V.R. Christensen has two copies of “OF MOTHS AND BUTTERFLIES” to give-away. Two winners will be randomly selected and announced on DECEMBER 16, 2011. The first winner will receive an autographed hard-cover copy and the second winner will win an e-book version of the book. To enter:
1) Leave a comment & your email address
2) You can also post an entry about this contest on your blog, leave a link to your blog in the comment box here, and you’ll gain two more points. This means you have three times the chances of winning!
3) You can tweet about this interview and earn one extra point, Make sure to add in your tweet #OfMoths #Bluestocking
I have had the privilege of interviewing a very, very special author… V.R. Christensen. She is the editor I constantly mentioned during the time when my manuscript (The Runaway Courtesan) was going through intensive rewrites and when I was querying. She’s the person whose inbox I flooded with emails of writerly frustration – and always, always, she would reply back with words that gave me courage to keep on pursuing my dream. I don’t know what I would have done without her. Seriously. I’ve also had the privilege of following her journey to publication, which is why I’m SO happy that her book has been published to share with everyone. I remember the days when she would send me one chapter (of her earlier manuscript) a week and I’d always look forward to reading it…. Let me tell you, she’s one great writer. But before you read her interview, do have a look at her lovely book trailer.
- Can you tell us a bit about your book?
Of Moths & Butterflies is set in 1882 England, just before the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act. It’s the story of a young woman who is suddenly freed from the control of her licentious uncle, but finds herself with the unexpected burden of his fortune. Normally such a thing would be a miraculous blessing, but she knows why it’s been given to her–to make up for the ill use she received at her uncle’s hands. To keep it would be a reminder of all of that, and she wants to escape that past, and, with it, the wrath of her aunts who have been disinherited because of her. They will, of course, endeavour to get at it by whatever means they can. And so she runs away and hires herself out as a maid of all work in a large country house. There, by chance, she becomes acquainted with the nephew of the man she works for. He doesn’t, at first, realise her station. He sees her rather more accurately than she is trying to portray herself. But in her own estimation, she is something quite low and despicable. These are the affects of abuse. In the mean time, her aunts are trying to find her. When at last they do, they see a way to gain by her good fortune. Her eldest aunt, her godmother, marries her off, basically selling her in exchange for a portion of her inheritance. And so, thrust into this marriage, she has to find a way to be happy. Only in order to love another, one must always learn to love themselves first. And so the story, truly, is about overcoming the effects of abuse. That was the main theme I wanted to explore. And secondary to that, how it is our choices, more than anything, more than circumstances even, determine our happiness.
- What inspired you to write this story in the first place?
It was a combination of things. Firstly, I had read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and, while I loved the book, it made me so extraordinarily angry. I wanted Tess to have a happy ending. I felt she deserved it. And so I started mulling around in my mind what that would mean. I had written my first book already (yet to be published). It was about an arranged marriage, but one that would end, one way or another, in disaster. It got me thinking about all the arranged marriages that I had read about (and a few I knew of personally) that had turned out well, and so I thought I’d examine the same subject, but from a completely different angle. It was a very difficult book to write, and underwent several rewrites and a couple dozen revisions before I had it quite right. I had to wrestle with some personal demons in order to really address the issues properly, but in the end, I’m glad I did it. I think if ever writing was therapeutic for anyone, Moths was therapeutic for me.
- I remember reading the earlier draft of this book a while back (which I adored!) How much as the story changed since?
I think you’ve read a couple different versions, June. The first you read was that which I first put up on Authonomy. I remember being so confident with it. A friend had read it and pointed out a couple of fatal plot flaws, but I didn’t listen at the time. And then a few others read it, a very few read beyond the first few chapters, and I began to see that my friend had a point. The plot was forced. It was a sequence of dramatic events toward which I was pushing my characters. It wasn’t working. And so I rethought it. I began by telling the same story, but by really getting inside the characters’ heads, which I think I was resisting to do before then. The original draft took maybe four or five months to write. The rewrite took ten. I did some really in depth research into the psychological effects of abuse in all its forms, I studied Judith Flanders’ Inside the Victorian Home, which delves far deeper than just how they decorated (which I had already studied at university) but what what went on in those rooms, and how those events translated to the outside world. I studied writings on what it was like to be a servant, and I researched the property and marriage laws, mainly by reading old texts. It was time consuming, often gruelling, it was emotionaly torturous, but I think I really had to do it in order to get it just right. I did, in the process, lose a beloved character, but I think I gained a richness, and a preciseness that I couldn’t have achieved otherwise.
- Through this process of rewriting, what kept you motivated?
Well, that’s a difficult question to answer. In part, it was knowing I had people counting on me to finish it, who had invested themselves in it and wanted to see it done perhaps as much as I did. At the same time there were a couple of fellow authors that I really looked up to, and I wanted to put myself on par with them. I’m not sure I achieved that. I hope I did, but it’s useless to compare ourselves to others. Still, I wished to gain their respect, which I recognise now as vanity. If I don’t believe in myself, who will? But I think most of all, I just had a drive to see it finished. I’ve never been a quitter. A project started, for me, must be finished. I really wanted to see it bound and in print. I had to know that this huge thing that I’d begun would result in a finished product.
- What was the most difficult experience you had while trying to get published?
Oh, boy. I can’t really go into great detail, but I had someone try to sabotage me. In the end it worked out for the best, but it was a horribly painful experience.
- What did you learn on this journey to publication?
