Thursday, March 3, 2011

Author Interview: Elle Newmark (author of The Sandalwood Tree)

Sitting down with us today for a quick interview is the lovely Elle Newmark, an author whose books are inspired by her travels.

Her work has been published into 16 languages and she lives in the hills north of San Diego with her husband, a retired physician. She has two grown children and five grandchildren.

Elle is currently on a virtual book tour, promoting her historical fiction novel, The Sandalwood Tree, and we're fortunate enough to be one of her very first stops on the tour. Thanks so much to Elle for stopping by!

Before we get into the interview itself, let's take a quick look at the book in question

The Sandalwood Tree: A NovelIn 1947, an American anthropologist named Martin Mitchell wins a Fulbright Fellowship to study in India. He travels there with his wife, Evie, and his son, determined to start a new chapter in their lives. Upon the family’s arrival, though, they are forced to stay in a small village due to violence surrounding Britain’s imminent departure from India. It is there, hidden behind a brick wall in their colonial bungalow, that Evie discovers a packet of old letters that tell a strange and compelling story of love and war involving two young Englishwomen who lived in the very same house in 1857. Drawn to their story, Evie embarks on a mission to uncover what the letters didn’t explain. Her search leads her through the bazaars and temples of India as well as the dying society of the British Raj. Along the way, a dark secret is exposed, and this new and disturbing knowledge creates a wedge between Evie and her husband. Bursting with lavish detail and vivid imagery of Bombay and beyond, The Sandalwood Tree is a powerful story about betrayal, forgiveness, fate, and love. 

Without further ado, let's get down to business and to Elle, the woman behind The Sandalwood Tree.

♥ Thanks for stopping by, Elle. When sitting down to write The Sandalwood Tree, did you deliberately choose a genre? Is there something specific that draws you to it, or was it just 'right' for this novel?

I am drawn to historical fiction because it offers the broadest canvas and the most colorful characters. It's all there: war, peace, love, hate, a human tapestry made up of the extraordinary things that ordinary people do.

There are historical moments more fantastic than anything I could make up, and people who are more complicated and colorful than any character I could build from scratch. If I created a character like Rodrigo Borgia I would be criticized for creating someone too far-fetched to be believed. If I wrote about a city floating on water with canals instead of streets it would be called fantasy, when, in fact, it's called Venice. If I invented an empire with the audacity to slice up an entire subcontinent, creating new borders and new countries based on religion, I would be told it could never happen. But it did happen, and it sparked a war in which one million people died and twelve million were displaced.

To have places and times so fantastic that they must be real to be believed is irresistible to me as a novelist. I merely create fictional characters and put them in a place and time that's already there and already spectacular. Most things happen the way they do because of the time and place in which occur, and that is why the setting for my novels is important enough to be one of the characters. I pick the historical setting that will best suit the story I want to tell and I let the setting influence how the story goes.

♥ I know the book is inspired by your travels, but how does your past influence your writing? Are you conscious of relating the story to your own experiences?

Everything I write about goes through the filter of my senses, my thought process, my values, and my worldview. That's why you can ask 100 people to write one sentence about a dog and you will get 100 different sentences. That said, I do sometimes have a certain person in mind when I create a character. I think: what would so and so do here? I have always been a student of human behavior; I think human beings are astoundingly complex, capable of the very worst and the very best and everything in between. I figure, if I can think it, someone has probably done it.

♥ Do you have a schedule or a routine to your writing? Is there a time and place that you must write, or do you let the words flow as they demand?

Words neither flow nor demand to flow. I have to sit down, open the laptop and get to work whether I feel like it or not. It is this juncture that separates the amateurs from the pros, the published from the unpublished. You have to do the work every day, whether you feel like it or not, whether it's flowing or not. And in most cases, you have to do this for 20 years or more before you find your voice and even then you might not find a publisher.

Writing a novel is 98% sweat and 2% talent. Ann Lamotte, in her insightful book, Bird by Bird, tells us to give ourselves permission to write, "a shitty first draft." We experience writer's block when we are afraid of not measuring up to our own standards. But all we really need is a piece of writing—a shitty first draft—to work on. Once we have a page full of words we can get down to making something out of it. We need to give ourselves permission to write badly.

♥ Very well said. Do you have a soundtrack to your writing? Is there a particular style of music or other background noise that keeps you focused and in the mood?

