What happens when a 1,000-year-old goddess, a supernatural wolf, and an untested youth lead a band of heroes to fight against unrestrained violence in medieval Europe? It’s all part of the fantasy adventure for young adults in Retribution. Author Jenny Margotta (writing as J Margotta-Ferrara) shares her insights on the craft, what it was like to collaborate on a book with her spouse, and whether she’d want to cross paths and match wits with a witch, a werewolf or a vampire.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
A: By the time I was ten, I was reading on an adult level, and one of the first adult-level books I read was The Day Must Dawn by Agnes Sligh Turnbull. It was set in the late 1700s in a frontier town near Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, which is close to where I grew up. There was a line in the novel about the sun shining through the overcast sky like a pewter plate and I knew, right then, that I wanted to write things like that, use words in unusual or memorable ways to capture the attention of readers and, hopefully, have my stories stay with them for decades, like those words of Ms. Turnbull’s have stayed with me.
Q: Who encouraged (or dissuaded) your dream of earning a living as a wordsmith?
A: Although I was encouraged by my mom and high school counselor to earn a degree in English —the thinking was that I would teach—no one really encouraged me to write until I met my late husband, John. He loved my writing style and pushed and prodded until I did something about it.
Q: What’s the first thing you remember writing? And have you gone back since then to read what you wrote?
A: I think I began writing as soon as I could hold a pencil in my chubby little hand. At least I know I began telling stories at a very early age. But the one I most remember—and that I have kept—is based on the Turnbull novel I’ve already mentioned. I was captivated by that story, and for a history project in fourth grade, I decided to write my own “diary” about a young girl captured by the Indians. Not only did I write the story, but I took some of my mom’s good stationery, soaked it in tea and dried it in the sun, bound the paper in a cloth covering, and wrote the story on the “parchment” using an old fountain pen. I still have that diary in my Things to Keep box.
Q: On the path to becoming a rich and famous author, a lot of writers pay the rent and put food on the table by having a day job. What was the first job you ever had and what did you learn from it that could be applied to what you really wanted to be doing?
A: The very first job I ever had was picking strawberries for a nickel a quart. It certainly impressed upon me that manual labor was not how I wanted to earn a living. I didn’t know then what I wanted to do, but I sure knew what I didn’t want.
Q: Do you write full-time?
A: No, and I’m not really sure I would want to. I spend most of my working hours editing other authors’ efforts—a process I absolutely love. But I also enjoy so many other facets of everyday life that I wouldn’t want to be tied down to any one thing. How boring would that be?
Q: How have your personal and professional experiences shaped who you are as a writer and influenced what you enjoy writing about?
A: I honed my writing skills while earning my degree in English/Language Arts and then spent many years writing industry-related HR documents, magazine articles, contracts, and software manuals. That required me to be very clear in my meanings without a lot of flowery speeches. But more importantly, I began reading at the age of three and have continued to read voraciously ever since in a wide range of fiction and non-fiction genres. I think that, more than anything, has helped me develop my writing skills. When I am spellbound by a story, I analyze why. When I’m having trouble with dialogue or a story issue, I go to my favorite authors and see how they’ve treated a similar issue. I can’t imagine being a writer without also being a reader.
Q: What was your inspiration for the plot and characters behind Retribution?
A: In all honesty, most of the plot and characters came from the very imaginative mind of my late husband, John, with whom I co-authored this book and two others. I did have some input into the main character, Luc, when I suggested we make him left-handed. I am left-handed, so I know how it can both hinder and be advantageous in a predominately right-handed world. I also added some of the softer, more feminine aspects of the female characters.
Q: From the time that storytelling first began, fantasy and adventure have had a hold on our imaginations. In your own view, what would you say accounts for our fascination with things that go bump in the night, return from the dead, and are not of this world?
A: Man is blessed with an imagination and an unquenchable desire to learn “what’s out there.” Also, we often feel our own lives are mundane and uninspiring, so stepping into a world of fantasy and excitement gives us that “kick” we need to make our lives more interesting. And the adrenaline rush of being scared or excited is quite addictive.
Q: A witch, a vampire or a werewolf—which would you feel the most comfortable dealing with in a winner-takes-all game of cunning, intellect and strength? And which one would scare you the most?
A: I think I’d deal best with the witch. Most of a witch’s arsenal is based on mental games—spells and tricks and such—and I live my life mostly in my head, as I have some mobility issues. In a game of matching wits, I think I’d do pretty well. Vampires would scare me the most because they live in darkness and, if a lot of stories are to be believed, can be very persuasive in drawing you to them.
Q: What was the most challenging aspect of developing Retribution?
A: For me, the most challenging aspect of developing Retribution was making sure there were no anachronisms in the story. The story takes place in early medieval times; we don’t give a specific year, but we imagined it to be around 1100. There are so many things we take for granted that just didn’t exist in that timeframe. For instance, they have few references to time, so we couldn’t say, “They rode for eight hours,” or “Wait a minute.” And food was an issue, too. We originally had our heroes eating dried beef along the trail, but only the very wealthy ate beef at that time. We did a tremendous amount of research on clothing, boats, weapons, all aspects of day-to-day life in those times.
Q: It’s often said that two heads are better than one. In co-authoring Retribution with your husband, what did you learn about each other’s writing, project development and time management skills?
A: John liked to sit down every day and write for four or five hours. And he liked to move quickly from one plot point to another. He would very quickly turn out ten or more pages, then go back and start to flesh out what was, in many cases, almost an outline. He would often say something like, “Let’s see where the story takes us today.” I prefer to think about what I’m going to write—sometimes for several days—before I actually sit down in front of my computer. John would have multiple rewrites, while I often only had one or two, since I’d done all the “rewrites” in my head.
