Since I published The Forgetting Flower, I’ve done two video interviews, one for TV, one for a podcast. While I was thrilled to be invited to do the coveted publicity of video promotion, I was plagued by an emotion I felt for days before each interview. A feeling I hadn’t felt in many years and hoped to never feel again: pure anxiety.
Certainly I’d felt anxiety in the past. And I’d actually felt worse than anxiety. I’d felt utterly terrified during my husband’s cancer treatment years ago (he’s doing great by the way, knock on wood). I’d felt super nervous when I’d taught my first horticulture class, literally jittery at my first public reading. My stomach had always knotted up when I’d met famous writers I respected. But nothing resembled the potently vulnerable anxiety I felt at being on camera.
A Double Whammy Test
I think what was uniquely trying for me was knowing that not only I had to speak well spontaneously but also had to look good while doing so. I mean hey, I’m middle-aged, I’m probably 15 pounds overweight, I have a Chicago accent that comes out when I’m nervous. I even have weird freckles on my face that I didn’t have five years ago. It all added up to me feeling extremely disappointed and critical of myself.
That self-criticism fed my worry. If only I was younger, slimmer, prettier, etc. My brain went nuts during the days leading up to the interview. Especially for the TV spot. I vacillated from obsessing about little things like what to wear or how much make up to put on to big things like what the hell to say that made sense and was useful. It got to the point where, during the day, I consciously compartmentalized my worry, acting like it didn’t exist, so I could interact with my kids and husband and function like a normal person.
Nighttime Was the Worst
But at night, while lying in bed trying to fall asleep, the worry would return. Should I buy a new sweater? Should I talk about that one weird plant that was hard to find? Were people actually interested in my book at all? Who was I to be on television? The only solution was writing a long to-do list and taking a half-Advil p.m. Otherwise, I would have gotten no sleep during the weeks leading up to the interviews.
Still, knocking off the items on the to-do list every day helped. For the TV segment, I needed to repot several plants that I would talk about during the segment. I needed to buy a couple of new containers. I had to buy a new blouse to wear. I needed to get a haircut and a make up lesson from my hair stylist. In the podcast case, I had to clean the main floor of my house (where sometimes my old cat peed in odd places). The tasks went on and on.
But every time I crossed off a task, I felt a bit better. More in control. I worked up to feeling fairly prepared. On the day before both interviews, I felt like I knew what I had to do to look good and knew, more or less, what I would say. On the night before each recording, I took a whole Advil and went to bed, knowing I’d done the best I could.
Anxiety Haunts You
But I couldn’t fall asleep. I breathed, I meditated, tried not to think, did everything I could to feel comfortable and relaxed. But sleep didn’t come. Like a cruel master, the drowsiness came on but then subsided. Thoughts returned. Worries about what might go wrong popped in my head one by one. What if I got tongue-tied? What if I forgot a botanical name? What if I got food in my teeth? Or just passed out? Unfortunately, I barely slept.
Like It or Not, the Event Happens
Well, both interviews were what they were. Thankfully, my dear friend (and amazing container designer) Angela cleared her schedule and came with me to the TV segment. I mean thank effing God. She helped me carry plants in and straightened my blouse and offered a reassuring pep talk. I couldn’t have done it without her. Also, I’d published a blog post about the featured plants and I reread that while I was waiting, so I didn’t have to reach too far for my thoughts during the segment.
Before I knew it, I was standing behind a counter staring at two cameras and the whole thing flashed by in eight minutes. I looked like a goofy fool who talked with a hard Chicago accent, but whatever. It was done. Angela and I went to a brewpub afterward and, while coincidentally watching myself on TV (which was bizarre to say the least), I celebrated by eating french fries and drinking Coke.
For the podcast (called Must Read Fiction), the interviewer, the lovely Erin Popelka, was energetic and so supportive. She warmly shared her gratitude at doing the interview in my house and didn’t seem to worry about the smelly cat. Thanks to her, I felt at ease and ready to go. During the interview, I did look old and overweight and babbled, losing my train of thought here and there. Erin didn’t mind any of that. She’s a gem. A gem who loves books and is a forthcoming author herself.
