Several years ago, I attended the 26th Annual Iowa Summer Writing Festival, the non-credit affiliate of the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, whose graduates fill the ranks of the best and brightest in American letters. Ours was a workshop class of 12 aspiring novelists which ran the gamut of genres – literary, historical, women’s fiction, and crime. I still keep in touch with some of my classmates, including Chrinda Jones, the Readers Unbound Social Media Goddess and author of Darkness Knows Me, and today’s interview guest Sue Montgomery, whose novel Whisper in the Blood has just been published.
Sue’s path to publication is inspiring to anyone contemplating writing a novel or struggling with how to get over that last hurdle. First, though, let’s start with the story itself.
- Sue, tell us a little about your novel.
Whisper in the Blood takes place in Chicago between the early 1900s to the mid-1940s, during the period when Irish and Italians were especially biased toward each other. Vito Savio, a poor Sicilian immigrant, is struggling to provide for his large family when one of his sons gets entangled with the Outfit, and Vito is thrown back into a life he left in the old country.
In Irish Bridgeview, Meghan Callahan, Lace-Curtain Irish and an imperious Druid, marries a successful lawyer. She loses herself, in what eventually becomes an unhappy marriage, by practicing mind control, foretelling the future, and performing mystical rites of the ancient Celtic world.
The two families with their conflicting cultures and prejudices are thrown together when their children meet, fall in love, and defiantly declare they are marrying. Although there is a love interest in my book, it is not a romance. It also contains elements of suspicion, passion, greed, and betrayal, not to mention crime.
- What inspired you to write it?
A seed was planted after living in Chicago for thirty years and hearing my Irish and Italian friends tell of the cultural intolerance toward the other, especially in the early days. Also, for some reason, I’ve always been fascinated with the Mafia and the Prohibition era. Life in the Windy City exposed me first hand to the “dem and dose” guys. I actually knew a few in the Outfit and also people who had remote ties through marriage. If I could have chosen a time period to live it would have been the 20s. My Irish inspiration came when a friend told of a relative reading tea leaves. Aware of Druidism in the Celtic culture and knowing a few people who have professed to out-of-body experiences, I thought that, besides a story of cultural dissension, bringing together the two diverse worlds of crime and the supernatural would be intriguing.
- I understand that you began this novel 20 years ago. That sounds like a story in itself. Tell us about your writer’s journey to publication.
When I was taking fiction writing courses at Columbia College in Chicago, I wrote some short stories, which later became the beginning chapters for my book. However, due to a divorce, my mother’s illness and eventual death, and my love of travel . . . equal to my love of writing, I put the manuscript on the back burner. There it simmered for years while I was writing freelance travel articles. After I moved to Las Vegas, I started writing fiction again. I finished a novelette for young adults (unpublished to date), then dug out the “whisper” manuscript. I began rewriting it from chapter one. Only after I formed a critique group did I begin to diligently write on it with publication in mind.
- What is your approach to historical research?
Initially, I did a search on Italy, Sicily, and Ireland mainly through reference books. Then I visited the Italian and Irish Cultural Centers and the Historical Society in Chicago, looked at old pictures and newspapers, read books on the city, its development, and of actual people both in the Outfit and in Chicago politics. I questioned my Italian and Irish friends who grew up in Chi Town, regarding locations and facts not found in books. Of course, the Internet was a great source especially for the immigration process and for what people were wearing, doing, and saying during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. I created separate files for each culture, with sub-titles containing information on various subjects such as foods, Druids, celebrations, Mafia, etc. Much of my research, I admit, was done after I was well into my book because I would suddenly have an idea for something I wanted to portray or have happen to a character that I hadn’t foreseen. Not being one to outline, I only knew for sure the first and last chapters. Though I did have a general idea for the in-between ones, more often than not, my characters seemed to have a mind of their own. This may sound strange, and I know many writers pooh-pooh this, but writing seemed to happen this way for me.
At times, in researching one subject, I would uncover an item of interest on another. An example: I stumbled across a piece about Capone’s dog track and of him feeding greasy burgers to all the dogs, except the one he wanted to win. I thought it was a fun bit and decided to include it. (Page 265) That meant incorporating a racetrack angle. Naturally, this called for an unplanned investigation to learn what tracks were in operation for the period I was writing. So besides my characters taking me into uncharted waters, I never knew where my research might lead.
- Choosing a good title is so important for a novel. Yours is quite dramatic. How does it reflect the theme?
