FIVE QUESTIONS WITH AXEL BLACKWELL
The blog is going on hiatus for a month while I put my head down to get some much needed work done (updates on my Patreon will be ongoing), but before heading out I had the pleasure of interviewing Axel Blackwell, author of SISTERS OF SORROW. He was also kind enough to let me give away copies of his wonderful ebook, so after you read be sure to enter to win!
Here's the blurb:
Anna Dufresne lives in a factory that eats children. If the brutal machines don't kill Anna, her guardians' neglect and abuse surely will. The only thing this abandoned teen wants is out. But the factory is inside a stone fortress, on an island, where people are sent to be forgotten. It serves as a dumping ground -- both for orphans who are not welcome at finer institutions, and for nuns who have disgraced the Church. The walls of Saint Frances du Chantal's Orphan Asylum hum with secrets and buried scandal.
In the catacombs below the factory, something long dead, something almost forgotten, stirs. It offers Anna a key, and promises freedom, if she will seek it out when she escapes. She knows her plan will endanger the other children, but Anna cannot resist the call of freedom.
Her escape attempt triggers a chain reaction of chaos, shaking the orphanage to its foundation and laying bare its deadly secrets. As Anna flees into the night, she discovers that the evil nuns were the least of her worries. The swirling mist of the island hides terrors more dangerous than she could ever imagine.
1. Tell me a little about yourself, and when did you first start writing?
First of all, I'd like to say thank you, TNae, for inviting me to this interview. One of the really rewarding parts of the publishing experience is getting to meet fellow independent authors. I have been surprised by how generous other indies have been with both their expertise and their willingness to help spread the word about Sisters of Sorrow. I am honored that you would share your audience with me. So, thank you.
As to me and my writing, I wrote a ghost story in 4th or 5th grade that spooked my classmates and disturbed my teacher. It wasn't anything too startling, except that it was written by a grade-schooler. Since then, I have always thought of myself as a writer, though I wasn't very consistent...at all. Other than projects assigned by teachers, I only wrote one or two short stories.
After high school, I started to get serious about writing, but then I got distracted by life and let the writing slide into the background. I picked it up again in 2007, writing several shorts, a novella, and half of an alien invasion novel. At that time, I intended to try to make a career of writing, but just as things started coming together, my wife and I hit a series of personal tragedies and financial setbacks. I again had to shelve the writing.
About two years ago, I decided to blow the cobwebs out of the writing machinery and make another go at it. My first attempts at writing were dismal. After a few months of consistent effort, I managed to crank out some really cool short stories. During that same time, I learned about the self-publishing phenomenon and wanted to give it a try. I began writing Sisters of Sorrow in October of 2013 and finished the first draft almost exactly a year later.
2. What inspired the concept behind 'Sisters of Sorrow' and how long did it take you to get it to the final state that it's in?
Sisters of Sorrow started with a picture in my mind: A group of children trapped on a dark, misty island with some terrible thing hunting them, intent on scavenging their parts. This picture prompted a series of questions. Who are these children? Why are they on this island? Who left them to fend for themselves? What is the motivation of this thing that hunts them?
While considering these questions, I read an article about the Galveston hurricane of 1900. It described an orphanage that was washed out to sea and the tragically heroic attempts to save the orphans. This gave me the idea for setting and answered some of the questions raised by my original idea.
In the process of rebooting my writer brain, I did several writing exercises. One of these called for a 1000 story written completely in imperative sentences. In other words, every sentence in the story had to be a command. I applied my story concept to this exercise, resulting in a rough sketch of some early scenes in Sisters, (from the beached rowboat scene to the rusty windmill scene, for those of you who have read it). Most of this sketch made it into the final novel as Joseph's instruction to Anna on how to escape.
Once I got serious about actually writing this as a novel, it took me about a year to complete the first draft. It took another seven months of edits, rewrites, beta readers, and more edits before it was ready to publish.
3. Your monster is very interesting. I don't want to give anything away but how did he come about? Did you lay awake at night thinking of him?
When my kids were little, one of their favorite things to do at the beach was to summon the Horrible Sea Willy. The hotels at the beach use huge lights to illuminate the ocean, so folks can sit on their balconies at night and watch the breakers roll in. I would stand in front of one of these lights with the four-year-old on my shoulders. My wife would stand directly in front of me, and the six-year-old would stand in front of her. Then we'd stick our arms out and wiggle them up and down. The resulting six-legged, eight-armed, two or three-headed shadow was the Horrible Sea Willy. I don't know for sure that this spawned the idea for the monster in Sisters of Sorrow, but it must have had some influence. The thing in Sisters is a little more complex, and disturbing. The monster from Jeepers Creepers also played a part in the development of my monster. I think the most horrible thing about it is the monster's origin, what he is on the inside. I can't say that I laid awake at night thinking of him, but a few others have reported that experience While I was in the process of creating this story, it seemed like my mind was caught up in one aspect or another pretty much all the time.
4. It seems like you put a lot of attention into your descriptions. Did you spend a lot of time making sure the words were just right? Is that part of your process?
The words are never just right, but I get them as close as I know how. There were several deeper layers to this story in my head that I just wasn't able to put into print. That is one of the frustrations with this craft; the whole story never makes it onto the page. As a writer, I have to see the scene very, very clearly. I have to envision every detail, because only a percentage of what I see in my mind will translate across the page into the reader's mind. So, yes, choosing the right word is time consuming, but I find it easier if I first spent the time and brain power to vividly imagine the details before I attempt to write them.
I wrote Sisters of Sorrow from Anna's perspective. It was my intention to put my reader inside her head as effectively and completely as possible. So, while developing my scenes, I tried to imagine which sensations she would notice most acutely. I then focused the reader's attention on those details. I did my best to be "in the moment" with her in every sentence. This leads to some facets being highly detailed and others being ignored completely. I hope that it also leads to a narrative that draws the reader in and engages the imagination.
5. We've all heard that there's a little bit of the writer in the stories they write, so where are YOU in this story?
Hmm... That's a tricky one. I am not a very open guy, generally speaking. But, sometimes stories communicate indirectly in ways that direct words cannot. Maybe the arc of this story is a rough metaphor for situations and emotions I've experienced. It definitely reveals some of my beliefs about the world and the way we interact with it. Life can be horrible and hard and tragic, yet still beautiful. I can't say much more about that without being trite or spoiling the story. Anna and Donny both display characteristics to which I aspire, ideals like courage and loyalty and stupid stubborn resilience when even the memory of hope is gone. In telling their story, I attempted to highlight those ideals.
On the other hand, maybe this is just a tale about a half-mad orphan girl trying to escape evil nuns and a Horrible Sea Willy. If that's the case, so be it. It still makes for a wild ride and one heck of a good story (in my humble opinion).
You can find Axel Blackwell: