Be prepared to meet an absolutely amazing person. Not only does she write lyrical stories in a way that moves your heart and enlarges your mind, but she is an altogether pleasing person. I’ve recently met GG Vandagriff via an interview and can’t wait for you to learn more about her.
C.S.: GG, tell us a little bit about yourself.
GG:I have been writing since I was little. My life was unhappy and so I created fantasy worlds with the kind of family I wanted to have. All of my books are meant to explore the true meaning of love (familial, romantic, friendship) and how it changes lives. I also got into genealogy with a lot of enthusiasm, because of my need for family. It was very healing and very helpful to my wounded psyche.
C.S.: What was the process of discovering that love for words?
GG: My best friend Dianne and I had kind of a reading club when we were teenagers. We read romantic suspense and passed our books back and forth. Then, in my honors lit class in High School, I discovered the Russians. I fell in love with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. My husband is a poet and studied poetry in depth when he was in college. He imparted his love for poetry to me, teaching me how reading it aloud was the only way to get the full meaning. We had poetry evenings with our kids where he recited poems all the time they were growing up. They liked “The Congo” by Vachell Lindsey the best. It scared them to death and now would not be considered “p.c.” In fact, poor Vachell has probably been burned in effigy.
C.S.: :0) So how have you refined your ability to write? How many drafts do you have to go to until you can get the words on the page to match the scenes in your heart?
GG: I had a wonderful editor who worked with me for five years on one novel, until every word was perfect. I learned to write from her. (I am saving that novel until the time is right to publish – it is literary, which is a hard sell) I don’t work well under deadlines, because I need the freedom to layer my books. I’ll get the basic storyline down, then I go through it from each character’s p.o.v., layering in their personalities. That often changes the whole novel. The theme usually emerges when I’m at this point.
Then I go through and develop the minor characters. I remember when writing Tangled Roots, I left the three eccentric pets in the mansion where they had lived with their mistress who had been murdered. I didn’t remember until the book was finished that I had left them all alone. The book was due Monday. I spent all day Saturday layering in the pets and their idiosyncrasies. It gave the story much more texture. For some people, it was their favorite part of the story!
C.S.: I think this is why I so enjoy your writing. The effort and nuance you add make the event of reading so worthwhile! What is your process for staying engaged in a story, when you get to the huge middle portion of novel writing?
GG: David (my husband) and I call that the “Serengeti Plains.” But to answer your question, I set goals for completing so many chapters a week. I also use this part of the book to go deeper into my characters and their motivations. I use conflict between characters, or internal conflict to keep the reader engaged. Also, minor characters can help me through this section by demonstrating engaging idiosyncrasies.
In a mystery, of course, this part is where there is another murder or the hero is in danger. It is really important to keep the suspense building. But I think there is suspense in romance and straight lit too. The trick is not to reveal everything all at once, to keep the readers guessing.
C.S.: What is your process of overall story building? Do you outline? Do you not?
GG: I try to start with something I feel passionate about – a place, an idea, a historical period. Out of my passion, the plot outline develops in my head, but I keep it loose, because my books are all character driven (even when they have a strong plot). I try to stay absolutely true to my characters. This is often inconvenient, but when your characters are “alive”, it’s imperative.
The book I am writing now under deadline is driving me crazy, because I had it finished and then one of my characters reared up and said, “That’s not the way it happened!” Now I’m having to change the whole thing. It is much more engaging, but I am exhausted trying to get the whole thing revised before my deadline in 2 weeks! I would like the chance to layer a little more, but I’m not going to get it. I think Rachel Nunes must have an IQ of about 200, because she can do everything the first time through! I can’t even imagine that!
C.S.: What have you found to be the single most effective tool against discouragement? And how do you combat the dreaded “I can’t write. What am I doing writing?”
GG: If I am feeling that way, I usually go to the temple, read my patriarchal blessing, pray a lot. That re-infuses me with a sense of mission. I know the Lord will help me if I just sit back down and start writing again.
C.S.: Once you get back to writing, and your first draft is finished, what is your process of revising?
GG: The revising is the icing on the cake. That’s where I have fun. I take out all my hackneyed phrases and find metaphors. I look out for places where I “told” rather than showed, and change those. The revision is where the novel comes alive for me. I do the thing with the characters as explained above. I “go deep”.
C.S.: And you do it so well, GG. Tell me about your most recent book, The Last Waltz. It is an absolutely lovely story. I don’t usually read this genre, but I became enthralled with this book! It has become one of my favorites and I believe it will become a classic work.
GG: I spent years and years writing that book. I had the history down cold. I knew the plot line. But the characters just wouldn’t come alive. Last year, I finally asked myself, “What would Tolstoy do?” (This is an epic, so I could ask that kind of question.) I finally realized my problem. I was writing about the most complex society, steeped in decadence and neuroses (Vienna), the worst war in history (WW I) and I was trying to do it through the eyes of an innocent 19 year old! Of course I was having problems!
I changed the whole thing so that it came from multiple points of view. It is a complex plot that included many men. I did a whole life history for each of the men. Then I wrote Amalia (my main character) from each of their points of view. What she meant to each of them revealed their own characters, and made Amalia much more interesting. The book was always meant to be a metaphor for the society and politics of Vienna between 1913-1938. Writing it this way made that task much easier. From that point on, the book almost wrote itself because I knew the characters so well.
C.S.: Which character was hardest for you to write?
GG: My main character. She was flawed, but I had to make her sympathetic. It took years to transform Amalia fro an empty-headed beauty into a rare, principled, strong woman who could carry the story. I think I was way too young when I started the tale. I needed my own life experiences to write of a woman who had passed through fire.
C.S.: As you said, this story was years in coming, decades actually. How did you handle the research and keeping it all straight?
GG:I have massive files. Fortunately, I wrote the history first, when I still had a brain. The history was a ready-made plot. Populating it with real characters and not cardboard ones was the hard part. I had gone to school and studied with Austrian professors in my long-ago youth. So I had the “zeitgeist” (feel for the era) down cold. It was like visiting Vienna every time I sat down to write. I never could have written the book without the feel for Vienna I got while living there.
Also I should mention that I got my BA and MA in the history, politics, and economics of Central Eastern Europe, so I was pretty well educated about the times.
C.S.: What you wrote manifests that, GG. And the many reviewers speak highly of your efforts. So, since this was a book long in coming, any final words to discouraged writers out there? In your opinion, do you have to be talented to become published?
GG: I think everyone has an inner writer. If you want to tap into it, you need to pay the price. That means doing writing exercises, some times (in my case!) for a long time. You need to become acquainted with your right brain.
The best time to do them is early in the morning. You take a trigger (a poem, a picture, a piece of music, a memory, the first line of a novel) and write without stopping for 20 minutes anything that comes into your head. You do this every day. No one is going to read it, so write everything. This is the writer in you.
Then, one day, a character or a story will appear. Be patient with yourself. Two excellent books are Writing Down the Bones, and The Artist’s Way. They both go into this process in much more detail.
C.S.: Thank you, GG. You’ve been most kind. And for those who’ve not yet gotten their own copies of The Last Waltz, you absolutely must. Get it for Mother’s Day, get it for graduation gifts, get one for yourself. It is that good.