An Unexpected Outcome
So would I do video, this medium, that seems incredibly at odds with my introverted sensitive self, again? Yeah, I would. I felt good that I actually went through with it. I didn’t cancel. I didn’t hide under the bed like I could have — although that might have been a good place to actually fall asleep! I showed up and got it done. There’s value in that. And a lesson.
What I learned is that video wasn’t that difficult. I didn’t die. Yes, there’s now a record of me looking silly and sounding silly. But surprisingly, it gave me more confidence. I could actually do it again. And do it better next time because I know what I’d do differently.
This sounds strange, and probably not what you thought I’d say, but now I’ve proved I can do video. I feel stronger. In fact, I’ve been considering practicing video just for fun. Perhaps, on my own to get comfortable in front of a camera. If I do it enough, maybe I won’t feel so anxious and nervous, or see myself as goofy, and maybe I can even smooth over my Chicago accent!
Have you ever dealt with anxiety before speaking or an interview? Let me know in the comments below! I’d love to hear your story.
Emily Carpenter is the bestselling author of the suspense novels, Burying the Honeysuckle Girls, The Weight of Lies, and Every Single Secret. She took the time to speak with me about her novels, what writers influenced her, and why she writes multi-dimensional protagonists. She also offered her advice for emerging writers and what she’s working on next. Check out our inspiring discussion!
Your novels are full of suspense and family or marital intrigue. Were you drawn to those kinds of books as a reader? If so, do you have any favorites?
Oh, absolutely. As a kid I was all over Nancy Drew and Lois Duncan’s books. As a teen I loved romance with suspense or intrigue. Also Agatha Christie. I’m a huge fan of Shirley Jackson, Daphne du Maurier, and the Bronte sisters. And of course, reading Gillian Flynn and Harlan Coben helped me pinpoint books I wanted to write myself.
You expertly jump back and forth between locations, time periods, and/or narrators in your novels. What’s your writing process like? How do you keep track of the story?
For me, my process is (borrowing a phrase from Sara Paretsky) very untidy. It kind of drives me crazy because it’s unique from book to book, very organic and therefore really unpredictable. It scares me sometimes, because I take a leap of faith with each new book I start—believing that at some point, things are going to click and I’m going to really understand a character or figure out a great plot point. But I never have it all at the beginning when I start. I just have this incredibly strong hunch that this story has a lot of fascinating elements and it’s full of possibility. So my process is just to forge ahead and get it all down on the page and trust that it’s all going to work out if I keep hammering away at it.
Your new book Until the Day I Die focuses on a mother-daughter relationship. Having a teen daughter with a well-formed personality myself, I was impressed by how realistic Shorie was, and how realistic their relationship was. It’s complex and not always perfect. Did you draw on real life experiences for that?
Definitely. I mean, even though I’m older, the feelings of being a teenager are never that far away for me. I remember so much of the stuff I dealt with really vividly. Also I do have three kids, all boys, all very different, and we’ve totally had our clashes. They’re all very particular to who that kid is and how the two of us relate to each other. Girl or boy or anything in between—honestly, relationships are complicated.
I think specifically, the beginning of the book where Erin is moving Shorie into her dorm room at college and their fighting was something I wanted to capture. The intensely emotionally-charged feeling. And how when it doesn’t go well—it doesn’t turn out to be this picture-perfect moment of a bittersweet, loving send-off—well, that is just crushing.
Most of the protagonists in your books are strong-willed, smart, and a bit flawed. I love that. I think their multi-dimensional natures make them so interesting. What or who has been your inspiration for this approach?
