September 2009

Getting to Know Writer Ellen Ekstrom…

ellen ekstromThis interview of Ellen Ekstrom, acclaimed author of historical literary novels THE LEGACY and ARMOR OF LIGHT, is the first of our author interviews.   Our authors will be interviewed by other authors and by doing so, gain better insight into the psyche and process behind the writing experience.

Did we achieve our goal with this? We welcome your comments or questions for Ellen, Jay or ourselves.

Jay B. Gaskill is a well-known California trial and appellate lawyer who served as a Public Defender until 1999, but left his “life of crime” to devote more time to his writing projects.  He loves humor and philosophy equally; science and science fiction interchangeably; Manhattan and the western wilderness irresistibly.  His fiction works are peopled with likeable heroes and recognizable villains whose struggles are disturbed by dichotomous themes. He has completed two thrillers and is working on a number of other fiction works.  For more about Jay, please visit: http://www.jaygaskill.com/Profile.pdf

Jay: As a writer, you have three “day” jobs: You work in a law firm, you are a deacon in your Berkeley church and you are a mom.  Yet you have written two well researched, engaging novels, both recently published.  How in the world did you pull this off?

Ellen: First, let’s rearrange my personalities as they are: I’m a mother first, clergy, then legal secretary, and the writer is a chief element in each of these lives I lead.  Like my faith, it holds me together.  I’m still trying to figure out how I did it – I think that will be my epitaph, “How did she do it????”  Seriously, it came of years of discipline. I try to write a few pages a day – first thing in the morning and the last thing at night.   It was something I wanted and I pursued it.  The writing part of me has always been strong, vital, sustaining.  The hardest three years of my life was when I was in seminary for the diaconate and I put the creative writing aside. During that time, however, I was writing – sermons and theological reflections.

Jay: Both of your novels are set in places and times far from modern sensibilities: Medieval England (Armor of Light) and Italy (The Legacy).  What was it about these settings that attracted you, and – for your new readers – what explains their attraction for a 21st century audience?

Ellen: The middle ages were a period of turmoil, advancement, superstition, political upheaval and discovery – sounds like 21st century life to me!  My only criticism of the medieval period is what it did to the Christian church – it took the body of Christ out of the church and made it a private club for a select few, used it to subjugate people.  I think some of that comes out in Legacy and in Armor, don’t you think?   Okay, climbing down out of the pulpit now!

Jay: In the Armor of Light, the courtship between George and Joanna is more gentle, more serious and much more perilous than the hyped up, text-twitter infatuated ‘hookups’ of the current culture.  Is romance dead in the 21st century?  Or was it an exceptional event, even in the setting of your novel?

Ellen: Romance will never die, how we go about finding it changes.  People long for companionship, for a soul-mate, and some are fortunate enough to find their perfect match, some never will.  Some people have enduring loves that last forever in the heart and mind, even though the physical aspect of that love was only for a year, a month, or however long it might have been.

George and Joanna are two misfits who recognize that they ‘fit.’  Neither expect anything from one another.  They discover how much they actually need the other – not just in the physical sense, but spiritually, emotionally.  Both dislike one another when they meet – perhaps it is because they see so much of themselves in each other?  Or perhaps it is because they sense the other needs love and acceptance and they are willing to offer it unconditionally.

Jay: How long have you been writing fiction, and when did your imagination first light up with these characters and settings?

Ellen: I’ve been writing fiction since I was a small child.  “Big Red” tablets with number two pencils were my instruments of choice.  A short story was one page, a full-length novel was five to ten pages.   I used to spend my summer days and weekends writing stories and designing the book covers.  A high school English teacher, Robert Beck, told me I should consider writing as a career.

I’ve always been fascinated by the medieval period – I think Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” was an inspiration, but so was Ingrid Berman’s “Joan of Arc.”  Many of the early Italian Renaissance painters were an inspiration, too.  I’d look at the paintings and just want to leap in and be a part of the triptych or fresco.  I wanted to write about people who, despite their social standing were really ‘ordinary’ people – people with warts, problems, less than heroic or smart when dealing with their lives, but doing heroic things.

Francesco came of a dream I had about a young man at a flea market trying to sell art work!  I think I was 18 – Francesco been with me that long.  Strange.  His look, demeanor,  just stuck with me.   The comment I hear and read the most is, “I luvvvvvv Francesco!” from men and women alike.

George’s character came from a dark period of my life.  The struggle of good versus evil was going on, I was wandering about in a spiritual desert and I thought of the story of a young man who does what everyone expects of him and fails miserably until he starts seeking for God, wanting God back in his life, and surrenders himself to the overwhelming, unconditional love of God through Christ.  My daughter says that Joanna is me.  I take that as a compliment.  These are people I would hang out with in places I’d want to live.

Jay: Writers often report that at a certain critical point in the story-creation, one or more of the characters begin the shape the story, as if they had minds of their own?  Did this happen to you?  What does that mean?

