Monday, October 5, 2009

An Interview with Author MARTHA ENGBER

An Interview with Martha Engber, author of The Wind Thief and Growing Great Charactgers from the Ground Up.

Martha wrote her first book at the age of seven. About flowers, or "flawrs," it included many lovely illustrations, including a painfully elongated, but happy, brown horse with a mouthful of daisies. Having just finished the project on the way to school, the smell of Crayon still fresh on her hands, she walked into the classroom beaming and handed the professionally stapled book to her teacher who said, "Thanks, now go sit down." She never saw the book again.

She felt so sorry for herself she somehow missed the incident's prophetic message, that writing is a tough biz, and so continued to write with abandon. Long, rhyming poems about diamonds, history essays stocked with $50 words, a truly terrible high school graduation speech. Somewhere along the way her sister gave her a journal for her birthday, upon the painful re-reading of which she concluded that 1) She had nothing interesting to say, and 2) She had to write anyway. In fact, writing, the cheapest form of therapy available, is probably the reason she's never fallen into deep despair, though having a wonderful family, an excellent body chemistry and a somewhat flexible personality doesn't hurt.

In an attempt to turn a passion into a trade, Martha attended journalism school where she wrote about the return of a lost wallet, interviewed Stephen Stills and witnessed a cow butchered at the campus slaughterhouse, among other things. The more people she interviewed, such as politicians, religious extremists, medical professionals, the more she understood the different worlds in which people lived.

Required to accurately quote people (a lofty goal for a college student with no prior experience) she developed an ear for dialog, as in the actual structure of what people say rather than a sanitized version that complies to the rules of grammar. She also picked up more detail and ideas than she could ever use in a single article or broadcast script, and so began squirreling away scraps of dialog, images and situations. After working as a stringer for $25 a story for a year in the St. Louis area, she moved on to part-time work at a daily paper in Wisconsin where she actually wrote about a couple who married their dogs. No doubt a hard act to follow, she moved on to a suburban Chicago weekly before freelancing for the Chicago Tribune. Ice fishing tournaments, Imelda Marcos' shoes, enthralling tell-alls about what kind of nails to use for which home projects, the ideas, images and dialog began to rack up. She sold her first piece of fiction, a goofy children's poem, in June of 1995 and cherished her two free copies. After that, whenever she got something published, she thought, It's got to get easier. But it doesn't. She won't whine anymore, however. Instead she writes. And writes. And writes. Not because fame and fortune await, but because she would be a joyless human being if she didn't. "Find what you love to do and do it."

1. Martha, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? What drew you to write?

Writing saved my life. I’m not prone to dramatization, which should convey the weight of the statement.

I grew up the third of three daughters in a middle-class family in LaGrange, IL, a suburb just west of Chicago’s business district. I thank my parents for a fun childhood in a community where Dutch elms arched the streets and neighborhood kids played tag at night during the summer. I walked to school and several times a week took the Burlington Northern into the Loop for dance lessons, movement being my second passion and the reason I’m now a personal trainer and fitness instructor when I’m not writing.

While my parents afforded me a mostly idyllic youth, they couldn’t change my quiet, secretive, don’t-bother-anyone nature, which insulated me from other people. They thought I was shy, when really I had nothing to say. Or rather, I had everything to say and no idea how to express the depth of what I felt.

But inside!

Inside I was a hurricane. I grew up Catholic and nothing scared me more than being chosen as a saint, because everyone knows saints die young and in some agonizing manner. I was too embarrassed to divulge my worries, even to my mom, and so suffered quietly while every night trying to convince God I wasn’t that good of a kid.

And then there was the night I stood out of sight on the stairs and listened to my oldest sister cry while explaining she’d just heard a girl in school had lost her brother in a car accident, and what if that had been me or my middle sister? And then there was the sound of locusts pulsing a summer night. I’d lay in bed trying to describe the heartbeat sound.

Yet when I opened my mouth—


What? people would say. Did you say something? Can you speak up? What do you mean heartbeat?

So when my middle sister gave me a diary for my 13th birthday, I opened the book and the spigot turned on. One journal led to another and another and another, which led to the beginning of short stories and essays.