I must have silence and calm. I do not understand how people can write with music or noise of any kind in the background. My studio is all soft neutral colors, beige suede furniture, soft, plum-colored silk throw pillows, a wall of books up to the ceiling, impressionistic art on the walls, lots of daylight, and no clutter whatsoever. Supplies are kept out of sight in a closet and there is nothing on my desk (a pine table) except a jade elephant, the god of writers. I have a comfy writing chair with ottoman and it faces sliding glass doors that open onto a patio with a zen garden and a stone Buddha. In the distance, there is a mountain view. The room exudes serenity and it gives me a sense of well being that helps me work.

After many years of working at the kitchen table, (and clearing it off before dinner) or in my bedroom (and clearing it off before bedtime) or some corner of some little used room (and putting a screen in front of it if company is coming), this lovely studio is the greatest luxury I've ever had. My own serene space and a door that locks. Paradise.

♥ For some authors, it's coming up with a title, and for others it's writing that first paragraph - what do you find is the most difficult aspect of writing?

The first draft is excruciating. Starting from zero, knowing how much there is to do—plots to be paced, characters to be created, conflict to be managed, and a way to pull it all together in the end—I can't let myself think about it for very long or I'd never begin.  I just have to dive in and start writing something, anything, just to get going.

♥ When writing, do you ever consider how a reader or reviewer will react, or do you write solely for your own satisfaction?

I always keep my reader in mind. I am not writing for myself; I'm writing to be read. It strikes me as foolishly arrogant for any writer to dismiss his/her readers. Without readers, we are only talking to ourselves.

Critics are a different story. I don't care what critics say. Now, with the Internet, anyone and everyone is a critic. I've read reviews written by people who sound barely literate. Why would I care what they think of my work? Critics with clout, are a different story. They can make or break a book and I find it just mean-spirited to shoot a book down because you can. A critic is still only one person, one opinion.

♥ When you're looking to escape into a really good book (the kind that makes you miss appointments, forget about dinner, and stay up way too late), which authors do you generally reach for, and why?

Richard Russo is always great. I can read his books a second time and enjoy them just as much because they are a thing of beauty. I also enjoy Gregory McGuire (I think Wicked is brilliant) and David Sedaris never fails to make me laugh til it hurts.

♥ When you're not writing (or reading), what are some of the hobbies and passions that keep you happy?

I think we all like to do things we're good at and I'm good at cooking, writing, and traveling.

Cooking is an art like any other. Anyone can follow a recipe, but not anyone can create a recipe. When you know what will work together and what won't you've entered the artist zone of cooking. And the food is gone so quickly, so much faster than it took to prepare, it makes the whole exercise zen-like, a lesson in impermanence, all about the process rather than the goal.

And I'm a good traveler. I've been fortunate enough to have traveled more than my fair share and have covered most of this planet in my quest to see it all. I am no longer shocked by third world poverty or bowled over by royal shows of opulence. I can go anywhere without reservations because I enjoy the surprise of what might turn up at the last minute. I do not go on cruises or bus tours. I buy a plane ticket and I go. Then I make my way, one day at a time, and let life take me where it will. It's the difference between being a tourist and a traveler. I'm a traveler.

♥ If your book were being made into a movie, and you had total control over the production, who would you cast for the leading roles?

For The Chef's Apprentice I'd like to see Stanley Tucci as the chef. I'm not in touch with teen celebs but the Twilight guy and Justin Bieber might do for Luciano. For The Sandalwood Tree I'd love to see Kate Winslet as Evie and the guy who plays the genius brother on the TV series Numbers as her husband.

♥ Is there a particular theme or message you're expecting readers to take away from your work?

Of course. If it's not about anything why bother writing it? The message in The Chef's Apprentice is pay attention. Wake up! Don't sleepwalk through your days in an effort to keep all unpleasantness away. You are missing out on your own life. What a waste!

The message in The Sandalwood Tree is that war is war. No matter when or where or what's at stake, wars all look pretty much the same when you stand back and look. Everyone wants his/her own way, everyone is angry, people get hurt, people lose their humanity, and nobody wins.


A huge "thank you" to Elle Newmark for stopping by. You can check her out on the web at, and you can follow the rest of her tour at Pump Up Your Book.

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