Sarah Zama is a bookseller from Verona, Italy and has spent her life surrounded by books. As a fantasy reader and writer, she recently found her home in the dieselpunk community. Her first book Give in to the Feeling has just been published.
What are your earliest memories of writing?
They go back to elementary school. In an effort to turn us kids into readers, my teacher decided to put aside twenty minutes at the end of every school day and read a story to us. The very first story she read was called The Magic Mountain and told of a community of animals fighting against an evil wizard and his army of gnomes who wanted to conquer their forest. This was another teacher’s project. She had written the story together with a previous class. Every kid was an animal and they had all contributed to the story. Of course, as an adult I know most of the project was managed by the teacher, but as a kid I was blown away. I was about ten, the kids who wrote the story were my age. I thought: hey, if they did it, I can do that too! I started writing (my first story was a replica of The Magic Mountain) and I’ve never ceased.
What is your writing routine?
I prefer to write in the mornings, which is when I have more time, since I work part-time in the afternoons. All of my characters have a theme song. When I sit down to write, I listen to the song of the character I’ll be writing about, and that puts me in the right mood. I’ve discovered that I can’t really write for more than two hours straight, and hard as I’ve tried, I can’t write in the evenings, so I try to take the most advantage I can in the mornings. Sometimes I write in the early afternoons too. I write the first draft on my pc. I do all rewrites and revisions by hand. I find that longwriting helps my focus in a way that typing never achieves. And this way, I can write anywhere. I often write in cafes before going to work.
Tell us about your life as a book seller?
I feel privileged having the possibility to work with books in this way. The company where I work is a publisher as well as a bookseller, so I’ve had the possibility to see both ends of the process, beginning and end. I’ve been working in the bookshop for twelve years now, and let me tell you, publishing and books have changed a lot in this time. When I think to the first year I worked in the bookshop, it’s like thinking back to a different planet, but the transformation has been particularly dramatic in the last couple of years. The relationship between readers and books has changed to a degree I don’t think people who don’t work in the field fully understand.
The general feeling is that the book has lost its value in so many ways. I don’t know whether this is because it’s so easy to find books for nothing now, or if it is because it seems so easy to create a book. Sometimes I speak about it with my boss, the publisher. Once, if you wanted to publish a book, you had to go down a certain route. That was the route the publishing market had designed and it lead to a certain standard of the end product, because you couldn’t stay in the market if you didn’t reach that certain standard. Today, you write a book and as soon as you finished it, you can upload it to any of the online stores out there, without editing, without having a decent cover, basically, without any knowledge of how a book is done. My boss told me once that this is taking the basic standards of the industry down and what’s worse, readers are becoming so accustomed to it they aren’t able to tell a professionally created book from an amateurish one anymore. That’s what he fears the most.
As a bookseller, I can tell that many readers will do anything to get a book for nothing, with no respect for the work of anyone involved in the creation of that book. I see it everyday at my counter. But I am an optimist, I think things will sort themselves out, we just need to let them take their time. I often hear this is the best of time for being a writer, because there are so many potentials out there. I do agree there are a lot of potentials and they will shape a new way of publishing stories, but I honestly don’t think this is the best of times to be a writer, especially if you’re just starting out. Nobody knows the rules anymore, so nobody can really say what works and what doesn’t or even why.
Who has been the biggest influence on your writing?
Through the years, I have had many models. Marion Zimmer Bradley and Stephen King are probably my first ‘teachers’, but if I have to choose the single author who made me the writer I am today, I’d say David Gemmell, who used to write very realistic kind of fantasy with very little magic. Right now, my favourite author is Sherman Alexie, who writes stories wrapped deep in reality, but with a very strong speculative element to them. This is the kind of story I want to write myself.
Do you write in Italian, English or both?
I’ve been writing exclusively in English for the past nine years. In the late 1990s and early 2000s I was in Dublin for long stretches of time because I wanted to learn English well enough to be able to write in that language. I know the kind of stories I write stand no chance in the Italian market. Because I write stories in English, everything else goes along with that: my blog is in English, my social media accounts are all in English, most of my fellow writers and bloggers write in English (though English is a second language for some of them, just like for me).
It’s a very weird situation, because when you come to a stage where you have a firm command of a language, your brain will decide what language to use depending on the situation and in spite of you.