You really ask some hard questions, don’t you? I think the lesson I learned the most was to trust in myself and not lean on others for reassurance, and in tandem with that, to know when to listen to criticism and when to trust my own judgement. I think Authonomy taught me that, but it was a difficult lesson to learn, and it took a great deal of experience before I realised that I could very easily listen to everyone with an opinion, and then have a book that wasn’t mine at all. Not all criticism is helpful. Sometimes it isn’t even well-intended or particularly informed. I had to learn how to distinguish between the two. And that is very difficult.
- Why did you choose to set your story in the Victorian era? What is it about the past and history that attracts you as a writer?
I think there’s a lot to be learned from the past, actually. At times I feel like I was born in the wrong time. I sincerely wish for a time where gentlemen are still gentlemen. Where women cab expect to be treated with a certain amount of respect. Where ALL can expect a certain amount of respect. Where people are passionate about life, but keep those passions in check. I love that feeling you get about the Victorians that they are straight-laced and proper, yet their passions are pulsing just beneath the surface. The Victorians really believed that a society’s survival hinged on its moral practices. At the same time, I am aware of the hypocrisies and prejudices, and they enrage me. And so it becomes quite natural for me to put myself in that place. To write characters with feelings and desires just like mine, but with tangible barriers that can easily be delineated. I feel that we still have those barriers, but that these days we have placed them there ourselves and they are more psychological than circumstantial. Those that are circumstantial, the economy, for instance, are a result of the past half century’s poor choices. I guess I like to think that we can take the lessons we’ve learned in regard to human empathy, and combine them with a greater sense of responsibility for each other and the world we live in. There is a sense of refinement, too, that comes with the Victorians that I’d like to emulate in my own life. My ideal world would be one that was a hybrid of refinement, responsibility and sensitivity.
- What’s one of your favorite quotes from your book?
I get to toot my own horn? Hmmm. It’s difficult to find one that works out of context, but I think this will do, which sort of outlines the title, which is an analogy to one of the key themes in the novel.
“It seems to me,” Archer offered, though cautiously, “that we are all rather a lot like winged insects in various phases of development. In the larval stages it’s impossible to tell which will be moths and which will be butterflies. Even once wings have formed it is sometimes difficult to distinguish one from the other. Some are glorious beings at home in their element, the unwitting target of scores of admirers. Others are merely drab impostors, fluttering and bumping about blindly. How to know which is which, though? And which, by the same token, are we? We all seem to have the common inclination to be drawn to the brightest thing in any room.”
- Which actor/actress would you cast for the role of your main male and female character?
At last an easy question! If I were to cast the film, I would choose Hugh Dancy to play Archer Hamilton, (I love Hugh Dancy, especially as Daniel Deronda) and the lovely, lovely, lovely Rose Byrne to play Imogen. And I cannot resist the temptation to add that Tom Hardy is my vision for Roger and the amazing Rosamund Pike was the actress after whom I fashioned Claire. Paul Bettany would play Wyndham. I do find that it helps me to to imagine real people playing the parts. It makes it much easier to vision their mannerisms, etc.
- If you could meet any author, dead or alive, who would it be? And why?
Wow. Um…I think I’d like to meet George Eliot. I have a feeling she would not intimidate me as much as some of my other favourite authors might. Dickens, I think, would intimidate me. Perhaps George Meredith, too, though I think he might have been more approachable than Dickens. But George Eliot had so much against her, and yet her novels are filled with so much enlightenment and inspiration and empathy. She was very knowledgeable, had some really fortunate connections that allowed her to write in a remarkably informed manner, and yet she was virtually shunned from Society because she could not marry the man she loved and chose to live with. (Of course he was welcome in Society.) She was a victim of circumstance, I think, an exception to the rule. She lived, in spirit, a highly moral life, though circumstances were against her. I would very much have liked to have known her.
- What are the five books that have influenced you most as a writer?
Well, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, of course, which I think gave me the drive to write about injustice. Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, which taught me a great deal about plot. C.S. Richardson’s The End of the Alphabet, in which I learned a great deal about conciseness of language, brevity and how to use distance rather than intimacy to engage a reader to the characters. (Louise Galvin does this marvellously, too.) I learned a great deal about dealing with themes and writing in allegory from George Meredith’s The Egoist. All of his books are very deep, though they seem straight forward on the surface. What else? There are so many, really. Daniel Deronda. That was an odd book because I did not love it right away. It was only after I really thought about what it was Eliot was trying to achieve in that book that I realised the genius of it. It’s sort of a Trojan Horse, if you will. She was presenting a rather controversial idea in what seemed like a perfectly acceptable wrapping. She fooled her audience into reading and made a fairly powerful point about social, religious and class prejudice.
- If you could give one piece of advice to unpublished writers what would it be?
Oh, man. Just one? Believe in your inherent greatness, but be humble enough to know that greatness requires a LOT of hard work in the achieving. It’s sort of easy now for anyone to publish. I think the work it takes to get published the traditional way needs to be applied to everyone, whether they are published traditionally or independently. Assemble mentors, editors, friends who won’t spare you. Listen to them, and learn how to decipher the good critics and criticisms from the useless. That’s really two, but I think it’s a combination of really knowing the craft, having the necessary team of supporters and assistants, and having the right balance of confidence and humility. Success happens in groups and the proud are the authors of their own downfall.
Now, June, I want to ask a question. When will you be writing again? We want to see your work published, too!
- Haha, good question. It’s been a few months since I’ve worked on a manuscript – mainly because I felt like I neglected life too much in order to write last year (from morning till night I wrote, rejecting (almost all) invitations to socialize). I do believe my writing-well has filled up. Hopefully I’ll start writing once winter vacation arrives! I’ll be writing…and I’ll be spending a good chunk of my time reading your book, Ms Christensen. I’ll read it while sipping on hot chocolate and listening to holiday music. Thank you so much for letting me interview you!