Christina K. Gross interview by Lorna Suzuki
Christina, I’d like to begin by having you share a little information about yourself with our readers.
What do you enjoy doing when you are not writing?
CKG: Reading about writing, either for pleasure with those welcome works that combine a good story with good writing, or learning from books and articles that might help me improve my craft.
If that sounds a bit obsessive, I do make time to have fun with family and friends and explore the natural wonders of the great outdoors. Hiking, playing sports, traveling, photography, and piloting a small plane are some of my favorite activities. Back in my studio, I indulge in pushing the boundaries of my artwork and Artography. When I need to stop and relax, I scan current articles on science, astronomy, physics, technology, and social media. I’m a humble, nice, and polite person – until I start writing again.
Has writing stories always been a part of your life and was it a lifelong dream to become a published author?
CKG: I’ve been telling stories since that day in the first grade when the nuns in their impeccable white robes became alarmed and frantic, ordering all of us students out of our cloistered classrooms to an early 30-minute recess on an icy winter playground. They had discovered a girl’s panties in the main hallway next to Mother Superior’s glass office door and were fiercely determined to ferret out the unholy children involved –
Gotcha! This is an example of my fictional biography – better known as a fib.
As for writing stories, that came later. You see, I’ve been an artist and sculptor since my youth. My brain seems to be visually wired. When I have something to say, I usually draw, paint or construct it. Writing was a different. At first, using only words on-screen or paper to re-create what I saw, felt, and imagined was like trying to scrub Martha Washington’s delicate porcelain dishes with my feet. But learn to write I did.
After the completion of my first novel, Bend in the Ocean, I wondered if I shouldn’t have started with something less voluminous, intense and complex, like writing short stories or blogging or magazine articles. In hindsight, I needn’t have been concerned. Slashing 760K words to an acceptable 75K was just another learning experience. I enjoyed the journey. Writing became easier and more efficient.
Yes, I dream as millions of writers do of becoming a traditionally published author.
What was the inspiration behind this story and can you tell us a little bit about your protagonist, Kathleen Torres?
CKG: As a lifelong student of history and national and foreign affairs, threats and acts of terrorism have been of interest to me for many years. Will and Ariel Durant published The Story of Civilization – eleven popular volumes on world history with titles like “The Age of Faith” and “The Age of Reason Begins.” I personally believe that we have entered a new era, The Age of Terror, and will be embroiled in that era for a long time to come. Terrorists have publicly stated that they don’t need bombs or weapons to disrupt or destroy their enemies: a simple note, an unattended box, or a brief phone call has the power to empty a London university, shut down the New York subway, stall freeway traffic into Los Angeles, or cancel flights from Beijing, Moscow, or Paris.
With the rare exception of the tragic hijacking of the Achille Lauro off Cairo in 1985, cruise ships have been spared from terrorist assaults. With millions of passengers traveling and vacationing on ocean liners – their numbers increasing each year – I believe that these ships are at a severe risk of attack. Think about it: Technologically sophisticated terrorists yearn to bring down the most powerful nation on earth, but so far they’ve had to be content with capturing and killing only small clusters of Americans. They know that massive ocean-crossing cruise ships are barred by international maritime law from carrying powerful offensive and defensive weapons on board. Place this ship – brimming with Americans – somewhere alone on the high seas, unescorted and inadequately armed, and you will have created a prime target for a global syndicate of terrorists.
I wrote Bend in the Ocean as a warning of this existing danger and a call to action to the cruise ship industry and the International Maritime Organization to provide greater safety and security to their passengers and crew and their ports.
My reinvigorated protagonist, Captain Kathleen Torres, confronts the problem of international terrorism tangentially. Externally, her immediate goal is to stand up to her male peers who despise her for interfering with centuries-old tradition and are determined to demean her and undermine her efforts to salvage what’s left of her career. In desperation, Kathleen decides to risk everything to embrace her grandest dream.
