Greetings literary world and lovers of books. A few years ago in my social media travels, I had the pleasure and honor of meeting S.D. Mayes, author of the recently published WWII suspense novel, Letters to the Pianist. I was fortunate enough to actually beta read this work of art and am proud to have this exclusive interview with Ms. Mayes. Let’s jump right in. First things first, S.D., pitch Letters… a few sentences so they’ll know just how fantastic it is and want to go out and buy it after this interview.
After their home is bombed in the London blitz, a chance connection brings the broken Goldberg family back together, but delivers rebellious teenager, Ruth, into the hands of a murderer.
Nice! How long have you actually considered yourself a writer in a professional sense and was there a defining moment or a gradual process that gave you that distinction?
I always wanted to write since being at school. Every time I wrote a friend a letter, they would say – “you should be a writer” – but it was only in my mid-twenties that I had the courage to dip my toe into the fast-paced life of journalism. Writing human interest stories for national newspapers and magazines enabled me to really understand SHOW not TELL that writers need to apply to storytelling. Because otherwise, the editor would scream down the phone “where’s the anecdotes? Describe properly!” Everything we wrote had to take a reader on a journey emotionally.
Interesting. How long has Letters to the Pianist been in the making? What have been some of the successes and pitfalls in that journey?
Hmm, where do I start? Well the story for Letters dropped into my consciousness about five years ago and I loved the basis of the story, and instantly thought, ‘Wow, I would like to read that book’. But I knew it would be a challenge because all the characters are flawed in some way, and there were a lot of twists and turns – so it took me a few years to get going with the first draft. And, phew, it’s taken three years to write, adjusting the plot, tying up loose ends, along with around six beta readers and endless editing. I can’t even remember how many times this book has been edited, it’s been that many. I’ve had a literary agent and two publishing contracts along the way that I canceled because I didn’t feel they were doing the best with the book. And I wanted quality. Do I sound picky and anal? But then, your book is your baby and you want to do the best by it when it’s taken so much graft.
You don’t sound picky to me, more like a nurturing, caring parent, and I understand. Who is your favorite character in the book and how much of yourself did you infuse him or her? Give me some examples.
It’s hard for me to name one favourite. I have to give two. Is that greedy? I love Ruth, the teenage protagonist because she is so rebellious, and therefore misunderstood. She regards herself as overweight and the ugly duckling of her family. She’s very typical I guess of most teens, in that she picks herself to pieces. And she has a complex relationship with her mother which is very love/hate. I based her background and persona on my mother, also called Ruth. But it is the fact that she comes from a troubled background that really builds her character and gives her strength to continue in difficult circumstances. And I love that about her.
I also have a soft spot for the spoilt debutante, Connie. She is a complex character, misguided and deeply troubled in her own way. The only daughter of wealthy aristocratic parents who yearns for love but gets wrapped up in appearances and how things should be. I quite enjoyed writing such a dysfunctional character.
I don’t feel that I infused myself in either of them. I really based them on people I knew. Connie is based on a few people that I have met over the years who I couldn’t possibly name.
Haha! The names have been changed to protect the innocent, huh? I love it. I’ve made no secret about my love of your writing and Letters. It’s truly a genre-defying piece of work. Do you think it fits in one genre more than another? What drew you to this genre or genres, and do you see yourself writing in another genre in the future?
Thank you, John. And you’re so right. It is genre-defying. It could fit into many genre categories: historical, because it’s set in the 1940s; suspense because it fits into the thriller category; saga, because it is an epic family saga about the Goldberg family – but it can also fit into alternative fiction, because it shows historical events in a new light.
Hmm…What motivates you to write and what has been a stumbling block that you have overcome or are overcoming?
When I wrote Letters it really was at times, pain and pleasure in equal measure. When I’m inspired I will work until the early hours of the morning. Storytelling is fun. But the editing – the editing can be painful. Examining the right place for semicolons, colons and Em dashes. Making every line as tight as it can be. And checking that the dialogue is authentic for the character, and ensuring you eliminate as many clichés as possible. It’s a tough call, but tortuously enjoyable at the same time. It’s a bit like cleaning your skirting boards. You have to be pushed to do it, but you feel better after.
You sound like a master surgeon. What are your views on the different avenues of publishing i.e. self-publishing, indie-publishing, hybrid publishing, traditional publishing etc?
I feel all of them have their place for writers and if you have a desire to get your book out there, then do what you can. All I would say is that there are a lot of self-published books that aren’t edited properly, and that’s a shame, because readers may ignore a good story that simply needs a bit more polish.
