, I’m like, “I’m so busy writing. I can’t leave my office.”
I haven’t done a lot of traveling yet, unfortunately. Most of my research is done just through reading. I also watch a lot of documentaries if I can find good documentaries on the subject. Sometimes they’re a little iffy, but I do a lot of that. I had the fortune recently, I’ve got a new novel coming out on May 10th called Mercer Girls which is about historic Seattle and the interesting mail order bride plot that was enacted to try to bring women into Seattle, because there were just too many guys everywhere. It was a huge sausage fest. I wrote a novel about that, which was really fun, but I didn’t know much about it so I had to do a lot of research for that. And for that one I actually was able to meet with some local historians and talk to them about the subject and see the notes that they collected on this which was really cool.
I really enjoyed that experience, and I hope I’m able to do more hands-on research for future historical novels but it depends where they’re set and whether I can travel there easily. Obviously my recent novel about ancient Syria, not going there, unfortunately.
Joanna: No, although they’ve reconstructed the Arch of Palmyra into Trafalgar Square.
Libbie: I was so upset about that because that’s where my book was set. in Palmyra.
Joanna: I know and so funny isn’t it? Well, it’s not funny at all but I put in Destroyer of Worlds. I had one of my characters kind of upset about the destruction in Palmyra. It’s so funny how all these things work together.
To come back on the speed and quality, because, amazingly still, writers have a resistance about quality and speed, and you write fast but you also write literary fiction which many people would say, “No way. How can you write a fast literary fiction novel?”
Tell us your thoughts on speed and quality.
Libbie: I’m a little biased, but I do not think that speed and quality are mutually exclusive. In fact some of the best, most highly respected authors out there have written some very highly respected novels very, very fast. I don’t remember on top of my head exactly how long it took Cormac McCarthy to write The Road but it was a matter of weeks, not months, and definitely not years, so that’s one example.
There are all kinds of other examples out there. Was it Kurt Vonnegut who said, “First thought, best thought.” A lot of literary novelists have espoused this idea for a long time that the best thing you can do when you’re writing a highly emotionally invested work such as a literary novel is to go with your gut feeling on it and to just express whatever coming through at the time.
I think the key to writing literary fiction at a reasonable speed, is to open yourself up to what you’re feeling. To not get in your own way of expressing those feelings and to not give a crap about what anybody thinks about what you’re about to write and just let it go. That works for me and I think I do write books very quickly. I have caught some flack about that from people in the past, but I feel like my reviews speak for themselves. The readers tend to, generally, like my books quite a lot and to appreciate the artistic side that I put into them. I’m happy with that.
Joanna: Let’s face it at the end of the day…Well I’ve listened to some or read some stuff about getting more well-known writers of the literary type, who basically either lie about how long things take or we just don’t know. They wouldn’t necessarily tell us. I know what you mean. I’m going to have to find some examples of famous books that were done really quickly because there are a lot and it’s one of those odd things. I did want to ask about outlining story structure for a literary fiction novel.
Given that you write genre fiction as well, what is the difference between your outline for a literary novel versus historical genre fiction.
Libbie: There’s really not a lot of difference, to be honest. The only real differences come in the front end of production. Like if you think of the outlining part as the back end where you’re sort of laying the groundwork, and the front end is all putting the trappings on that the people are actually going to read. The main difference is there. It’s stylistic differences. It’s a different way of choosing words and of formulating sentence and paragraph flow that just fits better with what that audience expects from their reading material. But in terms of structuring the story itself, it’s really the same.
Then also I should point out, too, I still do write by the seat of my pants sometimes. Sometimes I just need a break from all that structure. And if it’s a project that I don’t expect to make me a lot of money and I don’t expect to be one of the main breadwinners of my backlist, I’m perfectly happy to just give myself total creative freedom to screw it all up and spend three months or whatever writing a bunch of crap that’s never gonna work, and delete it all and do something else. Sometimes that’s good for you.
I do let go of the outlining stuff once in a while and just have fun with it. But right now, for example, I’m working on a book that a literary fiction publisher is considering. Because that book will need to be done by a deadline if they decide to buy it, I’m using an outline for that. It is a literary novel but it’s structured. I’ve got all the groundwork in there so I can ensure before I spend much more time working on this project that it’s going to hold together. By the end of it, it’s going to meet all the requirements for that genre. I use it when I need to, which is most of the time, but sometimes I don’t outline at all.
Joanna: I’m wondering, because you have these varied publishing relationships, when you look at your coming year for example, how do you decide what projects you’re going to write?
Which you’re going to do indie? Which you might do traditional? How are you planning that?
Libbie: It’s a bit of a mixed bag. Obviously my first concern is I need to keep my bills paid so I try to make sure that I have a nice, solid, commercial project coming out under one pen name or another at least every other month. And I can intersperse the less commercial stuff in there as needed or maybe stuff that I’m trying to get off the ground but it hasn’t proven itself yet, hasn’t found its audience yet.
