Friday, May 2, 2014

Interview with Heather Munn

Hello, loyal readers!  Author Heather Munn was kind enough to agree to an interview.  She warned me that her answers would be long and I told her to go for it.  She did not disappoint!

1) Who inspires your writing the most?

This might not be the answer you were looking for, but I would have to say it's my characters. Magali, for example. We've had a complicated relationship. 
The truth is, I didn’t like Magali at first, and it made me hesitant about taking on the book. She kind of made me think of the “popular girls” I hated in high school, especially in the way she’s pretty insensitive with her shy friend, Rosa. I was pretty familiar with that as a teen–having friends who think you’re not really cool enough but are happy to hang around with you when the cool people aren’t available!

But one day I was out weeding strawberries (on the farm I worked on for awhile) and Magali just started talking to me. "I just didn't know war was going to be so boring," she said, and I had to go run for my backpack, which luckily had a notebook in it, and write it down. Later that day I wrote to Mom and said I would do the book with her. It was still a big journey after that, though. Magali is like that friend whose personality really doesn't match yours but who you've been through the fire with and that's what makes the bond. I've watched her suffer--to be honest, made her suffer--so much that in a sense that's how I learned compassion for her. Even people who are jerks to others can suffer, and suffer a lot. In fact that’s pretty much the human condition! Especially according to Christianity–we all hurt others, and we all suffer, and some of the very worst suffering comes in facing how much we have hurt others, but that’s the place where God redeems us. And I’ve experienced my share of that.

So because of that, I think, because of shared suffering, Magali is almost a real person to me. That's happened with other characters too. Including my very favorite character I ever wrote, who doesn't have a name. I'd like to share him with you, actually--it's a very short story, about the Resurrection. Here's the link: the secret place of thunder: Life Again: an Easter reading

the secret place of thunder: Life Again: an Easter readi...
The garden was wet that morning, the rich man's garden around his tomb cut into the rock. I remember that. You could still hear the earth drinking the rain. It had ...
Preview by Yahoo

2) Do you have any personal family history that you wove into the story?

No, because my family's history is not in France. We're mostly from Ireland, actually (especially Northern Ireland.) I think Mom may have given the Losier family an older boy and a younger girl because she herself had me and my older brother... but that's pretty much the extent of it. Julien is not much like my brother, and as I mentioned above, I actually had quite a hard time finding enough in common with Magali to really write her well. (It worked out though!)

3) How did you do your research?

Because of the way Mom and I worked together (she came up with the initial setting, characters & plot and I kind of took it from there,) Mom really did the bulk of the research. She got very in-depth--she's an in-depth kind of person--reading a lot of primary sources, first-hand accounts, etc. I could always call her up with a question, and she made me a timeline of events--both larger war events and really specific stuff about the camps, plus what's going on in the plot at the same time--I was spoiled, really. But I did do some of my own research, because I felt like I especially needed to understand the feel of the times for myself. I watched the documentary The Sorrow and the Pity, which is about the conquest & occupation of France and what it was like for French people, and I was going to watch Shoah, a six-hour documentary specifically on the Holocaust, but I'm embarrassed to say I chickened out. It was due back to the library before I worked up the guts to see that many death camp images--I've heard it pulls absolutely no punches.

Mom also passed on some of her reading to me, especially a French book called Those Children We Had to Save, about the young women who got children out of the camps, a book called Hidden On The Mountain, full of personal stories of the children who spent time in the children's homes in Le Chambon (the real town Tanieux is based on), and the journal of a young Swiss woman named Friedel, who lived as an aid worker in Rivesaltes, the internment camp that is portrayed in the novel. These were really important for portraying the camp and the children's homes accurately. There were lovely stories from the children's homes, a real saving grace after reading about the camp. If you put the photos of children in an internment camp & of children in Le Chambon up against each other--and remember that some of these could have been the same kids--that's about the contrast.

4) What is your favorite book?

I might give a different answer another week, but I recently re-read The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin. It's an incredible book--Le Guin is a great writer. It's not Christian at all, of course. But I actually think that some of the ideals the people in the novel are trying to embody--a sense of brotherhood, not eating while another is hungry, doing work for good work's sake and simply giving it to everyone who needs it--are very in line with what Jesus taught. But what I really love is that at the heart of the book there's this kind of profound praise of marriage--this idea that making promises and keeping them is what makes us human, what makes the years of our lives have meaning instead of being just one thing after another. There's the moment where the main character sees his wife again after they've been apart four years going through incredible hardship, and he looks at her and sees that she's gotten worn down and lost her beauty, but at the same time he sees her, you know, who she truly is, because he's known her so intimately for so many years--and at that moment he feels this desire for her so strong he can hardly handle it. I just love that as a picture of a real marriage.

5) What has kept you writing without becoming too discouraged since the process of becoming published tends to be difficult?

I love writing, for one thing. It's more complicated than that, though, because writing can be kind of agonizing too. When you're doing a rough draft and you're not quite sure exactly where this part of it is going yet, it's like having an itch you can't scratch, for days. But the good moments are so good--for me, it's the moment when a beautiful sentence or metaphor just comes to me out of nowhere, or when I write a scene, especially a turning point or a spiritual scene, and I know I nailed it. But there's a lot in between those moments. I think it's helped immensely to have my mom waiting on the other end for each chapter, actually! It put me under pressure to finish, and it meant somebody--besides me--cared. I almost think if I were a solo writer I would try to pick someone I trusted and who cared about my writing and just ask her if I could send her each chapter as I finished it. It might not be the same, but it'd be something, I think.

