Once Left the Field of Valor

ONCE LEFT IN THE FIELD OF VALOR

As of this writing, Hulu is debuting an adaptation of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, a satirical novel about the insanity of war. It, thus, seems only fitting to feature an interview this month with R.C. Sprague about his latest release, Once Left the Field of Valor, a gripping story about a young lieutenant’s guilt and post-traumatic stress to deliver a German soldier’s death letter to his lover. Military enthusiasts and fans of historical fiction will want to add this one to their bookshelves.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

**********

Q: Your stint as an Army pilot has not only taken you around the world but also allowed you to see humanity at both its best and its worst. How much of your own personality and personal experiences shaped the development of Damien Shaw’s moral journey and are embedded in the story?

A: Damien Shaw is a character that reflects a lot of myself. At times he has a rough exterior, which many people have told me I do. About two years into writing the book I gained a new understanding for the guilt that plagues Damien throughout the book when two of my friends were killed in Afghanistan. Just as with Damien, it took me a while to come to grips with what happened.

Damien’s home town of Sackets Harbor is actually a small town in northern New York only a few miles from Fort Drum which was where I was stationed during much of the writing process.

Q: When did you start writing Once Left the Field of Valor?

A: I started writing Once Left the Field of Valor in the summer of 2012. During a lack luster lecture at the U.S. Army’s flight school, I began writing the first chapter. The idea came to me the night before and after sharing it with my wife, I knew I had to tell the story.

Q: What inspired the title?

A: I wanted the title to sound correct for the setting. I drew inspiration from classics like All Quiet on the Western Front and  For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Q: Plotter or panster? And why does your chosen method work effectively for you?

A: I am absolutely a panster. When writing fiction, I find that free flowing allows the story to surprise me and keeps me wanting to write. It may sound strange, but my imagination keeps me on the edge of my seat with unexpected twists and turns. There are scenes in Once Left the Field of Valor where I was like wow I didn’t see that coming. I really enjoy the twists and turns that come with being a panster.

Q: Did you know the novel’s ending before you began Chapter 1?

A: The ending was a mystery to me until the late chapters. Even then, and now, I wonder if I should have chosen the alternate ending. Luckily, reviews have cited the ending as surprising and well written, so I guess I chose wisely.

Q: Had you written anything prior to this and/or dabbled in other genres?

A: Writing is a main part of who I am, and I have done it for as long as I can remember. Once Left the Field of Valor is my debut novel. Prior to releasing it, my published works were non-fiction leadership and sports articles.

Q: What appeals to you about this particular genre?

A: I’m a history buff who loves to study people. In a situation such as war, I wanted to get into the mind of a soldier and paint a picture for the world. I feel historical fiction allows reader to time travel and live in another time.

Q: What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of the writing process?

A: Balancing life demands with writing. While writing Once Left the Field of Valor I had three kids, moved three times, spent nine months in Afghanistan, and worked full-time. Luckily, I’ve gained better understanding for how to squeeze in writing!

Q: And, conversely, the most rewarding?

A: I love watching characters develop and take on lives of their own. Certain characters such as Albert were initially supposed to have a minor role. As I wrote him through his back story, it became more elaborate and his impact on the story became crucial to the plot.

Q: How have your talents as a lyricist influenced your ear for writing dialogue?

A: Writing song lyrics forces the creator to hone in on the flow of the words. When writing dialogue, I always say it out aloud to test whether it sounds natural in a conversation. Just as with song lyrics, conversations are filled with slang and broken sentences. I’m hoping that my dialogues sound natural and don’t detract from the story.

Q: Tell us about the characters in your debut novel and which ones you most admired or despised.

A: There are so many characters that are close to my heart in this story. Aside from Damien and Emily, my favorite characters are without a doubt Madame and Albert. Their roles as supporting characters were instrumental in Damien’s journey. By far my least favorite character is Geordan. His brutish attitude and insufferable demeanor made him despicable but a necessary supporting character.

Q: Historical fiction often calls for in-depth research in order to make events ring “true” for one’s target audience. There’s always a risk, however, in either overstuffing a narrative with too many facts that make the text read like a history lesson or embroidering it with so many liberties as to deviate significantly from reality. Tell us about your own research strategies to embrace a plausible balance.

A: When researching the time period, I watched several movies, read books, and went to military museums to get an idea of what it was like to live in that time. I take great pride in getting the locations of major historical events correct and painting a scene that allows the reader to flawlessly fall into the book.

