Colorado author Paula Reed will launch her historical novel, Hester: The Missing Years of the Scarlet Letter, at the Highlands Ranch (Colorado) Tattered Cover on Friday, February 19th, at 7:30 PM. This tale, the continuation of The Scarlet Letter, follows Hester Prynne and her daughter, Pearl, to England where Hester’s perceptive talents are used by a dangerous Oliver Cromwell to ferret out traitors. You can find out more about the novel and about Paula at her website. Hester is available now for pre-order.
Me: Thanks so much, Paula, for letting us learn more about you and about Hester’s story. According to the bio on your website, you had dreams of becoming an actress when you were younger. Instead, you became a high school teacher of English. When did you first try writing fiction?
Paula: In the late 1980’s. Before that, I actually considered myself a straight non-fiction, essay writer. It wasn’t that I didn’t think creatively. It just hadn’t occurred to me that the stories I made up in my head to amuse myself on long car trips or during random bouts of insomnia were worth writing down.
Me: You’ve had a successful career as a writer of historical romance, even saw some of your novels translated into Portuguese, Dutch, and Russian. Why did you choose this genre for your first books?
Paula: As an English major, I’ve read a wide sampling of all kinds of literature, but I had consumed literally hundreds of romance novels, so I felt like I had a really good handle on that genre. Also, most of the plots I thought of were traditional romance plots. Add to the mix my love of history (largely gleaned from the romance novels of the 1970’s) and it was a natural starting place.
Me: According to your bio, you began writing seriously as an escape from the memories of that tragic day at Columbine High School in 1999. Would you tell us about writing as therapy? Why did it work for you?
Paula: I’ve learned that facing your demons is overrated. There comes a point where what you’re doing is ripping the scab off the wound over and over again, never allowing it to heal, and it was impossible to avoid because my job forced me back into the scene of my trauma every day. It was so freeing to be able to spend hours away from it. Perhaps the most important part, at first, was the guaranteed happy ending of romance. I was just so done with “life sucks and there’s nothing you can do about it.” I got to be goddess, and in my worlds, good people were rewarded while bad people got their comeuppance. Eventually, I came to be able to incorporate my experience into my writing, too, but it was in such a different context that I was able to work it through safely. (In my second romance novel, my heroine deals with PTSD symptoms from a childhood incident.) At last, I moved past even the need for a guaranteed happy ending, so I branched out from romance with Hester.
Me: There must have been a great deal of extra research to do for your novel. When you decided to fill in the blanks of Hester Prynne’s story, did you begin with what you knew and immediately start to write, or did you do more research first? Do you have any idea how much time you spent on research for this novel?
Paula: The only thing I knew for sure that I would use from Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter was Hester’s acute perceptiveness of the sins of others. (Some reviewers have given me grief about giving Hester this ability, but Hawthorne was the one who gave it to her, not I.) It was the perfect conflict in what I knew to be Puritan-dominated England. (Hester disappears in The Scarlet Letter roughly from 1650-1660. I have this weird thing about Puritans, so I knew they were in control of England during that time.) From there, I went to research. I knew that a third man would come into Hester’s life, and I knew he would be a libertine, because he had to be someone she couldn’t spend the rest of her life with. After all, Hawthorne had already designated the framework within which I had to work. That meant digging into the philosophy of the time. After deciding John Manning would be reacting to Descartes, I started to look at the political situation in England at the time and began to frame which events from that period Hester Prynne and a disillusioned student of Descartes might find themselves involved in. At that point I wrote three chapters for my agent (who loved them) and a rough outline. I gathered pages and pages and pages of research and highlighted like crazy all through the spring and most of the summer, fleshing out the outline, before I sat down at the keyboard and started writing again. So the preliminary research took about five months, and of course, I kept having to research as I wrote. There have to be six or seven total months of research invested in that book.
Me: Would you tell my readers a little about your writing process? For instance, do you outline? Do you create character bios before you begin? Do you write chapters in sequence or create random scenes to assemble later?
Paula: It varies a bit from book to book, but generally I write character sketches, then write a rough outline, then write the first three chapters. Those chapters usually give me a better understanding of the characters and the story, so after those I go back to the sketches and turn them into full-fledged bios and flesh out the plot outline. From there, I write like crazy. I don’t force myself to follow the outline, but I don’t end up veering from it too much. The book I just finished writing (but am still editing) was a little different. I let it develop organically for about 100 or so pages before I wrote the outline. I almost always write in sequence—like 99.9 percent of the time. I wrote one scene out of sequence in Hester, and it ended up getting seriously truncated and turned into a newspaper obituary by the time it found its way into the book. I’m a hard-core concrete-sequential thinker.
Me: Do you have something new and exciting in the works? Is it historical? What else can you tell us about it?
Paula: Well, as I said, I just finished writing a new book, but I haven’t even told my agent much about it. I really, really wanted to write it, and I was afraid if she said she didn’t think it would sell, I’d get discouraged and not do it. I find I write much better if I don’t worry about the market and just tell whatever story is fighting to get out. It’s a time-travel between the recent past (1990-2005) and a post-apocalyptic future that feels very much like the long distant past. How’s that for a description? Will it sell? I have no idea.
Me: When and how did you find your agent?
Paula: I found her in the fall of 2002. I stayed at Columbine long enough to see the freshmen who were there during the shootings through graduation. Then I took a two-year leave of absence. The local paper did a “where are they now” article about teachers who’d left, and I ended up on the list. Kristin Nelson, my agent, had just opened up shop, and she read the article, which said I’d taken a leave to write romance novels. She contacted the reporter, who contacted me, and the rest is history. I have since finished that leave and am back teaching at Columbine very happily, in addition to writing.
Me: What one piece of advice would you give a writer who is just beginning his first novel?
Paula: Write the story of your heart, but don’t forget to learn the craft. Notice the structure of the novels you love. How do other authors reveal the characters’ backstories? Notice how each scene adds to the overall story. When I first started out, I learned so much at writers’ workshops. I will also tell you what I tell my students: there is no such thing as a good writer, only a good rewriter. Be critical of yourself and listen openly to the criticism of others; a good critique is probably right about 85-90% of the time. At the same time, it’s your story. Don’t let anyone else take it over. If it stops feeling like the story you wanted to tell, you’ve gone too far.
Me: A special thanks to Paula for taking the time to respond to my e-mail interview questions. I first met Paula in 2009 when she made a guest appearance at the Northern Colorado Writers Studio in Fort Collins (Colorado). At that time, it seemed this publication date was a long, long time away. Time sure flies, doesn’t it?