Our guest today is Celia Miles, a self-described “nicheless author.” What does that mean? Read on and find out!
1. Tell us about your latest book, Journey to Stenness.
Journey is a “departure” for me, in that it isn’t geared to the Appalachians; though half the book takes place in a western NC small town, it could just as well be anywhere. I wanted to see if I could write what might be considered “literary fiction” as opposed to genre. Journey may not be literary in the highest sense but it’s not exactly a love story, not precisely a mystery. Much remains unresolved as the narrator travels to the Scottish island of Orkney in search of her husband’s past, a past that, in part, kept him distant and isolated emotionally; as she seeks answers to his past, she reveals her own past; her failures, rejections, choices—and ultimately the book is about her finding not husband Hew’s past but her own truth, her path forward. What starts as a quest becomes Harriet’s “personal archeology dig” when she travels both to foreign territory and into her memory and finds more than she sought.
2. Share a little bit about how you came up with the idea for the main character, Harriet Hendry.
My friend Joan Medlicott, after my lamenting a lack of “an idea,” said “have a woman go somewhere to find something.” That’s all it took. I started the book while we were in Shetland but Orkney with its stone circles “announced” istself as the setting—and we’d been there a few times. I knew I wanted my character to be an ordinary (if there is such a thing) woman—neither young and beautiful nor particularly talented, neither poverty-driven nor affluent, a character whose life women could relate to. Beyond that (and I didn’t jot those traits down anywhere), Harriet developed as she and I went along. Quite honestly I did not know what caused Hew’s inability to love fully or how or if anything was to be resolved. Someone asked me recently if Hew and Harriet loved each other, if it was possible to live a marriage of convenience. I said, “I only know what’s in the novel.”
3. Can you tell us what you’re working on now or what’s coming next?
I’m doing some editing and am thinking more than I’m writing, unfortunately. First, my co-editor, Nancy Dillingham, and I are speculating on whether to put together another anthology of western North Carolina women writers on some specific topic—as we’ve done with Christmas Presence and Clothes Lines. But I’ve also just started a sequel to Sarranda, my novel set in the mid-1800s; it ended, as readers have told me, “crying out for a sequel,” and so I’ll see how it goes.
4. When did you know you first wanted to write?
In my teens, I wrote a long novel/story set (as I remember) in some faraway land of jungles and danger, with a male character surely modeled on the comic strip outdoorsman/naturalist Mark Trail and Straight Arrow, hero of Shredded Wheat’s cereal box insert—handsome, rescuing some damsel in distress…as far from my Canton, NC, existence as possible. Luckily that “manuscript” has not survived!
During my teaching career, I occasionally wrote a poem or an essay, typically inspired by stress and duress. Only nearing retirement did I start taking classes at AB Tech in creative writing—and I took several. The most important one (taken twice) was “Writing the Natural Way,” using Gabrielle Rico’s book of that title. People sometimes think an English teacher is sure to find writing “easy” but it isn’t so. Teachers are often constrained by the expectation of correctness and their inner censor. I had to overcome that and let my heart take over—that happened with Mattie’s Girl: An Appalachian Childhood. Then the head can do the editing; creating and correcting are two very different processes: right brain/left brain.
5. Where do you find inspiration for your writing?
How I’d like to answer that question with a definite “in nature” or “the past” or “the stories of friends,” whatever. I can say that my short stories tend to start with an actual image (a dilapidated trailer in north Georgia, a woman on the beach in Estoril, the murkiness of Venice’s canals, an eyeball-like smear on a car window) or a comment that intrigues (“A blue topaz to match your eyes.”). The novels? My first romance (A Thyme for Love) resulted from taking a class in writing the romance novel taught by Yvonne Lehman; in it I gave my interest in herbs and photography to the heroine. That novel “begat” its sequel in which I indulged my love of finding and photographing old grist mills. In ThymeTable Mill, Cary often goes into the restored mill to simply absorb its atmosphere; one evening Sarranda appeared to her, revealing the history of the mill and her own—call the episode a dream, a spiritual connection—I leave that up to the reader. At any rate, those few pages led to Sarranda. That novel simply poured onto the page and was completed in six weeks. Of course, I then had to verify some historical references to the Civil War in WNC, and make sure the mill scenes were accurate.