Q: The cornerstone of Once Left the Field of Valor is a bloodied letter penned by an enemy soldier to the one he loves. Is this letter’s hold on Damien of supernatural essence or is its impact all in his head?

A: There is some form of supernatural connection with the letter. Whether you call it fate, divine intervention, or a self-fulfilling prophecy, the letter is the key to Damien’s future.

Q: Favorite quote about redemption?

A: My favorite redemption quote comes from Lewis B. Smedes, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” I think it’s such a powerful statement and really sheds light on the cycle of guilt that plagues many people.

Q: Like many authors, you decided to go the self-publishing route. What governed that choice?

A: Breaking into the traditional publishing scene is a difficult process. I felt that my story would resonate with readers and needed to be released without any further delay or bureaucracy.

Q: What did you learn about self-publishing that you didn’t know when you started?

A: Self-publishing can be a very tedious process. Properly formatting your document can be an ordeal. Overall, I do enjoy the creative freedom that self-publishing gives me.

Q: What are you doing to promote the book?

A: I have completed several written and podcast interviews, all of which can be viewed on my website rcsprague.com. In addition to interviews, I held a free eBook event in April and did a live reading on Facebook. I’m quite active on social media and can be found on Facebook and twitter @rcspraguewriter as well as @rcsprague on Instagram and Youtube.

Q: What would you like readers to take away from this story by the time they turn the last page?

A: I want readers to know that redemption is possible. A person can overcome their past and take back their destiny.

Q: What do you think readers would be the most surprised to learn about you?

A: One of my “guilty pleasure” is singing along to showtunes.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: In July I’ll release my debut poetry collection, The Soul Behind the Mask. Additionally, I’m revising my second novel which is the first in a three-part series called Tales of a Toy Soldier. I hope to release part one of that series in spring/ summer 2020.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: I just want to say thank you for the opportunity to conduct this interview and I hope everyone has enjoyed getting inside my head.

 

 

Advertisements

Homing Instincts

Homing_Instincts_cover

Seth Hingham has hit a dead-end. At 35, he returns to his New England hometown after losing his job and the woman he had planned on marrying. Homing Instincts – a new novel by Karen Guzman – traces Seth’s struggle to redirect his life and lay to rest lingering ghosts, including one from a long ago accident that killed a childhood friend.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

**********

Q: So tell us how your journey as a writer first began.

A: It seems I’ve always been writing. As a child, I wrote short stories and descriptive passages of things that caught my fancy. I must have been about nine when I began writing short stories and stapling the pages together to make “books.” I began writing fiction seriously in my twenties.

Q: Were you a voracious reader as an adolescent and teen?

A: Maybe not “voracious,” but pretty enthusiastic. I still am. One of my greatest pleasures is curling up in bed with a good book. I’m always reading something.

Q: Who are some of the authors whose books we might have found on your childhood bookshelves?

A: As a young child, I liked animal stories best. In grade school, some favorites included:

Meindert DeJong, whose children’s classic Hurry Home, Candy stole my heart. I didn’t want to return it to the library. I went on to read most of his books.

Walter Farley, wonderful animal tales.

E.B. White, Charlottes’s Web, bittersweet even as a child.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. The Yearling was a landmark book for me. I loved the natural descriptions, the relationship between the boy and his fawn and the dramatic turn it all takes.

Jean Craighead George. Julie of the Wolves is a sophisticated, sensitive children’s masterpiece. Love her work.

Marguerity Henry. I think I read every “Misty” book. Couldn’t get enough.

Jack London, Call of the Wild and White Fang.

Oddly enough, Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons had a big impact on me in about 5th grade. My parents had the book in their own collection and I somehow began reading it.

Q: As an adult, what kinds of stories are you naturally drawn to?

A: I seem to be dawn to stories that feature protagonists who must remake their lives, or find their way again, after major disruption or loss. Why? Good question. I guess because we all encounter this scenario so often in our own lives. I also like stories that include spiritual elements or longing.

Q: What was the inspiration behind your debut novel, Homing Instincts?

A: I attended the funeral of a man I had never met the summer before I began writing Homing Instincts. He was the father of my husband’s good friend, and judging by the turnout at the funeral and the tributes paid him, he was a dearly loved and respected man. I began wondering what kind of life a person leads to be remembered so fondly. At first, I thought I wanted to write about the deceased father, but it didn’t take me long to realize that it was really the man’s son whose story I wanted to tell.

Q: It’s interesting to note that your first-person narrator of the story is a man. What, for you, are the challenges of writing from a male perspective so as to keep the voice and mindset authentic?

