Interview with Anne Clinard Barnhill

I'm lucky (or cunning) enough to have lured yet another successful writer over to my blog for an SAT - Successful Author Talk. SAT authors have conquered the query, slain the synopsis and attained the pinnacle of published. How'd they do it? Let's ask 'em!

Today's SAT (Successful Author Talk) guest is a fellow member of Book Pregnant, a group of 30 debut authors across all genres. Anne Clinard Barnhill has been writ­ing or dream­ing of writ­ing for most of her life. For the past twenty years, she has pub­lished arti­cles, book and the­ater reviews, poetry, and short sto­ries. Her first book, AT HOME IN THE LAND OF OZ, recalls what it was like grow­ing up with an autis­tic sis­ter. Her historical fiction debut, AT THE MERCY OF THE QUEEN features one of her own ancestors as the main character. At the innocent age of fifteen, Lady Margaret Shelton arrives at the court of Henry VIII and quickly becomes the confidante of her cousin, Queen Anne Boleyn. But she soon finds herself drawn into the perilous web of Anne’s ambition.


Are you a Planner or Pantster?

Hard question. For my first two novels, which have made a happy home for themselves under my bed, it was seat-of-my pants. I had an idea of where I wanted to go, what I wanted to write about, but mostly, I just plunged in. For AT THE MERCY OF THE QUEEN, I had a mental plan but again, mostly felt my way through the novel. The current one, as yet untitled, has an outline because my editor wanted one and wanted to know I did have a plan.  So now, I'm trying to make more of a plan before I start.

How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?

Ha! This is another tricky question. I have one under-the-bed-novel I've been trying to fix for at least a dozen years. On the other hand, I wrote AT THE MERCY OF THE QUEEN in about a year, the majority of it in three weeks. I don't have a particular time-frame.

Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi tasker?

I usually do one fiction project at a time. Sometimes, I'll add a little poetry in, just to put my mind in a different place. But I stick mostly to one thing.

Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?

I have to overcome fears EVERY time I sit down to write. Can I do it? Can I do it well enough? Will my editor like it? Will I like it? Is it stupid? Am I stupid? Well, you get the idea. I am riddled with doubts and fears, completely neurotic. I think most artists are that way. It's ridiculous.

How many trunked books (if any) did you have before you were agented?

And by trunked, you mean what I call Under-the-Beds? I have two, no, make that three-I forgot the YA fantasy. I think that's it.

Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?

Yes, I have quit on the one I call OPAL. It had an agent once, back in the 90's. The agent couldn't sell it and I decided it was just not ever going to be worth a hoot. I have now moved on and have no more interest in it. When I  no longer felt any affection for it, I knew it was time to let it go. It was the first one I wrote.

Who is your agent and how did you get that "Yes!" out of them?  

My agent is Irene Goodman and we met at the South Carolina Writers Workshop conference at Myrtle Beach, gee, it must have been 2008. I was on the faculty and so was she. We were standing next to each other at the happy hour and she asked me what I was working on. I told her about the Tudor novel, explaining I had just started it. But the really amazing thing was, as we talked, she really knew what I was talking about--she knew the major players, the culture, the whole 16th century. Most people (friends and family) had a sort of dazed look when I talked about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn but Irene loved the era as much as I did. By the end of our conversation, she'd given me her card and asked for a sample. She loved the sample and we were on our way.

How many queries did you send?  

Well, for that particular book, I didn't ever query. But for my first book, AT HOME IN THE LAND OF OZ: Autism, My Sister and Me (memoir) I queried about 20 agents. Many were encouraging but didn't take the book. I sold the book directly to a British publisher, Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Which is a whole other story, way too long and convoluted to go into here.

Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?

Just keep swimming. Remember the movie, Finding Nemo? The little confused fish, Dorie, says that, no matter what danger approaches. So, I tell myself, just keep swimming. All writers are rejected. You have to persevere. Believe in yourself and in your work.

How did that feel, the first time you saw your book for sale?

Wow! It was surreal, wonderful, exciting, terrifying. Just about every feeling rolled into one. To hold it, to see it, just the best feeling in the world--a dream come true.

How much input do you have on cover art?

For the memoir, I suggested the cover, which is a picture of my sister and me dressed in the same yellow, dotted-Swiss dress my grandmother had made. They took that idea and did beautifully.For AT THE MERCY OF THE QUEEN, St. Martin's did the whole thing and the effect is stunning, if I may say so. I did request they change the gable hood for a French hood, and they did so very quickly. I LOVE my cover!

What's something you learned from the process that surprised you?

I was surprised by how long it takes and by how much I don't know about the process, even now.

How much of your own marketing do you?  Do you have a blog / site / Twitter? 

I have a website where I can blog if I want.  I have not done much blogging but maybe that will change. I have a facebook fan page and I'm on Twitter. My son set it up so when I write on my FB page, it shows up on twitter. I never check it--I really don't 'get' the twitter thing. 

When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?

Hmmm. I don't have a natural platform--I think of a platform like, if I were a psychiatrist and I wrote some sort of self-help book, my professional experiences, clients, peers, etc, would be my platform. I visit a lot of awesome Tudor sites: theanneboleyfiles, on the Tudor Trail, Queen Anne Boleyn, the Tudor Tutor--there are many more as well. I enjoy learning and exchanging ideas on these sites.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

I really don't know. I suppose it helps, though I'm not quite sure how. I think if you write the best book you can at the time, trying to make it as perfect as you can at that time, you'll do okay. Someone told me most fiction books do not make back their advance--I find that scary but also freeing in a weird way. I try not to worry too much about readership (don't get me wrong; this is a constant problem for me!) and get on to the next project, immerse myself in the writing. After all, that's why I started--I love to write, a tell stories. If I can keep that focus, all will be well.