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Interview with Jane Tesh, Author of ‘Butterfly Waltz’

Jane Tesh is a retired media specialist and pianist for the Andy Griffith Playhouse in Mt. Airy, NC, the real Mayberry. She is the author of the Madeline Maclin Series, A Case of ImaginationA Hard Bargain, A Little Learning, and A Bad Reputation, featuring former beauty queen, Madeline “Mac” Maclin and her con man husband, Jerry Fairweather. Stolen Hearts is the first in the Grace Street Mystery Series, featuring PI David Randall, his psychic friend, Camden, Randall’s love interest, Kary Ingram, and Cam’s career-driven girlfriend, Ellin Belton, as well as an ever-changing assortment of Cam’s tenants.  MixedSignals is the second in the series, followed by Now You See It and Just You Wait. Jane’s mysteries are all published by Poisoned Pen Press, located in Scottsdale, Arizona. Butterfly Waltz is her first published fantasy novel from Silver Leaf Books. All of Jane’s books are on the light side with humor and romance.

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Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Butterfly Waltz. To begin with, can you gives us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?   

A: Des Fairweather is a struggling young musician who fears he may possess the same destructive magic power that killed his parents.  While helping his tabloid reporter friend, Jake Banner, investigate a report of talking flowers, Des meets Kalida, a mysterious and beautiful young woman who says she is being pursued by her people, evil beings from a world called the Caverns.  Des will have to put aside his fear of magic and find some way to rescue Kalida.

I love using music in all of my books.  Often, a specific piece of music inspires a story.  For Butterfly Waltz, I used “One For Amelia,” a lovely waltz by ragtime composer, Max Morath.  As I listened to this or played it on the piano, I could see scenes from the book unfolding.

Q: What do you think makes a good fantasy? Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?

A: In any kind of book, there has to be a good story.  I’m a big fan of Pixar movies because no matter how wild the characters and settings are—cars, toys, emotions in your head—the writers make sure the story is solid and surprising.

The second element would have to be characters that the reader cares about and wants to see succeed.

Third, and most important for me, is humor.  Dystopian novels about ruined civilizations are fine every now and then, but I like to include lighter moments.  My favorite fantasy author is Terry Prachett, and he does a masterful job of mixing drama and comedy in his novels.

Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?

A: All of my stories just sort of happen, so I discover lots of things as I go along.  Sometimes I know how I’d like a book to end.  Other times, I let it roll.  I do like to keep track of time, though, so I’ll write “Day One” on a page and as the scenes happen, I’ll arrange them into “Morning,” “Afternoon,” and “Later.”  It’s all very casual.

Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed him or her. Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing?

A: With me, the character’s name comes first.  Once I’ve found the right name, the description falls into place.  I see each letter as a specific color.  I used to think I might be a little crazy, but fortunately found an article in Psychology Today about a condition called synesthesia.  People with synethesia, usually poets and painters, have mixed up senses.  They might smell colors, or taste sounds.  Many writers see letters as colors.  Des Fairweather is gray, green, blue, and a little yellow.  By contrast, his friend Jake Banner is red, yellow, and black.  Once I’ve got all the names and colors, I’m ready to write.

Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?

A:  The people of the Caverns are all red and black.  They arrived like this.  It is very hard to explain how they happened.  As a child, I had many imaginary friends, and lots of them morphed into characters.  I also watched a lot of TV.  The leader of the Caverns, The Lady, may have her roots in Cinderella’s evil stepmother.

Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?

A:  This may sound obvious, but things have to keep happening.  If there’s too much backstory, description, or unnecessary information, especially at the beginning of the book, readers will get bogged down in the details.  If you can keep the story moving with just enough additional material here and there, then the narrative will become more exciting.  It’s all about finding the right proportion between important events—Des and Jake go to Snowden Manor to check out talking flowers, Jake falls for Christine Snowden, Des meets Kalida—and the additional material: what the characters look like, descriptions of the flowers, how Des feels when he first sees Kalida, how she feels when she first hears his music.

Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?

A:  Since dialogue is my strong point and I really love it, I have to work more on setting.  I can remember my writing teacher telling me my first draft read more like a radio play than a novel.  “You have Des sitting down, but where is he sitting?” he asked.  “On the piano bench,” I answered, because it was obvious to me.  “You have to let your readers see that,” was his reply.

I’ve never forgotten that advice.  Just because something was in my head, it wasn’t necessarily on the page.  Now I do my best to set the scenes and to use active descriptions.

Here’s an example:

“We’re gonna stay till we have a story, so let’s look around.”  Jake peered into the adjoining dining room.  “Enough room for twenty people.  More velvet cushions, silver candlesticks, some kind of fancy artwork in the corner that looks like it’s hanging upside down.  The place remind you of home?”

“Sort of.”  Actually, the house reminded him enough of the Fairweather estate to make him uncomfortable.

In this case, Jake is explaining the setting instead of me, and Des is having an emotional reaction.

Q: Did you know the theme(s) of your novel from the start or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Is this theme(s) recurrent in your other work?

A: I discovered the theme after I’d finished the book when I realized that everyone wants a home and a family.  Everyone wants to belong somewhere and to feel wanted.  This theme is especially strong in my Grace Street series where the characters, having lost their real families, have made new ones.

Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?

A: I think when a writer has mastered all the mechanics and can let go and just write, not caring what the first draft is like, or what anyone will say, then art begins.  When you’ve been writing away and look up and three hours have disappeared, then you’re approaching that blissful creative state.

I’ve been lucky in that both editors I’ve worked with have made suggestions for changes rather than changing things themselves.  We’ve been able to work through problems together with the ultimate choice being mine.  However, I’m not going to cling foolishly to a title, for example, if my editor thinks another title would sell.  I can always call Just You Wait its original title, Cover Up, in my own mind.

Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?

A: Persistence, honesty, and a sense of humor.  I would not be published today if I hadn’t persisted since 1968.  As for honesty, I try my best to play fair with the reader, whether it’s laying in clues for my mysteries, or creating fantasy worlds.  If someone finds a mistake in my books and emails me, I always thank them and correct the mistake.  And having a sense of humor is the only way to get through the ups and downs of publishing.

Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. What do you think about that?

A: Bring on the homework!  I love it.

Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?

A: I was very lucky to have attended the Writers Retreat Workshop in 1990 when the founder, Gary Provost, was in charge.  Gary’s books, Make Your Words Workand 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing are wonderful resources and they’re funny, too.

Q:  Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?

A: Terry Pratchett said, “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”  You can always fix it.  Can’t think of the prefect word?  Put in an “x” and come back to that place later. Relax, have fun, and write the book you want to read.  Don’t try to follow or create a trend.  Explore what you love and care about.

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