My guest today is Carol M. Cram. She is the author of three works of historical literary fiction. Her first novel, The Towers of Tuscany (Lake Union Publishing, 2014) and her second novel, A Woman of Note (Lake Union Publishing, 2015) were both designated Editors’ Choice by the Historical Novel Society in the UK, and both won First in Category for the Chaucer and Goethe Awards (Chanticleer Book Awards), with The Towers of Tuscany also winning the Grand Prize Chaucer Award for best historical novel pre-1750. The Muse of Fire, Carol’s third novel, was released in January, 2018 by Kindle Press (e-book) and New Arcadia Publishing (paperback). The Muse of Fire was recently awarded a Bronze in the Historical Fiction category from the Independent Publishers Book Awards (the IPPYs).
Carol is also the author of over fifty best-selling college textbooks in computer applications and communications for a major US publisher (Cengage Learning) and was on faculty at Capilano University in North Vancouver for over two decades. In addition, she was Vice President of Clear Communications Consultants and facilitated numerous communications workshops for corporate and government clients. Carol holds an MA in Drama from the University of Toronto and an MBA from Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh. She lives with her husband, painter Gregg Simpson, on beautiful Bowen Island near Vancouver, BC, where she teaches Nia dance and volunteers for the local arts council after serving as its president for 10 years.
What or who inspired you to first write? Which authors have influenced you?
I’ve wanted to be a writer pretty much all my life and certainly since I was about eight years old when I first responded to a writing assignment by producing many more pages than the teacher requested. By the time I was a teenager, I knew for sure that I would become an author. I remember how incredible I felt when my English teacher told me that he’d “see me in print one day.” He helped me believe I might be able to tell stories that people wanted to read.
My biggest influence is Jane Austen, hands down, followed by an eclectic selection that includes Tracey Chevalier, L.M. Montgomery, J.K. Rowling, Marion Keyes, and Maeve Binchy in addition to fun reads like Nora Roberts and Sophie Kinsella. I love historical fiction that helps me learn about a certain period while also delivering a great story and literary fiction by some of our wonderful Canadian authors (Lawrence Hill, Margaret Lawrence, Will Ferguson, Richard Wagamese). I get inspired by great writing and fortunately there is a lot of it out there! I aim to read at least one book every week, although I don’t always manage that.
What is the inspiration for your current book? Is there a particular theme you wished to explore?
When I was in the middle of writing my first novel, The Towers of Tuscany, a few years ago, I was doing the usual writer procrastination thing and cleaning out my office. I came across an essay I wrote as a graduate student in the Centre for Drama at the University of Toronto about the longest running riot in British theatrical history—the 66-day Old Price Riots of 1809 at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. As I was reading the essay—now as an author rather than as an academic – I started to wonder about the stories behind the events. How had the actors and actresses felt as they performed every night during the riots? What about the rioters themselves? In a lot of ways, the rioters—mostly young men out for a good time – were not much different from the hockey and soccer hooligans of today. The theatre was a major form of entertainment in those days and when the managers put the ticket prices up, people were incensed. I wanted to tell the stories behind the riots. The Muse of Fire combines real life events and people with fictional characters.
The Muse of Fire is also inspired by my love of Shakespeare. In fact, I start every chapter with a Shakespeare quote. There’s nothing like the Bard for helping me zero in on a chapter’s central theme. The title of the novel comes from the Prologue to King Henry V:
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
I was also intrigued by the wonderful, lively and tumultuous life of the theatre in early 19th Century London. The theatre played a central role in the lives of all classes of people, which is why they rioted for 66 days when the theatre’s managers raised the ticket prices! I also would like readers to enjoy my main character’s journey and to appreciate that even though she made some unwise choices, she remained true to herself and what she saw as her purpose in life.
What period of history particularly inspires or interests you? Why?
