S.R. Mallery is a woman of many talents. A former classical musician/pop singer/composer, she’s also worked in the professional world of production art and calligraphy and spent some time as an award-winning quilt artist/teacher. However, it was in 2008 that her short stories took off. She now has a debut novel, Unexpected Gifts, and a short story collection titled Sewing Can Be Dangerous and Other Small Threads, which is on sale now throughout the month of November!
Check out what she had to say to us:
Reading your bio, it seems like you’ve had a rather remarkable series of careers. You’ve been a composer, a pop singer, a quilter, an ESL teacher, and a calligrapher. When did you decide to be a writer? Or has the desire to write always been with you?
Coming from a family of writers, for many years I wouldn’t touch that profession with a ten-foot pole! It was far too much pressure. But slowly, surely, over the years each time I watched a movie that involved a writer, I was curiously drawn to that character, as if I had somehow “come home”.
Then one day, while waiting for my teenage daughter to finish trying on clothes at a department store, I suddenly thought, ‘Why not give storytelling a try?’ It ended up being this collection’s first story, Sewing Can Be Dangerous, all about the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911. My father had told me about this horrific event earlier and suddenly, amidst saleswomen bustling by and customers lining up in front of a nearby cashier, I threw all caution to the wind. I pulled out my tiny, purse-size notepad and pen and started to write. And write. And write. It was like a drug–I never looked back.
Do you find your experiences in different artistic fields (music, quilting, etc.) have helped you with your writing? Either by providing additional sources of inspiration or by helping you develop any special skills?
Interesting question! Probably because I was involved with music from a very early age (at five years old I was absolutely sure I was going to be a singer), it has affected me my entire life. Every night, as my mother cooked dinner, Ella Fitzgerald, Beethoven, Manzini’s Peter Gunn Theme, Brahms, The Andrew Sisters, Fauré, or Nat King Cole would be wafting through our apartment. These days, just listening to an eclectic array of music on my car radio, immediately evokes entire scenes, character development, motives, and plots in my brain.
As a quilt teacher, I learned to go step-by-step with my students, because quilting, like mathematics, doesn’t happen all at once. It’s a slow, methodical evolution. Perhaps that’s why the process of writing, editing, writing, editing, etc. is somehow comforting to me.
You’ve said in your Amazon bio that history is a major focus of yours. What appeals to you the most about historical fiction?
Even as a child I was always fascinated by history: Greek mythology, the Wild West, the kings and queens of England, the pyramids, you name it. So I think I like writing historical fiction because of all the research it involves. It’s true, I can’t bang out books that way (sigh), but like “Forrest Gump” I love putting my characters right smack in the middle of past events. It also has made me discover that although the outer trappings may change from epoch to epoch, people themselves never do. From ancient times to the present, people’s lives have always been filled with love, compassion, jealousy, rage, greed, and the lust for power. Now, that fascinates me!
Your debut novel, “Unexpected Gifts,” is a story about a lost college student who is searching for answers in her family’s past. Was this inspired in any part by your own family history?
Yes. One night about twenty years ago when I was visiting my father, my then two-year-old daughter and I were in bed together. She was nestled up against me, sleeping peacefully; I was reading a short story my mother had written when she was young. As I lay there, taking in my mother’s words, a feeling of comfort and wonder overcame me. ‘There are three generations in bed tonight,’ I remember thinking. That awareness catapulted me into the idea of a confused modern woman retracing the lives of her ancestors through their diaries, journals, and letters, and in the process of seeing their mistakes, learning what not to do in her own life.
Tell us a little bit about your short story collection, “Sewing Can Be Dangerous And Other Small Threads”?
Here is the synopsis:
WHEN HISTORY, MYSTERY, ACTION, and ROMANCE ARE ALL ROLLED INTO ONE!
These eleven short stories range from drug traffickers using hand-woven wallets, to a U.S. slave sewing freedom codes into her quilts; from a cruise ship murder mystery with a quilt instructor and a NYPD police detective, to a couple hiding Christian passports into a comforter in Nazi Germany; from an old Salem Witchcraft wedding quilt curse to a young seamstress in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire; from a 1980’s Romeo and Juliet romance between a Wall Street financial ‘star’ and an eclectic fiber artist, to a Haight-Ashbury love affair between a professor and a macramé artist gone horribly wrong, just to name a few.
Can you tell us a little about your writing process? Do you plot everything out or play it by ear? How do you do your research?
I’ve come to accept that when it comes to writing, I am a Plotter with a Pantser rising—in other words, my first instinct is to create at least a vague idea of a beginning, middle, and end, but before I delve in, I’m very open to any last minute plot/character changes.
As for research, I try to get as full rounded a scope as I can. That means I read books/articles, watch documentaries or movies for ambiance, and explore the clothing, culture, food, and lingo of that particular time period. I also love to look at photos. I can create an entire scene by just studying a photo: what they were wearing, their expressions, and in particular, their clothing. And of course, music as mentioned before, plays a big part of my research as well as the creative process.
What do you think is the most important part of a good story?