6. What is a typical writing day like for you? Do you have any habits or established routines that work best for you?
I have no established writing routines and don’t write every day or at any specific time. I keep saying I will establish a routine but it hasn’t happened. When I do write, it’s fast and at the computer. I now can hardly sign my name by hand! Having a critique group certainly helps; it gets embarrassing NOT to produce. While writing Sarranda, I listened over and over to a recording of “Hard Times Come Again No More.” I think I wore out the CD. On the other hand, Journey to Stenness was written in bits and pieces; I didn’t start at the beginning and didn’t know where it was going or how it would end. The hard part was putting the pieces together and keeping the chronology straight.
7. You’ve co-authored a textbook, published both full-length novels and short stories in various genres, and also do free-lance editing. You are, in your words, “a nicheless author,” but if you could do only one of those things, what would it be?
Well, at this stage of my (retired) life, it wouldn’t be textbooks though that process was fascinating (as I look back on it)—dealing with a major publisher, going through six or more editors (McGraw-Hill was then going through a major transition), revising and revising.—all the time working with an amazing technical writer. I like the intensity of writing a short story but the “long haul” involvement required of a novel. With either kind of writing: I’d choose an Appalachian or British setting with aspirations of creating a novel worthy of being compared to Wilma Dykeman, Lee Smith, or Robert Morgan.
8. How do you promote your work? Any tips for other authors?
Promotion is not my strong point. When a book first comes out, I’ll contact bookstores and other venues, arrange some signings, tell my writing colleagues and friends—and then get onto the next project. Book fairs are a great way to meet and maintain writing and “fan” acquaintances. Now I have a website, with PayPal, (www.celiamiles.com) designed by Julie Parker of Western North Carolina Woman fame. I like having it. I’m on Face book but hardly know what to do with it, and the Writers’ Guild of Western North Carolina has started a blog (http://writersguildofwnc.wordpress.com/ ). My best tip is: stay connected with other local/regional writers, buy their books and read them!
9. I know from your website you are “hooked” on stone circles and also equally fascinated with old mills. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got interested in them?
If I were starting in college now (with no back problems) I’d major in archeology; I’ve always been interested in the far past, the past with more questions than facts, fewer scholarly absolutes. Once in preparation for a long trip to the British Isles, rather than “do” cathedrals or literary sites, we decided on stone circles and found that trip some 56 of the over 900 documented sites. It was wonderful, inspiring, being an “outdoors” kind of trekking through the moors and fields. That trip definitely hooked me. As for mills, technology is not something I understand but I truly appreciate the progression through the ages from the simple mortar/pestle grinding to the primitive water powered mills. And again, finding mills gets us outside and meeting hands-on people who love what they do. On my website in “Bitten by the Mill Bug,” I go into a little more detail.
10. Who or what has been the biggest influence in your writing career and why?
I’ve never tried to write in the style of someone else, but reading southern writers and mountain writers such as Wilma Dykeman, Gail Godwin, Harriet Arnow probably unconsciously influenced me. My mother was a reader and we had the Doubleday Book Club novels when money permitted, so I grew up with “plotted stories” that would appeal to women. A book called Before the Sun Goes Down, published in 1940 I read early and the story has stayed with me: small town life and families in conflict and accord, romanticized yet credible characters.
11. What part of the craft of writing has improved since you wrote your first book?
Someone else might better see where I’ve improved. I am more aware of various aspects of the craft now: what scenes should do, how the changing of one word or the rearranging of parts of the sentence can make a difference in impact, the importance of dialogue. I read a lot of writers’ magazines and I guess I do what “comes naturally” at first; then I revise and rework, not so much the plot but the wording, the placing of phrases and clauses in sentences and the transitions between scenes.
12. You call yourself “a teacher by trade, a traveler by design, a photographer for fun and a writer by avocation.” Do you have a favorite travel destination? Is there somewhere you’d like to go but haven’t been able to visit yet?
The British Isles is my favorite place: I’ve been lucky in being able to go there at least ten or twelve times, usually for periods of over three weeks, starting in 1969. Cornwall with its King Arthur legends, the Lake District with all the Romantic poets’ connections and the Yorkshire Moors have lately lost out to the Scottish islands, especially Orkney and the Outer Hebrides. The one place we haven’t been that appeals is Machu Picchu in Peru. Maybe soon.
More books by Celia:
Short Story Collections:
To find out more, visit Celia’s book page.