In the world of show business, a person who can sing, dance and act is often referred to as a “triple threat”. But what do you get when you mix equal parts of writing, acting, horseback riding, mediating, book publishing, cocktail blogging and an unabashed stash of wicked wit, creativity and compassion? The delightful result is Ann Royal (aka Anna) Nicholas – a woman with so many talents to her credit that I don’t know if even a “centuple threat” label would quite cover everything. Nevertheless, it’s an honorary title we’re happy to bestow on this week’s spotlight guest.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: At what age did you first realize you were a wildly creative being?
A: At about the age of ten. Something compelled me to create a pair of large crewelwork lips on the derriere of my jeans. I took some heat for it, but I wore those jeans until the lips fell off.
Q: Who (or what) encouraged you to explore every possible avenue of expression?
A: I did a lot wild things in my youth—jumping off the 2nd story of our house so I could ride my bike to the nearest bar that would accept fake I.D.s and that sort of thing. I wonder now how many of those early escapades, including the artistic pursuits—e.g., the “plays” I used to direct in which my younger brothers and sister would star—naked—were spawned by a need for approval and attention from my parents who divorced when I was young. None of us got a lot of attention but I did some rather antic things to try and earn it.
Q: Writing is one of many venues in which you excel. Do you believe that great writers are born or that they must be nurtured to become great?
A: I think anyone, ANYone, can become a better writer through practice, reading and self-discipline; tedious and unremarkable a claim as that is. There’s certainly no pill for it. I also think there are few writers whom all of us believe are truly great. That said, I think most of our “greatest” artists—whether they be singers, dancers, composers, actors, writers—seem to just have something extra.
Q: If you were hosting a posh dinner party to which some of the authors whose work you most admire were invited, who would be on that guest list and which two would you like on either side of you?
A: I’d want an animated conversation so even if I admired an author’s work, I would want to know they’d contribute to a lively evening. On that basis, and without benefit of knowing their verbal skills, I’d prepare a round table for five and invite Kurt Vonnegut because he was so funny and smart and political. I’d seat Jane Austen next to him, because they’d have fun comparing notes on social commentary in fiction. Joan Didion would need to be there because she writes to find out how she feels about things (a reason I write) and I could ask her what she’s discovered. I’d also want JK Rowling next to me because she has done the most amazing job of creating a literary empire and the rest of us could benefit from hearing how she did it. But I don’t know whom I’d choose to sit next to. In fact I think I’d need to switch seats with every course served.
Q: You’ve published the first two books in The Muffia series, a series which you describe as Sex and the City Meets Jane Austen. How did this premise come about and who is your intended audience for it?
A: I am a member of The Muffia—not the group calling itself The Muffia, which represents militant mothers in the UK, women who attack other mothers for poor parenting skills in grocery stores. Nor am I part of the group of lesbian sex workers who absconded with the name. My Muffia is a real-life, Los Angeles-based women’s book club that’s been in existence since 2001. We came together after 9/11, when a lot of us needed our friends. All of us work or have worked, some are mothers, and all of us love to read, have adventures and tell stories. When one Muff had a torrid affair with a Mossad agent, I could no longer keep myself from writing us down in a book. My readers would feel perfectly at home in my book club, and their husbands, who are curious about what goes on at “book club,” might find The Muffia illuminating.
Q: Which is more challenging for you – to write a stand-alone title in which all (or most) questions are tidily wrapped up or to write a series with sustaining characters that are constantly posing new questions?
A: As a viewer/reader, I don’t like things tied up perfectly because life is never tied up perfectly; unless you’ve successfully gotten through all the steps necessary for a dental implant. But I think in a series, each book has to achieve some sort of finality, otherwise when does it end? I don’t know that either one is more difficult. The genre and story dictate.
Q; Plotter or pantser? And why does your choice best accommodate the way you approach a new project?