Sometimes I’ll go back to read those diaries. It’s all drivel, of course, but what gets me, even now, is how hard I pressed the pen into the paper, especially when I was upset. The more angry I got, the crazier the handwriting, the more vague the arguments. Yet whether I made sense or not didn’t matter. This was the first place I’d found where I didn’t have to justify myself. The physical act of writing slowed down the world and allowed me the time necessary to figure out what I felt and why. In essence, writing taught me how to keep from going crazy. I have no doubt my many years of good mental health are a direct outcome of writing.

As I’ve always said, writing is the cheapest form of therapy around, so go ahead and get crazy. Splurge on another pen or two!

2. What's The Wind Thief about?

The Wind Thief, at its core, is a love story, albeit a very unusual one. So unusual, in fact, that a major publisher passed on the book because the editor was unsure how to market it.
My editor, Armando Benitez, however, had no such chicken-hearted doubts, and pursued my story with dogged determination that resulted in three months of intense back-and-forth editing that for me was a writer’s dream: the focus on what matters most, the word-for-word structure of the sentences and the meaning they convey.

I’d already reworked the story’s summary throughout the years leading up to this final editing, during which I again kept polishing, which resulted the following:


A tale of obsession and redemption, The Wind Thief is the story of two souls who are swept from land to land, one in search of a home, the other in search of a war and both ever a step behind the peace they seek.

Ajay, a young thief from India, is on his way to a better life when he is forced to flee Algiers and subsequently gets lost in the Sahara Desert. He is saved by a strange young woman who believes she can talk to the winds, a gift that will save mankind from an imminent apocalypse only she can stop. Ajay has no choice but to follow her out of the barren wasteland, intending to abandon her once they reach Morocco. Yet when he gets the chance to escape her, he realizes he no longer can. He follows, and continues to follow, even when serious dangers loom.

3. What motivated you to write The Wind Thief?


I’m aware of the immediate connotation that word conjures for most people: ardent sexual emotion. When I think of passion, however, I think beyond that limited definition to any emotion so powerful it must be released.

According to that last interpretation, I’m passionate about wind of all kinds, from slight breezes to near hurricane force blows. From aired baked to desert hot to that frozen by sub-zero temperatures. Wind, to me, embodies the freedom that I feel when I move and write.

So psychologically-inclined, I listened one spring night to a windstorm so loud it woke me up, broke my wind chimes and shook my house. Amidst my worry that an evergreen out back might fall and flatten me, I heard the creepiest scratching just above my head: of leaves scuttling back and forth. The sound struck me as a type of evil on the lookout for a way to slip in. And so I began to wonder: what if wind was not singular, but rather plural? What if each wind was sentient and had its own purpose, its own agenda? And so began the character of Madina, a woman haunted by a world of winds so powerful they could crush the world.

4. What came first, the characters or the plot?

The character of Madina came first. To me, writing is all about finding out why people do what they do. When they take an action, that tells you a little more about who they are and what motivates them. Each action they take is one step in a plot.

5. Do you outline your books, or write linearly?

I’ve experimented in all kinds of ways. Because I began writing this book when I was newer to fiction writing, I started out in a linear fashion. In this last revision, however, I moved to a highly-detailed template I’ve developed for each scene to check my work for gaps in plot, get rid of excess and make sure every move characters make stems directly from their defining details, which assures consistency in their actions.

I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer by nature, but have learned that if I want to become adept at using various advanced tools to convey a story (instead of hoping the story comes out right), I’ve got to be very disciplined at evaluating the technical aspects of my work and using every opportunity to learn.

6. What do you find the hardest part of writing a novel, beginning, middle or end? How do you overcome the obstacle?

Actually, the hardest part is overcoming my impatience.

I’m a very impatient person by nature, but have learned a painful truth: my novels take about 10 years to write. Here’s the even more shocking breakdown: the stories only take 1-2 months to write, while the rest of the time is spent rewriting. It’s only through the constant turning of the story over and over that I can extract the riches of my theme.

This realization is the result of analyzing my pattern of rejections and acceptances.

Fortunately I’ve got a huge portfolio of work. Rather than work one story to death, I can put away a newer project in order to take up and refine an older project.

