Interview with Historical Fiction Author Andrew Jalbert

Award winning freelancer Andrew Jalbert has been a professional archaeologist and scuba instructor for over 15 years. During that time, he has worked throughout the Great Lakes, the Caribbean, Central America, Southern Africa, the Florida Keys, and Hawaii. His work focuses on tropical subjects–both above and below the water–and he is a regular contributor to scuba diving, natural history, fitness, and travel magazines. Andrew currently lives in Madison, Wisconsin. You can visit his website at

Welcome to The Writer's Life, Andrew. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how long you’ve been writing?

I should start by saying that I’ve always been a bit smitten by the tropics. As far back as I can remember I wanted to write and be near the ocean. I should expand on that a bit: I wanted to be near, in, or beneath the ocean’s surface. By the time I was in my early thirties, I had a decade of working on dive boats, jumping around the Caribbean and writing for scuba and travel magazines under my belt. Those years were priceless, not only in terms of the environments and cultures I was lucky enough to experience, but for the opportunity to write about them. My writing teeth were cut on sailboats, beaches, and port town taverns and for that I consider myself fortunate.

Can you please tell us about your book and why you wrote it?

It goes without saying that when I decided to cross over into publishing fiction, the stories would take place someplace tropical. West Across the Board is set in one of my favorite locations: The Florida Keys. I fell in love with the island chain years ago, not only for its stunning scenery, collage of cultures, and pristine waters, but for its fascinating history. Closer to Cuba than the U.S. mainland, Key West was more accessible by boat than car until the mid 1930s. It was during the 1930s that I chose to set my novel. This gave me a great opportunity to research an era in the southern keys that I’ve always been interested in and an excuse to spend more time on Key West.

West Across the Board begins in 1999 with 86 year old Lázaro driving from Boston to the Florida Keys to see his dying friend Dominic before time runs out. As he drives, he remembers not only his younger years in Key West, but his reasons for fleeing his island home and his friend over half a century before. Lázaro, a gifted Cuban mariner and fisherman in his youth first met Dominic at Sloppy Joe’s Saloon in 1934. The two young men bond instantly over a game of chess played in the smoky tavern. The games continue and after every one, each man’s win is scratched into the back of the board. As the game tally grows, so does their friendship. The games are a constant during an era that saw devastating hurricanes, shipwrecks, and even war.

Prior to his journey back to the keys, Lázaro retrieves the old chessboard and makes a startling discovery. The number of scratches, first marked in the saloon over sixty years before and uncounted until now, has the two men evenly tied. As he drives towards the keys, Lázaro is forced to confront a past he has struggled to forget while anticipating the reunion with his old friend and what could be their final game.

Much like the tropics, the game of chess is endearing to me. Not because I’m any good at it, but because (much like my characters) I still play chess with my childhood friend–a tradition that has continued for nearly 30 years. Across the board from each other, we have enjoyed and talked about happy times and supported each other while weathering loss.

What kind of research was involved in writing “West Across the Board”? It was very important to me that I animate my story’s characters against as accurate a backdrop as possible. Consequently, I did quite a bit of historical research about the Florida Keys and–lucky me–spent as much time in the island chain as possible while writing it. I found this necessary to be true to many of the scenes I was creating. Nearly every setting in the book is based on an actual location and/or historical event.

How much input did you have into the design of your book cover?

I do a lot of photography and graphic design so I had a pretty good idea how I wanted the cover to look. I began working on it with the intentions of submitting the concept to the publishers as a guide. By the time I submitted it however, I’d refined it to such a point that the publisher used it.

Has it been a bumpy ride to becoming a published author or has it been pretty well smooth sailing?

I think the task of finding a publisher can be as daunting as writing a manuscript, perhaps even more so. Chances are, most authors write a book because…well…they’re writers. But being a writer doesn’t make you a marketer. Writing a book and marketing a book to a publisher are two very different animals. In my case, I made countless mistakes during the marketing process, however I learned something from each of them and I feel confident that when I pitch my next novel, I will be more prepared.

