Suffice it to say that Anne and I go way back.
No, I take it back. That’s hardly saying enough.
Anne and I live about 40 minutes apart on the Central Coast of California. I recently figured out that we’ve been fast friends for at least 14 years. Because that’s how long I’ve had my only tattoo, a sword from the Ryder Tarot deck wrapped around my right wrist. I got it when I was…well, let’s not get into too many age specifics. Let’s just say I remember when I got it. And it was 14 years ago. And Anne was hugely supportive and encouraging. And not everybody was.
It was a treat (for me—perhaps less so for Anne) to be her friend during the times she was stationed in England, launching her career with the now defunct Babash-Ryan, an odd collection of odd men who traditionally published erotica, but had plans for Anne’s work to lift them all to fame and fortune. I felt like an insider, because she told me the stories by email in hilarious (for me—perhaps less so for Anne) detail. Just today I read a quote by Mark Twain: “The only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction needs to be credible.” I thought of your “Wendy” adventures on the other side of the pond, Anne. Life is indeed stranger and funnier than most fiction would dare to be. Your fiction might be the exception to that rule.
I was also there when Anne began her blog, Anne R. Allen’s Writing About Writing—Mostly. It seemed something she hadn’t quite imagined for herself, and I think she might have initially questioned whether it was leading her down a path away from her chosen career. Now it’s a little over two years later and Anne has five published novels: FOOD OF LOVE, THE GATSBY GAME, SHERWOOD LTD, THE BEST REVENGE, and GHOST WRITERS IN THE SKY. All released in just a matter of a few months. And that doesn’t even count the new book for writers, HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE—and keep your E-sanity! which she co-authored with yours truly.
Can you say stress? But that’s the kind of stress authors line up for.
Me: Anne, please. (Pretty please?) Regale us with a couple of your better England Days stories. As much as you can tell us without getting sued. Thank you.
Anne: Without getting sued? OK—tiptoeing here—I think one of the funniest things was the way the men came on to me, each in his own quiet, English way. A lot of the staff were both living and working in this vast Victorian building on the banks of the River Trent—a former ladies’ underwear factory. (You couldn’t make this stuff up.) A bunch of us—five or six men, one woman (moi), and one gay dog--were living there full time in various nooks and crannies. We had a communal kitchen—the old factory canteen--with a telly where we got together in the evening.
My cranny was a corner of the warehouse where they stored returned books. It was pretty cute, if you didn’t notice two of the walls were made of pallets of remaindered porn. I draped them with pretty curtains I found at the local charity shops--where I also bought a big reading chair and some other Miss-Marpley furniture. It became a cozy little bedsitter. It let out into a fenced courtyard, where I made a garden in some big pots. Not bad for free digs.
During the first weeks, each of the men came by at some point to ask if I wanted “company” for the night. All terribly polite. Except the old Caribbean sea captain—known only as “the Captain” who was living on the premises with no apparent purpose except consuming vast quantities of alcohol. (The managing director owed him a debt of some kind.) One night the Captain barged into my room and asked, “Are we going to **** or not?” I smiled sweetly and said. “Not,” and offered him a nice cup of tea. (I had an electric kettle and hot plate in my room.) He declined the tea but said he was “glad to have that sorted.” We were friends after that.
We all got on rather nicely, as a matter of fact, for the first two years. I had a fantastic time getting to know the real England—off the tourist paths. Two of the editors were especially kind. One was very much the aristocrat--the nephew of an earl, I think-- and showed me around to all the nearby great houses. It was like having Downton Abbey in my own backyard. The other was a fierce Communist, full of fascinating facts about English history. He took me to see the Magna Carta and lots of historical sites and taught me wonderful things about the indigenous Briton tribes I’d never heard.
The little market town where we lived was marvelous. I was living three blocks from a house where Richard III once stayed—and where Henry VIII met his sixth wife, Katherine Parr. Many people in town had never met an American. In fact, I was almost thrown out of a pub one night because somebody suspected my accent was Irish. They’d had a lot of trouble with brawling and thievery from Irish “Travelers” so all Irish people were suspect.
