Q&A

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Can you tell us a little about yourself and how long you’ve been writing?

I’ve been writing and creating worlds for most of my life, since I was about 12. In secondary school I wrote stories and plays. At 16, I wrote a romance novel which was secretly passed around in class. By 20, writing was already a passion, an obsession. I saw myself doing no other thing than becoming an author.

I was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, but later moved to the US, where I completed a degree in Creative Writing and History. I have lived in the Middle East but I’m now settled in Belgium. In addition to Spanish and English, I also speak Turkish and a little French.

When I’m not writing, I enjoy reading and reviewing books, as well as helping other authors promote their works. I love having lunch with friends, going to the cinema with my kids, and spending time with my pets and my family. I also love traveling.


What motivated you to start writing?

For me, writing is a vocation, so I believe I was born with the writing curse—or gift, as there are two ways to look at it.

That said, reading the complete Agatha Christie collection in my early teens played a big part in my becoming a writer. I started writing stories and novels soon after I discovered Christie.  That’s when I also became an avid reader. I don’t remember particularly enjoying reading until I came across her mysteries. They hit me to the core and awakened something that had been dormant in me.


Who or what most influenced you to become a writer?

In my early teens, strong influences were Agatha Christie mysteries and Barbara Cartland romances. Also Harlequin contemporary romances.

In my twenties, strong influences were Tama Janowitz, Kate Chopin, and Albert Camus. Later on, Anne Rice and Donna Tartt.


What was your inspiration for The Luthier’s Apprentice?

I studied/played the violin for 5 years, and my daughter has been playing it for 8 years, so violin music has been a big part of my life for a long time. There’s something darkly mysterious about the violin, and I’m in awe of soloists who have the skill to master it. The making of the violin itself is fascinating to me as well. And, of course, I also love listening to violin music whenever I can. Naturally, violin music has been very influential in my writing. I just find it immensely inspiring. Besides The Luthier’s Apprentice, I have also written several children’s picture books related to the violin. Readers can learn about them here: www.MayrasSecretBookcase.com.


How was your writing process like for The Luthier’s Apprentice?

I completed the first draft in four weeks during Nanowrimo 2007. At that time, it was an experiment. I hadn’t participated in Nanowrimo before. It was an exciting, exhilarating experience, but I knew the manuscript needed a lot of editing and polishing, so I put it aside for a long time. Then I worked on it on and off as I worked on other projects. That’s why it took so long to publish it.

I didn’t plot in advance. I didn’t know what would happen on the next page. I discovered the story and characters as I wrote. Or rather, I let the characters take charge and guide me. Looking back, this was incredibly daring. I don’t work this way now. But, as I said, it was an experiment to shut down my inner critic and it was an exciting challenge.


Is The Luthier’s Apprentice the first book in a series?

Yes, it is the first book in a series, featuring 16-year-old violin student/luthier/amateur sleuth Emma Braun.


Tell us about your protagonists in The Luthier’s Apprentice.

Emma Braun is sixteen years old. The daughter of American expatiates, she’s been living in Brussels all of her life and goes to the European School of Brussels. She lost her dad when she was very young, so she hardly remembers him, but she’s pretty close to her mom. Her life revolves around school, her violin lessons, her best friend Annika, as well as helping her grandfather, a luthier, at his workshop. When her violin teacher, Monsieur Dupriez disappears, Emma is dreadfully upset, not only because there’s a big violin competition coming up and he must train her, but mainly because Emma loves him and sees him as a father figure. She’s been his student since she was a little girl. Emma is loyal and has a kind heart, but she’s also stubborn and impulsive. Of course, she loves mysteries, is a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, and is always ready for adventure.

Corey Fletcher, 17, of American and Russian descendance, is not only another student of Monsieur Dupriez, but he happens to be Emma’s toughest opponent at the upcoming violin competition. And whereas Emma is a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, Corey is a mad fanatic of the detective, often quoting him word by word. He joins Emma in her pursuit of finding Monsieur Dupriez and solving the mystery of the kidnapped violinists. Unbeknown to Emma, however, he has his own hidden agenda.

Emma and Corey have a lot in common. Both love the violin and are skillful players. Both have lost their fathers and are close to their mothers. Both love Sherlock Holmes. Both are keen on finding out what happened to their teacher.

Also, they keep each other on their toes as far as violin playing goes. Both are ambitious and competitive.


Why did you decide to set the story in Brussels?

I have been living here for the past 19 years, and I’m familiar with how the expatiates live—after all, I’m one myself. I thought it would be interesting to set the story in a city teeming with international students, children of diplomats from embassies, NATO, and other international organizations.


Who is your publisher?

My current publishers are Twilight Times Books and Guardian Angel Publishing (children’s books).

However, I self published Dark Lullaby and The Cat Cellar and Other Stories.


Do you have an agent?

Yes, I signed with Nadeen Gayle at Serendipity Literary at the end of August 2013.


As a published author, what would you say was the most pivotal point of your writing life? 

This is a difficult question to answer. There have been many pivotal moments: when I completed my first book, when I held my first published book in my hands, when I landed an agent. Each time I finish a new manuscript is a pivotal point for me because I grow as a writer and become better at my craft.


What is the hardest part about being an author?

As writers, we work on our own. We don’t have a boss threatening to fire us if we don’t show up every morning, so I’d say the hardest part is being disciplined and keeping focused on the work at hand and, above all, not procrastinating. I have to create all kinds of systems around me to keep myself disciplined. I’m terrible at being disciplined, but I’m pretty good at self-imposed discipline. I set an intention before each writing session, I keep 4 planners and lists, I use timers, I make people hold me accountable, I set myself deadlines and at times commit to paying people money if I don’t meet those deadlines, that sort of thing.


If you could go anywhere in the world to start writing your next book, where would that be and why? 

That’s easy: Egypt! Like Agatha Christie, I’d love to stay at The Winter Palace in Luxor and work on my next book there. It would be a dream come true, the perfect inspiration for the Egyptian mythological series I’m currently working on.


Where would you like to set a story that you haven’t done yet?

 In Sarasota, Florida; in Rio de Janeiro, Cairo, London, and Brussels…


What was your inspiration for Dark Lullaby?

I lived in Turkey during my twenties. It was an incredible experience. Not only did I learn to speak Turkish, but I also made wonderful friends and learned a ton about their customs and folklore.

Many Turkish people believe in the cin (pronounced ‘jean’). Not the jinn as westerners know it; you know, the genie that comes out of magic lamps. The cin is a much darker creature that could be lightly compared to the fairy. In Turkish myth, it is a being that lives in the forests. It can be good or evil. It is of spirit form but can shapeshift into an animal or human. Like the western fairy, it is often volatile, mischievous and prone to pranks, some of which can be deadly.

Now, want me to get creepy? It has a bizarre taste for human liver and, when in human form, its feet are set backwards.

Oh, and those little lights that you often see in the woods on warm summer nights, otherwise known as fireflies? They aren’t fireflies. They’re cin.

I was darkly fascinated by the accounts I heard, fascinated enough to write a novel. Thus, Dark Lullaby was born. Of course, I mixed the real tradition with my own fictional lore, thus creating a new type of supernatural being.

But it wasn’t only Turkish folklore that inspired me. The cin sparked my creativity into starting the story, but there were other influences.

I’ve always been very interested in moral dilemmas and in the concepts of justice and a higher good. For instance, is it okay for a man to steal in order to save his little girl, who is dying? In the case of Dark Lullaby, I went a step further: is it okay for a man to kill for the higher good? This question is the central theme in the story.

My love for astronomy and cosmology was another major influence. I wanted my protagonist to be an astrophysicist, a man of science, someone whose thoughts and beliefs were ruled by logic and reason, this way there would be tension when I made him face the unexplained world of the supernatural. The result is that he falls into a state of psychosis, to the point where the reader must wonder if what is happening is real or imaginary.

So many things can spark our creativity, but it’s those things that deeply touch us and we feel passionate about that can really infuse our fiction with truth and authenticity.


What is your favorite thing about writing?

Creating something out of nothing. Sharing my imagination with readers. Getting paid to daydream. And nothing beats being able to work in your pajamas.


Where do you get your best ideas?

I get ideas while writing. As I work on a novel, there are always wonderful surprises. I also get my ideas while doing routine, automatic activities such as walking, driving, washing the dishes, vacuuming, taking a shower, etc. Also, while listening to violin music and movie soundtracks. The music of James Newton Howard and  Wojciech Kilar profoundly inspires me. I often write while listening to their scores.

Another thing that really inspires me is reading the rich, baroque works of Anne Rice. There’s something about her style and language that makes me want to run to the computer and start typing.


How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing? 

My environment and upbringing have immensely influenced my writing. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. Then I went to college in the States. Then I lived in Istanbul and Ankara for four years, and I’m now settled in Brussels. All these different countries and cultures have colored my writing. My supernatural thriller, Dark Lullaby, is set in Turkey and is based on Turkish folklore. My current WIP is a psychological thriller set in a convent in El Yunque, the Puerto Rican rain forest. And, of course, The Luthier’s Apprentice is set in Brussels.


Why do you write what you do?

Because I cannot not do it. My creative spirit must have an outlet, a channel. In my case, it is writing stories. For others, it is creating a painting or sculpture or music composition. If I weren’t able to write and create my fictional worlds, I would probably be mentally unstable. Where would that rush of creativity go? Suppressed, in what devious ways would it unleash?


How does your writing process work?

It may start with an image, a character, a name, a title. There are no rules, and it’s never the same with every book. Sometimes a single image simmers in my mind for years before it becomes the spark for a story.

Then I mentally play with ideas and the thing that was just an image begins to expand into a web. Simple at first. Then more intricate as I spend more and more time thinking about it. And I think about it. A lot. While driving, walking, taking a shower, doing housework, etc–routine, monotone activities, which are great for creativity. Once I can’t stop thinking about it, once I become obsessed, that’s when I know I’m ready to start jotting down words and sketching a rough plot.

Nowadays, I like to begin ‘discovering’ the story using Alan Watt’s “Unlock the Story Within” techniques. Once I have a more solid idea of the characters and where I want to go with them, my plotting gets tighter and more detailed, but never at the expense of staying flexible and open to change. In fact, what I love most about the writing process are those surprises that I never saw coming.

For plotting, I love Alexandra Sokoloff’s method and Carol Hughes’ Deep Story method.

Then, after some anxious procrastination, I try to put my ego aside and sit down and face the blank page. That is never easy. In fact, it is terrifying. Every time. But the need and passion to create is greater, I guess, because finally I just do it.

The plot keeps evolving as I write. I adjust and change things as needed.

I may write like the wind at times, but those moments are rare. Usually, I edit as I write, which slows down my writing process considerably–not to mention that it prevents me from getting in “the zone.”

Rituals and habits work for me. I write best in the mornings. Unless life gets in the way, I’m at my desk Monday-Friday from 9:30 am to noon. I put my timer and go. There’s something about the timer that works for me, as if somehow I’m tricking my brain. Sometimes I listen to an eerie movie soundtrack (for my current YA WIP, I often listen to Interview with a Vampire, among others); other times I need complete silence.

Slow but steady. This pretty much describes my progress. I would love to be one of those writers who can cough up a whole novel in four months, but I’m not–not yet, anyway.

Once I finish the first draft, I spend an agonizing amount of time editing and polishing. My SCBWI critique partners are awesome at pointing out things that I can’t see. Also, I always hire a professional editor before I send my manuscript to my agent. I think a professional editor is a writer’s best investment. I love Deborah Halverson of DearEditor.com. She’s fabulous.

It takes me about two years to fully complete a book that is ready for submission. I’m trying to write faster and cut it down to a year. But it isn’t easy.


What is  your greatest challenge writing a book? Do you have any tips that you could pass on which would make the journey easier for other writers? 

The greatest challenge: keeping focused and not procrastinate. Keeping confident throughout the process and, like Steven Pressfield says in his fantastic book, Do the Work, “trusting the soup.”

Every book that I’ve written has been hard to write. Though writing is my life and, in a way, like breathing, I have a love & hate relationship with it. First of all, the mechanics of the craft are always a challenge: constructing the plot, creating the characters, balancing all the elements, i.e. description, dialogue, narrative, symbolic imagery, etc. Then there’s the word choice and the agonizing over verbs, adjectives, adverbs.

Besides this, there’s the emotional aspect of the journey: struggling with the inner critic, bouts of self doubt, writer’s block, irritability over not writing, dealing with negative criticism, remorse due to sacrificing time with family and friends, spending hours, days, months, years sitting at the computer without any assurance that the book will be read by enough people or earn enough money to make all that time worthwhile.

But as writers, we are artists, and the artist’s soul is an interesting, compulsive animal. Writing is our vocation, our drug, and we must have a regular fix or go insane.

At the end, after a good writing day which may happen while still experiencing all of the above, I’m sweetly exhausted and at peace.

Three things that have had a pivotal influence on my journey are:

The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron.

Keeping myself accountable and organized.

Focusing on the little, non-threatening steps instead of the end result. That is, thinking, “Okay, now I’m going to sit down with my novel for 90 minutes” instead of “I have to write a 400-page novel.” When you take small steps toward your goal each day, you don’t freeze and the end result takes care of itself at its perfect time.


