Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Interview with Historical Fiction Author Douglas Carlton Abrams

Douglas Carlton Abrams is a former editor at the University of California Press and HarperSanFrancisco. He is the co-author of a number of books on love, sexuality, and spirituality, including books written with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar, and Taoist Master Mantak Chia. He lives in Santa Cruz, California, with his wife and three children. In his life and work, he is interested in cultivating all aspects of our humanity —body, emotions, mind, and spirit. His goal in writing fiction is to create stories that not only entertain, but also attempt to question, enchant, and transform.

Doug’s desire in writing the book was not only to resurrect this greatest of historical lovers and to give voice to his true motives; he was also moved to write a book that would explore the tension between lust and love and that would confront the human question of how any man or woman can find lifelong satisfaction in one committed relationship. To find out more about the origins of The Lost Diary and the myth of Don Juan, and to learn about forthcoming novels, please visit www.LostDiaryofDonJuan.com or www.DouglasCarltonAbrams.com.

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

I am a New Yorker living in California, and I’ve been writing fiction since I was eleven years old. I grew up in a publishing family, so perhaps I was destined to write. I’ve also had the opportunity to work in publishing, so I experienced the Editor’s Life as well as the Writer’s Life.

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

The Lost Diary of Don Juan is an adventure love story and historical thriller that takes place in Golden Age Spain. It may seem strange, but I wrote a book about Don Juan to learn how to stay happily and passionately married to my wife. This is how it happened… One night I went to bed asking myself a question that I believe every married man or woman asks eventually: how could I stay happily and passionately married for the rest of my life?

The next morning I awoke as if I had been shaken. It was then that I first thought of Don Juan, the universal symbol of passion. I wondered, what if he had kept a diary? What secrets would it contain? What could we learn from him about the nature of passion, relationships, and romance? And ultimately, what might cause the world’s greatest seducer to forsake all women for one woman? I left my wife’s warm sleeping body, walked past our three sleeping children, and sat down at the dining room table. It was as if a voice was whispering the story in my ear.

What kind of research was involved in writing The Lost Diary of Don Juan?

Well, after the story wrote its way through me in a month, I knew that I had to turn the sketch I had into a fully fleshed out painting, so I began to research. I spent more than four years researching the novel and went to Sevilla several times. I had extraordinary guides who allowed me to walk through walls into the private lives of nobles and commoners. I also stole faces from the Prado Museum and worked with numerous scholars and experts to learn the intricacies of Spanish sword fighting and Spanish dancing. To research Don Juan’s childhood in a convent, I spent the night in an active convent—but neither the sisters nor I broke our vows! And I even lay on an actual rack from the Inquisition. Writing Don Juan’s story felt like a sacred trust, and I needed to do everything I could to get his story and the history of his time right.

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

Actually, having worked in publishing, I had a lot of ideas about the cover, and the publisher was very generous about letting me offer my opinions. The book was not simply a genre book of historical fiction, so it was challenging to get the cover right. It needed to be something that would appeal to women and men, and that would also convey that the book was both literary and commercial at the same time.

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

I don’t think there is anything like smooth sailing in publishing. Having worked in publishing, I knew that the winds of publishing are always challenging to navigate. I was incredibly fortunate to have my first novel published in thirty languages, but my desk is littered with stillborn novels, and one of my non-fiction books was dropped after being bought when the editor left. In short, publishing your first fiction is somewhat like sailing during hurricane season.

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

Actually, it was relatively quick between contract and publication. I had already done 30 drafts of the novel when I submitted it to the publisher, so it was “relatively” polished (the challenge of writing fiction is that it can always be refined to more closely approximate the richness of actual life). I had already been working on the book for over four years researching, writing, and rewriting it.

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?

I think it is absolutely essential to have an agent. Having worked in-house at publishers, I know how publishing houses treat agented and unagented authors quite differently. With the major trade publishers, it is practically impossible to navigate the world of publishing without an agent. I have an incredible agent—Heide Lange, who also happens to be Dan Brown’s agent, although I think its not bragging to say she was my agent first. She is brilliant, compassionate, and everything one could want in an agent. Honestly, one’s agent is in many ways the second closest person in your life (if you have a spouse), so it is essential to choose one carefully.

Do you plan subsequent books?

Yes, the publisher asked for a two-book contract, so as soon as The Lost Diary was done, I was off on the next. To my shock, another story was waiting to be told, which had nothing to do with Don Juan. It’s been a completely different writing process, which I’m looking forward to discussing with you soon. The book, also an adventure thriller, is about a love even more powerful than passionate love.

Are you a morning writer or a night writer?

I’m a whenever-I-can-steal-the-time writer, which means I write in the morning and at night, whenever I’m not juggling my three children, my other work as a literary agent, or the responsibilities and joys of marriage. What has really been a lifesaver is going away periodically on long writing retreats. The challenge with novels is that you are working with a very large canvas, sort of like an enormous Delacroix hanging in the Louvre, so it is essential for me to step out of daily routines to immerse myself in the fictional world.

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

I would probably spend quite a lot of money on web advertising and web promotion, but I'd probably also take out full page ads in the The New York Times! Having grown up reading the NYT, it holds a special place in my heart. If you can make it there, you can...

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

I think it is essential to promote your work, since there are over 100,000 books published each year, and readers can fall in love with books they’ve never heard about. Of course, the challenge is how. I think that online promotion is probably the most effective means we have right now, and I’ve been turning to two great talents, Dorothy Thompson and M.J. Rose, to help guide me in this bewildering, brave, new world.

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

I would encourage writers to follow their passion and to allow their book to be a journey. For so long I started with an answer, now I start with a question. If the writing of the novel is a search to answer a question that they care about deeply, the work will engage and sustain them during the incredibly long march of writing and publication.

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

Please come visit www.LostDiaryofDonJuan.com or read a sample at www.DonJuanSample.com. Books are available at bookstores everywhere and online.