But when I went back for that third year, the managing director had absconded with half the funds, bought himself a yacht and sailed off, leaving his little band of worker bees without a leader. A nasty element came in after that, and when the director disappeared off his boat in Vancouver Harbor about six months later—his body was never found—things fell apart.
You’ll find fictionalized versions of some of these stories in my mystery Sherwood, Ltd. It was much like living with Robin Hood’s merry men, or maybe Peter Pan’s Lost Boys.
Me: One of the things I’m striving to portray in this blog series is the reality behind the assumptions. What the writer is really going through, and how often it’s at odds with the outer perception. To those ends, will you share the frustration you felt when your British publisher went belly up, and you had to start your career all over again?
Anne: It was pretty awful. I really had put all my eggs in that particular basket. I’d left the agent who’d warned me against such an iffy enterprise. I thought I’d be able to find another one fairly quickly, but boy howdy, was I wrong. I didn’t realize that once you’ve been published—if you’ve failed to produce a blockbuster--you are dead in the industry. I kept mentioning my previous publications in my queries, but once an agency looked them up, they could see I had a feeble sales record. Babash had never been able to get a US distributor for their non-erotic books, and they never got the second book into the shops, even in the UK.
During that time, I took any writing or editing job I could find. I edited god-awful memoirs. I wrote tons of articles for low-paying magazines and content mills. I did have a regular column for a Canadian zine that didn’t pay—but it was consistently in the Writer’s Digest Top 101 sites, so that kept hope alive.
Finally I stopped mentioning my published books and pretended to be a newbie when I queried. I got a few nibbles, but the publishing world had moved from the Bridget Jones era to sparkly vampires and zombiepocalypses and nobody was interested in sophisticated romantic comedy. I kept writing fiction—mostly for myself and hoped for things to get better.
Then the Canadian zine went under. I was seriously afraid nobody would ever read a word of my writing again.
So I started a blog. I was sure nobody would ever read it either, but I figured it was a good place to archive the columns I’d written for the Canadians.
Me: How did your blog get to be such a smashing success? I know in some ways it may be almost hard to track. But I remember a number of big breaks and happy connections, blog honors, and great people who liked what you were doing and lent a hand. You probably remember much better. Can you draw us a fairly simple map that goes from not blogging—not even considering blogging—to where you are now?
Anne: Actually the blog took off almost from day one. Well, not precisely day one. I started the blog just to play around with the set up—it was on Friday the 13th, 2009—and you were the only person who commented. Then I let it sit for about six months. But when I put up my first real post, it was noticed by an Irish writer named Emily Cross who had just started a forum called The Writers Chronicle. She asked me to join and I used it to announce my weekly blogposts. That brought way more traffic than I had ever expected. The Canadians helped, too. Agent Janet Reid commented on my third or fourth post.
But I had no idea what phenomenal luck this was and I didn’t do anything to capitalize on it. I didn’t know I should comment in the thread or interact with my followers. So they drifted away.
Then in early 2010, Nathan Bransford had a contest for guest bloggers. I wrote a funny piece he liked, and I got to guest on one of the most popular blogs in the publishing business. That really got things going. Then I set about educating myself about what works in blogs and what doesn’t--and by the end of 2010, I was winning awards and getting a lot of industry recognition. I was mentioned in Publisher’s Weekly and Writer’s Digest and was asked to teach blogging at our local writer’s conference.
Me: Around the time I read THE GATSBY GAME (which I liked quite a lot), you told me some interesting stories about your connections to the real-life unsolved case on which the novel was based. Will you tell my readers more about that history as well?