I find characters that are too sweet or compliant and passive to be really uninteresting. That said, I do happen to be writing a character now who’s basically dedicated her life to shielding and protecting her fragile mother, but she’s really incredibly bitter and resentful about it, and I consider that just below the surface, she’s basically this powder keg ready to blow up all over everybody. I just think that’s far more realistic, fun, and interesting to have those kind of people as protagonists. And, I don’t know, I happen to be extremely strong-willed, and sort of smart-ish, and very definitely flawed, so maybe I’m just writing characters I can relate to.
All of your books contain a plot mystery that needs to be solved, which makes for fun and engaging reading, but when I read Until the Day I Die, the plot was so compelling and thrilling that I couldn’t help think that this particular novel would make a fantastic movie. Any plans?
That one was super-fun to write because it was such an adventure as opposed to my other books which lean more toward the interior and the psychological. This one had running from bad guys and jumping off waterfalls and dodging scalding sulfur pits. The previous book I’d written, Every Single Secret, involved a lot of creeping around an old, decrepit mansion deep in the woods, so I loved having the contrast of the modern, technological aspect of the app, Jax, along with the physical action.
What advice would you give to new writers? Any querying stories or publishing setbacks you’d like to share?
I think there are two things for all new writers to keep in mind. Get better and keep trying. One doesn’t work without the other. Do whatever it takes to improve your writing: read great books, take classes, and seek out smart criticism. And then keep trying to get that agent or to sell your book. It’s a tricky thing to know when to keep pushing versus giving up on a particular book. I’ve got three in the drawer that, for different reasons, just didn’t work. But you have to follow your gut. Sometimes it’s just a matter of reworking and revising. Sometimes a book needs to be abandoned.
What are you working on now? Any events or plans we can look forward to?
I’m writing the follow-up to my debut Burying the Honeysuckle Girls. It’s called Reviving the Hawthorn Sisters and it follows Dove Jarrod, one of the characters from the original book. She was a tent evangelist in the 1930s and beyond, but she has a secret—several, in fact—that her granddaughter Eve is uncovering and having to face. In terms of events, I’m going to be talking to the Georgia Romance Writers group next weekend. I’ll be in conversation with Kimberly Belle at FoxTale Book Shoppe in Woodstock, Georgia at the end of June and up in New York and Pennsylvania in mid-July.
Deborah Lawrenson is a versatile author who can write humor, mystery, historical fiction, and even espionage. She specializes in secrets, lacing her stories with clues and danger that keeps readers turning pages and asking questions. Her first novels dealt in satire, Hot Gossip, Idol Chatter, and The Moonbathers, before she tackled more serious subjects like World War II and familial relationships in The Art of Falling and 300 Days of Sun. The Lantern is a wonderful retelling of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, only set in the south of France. Her latest, Death in Provence, takes readers on a fun mystery romp. It features a divorced woman who buys a dream house in the French countryside but ends up investigating a murder. We chatted about Deborah’s early writing work, the highs and lows of publishing, her house in Provence, and what it’s like to collaborate with a spouse.
You started out as a journalist. Can you tell us how and why you transitioned from that to becoming a fiction writer?
The journalism, fun and fascinating as it was, was always the means to an end for me. I started out wanting to write books but knew I would have to get some experience and make some contacts first. My first novel was a shameless plundering of my experiences working on Fleet Street’s most famous gossip column, which I knew had a built-in marketing angle. In retrospect it all looks ridiculously easy: I had an agent and a publishing deal very quickly. But of course, it didn’t feel like that in the four months of waiting, when I had no idea of the realities of publishing.
You’ve also written satirical novels. I’d love to write humor but it seems difficult. Any thoughts on writing humor?
Editing is crucial. Write what makes you laugh – then be brutal with what you’ve written. Polish, polish and polish some more until it reads newly-minted and fresh. If you’re writing dialogue, make it snappy and above all, credible. The reader needs to “hear” the words pop off the page. Try to surprise and delight.
The Art of Falling seems like it was your breakout novel, at least in the UK, and it took you years to research and write. Then, after some false starts, you finally self-published it. It was a huge success. How was that journey and do you recommend self-publishing as a way for writers to start out?
