My guest today is Shira Glassman, a brand new author who may live in Florida but whose imagination accepts no bounds. Her first novel, The Second Mango, was published by Prizm Books on August 21st.
Welcome, Shira, and thank for answering my questions.
Elin: Can you tell me a little about yourself? For instance, do you have to have a day job as well as being a writer?
Shira: I’m a freelance violinist and a section member of my local orchestra. Right now, I also consider marketing my book to be its own job — just as important as having written it. I could never write, however, as a “job” — I have to have my own enjoyment first or else I know I’d feel pressure to just slap up any old thing. Writing has to be the passion — marketing is the “job”.
Elin: When you aren’t writing, is there any other creative activity you enjoy? Have you ever written about it?
Shira: I’m a bit of a foodie, and while there’s a fair amount of food and chef characters in The Second Mango, it really came out in the second book of the series (which I will formally submit to Prizm in a few weeks.) There’s an entire chapter built around a cooking lesson, and later, a cooking scene that leads into sex.
I also really enjoy traveling in beautiful cities that are hundreds if not thousands of years old, and often the most charming, spectacular, or unforgettable aspects of those cities end up in my writing. When I remember the glow of streetlights on the steep, winding alleyways of Trieste, or picture the glory of the Tiber as it winds its way through Rome, I see them peopled with my characters.
Elin: What are you reading? Fiction or non-fiction? Can you recommend something that you wished you’d written yourself?
Shira: I’ve just finished Love, Continuance and Increasing by Julian Griffith, and a couple of Cat Who books by Lillian Jackson Braun. My biggest literary influence is probably Agatha Christie simply because I love and admire her canon so much, but I’ve never before wished I’d written someone else’s book. Sure, I’ve wished for more of this or that in a book, but I usually use that hunger as a springboard for my own muse rather than wishing someone else’s book was mine to manipulate.
Other than vintage murder mysteries, I’d say three extremely fine books are Jane Eyre, Watership Down, and The Odessa File.
Elin: Are you a plotter or a pantser or a bit of both?
Shira: I’m a plotter, definitely. Usually what happens is that a trigger idea or image will become the germ of the plot, and then, once I have the full skeleton in my mind, my imagination starts fleshing it out over the course of months or even years. Often, scenes will start writing themselves in my head out of order, but I don’t write them because I know if I write all the fun parts first, I’ll never go back and finish anything. It doesn’t hurt them to let them marinate. It gives me motivation to keep going!
Elin: Do your characters arrive fully fledged and ready to fly or do they develop as you work with them? And do you have a crisp mental picture of your characters or are they more a thought and a feeling than an image?
Shira: They start as vague ideas and must wait to grow some meat before I can take them and write with them. Main characters are usually inspired by something I want that I don’t have — biceps, a lesbian Disney princess, an older male romantic interest with a goatee, cassock, and deep bass voice (I’m married so I’m not taking applications — don’t get any ideas!), a benevolent dragon — and more minor characters grow personalities to serve a purpose in the plot.
I make a conscious effort not to exclude marginalized or invisible groups of people from my universe and my writing. I’m sure I’m not doing a good enough job but it’s definitely something I think about. (And I admit it’s naturally easier when it’s a group I belong to myself, like Jews or queer people, but when I’m not writing about my own experiences I make an effort to talk to people and read blog posts so that I can try to capture some authenticity. For example, in my second book, I needed to write about what it’s like for Queen Shulamit to confront Jewish holidays — or even the Sabbath — without being able to eat bread. I found a blog post from a woman who was gluten-intolerant and Jewish, like Shulamit, and found her description of the first time she had to sit there reciting the blessing over a rice cracker while everyone else had a fistful of challah in their hand to be really personal and moving.
Elin: I understand that your recent release is a fantasy. What is it about this genre that particularly appeals to you? Is there any other genre you would love to write, ditto one you would avoid like a rattlesnake?
Shira: I love dragons and mermaids and fairies and magic. I also love the gorgeous clothing that tends to go along with fantasy settings, and the lack of, well, skyscrapers and sportscars. I’d rather my buildings be breathtaking works of art, when possible, then modern boxes of steel and drywall. Given that historical settings would also naturally include the beautiful buildings and clothing, my only reason for not writing historical fiction as well (besides *sob* no dragons!) is that the amount of research I’d have to do is staggering. How do you know that you don’t know something? I almost feel like every single sentence would require a primary source confirmation.
What I can’t see myself writing? Noir. Even the most excellent nihilistic fiction irritates me and while I find those gray-hat characters unendingly fascinating, I’d rather they be the love interest, the vamp, the supporting characters, or the villain than the lead. One reason I’m so drawn to Agatha Christie’s work is that ‘character detectives’ aren’t themselves part of the action. They’re, if you will, an emotional safe place, and I need that.
Elin: Do you find there to be a lot of structural differences between a relationship driven story and one where the romance is a sub plot?
Shira: Honestly, for me, they’re usually both all tangled up together. Since my celebrity crushes and wistful romantic dreams are such an important motivation for my writing, I really haven’t written anything with NO romance in years. But neither have I written anything in years complete that’s focused solely on romance, save for a story of only 3,000 words.
For me, I found myself telling stories that seemed structured very much like fanfiction — plotted adventure stories that are heavier on the romance and other types of relationships than the usual plotted adventure stories. For example, like fanfiction, and unlike something like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, there are “gratuitous” love scenes once the couples have gotten together, which don’t add to the plot but just help develop the relationships. I already have romantic moments planned out for two of my couples in Book Three even though neither moment propels the plot forward. They’re there to be satisfying in another way.
