Interview with Jeanne Bradford, author of “The Mage Sister”

Do all authors have to be grammar Nazis?

We don’t have to be, but good grammar is very important to our work. And, of course, the better one’s grasp of grammar, the more irritating it is to hear or see it used really badly. Full disclosure: I have, in fact, been a grammar Nazi since I was 7.

What makes this particular genre you are involved in so special?

I love fantasy because you can write about anything and anything can happen. I can go out to play with elves and wizards and fairies and all manner of mythical creatures. I can make whimsy possible and magic is real.

How important is research to you when writing a book?

Very important. Even though I write fantasy, if the reader can’t identify or relate to what I’m writing about, they won’t be pulled into the story. For instance, if I write about using a sword, or a bow and arrow, I have to know how those things work in order for the story to sound authentic.

What works best for you: Typewriters, fountain pen, dictate, computer or longhand?

Computer, definitely! I think faster than I can write longhand, and will often lose thoughts along the way, which can be very frustrating. Since a large part of my day job is typing, I’m pretty fast and can usually keep up with my head. I did try dictating with voice recognition software, but that was a mess! The software came up with the most mystifying nonsense! When I went through it later, I had no idea what I had been trying to say.

When did it dawn upon you that you wanted to be a writer?

I’ve been writing since I was very young. As far back as I can remember, I was playing ‘pretend’ and I’d tell stories to anyone who would listen – and sometimes got into trouble for it. As I learned to read and write, I would incorporate the words that I was learning into stories, and I wrote my first ‘book’ when I was in first grade. It was bound into a special collection of stories written by students at my grade school library, and there was no stopping me after that. I wrote story after story and brought them to the school librarian for years. She was very gracious about it and encouraged me to keep bringing them. She would display them in the library for everyone to see.

Do you have a set schedule for writing, or are you one of those who write only when they feel inspired?

I write when I can, when I need to, when that driving force is there. It doesn’t follow a schedule, but I’d get nothing done if I waited for inspiration. Sometimes the work itself serves to inspire me.

How hard was it to sit down and actually start writing something?

Not hard at all. When I have a story in me, it has to come out, and I have great fun jumping in and playing with my characters. I’ve been making up stories and writing them down since I can remember. I can’t imagine a world in which I’m not writing, whether anyone else is reading it or not.

Do you aim to complete a set number of pages or words each day?

I only set goals when I have something to accomplish, like when I’m editing, or rewriting. When I get into my writing, time disappears, anyway, so what I usually do is set a time limit. I have to stop by 9 PM or I’ll never get to sleep that night.

Writers are often associated with loner tendencies; is there any truth to that?

It is for me, but I don’t think it’s true of everyone. I enjoy hanging back and watching people do what they do. It gives me great material with which to build my characters. A lot of the interactions among the mage in ‘The Mage Sister’ are based on observations of young college boys I had the opportunity to observe for several years while commuting to work by bus to the University.

Do you set a plot or prefer going wherever an idea takes you?

I do both. I have an idea where I want to go and what I want to happen, but I let the characters take me there. They come up with the most surprising developments sometimes if I just let them do what they do.

Do you read much and if so who are your favorite authors?

I read as much as I can – it’s an important part of writing. I read lots of fantasy – anything from middle grade and young adult to adult. I also like mysteries, and if you can combine the two, perfect! One of my favorites is Derek Landy’s Skullduggery Pleasant series. Other current favorites are Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood and Company series and Paul Durham’s Luck Uglies. Classic favorites include Patricia C. Wrede, Anne McCaffery, Tamora Pierce, and, of course, C.S. Lewis and Lloyd Alexander because what self-respecting fantasy fan’s collection would be complete without them.

Have you ever left any of your books stew for months on end or even a year?

The Mage Sister took 18 years to publish, and I’m glad it took that long. Over that time I learned so much to make it a better story. I wouldn’t take that long to write another one, but in this case, it was a good thing. It is basically the same story now as it was when it started out 18 years ago, but much more coherent and told more vividly.

