Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Author Interview with Tom Weston - FIRST NIGHT

Today I have the pleasure of continuing our visit with author Tom Weston. If you stopped by yesterday to take a peek at the short he wrote, you already know what a great writer he is. FIRST NIGHT is funny, full of drama and its own fair share of the paranormal. It's a great book and I'm excited to share my review of it with you tomorrow.

For now, however, Weston has agreed to answer a few questions for us. Curious what goes in to his writing? I know I am!

Let's all give a big round of applause as we welcome author Tom Weston to the stage.

*Tom Weston photo courtesy of Tom-Weston.com*

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Tom, what was your inspiration for writing FIRST NIGHT?

First Night came about one snowy New Years Eve. It was the Holiday Season, and we were doing the old favorites, like watching A Christmas Carol, and lamenting the fact that no one seemed to write that kind of story anymore. We were in Boston for the First Night Festival, when it occurred to me that this would make the perfect setting for such a story and instead of whining about my lack of reading material, I should sit down and write it.

That's why we love our authors. Slaving away so we can enjoy your words. FIRST NIGHT has some historical references in it. Did you have to do any research? How did that impact the story?

Yes, the story has been called a History Mystery. Thanks to the internet, there is a great deal of research that I can do from the comfort of my own home, but there is still no substitute for being there. Being able to attend First Night on more than one occasion helped with the atmosphere. And living in Boston meant that I could hit the streets and see for myself when necessary, to go to the Common or to the Library, and get the detail just so. Boston is such a great walking town.

The history definitely shaped the book. In the early days, when I just had the ending to the book, but little else, I went to the Granary Burying Ground to see if I could come up with a name for my ghost. The Granary burying ground is a landmark tourist attraction, containing the graves of many famous Bostonians, from the American Revolution and before. And it was there that I found Sarah Pemberton. I thought it would be amusing that my little ghost should reside amongst these illustrious neighbors, and perhaps become famous herself one day. Of course, once I found out that Sarah was a Puritan, then that set the tone for everything that followed: the history, the witch trial, and the characterization.

It's obvious from reading the descriptions and interactions that someone with firsthand knowledge of the area wrote the story. Do you come across any snags or any roadblocks when writing FIRST NIGHT?

First Night began as a screenplay. I had an idea for a Disneyesque animated feature. There were at least two drawbacks to that approach: first, a movie should reflect the vision of the director, not the writer, and this meant that the screenplay lacked pretty much everything except dialogue; second, because of the intended purpose of the screenplay, I kept coming up with characters that were derivative of existing Disney characters, and therefore not very original.

It was my wife, Leigh, who suggested that a novel might be the more appropriate format. As soon as I switched from screenplay to novel, all those roadblocks were removed. Above all, I think that it helped with the characters, as they now came to be defined by Boston and Boston history, and not some marketing demographic.

What is your favorite aspect of the book?

In other interviews, I’ve talked about the ending. That was there in my head as a picture, even before the first word was written. And it was then a matter of mapping out a route to that ending. But although I had the who, what and how, I didn’t have the why. It was when I was sketching what is now chapter 3, titled Waking the Witch, that I discovered the why. Of course, I don’t share that knowledge with the reader until the end of the book, but it was a pivotal point for me and for the work, and any Alex and Jackie adventures still to come.

We're glad that FIRST NIGHT came into existence! What do you love or hate about writing in this genre?

I’ve compared writing a novel to writing a screenplay. In the screenplay format, it is important that the writer be completely egoless. As I’ve said, the ultimate vision is that of the director. And it is hard in such a format to have an identity or a unique style. What I love about literature, and this goes back to my non-fiction writing as well, is that it is totally writer’s ego. That sounds egotistical (pun intended), but it is my voice that you are hearing, and it is not being filtered or shaped by others. I can directly engage with the reader; and have a conversation – cut out the middle man.

FIRST NIGHT is a wonderful mix of historical, contemporary and paranormal fun. Was it hard to make these all work together?

Well, of course, the story relies on this mix for its very existence, so everything was very much integrated. I have the Puritan, Sarah Pemberton and the modern, Alex and Jackie; the history from the intervening years is the glue that binds them together. It was like a tripod: remove one of these legs and the story would collapse. To mix metaphors, it was a bit of a 3-ball juggling act: It may have been easier with less, but not as rewarding.

The humor in the book comes from the culture clash between the 17th century Puritans and modern teenagers. To highlight that clash, and differentiate the characters, I chose to have the Puritans speak with this quasi-historic vocabulary. I couldn’t be completely accurate to the period because it became unreadable on the page to modern eyes, and caused my editor no end of trouble. So we compromised, and I made it as readable as I could, and yet still retain the suggestion of these two worlds colliding.

How are fans responding to your book?