Is being a writer a curse or a gift?

Both.

I can relate to the following quotes:

“Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.” – Lawrence Kasdan

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” – George Orwell


What is a typical writing day like for you? How many hours do you write per week?

It has taken me a long time to find my natural rhythm and to face the fact that I’m not one of those super prolific writers who can cough up a whole novel in 3 months. I’d love to be one of those! But I’m not. My inner critic is always present, agonizing over each word, each sentence. I can’t help editing as I write. So right now it takes me about two years to complete a novel.     I write in the mornings. I set my timer and work in 90-minute increments. So I’ll do 90 minutes, then take a break to do some housework or run an errand, then come back and do another 90 minutes, and so on. If I’m in the zone, I’ll keep at it for 3 hours or so without stopping, but on average, I write 2-3 pages a day, or 10-15 a week.

Of course, I work on other things besides my novel. I’m currently putting together an anthology as well, so afternoons are for that, along with my freelance publicity work, which sucks up a lot of my time.

I’m always experimenting with ways to speed up my writing process and shut up my inner critic, like taking part in fast-draft workshops and Nanowrimo, but usually the end product are pages and pages that require heavy editing or that I have to delete.


Do you prefer silence or some noise while you write?

It depends on how my muse is feeling at that moment. Sometimes I need total silence, but other times I like to listen to movie scores. Lately I’ve been working on my work-in-progress listening to the music from Interview with the Vampire. When I write in cafes, I’m surrounded by noise, but I’m able to zone out and immerse myself in the world of my characters. In a weird way, the noise helps me to concentrate.


Is there anything that surprised you about getting your first book published?

How absolutely cool, neat, and wonderful it feels to hold that first print book in your hands!


Can you describe the feeling when you saw your published book for the first time?

Gosh, that was a long time ago, when I was in my twenties. I think I screamed. I couldn’t stop looking at it, inside and out. I kept thinking, “Did I really write this?” It’s an intense feeling of elation and validation.


If you were to be left alone on an island, what three books would you take with you?

The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

The Stranger, by Albert Camus


If you could give one book promotion tip to new authors, what would that be?

To keep it going week after week, month after month, year after year. Book promotion is an ongoing process. Many authors do one book tour or two after a book’s release and wrongly assume that the rest will take care of itself, but that isn’t the case. To see results, you must stay persistent and consistent.

However, this doesn’t mean that you have to engage in social networks 24/7. Only that you should take one step toward promoting your book at least once a week, then keep it going, week after week.

However, I’d advise writers to never let book promotion stand in the way of their writing. As an author, your best time is spend producing that next book.


What can readers expect from you in the future?

The Luthier’s Apprentice is the first instalment in the series, so, hopefully, there will be another Emma Braun book some time in 2015.

My agent is currently shopping around book 1 of another YA series (Egyptian mythological fantasy), and I’m presently working on a standalone psychological/supernatural thriller. I’m also putting together a nonfiction anthology.

As far as other titles coming out soon, Latina Authors and Their Muses, an anthology of interviews, will be released by Twilight Times Books in June 2014, and I also have various children’s picture books forthcoming from Guardian Angel Publishing.

So I’m pretty busy and have enough ideas to keep my hands full for the next few years.


Did you ever feel like calling it quits?

Never. But I’ve always been crazy persistent when it comes to my writing. But that doesn’t mean that it never gets difficult or that I never get the blues. I often do. Quite badly now and then. But I see these times as mood swings that every writer or creative person often gets. A dark cloud that passes. Ultimately, the force to create takes precedence over any blues.


What advice would you give aspiring authors?

Don’t let anyone interfere with your dreams or goals of becoming an author. No matter what anyone says. Do what you have to do to accomplish it. Learn the craft, take courses and/or workshops if you have to, join writer organizations and a critique group. Interact with like souls who actually understand the creative spirit. Above all, read a lot and write a lot, as often as you can. Usually, the longer you stay away from writing, the harder it is to get back to it. And the more you write, the better you get at it.


What advice would you give seasoned writers?

Persevere. Keep learning. Keep improving and evolving as an author. Writing is a never-ending learning process. Make your goal to grow and advance with each new book.


How have your books touched your life?

Every book I’ve written has been a challenge and touched my life in one way or another. Most important of all, with each book I’ve grown and evolved as a writer and become better at my craft. I can’t ask anything more from a book.