To me any good story needs appealing, authentic characters, no matter what the genre. I have read some beautiful, poetically written prose and/or “best sellers” that bored or annoyed me because I just couldn’t care less about the characters. On the other hand, I’ve read books that, although the prose wasn’t that good, those pages kept turning because I truly wanted to see how it was going to end because the characters ‘spoke’ to me.
Who’s your favorite character from your stories? Why are they your favorite?
Actually, I have two. My first, Sasha, is from the opening story of Sewing Can Be Dangerous. Having been a quilter and surrounded by fabrics, pins, needles, and a sewing machine for so many years before I wrote this short piece involving the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, I felt a kinship to those hapless immigrant young seamstresses who lost their lives so tragically. And when I decided to include Sasha’s own resolution to her life in the middle of that disaster, I was even more drawn to her and her plight. In fact years later, when I was in New York City and saw a plaque dedicated to those girls on the side of an NYU building, I actually cried.
My second favorite character, Daria, was from Unexpected Gifts. Irish, sent to America to escape the Potato Famine and her drunken father, she became even more real by my always reading her chapter out loud using an Irish accent each time I edited it. For some reason, that made her more believable to me, and more touching as try as she might, she could never escape her past.
What lessons have you learned the “hard” way?
Sometimes when I feel my brain switching off, I get frustrated. I used to keep going, getting more frustrated at my inability to create any decent sentences, or eat over it. But I have learned to take a deep breath, do something very different—usually mindless, like housework, gardening, treadmill walking, dancing around the living room to Pandora, and then come back to it later with a fresh mind. As Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With The Wind said, “Tomorrow is another day!”
How was the publishing experience for you? Do you go it alone? Or did you have help?
Talk about flying blind!! After I had written Sewing Can Be Dangerous, I started writing flash fiction and got several of them into literary magazines fairly quickly (see my book, TALES TO COUNT ON). Meanwhile, I was sending my Sewing collection out to agents and actually getting some very nice rejections, mostly saying that although they really liked the stories, they wouldn’t know how to market them because of their being “too unique”.
Then I started to contact small publishers and one of them really loved both my stories and my Unexpected Gifts, which was in first draft stage. The publisher was very kind and patient with me and it was a good beginning step for me in the publishing world that was changing exponentially by the minute. However, after a while, I decided to go Indie to have more control.
Marketing can be one of the hardest parts about being a writer. What have you found to be the best way to promote your books?
Well, I’m still learning about all of this, but the several promotional sites that present various genres together on one slated day garners far more buys for me than sites where people have to click on a specific genre. Historical fiction can be a tricky business!
I also was told by a marketing guru at Hootesuite that content is very important in our tweets, FB, and Google +, etc. instead of only adapting a Sell-Sell-Sell approach to promoting our books. Actually, I have been doing more of that, which also builds up my “brand” (history). In fact, my Pinterest boards are getting me new followers every day. It is there that my History, Vintage Clothing, ‘Ol Flicks and Old Ads/Posters are getting a lot of attention (See http://www.pinterest.com/sarahmallery1/ )
How do you handle rejection or negative reviews?
The truth? Inwardly, not well. Outwardly, much better. Oh, I ruminate about it for a little while, then, as I gradually calm down, I start to sort out what is potentially true and what is his or her opinion only. It is a process.
How do you find your courage? A lot of new writers are scared of putting themselves out there to be judged. So much so, that many of them never even take the first step. What advice would you give to them?
This is an important question. Well, I’ve always been a bit “ballsy” when it comes to putting my artistic endeavors out there: my calligraphy business, a folk art angel business, singing in clubs and churches, entering juried quilt shows, developing a commissioned-based quilt business, which I ran like an interior decorator catering to her clients’ every wish.
But it wasn’t until I was teaching adults ESL that I came across the true answer to this question. A student had given an offhand remark about speaking English in public. Her words were, “Teacher, if I worry about making mistakes in front of Americans I will never learn to talk. So now I don’t care if I sound funny or someone corrects me. I am out there, learning every day.”
Brilliant. We authors should be ‘out there every day,’ learning, no matter what.
What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
I’m hoping to have an historical fiction Wild West romance come out soon. It’s called The Dolan Girls. Here’s the synopsis:
The Dolan Girls by S. R. Mallery has it all. Set in Nebraska during the 1800s, whorehouse madams, ladies of the night, a schoolmarm, a Pinkerton detective, a Shakespeare-quoting old coot, brutal outlaws, and a horse-wrangler fill out the cast of characters. Add to the mix are colorful descriptions of an 1856 land rush, Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show, Annie Oakley, bank/train robberies, small town local politics, and of course, romance. Two, in fact!
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
Hmmm. Okay, here’s one thing:
Years ago I was a professional singer, both at a large cathedral and simultaneously, in small clubs. My Yin and Yang, so to speak. The cathedral’s acoustics were amazing—my voice, trained in the classical art song style not heavy opera, floated through this sizeable house of worship that had won architectural design awards. Then at night, I sang in grade B clubs, where the espresso coffee machines, bartenders’ glass clinking, and customers’ banter with waitresses all competed with our small band’s forty-five minute sets. At the time, that duality fit my eclectic needs to a ‘T’!