I make sure I have ‘sure things’ scheduled in regularly. I also make sure I have books coming out that will be easy to promote. So first in series or stand-alones that relate very clearly to my other stuff that I’ve already got out there so that I can have those nice bubbles that lead in towards products that I know are going to be profitable.
I also need to take into consideration what ideas are kind of nagging me at the most, what really wants to be written the most next, because that’s important. I have to feel some level of excitement about what I’m writing even if it’s just like, “This book’s dirty and it’s fun to write.” Even if it’s just something as simple as that, I need to enjoy it, because otherwise I might as well just go back to shoveling poop for a living. Which was all zookeeping was, by the way. Everyone’s like, “You were a zookeeper. That must have been so cool.” I was like, “Honestly, it was 99% feces.”
Joanna: And presumably feeding because it has to go in one end so it comes out the other end.
Libbie: Yeah, that was the 1%. There’s feeding and all the rest is just poo all the time.
Joanna: That’s really funny. I do want to ask you about your goals because I find it really interesting. You have other pen names. You write historical. You write literary. You have non-fiction.
What are your goals a writer now? Because I always feel like with literary, do people want to win prizes, for example? Do you want to win a prize as well as earning a living? Balancing earning a living versus literary work is really difficult. What are your goals and ambitions as a writer?
Libbie: My biggest goal and ambition is to win a major literary prize and that is a totally separate goal and ambition from paying my bills because honestly, literary fiction just really doesn’t pay. Like it does for one or two authors at a time, and everybody else is just floundering and pretty much everyone who writes literary fiction either has a separate day job or they write genre fiction as well. Because there’s just not a big enough audience there to make a living from it.
It’s kind of weird that some of the most widely esteemed and widely recognized prizes in the world of literature go to literary fiction, which has the tiniest audience. It’s so odd. I don’t know why it is that way, but it is and I just unashamedly want that feather in my cap. I would love to win a Pulitzer. I would love to win a National Book Award or an Orange Prize or something. I’m just viciously pursuing these literary awards.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get them. Especially, I’m kind of hobbled because my options are either I enter as a self-published author or as an author who’s working on Amazon Imprints. Either way I’m reviled. The likelihood that I’ll ever actually win one of these prizes is slim to none, but I’m still trying because I want to do it. Other than for just the enjoyment of self-expression, the only reason I bother to write literary fiction once in a while at all is so that I can have a chance of winning some awards.
Joanna: That’s great. I think that’s so good and the fact that you also write to earn money as well means it’s very balanced.
I feel that a lot of literary fiction authors are not willing to write genre fiction. Do you sense that? And we don’t see any difference in value between them but some people might say it’s a step down for you to write genre.
Libbie: The step down comes in the way the publishing industry itself, including the awards complex, values those genres, which is dumb and stupid but it is what is. We can’t really fight against it.
I recently made friends with an author because I just loved her book so much I found her on Facebook and fangirled on her. Her name’s Natalie Caple. She’s an amazing literary author. She’s up in Canada. Absolutely she blew my mind, which not many authors can do any more, because once you start writing for a living you get very cynical and jaded about books. But I couldn’t put her book down. I could not stop reading and I was so obsessed with it.
I talked to her a little bit online and I expressed that in some ways I’m very envious of her because she has kept what she does pure, so to speak. I used giant air quotes around that because I think neither she nor I, and I’m sure you wouldn’t either, we don’t view it as a purity versus dirtiness issue to write literary fiction versus genre fiction.
But the rest of the publishing world does tend to see it that way. It’s much more likely that you’ll be seen as a hack. No matter how good your books are, you’re a hack if you given in and sold out and written that stuff that sells.
But then, on the other hand, a lot of authors who have been careful to sort of guard their “purity” as a literary authors, they really envy me, because I’m making a living doing what I love and what they love and they wish it could be that instead of having go to the university and teach the creative writing courses all day long or go work as a lawyer. They really want to be writing, too. So we both have reasons to envy one another and if you’re into literary fiction you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. All you can do is just do what it feels right for you and trust you’re making the right decision for yourself.
Joanna: I wonder, on that, about the pen name thing, because you use Libbie Hawker for a number of genres. For example, presumably, you could do literary fiction with a traditional publisher under another name.
Is that something that you would in that way keep it pure for the industry, would you do that? I mean I totally want you to have your ambition I really do.
Libbie: It’s something I would definitely consider. IF this particular publisher who’s just thinking about this book that I’m working on now takes it, I will have that conversation with them to see what they think. I’m not averse to the idea, but there’s a part of me that is really stubborn and really averse to the idea on the inside, just because like, “Who the hell do these ivory tower jerks think they are to tell me that I’m less of a writer because I also make people happy with my fiction?”
I mean let’s be honest if you read anything that has the Libbie Hawker name on it there’s gonna be some bad stuff that happens. Be prepared for “that ending.” But I do write genre fiction because it’s entertaining and because people like it and because it sells.