What are some of your favorite novels and authors and why?
I have to say that my favourite book is ‘The Girl on the Train’ by Paula Hawkins. It deserves the hype, and it’s an example of really good writing. An easy read, but very descriptive and emotional. And she really gets inside the minds of her characters. I also love ‘I Let You Go’ by former police officer, Clare Mackintosh for the same reason. I often reread some of the classics like, ‘Wuthering Heights’, always a firm favourite for Bronte’s descriptive language. And without question, I love the IA trilogy, John – which will be when your third book comes out, IA Union. I adore your protagonist, Naz, and the emotional turmoil that he goes through to understand his own supernatural powers and what’s important in life.
Ha! Flattery will get you everywhere, S.D. Oops! Another cliché, but I couldn’t help myself. And it’s true. I digress. Most authors see their novels as films. It’s fun. Do you? If so, name a few characters from Letters and actors/actresses you’d like to see play those characters.
I always saw Letters as a movie when I was writing it. And already worked out who I would like to play a few of the characters, as my ultimate dream cast.
Michael Fassbender would play Joseph Goldberg
Alicia Vikander, the unstable Connie Douglas-Scott
Charles Dance as Lord Henry Douglas-Scott
Oh my goodness, a dream cast indeed. Tell us a little about your writing space, where you like to work and how? Pencil/Pen and paper or computer? Snacks? How often do you write and how do you defeat writer’s block?
I used to have an office but I’ve turned that into a third bedroom. So now I tend to take my laptop to the living room where I can see the garden through the glass French doors. It brings me a little peace. Sometimes, I confess, when I work late into the night, I do drink a lot of coffee and eat a lot of chocolate, because I get hungry and need an instant fix. It’s very unhealthy and I don’t recommend it. When I’m in writing mode, I write and edit every day as I find it hard to leave it alone and get kind of horribly obsessive, but now a lot of work is needed to get Letters dressed up, suited and booted, and ready to meet the world – so I’m focused on finding it the right outfits!
So metaphoric! Bonita! Most authors today act as their own PR and marketing team. Does that include you and if so, how are you finding that process? Were you prepared for it when you began your journey as an author? What would you tell other authors who find this side of things intimidating and/or undignified?
Having also been with one of the big five publishers, Hodder & Stoughton for my self-help books, I can honestly say that now I’m with a smaller publisher, that you still always have to do a lot of your own PR and marketing – large publisher or small. I have contacted only a few literary editors at publications because of course, they want a physical copy of your book, and yet can’t guarantee it will be reviewed, because they get sent thousands. The best way ultimately I feel is by word of mouth, and to contact bloggers and book reviewers who review and blog for the love of books. If you believe in your story you must trust that it will attract readers.
Fair enough! How do you feel about collaboration? Would you be interested in collaborating with another author in the future? If so, do you have a dream author you’d like to work with or just a certain type of author?
I don’t feel I could collaborate with another author because I can imagine your vision would pull you both in different directions. But, never say never.
Darn! What’s your favorite genre to read?
I love all genres: YA/Suspense/Historical sagas – as long as they’re well written with an interesting storyline.
What are some of your hobbies when you’re not writing bestsellers?
Haha! Well, I love to cook, and I love to decorate the house, changing the colour of rooms. I find it quite grounding when you’ve been living in your head for a while. I live near the river Thames so I also like to walk by the river when it’s a nice day.
Sounds wonderful, the river Thames. Twitter or Instagram?
I’m on twitter – authormayes is my handle. I haven’t yet got to grips with instagram.
What can we expect from you next? Any appearances?
I am hoping to do a book signing with Waterstones in January – which will be the Windsor branch in Berkshire – right near the Royal Windsor castle. But I am hoping to travel far and wide in the future.
Looking forward to it. Tell us something different and unique about S.D. Mayes that you haven’t said in any other interview?
Hmm, well, when I was around eight years, I was sent to live on a farm in Plymouth, which was a kind of ashram, where I was taught to meditate. It was meant to be ‘divine schooling’ but of course it didn’t quite work out that way. It was a bit chaotic and we ended up going to the local village school. FYI for anyone who isn’t sure, an ashram is a place, mainly based in India, where you are live a spiritual life, eating vegetarian food, and dedicating yourself to the higher force of God. So I guess you could say my childhood was very different from the norm. And maybe that’s why my imagination runs wild in books.
Thank you for that exclusive, S.D. I look forward, as I’m sure my readers do, to seeing you out and about in the future. Good luck and Godspeed on your career, my friend
FB page for Letters to the Pianist: https://www.facebook.com/authorMayes