AUTHOR INTERVIEW: ELIZABETH JENNINGS, writer and founder of the best writers conference in Italy

Elizabeth Jennings, a writer with twenty years of experience, has just published Darkness at Dawn with Berkley Sensation (Penguin). When you meet Liz (that’s how her friends call her), you are immediately reminded of Carol Joyce Oates line: “this is a person of surpassing integrity; a man of utmost sincerity; somewhat larger than life”.

But of course, she’s not a man! 

She’s very much a woman, a dedicated mother and wife, and a prolific writer (three books a year don’t scare her). She is not only a shoot-from-the-hip suspense author with a poetic streak when she sticks in romance in her novels – like in Darkness at Dawn, so far, one of my favorites! – she is also an amazing conference organizer. 

She founded nine years ago, and is personally running, what has become the best writers conference outside the US and UK: the Women’s Writers Festival in Matera, Italy. It claims to be and is in fact the only international writers' conference in the world, bringing together writers, agents and editors from across Europe and the United States. The next session is scheduled for 29 September-2 October 2011.

Try to be there, it’s bound to be full of interesting people, from agents and editors to published writers and newbies. I know she’s got lots of goodies in store for participants and I’ll let her explain it all in the interview below. And, icing on the cake: Matera, a UNESCO-classified town in Southern Italy, is a great place to visit!

Most recently Elizabeth organized a 4-day session of “brainstorming at the Spa” in a lovely hotel in Matera, with a thermal pool in troglodyte caves. That was a blast! Some twenty writers, both newbies and multi-published, participated along with one literary agent, Christine Witthohn of Book Cents Literary (link to her site:   

None of the participants is about to forget that experience: rather than focusing on fine points of writing technique (can be very boring!), the group was prodded along by Elizabeth and Christine who never tired of asking pointed questions. We very literally “brainstormed” ideas for stories – digging into what makes a good story, the very basis of literature…

Here I’d like to take you through an interview I was lucky to do with her just a few days ago...

Question: What is your new novel, Darkness at Dawn, about?
Answer:  Darkness at Dawn is a romantic suspense, a genre I love writing. It allows such latitude for digging into characters, into their lives, into what has shaped them, into how they grow. The suspense element is often a pressure cooker reducing them to the bedrock of their personalities. My heroes and heroines (that’s the name for the male and female protagonists in Romancelandia) are complex creatures but their bedrock is a sense of honour and loyalty, and they are courageous, not always in ways you’d expect.

Darkness at Dawn is essentially a quest. The heroine, Lucy Merritt, leads a very quiet life immersed in the arcane art of manuscript restoration. It fulfils her on several levels—it requires deep scientific and artistic knowledge, it is painstaking (being narrowly focused on something you excel in and which is difficult and rewarding is one of life’s greatest pleasures). Her job and her life are tailored to fit her psychological need to have a safe and controlled environment because her childhood was anything but.

Her parents were cultural anthropologists who used their profession as a cover for espionage. In truth, they were CIA operators, and very good ones, who were able to go into the world’s hotspots as scholars and gather intel. This was the life of adventure they chose but it wasn’t the life their little daughter would have chosen. Her life was following her parents around to dangerous places where her parents did dangerous things and where a wrong word could blow their cover and endanger their lives. She watched her parents die in a blazing gunfight in the Himalayan Kingdom of Nhala when she was fourteen.

No wonder she prefers the quiet life and no wonder she wants to refuse when the CIA calls her to infiltrate Nhala once more because there is a dangerous threat to the world—a deathly virus which, if unleashed, could cause millions of deaths.

But Lucy is the very definition of a brave person—one who can overcome her fears—and she accepts.

The hero, Mike Shafer, of the Army’s famed 10th Mountain Division doesn’t shy from danger in any way. The 10th forges its men from steel and then makes them harder. No, Mike’s problem is accepting that all his expertise and courage and fighting skills make no difference in the cat and mouse game of international intrigue, where Lucy shines. And by the time his skills do come into play, carrying a grievously wounded Lucy through a snowstorm, he is head over heels in love with the bravest woman he’s ever met.

I love writing about these kind of people—the kind who step up to bat, the kind who don’t shirk their duty, the kind who show bravery in every way there is. And when they fall in love, it isn’t ‘sunshine love’ just as their patriotism isn’t ‘sunshine patriotism’. I fully expect my heroes and heroines to stay in love and with each other to their dying day.
So, dear reader, if love and danger and adventure and just a little hot sex entice you, you might want to give Darkness at Dawn a try!

Q: How long did it take you to write it? What inspired you?