Internally, newly wed Kathleen craves to be happy again and be loved after the recent loss of her husband. She’s a giving and caring young woman who has trouble keeping her self-doubts at bay: “Despair, don’t tread on me now.” Coming from a background where girls and women were expected to be submissive and unquestionably dedicate their lives to caring for hubby, home and family, Kathleen is frustrated when she can only listen to tales of adventures and challenges in the outside world told by her returning father and brothers. She is determined to break through the glass ceiling and prove her worth.
Without giving away too much, can you reveal what’s in store for the readers when they crack open Bend in the Ocean?
CKG: Bend in the Ocean is an emotional story of hardship where the characters bravely venture far beyond their limits while facing triumph and defeat, hope and despair, trust and deceit, desperation, compassion vs. vengeance, good vs. evil, and of course corruption vs. innocence.
Unless readers peek ahead, they probably will not anticipate the twists and turns of this simple story that is so tightly interwoven with a complex human tragedy. Readers may also be overwhelmed by the depth and variety of the characters and the increasingly murky ambiguity between right and wrong.
The setting on a cruise ship serves as a backdrop to a confrontation that could have unfolded in a clotted metropolis or a blissful countryside, on a precarious alien planet or a dusty boomtown in the Old West.
The reader can expect heart-pounding thrills, mystery and suspense, and a touch of romance. But my story is about the unexpected with a very personal focus. Kathleen has feelings of inadequacy, rejection, prejudice, and discrimination. She is desperate to uncover her identity, achieve her lifetime dream, and be respected as the greatest captain in the world.
What made you decide to take the indie route and self-publish your novel?
CKG: I want this story in front of the public eye because I believe it carries an important message concerning the safety of all Americans traveling at home and abroad.
Bend in the Ocean is currently available only as an ebook in both Kindle .mobi and .epub formats. Many potential readers have begged me to offer print editions as they loathe digital devices. That is why I am seeking representation by an agent or a publisher.
What is the best and worst part about being an indie author?
CKG: The best part is that I have enormous freedom. I can write about any subject I want at any time or place of my choosing, free from constraints, objections, and deadlines. Because the book is in a digital format, I can revise the manuscript and change the cover design as often as I like. And I can promote and sell my work when and where and to whom I choose.
Most writers work full-time in other jobs and dream of the day when they can leave the 9-5 or the graveyard shift to fully concentrate on their creative aspirations. Other writers work at home while the refrigerator hums, the baby sleeps, the neighbors are at work, the kids are in school, or gardeners clip lawns down the block.
Many aspiring writers assume that being an indie author is undesirable because of their isolation from the professional publishing world and a lack of personal interaction. They think that rubbing shoulders with top writers, agents, and editors on Broadway and 5th Avenue in Manhattan near the major publishing houses of Hachette Book Group, Macmillan Publishers, and Random House is a wonderful environment to be in.
Quite the contrary. When you become involved in a group you begin to think like the group and their goals and ambitions rub off on you. It’s called group think. You take a great risk in losing the freedoms that you take for granted – being an independent author, for instance.
Rubbing elbows, shoulders, whatever does not ensure success. You have to do the work – alone.
I write in a quiet, spacious room with two long adjustable-height desks, stacks of paper, four stuffed bookcases, computers and printer, and a clock on the wall whose pointy hands mean nothing. Whether it is dark or sunny outside, stormy or calm, winter or spring, midnight or morning, I can choose to sit, stand, or lie down in this room and write. You don’t have to tell me how fortunate I am. I know because I am an independent author.
There are two types of people in the world: winners and losers. The winners know who they are, but not the losers. They feel an emptiness, an unfulfilled craving for what the winners have. They’re not interested in learning how to improve their skills or focus their talent. That’s too working-class. They want success and they want it now.