Q: Please share with us the process of how your co-authoring worked.
A: You can probably guess, based on my previous answer, how our team process worked. John would write the key story points then I’d take his work and begin to round it out. He didn’t like to use a lot of description and I do, so that was my job, to add the color and flavor to his raw action.
Q: Would you co-author another book together?
A: Unfortunately, John passed away in 2012 when we were only about halfway through the book. We originally intended to have only one book, by the way, but I ended up making it two by the time I finished the project in 2015. If he were still alive, I would definitely continue to partner with him—we made a very strong writing team—but I’m not sure I’d like to co-author with someone else.
Q: Did any of your characters ever surprise you?
A: Yes, the main character, Luc de Lassier, surprised us. He was only supposed to be in the first twenty or thirty pages, but he just wouldn’t go away. I remember John sitting at his computer and almost yelling at Luc. “What are you still doing here? You’re only supposed to be a minor character!” Luc just took over the story to the point where we gave in, stopped fighting him, and made him the hero.
Q: Who will Retribution appeal to?
A: Although it’s described as a fantasy adventure for young adults, I think the story appeals to older adults as well. It’s a coming-of-age tale that deals with many aspects of society, injustice, and human determination to overcome adversity. We just wrapped it all up in a rollicking adventure. Readers can certainly just enjoy the first layer—the adventures—but there are also some very serious issues to think about.
Q: If Hollywood came calling, is there a dream cast you’d love to see?
A: Ving Rhames would be my choice now for the character of Otieno, although both John and I pictured the late Michael Clark Duncan when we began writing the book in 2009. And John most definitely developed the character of Edeva with Nicole Kidman in mind. Peter Dinklage would be a great fit for Aldwyn, but surprisingly, neither John nor I had anyone specific in mind for the main character, Luc. And then there’s Aatto, the wolf. I don’t know any famous actor-wolves.
Q: When and where do you feel you are at your most creative at the keyboard?
A: Creative writing is almost exclusively a morning task. I’m definitely the most productive early in the day. Most nights I mentally lay out my schedule for the next day, and I always put my most difficult projects first, whether its editing or my own writing. By mid-afternoon I want to be doing lighter things, like working on a cover in PhotoShop or researching on the Internet. And when I’m editing others’ works, I need to switch between two or three manuscripts. I stay sharper that way. When I focus too long on a single project, I lose my objectiveness.
Q: What famous author (living or dead) would you most want to have lunch with and why?
A: I’d love to have lunch with Tobias Smollett. Smollett was an 18th century author—he died in 1771—who wrote, among other things, the satirical, very funny novel, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker. The book is written in the form of letters between the characters and, as such, is basically all narrative. I love to write descriptions, so this really appeals to me. I only wish I could be as humorous as he was.
If Smollett isn’t available, I’d invite W.E.B. Griffith. I’m a World War II historian, and in my opinion, Griffith is one of the best fiction writers in that genre.
Q: What would our readers be the most surprised to learn about you?
A: I certainly don’t look the part, but I rode a motorcycle for several years. I once made a trip of over 4,500 miles—through seven states and two countries—in just 18 days. I also dreamed of being a singer. I performed my first solo when I was three, sang in bars and nightclubs in college and later years, and still do karaoke when I get the chance.
Q: Tell us about the California Writers Club and how it offers support and resources for wordsmiths at any stage in their writing careers.
A: The California Writers Club has 21 branches and over 1,700 members statewide. I belong to the High Desert Branch. We host workshops by prominent professionals in the writing world, we have a variety of speakers at our monthly meetings—ranging from social media experts and marketing professionals to editors and authors—and our members can belong to one or more of many critique groups. Within our branch we have artists and illustrators, social media experts, website developers, professional editors, marketers, and writers from every level of skill. If one of our members expresses a need for a certain service or help with something, we strive to introduce them to another member who can provide that help or give them the tools to find their own answers. We also offer venues throughout the year for authors to showcase their work. (Visit www.hdcwc.com for more information.)
Q: How did you go about finding a publisher for your book?
A: I knew from what I’d learned in the writers club that self-publishing was the most viable option. I researched several online, on-demand printers and found that CreateSpace was the best choice for me.
Q: Best advice to aspiring authors?
A: Well, for one, don’t count on getting rich. Chances are you won’t. But if you want to write, then do it. Don’t worry about all the technical issues up front, just write your story. There are so many people out there who are afraid to write that first page because they don’t think they have anything to say. Everyone has something to say. Write your story. Then find the experts to make it publishable.
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: Most of my time is spent editing—that’s how I put food on the table. But when I can make the time, I’m currently working on two very different novels of my own. One, The Woman in Room 23, is very loosely based on my mother’s less-than-happy life and her 12-year battle with Alzheimer’s, a battle she lost in 2011. The other is a murder mystery set in Orange County, California, called The Red Braces Murder.
Q: Where can readers learn more about you and your work?
A: Two of my books—Retribution and the sequel, Resolution—are available on Amazon.com. Both books, along with the cookbook John and I wrote called Some Like It Hot … the culinary adventures of one hot mama and one cool dude, are showcased on www.writerslairus.com. I can also be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: J Margotta-Ferrara is a combination of my name and John’s. He was a prolific writer who often wrote under the name John Ferrara (Ferrara was his mother’s maiden name.) Listing both authors individually can sometimes be a hassle, so combining the names just seemed like the natural choice. Although I now write alone, I continue using the name in remembrance of John.