by Connie Ward
What made you decide to become a fiction writer?
I’d tried to write fiction in my twenties while enrolled in undergraduate creative-writing courses, but my classmates and teachers told me in so many words my writing wasn’t any good. So I gave up and focused on my college studies and allowed that part of me to be forgotten. Twenty-some years later, I began fooling around with my daydreams and personal fantasies (and sometimes my nightmares) and writing them out for my own enjoyment. I started wondering if anyone else might like them, and on the advice of a friend, I revised my personal stories into fan fiction and began submitting them online. When I started hearing from readers that they enjoyed them, I decided I’d see if I could get one of my stories published. And now, here I am with my first published novel, something I’m proud of. And to be honest, when I signed with Bold Strokes, I felt a bit vindicated from those disparaging remarks I’d received when I was younger.
What type of stories do you write? And why?
Every story I’ve written, including By the Dark of Her Eyes, focuses on the themes of personal growth and healing as well as overcoming the demons of mental illness, addiction, guilt, and shame. I also incorporate the paranormal, even subtly, in every one. For me the paranormal doesn’t necessarily mean ghosts. It can mean any level of spirituality as well as those things that are not easily explained. My grandmother grew up on the Cherokee Reservation in Oklahoma, and she came from a great tradition of storytellers. She enjoyed entertaining me and my sister with spooky stories, and those were the ones I remember best of all. She firmly believed in the supernatural, so I think I’ve inherited that trait from her. And, just as her stories were a gift to me, I think of mine as little gifts for my readers with the hope my message and themes about compassion and courage will comfort and encourage them to never give up, never give in.
What do your family/friends think about your writing?
I don’t think they thought much of it at first. In fact, I’m certain they thought it was a phase, maybe something like a midlife crisis without the red sports car and mistress. Actually, my partner was probably thankful I focused my free time on writing and not on some other nefarious activity. However, once I shared the news that my first novel had been accepted for publication, my colleagues, friends, and family were super-excited and proud of me for sticking with it and not giving up like I had when I was younger. I can’t help but feel my grandmother is proud of me, too.
Where do you get your ideas?
Mostly from paying attention to life. Actually, I read a lot of nonfiction as well as fiction, and I also watch a lot of documentaries and movies. Sometimes I happen across an idea or concept or dynamic between people that captivates me, and it starts me asking “what if” questions like how a story might change or events transform if the main characters were female or if the love interest were between women. I don’t keep an idea file per se, but I do store lots of bits and pieces away in my mind. I’m not sure when or how these ideas actually take root and lead me toward a story. My muse is mysterious and a wee fickle; she’ll ignore me for weeks or months before she decides to have a chat. But when she does want to talk, she demands my attention. I’ve learned it’s best to listen and take notes.
How do you write; do you plan everything out or just write?
I’m a huge planner. A germ of an idea will lurk around in my mind for ages before inspiration strikes and that idea begins to coalesce into a theme. From there I daydream and fantasize about some situation that would allow that theme to be realized. This process can take weeks or months and involves me playing out a movie in my head, particularly at night while I’m trying to get to sleep. I play the movie over and over, rewinding and editing, working out the characters, plot, setting, and point of view as I go. Once I have a good understanding of how I want the story to end, I write a draft of the last chapter. From there, I make a bulleted outline by working backward from the end to the beginning. Once I have this outline, I spend some time doing research and gathering facts. Then I set myself a schedule and start at the beginning of the outline with chapter one and usually write one chapter a week. That’s how I get a first draft written. The very first rough draft of By the Dark of Her Eyes took me about fourteen weeks to write. However, the process of imagining the movie in my head took much longer.
What makes By the Dark of Her Eyes special to you?
I began germinating the idea for this story over ten years ago, but when I learned my niece had been diagnosed with breast cancer, the idea took hold of me and I pursued it earnestly. As a mother myself, I didn’t know how my sister was going to face losing her daughter, who, even though an adult, was still her baby girl. My sister’s grief nearly consumed her, and I remember thinking that losing a child had to be the worst pain anyone could face no matter the age of the child. I wrote the initial draft of the novel not long after my niece passed in 2012. Then a month after completing the story, the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary occurred. I was at work when I saw the news feed, and even though I was on the other side of the country from where the shooting had taken place, I left right then to drive to my daughter’s school. I had to see her, to hold her, and know she was safe. When I arrived at her school, I found mothers and fathers who, like me, had left work early to get to their children. We were all shaken by the news, all struck by the utter horror of the act. I couldn’t stop thinking about the parents of those murdered children. I couldn’t stop putting myself in their shoes. How does a mother come back from that? How can she not help but replay the last morning she kissed her little boy or little girl, packed their lunch, hugged them, told them she loved them? From this nightmare, I shaped and forged the revision of my story that became By the Dark of Her Eyes. This is why the story is special to me. I wanted to pay tribute to my sister, to all the mothers of Sandy Hook, and to anyone who’s lost someone precious and managed to find the strength to live another day.
How much of yourself and the people you know are in your characters?
There are essences of real people in my characters. Sometimes from myself, from someone I’m close with, or from a mere acquaintance. Sometimes I anchor a character in an archetype from myth or memory. But I wouldn’t say any of my characters are solely based on me or anyone I know personally.
Which gay/lesbian authors inspired you the most? Do you have a favorite of this author(s)?
Hands down, Cate Culpepper. River Walker is my favorite, the top of my list, and all her other titles are on that list as well. In some ways, I think of my first novel as an homage to her and her storytelling. I’m sad I never got to meet her in person and to thank her for her stories. She was a remarkable writer, and every one of her books a gift.
Do you have any suggestions for new writers?
Read. Never go a day without reading. The link between reading and writing is momentous and is something I’ve experienced firsthand. When I was in the sixth grade, my teachers discovered I couldn’t read. It impacted me in many ways, one of which was that I wasn’t able to write. Even after remedial instruction, I still couldn’t read at grade level. When I went to college (something I wasn’t expected to do or encouraged to do), I started at a community college and found my poor reading ability was a huge disadvantage when it came to written assignments. However, I was fortunate enough to have a professor pinpoint my problem. He taught me how to read a text critically as well as for enjoyment and gave me a list of classics and told me to start reading. I still have that list, haven’t finished reading from it, but I discovered the more I read, the better reader I became. The better reader I became, the better writer I became, at least for college and academic work. However, I think because I’ve read so many imaginative works from all different eras and genres that I’ve become better at writing fiction as well. I would add, it’s important to take time to read poetry occasionally. Language is beautiful as well as functional. Appreciating its sound, its rhythm and cadence, its lyricism and figurative expressions can positively impact one’s style of writing.
When you’re not writing what do you do for fun?
As I’ve said, I read a lot, all the time. I usually have three or four books (nonfiction and fiction) going at once, as well at one or two audio books for the treadmill and my drive to work. I also watch tons of movies. I’m the cliché of a Netflix addict and binge quite often. I also enjoy live performances and museums and consider myself a bit of a “foody” who likes to try new restaurants and attend food festivals. But mostly I spend my free time with my partner and our daughter and our dogs. We’re a foster family with a local animal-rescue group, and we work at training our foster dogs and getting them ready for their forever homes.