At the time, it seemed the worst thing that had happened in my career, when my literary agent didn’t like it. I had put everything I had into that novel, alongside being a fairly new mother. I thought big and found a new agent, one of London’s finest, but though she loved it, after a year she couldn’t get a deal for me. The question then was, did I give up or did I try harder, on my own?
I tried harder. I had the novel professionally edited, and was heartened when the (very experienced) editor I chose said that she couldn’t understand why it hadn’t been taken up. I decided to self-publish, using a company that was producing good quality independent books, Troubador. They did all the work but allowed me to package The Art of Falling as published by a tiny new firm, Stamp. I commissioned my own expensive cover because I wanted the book to look like a mainstream-published literary novel.
With 2000 copies printed, I set off to persuade bookshops to stock it. I had some luck, including some fiction buyers who loved it and became great supporters of the book, and after eight months Random House UK bought the rights and republished.
Now, I think it was the best thing that could have happened, because I gained important insights into how the industry operates, from the marketing department to the shop shelves. I would recommend that route, with a big caveat: you have to be willing to work on the marketing every day, whether that’s speaking to bookshops (sadly there are ever fewer of the independents who were so crucial for me) or pushing for publicity.
I love your book The Lantern. It’s a retelling of the novel Rebecca, which is one of my all-time favorites. Did you have ideas of retelling the story for a while or was it an impulse?
Thank you, that’s lovely to hear! It was more of an impulse. I was re-reading Rebecca in Provence not long after we bought our property there. The renovations we wanted to do were daunting and the whole hamlet was in a pretty rundown state. Parts of it still seemed strange and eerie and redolent of other lives and events. The bright sunlight would flicker unnervingly through the trees just outside and make me jump. Was someone there, in the corner of my eye? I remember thinking how lucky I was that I was there with a husband I knew well. What would it have been like if I were embarking on it with a man who was keeping as many secrets as the house? That was the first glimmering of The Lantern.
Can you tell us a bit about the house you own in Provence? It looks amazing. When did you fall in love with that region?
It’s a magical place, more than just a house. It’s a cluster of buildings dating from the seventeenth century, originally a farm with dependencies. A path up the hillside becomes a tiny narrow street through its heart, and in a building at the top of this “ruelle” we found the remains of an old oven. Our French friends have suggested this was used to make bread for the travellers who made the journey on foot from the town in the valley to the village on the hilltop above. There are also three enormous trees at the entrance, which in Provençal folklore signify hospitality.
I first fell in love with the region when I went on holiday with my university boyfriend to his father’s house in a nearby village. Neither of us had the slightest idea that we would end up married and with our very own slice of paradise Provence-style.
Your latest book, under the pen name Serena Kent, is a fun mystery set in Provence. You collaborated with your husband on it. What was that experience like? Is he a writer too?
He’s more a musician and composer than a writer, though he has scripted stage shows. It all started off as a joke. I love reading detective fiction in the summer when we’re in Provence. One evening, we were drinking rosé and discussing what we’d like to do with the garden. Soon we were soon fantasising about cypress trees, new stone terracing and planting schemes involving lavender and olives, and I suggested trying to write a cozy mystery to pay for it.
Writing together was mainly a good experience, though not always. I enjoyed having someone else to chat through the plot with, though we often clashed over details. We’re each convinced that we’re right, most of the time! I am also a hundred times better on detail than he is, and naturally feel compelled to point this out at fraught moments. We have never argued so much as we did during the final edits of Death in Provence, but luckily we also laugh a lot and now think it’s hilarious the way we had to go through that learning curve.
What’s in the future for you? Will you be doing any readings in Europe or even America in the next few months? Do you have an idea for your next project?
We have a few events in prospect in England, and would love to come over to the USA to support publication in February. As for the future, we’re writing the sequel – Death in Avignon – and hoping that these two books will go well enough for our publishers to commission some more Penelope Kite mysteries.