A: I’ve always been close to and comfortable with men as people, as individuals. I have three brothers, and I’ve always had male friends who tend to confide in me. That said, when Homing Instincts, I did have to occasionally stop and ask myself would this male character say this, like this? I sometimes had to back up a bit, not just because the character was a man, but because he was a unique, individual character, who also happened to be a man. I just followed his lead.

Q: Aspiring writers often forget that the physical environment and backdrop of the story can play as much – and as crucial – a “character” role as any of the actual people in it. For Homing Instincts, why did you choose the picturesque landscape of New England? Give us an example of a scene that you believe could not have been played better somewhere else.

A: The forests and coastline of Connecticut play such a big part in this book. As a wildlife biologist, the main character is drawn to the natural world. He finds comfort and a connection to all living things. New England was a natural choice, because I live here and I love the landscape and the seasons. The ambiguity of the weather—its dramatic swings and the resilient natural world that bends to them—is a wonderful, atmospheric tool for scene setting and for character development. One scene that would have been difficult to place elsewhere: the politically tinged protest when state officials cull the deer herd at a state forest preserve. The shifting, provocative skies overhead and charged atmosphere are pure Connecticut. The scene is, in fact, based on a similar, emotionally charged issue that pitted deer lovers against deer haters years ago.

Q: Describe your process for developing your first novel. For instance, did you work from a formal outline, make things up as you went along, do extensive research, etc.?

A: After writing about fifty pages just to capture the voice and get something on paper, I created an outline. I like outlines, because they keep me moving forward. But my outlines are very broad and I fill them in as I go along. I never project more than a scene or two into the storyline. I kind of just lay out plot points, big things that I know I want to have happen. The arc of the story connecting these points is created on the fly as I write.

Q: How long was the process from start to finish?

A: About four years. But they were four years when I also changed day jobs twice, moved, and had a baby, so, you know, a lot was going on!

Q: How do you find – and make – the time that being a serious writer requires?

A: As best I can. It’s not easy. All the writers I know face the same challenge of struggling to find time for our writing while living a life in this demanding world. Lunch breaks at work are crucial, so are the stolen hours late at night when my husband and son are both asleep and the house is at last quiet.

Q: Did you allow anyone to read Homing Instincts while it was still a work in progress or did you make them wait until you typed “The End”?

A: My dear friend and fellow writer, Cathy Cruise, did read pieces of Homing Instincts in progress. She stopped me from making all kinds of terrible mistakes. My husband and a second writer friend didn’t read the manuscript until it was finished. They both offered interesting insights, too.

Q: How did you go about finding the right publisher for it?

A: When I reached the point where I just honestly didn’t know how to improve the manuscript anymore (3-4 drafts in), I just started sending it out. I queried agents as well as small presses. Several agents really liked it, but felt literary fiction was just too hard to break into at the moment. Some offered helpful criticism. I did another rewrite and kept sending it out. Then Michele Richmond from Fiction Attic Press contacted me in late December 2013 to say my manuscript had won the Press’ First Novel Contest and to offer me a publishing contract. I was—and still am—overjoyed.

Q: What do you know about the publishing world now that you didn’t know when you started?

A: That selling a book is even tougher than I’d realized. That persistence matters more than anything. That good writing does get noticed. Agents will read your query—and so will editors—if your sample is well written…having solid credentials helps, too. That small presses are publishing some of the best literary fiction being produced today, and we should all support them. And that as writer trying to publish today, you absolutely need a social media platform and a website. Authors have to work really hard to build readership.

Q: Tell us some of the things you’re doing to promote your book. Which ones seem to be the most effective in generating a buzz?

A: It’s still early in the process since my book just came out this month but I’m networking with other authors, especially around New England. I’m reaching out to independent booksellers, libraries and writers groups to arrange for readings. I’ve announced the book’s publication on my social media platforms, and I’ll ratchet it up in the coming months. I’m also tapping into my old MFA crowd, down in Virginia and around the country to raise awareness and get the word out.

Q: What’s next on your plate and how is it different from – or similar to – Homing Instincts?

A: I’m working on a new novel, and it’s a huge departure from Homing Instincts. It’s about a woman facing a sort of midlife crisis in the wake of her divorce. It’s a third-person narrator, so different from the first-person voice and so freeing.

Q: Where can readers learn more about you and your upcoming projects?

A: Please visit my website, www.karenguzman.com, and follow my blog at www.writedespite.org