Anne: It’s a story I’ve always wanted to write. When I was in college, I dated a man named David Whiting—an odd duck who lived in a sort of F. Scott Fitzgerald fantasy world. A couple of years later, he was found dead in actress Sarah Miles’ motel room during the filming of a Burt Reynolds movie. It was a huge scandal, and people even accused Reynolds of murder. Most people suspected suicide or an overdose. But the forensic evidence wasn’t conclusive. The coroner finally ruled it an accident. But I knew things about David most people didn’t—he once said I was the only person who really knew him—and I think I know what happened that night. That’s what the book is about.
Me: I used to think of you as primarily an author of comedies. But THE GATSBY GAME turned my thinking around. The characters are layered, flawed, relatable. Sometimes heartbreakingly relatable. Does this feel like a new direction for you? Or do you feel you always balanced comedy with depth, just perhaps in a different mix?
Anne: I feel as if I’ve always written the same kind of stuff, maybe with more or less emphasis on the absurd, but I’ve always tried to present the reader with real characters they can empathize with. And a certain amount of tragedy. (“You’ll laugh! You’ll cry!!) I honestly think life is a comedy—look at my own experiences, or, (if you can stand it) Presidential politics. It’s all pretty comical. But we get some heavy duty tragedy thrown in to make us appreciate the good parts. That’s what I write about: the roller-coaster.
Me: It’s what you call a high-end problem, but five books are quite a lot to cram into one interview. Would you like to tell us a good bit about one or two others? Or a little about all of them?
Anne: OK, here are my 15-word synopses of all five. The first three are the Camilla Randall mysteries, featuring a downwardly-mobile manners expert and her gay best friend, screenwriter Plantagenet Smith. Kind of Nick and Nora Charles for the 21st century
Sherwood, Ltd: Penniless socialite becomes a 21st century Maid Marian, but is “Robin” planning to kill her?
The Best Revenge: A 1980s celebutante loses everything—even her gay best friend—then is accused of murder.
Food of Love: Someone’s trying to kill the Princess—maybe because she got fat? Unfortunately, they have a small nuclear bomb.
The Gatsby Game: Based on a real unsolved Hollywood mystery. Suicide? Accident? Murder? The nanny didn’t do it!
Me: Again, without getting yourself sued…your blog is a powerhouse of good advice about handling bad advice. Can you share a few bad experiences of your own that turned into great blog wisdom?
Anne: I’ll never forget the writers conference where I participated in a workshop where a woman gave me a scathing critique, telling me my writing was “immoral” and “nobody in that story has taken Jesus Christ as their personal savior.” (She was right, of course—I was writing about people on the fringes of the Andy Warhol crowd in the 1960s, who weren’t much involved with evangelical Christianity.) I thought her tunnel-vision was pretty hilarious, except the whole group then went on the attack, telling me I was wrong to “create evil” in my writing. That was the spark for my “Bad Advice to Ignore From Your Critique Group” post, which has been very popular.
Another reader burst into furious tears when I finished my reading in a critique group. She accused me of tapping her phone and finding out all her secrets. I hardly knew the woman and she wasn’t in any way like my character. Again, that thing of teetering between tragedy and farce.
Me: I must say I never pictured myself doing much collaboration in the world of writing. It’s like rooming with someone. Small differences are magnified a dozen times over. A simple snap of chewing gum becomes the motive for a deadly crime. But we collaborated on HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE—and keep your E-sanity! And everything turned out fine. Seems we couldn’t have gotten along much better. I think it helped that our areas of expertise were fairly separate, and our contributions to the work amazingly well balanced. Any theories of your own?
Anne: I spent a lot of years in the theater, which needs to involve a lot of collaboration. Unfortunately, it also involves a lot of infighting. And catfighting (by both genders.) I escaped. I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to collaborate again. But in all the years I’ve known you, I’ve never seen you act like a controller or a prima donna. So I went for it. Things do seem to have worked out. Grown-ups can work together so much better than emotional infants. Lots of emotional infants in the theater.
Me: Please write your own question, and answer it.
Q: Doesn’t this woman ever shut up?
Next week please join me for a very deep, very honest, very forthcoming interview with YA author Cheryl Rainfield. If you like the truth, you'll like it a lot.