I’ve noticed this recently, when I started writing articles for the publisher’s blog. These articles concern the same things I address normally in my writer’s life, which I handle in English. I was surprised how difficult it was for me to write that kind of stuff in Italian, because I’m not accustomed to do it, and sometimes I lack even the language. Not to mention that when I sit down to write, my brain automatically goes to English mode. I have to remind myself: “Italian. It’s in Italian. Not English. Pay attention.”
What are the challenges when writing in a language that is not your mother tongue? Do you have to pay for editing or proofing services?
Yes, of course. But I would pay for proofreading even in Italian, because I’m terrible with typos, and I would pay for an editor anyway, because there are so many things an editor can do to make a story better. Still, there are challenges that come from using a second language. There are nuances I’ll never fully grasp, no matter how familiar I become with the language. This is the main challenge: nuances. Even when you speak and write decent English, nuances will slip into it from your mother tongue. It’s just the way it is. It’s small stuff, but it will always be there. As for myself, I had a very hard time learning how to use verbs in English, because it’s a totally different logic than in Italian. I had to learn how to use sentences (short and crisp in English, long and complex in Italian) and to use as little adverbs as possible… though this may not be connected with the use of English.
Tell us about your trilogy. You describe it as dieselpunk set in the 1920s. What is dieselpunk and why did you decide to go for a trilogy?
What is dieselpunk? Well, if I wanted to go the dirty and easy way, I’d say it is like steampunk, but set in a later time. Personally I think there’s more to the genre than this. I like Larry Amyett’s definition as a mix of the ‘diesel era’ and ‘punk’ elements. What we call diesel era is the historical time stretching from the late 1910s to the early 1950s. Dieselpunk is set in an historical time or in a fantastic world that resembles that time closely. As for the punk element, Larry suggests it is anything ‘subversive’. Normally, this subversive element turns into a fantasy or sf element, but it may be much subtler.
My own stories are set in the historical 1920s. I put a great effort in depicting the era accurately, but in my stories the real world and the spirit world touch each other and often mix. That’s my subversive element.
I never meant to write a trilogy of novels. Ghost Trilogy was supposed to be an exercise. When I started researching 1920s America I knew nothing – and I mean it: nothing – about it. At the beginning I was very hesitant to start writing the story I had in mind, so I thought I’d first write a short story, just to try my hand at the characters. That was the first version of Give in to the Feeling. It turned out well enough, so I thought I could try the setting in a similar way. By setting I don’t simply mean what people and places looked like, but also how society functioned back then. I thought I’d go with a trilogy of short stories, since I had in mind to make a series of my original idea (which wasn’t Ghost Trilogy).
When I started writing, the story simply exploded in my hands. These characters didn’t accept to be limited to an experiment, they wanted to tell their stories. What was I supposed to do? I complied.
You decided to self-publish, why?
If you had asked me a year ago if I had any intention to self-publish, I would have said no. I’ve always felt that I wanted to go the traditional route and I still want to follow that path for my trilogy. When at the beginning of last year, after six revisions, I thought the first novel of the trilogy was ready to go, I made two rounds of querying, one in February, and one – after a total revision of the presentation material and the first three chapters – in May. The May round went better in the sense that a few agents responded with some kind of comment, though everyone turned me down.
That made me think hard. I had thought my book was good enough, but from what agents were telling me it was obvious it wasn’t. I needed to do something, and I knew what: working with an editor.
Thing was, I couldn’t afford to pay for the editing of the novel. But I thought maybe I could work on a shorter story. If there were issues with my writing, it would come out with the short story too.
So I took up Give in to the Feeling – which I hadn’t touched for four years – and completely revised it. Then I contacted an editor (who’s a fellow dieselpunk author too), and agreed on the editing. I was very happy with the experience, which was different from beta reading in a way that is not easy to explain. And I saw what I had already suspected: I wasn’t doing that extra step. In spite of all my work on the story, I still stopped short of that extra spark that would make my writing better and that only comes from looking very hard into your story and being ruthless.
In the end, I had a complete, professionally edited novella in my hands. I thought I should do something with that. I also thought that even if I am traditionally published, certain things will still fall on me, namely marketing. I might as well start building my experience in that field too. I could say that I pursued self-publishing as an educational path. Because it really is.
