Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Jessica Bell, Interviewed

It was at this time last year that Jessica Bell and I were working together in an effort to finish the first drafts of our novels-in-progress.  I was re-writing my NaNo novel and having trouble restructuring the plot with the new cast of characters I’d swapped for the less vibrant players in the NaNo version.  Jessica was drafting Bitter Like Orange Peel, her second novel which was underway but moving slower than she would have liked.  We swapped chapters every Friday, spent the weekends reading and critiquing, and then met on Skype for a live chat when we discussed our notes.  It was a wonderful time of honest collaboration during which I learned a lot about my own writing style and the art of penning the novel.  And I owe much of that to working with the genius mind of Jessica Bell. She is THE best!

About two and a half months into our writing schedule, Jessica caught the attention of Janice Phelps Williams, founding publisher for Lucky Press, LLC. Janice had requested the full manuscript of Jessica’s first novel, then titled Dead in the Corner of My Bedroom.   It was an exciting time, a hope-filled time when our fingers were crossed so tightly we lost feeling in our hands.  And finally, after Jessica worked her butt off to make changes in her MS that reflected the suggestions Janice sent her, her newly renamed novel String Bridge was contracted for publication through Lucky Press.

I’m so happy for Jessica’s success and it is with love and pride in my heart that I bring you the following interview with my dear friend, Jessica Bell.


1.       How did the idea for String Bridge first come to you?  Did it begin with a character, a theme, a story line, or something else?

I don’t think there is one thing from the first draft that is in the final version, so regarding ‘getting the idea,’ it wasn’t like an idea just hit me and I started writing about it. It was gradual, and developed more and more with each revision. The thing with this book is that I never really ‘focused’ on plot. It was more about the characters and their emotions and their interactions with each other. This book is very much centered on the ‘effect’ rather than the ‘cause.’ Even though music doesn’t define me as much as writing does, it is still a big part of my life. The inspiration for the book came about when I was thinking about a time in my life when music was all I ever wanted to breathe. Even though my priorities had changed then, I still wanted to write about the power music has over someone who is so passionate about it. But I think music could be replaced by any sort of passion in String Bridge, because basically the story is about needing something more than you need yourself.

2.       String Bridge is a triumph in character-driven storytelling.  And the accompanying soundtrack to the book is an absolutely brilliant idea, both as a way to heighten, for readers, the emotional impact of Melody’s conflicts, and as a marketing tool.  How did that project come to be?

The songs that appear in the book started off as poems. Then it occurred to me that I could create and produce an album for Melody. That’s when the idea for my book trailer came about after listening to a few of my mother’s songs on YouTube. The poems then turned into lyrics. When I finished the final revisions I sat down and wrote music to the four songs that appear in the book. Once those were done, I wrote six more songs to create Melody’s album. I’m hoping this album will create a little more interest in the book, than the book itself is capable of, as I can actually market the music to an audience that probably wouldn’t look twice at the book without the album existing.

3.       Such a brilliant idea!  Let’s talk more about the book, now.  So many times, an author slips a slice of her soul into her main character, shaping the character by drawing from her own perceptions and life experiences.  How much of your soul does Melody carry inside her?

It’s quite hard to say, to be honest. I could try and give you a percentage of how much of myself is in Melody, but I think I would always change my mind. I think every writer puts themselves into every character, but the similarities come through in waves which depend on various factors, such as mood, while writing. For example, I’m as emotional and passionate as Melody is. I’m as cheeky as Tessa is. Depending on the circumstances, I can get as cold and aggressive as Betty and Alex, and as passive and timid and obedient as James. I can sometimes be as boisterous as Heather and as caring and generous as Serena. I can even be quite selfish at times, which I think each and every character in String Bridge is as some point or another, and so is each and every person on this planet at some point in their lives. There is always going to be a piece of the author in every single book they write. And that cannot be avoided.

4.       We meet Melody when she’s in a very dark, low place in her emotional life.  How were you able to channel those emotions each time you sat down to work on the project?

Though touched by a few very dark moments in my life, it was mostly instinctual. There were times though, when I was writing, where I felt my instincts might be wrong. There were so many times I wondered whether what I was writing was too melodramatic. I didn’t want the book to become a soap opera. I really had to sit back during those moments and close my eyes and put myself in Melody’s shoes, and ask myself, “How would you react if your husband did this to you? How would it make you feel? Does this reaction suit Melody’s character?” Sometimes my possible reactions didn’t suit her character and I had to alter them accordingly, but trying to live it in my mind certainly helped. Personally, if I were in Melody’s situation, I wouldn’t have put up with as much as she did. I also probably would have slapped myself in the face and told myself to snap out of it and take a look at all the blessings I have in life.
Mind you, I can’t deny how many times I bawled my eyes out after writing this book. It certainly was taxing on my mental state. Sometimes I even felt myself slipping into her depression. I usually had to take a few days break to feel ‘normal’ again between rewrite sessions.

5.       I’m not surprised; there were scenes when I was bawling my eyes out too!  As much as an author can invent feelings and reactions for their characters, you wrote String Bridge at a time in your life before parenthood.  Life with children is a reality often difficult to imagine without direct experience.  What was it like creating four-year-old Tessa?  From where did you draw inspiration for her personality, mannerisms and word choices? 