7. How long did it take to find a publisher for The Wind Thief? How did you maintain inspiration while you waited?

I wrote and rewrote the book for two years before starting the submission process. I found a well-known agent within a few weeks and she started submitting the book. She got a bite from a major publisher, who ultimately passed on the book (as I mentioned above).

The agent submitted the story about 17 times, which covered all the major publishers and the various imprints. Then the agent cut me loose and said, “Good luck!”

I submitted to about 10 medium-sized publishers, then put the book away and started work on my next book.

Throughout the intervening years, I’d keep going back to the story, which I believe is the sign a story is worth fighting for. I kept rewriting and submitting until finding an independent publisher that believes in story first and marketing second, which was the way the publishing industry used to operate.

What sustains me is that I have no choice when it comes to writing. I have to breathe, I have to eat and drink, I have to move and I have to write. Writing is the most delicious dessert possible.

Writing is mediation that leaves my mind calm. Writing is what keeps me from turning into a wicked witch.

Over the years I’ve met countless people who have to force themselves to write. I can’t even imagine that.

8. How has your family and friends reacted to your choice to write?

My husband is an extremely practical guy. While he considered my journalism degree impractical from a self-sustaining economic standpoint, the skills are at least practical.

But banging one’s head against a wall for years and years with no prospect of payment, much less even modest fame and fortune? I don’t think he’ll ever stop shaking his head. But he knows writing is what makes me spark and sparkle, and he likes me sparkly.

In terms of my kids, they’re kids, in that what they’re parents do belongs in some other universe, the farther the better. But as my kids grow older, they’re learning to appreciate the enormity of the task and the cache of being published.

9. When did you first call yourself a "writer"?

I had the advantage of coming out of college as a published writer via my journalism background.
But unfortunately, I took much, much too long to think of and label myself as a writer of fiction and creative nonfiction.

Having grown up a secretive kid, I’d developing a successful strategy of hiding what I was doing. If I failed, no one would know and I’d save myself the embarrassment. If I succeeded, I could say, Ta-da! and everyone would be amazed.

Writing takes so many years of practice, however, that not allowing myself the freedom to see myself as a writer held me back from the bold moves I needed to take to increase my skills and develop a name for myself.

I now believe that when people cease to think of writing as a hobby and begin to see themselves as professional writers, they drop their half-baked efforts and do what it takes to succeed, like enrolling in serious writing programs, creating professionally-formatted manuscripts and actively researching and submitting their work.

10. What do you think is the biggest mistake new writers make today?

To believe that despite the millions of examples to the contrary, they’re different and will achieve success in the short-term, preferable within a year or two of picking up a pen.

Writing is above all else an ultra-marathon sport. Talent has little to do with anything, whereas stamina is the number one predictor of success.

11. In hindsight, is there anything you wish you'd known at the beginning of your career?

I don’t believe in hindsight. I believe that every move we humans take is built on the previous step we took. There’s no way I could have reached this moment in my career even one moment before now.

I know all of this sounds namby-pamby, but there’s no concept I take more seriously than that every moment has the potential to lift us higher, even those that are most crushing.

A rather somber sentiment, but the attitude is one of absolute optimism. We are where we are because of every step we’ve taken before. If we don’t like where we are, we’ve got the option to take new steps.

I did just that last year. I determined my latest novel would follow the same pattern as my past novels (agent acquired followed by rejection, rejection, rejection). So I pulled my novel out of active submission, sought the expertise of a professional editor, ramped up my learning to increase my technical skills, started over with the novel and after being contacted by Armando, rewrote THE WIND THIEF according to my newer and higher standards.


Thanks so much, Martha. It's been learning more about you and your work. Best success on your novel The Wind Thief, and all that follows. It's been a pleasure. I'll see you back here on Wednesday for your guest blog.

Martha will be available to answer any questions you pose next Wednesday. So, by all means, utilize her experience and ask away.

Meanwhile, I'm reading from one of my stories tonight on 93.1 CFIS-FM at 6 PM PST. Hope you get a chance to listen.


  1. Great interview! Everything Martha said resonated with my own experience of writing. I should send a link to my family. Maybe it would help them understand my madness.