In hindsight, writing and trying to publish my first book was a great test of my tenacity. As a freelance writer, I’d already been exposed to rejection letters and managed to push through them to become a regular contributor to several magazines. But when I decided to write and pitch a novel, I wasn’t prepared for the quantity of rejections. There was a period of several months in which I seemed to get at least one “dear author” rejection letter every day. And using the word “letter” is being generous. Often, the rejections would be a Xeroxed, quarter sheet of paper (mailed back to me with the postage I provided) with a few sentences saying they weren’t interested.

After enough rejections, I was faced with an unsettling question: Was my novel any good? I, like so many other writers, had put so much time, energy and thought into it that an answer of “no” was utterly deflating. I may have had a bit of an advantage when faced with this question because I’d published quite a few magazine articles before, but there are only so many rejections you can face before the question is asked. My answer–and ultimately “how I overcame the blows”–was to go with a small POD publisher and see what the readers and reviewers thought before deciding.

Now, a year later, I’m glad I made that decision. Reviews from magazines, newspapers and book reviewers have been very good and the feedback from readers has been touching. I am already well into my second novel and had I given up on the first one, I never would have started.

For this particular book, how long did it take from the time you signed the contract to its release?

It’s a bit different with a POD publisher, but as I recall from the time I decided to go that route until I held the book in my hands was about four months.

Do you have an agent and, if so, would you mind sharing who he/is is? If not, have you ever had an agent or do you even feel it’s necessary to have one?

Because I published with a POD I seem to be approaching this a bit backwards. I wanted to give the book a year after its publication to get reviews and feedback before seeking representation. That time has just passed and I will be looking for an agent in the next month or so. I think most authors should have an agent if they hope to have much success with their project.

Do you plan subsequent books?

I am well into my second book right now and hopefully will be finished in early 2009.

Are you a morning writer or a night writer?

I am actually a bit of both…early morning and late night. It’s during the middle of the day that I am the least productive. I’ve tried to write in the afternoon countless times–always with the same disappointing results! If I have time in the afternoon I tend to do research or outlining.

If money was no object, what would be the first thing you would invest in to promote your book?

There are some publicists out there with pretty impressive track records. If money was no object, I would hire a full time publicist for an extended period of time.

How important do you think self-promotion is and in what ways have you been promoting your book offline and online?

I do think it’s very important and a lot can be gained for a minimal expense.
Initially, I did what most authors probably do: I sent emails to everyone I’d ever met asking them to read it. While that sounds like a fairly unambitious first step, it was a good start. Most of them bought it, read it, recommended it to their friends and so on. Within a couple of months, I was going to book clubs that had chosen my novel to read. During this time, I was also contacting book reviewers, magazines, radio and newspapers to review he book which also turned out to be a great marketing strategy.

With an eye on online sales, I also set up pages in popular networking sites such as MySpace and sites that catered to book readers and authors. This too proved successful. By networking with other authors, reviewers and people who had an interest in my novel’s setting (the book takes place in the Florida Keys) I was able to get the word out and ultimately sell more books.

Any final words of wisdom for those of us who would like to be published?

The first thing I would say to aspiring authors is to get others involved. Self-critiquing your work is possible to a certain degree, but in the end, you’ll be best served by working with editors, coaches, and even critique groups. Find someone who will give you honest feedback (and I’m not talking about your friends or your mom!) If you don’t already have an editor (which most first-time authors don’t) you should plan on getting one. There are countless services out there, some better than others. Also, consider a writing coach. With so much time looking at your own work, things are often missed that an outside party will catch. I tried to be as open as possible to their suggestions and in almost every case, they were right on target. Having others involved also makes the process less lonely. It can be un-nerving having someone read your work at first, but if you plan on writing a book for the masses, you’ll have to get used to it.

Finally, I would say that you’ll need patience, endurance, and realistic expectations. Statistics show that only a small fraction of submitted books ever make it to publication. Have a backup plan. If you’ve gone through all the right steps (including having the manuscript professionally critiqued and edited) and you can’t find a mainstream publisher, there are smaller presses and other routes you can take to get the book in print. Keep at it and let the readers and reviewers decide.

Thank you for coming, Andrew! Would you like to tell my readers where they can find you on the web and how everyone can buy your book?

Thank you for having me! Readers interested in learning more about the book (including a complete synopsis, reviews & book club questions) as well as some of my other work in the tropics can visit my site: If you stop by, be sure to drop me a note and say hello…I’d love to hear from you!

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