Authors should never stop learning (at least that’s what I think). and last year I bought a copy of a book called Take Off Your Pants. Now if you’re puzzled by the title let me say it’s all about plotting and it’s one of the best I’ve ever read on the topic. I enjoyed it so much that I knew I had to interview the author so here’s my chat with Libbie Hawker.
This Writer’s Life (TWL)-Can you remember the moment you told yourself I want to be a writer?
Libbie Hawker (LH)-I can’t remember the moment, but I know I was eight years old. I had just read Watership Down for the first time (still among my favorite books) and I was so enchanted by it–not only the rabbit characters, but the grown-up nature of the book (it’s still rare to find books with animal characters that aren’t marketed toward children) and the elegant prose. I had never read anything like it before; it seemed like a whole new, hidden world had revealed itself to me. And then I realized that Richard Adams must have gotten paid to write that book! Of course, as adult writers know, that’s a gross oversimplification of the process, but at the time, all I knew was that “writer” could be a job. From that moment on, all I wanted out of life was to write books for a living.
I now have a niece who’s about to turn eight, and she also wants to be a writer. I’m grateful that I can be a positive influence in her life and help her develop realistic expectations for her future. She’s really good, too–better than I was when I first started writing my stories! It’s wonderful to look at a young writer who’s at the same age I was when I decided what my future would be, and see all her enthusiasm and creativity, and get to participate in that with her. I’m proud of many things about my career, but the way I inspire my niece might make my proudest of all!
TWL-You write historical and literary fiction. Any particular reason you chose them or did they choose you?
LH-I suppose they chose me. I’ve always loved to read those genres the most, so it was natural for me to gravitate toward them with my own writing. I could probably earn more money if I were working in a more popular genre, but I really love what I do and I love the artistic freedom that comes from these less trope-dependent genres. I can try out strange, experimental stuff and bend the rules a bit–I like that. I like that readers expect (or at least accept) a little more creativity and don’t necessarily expect a straightforward style. All my favorite writers are great stylists and very distinctive voices, so the ability to play with style has always been enjoyable for me.
Also, I love history–it was among my favorite subjects in school, because it was so much like storytelling and often full of dramatic twists and surprises. So my very first novel (The Sekhmet Bed) naturally had to be historical. When I finally decided to get serious and finish my first book, my mind went immediately to one of my favorite personages from history, Hatshepsut, the most successful female Pharaoh of ancient Egypt.
TWL-You live in one of my favorite parts of the world, the beautiful San Juan Islands. Did you grow up in that area and does living there inspire any of your work?
LH-I was born in rural Idaho and for most of my childhood, I spent the school year in the Seattle area and summers back in Idaho after my parents divorced. As an adult, I’ve lived in several different places around the Northwest and Rocky Mountain regions, but I happened to be back in Seattle again when my writing career took off and I didn’t need to be tied to any particular location in order to earn a living. My husband and I decided we wanted to stay in Western Washington so we could be within a reasonable distance from our families and closest friends, but I wanted a quiet, secluded place with few distractions so I could really concentrate on my writing. When we discovered that the San Juan Islands were now more affordable than Seattle, we went for it.
I absolutely love living here. I really enjoy being alone with my thoughts and keeping to myself most of the time–I guess I’m a bit of a hermit. My husband is more gregarious, so I’m glad he has enjoyed island life, too. I wouldn’t say living in the Islands has directly inspired my work yet, but the natural beauty here is astounding, not to mention the wildlife, so I usually start each writing day by walking along some of my favorite trails, taking in the scenery, and hopefully seeing a few whales. I definitely find the environment to be much more artistically inspiring than any city I’ve ever lived in, but I do visit Seattle or Victoria, BC as often as possible so I can keep up with culture and stay in touch with more people. I think that’s just as important as peace and quiet for any person, whether they’re a writer or not.
TWL-You’re also a non-fiction writer, and probably everyone knows about your bestselling book Take Off Your Pants that focuses on plotting. Why did you decide to write it?
LH-I had a lot of writer-friends ask me how I managed to complete my books so quickly without spending months in the edit-and-revision process. I kept giving them the all the same advice, and it finally struck me that more writers might be interested in hearing my take on the production process, too, so I wrote it up as a short book. I never expected Take Off Your Pants to be so popular, but I’m really glad I’ve been able to help so many other authors streamline their process and gain more confidence.
TWL-I know most writers struggle with plotting their stories. Do you have any tips you can share?
LH-As I discuss in Take Off Your Pants, it’s all about the character. Humans are social animals; we connect to other personalities, whether they’re other humans or animals, like in Watership Down. When you make a character’s inner struggles and personal journey the center of your story, rather than just a series of events (the plot), you have the advantage of a powerful psychological hook that grabs your readers and won’t let go. So my advice is to worry less about the plot itself and more about what your main character is going through psychologically or emotionally. The plot will fall into place around that emotional journey.
TWL-You create complex characters. If you could offer one piece of advice about creating lifelike characters what would it be?
LH-Be honest about the way things feel. Even if you’ve never experienced the same events (plot) your character is experiencing, you have felt the same emotions, to a greater or lesser degree. We’ve all felt joy, sadness, anger, outrage, love, etc. Don’t be afraid to really explore the full range of your character’s emotions by asking yourself what it felt like when you were in a similar situation. What did you feel physically–did your heart pound, your body go cold, did it hurt to swallow? What did you think? Were you afraid of your feelings becoming visible to other people, and if so, why? Delve into your own experiences and bring them up to the surface for your readers to feel, too.
TWL-What’s next for you?
LH-I’m working on a couple of contemporary literary novels right now, which is a fun change from all the historicals I usually do. And in the fall, my traditional publisher (Lake Union Publishing) will launch a new pen name for me, Olivia Hawker, which will focus more on the literary side of my writing. I’m very excited about that, as I feel it’s what I do best. The first book under the new pen name is The Ragged Edge of Night, a WWII piece that tells the true story of my husband’s grandfather, a small-town music teacher in Germany who resisted the Nazis in some surprising ways. It comes out October 1.
Check out Libbie’s web site at www.libbiehawker.com and definitely check out Take Off Your Pants…