I’m absolutely delighted with the response. Words like quirky, unique, and riveting are being bandied about; so I’m having a hard time keeping my head out of the clouds. I keep playing the XTC song, Chalkhills and Children, to bring me back to earth (Eternally and ever Ermine street - Andy Partridge, you’re a genius! Ha, now he’ll have to play it).

But apart from wanting the book to be liked, I had two concerns.

The first is that people would find all the history off-putting. But the readers have been very receptive to it. I put it in because I wanted to highlight Boston, to have the book serve as a tour-guide to the town I call home. Some people have said that that aspect of the book makes them want to visit, so that is one mission accomplished. But on another level entirely, a lot of people have commented on how the history helped to ground the fantasy in the real world; that it added a level of authenticity. This second reaction, unexpected, is music to my ears. I’ve conducted a small survey about whether to include this type of background as a part of any sequel. The response is 100% yes, so I guess it stays.

My second concern was that, in a book categorized as young-adult, I was overreaching with its use of language and style. As you have pointed out, the book is a mix of the historical and the contemporary. I was aware that some of the vocabulary may prove taxing for just about anyone, but I didn’t want to make the characters cartoonish or stereotypical. So I’m ecstatic that many readers, teenagers included, have thanked me for not dumbing it down.

If your life or writing career were a book, what would you title it?

Oh, tough question. Today, I would go with ‘Enchantments Encountered’.

This is the title of a chapter from First Night, but I borrowed it from Cotton Mather’s book, the Wonders of the Invisible World. Mather’s work was about witchcraft, but I used the term enchantments to mean delights. And that is how I’ve found life, a Garden of Earthly Delights. I’ve been very fortunate in my life, and along the way I’ve been lucky enough to meet some really great, enchanting people. I firmly believe in John Donne’s, “No Man is an Island.” Any success I’ve had has been made possible by others. I’m forever indebted to them.

Ask me again tomorrow and I’ll probably have a new title.

I like it! I would probably use that to describe my reading life day-to-day. Our readers always like to know, what kind of books do you read or what authors do you like to read?

I’m an avid reader; and I like to alternate between fiction and non-fiction, and between the classics and the contemporary.

I’d say that my favourite book is Lord of the Rings, but my favourite author is P.G. Wodehouse. From the classics: Shakespeare, Homer, and Malory. And there are a number of contemporary writers who feature many times in my library: Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Christopher Moore, and Patrick O’Brian, to name a few.

Currently I’m reading the excellent biography of Sir Walter Raleigh by Raleigh Trevelyan. Actually I’m re-reading it for research, as Sir Walter plays a small part in my next project.

Ooo, those are some great authors there. What is your writing routine like? Do you do anything special to warm up, cool down or keep the story going?

I’m a great procrastinator, so I always seem to invent an excuse not to write. But I get round that by publicizing my deadlines; once I’ve committed to something, I use my English sense of embarrassment to force that I follow through on it.

I’m always researching, so I don’t consider that to be part of the routine. But when it comes time to knuckle down, I set myself a goal of 1,000 words a day, six days a week. Then my working day is something like: Wake up, coffee, correspondence, 250 words, treadmill, shower, 250 words, lunch, 250 words, research, 250 words, rest and relaxation.

Much of the time life gets in the way, so a routine is hard to maintain; but the goal is 4 sessions a day of 250 words per session, fitted in around whatever else is going on that day. 250 words sounds like such a small number that it should be something I could do standing on my head. Ah, if only it were that easy.

As we all know, I procrastinate as well. In fact, I'm probably putting this up on the blog at some wee hour in the morning as we speak. Enough about me - are you working on any other projects currently?

The sequel to First Night, the Elf of Luxembourg, is taking up much of my time. The plan is to see it in print before the end of the year. In the new book, Alex and Jackie are off to the City of Luxembourg, where they will have further run-ins with the paranormal; this time in the shape of vampires and elves. Like First Night, the Elf of Luxembourg has an abundance of history. Luxembourg really is a gem that I have wanted to write about for a long time. This story actually pre-dates First Night, but it sat on the back burner, waiting for Alex and Jackie to show up.

Anything else you'd like to share with our readers?

First Night, the novel, would not exist if not for Boston and the First Night Festival, and I must thank them for supplying me with such wonderful material to work with. For those that do not know, the heart of the Festival is the First Night Inc., a non-profit organization that works year round so that our year end party is a success. I would encourage everyone to visit Boston, especially for New Years Eve. But in the meantime, I’d equally like to encourage every to visit the good people at First Night, at their web site: http://www.firstnight.org.

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I actually went to a few First Night festivals when I still lived over near Seattle. It was beyond cold, but oh man was it fun!

Thanks for stopping by today Tom! Everyone else, don't forget to stop by tomorrow for my review of FIRST NIGHT.

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