A: A little of each. I have a general idea for a story and I put together a rough outline. With each of the Muffia books, there’s a light mystery involved and mysteries need some plotting. If you have a dead body on the first page, and the body belongs to someone important to one of the characters in your book, your reader needs to find out who that person was, how he died and how your living characters deal with it. And you need to have clues appear at critical intervals to heighten or lessen tension because there are always those nagging questions. Literary fiction also needs a plot but it may not need to be quite so driving as in a mystery. Having an outline, with whatever I write—plays included– keeps me headed in a direction even if I take detours. On those days when inspiration isn’t getting me into a chair to write, having a map gets me going.
Q: Like many authors today you’ve sought to maintain more control over your intellectual property by launching Bournos, your own self-publishing imprint. What governed that decision and what has proven to be the biggest challenge in wearing multiple hats?
A: Wearing multiple hats was not my first choice. There was a time I imagined myself typing away in a bathtub (the image of Clifton Webb in Laura comes to mind). My publisher, who was waiting anxiously for my manuscript, would then turn it into a bestseller. Such are the dreams of the unpublished. Like a romance novel whose hero rescues the damsel, or the Calgon slogan “Take me away….” But no, that’s not the way it works these days. When the small publishing house that said it would publish my series not only selected a cover I didn’t like but did less to promote it than I was, I thought I could do a better job myself and wouldn’t owe them anything. It seemed like the best move, even if it took me away from writing. And therein is the biggest challenge, having my attention taken from what I want to do, in order to deal with the business part of selling books.
Q: Is Bournos strictly a platform for your own work or do you publish stories by others?
A; It’s set up to publish the work of others as well, should I ever read a manuscript I feel I can become a champion of. I’ve laid the groundwork in terms of staffing and outsourcing of some tasks, to accommodate other people’s books.
Q: What do you advise fellow authors thinking of going the self-publishing route?
A: First, make sure your book is ready. Beta test it with trusted friends and relations who will tell you the truth. Find editor(s) to polish it. You may need a content editor and/or a copy editor and there’s lots of help online to find these people. Go to writers’ conferences and sit in on the sessions related to self-publishing. You’ll meet other authors, editors and publishers who can give you recommendations. When your book is ready (or concurrently with the editing process), find out what is happening in self-publishing at that very moment. It’s a constantly changing landscape of cover design, formatting, Kindle unlimited vs. other outlets, book blogs, etc., and it can be overwhelming. If you can afford to hire an author’s assistant to help you through it, they are out there too. But get recommendations. As with most people one contracts with, the best people are often the busiest, so make sure you talk timelines.
Q: What are some of the things you’re currently doing to promote your work?
A: The main thing is to keep writing. Without new content coming out regularly, a writer can die in this marketplace. You can’t really keep saying “Buy my book” when you haven’t written anything new since 1997. These days a writer can’t promote just a book, she needs to promote herself and build a following. It’s what they call branding and it takes time and energy to do. Like a lot of people—women particularly—I don’t enjoy promoting myself, even if I’m great at promoting others. But I’ve become comfortable with tweeting about writing, theatre, horses, cocktails, wine and other things that interest me and the characters in The Muffia.
Q: When you’re not writing or acting, you’re using your law degree as a mediator. Has wordsmithing enabled you to be a better mediator and/or has your legal background influenced your craft as an author?
A: I completely believe we are made up of our corporeal selves and the totality of our experiences, so they feed each other. The narrator of book one in the Muffia series is based on me insofar as she’s an ex-lawyer and underemployed mediator. The contradiction with mediating and writing is that mediation involves reducing conflict, whereas dramatic writing requires it. So when I write, I have to be vigilant not to step in and mediate my characters’ conflicts!
Q: As if your plate weren’t already overflowing, you also manage to squeeze in some horseback riding. Tell us about it.