Many think the title Whisper in the Blood is a crime story, and I guess in a way it is since it has a mob element. However, the real reason for my title stems from one’s roots. It is said, we are who we are because of our parents and the place and way we were raised. But I began to question, can we overcome those factors or is the whisper in the blood stronger? Early on, I came up with the quote “A man is part of the generations before him. His destiny is a whisper in the blood.” This theme runs throughout the book, but there is one obvious passage that reads, “It seemed Maria’s blood flowing through her sons’ veins wasn’t enough to tame them. The whisper of Vito’s was stronger.” (page 218)
- Yours is a big family saga spanning decades and even continents. Please discuss the challenges you faced orchestrating such a complicated story.
Because the Savios and Callahans come from different countries and don’t encounter each other until much later in my story, I was faced with the challenge of how to tell their backgrounds before the two families connect. I began my book with the Italians in the old country and of their immigration to America. I decided it would be too much to begin Meghan and Michael’s story the same way. So I chose to have them already living in Chicago with Michael being born there and Meghan thinking back to an incident in Ireland that would tell why she had immigrated. In writing this way, I was able to bring the Irish in at a later date from that of the Italians. However, I still had to figure out how to interweave them into one. It was a breeze making the chapters flow after the children met, but those prior were like a puzzle. I had to shift and work chapters around until they flowed smoothly. I also chose to have two dated sections, which meant being certain what my characters were doing was appropriate for those years.
In order to keep my characters straight, it was important to have character profiles for everyone, even minor players, as to their physical characteristics, personality traits, like and dislikes, activities, etc. Since there was a large cast of Italians, including those outside the Savios’ family, I chose to keep the Irish side less complicated. Besides the profiles, I also created a list of story lines that would need resolving as my novel progressed.
- Today as never before, writers have the freedom of many paths to publication. Tell us about the unique path you chose.
In the beginning, I went the route of writing query letters to agents. I didn’t write many but did receive some encouraging, personal notes from the few I did. But I knew by the time I found an agent, then a publisher … if ever, it would be at least another couple of years before publication of the book, and I am not a particularly patient person. A member of my critique group told me about Las Vegas-based Mammoth Star Publishing. After speaking with them, I decided that was the way I wanted to go. The publisher suggested that I try to raise money on Indiegogo to help defray costs, such as editing, printing, cover design, and even for a book launch/signing event and author’s dinner. I took his suggestion, and the funding site turned out to be successful and helped put me ahead of the game. Even though I was working with Mammoth Star, I always had control during the process. We worked together on the cover and website design, and I always knew exactly what was happening from start to the moment I had a copy of the book in my hand. I can truthfully say that I’m very pleased with the path I chose to birth my book. It was the best of both worlds.
- How can interested readers obtain a copy of your novel?
My book is available through Barnes and Noble, on Amazon, and also available on Kindle and Nook. Would love for everyone to visit my website and leave their comments. There are also buttons on my page for Amazon and Barnes and Noble which helps one get to those sites quickly.
9. What’s your next project?
The beat goes on and so do the characters of Whisper in the Blood. I am currently writing a sequel which will be out in 2016.
If you have any questions for Sue, I will send them her way.
Thanks for the article, Chris, and congrats on the publication, Sue. That’s super cool about Druids in America – I had no idea that subculture even existed!
One question for Sue: since your book is out there in the world, does Mammoth Star (or you) go about shopping placement to indie bookstores or libraries? I have no idea how this process works!
Thanks again for the interview!
Here’s Sue’s reply:
Thanks, Stephanie. My Mammoth Star agent contacts the indie bookstores. They seem to respond better to him, than they have to another author I know one who has tried on her own. Of course, if you happen to know someone who is in an Indie, that’s a different story. One needs to be connected to Create Space. Ingram, or both because that’s who bookstores deal with. Example: when you might go to Barnes and Noble and the book isn’t on the shelf, but they say they can order it. That is where they order from. Bookstores usually like Ingram better because they make more, and the author makes less. As for libraries, that is not easy, however, I know an author here who Mammoth helped get into the Nevada Clark County Library.
Twenty years is an amazing process of starting and then completing one novel. I would love to know how she felt her writing has changed… grown… and developed over those years, and if that development proved difficult for some of her earlier writing?
Wonderful interview, Christina! Very enjoyable… now I have to get the book!
Here’s Sue’s reply:
When I picked up my manuscript after some years, I couldn’t believe it was mine. What I’d written was decent, but my voice had changed so much that it didn’t even sound like me, However, the original manuscript, fifteen chapters, was a good outline to begin rewriting, and it gave me momentum once I started. I realized my scenes needed expanding to make them more realistic, that more real people, places, and historic information needed to be woven into the fictional part, and that dialog should be more in keeping with the different personas. By doing all that, my story became alive, believable.
Massive undertaking, so intriguing, and what a shout-out for critique groups :-). Love the line, “Only after I formed a critique group did I begin to diligently write on it with publication in mind.”