Ellen: Yes, it happened in that certain characters came from nothing and became quite wonderful, like Serafina Giustini in Legacy and George and Joanna in Armor.    George and Joanna developed quite naturally – I didn’t even think about what I wrote – it just appeared on the computer screen and I needed very little editing.  Serafina grew up as the story progressed, a dutiful nobleman’s daughter doing what is expected of her and expecting that if she makes a deal, people better honor it no matter what.  Italian women of that period had a bit more freedom than their French and English sisters.  With Francesco, he became the elephant in the room – he was someone larger than life, impossibly good looking, flawed, but you rooted for him (as I’ve been told) so I started rooting for him, too.  He softened, I think, with Serafina’s trust and love, and Gian Maria’s friendship, but a darkness permeated his being and he tried desperately to move out of it.   I don’t know what it means, that the characters hand minds of their own, but I do know that characters do shape the story.  Certain events cannot happen without people to move them along.  I suppose one could write about a thunder storm, but it would only be description, wouldn’t it?  It would be a real story, in my mind, if it happened that two people get caught in the storm and seek shelter.  You want to know why they’re out in the storm in the first place, and what happens when they seek shelter.  When I invent characters, I want them to be real.  I want them to speak as I would, behave as I would.

Jay: It seems that fiction marketers are obsessed with genre classifications.  But a good read is a good read.  Are these books “crossover” works in the sense that they can’t (or shouldn’t) be pigeon holed into a genre category?

Ellen: Well, they are in category – historical fiction.  I was pleased, however, when Legacy was first published in trade paperback by Trivium, that Barnes & Noble categorized it as literature and copies of the book were shelved next to George Eliot.  Someone took the time to read the book and find out what exactly it was.  Bravo!  Genre categories help bookstores decide where to put their books.  My books are a little of several categories, including literary.

Jay: These two books have the ring of authenticity.  How did you achieve that?

Ellen: I did a tremendous amount of research for both stories, including a stay in Italy, a jousting class, wearing armor, holding weapons, riding a horse.  I learned to weave.  And by the way, when you get hit in the head with a shield while wearing a helmet, you get a wonderful bell-like ring that stays with you for days.  Key of D, I think!  I was told by my high school English teacher that you need to know about what you write, and write about what you know – so I did everything I could to find out about fourteenth century Italy, including visiting the actual places I wrote about.  Francesco’s house in Florence is modeled after the Palazzo Davanzati – a social museum.  It’s a fourteenth century townhouse restored to look as it did in the period.  I also visited La Casa Giulietta in Verona for research (and sentimental reasons!) and used that wonderful 13-14th century townhouse for a model, too.  Italy has wonderful castles, and the Guidi family owned several hundred, so I toured castle ruins in the Casentino, including the Castello di Romena and Poppi.  I haven’t been to England or Yorkshire, but with the help of the Internet, I was able to see the area where most of the action in Armor of Light takes place.  I wanted a beautiful, haunting, yet desolate place, so I took out a map of Yorkshire and found a place called Arkengarthdale – just the name hooked me.  And then I found Eskeleth.  I downloaded free photos from Webshots (okay, free promotion for one of my favorite websites) of Cumbria and the Lake District, Yorkshire and made a slide show that I would just click through, studying, meditating.  My imagination went wild – I wanted to show a landscape or room as it would look to George and Francesco, and have the characters do and say things that I would do or say.  How would it sound to an audience in a theatre?  Is this a place that is real?  Do these people behave in a way that would seem normal for the time?  I did my best to stay away from modern people dressed up in medieval garb.

Jay: Your readers will be wondering whether they will see any of their favorite characters again.  Are you working on anything that you can reveal?  What’s next from the mind of Ellen Ekstrom?

Ellen: I’m actually working on prequels to both stories – both dealing with how Francesco and George and Joanna became who they were.  Truth be told, I wanted to kill off Francesco, but I have a feeling that villagers with torches and pitchforks would come after me.  I never realized how loyal my readers are to this one character!  I have a modern story that continues my “St. George” theme that will be finished soon.  It’s a bit more personal than anything I’ve done before and it’s part comedy, part drama – what happens when a burned-out, pissed off woman tells the world to bugger off and does what she wants to do, rather than what everyone expects of her?   It will shock some people, but my friends and family will say, “That’s Ellen!”  I actually wrote the first draft in 1995 when I was going through some personal turmoil – strange, how writers get their A game on when they’re being tortured by something!  I’m always writing something, whether it be about knights on horseback, or breaking down scripture for a sermon.

Check out Ellen’s books at Books on Board, Mobipocket or support her directly at our bookstore.

eBooks for Rookies

You know, many of my very intelligent friends and family don’t really know what an eBook is.  So my very simple post today is just that, a simple description of the basics of eBooks.  The folks who hang out at teleread.org or mobileread.com have some amazing insight and opinions on eBooks, but alas, they are the vast minority.  So this post is for everyone who has no idea what an eBook is or what a digital publisher (like us) does.  Oh, and please accept my apologies for what you believe might be misinformation and feel free to leave a comment below!