If somebody wants to judge me for that and decide that I’m not worthy of winning some big fancy award just because I have sold out in some respect there’s a big part of me that just wants to flip them the bird and be like, “Take me as I am. Take me or leave me.” Either recognize that I’m a really good artistic writer and that I can also do this commercial stuff really well, too and be successful as that, or don’t take me at all. So I don’t know.
There may be a time in the future if I really get rabid about wanting those prizes where I just come up with a totally different pen name and I don’t tell anybody it’s also secretly me, or I may try to do this all under this pen name. We’ll just see what happens.
Joanna: It’s interesting. I was just thinking there about Charles Dickens. Obviously you don’t want to be long dead by the time you become famous or considered literature read as literature. But when he was writing it was purely genre fiction serialized in newspapers and he was hawking it.
And then if you think that Stephen King. When you think of characters and dialogue and real depths, Stephen King is a bit like Dickens in that way, in that he does these amazing characters and hugely popular. But I don’t think Stephen King would ever win a Pulitzer. If he did it would be amazing, because it would actually represent what people love. One of the most well-loved authors in the world.
I would prefer Stephen King to win it than James Patterson, for example. Both have sold a lot books, but I think King is a craftsman. I don’t know what you think about that.
Libbie: I agree. I think certainly a lot of the authors who we revere now as being classics and as being the greats, they were just writing serialized stuff that came out in popular magazines in their time. They were writing to a particular audience because it was commercial.
My favorite example of that, I have two actually. Lucy Maud Montgomery who wrote, of course, the Anne of Green Gables books. Love her. Her writing is so literary, so beautiful, so emotional. It’s amazing. It absolutely stands up 100 plus years later to anything that’s being written down by anybody whose won a Pulitzer prize. She was that good. And she was writing genre fiction back then because that’s what she could write, that’s what she could sell. Now it’s revered as a very fine example of extra high quality writing and it should be, but back in her day she never would have won an award.
Another good example is Louisa May Alcott who wrote Little Women and several other books of that type. She always had an ambition to write for a living and she got to a point where she needed to write for a living in order to help support her family. She wrote under a couple of secret pen names and she wrote what they called lurid fiction. One of my favorites is one that’s called The Passion of Polly or maybe it’s just Polly’s Passion, but it was romance novels, except they weren’t called romance novels back then.
She was a romance author and eventually she cut her teeth writing for that market and got to the point where she caught some editor’s eye who was like, “You’re actually a really excellent writer. You should write some serious stuff.” He was the person who kind of got her the gig of writing Little Women and she became famous for that. But even Little Women, again, was written as the sort of morality play for the generation at the time. It was intended as genre fiction that was meant to be very commercial and was meant to appeal this particular section of readerdom and now it’s, of course, a classic.
Virtually every author now who has written a classic was just writing genre fiction at the time, and that’s where classics come from. And I think we are making some inroads slowly in seeing stuff that was formerly considered purely genre fiction as having more artistic merit.
When Hilary Mantel won the Man Booker Prize back to back for the first two books in her historical trilogy for her Thomas Cromwell series, which is awesome. My favorite books ever. So people need to read it. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and I’m very impatiently waiting for the final book to come out which was supposed to be out this year, but it’s not. She won back to back Man Bookers for those and with good reason. I mean, they’re absolutely astonishing works of art. They’re fabulous. And they are also very compelling genre fiction.
I think we’re starting to see a little of ground being yielded among the awards people and I think they’re starting to recognize that, “Okay, yes, maybe genre fiction is popular and appeals to a wide audience but that doesn’t mean it also can’t be a quality work of art.” So, I don’t know maybe there’s hope for me yet.
Joanna: No, there is, and I think the best thing is to continue growing that body of work. Hilary Mantel, everyone thinks Wolf Hall, but of course she’d written lots of books before that. I don’t even know how many, but she’s not a young writer and she’s had lots of books. I think it’s very important. I’m so glad you stated your ambitions. I think it’s so important for us to think longer term with our writing and to think, how do we see ourselves in 20, 30 years time? I look at Stephen King and I’m like, “Well, I think he’s 68, so I’ve got like 25 years or something before I’m at the point that he is in his career so what can I create in the next 25 years so I’m worthy to be where he is at that point?” So that’s my take on it anyway.
Libbie: I agree. Longevity is super important.
Joanna: It is, so I had tons more questions for you but we’re out of time so we might have to do a return visit sometime.
Libbie: I would love to.
Joanna: Because that was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed our chat. So where can people find you and all your books online?
Libbie: You can find my historical and literary fiction at libbiehawker.com and it’s spelled L-I-B-B-I-E-H-A-W-K-E-R and you can also find my romance, if that’s your thing, at libstarling.com, starling like the bird, and enjoy. And in July I’ll have third pen name coming out with some Urban Fantasy so you can stay tuned for that, too, I guess.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well thanks so much for your time, Libbie. That was great.
Libbie: Thank you, Joanna.