I think I created her to be the daughter I hope to have. I’ve worked with kids her age before in a few English schools here in Athens, so I drew a few observations from that experience. But mostly it was guess work.  There were also a few times as I was writing when I thought about a home video my grandmother took of me singing in her garden when I was four or five. I guess you could say Tessa is a bit like I was as a kid.

6.       Mother-daughter relationships play important roles in this story.  Did the exploration of the dynamics between Melody and Tessa, and between Melody and Betty, become a cathartic experience for you?  Did their story lines reflect your own hopes or fears about parenthood?
 
Yes, it certainly did. I love and adore kids. I can’t imagine never having the chance to bring a child into this world. But ever since discovering I wanted to write, and doing so consistently, I haven’t thought about children so often. I’m always asking myself, do I really want to bring a child into the world if I can’t see myself sacrificing time for it? I haven’t answered that question yet. I know women think they can have it all. And I’m sure we can to some degree if we really put our minds to it. But there are only a certain amount of hours in a day and there’s always going to be something that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. I’m not sure I’m willing to struggle with that. Not yet anyway. Let’s hope my biological clock keeps ticking until I can finally take the plunge.

7.       Speaking of the time you consecrate to your craft, how long did it take you to write String Bridge, from beginning the first draft to completing the finished manuscript?

I spent about five years writing it because it went through about seven different revisions. Although it wasn’t the first thing I’d ever written. I was still learning along the way. And you know what? It still doesn’t feel finished to me. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with ideas on how to improve it. That can be a bit annoying actually, because now it’s impossible. Ha!

8.       I can relate to that!  Is a story ever, truly, finished?? *shakes her head no* Everyone’s story about how they landed their book contract is different, but a common thread that connects everyone seems to be the emotional roller coaster ride of the journey.  What was your path to publication like, for you?

Full of tears and low self-esteem and realizations about my strengths and weaknesses, eureka moments, rejections, more tears, doubts, high self-expectations, not being sure if I could cope with all the let downs, but pushing through anyway. But one thing I’m very proud to say is that I never ever had one thought of giving up. It just wasn’t an option for me. It was the first thing I have ever ever ever wanted so much in my entire life. I wasn’t going to let it go over a few years of pressure.

9.      What’s next for Author Jessica Bell?  Any new projects you can tell us about?

My second novel, Bitter Like Orange Peel, is about a twenty-five year old Australian archaeology undergraduate named Kit, who doesn’t like to get her hands dirty. She feels misplaced and comes to the conclusion that meeting her father, Roger, will make some sense of her life, despite him being worth the rotting orange rind in her backyard. Well, at least that’s what she’s been conditioned to think of him by the three women in her life: Ailish, her mother—an English literature professor who communicates in quotes and clich├ęs, and who still hasn’t learned how to express emotion on her face; Ivy, her half-sister—a depressed professional archaeologist, with a slight case of nymphomania, who fled to America after a divorce to become a waitress; and Eleanor, Ivy’s mother—a pediatric surgeon who embellishes her feelings with medical jargon, and who named her daughter after intravenous. Against all three women’s wishes, Kit decides to find Roger, but in doing so, discovers he is not the only rotten fruit.

My third novel, Muted, is set in Arles, France, in a totalitarian society where it is illegal to wear clothes. In some streets, it's also illegal to sing without accompanying instruments. Concetta, a famous Italian a cappella singer from before “the change,” breaks these laws. As punishment, her vocal chords are brutally slashed and her eardrums surgically perforated. Unable to cope with living a life without song, she resolves to drown herself in the river, clothed in a dress stained with performance memories from her hometown, Milan. But Concetta's suicide attempt is cut short as someone grabs her by the throat and pulls her to the surface. Is it the busking harpist, who encouraged her to feel music through vibration, acting as saviour? Or a street warden on the prowl for another offender to detain? From this moment, the reader will discover how Concetta came to be in this position, and what will happen to her after the suicide attempt.

Muted will explore a variety of themes such as overcoming loss, coping with mental illness and disability, dealing with discrimination, loss of freedom, inhibited self-expression, motivation to succeed, escaping oppression, expression through art and music, self-sacrifice, channelling the thoughts of the deceased, and challenging moral views and values.

So many projects in the works!  Best of luck with all of them, and everything the future holds for you.  Thanks so much for sharing your experiences and your stories with us!

Thank you so much for having me, Nicole!

Purchase links:
eBook




Paperback:


Amazon UK: (Coming soon)



Soundtrack:

Jessica's links:
String Bridge Website: http://www.stringbridge.com/

                    
Jessica Bell is a literary women's fiction author, poet and singer/songwriter who grew up in Melbourne, Australia, to two gothic rock musicians who had successful independent careers during the '80s and early '90s. She spent much of her childhood travelling to and from Australia to Europe, experiencing two entirely different worlds, yet feeling equally at home in both environments. She currently lives in Athens, Greece and works as a freelance writer/editor for English Language Teaching publishers worldwide, such as HarperCollins, Pearson Education and Macmillan Education. In addition to String Bridge, Jessica has published a book of poetry called Twisted Velvet Chains. A full list of poems and short stories published in various anthologies and literary magazines can be found under Published Works & Awards, on her website. From September 2012 Jessica will be hosting the Homeric Writers' Retreat & Workshop on the Greek island of Ithaca, home of Odysseus.