A: Like most romance writers I have (per force) learned to become a fast writer. We have contracts and publishers are not amused when we don’t meet deadlines. Many writers have scarred welts across their backs from publishers’ lashes. (Just kidding. Sort of). So I wrote Darkness at Dawn at my usual pace. Start to finish, rough draft to final, four months.

For some time now I’ve been wanting to write about a girly-girl who likes a real cushy and danger-free existence (which would be moi in a younger, thinner version) who completely confounds expectations and is immensely, incredibly brave when it becomes necessary. And as a foil, I needed an incredibly physically brave man who underestimates her and has to reassess his image of bravery.

Because, dear reader, Lucy does something amazingly courageous. Something very few people would have the courage to do, knowing full well the consequences. Read the novel to find out.
Anyway, I wanted those two elements, I read a fascinating article about bioweapons and by the magical alchemy of a writer’s mind the book was born.

Q: When did you start writing?
A: I started writing in 1991, the year my son was born. The year the Soviet Union collapsed. An epochal year. And the year I turned forty (which had nothing to do with the collapse of the Soviet Union, promise). I turned forty. I was a successful simultaneous interpreter, but the cost of success was high and getting higher. I'd always wanted to write. And so the classic question--if not now--when?

So I did what all US writers do, I turned to the amazing amount of information online. I now, with hindsight, realize how privileged we all are because there is tons of help on tap. Not so for Italian or German or French writers.

I joined the Romance Writers of America, the only large writers organization open to unpublished writers, which is amazing. An unpublished author can access reams of information on how to structure a novel, how to write a query letter, the names of agents and editors...priceless. What is an impossible hurdle in Europe is made available to Americans.

Anyway, I starting writing my first novel in 1991. It sucked. I sent it around to friends who kindly, gently told me it sucked. I joined critique groups who get the idea. I rewrote that book eight times. Eight. I sent it out and sent it out. I wrote book after book and sent them out and sent them out.

In March, 1998, while I was in Brussels working for the EU, someone called me in my hotel room. An editor for Kensington. She loved one of my books and was acquiring for a new romance line. Did I have anything else? Yes, I did. Five more books. And they were published in the space of a year and a half. The first book I wrote was the fifth book I published.
So I guess the moral of the tale is--persevere.

Q: Did you pick a genre first, then wrote a book to fit in, or was it the reverse, I mean: did you write the book you felt like writing, then tried to determine the genre once it was finished?

A: Oh man, this is a toughie because at the same time that I decided I was going to give writing a real try, I was also getting sick of the travel involved in simultaneous interpreting. I worked for the European Parliament which meets in Strasbourg one week, Luxembourg another week, Brussels another week and one week in capitals, depending on the working group. I lived on the road, slept in hotels much much more than I slept in my own bed. I was away two-three weeks a month. And I had a husband and a small child, both of whom I loved.

So in the back of my mind when thinking of writing was also--I need to earn a living.And, well, romance is a commercial genre. So it's the chicken and the egg. Which came first?

The stories that came to me were romances, mostly. And the romance market was knowable. So that's where I went.

I note also that you said--the book you felt like writing. I don't think anyone makes a living as a writer with only one book in them. I very definitely felt like I was wading into a new life, not writing one book. Because if you are of the opinion that you are becoming a writer, as opposed to writing a book, then the genre makes no difference. you'll knock at the door that opens. and once you walk in--the whole world awaits you.

Q: This is, of course, a novel of romantic suspense. Are you working on something else? A novella? Do you like shorter fiction? What is the advantage (drawback) in your opinion?

A: I love novellas. The novella length (about 30-40,000 words) is a sort of invention of the romance genre. Other genres, such as mysteries and science fiction, have perfected the art of the short story, because their roots are in the genre magazines like Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Analog. The romance novella comes from readers liking the short form, and publishers have discovered that anthologies are a very good way to introduce new authors to readers.

Most romance anthologies have three novellas. The headliner, whose name is in bright lights, is a very popular romance author (Nora Roberts has been in dozens of anthologies) and then come two relatively unknown names and if the unknown writer is lucky, in about ten years’ time she’ll be the headliner for an anthology with two younger writers.

I don’t see any disadvantages, really. A good novella is essentially a full blown novel, with a complete narrative arc and character development, only shorter. Delicious reading on a short trip or at bedtime. Often the anthologies have a theme and it’s fun to watch three gifted writers riff on Christmas, or vampires or those rakes in London during the Regency. So you get three flavors in one book. Win win.

