What inspired you to write Wickwythe Hall?
Although Wickwythe Hall isn’t in any way a military novel, it was inspired by a little-known military event. Years ago, I was reading the biography of Coco Chanel by Axel Madsen. There was a brief reference to a confrontation in an Algerian port between the French and British navies in July 1940, just after France surrendered to the Germans. I’d never heard of this and was curious. So I looked it up and read about what the British called Operation Catapult which ended with the Royal Navy firing on and destroying most of the French fleet to keep the ships from the Nazis--killing over 1,000 French sailors in the process. I was floored. Imagine the US navy firing on British ships to keep them from a common enemy—it’s unthinkable.
But it turned the war in the Allies’ favor. In 1940, before the US was in the war, Roosevelt didn’t want to send American ships and guns to Churchill for fear that ultimately Churchill would surrender. The British destruction of the French ships proved to Roosevelt that Churchill would do anything to survive and that, as he always said, he would never surrender. As a result, Roosevelt put more pressure on Congress to aid the British, leading, eventually, to the lend-lease program.
To the British, Operation Catapult was a horrible necessity. To the French, it was murder. I was compelled to imagine characters affected by the tragedy from afar and bring this sad piece of history to light.
How did you come up with the characters of Annelle, Mabry and Reid?
As for Annelle, I’ve been told by my critique group that I must have lived in a French convent in a previous life. As for Mabry, during the war Churchill on occasion took refuge in a British country house owned by a wealthy Brit married to an American and this was what inspired her character. Reid was inspired by an obituary I came across of an American adventurer who had joined the French Foreign Legion and then became the American representative of Cartier in Europe. Roosevelt was known for going outside of government channels and using businessmen to get information that he needed. An American representative of Pol Roger, Churchill’s favorite champagne, seemed like the perfect fit.
How did you go from the idea to a finished manuscript?
That was a very long road. I thought I had a finished manuscript when I took a fiction class at Inprint, an organization here in Houston that offers writing workshops and other programs in the literary arts. If it wasn’t for Inprint, I wouldn’t have an agent and I wouldn’t have a publisher. There, I met other aspiring writers and when the class ended, a few of us decided to keep going and formed a critique group. That was over 12 years ago, and our group still meets every week. Other resources that have been helpful and inspiring have been Gemini Ink in San Antonio, the Writers' League of Texas which hosts a great conference every June and the Words and Music conference in New Orleans held in November of every year. If you’re an aspiring writer, I highly recommend reaching out to organizations in your area.
What advice would you give to writers trying to find an agent?
As Churchill famously said, “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never.” Some people recommend sending at least 80 queries. I sent three times that. But the process of finding an agent actually helped me make the manuscript better. During my first round of queries, along with crickets and form rejections, I had several agents request fulls or partials. A few were nice enough to give me detailed feedback. I took time off from querying to revise then revisited the agents who had given me personal replies and asked if they would look at it again. Surprisingly, most said yes.
But I still wasn’t there. On this next round, I had a few agents of prominent authors actually call me after reading the first few chapters. That was exciting until I never heard from them again. I figured out pretty quick that while the beginning of the novel was working, the middle wasn’t. So I took another year and rewrote. Then I queried again. During this process, I worked with my agent, Kimberley Cameron, for at least a year revising the manuscript and cutting down the word count. Once it got to where she thought she could sell it, she sent me a contract. It took a long time, but it’s truly remarkable how many agents gave me invaluable feedback with nothing in it for them.
How did you deal with rejection?
Luckily in this industry it’s never face to face! And while there were some very discouraging rejections, there were also ones that were encouraging and ironically kept me going.
What do you do for writer’s block?
For me, rearranging furniture, redecorating or fixing something up at my house seems to shake the cobwebs out and get the words flowing again.
Many authors have a novel in a drawer somewhere that will never see the light of day. Do you?
Mine is on a top shelf of my closet. It’s a fictionalized account of my life as a summer clerk at a Houston law firm in the late 1980s. It has no plot and the characters are shallow. It’s bad. Really bad. I should shred it but for some reason I don’t.
What are some of your favorite books?
A few that stand out are Any Human Heart by William Boyd, Life After Life and A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, and the classic House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. I could go on and on. More favorites are pinned to my “favorite books” board on Pinterest.
Have you ever read a book more than once?
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, another favorite. I read it on an e-reader and loved it so much that I read it again in hardback. It didn’t hurt that I’d just finished watching The Tudors so I pictured King Henry as Jonathan Rhys Meyers.
Are you working on anything now?
Yes—another historical novel that takes place in France in the early 1900s. It involves the sister of a well-known person and of course, a French convent.