6) What was the first thing you did after you found out this book was going to be published?

It was such a convoluted process (because they expressed interest and then we had to negotiate about revisions) that I'm not just sure what I did at the moment I heard officially that my first book was being published--but I remember the meeting at which I began to believe it would be. I remember going back to where I was staying on the Chicago Metra train, late at night, and singing to myself. I'd just heard the song "Still Alive" for the first time. It's a crazy little jaunty song that comes from a computer game & is full of weird inside jokes, but its starts out, "This was a triumph... I'm making a note here: 'Huge success'..." And I just kept singing it to myself! I met a guy on a unicycle at one of the stops. It was quite a night.

7) How do you get over writer's block?

I'm not really sure I get over it any better than other people! On thing, though: in my experience, when I get writer's block on a specific project (as opposed to "I don't have any ideas") it means something's wrong. Generally writer's block for me means I start hating what I'm writing, I just don't have the spark, continuing to write is like trudging through knee-deep molasses, you get the picture. And it means something is wrong--that is, something's wrong with the scene, or the story. Maybe the event I'm writing is the wrong thing to have happen, or it's in the wrong place in the story, or the character wouldn't do that, or it's boring. So I have to remind myself, "Hey, this feeling means something's wrong with the story," and I have to step back and look carefully at it and figure out what it is. And let go of my hopes for how soon I was going to get the chapter done!

Or there's the other form of writer's block--burnout. I discovered this a few years ago when suddenly, for a while, I had all the time in the world. I discovered two things: never write more than four hours a day! It'll burn out this one specific area of your brain, to the point where you can't stand to even think about writing--but gardening or even, say, math, is fine. Also, if I'm truly stuck: staring at the screen for an hour without writing a word, just trying to force myself to think of what to write next, is way more tiring than actual writing is. I've learned that if I get to that point, forget it. Get up and go clean the house. Because if you keep forcing yourself and burn out, it will take you three days, instead of three hours, to recover.

8) What is your favorite time period (either to read about, to research, or to write about)?

It would have to be World War II. More than anything I'm interested in humanity and choices, good and evil and why people make the choices they do when they're under pressure. When the Nazis occupied a country, that was pressure all right! So I'm
 fascinated by the contrast between the choices people made under occupation. You take three or four "ordinary" people in France who before the war seemed pretty much on par with each other as human beings, and by the time the war's over: one has chosen to collaborate with the Nazis so he could keep his job, another has gotten rich by charging the highest price the black market would bear during food shortages, a third has secretly denounced the neighbor she couldn't stand and gotten her arrested, and the last has sheltered Jewish strangers at the risk of her life. Times like that expose the soul.

9) What is it like writing with your mother?

It's got its challenges, but it's been great. Mom writes the first version--providing the setting, characters and plot--and I re-write it in my own words, and sometimes make changes in consultation with her. That means the challenge for me has been taking someone else's work and making it mine--digging into it and finding ways to express themes I really care about in it--while also keeping it hers and being faithful to her vision as well. It's not easy, but I think it's been a fruitful process.

The best part about writing with my Mom is that it’s always kept us talking! We’ve always had a weekly phone date to talk about the books, and we’ve hashed out many a plot or pacing problem on a transatlantic call. (Because in fact I did make a lot of changes from her versions–but we always had to discuss them.) It’s been wonderful because in fact, we have a lot of respect for each other’s abilities and what they bring to the books. Mom’s initial plot choices established a depth for the books that I don’t think I could have brought to them on my own at my age, and she’s always respected my instincts for writing and my intuition about the characters. The characters we work with, and the true story they spring from, have become something we both care deeply about, so it’s a real joy to talk about them together. And of course it’s pretty fun to “talk shop” with your own mom.

10) What is your next project?

I'm currently researching for the next
 book in the series, because Defy the Night doesn't take us to the end of the war. It ends in 1942 and in the true story of Le Chambon--and of the war in general--that is actually when the truly dramatic things start happening. This one is still totally in the research stage--you can read my comments on the really interesting history I've been reading if you go to our writers' page on Facebook ( the general idea is that it will have more action and probably both Julien and Magali will be main characters. They've had their coming-of-age and they're ready to truly plunge into the work. And there's plenty to do. Among other things, this book will probably see one or both of them helping to lead groups of children cross-country to the Alps so they can be smuggled into Switzerland.

11) When did it finally sink in that you were a published author?

I think it was when they sent me the proofs to read. I had always heard of authors--like for instance C.S. Lewis--"reading the galleys" or "reading the proofs" and for some reason that was one of my vivid pictures of being an author. You know, picture Lewis sitting in his chair puffing at his pipe, with a pile of papers on his knee, right? Well, turned out it was a bit less romantic than that--they sent them to me as a PDF file! But actually that was OK, because with the layout & the font I could see how it was going to look in print--and that was so exciting.

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