So losers begin to associate with the best people in the field, attending writing workshops, conferences and seminars, participating in a local writing club, testing the public waters of publishing, hoping to put their finger on the pulse of publishing, wishing that what the winners have will rub off on them. It won’t. And, even if it did, they would still be losers. Why? Because the success, ideas, inspiration and influence didn’t come from them. It came from others.
The worst part of being an indie author is that writing can be an isolated and sometimes lonely business. It has to be. Independent writers need to attain proper focus to sort out and develop new ideas on their own – not recycled concepts that have been making the rounds in break rooms, phone calls, and emails since 9 a.m.
Most of the time, I do not feel lonely. In fact, I feel exuberant, flying high with my unpredictable characters as they carry me to places as yet unknown.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned on the road to publication?
CKG: The most common refrain to that question is “Never give up.” But I would argue that there is a bigger issue here: You cannot give up on something you don’t have or haven’t started. I’m talking story here. If you’re a writer, you need to demonstrate your talents and skills by showing your work – novel, short stories, poems, articles – so you have at least a small chance of being read, of getting published.
The most fundamental lesson you will learn is to believe in yourself, that you have something worth saying that the rest of the world might benefit from. Then you can sit down someplace and write blatantly and giddily from your heart, the whole of your feelings set free, your thoughts unfettered by judgment and prejudice. Quality takes effort. Let your work be filled with gusto and joy.
Don’t ever be concerned with what people think of you. It is impossible to compete with people who are different from you. Just focus on writing better today than you did yesterday. You are challenged to compete only with yourself.
Make your writing your own. It will be as unique as you allow yourself to be. Be true to yourself. Touch the stone that vibrates with your soul. As Hemingway would say, “No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure.” (quote from Woody Allen’s movie, Midnight in Paris, 2011).
On the subject of writing styles, are you a plotter or pantser?
CKG: I’ve tried both approaches to novel writing and several others. This is what I have come to believe:
If you’re going to write a fictionalized story, you must first decide what you want to write about. This will be your premise, your core idea, the focus of everything else that you add to your work. You get to see the entirety of your narrative in one or two sentences. These will be the foundation on which to build your story: character by character, event by event, chapter by chapter. You will have a clarity of purpose – a summary of where your story will head and what you want to accomplish – that most other writers would trade their last award for. Maybe not.
Now that you know what you want to say and where you’ll end up, you can turn to the literary construction crew in your head that specializes in plot cement, painted details and conflicting fixtures and tell them to get lost. You don’t need them. Why? Because your characters are going take over and do all the heavy lifting, causing the tension and conflict, stirring emotions, and eventually leave your pages filled with unpredictable stories that you as the writer could not have imagined yourself.
Let your characters live freely within your premise to tell their own story. Don’t force your story on them and don’t interfere beyond sprinkling a few obstacles among them as needed. Remember: you are their god and have the power of life and death over them – but don’t use it. Trust in your characters. As your creations, let them lead you down unplanned, even impossible paths to determine their fates. It’ll be fun for all of you – even for the characters who suffer because they can be resurrected in another chapter or another book. Good characters never die.
So, how much of this is plotter? Only the foundation of your story, the overall idea, the premise. If you micromanage the ins and outs of a plot girded in steel, you will fail to capture the unpredictable events that spontaneously arise from any character-driven story.
How much is pantser? If you leave the story to your own devices and write from the seat of your pants, it will surely be the surprise creation you hoped for. It came from you, it is you, and nothing more. You may very well end up disappointed. Get out of your character’s way.
If you let your imagination soar, populated with characters and things that never existed before and give the responsiblity of pantserism to your characters, you will write a story no one has ever heard before. Can entertainment and the joy of creation get any better than that?
Some authors meditate, others need to fuel up on coffee or listen to music. Do you have any rituals, ones that can be shared with the readers, that you must do before you hunker down for a writing session?
CKG: I am not a fan of rituals or superstition. I like a quiet place where I can hear myself mutter and my characters think.