Do you attend literary lunches or events?

I attend a writing conference every year and other events that my local writer’s guild organizes, such as Write Across Nebraska and NaNoWriMo. I always come away inspired and having learned something. Plus, it’s great to hang out with other writers, AKA my people! I highly recommend that for young writers, because you get to interact with other people who don’t think you and your story-writin’ ways are just weird and unnatural.

Any advice you would like to give to aspiring writers?

The best thing I ever did was get involved in my local writer’s guild, and I would recommend that for any aspiring writer. There are so many opportunities to learn about the craft and the business. Plus, it’s wonderful to hang out with people who understand what being a writer feels like and don’t think you’re strange or have your head in the clouds. They actually want to talk to you about what you’re working on!

Do you recall the first ever book/novel you read?

I can’t remember the first children’s book I ever read – I read as much as I could get my hands on. But I remember my first chapter books. I was a very advanced young reader, so my school librarian let me check out chapter books a year before the other kids in my class. The first book I remember was The Little Leftover Witch by Florence Laughlin, which I loved. I recently read it again for the first time since I was little and I loved it again! I also tore through the Pippi Longstocking series, and I loved those books, too. A girl who lived all by herself is a big house and went on adventures and did whatever she wanted? Amazing!

Did you ever think you would be unable to finish your first novel?

My very first novel, written in my early teens, was awful! I didn’t finish it because it just went on and on and on. I wanted to write, but didn’t yet know about plotting and story arcs and such. The first novel I really wanted to publish was The Mage Sister. It took perseverance, and sometimes I thought I would never finish it, but I kept at it, showed it to another writer and got some good advice and kept working on it. And then one day it was done.

Do you read any of your own work?

After I’m done editing a book, I swear to all and sundry I never want to see that book ever again. But after a while, yes, I do read it, and I enjoy it. I try to have fun writing and write what I like to read.

How realistic are your books?

I try to make my characters as realistic as I can. They are not all carbon copies of me and my personality – I try to make them different from me and different from each other, like people are. For instance, I’ve had feedback that some readers don’t like Arinda, the main character of The Mage Sister. They think she’s rude, closed-off and ungrateful. But in Arinda’s situation, I think few would be instantly trusting and just happily go along with whatever happened to them. They would strike out, because often help feels threatening. It’s the devil you know versus the devil you don’t know, and these people she’s already frightened of are trying to draw her out of her safe place. It’s a miserable place, but it’s what she knows, so to her, it is safe. I think what actually may be happening is that Arinda causes these readers to relate a little too closely and it makes them feel uncomfortable. She holds a mirror up to the feelings we don’t want to think about. But what is wonderful about Arinda is that she is smart enough to outwit her fears and brave enough to try to overcome them.

Is there anything you are currently working on that may intrigue the interest of your readers?

I’m working on a companion piece that details the backgrounds and histories of the main characters of my books, The Mage Sister and The Children of Fi. There’s so much story there, but I can’t include all of it in the novels, or they’d go on for years, so I decided to present it this way. I got the idea from the book that Arinda is given for her birthday. It’s called Magickers Throughout History: A compendium, and I thought, how great would that be to do something like that with my characters.

It is often believed that almost all writers have had their hearts broken at some point in time, does that remain true for you as well?

Sure, that’s just part of life. I don’t know that it has much to do with the writing process particularly, except that it’s much harder write about something you haven’t experienced.

When you were young, did you ever see writing as a career or full-time profession?

I wasn’t sure. Once I found out that you could write stories as your job, I SO wanted to do that. But I didn’t have a lot of confidence when I was young, so I didn’t know whether I’d ever be lucky enough to have a writing career. Now I know that you must make your own luck with hard work and perseverance.

Writers are often believed to have a Muse, your thoughts on that?

