Six Questions with Author Sally Wiener Grotta

I'm so excited to feature an interview with Sally Wiener Grotta today! She talks about editing, story creation, the power of names, and of course: "The Winter Boy."  Be sure to enter the giveaway in my sidebar to win your own signed copy and let me know what you think of this interview in the comment section below.

Six Questions with Author Sally Wiener Grotta

Q1:  What is your writing routine?

A1:  Whenever possible, I try to devote my mornings to writing, though life often intervenes. 
The first draft of any novel or short story is me telling myself a story, listening carefully to the characters who become my constant companions. I am often surprised by a plot twist or sudden veering within the dialog, but I hold tight and enjoy the ride.

In the second draft, I start to take control over the story and the characters. Often, this is when I introduce sharper, more delineated tension, and fill out the details that give depth.

In the third draft – well, I usually lose count of the number of rewrites; it’s often in the dozens, if not scores. I work and rework the prose and plot, sculpting the personalities and histories, refining and polishing the story, while making sure every word I use is the one I really meant. Writers are often divided into two camps: those who struggle with rewrites and those who love the challenge and satisfaction of rewriting. I’m definitely in the latter camp.

After I’m finished with the nth draft and feel it’s ready, I turn it over to my editor, who will mark it up unrelentingly. I’ve been very lucky in my editors over the years, and have learned to depend on them to help me make sure that any of my work that is published is something we’ll both be very proud of.

Then I take it back and rework through several more drafts, after which I return it to the editor and then the copy editor. Back and forth we go until we’re satisfied.

The entire process can take years. And when it is over, there’s a hole in my heart where those characters had lived with me every moment of my days and nights. I’ve learned that I must have another story ready to work on right away, or I suffer from author’s postpartum depression. That’s one of the reasons I always have more than one story in various stages. Well, and the fact that I can’t help myself. When a story takes hold of me, I have to write it.

Q2:  How did you come up with all the different names for your characters and the concept of multiple names for each character?

A2:  When a character is born in my mind, he or she has a name, a history and a problem or problems. Like Athena born from Zeus’s head, the individuals are – to me – fully formed, flesh-and-blood, with personal faults and foibles, and something special that catches and holds my attention for the years it takes to tell their stories.

Their names are as much a part of them as their eye color or the sound of their voices. I don’t so much make up their names as hear the sound of them, feel how they shape the individuals who carry them. The names help define them for me.

I had one crisis with naming. A key character in The Winter Boy originally introduced herself to me as Niv. It was a good strong name for a very strong character. I had never heard of the name and thought it belonged to the world of my imagination. Then my niece married a man named Niv. He assured me that it didn’t bother him to have a sharp tongued, though brilliant woman with his name in my novel. But when they had two wonderful boys, I just couldn’t accept the idea that they might grow up thinking I had meant to insult their father with this character. So, I had to rename her.

But Niv was her name. It was who she was. Just as I am Sally, and you are Rhiannon. What’s more, another important character had given her the derogatory nickname of “Knife,” and that was something I wasn’t willing to give up.

Eventually, I renamed her Kiv, as a compromise. However, when I do public readings from The Winter Boy, I have to watch myself that I don’t accidentally use her “real” name – Niv.

And that takes me to the other part of your question… the multiple names in The Winter Boy. Throughout human history, naming has been a symbol of power, of acceptance, of transition and of initiation. For instance, in “primitive” tribes everywhere in the world, the rite of passage from childhood to adult is often marked by the giving of a new name to represent the new person the child must become. Some tribes give two names: a public one that may be used by strangers, and another that is shared only with fellow “insiders” (which may be other members of the village, or age-group peers, or other such exclusive division).

But we don’t have to look at exotic rituals to recognize similar name changes. In traditional weddings, the bride takes the groom’s family name. Why? Because it was a symbol of her new allegiance and acceptance to the new family (and away from her own, supposedly).

How many different names have you had? I can count at least a dozen in my life. Childhood nicknames, a mother’s term of endearment, a father’s tease that becomes a name shared only with him, the names girlfriends use or lovers. Currently, depending on who I’m with, I’m Sally, Sally Wiener Grotta, Sally Grotta, Mrs. Grotta, Ms. Wiener, Sal – all representing a different aspect of who I am and how I’m perceived. Plus there are those names that special people use for me that I don’t care to disclose.

The society of The Winter Boy is built on the interlocking circles of highly personal relationships. Given how important the bonds created within these relationships are to the very foundation of the civilization, it is natural that they would use the power and intimacy of naming to solidify them. As the Storyteller from Ryl/Dov’s village taught him, “Relationships define us. Important bonds and pacts change us. And the names we share within the privacy of those relationships represent this, sealing us to the ‘other.’”

Q3:  Who are some of your favorite authors / works and what books inspired you to create the world of the Alleshi, Birani, and Mwertik?

A3:  I can’t think of any that had a direct link to it. The world, people and story of The Winter Boy sprang from my mind after a lifetime of literary, social, political and personal influences, but none of them inspired the specifics of my creation. Instead, I considered, absorbed, digested and synthesized ideas from all of them – and from everything and everyone I have encountered.

Of course, I’m a voracious reader, as any author is, and I have been influenced and inspired by a multitude of authors in terms of the sound of beautiful prose, the rhythm of great dialog, meaningful character development, passion for social issues and such. Some of my favorite authors are Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ursula K. LeGuin, Daniel Grotta, Margaret Atwood, George Orwell, William Shakespeare, Socrates, Robert Heinlein… and a whole slew of others.

Q4:  Do you consider “The Winter Boy” a feminist work?

A4:  Yes, in all the positive meanings of that categorization. The Winter Boy is set in a society built by women who are fully empowered, but who also work as equals and partners with men. Together, they strive to govern their world with equanimity and intelligence.

Feminism to me is humanism, an essential acknowledgement of every individual regardless of gender. In some novels, many films and other pop culture outlets, characters (especially woman) are often “placeholders,” stick figures meant to represent an idea (often a sexual object). In The Winter Boy, the women are as fully imagined as the men, so that they can do ill as well as good, be frail or even evil as well as strong or righteous. They have a history that affects how they function, and a future that they can choose to have a hand in influencing.

Q5:  Ryl’s younger “brother” may have been saved/abducted from a Mwertik raid but we don’t find out in this book. Do readers find out more about him in the next book?

A5:  Yes, definitely, but I’m not going to spoil the surprise by revealing anything further about him quite yet.

Q6:  What other characters will be in the next book? 

A6:  The next book set in the Alleshine world will be Sex Witch, and most of the story will take place beyond the Valley of the Alleshi. Rishana/Tayar and Ryl/Dov will definitely feature in it. They will encounter Kiv and the Mwertiks, with some narrative and dialog from those “other” points of view. Lilla, Ryl’s former fiancĂ©, isn’t a woman a man can simply put aside; she will have a pivotal role in the story. Of the Alleman we’ve briefly met in The Winter Boy, we’ll get to know Mistral, Tedrac and Eli, as well as Ryl’s triats Aidan and Sim.

However, while I plan other books in this series, I intend to have each one be able to stand on its own. That way, whatever Alleshine book you would pick up first will be a good entré into this world.

Other books I plan to write in this world include Kaith’s Song, which will look back into the old caretaker’s youth and how she came to The Valley, and The Inn at the Crossroads, in which the Mwertik will take center stage for a good portion of the story.

But I also have novels in various stages of development that aren’t part of this world. As I said, I can’t help myself.

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