I have found that music is not only distracting, it affects my mood. If I change the background music the next day, I will be approaching my creative endeavor with a different mindset or feeling – not a good way to maintain consistency on a project.
I don’t want or need the feelings that background music conveys. I’d rather get in touch with what my heart conveys. My feelings are raw, unmanipulated and personal. Contrary to listening to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” or “Love on the Brain” by Rihanna for the hundredth time, my feelings are as yet spontaneous and unrecorded, spontaneous, and unique.
When I feel something or my characters do, I want the flow of emotions to be real and unhindered rather than artificially induced or amplified. I like to use my brain as much as possible for reasoning and imagination and do not want to drug my grey matter silly with stimulants like coffee or downers like alcohol.
I don’t force myself to write during certain hours or in particular habitats – especially in the back room of Clancy’s corner bar at 11:23 p.m. on Thursday nights – because, fortunately, I don’t have to or want to.
If you’re one of those writers who experience the dreaded writer’s block, what do you do to get around or over this mental wall to resume writing?
CKG: Think about it: If you desperately have something to blurt out to the world, something pushing hard against your guts to be revealed, nobody’s going to stop you and you wouldn’t have enough paper and ink to write it all down.
Writer’s block develops when you lose focus on your subject or your purpose and put your attention on feelings not related to your writing, such as concern about your ranking on Amazon or an unpaid electrical bill or the results of your last blood test. You become disengaged, far removed from your original objective, and begin feeding into a vicious cycle of anxiety, desperation and despair.
If you find yourself self-centered, impeded, immersed in unproductive feelings and concerns, sit down and begin writing openly and honestly about why you are being so distracted. This will give you a different – albeit temporary – goal to write about. You will see yourself writing again. And before you can even get started writing about your faults and everyone else’s, your original purpose will return, screaming for recognition and your time.
If you have a favourite author, how did he/she inspire you to write or influence your writing style or choice of genre?
CKG: I find most of my inspiration and influence from within. I prefer writing about controversial subjects because that’s where the meat of a good story lies. Any subject that vigorously stirs the emotions in people to take sides, sometimes vehemently, can be the seed of a fascinating story. People will privately read what they refuse to acknowledge or discuss openly.
Good writing is about capturing the truths of life so well that readers see themselves or their situation in a new light. Keep in mind that each person’s truth may appear universal on the outside, but inside it is intimately and passionately unique.
Too many stories are heavily plot-based with overly rehearsed, choreographed scenes or plot-deficient meanderings that flow from thought to thought and time and place with no direction or purpose.
All meaningful stories revolve around emotions and feelings, unsnagged by excessive plot constraints and briny and boring details.
I thoroughly enjoy written works that poetically evoke imagery. Only a spirited and fearless wordsmith can express pain and heartache, joy and triumph, leaps of hope and faith, and the horrific terrors and magnificent beauties of life.
Some writers who have influenced or inspired me in the past include Margaret Atwood, William Faulkner, John Grisham, John Green, John Hart, Stephen King, Ursula Le Guin, Doris Lessing, Cormac MacCarthy, Toni Morrison, Jodi Picoult, J.K. Rowling, John Steinbeck, Donna Tart, Anne Tyler, Thomas Wolfe and Virginia Woolf.
What are you working on now?
CKG: A novel spirited with supernatural suspense, a compilation of short stories, a coffee table print edition of my Artography, and a short book of poems.
I’m also trying to learn how to relax and simply enjoy life on occasion.
Can your fans expect a sequel to Bend in the Ocean in the near future?
CKG: Hopefully, that terror and devastation unleashed in Bend in the Ocean will be prevented from happening in real life.
At this point, I want to be free from restrictions to explore the nether regions of my mind and from there strike out in new directions, always exploring and experimenting with novel ideas.
For more information about Christina K. Gross and her novel check out:
Follow Christina on Twitter: @christinakgross
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