A: There is no other thing I do that takes me out of my head like being with horses. They don’t let you multi-task, which is a joy, given that the rest of my life requires it. Horses are big, potentially dangerous, and you have to be ready for the unexpected─thinking about plot development when you’re riding isn’t wise. A snake might slither onto the trail causing your horse to rear and dump you before bolting back to the barn. I own a Thoroughbred rescue named Will—aka Wilbur, William, Guillermo and various other endearments. I have been working with him for three years, and yes, I have fallen off in the course of training him to be an Event horse. He and I have recently had a bit of success after overcoming many obstacles involving Will’s sensitive nature, early abuse and health issues. He’s my four-legged partner.
Q: You recently appeared onstage opposite David Selby. For those of us who swooned over his dreamy looks as Quentin, the conflicted werewolf, in Dark Shadows or his turn as Richard Channing, Jane Wyman’s dashing adversary in Falcon Crest, did you ever watch either show? (Just curious.)
A: I was not an aficionado of either show but David is still very handsome. He’s also very kind and a complete professional who is conscientious about his work. And one thing you may not know about David, he is also a published author.
Q: Speaking of things theatrical, you also pen plays. Which do you prefer – writing lines of dialogue that will be read silently or those that will be spoken by actors?
A: That’s a hard one. A writer of novels doesn’t often get to hear how a reader makes sense of the words on the pages she writes, while it’s the actor’s job to do so. I just want people receiving the words to understand and be moved by the character speaking them, even if it’s only in one’s head.
Q: Dream role you’d love to play?
A: It’s changed over time, of course. I did once want to play Juliet. Now I’d most like to originate a role in a fabulous new play, like Jayne Houdyshell in the Tony-nominated The Humans by Stephen Karam. Or Sigourney Weaver’s turn in Durang’s Vanya, Sonya, Masha and Spike.
Q: Many of the best writers I’ve ever known actually got their start treading the boards. What influence did your own acting experience have insofar as developing characters, planning structure and creating conversations amongst personalities in a book?
A: A trained actor needs to understand her character’s motivations. The question of “Why am I saying this now?” comes up a lot in rehearsals. This is a question that needs to be in the mind of the author of novels, too.
Q: Do you ever get writer’s block and, if so, how do you get over it?
A: I write notes to myself constantly and I also record voice memos telling myself what to do. Like having an outline, as mentioned above, giving my brain a job on a given project gives me that opening I need to sit down and begin writing. It’s like giving myself a writing prompt and usually when I do that, I’m off and running. I have, however, read notes I’ve awakened to write in the middle of the night only to find they make no sense for the project I’m working on, nor for anything else. The other day I found a note-to-self that said, “Make Tamra a bat” and I have no idea what that’s about.
Q: What would our readers be the most surprised to learn about you?
A: I eat donuts, my skin is too big for my frame, I don’t write every day, I feel guilty about not showing up for more fundraisers, I take naps, I sometimes have to drag myself to public functions, I like sentimental films, I still have a Cinderella complex and dream of galloping off on a white horse even if I know that’s ridiculous.
Q: What is the oldest, weirdest or most nostalgic item in your closet?
A: I will not part with a Pucci dress that my mother wore in the late 1960s. It still fits me and I absolutely love it. I hope my son has a girlfriend one day whom I can give it to.
Q: What are you currently working on?
A: Too much! I’m writing the third book in The Muffia series entitled Muff Stuff , writing a new play about nosy neighbors and editing a couple of other plays. Unrepresented playwrights usually must submit their own work to fellowships and workshops, so that requires writing too. This year it’s been worth it as two of my plays have been finalists at Sundance, Lila Acheson, Centenary Stages and Playwrights Center.
Q: Where can readers learn more about you?
A: My website, I guess, which is annanicholas.com and if you’re on Facebook I am facebook.com/theannanicholas and facebook.com/annroyalnicholas. I’m on Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram @aroyaln and I blog (where I regularly post cocktails) at themuffia.us.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: Ten percent of Muffia profits are given to charitable organizations benefitting women and girls. We have contributed to Girls Inc., Step Up and we (the real life Muffia) are always looking to help more.