File Types: An eBook is the digital file version of a book, much like an mp3 is a digital file version of a song on a cd or vinyl album.  Like music, there are many types of files which can hold eBooks the most widely known is the pdf.  This is a static version of the book, a “picture” of the way the text was laid out in it’s chapters, typesetting, spacing etc.  Other and increasingly popular file types are reflowable, or allow the user to determine the font, sizing, spacing and paper/background on which the book will be read.  More and more we are seeing an adoption of the epub format as the preferred file format for eBooks.

Protection: To protect against piracy, publishers or stores can impose Digital Rights Management (DRM).  This is a form of encoding or locking the file so that it cannot be copied to other machines or to other readers.  For most large publishers and bookstores, DRM is necessary to protect themselves and their authors.  For those who truly love reading, it is a bane since it limits what the reader can do with a book once it has been purchased and can even limit being able to transfer the file to other machines. We are against DRM since imposing it doesn’t necessarily protect the book from being copied (e.g. I’ve heard recent rumors that a pirated version of Dan Brown’s most recent book appeared online not 14 minutes after it was released with DRM in large online bookstores.)

Methods of Reading: Readers can read eBooks on a variety of machines.  One’s computer is the most obvious choice. A smartphone, like a Blackberry or iPhone, is another.  But increasingly, electronics manufacturers are releasing dedicated eBook reading devices which can have a variety of functions, like wireless network access, single or dual screens, colour display, large or small displays.  The Amazon Kindle is a very popular device and was devised to instantly gain access to Amazon’s Kindle store where New York Times bestsellers reside alongside self published titles. That said, there is a bevy of non-store specific readers that aptly and well serve their owners.  For everything you’d want to know about readers, here is a great matrix over at MobileRead.

Where to buy eBooks: Every major bookstore now carries electronic books and this is apparently the only segment of the book publishing industry that is in current growth.  Whether you choose to shop from the majors like Barnes & Noble or Amazon or the great independent bookstores like Books on Board or Powells, they all offer major titles and books by indie authors.  In addition, there are a multitude of self-pub sites out there, like Smashwords or Lulu.  The benefit of buying from smaller stores is that you may have a choice of formats and whether or not they impose DRM.

For those who love eBooks, like moi, it’s easy to tout their benefits – portable, customizable, instantly attainable, no paper to throw away and my entire library is always with me, (I read on my iPhone).  For those who haven’t taken the leap – by far the biggest complaint I hear is that one will lose that tangible feeling of holding the book, of seeing the words in their typeset as the publisher intended, of the smell and feel of the paper. It’s hard to argue with that.  I don’t see paper books going anywhere; heck, there are people who still swear by their vinyl or photographic film.  But for me, the experience of reading comes not from the paper and ink, but from the words that flow from the author’s mind, creating a time and space in which I don’t reside, carrying me away from myself and my surroundings to the one they created.  And once I was there, in that surreal place, even years later, I remember those words, that feeling the author invoked.  And I simply can’t remember the paper.

Really? Another Blog? Really?

Really.  Another blog.  Does anyone really have time to read yet another blog?  I get lost sometimes, reading blogs – it’s so easy to find new ones and before I know it, I’ve spent an hour jumping around the blogosphere reading everything from the informative to the inane.

I seriously considered putting news about ireadiwrite on our home site, but it didn’t seem like the right place.  That site is really meant for our author’s works, to showcase them, and conduct transactions.  I am hoping that this space will be one that our Readers and Writers can come to find news about our books and our company.

And so, thus commences my first post.  A simple state-of-the-nation type post.  A what’s-happening-around-the-old-homestead kind of post.  And here goes…

First, a brief history of ireadiwrite Publishing.  I come from market research – as I’ve said before, I’m a numbers person from Nielsen.  I am not an author, I’ve never tried to get published.  I am however an avid reader and a self-confessed technophile.  And I’m immersed in the publishing industry – an industry ready for and on the brink of change.  All of those things were thrown into one big pot and out came ireadiwrite Publishing.  As one who loves to catch the waves of the Pacific Ocean, we’re not looking to change the tide, but simply ride the wave of change that’s already happening.

I really don’t think the publishing industry is broken, nor do I suppose to believe that I can fix it.  But there are a few things that I do wish come of this venture:

  1. That we provide another outlet for authors to have their work read.
  2. That we work in conjunction with the established publishing industry.
  3. That we offer high quality and professional grade Works.
  4. That we encourage people to read (and something other than what a TV celebrity suggests).
  5. That we be part of this new and growing segment.
  6. That we respect our Writers by being up front and honest, that we do what we can for them, and tell them what we can’t.

The past months have been so eventful, we’ve made some mistakes and learned from them and we’ve done some things really well.  And this week, we will be releasing our 23rd Work – an addition to the great family of Writers and Works that have been published to date.  We’re beginning to work with other booksellers, distributing our Writers’ Works in as many channels as possible.  We’ve logged good sales on our own and on those sites and we’re growing slowly, but more importantly, surely.

We are a book publisher, we invest in our Writers and their Work.  We’re not interested in hosting tens of thousands of free or almost free documents, we’ll leave that for other sites that do it better than we can.  But we will help create, share and distribute high quality books and be just a small contributor helping make writing a fair profession.

And by using this “yet-another-blog” and your feedback, consideration and help, hopefully we’ll do just that.