I’m pretty eclectic in my history interests. The Towers of Tuscany was set in 14th Century Tuscany; A Woman of Note, in 1830s Vienna, and The Muse of Fire in early 19th Century London. These novels form a loosely-themed trilogy about women in the arts – painting, music, and theatre. My focus up to now has been on the arts/woman theme rather than a fascination with any particular period in history. That said, I’m pretty sure I’m going to return soon to medieval Italy. The 14th Century is such a rich period with wonderful art, plenty of drama, and the glimmerings of modern thought as people slowly began to explore humanism. I do have a sequel to The Towers of Tuscany started. Called The Merchant of Siena (at least at the moment!), it’s set in the second half of the 14th Century. However, I can also see myself exploring other historical periods such as Byzantium in the 6th Century (the story of the Empress Theodora fascinates me), 19th Century American/Canadian pioneers (my own heritage), World War I (my great-grandmother’s story), and perhaps World War II. One thing about history—there’s a lot to choose from!
What resources do you use to research your book? How long did it take to finish the novel?
The Muse of Fire took about five years to write on and off and then two full years of intense work. I consulted books and newspapers from the period and consulted with several experts in early 19th Century British theatre, and was particularly lucky to connect with a professor who wrote the definitive book about the Old Price Riots of 1809—the central historical event in the novel. He was incredibly generous and helpful, reading two drafts and providing me with lots of useful feedback.
What do you do if stuck for a word or a phrase?
I tend to get bogged down when writing a first draft, but not during the editing process when coming up with more elegant phrasing is easier. So, to minimize the amount of time I spend staring into space looking for the right words, I have gotten into the habit of setting a timer and just writing out a scene as quickly as possible. Once the words are out, I can then go back and polish.
Is there anything unusual or even quirky that you would like to share about your writing?
Much to my husband’s dismay, one of my most creative times for writing when I’m at home is from 5 to 6:30 in the evening (right at our dinner time!) I am the cook in the family and have burned many a meal while writing just one more sentence. Fortunately, my husband is a painter and understands the creative process. He’s incredibly supportive (and sometimes rather hungry).
Do you use a program like Scrivener to create your novel? Do you ever write in long hand?
I’m a Microsoft Word girl and make extensive use of outlining and styles to organize my novels. I tried Scrivener and found it much more limited than Word, probably because in my other life, I write textbooks that teach students how to use Microsoft products such as Word and Excel and so I have a pretty advanced level of knowledge that serves me well as an author! And yes, sometimes I write long hand. I still love to sit in a corner with my notebook!
Is there a particular photo or piece of art that strikes a chord with you? Why?
While writing The Muse of Fire, I often referred to the amazing cartoons created during the period of the Old Price Riots by George Cruikshank, a noted caricaturist of the early 19th Century. Here are a few examples of cartoons he created to lampoon the riots and particularly the manager of Covent Garden theatre, Mr. John Philip Kemble, who plays an integral role in my novel.
What advice would you give an aspiring author?
Don’t worry about getting published. Just work on being the best writer you can be. Find mentors, read lots of books about writing, read lots of books period (in and out of your genre), and of course, write – a lot! I found that I really started to make progress as a writer when I let myself “be bad.” Writing to a timer really helps turn off that pesky inner critic and just let the words flow without censure. You can always go back and rewrite. It really doesn’t matter if the first words are good, bad, or indifferent—they’re just a start of what could be something wonderful!
Tell us about your new publishing venture.
Another favourite image of mine is a painting called A New Arcadia by my husband Gregg Simpson. This painting is the inspiration for my new publishing company New Arcadia Publishing. I recently published a novel by an amazing literary writing, Edythe Anstey Hanen, called Nine Birds Singing.
Tell us about your next book.
I’ve almost completed my fourth novel. Called Escape to Tuscany, the novel is set in modern times and tells the story of an art professor who, following the sudden death of her husband, buys an art school in Tuscany. Dreams clash with reality with a bit of the supernatural thrown in when the ghosts of the medieval past still clamour for attention and painful choices must be made.
After the death of her mother, Grace Johnson follows her abusive father to London and discovers a passion for the stage. But she must fight against social norms to find her place as a Shakespearean actress in the fraught world of early 19th Century theater. Aided by Ned, a foundling who takes charge backstage at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, Grace becomes ensnared by intrigues and setbacks that mar the pathway to stardom she craves. Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the Old Price Riots of 1809, Grace and Ned find common purpose in a quest that threatens to tear both their worlds apart.
Many thanks Carol. I love that you move between eras and have a theme of the arts in your books. Best of luck with The Muse of Fire and New Arcadia Publishing.
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