    I wish I could see her template, though...

  2. That's a good idea, Vicki. Think I'll do the same. Tho, I have a suspicion they're figuring it out.

    I'll ask Martha about exposing her template.

  3. Good blog, Martha. Thanks, Joylene.

    Martha, you mentioned it takes 10 years. Do you work on different projects at the same time? You must. But consistently until they're finished?

  4. Interesting interview. I agree "We are where we are because of every step we’ve taken before," whether by choice or otherwise.

    Thanks for an interesting interview!

    Karen Cioffi

  5. Thanks for stopping by, Janine. Good question. I'm curious too.

    Karen and Robyn, thanks for the comment. It's one of the things I like about Martha too, she's forthright and speaks from the heart. Hope you can stop by on Wednesday.

  6. "The physical act of writing slowed down the world and allowed me the time necessary to figure out what I felt and why. In essence, writing taught me how to keep from going crazy." Oh, how I can relate to that! I began journalling many years ago while in the midst of a nervous breakadown and I found it so therapeutic that I've never stopped. That need to find a way to get voices out of our heads and put them where we can make sense of them is quite possibly what motivates a lot of us writers.

    A question for Martha:
    You mentioned spending years rewriting. When you found your present publisher did the editor request significant further pre-publication revisions or had you refined the story adequately by then?

  7. Hey all.

    You're an active, curious bunch, so what a delight to read your comments and questions.

    V.L. Smith: Thanks for asking about my template. I developed it by reading five or six different writing books to see what other authors advised. The recommendations that overlapped are the ones I deemed most necessary: elements that have to be in place for every single scene. Not just chapter, but scene, which means if a chapter contains seven scenes, I fill out the template seven times so I know exactly what's going on and why.

    I'm a little shy about releasing the template, because it's still a work in progress and is highly biased as to my needs. How about I release a beta version (if you're not a techie, that means "in the process of being tested and changed") on Wednesday with ideas about how you can adapt the template to your own needs?

    Janine: Yes, I'm constantly working on other projects. What I normally do is upchuck the idea all at once: take five hours to write the first draft of an essay or a month to write a novel. That assures me the basic idea is down so that if I need to dash off to work on something else, I won't forget the premise. Then I begin to rework the material, which usually ends up completely different. During the process I usually discover the reason this story attracted my attention.

    Carol: While my publisher didn't make me change the trajectory of the story, he did request that I reshape passages, rethink character motivations and re-examine the ending. We got to the point where I wondered whether we'd ever be done. But the big changes led to smaller changes, which led to smaller changes that ended with little nits.

    Anything else I can help you with?

  8. Did you work with online writer groups? And if so, can you recommend any?

  9. Hi Martha. Your book sounds wonderful. Did you know the story would be literary? Or was it your publisher that labelled it that?

  10. Robin: My first online writing group was Deadly Prose, which is where I met Joylene, so we know the experience was well worth the effort! She and a few others are particularly hard-working writers with whom I keep in contact.

    Anonymous: I knew THE WIND THIEF was literary, primarily because I'm a huge fan of literary fiction. A lot of people are confused by the term, but here's an easy way to think about it: mainstream fiction that emphasizes the use of language. This does not mean that mainstream authors don't think about how they put together sentences. Rather, literary authors put extra emphasis on that aspect. Most classics are literary: Catcher in the Rye, Slaughterhouse 5, Moby Dick, etc.

  11. Could you explain the differences in more detail. Literary works have more emphasis on the way sentences are formed? It has nothing to do with the themes or structures?

    Seems as if Stephen King would fall into the literary category then? But he doesn't. So mysteries and thrillers can never be literary?

    I don't get it.

  12. A lot of readers shy away from literary books because they're left feeling too self conscious and intimidated by the language. Doesn't literary, by its very nature, draw attention to the language rather than the characters?

  13. Nice interview. I'll be back with some questions on Wednesday. Or is that Friday?

  14. Hi WritingLikeCrazy. Tomorrow Martha will be back as a guest host. You can ask her questions then.

    Sam, be sure and ask Martha about that tomorrow. I'd like to know too.


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