Q: Have you ever considered writing in another genre? And if so, in what genre and why?
A: I wrote a women’s fiction, Homecoming. It would now be called a women’s fiction with romantic elements. And I wrote a murder mystery, Dying for Siena, set in Siena during the Palio. I love writing thrillers (romantic suspense books are thrillers with better sex than the men can write) but I don’t think I’ll be writing any other mysteries, the puzzle element doesn’t fascinate me. I like adventure and strong emotions, not someone puzzling over something in a room.

I’m back to reading my very first love, science fiction, and am seriously contemplating making a switch for a while—science fiction with romantic elements. I love apocalypse stories because they respond to a deep-lying anxiety in me that society is headed off the rails. Maybe writing about the world collapsing with exorcise my fears.

Q: What is your opinion on the sea changes the digital revolution is bringing in the lives of writers? I know you believe it opens up new opportunities that have never existed before, in particular the possibility of self-publishing e-books without incurring the stigma attached to vanity publishing. This adds a whole new dimension to the options an aspiring author may have: going through publishing with a “legacy publisher” is no longer a must. For those already published like you, it opens up the possibility of e-publishing their backlist. Would you consider self-publishing in future?

A: This is a very interesting topic. Contrary to widely-held opinion, it’s not that hard to be published nowadays. Certainly compared to when I started publishing in the late 90s. (God that feels like a generation ago now!). It’s arguably harder to land contracts with the big 6 ‘legacy’ conglomerates, but there is a plethora of epublishers and small presses who are looking for content as long as you are writing a commercial genre.

What’s really exciting about the digital revolution is not HOW you are published (legacy publisher, self publishing) but rather that the digital revolution has solved the age old enormous problem of distribution which was once a huge wall between reader and writer. That wall has come down as clangingly as the Berlin Wall. What’s exciting is that a reader in Buenos Aires can enjoy your steampunk fiction and a reader in Thailand your romance and a reader in South Africa your thriller. That’s big. That’s epochal. That’s revolutionary.

As for me—for complex reasons I don’t own the rights to any of my backlist and won’t until about 2019 by which time either the publishing industry will have established a direct tube in my veins to suck my blood, or the ice caps will have melted taking southern Italy with it, or I won’t be interested in writing anymore because I’ll be so rich I’ll have servants to breathe for me.

Take your pick.

Q: You have established the Women’s Writers Festival in Matera as a must venue on continental Europe for writers and agents. How did you get started?

A: When I was a beginner writer I got an AMAZING amount of help from writers’ conferences in the USA, notably the Romance Writers of America’s national conferences. You cannot believe what it is like to have the entire publishing industry at your fingertips while spending all your time with fellow writers. It is just such an amazing vibe and it sheds such light on this most closed of professions, writing and publishing. I knew nothing like this existed in Europe where publishing was still an industry shrouded in mystery. For all we knew, editors made decisions by consulting the I Ching or their horoscopes.

I am also a translator. I translated a book for the Italian Harlequin, Harlequin Mondadori, and established a telephonic friendship with its editorial director, Maria Paola Romeo. We were chatting and talking about establishing a writer’s retreat in Matera, which is quite beautiful and quite conducive to writing.

The writers’ retreat morphed into a writers’ conference and voilĂ ! The International Women’s Fiction Festival.

Q: How do you ever find the time to both write your novels and organize the Festival? It sounds daunting!

A: Well, some writers write 7-8 books a year (Nora Roberts again). Here’s a link to an interview with Maya Banks, who writes close to a million words a year and earns close to a million dollars a year. It’s mind-boggling:

Now THAT’S a hard worker! It’s also an interesting post because Maya got her start with a digital publisher, Samhain, whose founder worked at Ellora’s Cave. Erotic romance gave digital publishing its first big push.

That’s the long answer. The short answer is—it’s not easy to get everything done. And sometimes I freak when I’m close to a deadline and sometimes I am stressed to the max.

Q: Will you organize another “Brainstorming at the Spa” with writers in future? As you say, it is better and cheaper than therapy, and this first session was a huge success.

A: Absolutely! And look for SEVERAL Brainstorming at the Spa sessions in 2012!

It was, hands down, the single most effective writing-boosting event I’ve ever been to. Amazingly effective in pushing you forward with your story, eliminating false starts and things that don’t work. It’s like pressing ‘fast forward’ on your writing. So check the website of the International Women’s Fiction Festival for the dates. We’re already thinking around April for 2012. Maybe April and November!

Thank you, Liz, for being so forthcoming and giving us all this information about yourself and your exciting writers’ conference. I know people who read us will want to buy your books and get in touch with you! 

Here’s the link to Elizabeth Jennings’ blog, do visit her and make comments:

Here's the link to the Writers' Conference home page: Women's Writers Festival in Matera
or Join on Facebook: Women's Fiction Festival