Elin: Put together your ideal team of men/women – drawing from all and any walks of life, fictional or non-fictional – who you would want to come to your rescue if menaced by muggers/alligators/fundamentalists?
Shira: Well, I’d have to start with my Rivka from my book and her Dragon, of course — who wouldn’t want a five-foot-eleven beefy warrior woman trained in multiple fighting styles whose first language is Yiddish, looking out for you? Yiddish comes with some remarkably creative ways to cuss someone out. “Go shit in the sea!” is a real Yiddish phrase, and it’s in the book.
Honestly, I feel like they’re already protecting me — they’re like guardian spirits inside my heart who protect me emotionally, if not in reality, by giving me the strength to fight for myself.
If I were putting together my Superteam, I guess I’d also toss Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson on there, and maybe my friend Ducky. She had a stranger break into her apartment one night as she lay on her couch sleeping and she managed to get him to go away and leave her alone armed with nothing other than sheer brass ovaries.
Elin: Villains are incredibly important in fiction since they challenge the main protagonists and give them something to contend with beyond the tension of a developing relationship. What sort of villains do you prize?
Shira: I think the most rewarding villains, and by that I mean the ones who provide the most tension and the most satisfying triumphs once conquered, are those who the protagonist or other characters attempted to love. A family member, a former romantic interest, someone who seemed charming on the first encounter, someone you thought was a friend, or even someone who is just a bit sympathetic — that deepens the story so much, compared with someone who is just a mustache-twirling cipher who ultimately means nothing to the good guys (and therefore the audience) other than a Final Boss to fight in the Final Boss Fight.
I also base my villains on villainy in real life. I have never been scared of zombies, vampires, ghosts, Cthulhu, or anything else like that. I am scared of evil humans. I am scared of the greed that keeps certain people in power lying to their followers about gay people and I am scared of the ignorance that leads to people deciding that others are automatically criminals because of the color of their skin and not because of anything they’ve actually done.
None of my villains in the Mangoverse are evil geniuses bent on world domination, although those can be fun in the hands of the right scriptwriter and actor. They are your highly conservative father figure. They are the man who lied to you and made you feel like you were the only woman he’d ever talked to. They are the woman you thought was a friend until her own homophobia came between you. (These are not real life examples from my own world, but amalgamations of the petty evils many of us have faced.)
Elin: What are you working on at the moment? Can you discuss it or do you prefer to keep it a secret until it’s finished.
Shira: I have started work on Book Three of the Mangoverse series-or-whatever-this-is; I’m also working on cleaning up Book Two, Climbing the Date Palm. Book three is about the theft of a priceless violin — it’s surprising I managed to make it this far without going there! — and book two is about labor rights and two men from a neighboring city-state who get caught up in the struggle against their king being a jackwagon to his construction workers.
Elin: Could we please have an excerpt of something?
Shira: Here’s an excerpt of The Second Mango
Under the white sky, Shulamit beheld the stillness of the courtyard. A dragonfly landing on a small pool of water on the ground attracted their attention simply because it was the only moving thing in sight. The rest of the courtyard was dominated by somewhere between a dozen and two dozen life-sized statues of women in the simple robes of holy women.
Rivka and Shulamit left the horse by the entrance and walked down the central path, looking at the statues. There was something terrifying about them — they were incredibly realistic, and were completely free of dirt, dust, or animal leavings, as if they had just been installed before the women’s arrival. Each one was different, and they seemed to be placed haphazardly around the yard.
“Why are their faces so…” Shulamit asked in a hushed voice.
“This one looks like she’s had the life scared out of her. What a thing to carve,” Rivka commented.
“This one looks angry. I’m scared of her!”
“Their poses look so natural, so — lifelike.” Rivka furrowed her brow. “I don’t understand. I thought you said there’s no art in holy houses.”
“Something like this would distract from their meditation and simplicity,” agreed Shulamit. “And no holy house could afford statuary this well-crafted.”
“Don’t you dare tell me the holy women carved these,” said Rivka. “I won’t believe it. Not with expressions like these.”
For every single stone face was wracked with pain. In some, it was the pain of anger, of rage, and one statue even looked as if it were ready to attack any observer. In some, it was terror, and in some, merely sadness. Some of the faces were older, and some more youthful.
Shulamit had paused beside a younger face that was shaped in an expression of sad resignation. “She’s so beautiful,” she murmured, reaching out to gently caress the stone shoulder.
“I don’t like it,” said Rivka, turning away. “Ho! Who’s there?”
An aged woman had appeared from inside the temple, her yellow-orange robe hanging from her frail, bony body as if it had blown into a tree branch during the previous afternoon’s storm. “Peace, my son. Peace, my daughter.”
“Peace to you,” said Rivka and Shulamit together, and bowed their heads in respect.
“I’ve prayed for your arrival for many months,” said the woman. “I’m all alone here and couldn’t go for help.”
“Help? Why? What’s happened here?” Rivka’s hand flew to her sword hilt instinctively.
“Please, sit down and have tea with me, my son,” she replied. “I’ll explain everything. You must help us. We have nobody, and we have no money. But you have been sent by God.” She turned around and led them inside the temple with faltering steps.
“I hope this isn’t a trap,” Shulamit whispered as they followed.
“Shhh.” Rivka nodded toward her waist, indicating her sword. Shulamit knew that even if it was a trap, Rivka had everything under control.
They sat on simple cushions facing the old woman and let her serve them tea, and then listened as they drank.
“My name is Tamar. I’m the oldest woman here. That is why I’m the only one who wasn’t turned to stone when the sorcerer came to steal a wife.”
Rivka spewed tea and rocked forward. “What?!”
Shulamit covered her face with her hands. “Oh, dear Lord.”