How did you find the self-publishing experience?
I’m very happy I did it. It’s hard, it’s a difficult experience because you’re on your own. I mean, sure, there are lots of people willing to help you (and I want to thank all my bloggers and writer friends who were truly fantastic and generous with me when I launched my book), but ultimately you are the one who decides everything, you are the one who makes everything, including a lot of mistakes. There is no one guiding you, as it would be in traditional publishing.
You learn a lot, this is true, and this is why I’m happy I did it. But everything comes at a cost, including an emotional one. Never think self-publishing is easy. You need money, you need dedication, you need to remain open-minded and to know that everything you do might still not be enough. Like I said, I was falling short of my ability with my own editing of my story and even if I sensed it, I didn’t make the extra step until my editor pushed me to. That, I think, is the trickier part of self-publishing. You might end up contenting yourself, and you don’t even realise it.
How important is your blog to your fiction writing?
I wouldn’t say my blog is important for my writing, but I would indeed say it is important for me as a complete author. I met so many fellow writers through my blog, I love the community this has created. I like helping and receiving help. I like celebrating my success and my friends’ success. I like being able to say a comforting word when someone needs it. I also like sharing what I’ve learned, both historical information and experience as an author who writes and who promotes. I like other social media too, but my blog is my favourite place on the internet.
Have you ever suffered from writers’ block?
Once, many years ago. I was collaborating with a fantasy magazine (a paper one, online magazines didn’t exist yet) and the director asked everyone to come up with an idea for a series of stories. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t come up with anything workable. Every idea that came to me felt too farfetched or too weird. I realised I was so anxious to get an idea – any idea – that my brain just wouldn’t work. Maybe that’s the reason why now, when I feel I can’t write, I just don’t. I do something else, sometimes I read, sometimes I clean my house, sometimes I cook. It may take some times, even weeks, but in the end, my creativity always comes back to me. I know that I just have to be patient and don’t stress over it.
What do you like to read?
If there is a speculative element, I’m interested. I’ve always been interested in legends, fairy tales, and from there to fantasy and horror, and anything supernatural, really. But I’ve also always loved history; it was my favourite subject at school, so I like historical novels, especially if there’s a mystery in there. I love mysteries. Whatever the genre, I like stories that deal with finding one’s true self, discovering one’s true value. That’s what I love the most about stories and characters. If that’s in the story, I don’t really mind the genre.
Where do you write?
In my studio, surrounded by my favourite books.
Follow Sarah’s blog The Old Shelter or visit her website which offers a free chapter taster for download. You’ll find her on Twitter as @JazzFeathers
Give in to the Feeling, a novella, is available to download now through the links on Sarah’s website now.
LadyNicci comment: I really enjoyed this interview with Sarah. She touches on so many deep feelings that all writers experience. The strive to be good, the hours of repetitive work, the feeling that there may be something missing, but unsure what. The rejection, the decision to self-publish but still hold onto the dream of being traditionally published. I like that she has established exactly the genre and sub genre she is writing in – sometimes half the battle can be finding where your writing voice needs to go. I am hearing more and more about dieselpunk and steampunk – it’ll be interesting to see where these genres take writers and readers. I love that Sarah worked within her means to advance her writing as best she could – she couldn’t afford to have a whole novel edited, so she went with a novella instead, and this identified her weaknesses which she could work on then for her novels. I also admire her intelligence and drive – I can’t imagine writing in another language, and yet she is doing it so well. My only experience of Verona, Italy is as the home to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Who knows, maybe it’ll be the future home to dieselpunk too.
How I write is a blog post series published on Sundays on www.ladynicci.com. The posts aim to give a voice to writers to talk about their craft and show readers the processes behind bringing a book to publication. If you would like to take part email firstname.lastname@example.org with How I Write in the subject line.
Thanks for the kind words, Nicola 🙂
I’m so happy to be your guest today. It was a great interview to write.
Sarah is a great writer and a great supporter of other writers and bloggers. Thanks for giving us an insight into her world. If you’re ever in Dublin again, Sarah, we must meet for a coffee and a long chat about books and writing
Hey, I’ll remember that, David 😉
And thanks so much for the nice words.