If I may be blunt, writing is not a mystical process. Writing is hard work and sheer obstinacy. It’s striving to learn and improve. It can be wonderfully fun and personally rewarding, but there is no otherworld magic behind it. If there were, the world would be stuffed to the rafters with Muses.

Do you have a day job other than being a writer? And do you like it?

Yes, and I like my job – it’s very interesting. I work full-time at a medical university in pathology as an assistant to a very busy doctor/researcher. He travels around the world to consult and lecture about toxicologic pathology. I assist him with writing his research papers and producing presentations for his lectures, among other things. I have learned so much in the process that has been helpful to me in my writing career.

Another misconception is that all writers are independently wealthy, how true is that?

Please, can’t that be true? Please, please, please? It’s not true. I don’t know any independently wealthy writers, and I know quite a few. You really do have to love writing and not care whether you make anything at it to keep doing it.

Do you have a daily habit of writing?

I dream of a time when I can roll out of bed when I want and come downstairs and start writing. Back here in the real world, I have to get up very early in the morning, drive an hour to work and often work later than the usual eight hour day, and drive an hour back. Sometimes, writing time is just not possible. But I do it when I can, and especially when I have a burning idea in my head. I write during my lunchtime lots of days.

Is it true that anyone can be a writer?

Yes and no. Anyone can be a writer, but not everyone can be a good writer. You must want to be a good writer and be willing to sacrifice your pride in order to really examine your weaknesses and learn and improve. If you can do that, it’s possible you can be a good writer.

People believe that being a published author is glamorous, is that true?

Well, my life is not glamorous. I suppose it depends on how you define glamorous, but I pay bills and clean house like every other gal out there. Heck, I even mow the lawn. I don’t like mowing the lawn. I dream of a day when I could use my royalties to hire the neighbor kid to do it. I think he may be in college before that happens.

How does it feel when you don’t get the recognition you deserve?

It stings after working so hard on something and making it into something you’re really proud of and then no one seems to care. But I try to remember that the work itself is rewarding and I just have to keep plugging away. Recognition may come along in time. Right now is the time I have to work to earn it.

Are you satisfied with your success?

I’m still in the beginning stages of my career, so I feel there is much ahead of me. But I keep in mind how far I have come, how I’ve stuck to it, refused to listen to naysayers who told me I couldn’t do it, and actually published a couple of books, with so much more in me. So yes, so far, I’m satisfied.

What do you do in your free time?

Free time? I’ve never heard of that. What is it? Does it taste good? If I’m not working, my boys, Charlie, a 10 year old Cocker Spaniel and Piglet, a 7 year old spaz, demand my attention. Between my day job and writing and writing-related work and housework and my boys, there is no free time. Reading doesn’t count – that’s work, too. But who says you can’t enjoy your work, right?

What advice would you like to give writers who are struggling with their first novels?

Anything worth doing is worth working hard for. If it was easy, everyone would do it. Read as much as you can, learn as much as you can, and leave your ego in the drawer, because it’s not going to help you. At all.

Was there a time you were unable to write, At All?

Someone who was important to me discouraged me from writing and told me he didn’t think I had anything to say that anyone would want to read, so I quit for the five years we were together. Then we broke up and started writing again. You should never listen to someone tell you your passion isn’t important.

Doesn’t it bother you that when books are turned into movies, they are often changed to suit the audience needs?

Sometimes, especially when the changes seem unnecessary. On the other hand, script-writing isn’t book writing, and there are specific criteria that must be met. Not every concept that works really well in the book translates well to a visual concept. After all, the imagination is so much more powerful than the visual sense.

Do you need to be in a specific place or room to write, or you can just sit in the middle of a café full of people and write?

I need quiet. I used to be able to write with music on or the TV, on a crowded bus. Now I need to have a quiet room and be able to focus because I get distracted easily.

Have you ever turned a dream or a nightmare into a written piece?

Oh yes! I get lots of ideas from dreams and nightmares. The initial idea for The Mage Sister came from a nightmare.

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