Acclaimed novelist Laurel Anne Hill adds the prestigious 2018 Irwin Award for Best Speculative Fiction Book for The Engine Woman’s Light to her collection of literary awards and achievements. A good reason to sit and talk about her award-winning book and her writing ritual. An interview packed with useful insights on how to stay in the zone as a writer and use your participation in writers’ conferences to boost your writing career.
SPM: You believe that a higher power influences your writing and life. Could you please elaborate on this idea, and also tell us how authors can connect with this power to give their best?
Laurel Anne Hill: I grew up in poverty—three generations living in a two-bedroom flat in San Francisco. My father was an alcoholic and abusive, but my Swedish-American grandmother taught me to pray. Thus, I prayed, not only for those I loved, but for personal inner strength and the endurance to survive. As a Methodist, I continue to pray for those who need help worldwide.
In the midst of turmoil and panic in those early years, I discovered the path to a mental cranny of calm. Inside my special calm space, voices eventually spoke and creative ideas flowed. I’d not only found a place to heal from reality, I’d found my personal writing zone. My advice to other writers? Whether or not you are religious, the more you practice finding your “zone,” the easier the path becomes.
SPM: You’re the author of several successful books but The Engine Woman’s Light continues to amaze readers and win awards. What makes this book so special?
Laurel Anne Hill: Actually, I’m the author of two award-winning novels and have written a total of over thirty published short stories, some in successful anthologies and magazines, and some not.
When I started writing The Engine Woman’s Light, I had no idea how to write a novel. No surprise that the process took me twenty years. Twenty years gave me plenty of time to perfect my prose—plenty of time to reflect upon my own life experiences, the verbal history of my mother’s family, and the papers of my Mexican great-grandmother. Multiple generations of women with great inner strength, but little societal power.
Some of the experiences of Juanita, my Latina protagonist in The Engine Woman’s Light, are disturbing, and the attitudes expressed by male characters, insensitive. But Juanita does not live in 21stCentury California. She has spent most of her young life in poverty, near the bottom of the social ladder in an alternate 19thCentury California. In her world, a man with wealth and power can take what he pleases and destroy those who “don’t matter.” Some of the spirits of her male relatives joke about her delicate situations when they don’t know what else to do. (Sound familiar?)
To nearly sixteen-year-old Juanita, the difference between good and evil remains clear. But real life is far more muddy than clear, and demands to be faced on its own terms. Juanita’s heroic journey to save the lives of the most vulnerable people in California opens her eyes and challenges her very being. At age eighteen, she comes of age. She is the agent of change. She must do what no one else can, even if she loses all.
SPM: What is the impact of these awards on your writing career?
Laurel Anne Hill: The Engine Woman’s Lighthas won a total of eleven honors and awards. Sales haven’t skyrocketed as a result. However, I feel that my credibility as an author has increased. For example, an agent has asked to see the manuscript of my novel-in-progress when completed.
SPM: What is your writing routine? Or should we say, ritual?
Laurel Anne Hill: In the early morning, a cup of decaf always helps. In the evening, sometimes a glass of wine. The table near my kitchen is my favorite place to set up my laptop, due to its comfortable chairs and a scenic view of the deck and hillsides. Also, that room contains two speakers if I need musical inspiration. I had a more regular writing time before I retired from my day job. Now it’s “find the time, find the zone.” I can work for 30 minutes a day, twelve hours, or anywhere in-between.
SPM:You spent the last months on the road, attending various cons and writer’s events. What is your motivation?
Laurel Anne Hill: Selling books and gaining name recognition are two big reasons, but not the only ones. For example, at the cons, I love chatting with other fantasy/science fiction/steampunk/horror writers, readers and fans. And I enjoy the costuming opportunities, as well as learning what’s new in speculative fiction, and speaking about writing to students at local schools. My favorite cons include RadCon (Pasco, WA), RavenCon (Williamsburg, VA) and the World Fantasy Con (rotating location).
I also attend and/or serve as a participant at traditional writers conferences such as Cuesta College-Central Coast Writers Conference, West Coast Writers Conferences, and the Women Writing the West Annual Conference. These are excellent events for learning about craft and the changing world of publishing—and for private consultations with agents and editors.
SPM: How can authors use their participation in writer’s conferences and other types of industry-related events to boost their career?
Laurel Anne Hill: First of all, make a good impression on your audience. The word about interesting or confusing speakers gets around. Be prepared for every panel, know your material. Unless you are doing a reading, or an “authors talking about their books” panel, don’t use your presentation time to push your book. However, it’s all right to mention your book if it fits with the presentation topic. That is, if you are on a panel about steampunk and have a published steampunk novel, saying a couple of sentences about your book is okay. But your sentences must relate to the question being asked by the panel’s moderator.
Use social media to promote your presentation before and afterwards. Hand out fliers at the event to encourage attendance. Whether your audience consists of three or a hundred-and-three, make your delivery enthusiastic.
Talking about an intensive subject such as “string theory” or “character point-of-view in the past 100 years?” Consider preparing a cheat sheet for attendees. Put your name and headshot at the top of the page. List terms and definitions.
SPM: You are a very popular author. How do you stay in touch with your fans?
Laurel Anne Hill: I don’t consider myself a “very” popular author, although “The Engine Woman’s Light” drifts on and off the Amazon Kindle Best Seller List for Teen Steampunk and Gaslamp Fantasy. I do, however, consider myself a good writer and speaker, one who tries to present the truths she knows, and enjoys helping fledgling writers.
Between writing and events, I find I have less and less time to spend online. I’m using Black Chateau for my publicist. The arrangement works well. Black Chateau is very professional and affordable.
SPM: What’s next for Laurel Anne Hill?
Laurel Anne Hill: I’m on the fifth draft of my next novel, tentatively titled Plague of Flies. The genre is historical fantasy/magical realism/young adult. The story, set in California, relates the heroic adventure of Catalina Delgado, a young Latina/Native American woman during the Mexican-American war in 1846.